History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!
Daenerys Targaryen. One of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones universe. Either because people legitimately like her story line… or because HBO has a habit of getting her naked at frequent intervals…but hey… whatever brings the casual fans in I guess? …
Either way, her role in this world is actually much more significant than tits ‘n’ ass. In her current state, as we left Season 4 she is serving as a fulcrum on which two ancient civilizations of Essos bend. But let’s roll it back to the beginning for a second.
Dany is currently dickin’ around in the East. Particularly in the land of Old Ghis. The Ghiscari are a proud and ancient people who built a civilization so large and mighty, that even now, thousands of years after its fall from dominance, it still forms a prominent geopolitical pole .
The remains of the Ghiscari Empire are the three slave cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, all three of which Dany has recently conquered… or subjected in some way… or something.
NOW this is important because the Targaryens are the last of the Valyrians left in the world today. Furthermore, Valyria was Ghis’s ancient rival, so there is a lot of loaded narrative here with a Valyrian descendant conquering Ghiscari descendants. Moreover, it is in this rivalry that we see perhaps the best (although not the only) historical parallels for both Empires. Valyria and Ghis are Essos’s version of Rome and Carthage (among other rivals of Rome throughout her history) with Valyria serving as Rome and Ghis Carthage.
In the case of either example (Valyria and Ghis or Rome and Carthage) the two Empires’ rivalry plays itself out over a great, and economically strategic body of water. In the case of Rome and Carthage, this was the Mediterranean Sea, the most important body of water in the history of Western Civilization. For Ghis and Valyria, however, this means Slaver’s Bay and the Gulf of Grief, strategically and economically important because of its central location along the southern boundary of the continent of Essos, and the fact that it opens up toward the continent of Westeros. In either case then we have two budding superpowers staring one another down over the veritable highway of commerce of their times and places.
This meant that at first they were not in direct contact with one another, and as such were not rivals at the beginning of their histories. Indeed, in either situation (Martin’s world or the real world) one of the two Empires is far older (Ghis and Carthage) while the other is a relative upstart who only rose to challenge their elders many years after the elders’ rise.
Any student of classical history has heard of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The reason these wars were called “Punic” was not in reference to Rome’s puny arms (as perceived by the Carthaginians listed above) but was rather because the Carthaginians were descended from ancient Phoenicia (located in modern day Lebanon and Israel), and the Latin work for “Phoenicians” was “Punic.” Now, the Phoenicians were super ancient and super famous. I mean suuuuuper famous… they invented the Alphabet! (phonetic? Phoenician? MIND BLOWN)
BUT ANYWAY the Phoenecians got their start around 1200 BC, and an offshoot of these people, who still spoke their language, were the Carthaginians whose capital city (Carthage) was founded in 814 BC. To put that in perspective, 400 years later, before the Etruscan Wars Rome only controlled a small strip of land on Italy’s Western Coast about the size of Delaware. They weren’t even one of the 5 most powerful nations in Italy let alone the whole of the Mediterranean like Carthage. So Carthage had a far older history and culture than Rome, and far richer and more powerful economically, culturally, and militarily.
However, things did not stay that way. Rome would eventually rise to a point where it rivaled mighty Carthage in the Western Mediterranean. Moreover, both powers in the West far exceeded the strength of their Eastern Mediterranean peers. Indeed the power disparity was so great that many writers in the East looked upon the coming Punic Wars as a battle between two Western Superpowers to see who would earn the right to conquer the East once the war concluded. But I digress… Roman expansion…
Roman Imperial expansion is often portrayed (especially by the Romans themselves) as a series of defensive engagements which only became offensive in order to secure peace and stability for the future. Rome could not coexist with potential threats and hostile nations on her borders, so she sought to conquer and assimilate them. (Please disregard the fact that by conquering one hostile nation on your borders, all you do is add several NEW bordering hostile nations… this argument did not fit in Roman politicians’ logic…)
It was this logic and narrative, however, that pushed Rome to conquer the whole of the Italian Peninsula, and when they were done with that, to engage the Carthaginians in Sicily. Sicily was considered crucial to Rome’s national defense, as it represented (in Roman tacticians’ minds) a launching point from which Carthage could hypothetically invade the Italian mainland. Eventually, a war broke out… then another… and then another… and by the end of it all Rome ground Carthage into the dust, and literally sowed the soil of Carthage with salt so that no civilization could ever rise there again (a little poetic but you get the point).
The same basic story structure holds true for the Valyrians and the Empire of Ghis. Ghis was far larger and more powerful than Valyria in all conventional ways, buuuuut Dragons… Sooooo many Dragons…. burny burny smash smash…
…so that happened. Valyria was able to defeat Ghis, through the use of Dragons, just as soundly as Rome defeated Carthage. However, just as Carthage eventually rose again as a great city (this time as a Roman municipality re-founded and populated by Romans) so too did the people of Ghis not disappear from the history books. Their ancestors remained in the mighty cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen… uuuuntil dragons came back and visited them again…
Unfortunately for the Ghiscari, dragons don’t generally just pop in for tea…
It is also often said, by the Romans themselves, that Carthage kept them in check both militarily and morally, and once Carthage fell, the world was next. There was no longer any power that could stop Rome. The same appears to have been true for the Valyrians, as once they had disposed of their rivals across Slaver’s Bay they spread West conquering all of Western Essos, and the vast majority of Westeros (later on when the Targaryens left Dragonstone). In doing so both Empires spread their language (Latin was the lingua francia of Europe and High Valyrian serves the same role in Martin’s world) and culture throughout the known world. The Free cities in Essos still speak forms of High Valyrian just like the major cities of Western Europe (Paris, Vienna, Madrid) still spoke Latin even after Rome’s fall, at least in positions of political and religious power.
