Game of Thrones is a very popular, almost cult status, fantasy series of books and TV series that have entranced the general public since 1996. It draws on historical events to provide a fictional world that has infected many millions of fans with the hunger for more. Whether you are a fan or not, there can be no doubt that its impact on popular culture is impressive. Granted it’s full of violence, nudity and graphic deaths but it also has some interesting nods to history.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
In the following article, we’ll take a look at four notable technologies and explore their historical influences. This is obviously hand picked and many, many more exist within the series. We have focussed on the dragon killing ballista, the Iron Fleet, the Wall and finally wildfire for no other reason than they are pretty cool. And as it turns out, very interesting. In the following article, we’ll take a quick look at these technologies and explore their real world influences.
As always we would welcome your suggestions or comments on engineering and technology within the fictional series. Enjoy.
STEM in Westeros
The science and technology of the Game of Thrones series, broadly, simulate those of Europe during the Middle Ages. More specifically the time of the Hundred Years’ War and the War of the Roses in the UK. In effect, before the widespread adoption of gunpowder. Of course, the inclusion of magic and mythical creatures are a notable exception. Interestingly, medicine is another change from real-life history. George R. R. Martin made this as a conscious decision by all accounts.
“I made a deliberate decision when the books began to have the Maesters, and have Westeros in general, have better medical knowledge than the real-life Middle Ages. Mostly because I didn’t want everybody dying at twenty-six. So it is generally improved, the Maesters have improved the standard of hygiene, and they understand certain practices, and they can do things better. Also, they have magic.”
In effect, the world of Game of Thrones can be thought of as having a static development of technology with an advanced understanding of medicine and illness. The Maesters, though it is not clear from literature or the series, probably aren’t aware of the underlying reasons for illness. They do seem to have a large knowledge base of functional medicine and surgery, for instance.
Since the Game of Thrones world is highly militaristic it seems only fitting we focus on some examples of military technology used in the series.
[Image Source: HBO Making Game of Thrones]
Miltary Technology in Westeros
We have seen that military technology in the series has a prevalent use of plate armor with crossbows and longbows in common use. Seige weaponry is also regularly employed, especially catapults. Armies tend to comprise those units we’d expect to see from this period, albeit of varying designs and heraldry unique to the fictional series. Horse cavalry, elephants and heavy cavalry with mounted knights in full plate are the mainstays of battle sequences. Interestingly, there is a nice consistency in armor from North to South. The richer regions showing a proclivity for full plate with the poorer regions usually fielding chain mail and cheaper weapons.
Although gunpowder doesn’t appear to be known about, Westeros does possess wildfire. This is touted as being a highly flammable, explosive, napalm like substance. Although the Alchemists’ Guild didn’t reveal the formula, it is claimed that magical spells are employed in its creation. This is dismissed by the Maesters, according to the Game of Thrones canon.
[SEASON 7 SPOILER ALERT!]
1. Maester Qyburn’s Dragon Killing Ballista
My goodness, what is this? A giant crossbow that can kill dragons? Well, that’s the proposal by Maester Qyburn, who summarily uses it to vandalize a perfectly nice skull of Balerion the Dread. Damn shame if you ask us. But these weapons were real pieces of field artillery that were common to the Roman army, for example. We know it as a Ballista. Its name derives from the root Greek word Ballistes, meaning to throw, pretty straightforward, we like that. In medieval England, these devices were actually called Ingenium. We think you can work out the origin of that word.
Ballistae were usually used as siege “guns” that were typically used to hurl large bolts, javelins or balls at the enemy. Given the size of projectiles used, they were better suited for sniping duties rather than breaching defenses. They had excellent accuracy, when compared to larger catapults, such as onagers, but lacked the range and destructive potential of their counterparts. Their design was pretty simple but very effective.
Their historical size ranged from the Oxybeles, the early Greek version, through to the Scorpion, a modestly sized, very mobile cousin commonly employed in Roman Legions to the great Ballistae of later periods. These larger ballistae were pretty big, very accurate, and could hurl 60-pound (27kg) missiles up to around 500 yards, or 457 meters. Some sources even claim some large Roman versions could hurl projectiles up to 76 kgs (or three talents, a talent was 26kg).
How they work
Ballistae were highly accurate siege engines that required great skill and craftsmanship to build. They were, in effect, giant crossbows and worked by a similar principle. These weapons of war were powered by torsion that was provided, usually, from two bundles of thick skeins of twisted cords which the “arms” would add further torsion during reloading. These arms would be pulled using a bowstring that could be ratcheted using a system of winches and claw. Maester Qyburn’s seems to rely on the tensile strength of steel, rather than cords bundles, but the principle is the same. Qyburn’s is more akin to a large traditional crossbow or the likes of Leonardo Da Vinci’s great crossbow.
[Image Source: Wikimedia Commons]
The cord bundles would usually be made of hair or animal sinew. Ratcheting the bowstring would further twist the already taut bundles, storing massive amounts of energy. These were held in place using bronze or iron caps that were adjustable by pins and holes. These allowed the weapon to be tuned symmetrically to deal with changing weather conditions.
