Game of Thrones and Ancient History
**There will be spoilers here for all seasons of Game of Thrones. If you have not seen up to the end of season 7, some major plot points will be spoiled for you!**
“How many tens of thousands had to die because Rhaegar Targaryen chose your aunt?” Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish asks Sansa in front of the tomb of Lyanna Stark in S5E4 of Game of Thrones.
Viewers of the television series knew by the end of Season 6 that the rumours were true… R+L does indeed = J. The newly enthroned King in the North, Jon Snow was not the bastard son of Eddard Stark but of Rhaegar Targaryen, eldest child of Aerys II, the Mad King, killed in battle before Games of Thrones begins. And rather than a wet nurse, fisherman’s daughter or Dornish beauty, it was Lyanna Stark, Lord Eddard’s own sister, who was Jon’s mother.
As you can see in the video above, in the Winterfell crypt Sansa replies bitterly to Littlefinger that Rhaegar “… chose her, abducted her and raped her”; the version of the story she had heard throughout childhood. The silence and wry smile from Littlefinger says everything; he does not seem quite so sure.
Before being abducted, or eloping, Lyanna was promised to Robert Baratheon. The match was to secure the alliance between his house in the Stormlands and House Stark in the North. However, this was not just a shrewd political move; Robert admitted that Lyanna was the only woman he ever loved. Losing her was the catalyst for Robert’s Rebellion, his killing of Rhaegar Targaryen at the Battle of the Trident, his taking of the Iron Throne and exiling of the remaining Targaryens to Essos. The instability this caused and the establishing of the Baratheon-Lannister alliance at King’s Landing in turn led to the War of the Five Kings and everything that is ‘the game of thrones’.
In classical literature there is a similar well told story in which a beautiful woman is discussed as the cause of a war that killed thousands, tested loyalties and spread turmoil among the great families of the age. Like Lyanna, Helen of Troy’s part in starting a war is taken for granted by some and questioned by others.
Helen, then of Sparta, was promised to Paris, son of Priam of Troy, by Aphrodite as a reward for judging her the most beautiful goddess by presenting her with the golden apple. However, at the time Helen was married to Menelaus, brother of Agamemnon from the prestigious, but unfortunate, House of Atreus. Helen was so sought-after that Menelaus had had to compete against all the eligible heroes of the age in order to secure her as his bride. The competition had been so fierce that the other suitors swore an oath to defend the union in an effort to keep the peace. When Paris turned up later on a supposed diplomatic visit and decided to undiplomatically leave with Helen, it was not only the Acheans who recognised that there was not going to be a happy ending; Paris’ own family were dismayed, fearful of the outcome. And who exactly was to blame? The irresponsible young man who preferred playing the lyre to fighting, or the foreign woman who had tempted him?
Prince Rhaegar first met Lyanna Stark at the famous tourney at Harrenhal, presenting her with the bouquet of blue roses which crowned her his queen of love and beauty, preferring her over his own wife, Elia Martell. In the first book A Game of Thrones (Ch. 58), Ned Stark remembers the events whilst chained up in his cell waiting for execution, while viewers hear all about it from Littlefinger in the Winterfell crypt in the video above.
Like Paris, Rhaegar was an accomplished musician. Barristan Selmy tells Daenerys stories about the prince busking in the streets of Kings’ Landing in S5 E4. Indeed, Rhaegar played so beautifully at the tourney that Lyanna cried, suggesting it is believable that this young woman fell in love with the handsome, silver-haired warrior-musician. By the end of S7 it is confirmed that not only did Rhaegar not kidnap Lyanna, the two had been legally married, leaving Jon Snow not only not a bastard but the legitimate heir to the Iron Throne ahead of his aunt Danaerys.
In the world of Game of Thrones, as in the classical one, a marriage does not necessarily mean a love match of course. But Prince Rhaegar left his best swordsmen to guard the Tower of Joy as he went off to fight and die at the hands of Robert and his warhammer; was he protecting the family he loved or an heir he thought was ‘The Prince that was Promised’? Or both?
