Playing the 'Game of Thrones': Real Historical Figures Who Won… or Died
Anyone who has read George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that "When you play the game of thrones, you win or you die." These words, as spoken by Cersei Lannister on the HBO adaptation Game of Thrones (premiering its fifth season spring 2015), serve as a warning to Ned Stark, a man of honor who chooses to challenge a king's succession. Cersei's words ring true not just for Ned, but also for the many other players in Martin's world of Westeros and beyond.
Plenty of powerful figures played their own game of thrones in Ancient Greece, the Roman Empire, and England. In fact, there are some key parallels between these power players and Martin's characters. And while we don't yet know the fates of all of those Lannisters and Starks, we can definitely pick up some hints from history.
Alexander the Great
Game of Thrones counterpart: Daenerys Targaryen
There's a reason historians look back on Alexander as one of the greatest military commanders and imperialists who ever lived. Born a Macedonian prince, Alexander learned philosophy and classics from his tutor, Aristotle. The prince later ascended to power in Greece and eventually conquered Syria, Egypt and Persia. In Alexander the Great, Philip Freeman describes how the conqueror lived most of his life far from his homeland, and faced many threats to his throne.
Won or died? It's pretty clear that Alexander won multiple thrones. But at what cost? Mystery still surrounds his death (some claim he was poisoned, others say he died due to natural causes).
Game of Thrones counterpart: Littlefinger (aka Petyr Baelish)
One of Henry VIII's close advisors, Cromwell is basically the guy who pushed forward the entire English Reformation. Robert Hutchison examines how Cromwell, the son of a brewer, rose to become the right hand of the king in Thomas Cromwell: The Rise and Fall of Henry VII's Most Notorious Minister. Turns out, the minister wasn't as nice as he looked. He made a lot of bribes… and enemies.
Won or died? After he arranged the failed marriage between the king and Anne of Cleves, Cromwell's relationship with Henry VIII soured. Eventually, the king had him imprisoned and decapitated, and put his head on a pike for public display.
Game of Thrones counterpart: Cersei Lannister
Henry VIII often worried about his line of succession, and rightfully so. Though he had six wives, only one—Jane Seymour—delivered a son who lived past infancy, Edward VI. Edward reigned for six years until his death at age 15. He named his cousin, Lady Jane Grey, his successor, but thanks to the intervention of his half-sister, Mary, Jane ruled a short five days after Edward's death (and then was executed). Mary reigned for five years, working to restore Catholicism in England, killing more than 250 Protestants and imprisoning her sister Elizabeth in the process. When Mary died, Elizabeth claimed the throne, and ruled for more than 40 years. She famously refused to marry, although Alison Weir, author of The Life of Elizabeth I speculates she that had multiple affairs.
Won or died? Elizabeth was a winner, hands down.
Game of Thrones counterpart: Robert Baratheon
Starting his career as a military leader, Caesar worked his way up through the Roman ranks until he ended up leading the whole empire. Adrian Goldsworthy investigates the life of the emperor in Caesar: Life of a Colossus, including his lesser-known early gigs: pirate and cult leader.
Won or died? Caesar was assassinated by the Roman senate on March 15 in 44 BC, adding a bad omen surrounding the Ides of March to his legacy, along with a type of birth, a men's haircut, and a salad.
Game of Thrones counterpart: Joffrey Baratheon
The Borgias were often accused of nepotism, which is hard to argue when the men of one family are ruling Rome. The son of the pope and the brother of an army leader, Cesare Borgia became a cardinal at age 18. The powerful family was not without its internal family drama, however. In The Borgias and Their Enemies: 1431-1519, Christopher Hibbert explains that Cesare was a jealous murderer who killed his sister Lucrezia's husband, and might possibly have been responsible for the death of his brother. He was ruthless, and often turned to crime in order to maintain and exploit his power.
Won or died? While Cesare had some success, he was quickly challenged after his father's death. It's rumored that Niccolò Machiavelli used Cesare Borgia's life as inspiration for The Prince. Sadly, Cesare served as an example of what not to do when trying to get ahead in life—considering he lost his lands and ending up dying in exile.
Game of Thrones counterpart: Stannis Baratheon
You can thank Shakespeare for the false image of King Richard III as a humpback out for blood. John Ashdown-Hill's The Last Days of Richard III and the Fate of His DNA investigates the historical figure in light of the dig that led to the discovery of Richard III's remains. There is no evidence that Richard III was deformed (though he did have scoliosis), and there is still debate as to whether he had his two nephews killed so he could claim the throne. It is true that he challenged the legitimacy of the princes' birth, however, and suspected conspiracy among his advisors—including William Hastings, a nobleman who was eventually executed for treason.
Won or died? If you've read or seen the Shakespeare play, you know the tables turned on Richard III, and he was defeated and killed in battle at Bosworth field, thus ending the Wars of the Roses.
Game of Thrones counterpart: Sansa Stark
Born the 15th child of the Holy Roman Emperor and Empress, Marie Antoinette was raised in a casual court where she was allowed to play with non-royal children. Her family negotiated her marriage to the Dauphin of France, and she arrived in France a few months before her wedding. Antonia Fraser's Marie Antoinette: The Journey explains that the young woman who would be queen experienced some culture shock at French court. Though she was no stranger to privilege, she was not used to the frivolity of the French. She eventually embraced the culture of excess in order to compensate for her loveless (and, for seven years, sexless) marriage.
Won or died? Seen as an example of all things wrong with the French monarchy, Marie Antoinette was famously beheaded during the French Revolution.
This piece originally ran on March 27, 2013 and was updated September 22, 2014