Game of Thrones and Ancient History
HBO’s Game of Thrones, chronicling the power struggle between various noble houses in the mythical kingdom of Westeros, is among the most popular series currently on television. While the setting with its knights, tournaments and castles has a distinctly medieval flavour, it is evident that George R.R. Martin – the author of the Song of Ice and Fire books on which the series is based – is also well versed in and influenced by the history of the ancient world.
And with the close connection between Game of Thrones and Northern Ireland, we at CANI thought it would be interesting to investigate those events, edifices, peoples, practices and prophecies of the world of A Song of Ice and Fire with links or allusions to the ancient world.
We were not disappointed by the depth and variety of stories that these connections provided…
Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ia: A Golden Crown
In S01E06 “A Golden Crown,” Viserys Targaryen, claimant to the Iron Throne of Westeros, is frustrated and tired of waiting amongst the Dothraki savages who are supposed to lend military aid to his bid for power. Having married his sister Daenerys off to the Dothraki leader, Khal Drogo, Viserys demands that the latter fulfils his promise of helping him to obtain the crown. In the process, he threatens to take Daenerys away and to kill her and Drogo’s unborn child. As if that were not bad enough, he breaks the taboo against drawing a blade in Vaes Dothrak, the Dothraki’s sacred city. His actions earn him a very different golden crown than he had bargained for.
It might seem like such a brutal and potentially wasteful manner of execution would be confined to the pages of A Song of Ice and Fire, but there are several examples from history that demonstrate that this is not the case. Indeed, history or at least the recording of that history took it to the next level. While Drogo ‘crowns’ the offending Viserys by pouring molten gold over his head, several historical examples see molten metals forced down the throat of the victim in a symbolic repaying of his greed or as a purifying agent of judgement.
Given that theme of pecuniary avarice, there can be no better place to start than with the most (in)famous individual from ancient history to have seemingly suffered such a fate: the rapacious plutocrat, Marcus Licinius Crassus. Having bought up much of Rome and used his tax contracts to strip the province of Asia of its wealth, Crassus decided to try winning a military reputation similar to those of his allies in the First Triumvirate, Pompeius Magnus and Julius Caesar.
In attempting to do so, he picked the wrong opponent and the wrong battlefield, seeing his army picked apart by a hail of Parthian arrows at Carrhae in 53BC. Popular tradition has it that after being captured by the Parthians, Crassus was executed by being force-fed a draught of that which he coveted most.
Orodes II, Parthian king at the time of Crassus’ defeat and death © http://www.cngcoins.com 2013
Fortunately for Crassus, it is far more likely that he was killed in a skirmish when the Parthians tried to capture him and that it was his severed head that was treated to a steaming bowl of the gold stuff. And even that only appears in later sources like Florus and Cassius Dio, which suggests that it is an invention – a precautionary tale over the fate that a thirst for gold could bring (Florus I.46.11; Cassius Dio XL.27.3).
Of course, that has not stopped the idea of Crassus dying from a golden last meal becoming the popular telling of his demise.
Pierre Coustau, Pegma (1555) Glasgow University Library, Special Collections
But Crassus was not the first Roman to have purportedly faced such a grizzly fate; that ‘honour’ fell to Manius Aquillius in 88BC.
His reputation already sullied by being the son of another Manius Aquillus who was guilty of profiteering and bribery in Asia Minor, Aquillius wasted little time in proving to the locals that corruption was in the family blood. Despite being charged by the Senate with bringing order to the region, he was soon on the hunt for ways to make a quick buck through bribery and skimming tax revenues.
His real crime, though was in his dealings with the Roman ally, Nicomedes IV of Bithynia. The client king had recently been restored to his throne, but in the process had made a lot of financial promises to a lot of Roman senators; promises he could not fulfil. But if Bithynia was broke, its neighbour, Pontus, was rich and Aquillius encouraged Nicomedes to attack. Under pressure, the Bithynian king complied, raiding Pontic ports, instigating forty years of conflict between the king of Pontus, Mithridates VI Eupator, and the Roman Republic.
With the Romans embroiled in the Social War in Italy, there were only two legions available to aid Aquillius’ plan, although that, along with contingents from Bithynia and other Asian clients, would have been expected to be more than enough to tame Pontus. However, in the face of the wily Mithridates and his allies, the Romano-Bithynian invasion of Pontus quickly turned into a debacle.
Fleeing the battlefields of Asia Minor, Aquillius commandeered a boat and headed for Mytilene on the island of Lesbos, only to be betrayed to Mithridates by the city’s inhabitants. Paraded on a donkey and forced to proclaim his crimes in public, Aquillius met his end in the Theatre of Dionysius in Pergamum as Mithridates’ men “poured molten gold down his throat, thus rebuking the Romans for their bribe-taking” (Appian, Mith. 21; Pliny, HN XXXIII.14; Mayor (2010), 166-171). While the suspicion of later invention lingers, this occasion seems a little more likely than that of Crassus.
Another Roman linked to “death by gold” is the mid third century emperor, Valerian – or at least that is what a number of internet sources claim. While Valerian did end his days as a captive of the Persian king and his skin was removed post-mortem and stuffed as a trophy as a warning to the Romans, there is no primary evidence that he was forced to drink molten gold after trying to buy his freedom from the Persian king, Shapur I. Someone somewhere has probably got their wires crossed with the stories of Aquillius and Crassus.
Valerian, Roman emperor © http://www.cngcoins.com 2005
Shapur I, Sassanid Persian King of Kings © http://www.cngcoins.com 2013
And that is just the instances of “death by gold” linked to the demises of Romans. In our next entry, we will look at other recorded instances of just molten metal deaths in various ancient and medieval settings including early Iranians, Judaism, Mongols and Incas.
So stay tuned!
Have you got any questions for our contributors? Do you know of any other examples regarding the subject of any of our blogs? Or do you have an idea for a future installment?
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