However, all the current claimants for the throne are still (for now) woefully unaware of the marriage and its implications, having never questioned what they had been told. The Three Eyed Raven, in S06E10, shows Bran Stark how events really unfolded under the Tower of Joy in a flashback, as his father comes to rescue Lyanna. It is at this point that Bran learns hard lessons about how the history you hear can be very different from the history that happened, as he watches the man he thought his father bravely defeated in battle get ignobly stabbed in the back and later discovers the true heritage (and name) of Jon Snow.
It seems that everyone around at the time remembers Lyanna and Rhaegar differently to those who have had their stories handed down to them. Rather than an abductor and rapist, Barristan Selmy describes Rheagar (S3E3) as the most noble man he knew and even Ned is never heard saying a bad word about him, although so blinded by rage and sorrow was he, Robert Baratheon had little good to say about the dead prince.
There is no consensus in classical literature on Helen’s character and motives. She can be portrayed as a victim of the gods and of mortal politics or as a vain, selfish schemer depending on the moral theme of the literature. In the Iliad, Homer’s Helen is full of misery and regret (III.173-175; Groten (1968)); Sappho (fr.16) decided Helen was assertive and pursued love; in the Troades (914-966), Euripides’ Helen blames love – either Aphrodite directly or the fact she is so desirable Paris is literally disarmed, and politics – the Achaeans are using her as an excuse for their military manoeuvring. In the history of art, Helen also has an ambiguous character, seen leaving Greece determinedly with her head held high, or crying as she is dragged away.
Lyanna’s story echoes Helen’s in the questions it raises about how the agency of women is perceived, of whether love is more noble than patriotism, what we are willing to believe to support our views, but maybe most importantly, to what extent history tells us more about the beliefs and values of the narrator and their society than what actually happened.
Dawn ‘Pickle’ Love
GoTAH III: Burning a Princess – Shireen and Iphigenia
**There will be spoilers here for the 5th and 6th seasons of Game of Thrones**
In S05E09 “The Dance of Dragons,” Game of Thrones viewers were confronted with perhaps the most heart-wrenching and harrowing scenes of the show so far as perhaps the most innocent character in the entire series, Shireen Baratheon, met a horrifying demise in the snows of the North not far from Winterfell.
Ser Davos Seaworth (Liam Cunningham) and Shireen Baratheon (Kerry Ingram)
The greyscale-scarred little girl who taught Davos Seaworth his letters and seemed the only one capable of penetrating the cold exterior of her father Stannis Baratheon was burned at the stake in order to encourage the Red God R’hllor to intervene with the weather.
If that was not bad enough, Shireen’s burning only came about through the order of her own father. In his desperation to continue his march on Winterfell and against all reason, Stannis allowed himself to be persuaded by the Red Priestess, Melisandre and even his wife Selyse, Shireen’s mother that only a sacrifice of royal blood would bring about the intervention of the Lord of Light.
Stannis Baratheon (Stephan Dillane), Melisandre (Carice Van Houten) and Selyse Baratheon (Tara Fitzgerald)
The whole scenario demonstrates how desperate Stannis had become to fulfil what he saw as his destiny to sit on the Iron Throne, going so far as to set aside reason and good sense, something which he had shown an increasing penchant towards in listening to the sound advice of Sir Davos Seaworth, Lord Commander Jon Snow and even Shireen herself over the religious ramblings of Melisandre and Selyse.
When the snows relented, Stannis might have briefly thought that it was all worth it: the Lord of Light was on his side and victory over the Boltons was soon at hand. Unfortunately for Stannis, the melting snows not only revealed the army of the Boltons lying in weight, it also exposed the effect that the horrifying spectacle of the murder of a teenage girl had had on his forces.
Hundreds of his men had deserted, leaving the Baratheon army at half-strength and drastically outnumbered for the upcoming battle against the Boltons.