However, the Carthaginian parallel isn’t perfect. The Ghiscari seem to have devoted a great deal of time and energy adding to a contiguous, continental Empire (likely in order to procure slaves) whereas Carthage was a maritime nation interested in colonial expansion only in so far as it could serve her merchant marine and her navy. In this way, then, Ghis resembles Rome’s next great rival. The only Empire that ever managed to check her growth, many years after the fall of Carthage and widespread Roman expansion: Persia. Whether it was Darius all the way down to the Parthians or the Sassanids… Persia was always portrayed as a menace to the Western world. Whether it was the Greeks or later (and for much longer) the Romans, Persia was always the menace at the gates. The evil power waiting to storm the citadel and sack the Western World (aka the good guys, cuz thats the way history works… but hey, those Persians probably had big bold mustaches which honestly even I’m intimidated by today…).
So anyway if we consider the fact that, in spite of Valyria’s crushing victories over Ghis on Dragonback, Ghis, in some form, survived (in the form of the three great cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen) then the Carthaginian parallel doesn’t hold true for the whole of history. Thus, George R.R. Martin appears to have inserted a Persian influence on the Ghiscari. The Persian Empire, though battered, beaten, and vastly changed, remained in existence in one form or another well into the 20th century. More importantly to our discussion, however, is the fact that Persian culture remained an alternative pole to offset its Roman counterpart on the Mediterranean. Zoroastrianism represented vast departure from Roman religious practices, and meant Persia was not only an alternate military, political, and economic counterweight to Rome, but a religious and cultural one as well. Persia and Rome, then, broke the ancient world up into 2 camps divided by their power and rivalry. Also, as an aside, and to further cement the parallel between Ghis and Persia, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar, strongly resembles the Harpy Iconography which dominates Ghiscari Religion even down to the time period we are watching now (long after Old Ghis has fallen). [If you recall we saw the Harpy in Astapor, when Dany went to purchase the unsullied, we saw it again over the walls of Yunkai, and a Third time within the city of Meereen. After Dany conquered Meereen she covered the Meereenese Harpy with an enormous Targaryen banner to assert her dominance. We even see the Harpy in those beautiful opening credits to the show.
This is yet another example of how visual mediums, such as television shows like Game of Thrones, have such a distinct advantage in quickly elucidating points over mediums such as books. Seeing a Zoroastrian Symbol quickly reminds the Western viewer that we are looking at an Eastward-ly oriented culture, and must therefore be wary of all that we don’t know about it.
This is an important point, because it defined the foundation of “East” and “West” differences for the Mediterranean world (a legacy which has lasted centuries). The East was always known as different. It was a foreign and scary place… a mentality that reached a boiling point during the crusades after the east became Muslim BUT ANYWAY something similar happened in the world of Game of Thrones. Ghis, though defeated, served as the Eastern most border marker for the Empire of Valyria as they primarily expanded west. This meant that both Persia and Ghis capped the eastward expansion, both territoriality and culturally, of their respective rivals, and kept them relatively bottled up in the west.
In either scenario then we have a younger, ascendant power which rises up to crush its older, traditionally more powerful rival. This victory allows the upstart power to establish its culture, language, etc, as dominant in the conquered terrain. This expansion happens primarily in the West as the defeated power(s) remain a wall, guarding against eastward expansion for the ascendant power.
However, eventually this massive Empire falls, leaving behind a new era. In the case of the real world this is the Middle Ages, and in the world of George R. R. Martin this means the era in which our story takes place. This initial expansion of culture, however, sets the stage for the development of future successor kingdoms and civilizations (the Free Cities and even Westeros for the Valyrians or the eventual Kingdoms of Europe in the real world.)
What we see from Daenerys, then, is incredibly interesting (at least to a dork like me). At the end of Season 4 she mentioned that she intended to stay in Meereen, rather than moving on to conquer Westeros immediately, in order to learn how to be a Queen. By subjugating the remnants of Old Ghis and setting up a new Kingdom for herself in the rubble of her forebears’ rival’s civilization she is essentially forcing a unification of the two old rivals. The Valyrian people and their civilization were both wiped out in The Doom (something we don’t know anything about right now, but probably looked something like this…). The Ghiscari people survived, but their leadership and their Empire did not. Dany, then, is building a new Empire constructed out of the remnants of the two warring rivals, the Ghiscari people and the Valyrian leadership.
So much of Dany’s storyline, in fact nearly all of it, is about “returning home.” To her this means to Westeros. To her family’s throne which is her’s by right. However, this is a home she has never seen and knows nothing about. Indeed she has never once stepped foot on Westeros. She was born on Dragonstone island, and had to flee to Pentos with her brother immediately thereafter. So when she talks about returning home to Westeros, she means a return to the home of her ancestors, the Targaryeans. However, in establishing an Empire in Ghis she is doing herself one better. Valyria is her true home if she intends to consider the lands of her forebears, even if she has never visited them. So while fans like me have been urging Dany on for four seasons to return to Westeros, perhaps her mission is better completed here in the remnants of Ghis, a land fought over by Valyrians and Ghiscari for centuries.
Dany is physically acting out the idea that two separate peoples or nations can form one definition or ideology through rivalry. Valryia and Ghis’s combined history was defined by their rivalry the same way Rome and Carthage or Persia and Rome were. However, in rivalry these nations became so intertwined that from the outside looking in they’re all a part of the same larger narrative. That means they’ve always been part of one substance, and all Dany is doing is taking that from idea to reality. Valryai and Ghis (and Rome and Carthage) measured themselves against one another for centuries, and as such even when one was defeated, they survived in the minds of the other if nowhere else.