Playing The Game Of Thrones: Real Historical Figures Who Won… or Died

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Anyone who has read George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that “When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die.” These words, as spoken by Cersei Lannister on the HBO adaptation “A Game of Thrones” (premiering its second season on April 1), serve as a warning to Ned Stark, a man of honor who chooses to challenge a king’s succession. Cersei’s words ring true not just for Ned, but also for the many other players in Martin’s world of Westeros and beyond.

Plenty of powerful figures played their own game of thrones in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire and England. In fact, we noticed some parallels between these power players and Martin’s characters. And while we don’t yet know the fates of all of those Lannisters and Targaryen, we might be able to pick up some hints from history.

Alexander the Great
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Daenerys Targaryen
There’s a reason historians look back on Alexander as one of the greatest military commanders and imperialists that ever lived. Born a Macedonian prince, Alexander learned philosophy and classics from his tutor, Aristotle. The prince later ascended to power in Greece, and eventually conquered Syria, Egypt and Persia. In “Alexander the Great,” Philip Freeman describes how the conqueror lived most of his life far from his homeland, and faced many threats to his throne.
Won or Died? It’s pretty clear that Alexander won multiple thrones. But at what cost? There is still mystery surrounding his death (some claim he was poisoned, others say it was natural causes).

Thomas Cromwell
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Littlefinger (aka Petyr Baelish)
One of Henry VIII’s close advisors, Cromwell is basically the guy who pushed forward the entire English Reformation. Robert Hutchison examines how Cromwell, the son of a brewer, rose to become the right hand of the king in “Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VII’s Most Notorious Minister.” Turns out, the minister wasn’t as nice as he looked. He made a lot of bribes… and enemies.
Won or Died? After he arranged the failed marriage between the king and Anne of Cleves, Cromwell’s relationship with Henry VIII soured. Eventually, the king had him imprisoned and decapitated, and put his head on a pike for public display.

Elizabeth I
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Cersei Lannister
Henry VIII often worried about his line of succession, and rightfully so. Though he had six wives, only one, Jane Seymour, delivered a son that lived past infancy, Edward VI. Edward reigned for six years until his death at age 15. He named his cousin Lady Jane Grey his successor, but thanks to the intervention of his half-sister, Mary, Jane ruled a short five days after Edward’s death (and then was executed). Mary reigned for five years, working to restore Catholicism in England, killing more than 250 Protestants and imprisoning her sister Elizabeth in the process. When Mary died, Elizabeth claimed the throne, and ruled for more than 40 years. She famously refused to marry, although Alison Weir, author of “The Life of Elizabeth I” speculates she had multiple affairs.
Won or Died? Elizabeth was a winner, hands down.

Julius Caesar
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Robert Baratheon
Starting his career as a military leader, Caesar worked his way up through the Roman ranks until he ended up leading the whole empire. Adrian Goldsworthy investigates the life of the emperor in “Caesar: Life of a Colossus,” including his lesser-known early gigs: pirate and cult leader.
Won or Died? Caesar was assassinated by the Roman senate on March 15 in 44 BC, adding a bad omen surrounding the Ides of March to his legacy along with a type of birth, a men’s haircut and a salad.

Cesare Borgia
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Joffrey Baratheon
The Borgias were often accused of nepotism, which is hard to argue when the men of one family are ruling Rome. The son of the pope and the brother of an army leader, Cesare Borgia became Cardinal at age 18. The powerful family was not without its internal family drama, however. In “The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519,” Christopher Hibbert explains that Cesare was a jealous murderer who killed his sister Lucrezia’s husband, and might possibly have been responsible for the death of his brother. He was ruthless, and often turned to crime in order to maintain and exploit his power.
Won or Died? While Cesare had some success, he was quickly challenged after his father’s death. It’s rumored that Niccolò Machiavelli used Cesare Borgia’s life as inspiration for “The Prince.” Sadly, Cesare served as an example of what not to do when trying to get ahead in life—considering he lost his lands and ending up dying in exile.

Richard III
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Stannis Baratheon
You can thank Shakespeare for the false image of King Richard III as a humpback out for blood. Paul Murray Kendall sets out to dispel the myth set forth by the Bard in his book “Richard the Third.” There is no evidence that Richard III was deformed, and there is still debate as to whether he had his two nephews killed so he could claim the throne. It is true that he challenged the legitimacy of the princes’ birth, however, and suspected conspiracy among his advisors—including William Hastings, a nobleman who was eventually executed for treason.
Won or Died? If you’ve read or seen the Shakespeare play, you know the tables turned on Richard III, and he was defeated and killed in battle at Bosworth field, thus ending the Wars of the Roses.

Marie Antoinette
Game of Thrones Counterpart: Sansa Stark
Born the fifteenth child of the Holy Roman Emperor and Empress, Marie Antoinette was raised in a casual court, where she was allowed to play with non-royal children. Her family negotiated her marriage to the Dauphin of France, and she arrived in France a few months before her wedding. Antonia Fraser’s “Marie Antoinette: The Journey” explains that the young woman who would be queen experienced some culture shock at French court. Though she was no stranger to privilege, she was not used to the frivolity of the French. She eventually embraced the culture of excess in order to compensate for her loveless (and for seven years, sexless) marriage.
Won or Died? Seen as an example of all things wrong with the French monarchy, Marie Antoinette was famously beheaded during the French Revolution.

