Game of Thrones creator George R.R. Martin is no slouch when it comes to history. He is well read in the subject, and it is just one of the reasons Martin's fantasy world feels so real.
From the courtly intrigue in King's Landing to the massive battles, Martin's world of Westeros is deeply rooted in actual medieval history and inspired loosely by real events.
In Martin's own words: "What I try to do is give it a little more of the feel of historical fiction than some of those other books had before it which have, I suppose, a more fantasy or fantastic feel."
Though one-to-one comparisons don't really exist (Martin isn't retelling history with different names, after all), those with a bit of historical background will find plenty of similarities between some of the events in Game of Thrones and those in the real world. Here are just a few:
The War of the Five Kings Is Loosely Based On The War Of the Roses
Far and away the most obvious comparison, Martin has long admitted the war between the Lannisters and the Starks in Game of Thrones is based on the real War of the Roses between House Lancaster and House York from 1455 to 1485. It's easy to see the similarities — heck, even the names are similar. But whereas the war for the English throne served as Martin's inspiration for the primary conflict of his novels and some characters do match up nicely to historical counterparts from the time, Martin insists no one-to-one counterparts exist.
The Battle of Blackwater Bay Takes A Page From The Second Arab Siege of Constantinople
The Battle of Blackwater Bay is a defining moment in Martin's books and HBO's show. As the fleet of Stannis Baratheon invades King's Landing, Tyrion Lannister unveils his plan to trap the enemy ships in the bay with a massive chain before raining a highly explosive type of fire down upon them. Though the circumstances are different, Tyrion's plan is pulled straight out of a major battle in history. The Byzantine forces defending Constantinople used a similar strategy in 718 to repel Arab invaders by using a substance known as "Greek Fire," as well as a massive chain that prevented enemy ships from entering the waterway known as the Golden Horn.
Targaryen Incest Isn't So Different From The Ptolemaic Dynasty in Egypt
Game of Thrones is known for three things — blood, boobs and incest ... lots of incest. Whether it is the incest among the Targaryen kings and queens who once ruled Westeros for hundreds of years or the incest between Jaime and Cersei Lannister, it's one of the most shocking elements of the books and show. It too is grounded in real world, as disturbing as that is. It wasn't unheard of for royal families to "keep it in the family" in order to keep their bloodlines pure. One of the best examples of incest in history is that of the Ptolemaic Dynasty of ancient Egypt.
The last dynasty to rule Egypt before the Roman conquest, Ptolemaic brothers and sisters often married one another. They also liked to use the same names over and over again. Every king during this nearly 275-year time period adopted the name Ptolemy, in honor of the original Ptolemy, who was appointed ruler of Egypt by Alexander the Great. Many of Ptolemy's queens (and often Ptolemy's sisters) were either named Cleopatra, Berenice or Arsinoe. It's a similarity shared by many of the Targaryen king's, who are often named Aegon in honor of the first Targaryen to conquer Westeros.
Zoroastrianism Sounds A Lot Like The Red Faith
Martin's fantasy world, much like the real world, is filled with different cultures, religions and philosophies that help guide people through their daily lives. One such religion is the Red Faith common across the seas from Westeros and famously practiced by Melisandre. Melisandre worships the Lord of Light R'hllor, who is opposed to an evil deity only referred to as "the Other." She and others like her view fire as a purifying substance, and she can look into those fires to see visions of the future. Thoros of Myr is also a member of this fiery faith, and he can light his sword ablaze with magical flame.
It's a belief system that isn't too far away from the ancient religion of Zoroastrianism. Like the Red Faith, Zoroastrianism revolves around the belief in one good god constantly struggling against its evil counterpart. The most striking similarity between the two, however, is the importance of fire. Priests practicing Zoroastrianism often looked to the flames to gain insight and wisdom and rarely prayed without some source of fire present. As far as we can tell, Zoroastrianism did not involve the creation of shadow babies in any way, shape or form.
The Wall Is Inspired By Hadrian's Wall
Back when the Roman Empire still dominated much of Europe, the Romans erected a more than 70-mile-long wall that stretched from one side of what is present day Scotland to the other. Called Hadrian's wall, its ultimate purpose is still up for debate, but it definitely helped to separate the "civilized" lands of the Romans from the "barbarians" who lived up north. That "barbarians" bit might sound familiar, as the massive magical structure known simply as the Wall and defended by the men of the Night's Watch in Game of Thrones serves a similar purpose, protecting the noble lords and ladies of Westeros from the wildlings ... and worse.
George R.R. Martin doesn't shy away from the comparison — he admits as much in an interview from 2006 when he recalls visiting Scotland and standing on Hadrian's wall for himself, imagining what might be lurking in the shadows of the forest to the north.
The Red Wedding Really Happened ... Twice
No event is more shocking in Game of Thrones than the Red Wedding. The massacre of Robb Stark, his wife, unborn child, mother and loyal bannermen at the hands of the Freys is one of the most brutal moments in all of fantasy, in part because we all believed Robb and company to be perfectly safe thanks to the "law of hospitality," in which hosts are honor-bound not to harm guests.
It's a law taken straight from the pages of history, but so is the act of completely ignoring it and murdering everybody in arms reach. Martin's Red Wedding is loosely inspired by two events in Scottish history. The first, known as the Black Dinner, involved the war between the King of Scotland and the Black Douglas clan. Though the two groups were at war, the King offered the young Earl of Douglas safe passage at Edinburgh Castle. There was a great feast and all were merry until the King's men began beating on a single drum before bringing out the head of a black boar on a platter, a symbol of death. The Earl of Douglas and his men were then dragged out into the courtyard and slaughtered.
Another famous instance is the Glencoe Massacre, in which one Scottish clan completely butchered another. Clan MacDonald stayed overnight with clan Campbell despite being at war, believing themselves to be protected by the honor of their hosts. That didn't turn out too well when the Campbells awoke in the middle of the night and began to kill every member of Clan MacDonald they could find.
Trial By Combat Was An Actual Thing
Might often makes right in the world of Westeros, and there is no better example of this than trial by combat. It's a recurring method of justice in Game of Thrones: sort of like a normal trial, except replace the lawyers representing the plaintiffs and defendant with two warriors who will fight to the death to prove their client is in the right. We've already seen two such trials in the show, both involving warriors fighting on behalf of Tyrion Lannister to prove his innocence. George R.R. Martin didn't make this peculiar method of justice up. While not exactly common, it wasn't an unheard of occurrence in the middle ages when two parties were in dispute.
So, there you have it — Game of Thrones is inspired by plenty of real world historical characters and events, most of them awful and depressing. In the words of Martin himself: " No matter how much I make up, there's stuff in history that's just as bad, or worse."
For more Game of Thrones, check out our list of the biggest changes from the books coming in the show's fifth season.