Had he been in his right mind, an experienced commander like Stannis, one of Westeros’ finest commanders, would have declined the offer of battle outside Winterfell and lived to fight another day. However, fuelled with religious zeal or was it now perhaps despair at what he had done and over what it had done to Selyse, who had hanged herself in her grief, Stannis took the field and suffered complete defeat and death.
The defeated Stannis faces his execution at the hands of Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie)
In sacrificing Shireen, Stannis sealed the fate that he had hoped to avoid – the extinction of the Baratheon dynasty. Without Shireen, Selyse and Renly (another of his victims), there was no one of legitimate Baratheon blood left to succeed Stannis on the Iron Throne.
It is worth noting that this is not the first time that Melisandre had urged Stannis to burn people to gain the favour of the Lord of Light. In a Song of Ice and Fire, Davos recollects Melisandre having Stannis’ former Hand of the King and Selyse’s uncle, Alester Florent, burned alive to gain favourable winds for the journey from Dragonstone to the Wall (A Dance With Dragons ch.9), while the title of “King-Beyond-The-Wall” made Mance Rayder a target for a fiery death, either largely successfully in the show (S05E01 “The Wars to Come”) or unsuccessfully in the books (A Dance With Dragons ch.10).
Indeed, anyone with even a hint of royal blood was at risk of finding themselves on Melisandre’s pyre to bolster Stannis’ bid for the Iron Throne, whether it be Mance Rayder’s son by Dalla or Maester Aemon Targaryen, both sent away from Castle Black with Gilly and Samwell Tarly by Jon Snow (A Feast For Crows ch.5), Theon Greyjoy, or the bastard offspring of Robert Baratheon, Gendry and Edric Storm.
And it is not just Melisandre who has a penchant for sacrificing people to R’hllor. Another Red Priest, Moqorro, convinced Victarion Greyjoy to sacrifice Maester Kerwin to gain good winds to take them to Meereen by curing him of an infected hand (A Dance With Dragons ch.56). And while Kerwin was not burned, it might be suggested that the only thing that prevented his immolation was the fact that Victarion, Moqorro, Kerwin and the Ironborn were onboard ship en route to Slaver’s Bay. A large pyre on a wooden ship would not have helped their journey any…
François Perrier’s The Sacrifice of Iphigenia
It is not just within A Song of Ice and Fire and Game of Thrones that instances of sacrificing a royal daughter to gain the support of a deity for a military enterprise appear. In fact, that kind of horrifying sacrifice is a long-established literary trope, which appears in the most famous of all Greek stories – the Trojan War.
The so-called “Mask of Agamemnon” of Mycenae (National Archaeological Museum of Athens)
At the outset of the war, the Greek supreme commander, Agamemnon was told by the seer Calchas that the only way to appease Artemis who was interfering with the winds, preventing his ships setting sail for Troy was to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia. Agamemnon’s crime against the goddess had been to boast that he was her equal in hunting after killing a deer in a sacred grove belonging to her.
The Diana of Versailles (Louvre Museum, Paris)
There are various interpretations of the ultimate fate of Iphigenia. Some have her remain oblivious to her imminent death right up the last minute, having been told that she was being led to the altar to marry Achilles. She is also portrayed as finding out about the planned sacrifice and when Agamemnon’s attempted backing out is met with death threats from the Greeks, Iphigenia accepts her fate and dies an heroic death to save her family and the entire Greek enterprise.
However, it is not a universal development that Iphigenia perishes on the pyre. Some versions have her rescued by Artemis, substituted at the last minute with a deer or goat, taken to the Crimea, where she later meets her brother Orestes, or to Snake Island in the Black Sea, where she married an immortalised Achilles, or even being transformed into the goddess Hecate.
Iphigenie (1862) by Anselm Feuerbach
Regardless of Iphigenia’s fate, the Greek expedition received the fair winds they needed to sail east and unlike Stannis, who quickly lost his wife, his army, his battle and then his head, Agamemnon seems to have faced little immediate backlash for his deed and his military adventure did meet with success (eventually).