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5 Responses to Playing The Game Of Thrones: Real Historical Figures Who Won… or Died

  1. K8 says:

    Agree with you totally about Thomas Cromwell and Petr Baelish, Daenerys and Alexander the Great (also there is a Doris Lessing book, The Marriages between Zones Three, Four and Five, which has a similar love affair, but the character similar to Daenerys has a background like Drogo’s and vice versa. I think Cersei is more Agrippina the Younger and Joffrey Nero or Caligula, which would make Tyrion Claudius. Tywin Lannister has lots of traits of Thomas Howard (Duke of Norfolk), and Lord Frey Thomas Stanley (Henry VII’s mother’s husband).

  2. MsMolly says:

    I actually think there is a stronger parallel between Elizabeth I and Sansa Stark, at least when Elizabeth was experiencing childhood and adolescence. Both Elizabeth and Sansa were separated from close family members and frequently had to navigate their way through hostile political situations, dealing with a fanatical and dangerous monarch with whom they had close ties to, (Elizabeth with Mary I and Sansa with Joffrey).

    Particularly striking is the similarity of Sansa and Littlefinger’s relationship with that of Elizabeth’s relationship with Thomas Seymour. Both men had a supposedly paternalistic role in the young woman’s upbringing, but like LF, Seymour reportedly had sinister, sexual designs on the young woman. How much of this was due to genuine attraction and how much was based on Elizabeth’s status is unclear, but like LF again, he was married to a close female relative (Elizabeth’s stepmother, Catherine Parr).

    • Goh says:

      My favorite scene in this epoisde was Syrio’s fighting scene. I think they wanted to show how talented he truly was with any type of sword which is why he didn’t pick up a real sword. Also they wanted to make it dramatic, i like how they pulled some heart strings when they cut the scene off without telling his fate yet leaving a possibility of hope. Even though he hardly had any scenes Syrio was one of my fav characters and so far in my opinion the strongest and one of my fav scenes was with him and Arya at their first dancing lesson. And i was very disappointed with the scene when the guy comes back to life that should have been way more exciting. They should have made the guy look way more scarier than he was and where were those deadly ice cold sharp blue eyes!!?? Also the man should have been more fierce in fighting Jon just the entire scene it was just not as i had imagined it should be the book had it better, this was one of the scenes i was looking forward to seeing .The rest of the scenes in the show were great besides the Hordor part that was very much not needed at all. I did like how it ended because it had this lingering feeling to it and it made you feel for Sansa for me anyway even more. Next week epoisde though and the finale will, should, and i hope be the most exciting epoisdes of the entire season. At least for me in the book it was so i hope they don’t disappoint.

  3. Tim White says:

    I agree whole heartily with the Aggripina/ Caerci parallel. The author changed it up a bit; Cerci slept with her brother in GOT/ASOIAF, as opposed to the rumor of Aggripina sleeping with her son Nero (though personally I doubt the truth, more likely it was a way for contemporary Roman writers to further damn the memory of a woman they hated). Cerci having her husband Robert killed to hasten her son Joffrey’s ascension to the throne lines up with the theory that Aggripina had Nero’s adopted father the Emperor Claudius poisoned to do the same for Nero.
    There are a lot of obvious parallels to ancient roman history (and other histories, but I’m much more informed about Roman than other history), and some not so obvious. The Wall in the North that was raised to separate the civilized South from the untamed area beyond the Wall parallels Hadrian’s wall in suggestion southern England that separated the civilized and Romanised South from the “barbarian savages ” of the northern tribes of Britannia. There are parallels of the Targarian dynasty with the Tarquinian kings that ruled Rome during the ancient, ancient time of the Roman monarchy that existed before the Republic (will Westeros become a Republic at the end of the series? Probably not, but not out of the question). I see a strong similarity between Balor the Blessed, and the Roman King Nina, and their gods run parallel to the Roman and Greek pantheon.
    The Unsullied fight in the same way as the roman legions, using spear (though the legions used a javelin) and the short sword and shield. The episode that showed the Unsullied in formation resembled the Roman maniple, as opposed to the solid line of the Greek phalanx.
    I agree with the idea of Sansa being similar to queen Elizabeth more then Cerci. The close marriages are something seen in all monarchies. The marriage of brother to sister was common with Egyptian rulers. Robert Boratheon I believe is closer to Henry VIII than Julius Caesar, Caesar and Robert have a passing similarity in that they were successful military leaders, but thats where the similarities end. Caesar was a far better military general, had very different motivations for the wars he fought, and as a political leader, Robert is like a court jester compared to Caesar. Politically, I see more of a similarity between Tyrion Lannister and J. Caesar than with Robert, Caesar and Tyrion both play the political game with a mastery that makes those around them look like children.

  4. Tim White says:

    Auto complete messed up some of my post; I was referring to the Roman king Numa, not Nina.

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