The decline of the Roman Empire in the early Middle Ages would mean that the knowledge and resources to build them became scarce. The ballista was thus replaced with the much simpler onagers until the advent of the very efficient Springald. Ballistae would continue to pop up now and again during this period but would ultimately go out of favor. They would give way to the much more effective Trebuchet and Mangonel (the classic catapult we think of) for sieges, until gunpowder of course.
Could they kill Daenerys’ Dragons?
Ok geek time here, we know Game of Thrones is fiction. The only issue, it seems, is that dragons in the series seem pretty nimble and tend to fight in the air. The skill needed to “track” and hit the target would be something very impressive. Given they have a slow reload speed compared to say, archers, a battery of them could conceivably be used to provide the fire rate needed to take the dragons down. Of course, the weapon’s design could be modified to replicate large versions of the ancient Chinese repeater crossbows. This would probably reduce accuracy considerably and be pretty tricky to operate by a team of operators but would be sweet to see.
Alternatively, and probably more realistically, the dragons would need to be tempted into a much more predictable flight pattern or better yet, confined spaces. Here these weapons could be used with a much greater chance of success. We’ll just have to wait to see what the Lannisters decide to do with them.
2. Euron’s flagship and “his” Iron Fleet
The ships of Game of Thrones range from the great war galleys, such as the Fury, to the long ships of the Iron Fleet. There are also other designs such as the Davos Seaworth’s smuggling vessel the Black-Betha. Some belong to factions, other to pirates and yet others are mercenaries like Salldhor Saan’s ships. All seem to be inspired by vessels in our own real-world history.
The Iron Fleet, in particular, is a mixture of the concept of long ships, classical world Galleys, and European Cogs. According to the literature of the series, the Iron Fleet is an elite naval force of the Ironborn. It consists of around a hundred warships with around 100 oars or more. It is one of the most powerful fleets in Westeros, along with the Royal Fleet and the Redwyne Fleet of Arbor.
Although not the complete naval strength of the Ironborn, said to number around 500 ships, these are the most elite and larger amongst them. Most of the rest of the Ironborns naval power have only 20 oars and are primarily concerned with coastal raiding.
There seems to be a little confusion regarding the design of the ships. They are often described as longships in the canon but watching the series seems to contradict this at times. Earlier episodes do clearly show longships but later episodes especially Series 7 Episode 1, clearly show much larger, more advanced vessels. In some cases, especially during battle sequences, we will also see battle tactics and technology that is more synonymous with Galleys. For instance battering rams and Corvus boarding ramps. Yet other vessels seem to be reminiscent of ancient Arabic Dhow ships. Given the usual reference to Longships, we’ll discuss those in a bit more detail below.
Viking Longships were a mixed sail and oar propulsion vessel with shallow drafts for speed and using shallow waterways. Each was of a slightly varying design, mainly due to their iconic dragon head at the bow of the ship. Their hulls were made by using an “overlapping plank method” where overlapping planks would be nailed together using iron rivets. Interestingly, to maintain the flexibility needed for the ship, some would have their hulls attached to the ship’s main frame using horizontal beams instead of iron nails. Both the over planking and hull designs made these ships very robust whilst still being able to flex.
Another important design feature was the hulls’ tapering design. This allowed them to be wide in the middle which narrowed towards the stern and bow. This improved their performance in shallow waters and provided better stability. They usually had a single large sail but crew members did have oars to provide additional manpower when becalmed.
Longships were specifically designed for transport and coastal raiding and were not that well suited for ship-to-ship combat. They could be tied together offshore to provide stable platforms for infantry combat.
As we can see, Euron’s flagship clearly displays a battering ram to the bow with its stylized dragon head and functional Corvus type boarding ramp. Series designers have obviously taken some artistic licensing here, but it’s an interesting mixture of ship designs. Longships of our history never utilized any of these features which we would usually associate with ancient Galleys such as Triremes. Corvus’ were used as a boarding device for ship-to-ship combat. His ship’s design is also an interesting mix of Dhow and Cog bow and stern castle designs.
These ramps would be deployed once the enemy vessel had been rammed. Sharp spikes on their underside would “bite” into the enemy vessels deck to pin it in place ready for “marine” infantry to attempt to capture the victim ship.
3. The Wall
Samwell Tarly: “The White Walkers sleep beneath the ice for thousands of years. And when they wake up…”
Pypar: “And when they wake up… what?”
Samwell Tarly: “I hope the Wall is high enough.”
The Wall features heavily in the Game of Thrones series and for good reason. According to the canon, it is a colossal (never has the word been used so appropriately) fortification that stretches for 100 leagues (482 kilometers). It was built along the northern border of the Seven Kingdoms to defend the realm from the Wildings and more ancient vicious foes. According to canon it is 700 feet tall (213 meters) and is made of solid ice. It also averages around 91 meters thick.
