Tag Archives: Latin literature

Game of Thrones & Ancient Rome: Part I

Posted on 16. Apr, 2014 by in Roman culture

The popular book and television series, Game of Thrones, portrays a world rich with magic, adventure, romance, and history. While most fans of the series thoroughly enjoy the refreshing originality of the series; others would say that Game of Thrones is simply a fantastical interpretation of actual historic events and themes. In this post, I will attempt to analyze some of these historic references that may be obvious or not so obvious. While it is known that a majority of the history that Game of Thrones is based on is much later than Ancient Rome (1400′s or later); I would argue that there are several examples from Ancient Rome that relate to this series.


DISCLAIMER: If you are new to the series and are not up to date on the HBO series’ episodes, I should warn you that there are spoilers ahead! I will not be discussing any events that lie beyond the current HBO series (The Lion and The Rose;Episode S4E2) as I do not wish to deter those who have not read the books from this post. Any quote from the books will not reveal any spoilers or new information.

1) The Wall vs. Hadrian’s Wall

The author, George R.R. Martin, has acknowledged openly his inspiration of The Wall from Hadrian’s Wall:

Certainly the Wall comes from Hadrian’s Wall, which I saw while visiting Scotland. I stood on Hadrian’s Wall and tried to imagine what it would be like to be a Roman soldier sent here from Italy or Antioch.  To stand here, to gaze off into the distance, not knowing what might emerge from the forest.  Of course fantasy is the stuff of bright colours and being larger than real life, so my Wall is bigger and considerably longer and more magical.  And, of course, what lies beyond it has to be more than just Scots. (SF Site Interview; found here.)

Hadrian's Wall or Vallum Aelium.

Hadrian’s Wall or Vallum Aelium.

Hadrian’s Wall was begun in 122 CE  by Emperor Hadrian. The origin for its purpose vary from military defense, to protection from immigration, smuggling, or simply a demonstration of power. Perhaps it was built for all these reason (or none of them).One text,  Scriptores Historiae Augustae: Vita Hadriani, claims:

“(Hadrian) was the first to build a wall 80 miles long to separate the Romans from the barbarians”

Location of Hadrian's Wall

Location of Hadrian’s Wall

In the series, one of the main characters (Jon Snow) gives his account upon seeing The Wall for the first time:

Almost seven hundred feet high it stood, three times the height of the tallest tower in the stronghold it sheltered. His uncle said the top was wide enough for a dozen armored knights to ride abreast. The gaunt outlines of huge catapults and monstrous wooden cranes stood sentry up there, like the skeletons of great birds, and among them walked men in black as small as ants. - Jon Snow’s first impression of  ” The Wall.”

The following video is of Jon Snow seeing The Wall for the first time (please excuse any add-ons; this was the only video available):

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2) Daenerys  Targaryen vs. Boudicca

In Game of Thrones, the once proper and submissive princess is transformed through the series into a barbaric queen, a destitute widow, a mother of dragons, a sacker of cities, and a mother of freed slaves. Daenerys Targaryen is interesting character that evolves quite rapidly and adapts to each of her roles. She is one of the strongest female characters within the series. Here is a perfect quote concerning her character:

I know that she spent her childhood in exile, impoverished, living on dreams and schemes, running from one city to the next, always fearful, never safe, friendless but for a brother who was by all accounts half-mad…a brother who sold her maidenhood to the Dothraki  for the promise of an army.  I know that somewhere upon the grass, her  dragons hatched, and so did she.  I know she is proud. How not?  What else was left her but pride? I know she is strong.  How not? The Dothraki despise weakness. If Daenerys had been weak, she would have perished with Viserys. I know she is fierce. She has survived assassins and conspiracies and  fell sorceries, grieved for a brother and a husband and a son, trod the cities of the slavers to dust beneath her dainty sandalled feet.

Here is an example of her strength and wit from season 3:

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Daenerys Targaryen is highly reminiscent of the strong barbarian queen Boudicca. According to historians,  Boudicca was a capable military leader whose hair is often remarked upon (not unlike Daenerys):

 She was “possessed of greater intelligence than often belongs to women”, that she was tall and had hair described as red, reddish-brown, or tawny hanging below her waist. Dio also says she had a harsh voice and piercing glare, and habitually wore a large golden necklace (perhaps a torc), a many-coloured tunic, and a thick cloak fastened by a brooch.

