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Game of Thrones and Ancient History Ia: A Golden Crown

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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

GoT_A_Golden_CrownKhal Drogo presents Viserys Targaryen with his ‘crown’ © 2011 Home Box Office Inc.

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.

Crassus_(13668007863)Marcus Licinius Crassus, Musée du Louvre © Gautier Poupeau 2014

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.

SurenaImageStatue of a Parthian noble, possibly Surena, who defeated Crassus at Carrhae from National Museum of Iran 2401


OrodesIICoinHistoryofIranOrodes II, Parthian king at the time of Crassus’ defeat and death © 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.

FCPb051In mortem Crassi: mors una beat et ditat” – “On the death of Crassus: death makes a man both happy and rich”

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.

Asia MinorAsia Minor c.100BC © Andrew Anderson 2003

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.

Mithridates_VI_LouvreMithirdates VI of Pontus, Musée du Louvre © Sting 2006

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.

Aureus_Valerian-RIC_0034-transparentValerian, Roman emperor © 2005


Shapur I, Sassanid Persian King of Kings © 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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An Evening of Classical Poetry with Dr Halliday and Guests

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‘Re-voicing Classics: an evening of poetry’

Convened by Dr Erin Halliday

With readings by award winning Northern Irish poets:

Stephen Sexton and Ross Thompson

Wednesday 30th March 2016, 6.45 p.m.

The Canada Room, Lanyon Building, Queen’s University, Belfast

Happy New Year!

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We here at the Classical Association in Northern Ireland would like to wish all of our friends and followers a Happy New Year! May Janus provide you with eyes on the past, future and present!


While we already have a programme set for the first half of 2016, rest assured that we are working on further events not just for the public but also for schools across Northern Ireland, which is a pivotal part of our mission.

So stay tuned for further updates and do not hesitate to get in touch if you would like more information, help promoting or running your own event or any ideas you think we at CANI could help with!

Thanks and once again, Happy New Year!

Dr Icks’ Emperors on Display

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To an audience that had braved the elements and dodged the traffic, the Classical Association in Northern Ireland was proud to present Dr Martijn Icks and his talk ‘Keeping Up Appearances’: Roman Emperors on Display in the Bell Theatre at Queen’s University, Belfast on 3rd December 2015.

Starting with the holy invisibility of the Forbidden City of Ming China and the hyper-visibility of today’s leaders, Dr Icks took those in attendance on a journey through the public portrait of the Roman Emperors of the principate.

Through coins, statues, busts and monuments, the seemingly omnipresent emperors sought and were indeed demanded to be a living, honourable embodiment of the Roman Empire; those who failed in that embodiment were to be ridiculed, to be infames.

That journey took in, but was not limited to the affable, “all things to all men” Augustus; the too private Tiberius, opening himself to accusations of the worst levels of vice; the limping, stuttering Claudius hidden away by his family and then over-indulgent in blood sports; the embarrassing but dangerous spectacle that was Nero; the triumphant Titus and Trajan; the invisible Big Brother Domitian and the bookish Marcus Aurelius, ridiculed for not being seen to enjoy the games, instead attending to work.

Having forewarned that this subject was far larger than 50 mins would allow, Dr Icks finished up by teasing the listeners with a brief look at where the imperial portrait went from these embarrassing spectacles, conquering imperators, paranoid tyrants and “first among equals” of the principate – the aloof Lord and master chosen by the gods and then God and the increasingly invisible Byzantines, wrapped up in ceremony within their own version of the Forbidden City.

Clearly, this is a subject that has much more to be investigated.

Perhaps there will be a ‘Keeping Up Appearances’ Part 2 and 3? Over a few winter drinks afterwards, the audience certainly seemed to think so.

Peter Crawford

‘Keeping Up Appearances’

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‘Keeping up Appearances: Roman Emperors on Display’

Dr Martijn Icks (QUB)

Thursday 3rd December 2015, 6.45 p.m. (followed by winter drinks)

The Bell Lecture Theatre, Physics Building, Queen’s University, Belfast

PayPal Up and Running

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We are happy to announce that our PayPal account is now up and running, allowing you to subscribe or even donate to the Classical Association in Northern Ireland.


As we are a not-for-profit organisation, CANI needs the support of subscribers to fund and even expand our annual programme of events. The various membership options can be found under the Membership/Subscriptions tab above.

In return for your generosity, we will continue to provide top quality academic talks such as the recent presentation by Daniëlle Slootjes on ‘Ancient Rome on the Digital Age’, to interact with schools and the public as a whole around Northern Ireland promoting the study and stories of the Classical World and to bring more light hearted forms of entertainment such as the showing of films with a classical theme.

Thanking you in advance,



Dr Slootjes’ Digital Rome

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3rd November 2015

The Classical Association in Northern Ireland

 CANI Flyer Danielle lecture-page-001

Ancient Rome in a Digital Age

Dr Daniëlle Slootjes

How 3D reconstructions and simulations are valuable for the historical study of crowd behaviour in Ancient Rome

Tuesday 3 November, 6.45 pm
Queen’s University, Lanyon Building, Canada Room


At this week’s first official CANI event of the 2015-2016 programme, Dr Daniëlle Slootjes of the University of Nijmegen (The Netherlands) spoke about “Ancient Rome in a Digital Age”. More and more, archaeologists are collaborating with computer experts to make three-dimensional digital reconstructions of ancient buildings or even complete cities, including Rome itself. Dr Slootjes, who is interested in crowd behaviour and crowd control in premodern cities such as Rome, Constantinople, Paris and London, explored how these 3D reconstructions may be combined with evidence from our literary sources to produce valuable insights. In particular, she wants to examine how ancient crowds moved at particular mass events, such as the triumphal entry of a victorious emperor or games in the Colosseum. The lecture was followed by a lively Q & A session. All in all, it seems the Classical Association in Northern Ireland is off to a good start!

Martijn Icks (QUB)


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