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Game of Thrones historical references: S06E01 “The Red Woman”

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George R.R. Martin, the creator of Game of Thrones, is famous for inserting bits of history into his novels. For example, the war between the Lannisters and the Starks is rather similar to the War of the Roses, between the Houses of Lancaster and York. The idea of this series of posts is to give a play-by-play analysis for some of the historical events which might have inspired the episodes of the TV series. In fact this is meant more as a starting point, I hope fellow history buffs who are GoT fans will suggest more references in the comments.
Today I will be analyzing Episode 1 of Season 6, “The Red Woman”

At The Wall
Well I always liked the guy, but he was not exactly the most gifted leader of men. He failed to create a consensus over what was clearly a contentious decision, and apparently all of the officers of The Watch decided he had to go.
The weird thing is that the conspirators only seem to remember about his friends after they get together, and one of them has had time to leave to seek help. A more traditional solution would have been to either commit the murder while they were away, or at least keep them from uniting until the news was brought to them (assuming of course that they couldn’t just murder six or seven members of the watch and expect the rest to accept it, as was normal during e.g. the Second Mafia War). Leaving the body exposed for essentially a random find was also not very wise. This sort of thing needs to be managed carefully. As it is, Thorne is lucky he got to make his little speech at all, rather than just being killed while trying to explain.
The historical parallel is clearly to the killing of Julius Caesar, right down to the edged weapons. A common historical option for disgruntled subordinates would have been strangulation, which takes long enough to show that the murder was not a rash act by one or two individuals, but something all those present firmly agreed upon. The Wall itself is based largely on Hadrian’s Wall, but also on a variety of other linear fortifications built to keep more mobile groups away from settled people. Peter Spring has a very nice book on this sort of thing, and I’m currently doing research on this as well.

Change of management in Dorne
Ok, so Ellaria Sand and her daughters decided it was time for some strong female leadership in Dorn. First, they poisoned Myrcella, virtually guaranteeing war with the Lannisters in due time. Then they staged the simultaneous killing of Dorne leader Doran Martell, and his suddenly incompetent bodyguard. They further succeed in killing Doran’s (only?) son Trystan, which is actually on a ship anchored in King’s Landing. At this point, it’s not clear what the Sand Sisters’ plan is. Usually when you kill one branch of a ruling family, you already have another branch in mind to take over the succession (often you ARE the other branch in question). But as far as I can tell, House Martell died with Trystan. His dad is dead, his uncle is dead, he’s dead, and no other siblings were mentioned. Ellaria was just one of many, many beautiful women (“and beautiful men”) that Oberyn took into his bed, so if she wants to maintain control of Dorne, she’s going to have to fight for it. I hope for her the Sands are an extremely well connected family in Dorne, or she has already secured consent for the takeover from all the important actors, or they are in for some trouble. Historically, it is very hard to place this kind of gambit.

King’s Landing
Cersei has gained an inch or so of hair, but finds out her daughter was poisoned. Now, poison has a rich and varied history from earliest times. There were A LOT of suspiciously timed deaths in noble families, even given the higher mortality of the day. Knowing a good poisoner must have been a prerequisite for any family with aspirations of social mobility, and knowledge of all symptoms of poisons, and their antidotes, must have been the main prerequisite for a medical position at court. Anyway, back to our brotherly lovers. They plot vengeance against the whole world. What assets do they have to work with? They have complete trust in each other. Cersei is reasonably adept at plotting against family members, or commoners, but has consistently come out the loser when trying to play with the big boys and girls. Jaimie can hold his own in a fight against redshirts, but is hardly a decisive force on the battlefield after losing his right hand. They have the services of a sellsword (as long as they can offer him more than the opposition), and those of a soldier of frankly geological proportions, but unclear vital status. In principle having the King as your son should be good, but Tommen seems to do whatever is suggested by the last person he talks to, so in practice this is only an advantage if they can stop other people from talking to him. I am not sure how the internal succession rules of the Lannister house work (Agnatic seniority? Agnatic succession?), so I don’t know how much they can tap the private family resources. It’s also important to understand how separate the family finances are from the kingdom’s finances, especially given the massive debts towards the Iron Bank.
Down in the dungeons, the High Sparrow shows pity towards Margaery by… OF COURSE NOT! He just is pulling the classic good cop-bad cop routine on her. We’ll see whether she falls for it. Good Cop/Bad Cop is actually as old as the hills. Odysseus and Diomedes pull one in book ten of the Iliad. The High Sparrow concept reminds me of Girolamo Savonarola, and several heretic movement north of the Alps as well.

In the Dothraki Sea
The Dothraki are clearly inspired directly by the great steppe confederations of Eurasia. People such as the Parthians, the Huns, the Mongols, and the Tatars. I think the show is missing a trick here, by showing the Dothraki as more or less full-time warriors. As scary as the steppe people were while massed on their raids, the vast majority of their time was spent in small family groups herding sheep. Anyway, an enormous number of Dothraki captured Daenerys at the end of the last season, and now she’s being taken as tribute to a local leader. She tells him about her previous marriage to Khal Drogo, and they tell her that of course she is no longer a prisoner, but also that she needs to go in a temple to properly mourn her husband with all the other Khal widows for the rest of her days.
Arrangements of this kind were actually relatively common. For example in my native Palermo, 18th century (female) widows had a dedicated promenade next to the regular one, where they could walk around and socialize amongst themselves without being forced to give the impression that they were not mourning their decades-departed husband every second of every day. To an extent such arrangement may have been mandated by the significant benefits that widowhood otherwise conferred, coupled with the ease for a wife of administering poison, and the difficulties of the day in proving such substances had been used.
Incidentally, neither of the locations shown as inhabited by Dothraki, look really like nomadic pastoralist homelands. The place where Daenerys was captured looked too wet (pastoralists would eventually find out it was better to settle and raise livestock from hay). The drier areas they were walking through later had the right climate, but were a bit too hilly (hard for cavalry armies to consistently dominate a land with so many defiles). I’m guessing we still haven’t seen the real Dothraki Sea, but just its shores.

Nato e cresciuto a Palermo, per poi studiare economia a Milano, Barcellona e Tolosa. Mi occupo principalmente di Storia Economica ed Economia dello Sviluppo e dal 2015 insegno a Mosca.


  1. Caro Andrea, eccoti un’inutile puntualizzazione da sapientino come benvenuto.
    Il cognome “Sand” è quello che a Dorne si usa per i bastardi (come come nel Nord si usa “Snow”): è vero che a Dorne figli legittimi e illegittimi hanno pari dignità ma ad ogni modo temo che la frase “I hope for her the Sands are an extremely well connected family in Dorne” non sia accurata in quanto, appunto, i “Sand” non sono una famiglia.

    Dear Andrea, here’s a pointless know-it-all remark as a welcome greeting.
    In Dorne the surname “Sand” is the one used for the bastards (as is “Snow” in the North): it is true that in Dorne the legitimate and illegitimate sosn have equal dignity but nevertheless I’m afraid that the phrase “I hope for her the Sands are an extremely well connected family in Dorne” is not accurate since the “Sands” are not a family.

  2. Presidente, then they are in even more trouble. Dynastic succession isn’t just a habit, it’s an intergenerational contract between families. Doran might have been unliked, but his wife’s family was expecting that the future king would be a nephew/cousin. Whether or not they felt a change in leadership was needed, they are unlikely to accept an arrangement the leaves them unrelated to the ruling family. Blood is thicker than water and all that.

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