Boadicea by Thomas Thornycroft, standing near Westminster Pier, London

Boadicea by Thomas Thornycroft, standing near Westminster Pier, London

Similarly both women find that the death of their husband (in Boudicca’s case) and/or father (in Daenerys’) lead to their doom and exile. However, these deaths do not defeat their spirits, but invigorate them to become warriors. For example, Boudicca leads an uprising against the Romans just as Daenerys plans to lead an uprising against those in Westeros. They both seek to take revenge upon those that have wronged (Westeros and Rome) them whilst avenging the injustices inflicted upon themselves. On a side note, it would seem that Boudicca’s fashion was a point of inspiration for Daenerys as both Khaleesi and the Mother of Dragons  (large necklace, multi-colored tunic, etc.)

For another look at Daenerys and historic figures; check out her comparison to Henry VII: here.

3) Weddings

Wedding are known for being a joyous event in which man and woman become one family and their families in turn recognize and honor the union. However, this would seem not to be the case for weddings in Game of Thrones. They are political advancements, bring short-lived joy, and bloody.  First there was the Red Wedding and now just this week: the Purple Wedding.  In the series, weddings appear to be an event in which people die and the story’s plot takes an unprecedented turn.

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In Ancient Rome, there are various accounts historic and mythological that portray the setting of a wedding, but produce death and havoc.

  • Messalina’s marriage to Sentaor Gaius Silius; although she was already married to the emperor. This action resulted in their deaths.
  • Wedding feast of Pirithous, which resulted in the battle of Centaurs and Lapiths (here).
  • Medea’s poisoned wedding gifts to Jason’s new soon-to-be wife Glauce, which killed Glauce and Medea’s children.
  • Dido, who believes her and Aeneas are married due to their sexual union, kills herself on their “wedding night” because he leaves her.
  • And while it is not ancient, to anyone who didn’t know that the Red Wedding was based on the Black Dinner; here.

 4) The Seven and Lord of Light vs. Roman Pantheon and Christianity

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 In Game of Thrones, religion is a topic sparks (literally-hehe) controversy, allies, and enemies. The Faith of Seven (shown as a seven pointed star) includes seven deities, the Iron Islands have the Drowned God, the North has the Old Gods, and the newest addition- the Lord of Light. The similarities between theses deities and ancient gods can be seen in every region, but within ancient Rome they are as follows:

  • The Father (JUPITER) represents divine justice, and judges the souls of the dead.
  • The Mother (JUNO) represents mercy, peace, fertility, and childbirth. She is sometimes referred to as “the strength of women”.
  • The Maiden (DIANA) represents purity, love, and beauty.
  • The Crone: (CERES) represents wisdom and foresight. She is represented carrying a lantern.
  • The Warrior:  (MARS) represents strength and courage in battle.
  • The Smith: (VULCAN) represents creation and craftsmanship.
  • The Stranger: (PLUTO)represents death and the unknown. It is rarely prayed to.

These seven deities which are the most popular in Westeros and reflect (as I have implied) the Roman pantheon. The other two gods are as followed:

  • The Drowned God:  (NEPTUNE) represent maritime skills and seafaring ability.
  • The Old Gods of the Forest:  (TITANS)  represent a personal and less structured deity/religion than other religions, though some basic social violations are proscribed by it, such as kinslaying, incest, and bastardy. It also upholds the laws of hospitality.

The Old Gods seem reminiscent to the idea of “the natural order” of things. This is why I say they are symbolic for the nature and primordial titans: Cronus , Rhea, Oceanus, Themis, Hyperion (and I would include Uranus and Gaia).

All of these deities being old and ancient, but within the series become undermined by the upcoming religion of R’hllor:

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  • R’hllor: The Lord of Light: (CHRISTIANITY) is a centered belief in the existence of a single, all-powerful god. R’hllor  or The Lord of Light (Judeo-Christian God) is the god of fire, which provides light, heat, and life, and struggles against darkness, cold, and death, represented by an opposing deity, the Great Other (Devil, Satan, Evil). He is often referred to as the “one true god.”

