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This Classics Professor Will Make You Rethink Your Game of Thrones Fan Theories

Read six theories on how the story could unfold based on the show’s references to the ancient world. 

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“Game of Thrones” has launched a cottage industry where legions of fan scholars and critics carefully dissect the story episode to episode, thesis by thesis, in order to predict how the story will unfold.

Will Daenerys end up on the Iron Throne? Will Cersei prevail? Will Tyrion or Jamie kill Cersei? Who is likely to betray their King or Queen?

We enlisted the aid of Ayelet Haimson Lushkov, a classics professor at The University of Texas at Austin and author of You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones to weigh in. She shared some key themes that could help predict the who ends up on the Iron Throne.

Author George R.R. Martin drew heavily from ancient history and classical myth when he created the show’s fantasy world. Directly and indirectly, ancient references abound.

The Classics won’t predict exactly what happens next in “Game of Thrones,” but according to Lushkov, classical texts offer a number of suggestions for the structure of the series and how it might unfold.

Here are six theories on how things could shake out based the show’s references to the ancient world.

1.The outskirts of the empire could be key for victory.

Tormund

Courtesy of Game of Thrones

Ayelet Haimson Lushkov: I think the best classical model for what is happening in Westeros is probably the Year of the Four Emperors.

When the emperor Nero committed suicide in late 68 AD, the Roman Empire was launched into a yearlong struggle for succession. Four different contenders — Galba, Otho, Vitellius and Vespasian — came to battle for the imperial throne.

The war was especially noteworthy for two things. First, it demonstrated the toll on human relationships in a civil war where families are now fighting each other. Second, it revealed that the real power lay not in Rome itself, but with its legions (armies spread across the empire). Sound familiar? “Game of Thrones” is basically a fight over the succession to the Iron Throne, played out over a vast geographical expanse and with enormous personal consequences for anyone who plays the game. Dany’s Unsullied, Jon Snow’s allegiance with the Free Folk, and Cersei’s new allies the Ironborn all show that in Westeros, too, allegiances made far from the center in King’s Landing could determine the final ruler.

2.Whoever controls the grain might be the person who ends up on the Iron Throne.

Cersei Lannister

Courtesy of HBO

Haimson Lushkov: The ultimate winner in the Year of the Four Emperors was Vespasian, and his great advantage lay in beginning his campaign not with a march on Rome, but with a march on Egypt to secure Rome’s grain supply for himself. Once he secured the loyalty of the Eastern armies, he could allow the other contenders to exhaust themselves against each other before coming onto the scene.

This idea wasn’t new to Vespasian, of course. Rome had always known that keeping peace at home relied on keeping the people fed and entertained — hence bread and circuses — and the state often subsidized the price of grain for its poorer citizens. In Westeros, food inevitably comes from the south, flowing up the Rose Road from Highgarden — a fact only the Lannisters seem to have really grasped. There’s been a lot of discussion about grain this season, with Winter coming to add to the troubles of an already hungry people. Whoever manages to control the food supply will have a strong claim to make to a starved capital and starving nation.

3. Victory might only be temporary.

Daenerys Targaryen and Jon Snow

Courtesy of HBO

Haimson Lushkov: One of the other advantages Vespasian had was that his son was, like him, a capable and competent general and could stand in for his father in crucial moments. This is no longer true for any of the Westeros contenders, so there’s a very strong possibility that whoever wins only really wins for now. Unless the victor produces an heir, it’s difficult to see how the war doesn’t just start all over again.

4.Daenerys Targaryen could be the true hero.

Daenarys Targaryen and Tyrion Lannister

Courtesy of HBO

Haimson Lushkov: The real journey template that structures the whole plot of “Game of Thrones” is not just any journey, but the journey to return home from battle or danger. This mirrors the journeys of Odysseus and Aeneas, both of whom are trying to get back home from the Trojan War — in Odysseus’ case, a real home that he left 20 years before, and in Aeneas’ case, a mythical homeland where he has never been.

Like Odysseus, who has to fight a gang of his wife’s suitors who have taken over the estate, Tyrion is clearly going to have to fight hard to win back his own home, whether Casterly Rock, King’s Landing, or something else altogether.

Daenerys is really the most like Aeneas, the hero and exemplary Roman leader of legend. Like Aeneas, she’s attempting to make a return to somewhere she’s not been. Even her relationship with Tyrion might be a nod to classical retelling of the Trojan myth: the poet Ovid has Aeneas meet one of Odysseus’ sailors as he wanders around the Mediterranean.

5. Jon Snow going south is probably not a good idea.

Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth

Courtesy of HBO

Haimson Lushkov: “Game of Thrones” plays with the conventions of epic hero journeys and tragedy. Ancient tragedy tends to be about internal destruction and succumbing to an essential fault that can’t be overcome. “Game of Thrones” is actually very good at capturing this: Think about the court intrigue at King’s Landing, with the monarchy slowly collapsing because of a lack of self-control, whether King Robert’s drinking, the Mad King’s insanity, or the Lannisters’ incest (and note that Tyrion, too, isn’t famous for his self-control, either). Even the Starks, who are a bit more disciplined, can’t escape repetition of past mistakes — they all trust people they shouldn’t, and keep going south despite all empirical evidence suggesting it would be a horrendously bad idea.

6. The Wall will probably remain even after the battle with the White Walkers.

The Wall, Hadrians Wall

Haimson Lushkov: The Wall is the only thing in the Westeros universe that is actually confirmed by George R.R. Martin to be inspired by an ancient monument that survived invading tribes: Hadrian’s Wall, 73 miles of fortifications running along the northwest frontier of the Roman Empire. Martin famously said that he was thinking about a Roman soldier staring out into the unknown, and while it might be hard for us today to imagine the British landscape as unknown or threatening, ancient Britain was for the Romans the very end of the world. Unlike Westeros’ Wall, Hadrian’s Wall wasn’t intended as a barrier to invading tribes, nor did it see any potentially world-changing battles, but it may have another significance for Game of Thrones. The transition of Hadrian’s Wall from a boundary of the Roman empire to a relic within modern Britain might suggest a similar obsolescence for the Wall as it ceases to serve its original function within an entirely transformed Westeros — a decaying structure that reminds later viewers of great historical events.


 

Ayelet Lushkov

Haimson Lushkov is an associate professor of classics and Faculty Fellow in Classics. She teaches a UGS Signature Course on “Game of Thrones” called Classics and Modern Fantasy that explores the ancient underpinnings of the series.

“I thought the series was an interesting way to get people to overcome some obstacles people sometimes have in approaching the classics: If you can read six books of ‘Game of Thrones’ and keep up with all the plot twists and character deaths, you can also read an epic poem,” says Lushkov.

In her course, she focuses on how the series plays with epic conventions. As an assignment, students rewrite bits of “Game of Thrones” in the style of epics they read in class. It is this class that inspired her to write a new book, “You Win or You Die: The Ancient World of Game of Thrones.”

Haimson Lushkov teaches and publishes on Roman literature, history, and classical reception. Her previous books are Magistracy and Historiography in the Roman Republic: Politics in Prose (2015) and Reception and the Classics: An Interdisciplinary Approach to the Classical Tradition (co-edited with W Brockliss, P Chaudhuri and K Wasdin, 2012). She has written on Game of Thrones for The Guardian. Her book, You Win or You Die, was featured in Forbes and The Times Literary Supplement.