Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ib: A Golden Crown

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In the previous entry we looked at the instances of “death by gold” reputedly suffered by Romans similar to that of Viserys Targaryen at the hands of Khal Drogo in S01E06 “A Golden Crown” and discovered that perhaps two of those three known instances, Marcus Licinius Crassus and the emperor Valerian, are perhaps apocryphal.“A Crown for a King…” © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

index© Gautier Poupeau 2014 © 2005

It is important to note, though, that even if the attributing of a “death by molten metal” to Crassus or Valerian is erroneous, the supposed perpetrators of these punishments – Shapur I, Orodes II and in the case of Aquillius, Mithridates VI – all shared a similar Iranian cultural heritage, in which the use of molten metals as a form of execution was prevalent. Shapur was Sassanid Persian king and Orodes was a Parthian king, meaning that both ruled the Iranian plateau, while the Pontic court of Mithridates had strong Iranian influences.

Artaxerxes iiArtaxerxes II, Achaemenid Persian King of Kings © Marie-Lan Nguyen 2008

The use of molten metal as a punishment is recorded for the Achaemenid Persians as well. For boasting about being responsible for the death of Cyrus the Younger during the Battle of Cunaxa on 3 September 401BC, an unnamed Carian was arrested by the Achaemenid Persian king Artaxerxes II and handed over to his and Cyrus’ mother, “Parysatis, who ordered the executioners to take him and rack him on the wheel for ten days, then to gouge out his eyes, and finally to drop molten brass into his ears until he died” (Plutarch, Artaxerxes 14.5).

The origin of this practice in Iranian culture seems to have been the religion of Zoroastrianism or earlier pagan beliefs. Iranian sources regarded molten metal, like fire, as an instrument of judgement not just for trial by ordeal and spiritual cleansing but also in a truly apocalyptic “End of Days” sense its prominence in Zoroaster’s vision of the Last Judgement (Griffiths (1990), 336, 348; Boyce (1996), 35; Ballesteros Pastor in Høtje (2009), 224).

This practice also appears in the writings of Judaism. Originally, the punishment of “burning” was a literal immolation as dictated by Leviticus 20:14, 21:9, but through the re-interpretations of and even rejections by various learned rabbis of that punishment, perhaps through Iranian influences, the instructions for “death by burning” became “forcibly open his mouth with a pair of tongues and the lighted wire (the molten lead) is thrust into his mouth, so that it goes down into his bowels and burns his inside” (Harris (1901), 170; Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Sanhedrin 52a; As the crimes leading to the punishment of burningall involve adultery or incest, perhaps we are hearing echoes of the purifying aspects of molten metal from Zoroastrian belief.

Such a punishment was (and surely still is) viewed as barbaric, so it is not exactly surprising to see the ‘savage’ character, Khal Drogo, employing it. Even less surprising is that the archetypal barbarian horseman who was likely the main source of inspiration for Drogo, the 13th century marauding Mongol, Genghis Khan, is also recorded using this punishment.

YuanEmperorAlbumGenghisPortraitGenghis Khan, Mongol Khan

His victim was the governor of Otrar, a city of the Khwarazmian Empire in 1219, who is only known to history by his title, Inalchucq – “Little Lord” or Qadir-Khan – “Mighty Khan.” His crime had been the accusation of Muslim merchants in Genghis’ employ as being spies and having them arrested, and probably then encouraging the Khwarazmian Shah, Mohammed, to execute not just the caravan, but also members of the embassy sent as a peace offering by Genghis. Such an outrage opened the Khwarazmian Empire to the full horrors of the Mongol hordes. After a stubborn defence at Otrar, Little Lord Inalchuk was captured alive and executed by having molten silver poured onto his eyes and ears (Man (2004), 155-156, 163).


The lead sprinkler

The use of molten metal also made its way into western medieval torture in the form of this device. At first glance it appears a little innocuous and you would be forgiven for mistaking it for a religious implement used to spread holy water. Indeed, you would in fact be partially correct in that thought. But instead of cold holy water, this was used for the sprinkling of boiling liquids – water, oil or metals; hence its name, the lead sprinkler.