As you’d expect, Game of Thrones legend has it that it was built using a combination of magic and regular engineering 8 millennia before the present timeline. The Wall is not just an impressive and imposing physical barrier but is manned night and day by the Night’s Watch. Previously well stocked the Watch is now seriously undermanned and numbers less than 1000 men to defend its entire length.
The Wall [Image Source: Game of Thrones Wiki]
Order from chaos
To most familiar with the history of the UK, the Wall is clearly inspired by the once great Hadrian’s Wall. The Roman’s knew it as uallum Aelii, or the frontier of Aelius, using Emperor Hadrian’s family name. So direct was the inspiration, in fact, that George R. R. Martin is on record as saying:
“…We were driving in her car and got to Hadrian’s Wall at the end of the day. The tour buses were leaving. We walked along the top of the wall just as the sun was going down. It was the fall. I stood there and looked out over the hills of Scotland and wondered what it would be like to be a Roman centurion from Italy, Greece, or even Africa, covered in furs and not knowing what would be coming out of the north at you. I wanted to capture that feeling.”
We can’t blame him. The author himself has walked along a good section of it himself and found it equally thought provoking. Even after all these centuries, you don’t need to be an archaeologist to envisage it in its full glory. Clearly, R. R. Martin has taken some liberties with his wall, but the psychology of the structure is fairly comparable. It is a profound stamp on the land defining order from chaos.
Build walls, not bridges
In the Game of Thrones canon, the wall’s engineer and architect, Brandon the Builder show stark, no pun intended, to its real life inspiration. Just as the Roman engineers took advantage of the natural geography so too did Brandon.
“But that was deceptive, Jon realized as they drew closer. Brandon the Builder had laid his huge foundation blocks along the heights wherever feasible, and hereabouts the hills rose wild and rugged.”
Hadrian’s Wall was built in a few short years from AD122 using the manpower of no less than three Roman Legions. Sadly, there is no existing plans or information on the engineering involved but it must have been an epic undertaking. It is clear that Roman surveyors knew exactly what they were doing given their choice of the narrow strait between the Solway Firth and Tynemouth.
They specifically also took advantage of a 420 million-year-old igneous extrusion called the Whin Sill for part of the length. This sill provides a natural east-west series of scarps that provided a sheer cliff face generally inclined towards the north. Nice, free pen. Hadrian’s wall is thought to have been on average around 20 feet (6 meters) tall, but put that on top of a 50-foot (15 meters) cliff and it’s all gravy.
If you want to know more about the comparison, this is an interesting read. It has a nice comparison between the Game of Thrones and real history.
Wildfire, according to the Games of Thrones canon, is a highly flammable liquid created and controlled by the Alchemists’ Guild. These chaps are an ancient society of “learned” fold who use arcane knowledge. From its use in the series, it is clearly a highly volatile material that when ignited, explodes and combusts anything combustible with such extreme temperatures it cannot be extinguished with water. Sand though, can. It burns with a characteristic green flame and apparent light green colouration in liquid form. Apparently, its potency increases with age.
It was used to great effect during the Battle of the Blackwater as well as the Destruction of the Great Sept of Baelor. Wildfire has characteristics reminiscent of real life Napalm or ancient Greek Fire. Both are highly combustible liquids used, more or less, exclusively for combat. Greek Fire was used extensively by the Byzantine Empire between the 4th and 15th Centuries and could have conceivably been known to early medieval peoples.
In Game of Thrones canon, the Alchemists’ refuse to divulge how its made and claim that is concocted using magic. A claim refuted by the Maesters. Wildfire is stored in clay pots, in chambers below the Guild in King’s Landing. Fortunately, these chaps have had the foresight to have chambers of sand built above the storage chambers that can be emptied in the event of an emergency.
I love the smell of…
Excusing the over complex canon surrounding wildfire in the Game of Thrones, it seems to have many anecdotal similarities to Greek fire.
We can glean some clues about Greek Fire’s recipe from history. Partial recipes have been discovered from Byzantine sources. Notable examples include Anna Komnene’s Alexiad and De Ceremoniis Aulae Byzantinae of Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos. Anna states in the Alexia that:-
“This fire is made by the following arts. From the pine and certain such evergreen trees inflammable resin is collected. This is rubbed with sulfur and put into tubes, and is thrown forth by men using it with violent and continuous breath. Then in this manner it meets the fire on the tip and catches light and falls like a fiery whirlwind on the faces of the enemies.”
Constantine VII Porphyrogennetos and contemporary Arabian sources of the time seem to support this. Modern historians are pretty confident that Greek Fire was made of a base of naphtha and tree resin (pine or cedar). It seems likely this was mixed with “melted saltpeter” which has slightly different properties to normal saltpeter. Sulfur was also added to the mix which would produce the booming noise Greek Fire is noted for.
It is believed that Greek Fire was deployed in grenades or through siphoned handheld and ship-mounted flamethrowers. Awesome, well terrifying.
The final word
There you go! The world of Game of Thrones is a heady mixture of history and fantasy. We’ve only covered a few notable technologies in the series but would welcome your suggestions.