The following was said of The Lord of Light by George R.R. Martin:

The R’hllor religion is strongly influenced by the real-life religion of Zoroastrianism. The central element it borrows is that it is a ditheistic religion: there is one true, “Good” God, locked in eternal combat with an evil deity. As part of this dualism R’hllor, who embodies light, fire, and heat, is opposed on the level of primordial forces by the “Great Other” who embodies cold and darkness.

 5) Wild Fire vs. Greek Fire

In Game of Thrones, wildfire is a dangerous liquid which can explode with tremendous force and burns with a fire that water cannot extinguish, only large quantities of sand. Wildfire is identifiable through the distinctive green hue of its flames. Even in its stored liquid state it gives off a green color.

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In reality, George R.R. Martin most likely took inspiration from Greek Fire:

Greek fire in use against another ship.

Greek fire in use against another ship.

Greek fire was an incendiary weapon used by the Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire. It was typically used it in naval battles to great effect as it could continue burning while floating on water. It provided a technological advantage, and was responsible for many key military victories. Although the term “Greek fire” has been general in English and most other languages since the Crusades, in the original Byzantine sources it is called by a variety of names, such as “sea fire,” “Roman fire,” “war fire,” “liquid fire,” or “manufactured fire.”


Next week, we will be looking at Tyrion Lannister, the map of Westeros, animal symbolism, the Night’s Watch, Jon Snow, the King’s Guard, and more!

Ovid’s Heroides: The Original Fan Fiction

Posted on 05. Mar, 2014 by in Latin Language, Roman culture

Within antiquity there are several mythological love stories that touch our hearts, souls, and mind. When attempting to provide an example of “true love,” people generally name couples like Romeo and Juliet, Antony and Cleopatra, Helen and Paris, and so on. These couples which are often tragic and short lived romances.

As enthusiasts for Latin, we most often share an appreciation for the world of the Romans and their mythology. Within Roman (and indirectly Greek) mythology, there are couples that perhaps we wished would have had more time or that things would have turned out differently if fate had permitted. Here are a few of my favorites:

Dido and Aeneas

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

The Meeting of Dido and Aeneas by Sir Nathaniel Dance-Holland

Phaedra and Hippolytus

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Phaedra (1880) by Alexandre Cabanel

Jason and Medea

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Jason and Medea by John William Waterhouse (1907)

Sappho and Phaon (one of the only historic references)

Sappho and Phaon. 1809 Jacques-Louis David

Sappho and Phaon. 1809
Jacques-Louis David

While most of us know the sadness behindthese couple, we often wish we could rewrite the mythology and find a more suitable ending. Perhaps Dido does not kill herself after Aeneas leaves? Perhaps Medea could have played hard to get so Jason would appreciate her more? Or Phaon could never leave Sappho? Better yet, Helen and Paris should have run away and lived in exile? Or how about Penelope moving on immediately since Odysseus obvious had several affairs (Circe and Calypso)?

Ovid, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari  commemorating Ovid's exile in Tomis

Ovid, Statue (1887) by Ettore Ferrari
commemorating Ovid’s exile in Tomis

Ovid, in my opinion, is first author to truly take the time to write his version of a “fan fiction.” A fan fiction is when a “fan” of a show, book, or series takes the time to write an alternative ending or even a sequel to the already established lore. (For other authors who wrote fan fiction; check out this article.) Ovid composes the works known as the Heroides in order to breathe new life into these Heroines and give the much needed character work to these mythical women who have been frozen in time. [ This character work is lacking for the modern woman, but for its cotemporary audience it would have been for these heroines to have the last word with their lovers.]


The Heroides are essentially letters addressed from the heroine to her lover, who has often mistreated, neglected, or even abandoned her. Ovid chooses the genre of the epistles for these women to express themselves. While this choice has been questioned by various scholars (one such argument is presented: here), it is difficult to see how else Ovid could have approached this work in order to give his heroines a voice, but not over-step bounds and write an entire fictitious mythology.   The following is a summation of the Heroides by Penguin Classics:

In the twenty-one poems of the Heroides, Ovid gave voice to the heroines and heroes of epic and myth. These deeply moving literary epistles reveal the happiness and torment of love, as the writers tell of their pain at separation, forgiveness of infidelity or anger at betrayal. The faithful Penelope wonders at the suspiciously long absence of Ulysses, while Dido bitterly reproaches Aeneas for too eagerly leaving her bed to follow his destiny, and Sappho – the only historical figure portrayed here – describes her passion for the cruelly rejecting Phaon. In the poetic letters between Paris and Helen the lovers seem oblivious to the tragedy prophesied for them, while in another exchange the youthful Leander asserts his foolhardy eagerness to risk his life to be with his beloved Hero.