However, Aeschylus’ Agamemnon portrays the sacrifice of Iphigenia as a significant cause of Agamemnon’s wife Clytemnestra plotting with her lover Aegisthus plan to murder her husband when he eventually returned from Troy.
Agamemnon in Giovanni Battista Tiepolo’s The Rage of Achilles
Luckily for Agamemnon, the sacrifice of Iphigenia and his own death did not mean the end of his house as the sacrifice of Shireen meant for Stannis. Before their fatal falling out over his filicide, Agamemnon and Clytemnestra had been blessed with the survival of more than one child – Iphigenia had been followed by Electra, Orestes and Chrysothemis so the succession of the House of Atreus seemed secure.
That said, the actions of various generations of the House of Atreus, which included, but not limited to, rape, cannibalism, murder, incest, kin-slaying and treachery (a perfect fit for the world of Westeros…), saw to it that the House of Atreus faced a great amount of misfortune. This misfortune extended to Orestes, who avenged his father by killing not just Aegisthus but his own mother. He was subsequently driven mad by the Furies for the crime of matricide, although he was later acquitted through the intercession of Apollo and Athena.
Of course, the various dramatisations of the potential demise of Iphigenia are not the only instances of child sacrifice or immolation recorded in ancient sources. And while we are not going into them in any detail, just looking in the pages of Herodotus alone provides several examples of children being slain as a sacrifice (I.86, II.199, III.11, VII.114) and deaths by burning (I.86, II.107, III.16, III.45, IV.69).
While death has been proven on several occasions to not be a terminal condition in the world of GRR Martin, it is very much doubtful that Shireen Baratheon will turn out to have received such a last minute and hidden reprieve like Iphigenia or that her father will rise from the dead for an opportunity to atone for his crimes of kin-slaying like Orestes after his head was removed from his shoulders by the Oathkeeper-wielding Brienne of Tarth.
Game of Thrones and Ancient History II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards
GoTAH II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards
In 216BC, the Italian countryside played host to the Battle of Cannae between the forces of Carthage and the legions of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. Fresh from two major victories, the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, squared up to an enormous congregation of Roman legions. Despite being heavily outnumbered, what Hannibal achieved on that battlefield still echoes over twenty-two centuries later as one of the greatest military defeats ever inflicted and the archetypal battle of annihilation for prominent military commanders throughout history.
In 303AL, by the reckoning of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the forces of House Stark, led by Jon Snow, marched to take back their former capital from their betrayers, House Bolton. The confrontation on the plain outside Winterfell would be known as the Battle of the Bastards due to the illegitimate births of the commanders of both sides.
On the surface, there does not seem to be too many connections between these two battles. But looks can be deceiving…
The writers of the Game of Thrones S06E09 “Battle of the Bastards”, David Benioff and D.B.Weiss, have since confirmed Cannae’s inspiration for their epic depiction of the battle for the North, but the eagle-eyed viewer who knows their Second Punic War will have recognised elements of the Cannae Stratagem.
Lady Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane and Ser Davos Seaworth © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
In a meeting with his fellow commanders, Ser Davos Seaworth expresses his worry over the extent to which they will be outnumbered by the forces of Lord Ramsay Bolton. To combat this, he proposes a defensive strategy to lure Lord Bolton’s superior numbers forward by having the Stark centre stage a feigned retreat, which would draw the Boltons forward into the pocket between the two Stark wings, surrounding them on three sides.
This kind of refused centre was the tactical centrepiece of Hannibal’s plan at Cannae. The major difference was in scale. The Battle of the Bastards saw about 2,400 Stark men and Wildings square up to 6,000 Boltons and HBO did a fantastic job in portraying how much of a bloody, crushing mess that could be. Now, just think what it must have been like at Cannae in 216BC where it was 80,000 Romans crushed together by 50,000 Carthaginians…
Hannibal’s refused centre at Cannae
However, as the Battle of the Bastards plays out, the tables are turned and in a direct reversal of Cannae, it is the smaller force that gets hemmed in and crushed together. This reversal can be traced to another example of Cannae’s influence over the Game of Thrones writers – the use of psychology.
