Editor’s Note: This is a spoiler-free article.
This past Sunday, the sixth season of Game of Thrones concluded with both the longest and most-watched episode of the entire series so far. Game of Thrones is wildly popular globally, though for the most part it takes place in Westeros, a continent whose political structure is based on medieval European history. However, how does the world of the show interface and pull inspiration from Asian, or more generally, non-Western, history?
To begin, the political structures of most of Westeros–feudal lords ruling over geographically specified regions by hereditary right–are a very particular feature of European feudal dynasties, not shared by most Asian states or ancient Rome. Of course, like most premodern societies, Asian (and Islamic) states had nobles, and chiefs whose titles and powers of their retainers or tribes was hereditary. What did not occur, however, was the possession of entire regions by entire families for life, as in the show where the Starks controlled the North under the aegis of the Iron Throne for 300 years.
In most of Asia, with the exception of feudal Japan, the Sharif of Mecca, and some Hindu dynasties of Rajasthan and the Deccan, hereditary power usually only existed at the highest, imperial level, or the local or tribal level. When a family did succeed in gaining control over a province for a period of time, it effectively became independent if it could, as happened in the Mughal provinces of Bengal and Hyderabad in the 18th century, or in Ottoman Egypt under Muhammad Ali in 1805.
For the most part, to prevent that sort of thing from happening late-medieval and early-modern Asian dynasties such as the Ottomans, Safavid Persians, and Mughals shuffled their nobles around, appointing some military leaders and governors for a specific period of time and then giving them different roles, in order to keep them from becoming entrenched. In a sense, this is how the Hand of the King position functioned in Game of Thrones: usually given to a hereditary noble, but only for some time before given to someone else.
For example, during the reign of the Mughal Emperor Akbar, Man Singh, the Raja of Ajmer in Rajasthan was only ever the hereditary ruler of his ancestral city and its surroundings, but served his empire in a variety of different roles, including military commander of an army that put down a revolt in Kabul in 1580, as governor (Subahdar) of Bihar in 1588, as the leader of a military expedition that conquered Orissa in 1592, and as governor of Bengal afterwards. Other countries, such as China, ruled their provinces for the most part through civilian governors drawn from the provinces. Military functions were often disassociated from the formal nobility in many parts of Asia, unlike in feudal Europe or Westeros.
Westeros’ lordships for the most part also followed strict procedures of secession, except in a rare case like Robert’s Rebellion, which happened before the show started, when a new dynasty came to power by force–and even then had to claim hereditary descent from the previous one. As in Europe, this could lead to situations where the heir was often a cousin who was from another country, as when James VI of Scotland succeeded to the throne of England in 1603 upon the death of the childless Elizabeth I. This sort of thing–including personal unions–would have seemed strange to most Asian dynasties.
In many parts of the Arabian peninsula or the Ottoman Empire, rulers had so many wives and children throughout their lifetime that there was never a lack of an heir. Nor was it necessary for the heir to be the eldest child or even legitimate–he could have been born to a woman of the harem–and as long as he proved himself worthy, could potentially succeed to his father’s position. Similar rules on legitimacy prevailed in Imperial China and Japan: the Emperor Showa (Hirohito) was the first born from a legitimate marriage in generations. His father and grandfather, the Meiji Emperor, were both the children of concubines. And in Hindu dynasties in India, it was not uncommon for kings to adopt a distant relative’s child as their heir of choice, rather than leave the secession to a predetermined set of laws. This sort of thing would have been very difficult in Westeros, where the hereditary principle known as agnatic primogeniture seems to have been the norm.
How then do the societies on the continent of Essos, east of Westeros, and modeled by Asia, stack up with what we know about Asian states and their histories? In truth, we don’t know much about the societies of Essos that actually resemble Asian ones–the societies of the Free Cities in the far west of Essos resemble those of the Italian Renaissance more than anything–while the cities of Slaver’s Bay seem like a caricature of ancient Carthage (having been defeated in the past by the world’s analogue of Rome, Valyria).
However, the prosperous city-state of Qarth does in some ways resemble a city-state along the sea trade routes between Asia’s civilizations, a sort of Malacca where peoples of all nations could come and mix. Moreover, the distant land of Yi Ti, we are told, resembles imperial China. According to Linda Antonsson, who runs Westeros.org and co-wrote the World of Ice and Fire with George R.R. Martin, Yi Ti was ruled by divine god-emperors and “definitely inspired by Imperial China.” Finally the Dothraki have strong Mongol (and also Hun) influences, particularly in how leaders are often chosen by strength. Like the Mongols, the Dothraki only came together in larger units, instead of individual tribes, when successful and charismatic leaders appeared, such as Genghis Khan (or Khal Drogo). Like most Mongols, the Dothraki were more successful at raiding and pillaging rather than conquering and ruling (something the Dothraki never attempted in the show anyhow).
Succession laws and the bureaucratic administration of a state widely differed throughout Asia and Europe, a point that is underscored by studying just how different medieval European states were in some ways from Asian ones. But political or military legitimacy can come from a variety of sources, as long as it seems valid. As a character in Game of Thrones, Varys, wisely summed up once, “power resides where men believe it resides.”