While, Ovid is a male author assuming the female voice of mythological characters and attempting to transgress the boundaries of gender language, diction, and characteristics (all through meter). He is still capable of invoking such emotion that anyone who has experience heartbreak knows:

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

Death of Dido, by Guercino, AD 1631.

alter habendus amor tibi restat et altera Dido                  Another love awaits for you and Another Dido
 quamque iterum fallas, altera danda fides.    and who once more you shall deceive, having given another promise

(Excerpt from Dido’s Letter to Aeneas. Letter VII)

In my mind, well put Dido! Bitterness envelopes her entire speech; once a liar-always liar. Right? Well, what’s the saying?

“Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”

While, not all of Ovid’s heroines come off so…bitter; each one accurately reflects her place, position, and circumstance. He does over dramatize her feelings or reactions, but they appear natural and eloquently put in order to touch the reader. For information on the work, its meter and where to read it- refer below!


The Heroides consist of 15 poems that have mythological females address their heroic lovers.  These epistolary poems are written in Latin elegiac couplets (demonstrated here and in depth here), which is a type of meter used in poetry. You may see a small sample of the Heroides here, which provides part of the letter, the heroine writing, and to whom she is addressing the letter too. Or you may see the entirety of his work here. Ovid also composed the Double Heroides which include another 6 poems; which start here. These, unlike the Heroides, include three separate exchanges between the heroic and mythical lovers.



Ancient Roman Super Stars: Charioteers

Posted on 28. Jan, 2014 by in Latin Language, Roman culture

Good Day Readers! So, let’s talk about some sports since the Olympics and the Super Bowl are just around the corner. While the Olympic Games were “the” competition of Ancient Greece; the chariot races were the oldest and most popular spectacle of Ancient Rome. So, we all know the iconic chariot scene from Ben Hur, but how many of you know what is inaccurate about it? Read on! YouTube Preview Image

An Average Race

Model of Rome in the 4th century AD, by Paul Bigot. The Circus lies between the Aventine (left) and Palatine (right); the oval structure to the far right is the Colisseum

Model of Rome in the 4th century AD, by Paul Bigot. The Circus lies between the Aventine (left) and Palatine (right); the oval structure to the far right is the Colisseum

They normally began with a pompa (procession) which started atop the Capitoline Hill and went through the Forum and Sacred Way and back towards Form Boarium, The carceres (starting gates) of the Circus Maximus (which could hold 250,000 people) abutted the Forum Boarium. The emperor or triumphator headed up the pompa riding in a biga or quadriga (2 or 4 horse chariot) and dressed as a triumphant general. Then the editor presiding over the games would follow along with a group of elites, then the drivers and chariots. These were usually serenaded by musicians. Then the priests with their ritualistic displays would enter last with statues of the gods on carts (depending on which festival and god was being honored).

Groundplan of the Circus Maximus, according to Samuel Ball Platner, 1911. The staggered starting gates are to the left.

Ground plan of the Circus Maximus, according to Samuel Ball Platner, 1911. The staggered starting gates are to the left.

Once the pompa was finished. The racers in their chariots would take their places behind the carceres. The races began at the dropping of a mappa (cloth) by a magistrate from the imperial box or above the starting gates. Races were held between quadrigae (four horse chariots) ;although other sizes were also used like the two horse chariot or even the rare ten horse chariot. Chariots were made from wood and leather in order to be light and maximize handling. Accidents were known as naufragia or shipwrecks. Naufragia and last-minute surges from behind were the most exciting features of a race.


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Roman drivers steered their chariots using their body weight. They would tie the reins around their torso and lean to whichever side they desired to turn. This was done in order to free up their hands in order to use a whip or whatnot. Once the race had begun, the chariots (sometimes teams belonging to the same color faction) could move in front of each other in an attempt to cause their opponents to crash into the spinae (the long divider with statues and the obelisk). On the top of the spinae stood small tables or frames supported on pillars, and also small pieces of marble in the shape of eggs or dolphins (as seen in the Ben Hur video). At either end of the spina was a meta (turning point) in the form of large gilded columns; this is where commonly crashes happened. Colors

A white charioteer; part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear.