Lord Ramsay Bolton: Hannibal’s psychological avatar? © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Hannibal Barca was a master of it, reading the Romans like a book, predicting what they would do well in advance and planning for it accordingly. It had served him well at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene and at Cannae he used it to literally and figuratively crush the Romans. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the spiteful Ramsay Bolton who was cast as the avatar of Hannibal’s psychological abilities. He had shown himself an able psychological (and physical) torturer but had yet to display any ability on the battlefield. However, in using Rickon Stark for target practice, Ramsay was able to cunningly, if unsubtly, goad Jon Snow into abandoning the Cannae Stratagem.
Undermining the Cannae Stratagem © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
The seeming failure of Ramsay to shoot Jon Snow when he was in range could also be linked to Hannibal’s reading of the Roman leadership. At Cannae, the joint command between Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus provided an opening for Hannibal as they seem to have had a difference of opinion over how to proceed, the former keen to attack and the latter more reticent. Eager to spring his trap, Hannibal offered battle on a day the reportedly more reckless Varro had overall command, who obliged by charging into that trap. Outside Winterfell, Ramsay Bolton wanted Jon Snow to react rashly and lead his forces into an attack, abandoning their defensive position. Had Jon been killed, command would have passed to Davos who would have followed the original Cannae battle plan.
An Impenetrable Hedge of Swords, Shields and Pikes © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Despite the decidedly un-Cannae-like cavalry clash (which would have horrified Hannibal) that followed his good use of psychology, Ramsay then also takes up the Hannibalic tactical mantle. With Stark forces fully committed in order to survive the initial clash, Ramsay sent in his own infantry. Surrounding the mass of Stark men on three sides, these Bolton shielded pikemen initiated a Cannae-style crush, the suffocating horror of which is magnificently realised by the combination of superb editing, camera work and sound.
Closing the Bolton Noose © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Closing the Carthaginian Noose
At Cannae, when the jaws of Hannibal’s trap closed, this initiated a day-long butchering of the mass of Roman soldiers caught within by the ever-tightening Carthaginian noose; a day that saw perhaps up to 73,000 Roman soldiers killed or captured. And while the numbers were nowhere near as ridiculous, caught in Bolton noose, it appeared that the remaining Stark forces were about to face a similar grizzly fate as the Romans at Cannae.
Jon Snow fights for air in the crush © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
Only the timely arrival of the Knights of the Vale prevented such a repeat. And while there were no such reinforcements at Cannae, the charge of the Arryn cavalry into the rear of the Bolton lines does mimic part of its ancient blueprint. After routing the Roman cavalry, Hannibal’s horse charged the rear of the legions, although there is academic argument over whether or not the Carthaginian cavalry could have caused the level of casualties reported by the ancient sources.
The Knights of the Vale charge the Bolton Pikemen © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.
One slight issue with the depiction of the battle came with the closing of the Bolton noose. With the Bolton cavalry decimated, the writers needed some way to hem in the Starks, and they chose a pile of dead and/or dying men and horses. This has raised a few eyebrows. Hundreds of bodies could pile up but would they really do so in such a way, forming a wall? It seems unlikely, although it might be added that in the chaos of such a brutal contest, almost anything could happen.
And it is this visceral, claustrophobic chaos that the Battle of the Bastards does such a terrific job in capturing, complete with the horrifying crush at Cannae, as well as the inspirations of Hannibalic tactics and psychology.
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.
© Gautier Poupeau 2014 © http://www.cngcoins.com 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 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; http://www.come-and-hear.com/editor/capunish_1.html). As the crimes leading to the punishment of “burning” all 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.
Genghis 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 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.
“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) http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1769869/
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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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!
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