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REVIEW: You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones

Season 7 of HBO’s Game of Thrones just wrapped up, but the speculation and commentary still rages on. A few weeks ago, I reviewed a book about medieval warfare in Game of Thrones. This time, I take a look at You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones by Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, Associate Professor of Classics at the University of Texas at Austin. This book analyzes Game of Thrones from the perspective of Greco-Roman literature, showing how ancient epics from our own world can help us better understand Westeros.

The title of this book is a bit confusing, so to be clear: this book isn’t about the ancient history of the world of Westeros (for that, see George R.R. Martin’s World of Ice & Fire). Rather, Lushkov uses ancient literature from our own history in order to analyze Game of Thrones. This book is best described as a literary analysis of key themes/aspects in Game of Thrones that also appeared in ancient literature. Unlike books about Medieval European history and Game of Thrones, the parallels between the Greco-Roman world and Westeros aren’t immediately clear. Westeros looks, sounds, and probably smells like medieval Europe. As Ken Mondschein points out in Game of Thrones and the Medieval Art of War, George R.R. Martin even uses many real-world medieval terms to describe armor and weapons in his works. By contrast, Robert Baratheon isn’t an emperor, Daenerys doesn’t ride around in a chariot, and the Lannisters don’t wear togas.

So, why bother with a book about Greco-Roman literature and Game of Thrones? Lushkov argues that certain themes and institutions in Game of Thrones resemble those of Greco-Roman epics, such as The Iliad, and thus can be analyzed the same way. The most obvious example is the parallel between the Wall manned by the Night’s Watch to keep out the Wildlings and Hadrian’s wall in Roman Britannia to keep out the “barbarians.” Another example is feasts. Feasts in Greco-Roman stories often herald grave misfortune or wrongdoing. In one such myth, Atreus, sought vengeance on his brother Thyestes by cooking and serving up his children at a feast (sound familiar?).

Ultimately, Lushkov’s goal is to try to better understand Game of Thrones by looking at parallels with ancient literature. Sometimes this works really well. She spends an entire chapter on what stories of Greco-Roman youth can tell us about the relationship between Renly Baratheon and Set Loras Tyrell, and why it’s so important to the overall story (she makes a fascinating case). Her discussion of slavery in Westeros is particularly useful because that’s one institution present during the Greco-Roman era that wasn’t as prevalent during the Middle Ages. As she points out, slavery in ancient times – and in Westeros – wasn’t determined by race, as it would become hundreds of years later. On the other hand, her attempt to transpose Polybius’s model of political regimes onto Westeros doesn’t work quite as well; although some rulers are obviously more tyrannical than others, Game of Thrones does not explicitly or implicitly deal with what the Greeks and Romans would have considered democracy.

For the most part, Lushkov doesn’t claim that Greco-Roman myths directly influenced George R.R. Martin, and for good reason. Whereas Martin has publicly spoken about the influence of medieval history, especially the War of the Roses, he has spoken far less about Greco-Roman myth. Of course, Greek and Roman stories influenced Medieval Europe, so they could have influenced Martin indirectly. As Mark Twain said, history might not repeat itself, but it often rhymes.

In fact, given all of the topics that the book does cover, I was surprised that it never touched upon how the Greco-Roman world influenced the Middle Ages. Medieval Europeans knew that they lived in the shadow of the ancient world. They could see Roman ruins all around them, priests conducted mass in Latin, and kings, such as Charlemagne, sought to claim the mantle of Holy Roman Emperor. This sense of medieval Europe living in the shadow of a more advanced Roman civilization echoes the role of Old Valyria in Game of Thrones. The Valyrian Freehold was an ancient superpower in Essos that used dragons as weapons of war. It was destroyed in a mysterious even known as the Doom of Valyria, but Valyrian remnants can still be seen around Essos, much like Roman ruins in Europe. It’s still unclear what if any role the the Valyrians will play in the story, so it would be fascinating to see what hints Medieval conceptions of ancient Rome might tell us about the Valyria.

[Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.]

 

Dom Nardi is a Contributing Writer at Legendarium Media. He has worked as a political scientist and as a consultant throughout Southeast Asia. In addition, he has published articles about politics in Star Wars and Lord of the Rings. You can find more of his writing at NardiViews.

 

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