A white charioteer; part of a mosaic of the third century AD, showing four leading charioteers from the different colors, all in their distinctive gear.

There were factions (factiones) or teams for chariot racing (each color allowed 3 chariots in a race): russata(Red), albata (White), veneta (Blue), and prasina (Green). The origins of these colors and their meanings have been lost over time, but their original use was so that charioteers would be discernible from afar.  The groups were broken into rivals of Reds vs. Whites and Blues vs. Greens. These rivals ultimately sparked hate, destruction, and intense competition between racers and fans.  Slowly through the empire, the Reds and Whites were overshadowed by the popularity of the Blues and Greens in artifacts, inscription, and literature. Emperor Domitian created two new factions, the Purples and Golds, which disappeared soon after he died. To see the entire mosaic click here.

Racers or Charioteers

Mosaic from Lyon illustrating a chariot race with the four factions: Blue, Green, Red and White.

Mosaic from Lyon illustrating a chariot race with the four factions: Blue, Green, Red and White.

Racers were color coded in accordance to their faction or team. The charioteer wore a short tunic wrapped with a fasciae (padded bands) to protect the torso as well as around his thighs. They also wore a leather helmet and carried a falx (a curved knife) which they could cut the reins and keep from being dragged in case of an accident.  Roman charioteers themselves, the aurigae, were considered to be the winners, although they were usually also slaves. They received a wreath of laurel leaves, and probably some money; if they won enough races they could buy their freedom( as could gladiators). Drivers could become celebrities throughout the Empire simply by surviving, since the life expectancy of a charioteer was not very high.

Winners & Famous Charioteers

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team.

A winner of a Roman chariot race, from the Red team.

Victorious racers were awarded prize money in addition to the contractual pay arranged in advanced (by the sponsor of the games). Racers also performed and raced in more than one race per day (on a festival or ludi), so some charioteers could earn a fortune!  Pliny the Elder recounts the unusual result of a team of horses winning the race even though the driver was knocked off. Pliny attributes the winning to “equine pride” and Pliny’s example shows the benefits to repetitive training. One celebrity driver was Scorpus, who won over 2000 races before being killed in a collision at the meta when he was about 27 years old. The most famous of all was Diocles who won 1,462 out of 4,257 races. When Diocles retired at 42( after a 24 year career and switching from White to Green to Red) his winnings reportedly totalled 35,863,120 sesterces ($US 15 billion), making him the highest paid sports star in history!


Mosaic with Polydus the charioteer and his lead horse: Compressor. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier.

Mosaic naming Polydus the charioteer and his lead horse, Compressor. Rheinisches Landesmuseum Trier.

Horses were worthy of reputation and respect for their prowess in a race. Even the famous charioteer Polydus’ horse, Compressor, was depicted in mosaics( above).  A quadiga‘s lead horse was the focus of attention for fans, charioteers, and gamblers. If a racer’s lead horse seemed unsteady or skittish then fans and sponsors would less likely bet or support that particular charioteer. However, if a horse was well respected they would receive honors or even curses by competitors. [Sources for curses against charioteers and their horses can be found here]. Examples of horses being honored include Emperor Caligula’s Incitatus (once a race horse), the horse known as Volucer (meaning winged one) was a favorite of Emperor Lucius Verus, and Tuscus who was favored by Diocles (with whom he won 429 races).  Mares were rarely used for the lead horse, but they were used for the inside positions. The Romans kept detailed statistics of the names, breeds, and pedigrees of famous horses.

Fans & Fan Clubs

Just like the loyalty of modern day fans, Ancient Roman fans or supporters of the Red, Blue, Green or White factions were intense.  Pliny records one Red fan threw himself unto the funeral pyre of a Red charioteer known as Felix, and how the opposing fans tried to prevent this story to be recorded and asserting that the man fainted and fell in.  Furthermore, each faction color had their reserve seating for their color so that fans could in engage in chanting, activities, and sneers uniformly. Eventually extreme fans became an issue in the Empire when their color lost; riots would ensue. Sometimes these riots and revolts were sparked by a loss (or blamed on one), but often had political undertones such as the Nika Revolt.