As with the use of molten metals in Iranian and Jewish lore, there was a religious purification dimension to the use of the lead sprinkler. Not so cold comfort for the victims of this infernal device.

Such “deaths by molten metal” are not contained just to the Old World. Perhaps the most infamous use of such a horrific and symbolic form of execution comes from the New World, where the natives used it to punish the avarice of the Spanish Conquistadores.

Pedro_de_ValdiviaPedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia by Federico de Madrazo

Chronicler Pedro Mariño de Lobera records that the first royal governor of Chile, Pedro Gutiérrez de Valdivia, was killed by Araucanían Mapuche, who forced him to drink molten gold, possibly on Christmas Day 1553 (Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile XLIII); however, as there are several other modes of death attributed to Valdivia by various other writers, including having his forearms roasted and eaten before his eyes and having his still beating heart removed, the chances are that all of them, including the “death by gold,” are apocryphal.

Theodor_de_Bry_78“The Indians, to satisfy their wickedness, pour molten gold in the mouths of the Spaniards” by Theodor De Bry Great Voyages Part IV, (1594)

Perhaps European audiences, hearing of the deaths of many Conquistadores and knowing of the amounts of precious metals pouring in from the New World, were projecting a suitable death for their own avarice, encouraged by the ancient texts containing the stories of Aquillius, Crassus and Parysatis’ unnamed Carian. Indeed, the similarities between the etching work of De Bry here and that of Coustau depicting Crassus in the previous entry might be evidence of such a proclivity.

The likely apocryphal nature of many of these storied “deaths by gold/molten metal” has not done much to assuage popular or even scientific interest in this mode of death. There have been experiments involving bovine larynxes to see how exactly the victim of such an execution would die, concluding that while the molten metal would rupture organs, it is more likely that it would be the steam and the damage it causes to the respiratory system that would be the cause of death (van de Goot, ten Berge, and Vos (2003)).

This is just a (metallic) taste of the depths of man’s inhumanity to man with regard to molten metals as an instrument of spiritual purification, painful torture or ironic vengeful execution. A quick search online might lead to more potential instances or anecdotes, factual or not. Let’s just say that mouths, eyes and ears are not the only orifices into which molten metals could be poured… I will just leave it at that.

Of course, in the mythos of Game of Thrones and A Song of Ice and Fire, had Viserys truly been “the dragon” that he was so proud of proclaiming himself to be, the molten metal should not have harmed him. Instead, it would be his younger sister, whom he had thought to barter away, threaten and generally overlook, who would seem to be the true heir of the Targaryen legacy.


Appian, Roman History (White, H. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1913; Gabba, E. translation, 1958-1970)

Cassius Dio, Historia Romana (Cary, E. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1914-1927)

Florus, Epitome of Roman History (Forster, E.S. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1929)

Pliny the Elder, Natural History (Bostock, J. and Riley, H.T. translation, 1855)

Plutarch, Lives (Perrin, B. translation, Loeb Classical Library, 1923)

Pedro Mariño de Lobera, Crónica del Reino de Chile

Ballesteros Pastor, L. ‘Troy, between Mithridates and Rome,’ in Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Boyce, M.  A History of Zoroastrianism I: The Early Period. New York (1996)

van de Goot, F.R.W., ten Berge, R.L. and Vos, R. ‘Molten gold was poured down his throat until his bowels burst,’ Journal of Clinical Pathology (2003)

Griffiths, J.G. The Divine Verdict: A Study of Divine Judgement in the Ancient Religions. New York (1990)

Harris, M.H. (ed.) Hebraic Literature: Translations from the Talmud, Midrashim and Kabbala (1901)

Høtje, J.M. (ed) Mithridates VI and the Pontic Kingdom. Black Sea Studies 9. Aarhus (2009)

Mann, J. Genghis Khan: Life, Death, and Resurrection. London (2004)

Mayor, A. The Poison King The Life and Legend of Mithridates. (2010)


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 instalment?

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