Longsword by David Pilling

Thursday, 10 April 2014

The real Tyrion Lannister?

*Disclaimer* This is one for Game of Thrones fans, so apologies to those who have never read the books or watched the show...

While beavering away at the last installment of my Caesar's Sword trilogy, I was struck by the similarities between a certain historical character and Tyrion Lannister, one of the few likeable characters from Game of Thrones, the fantasy universe created by George R.R. Martin.

Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister
Martin is generally thought to have based his epic sex n'swords drama on The Wars of the Roses, with the rival Houses of Stark and Lannister as thinly disguised versions of the real-life Houses of York and Lancaster (though personally I think the Starks have a greater resemblance to the Percies, an equally rebellious and luckless family). The Seven Kingdoms of the books and HBO series do have more than a whiff of late medieval England, but I believe Martin drew his inspiration for Tyrion from somewhere else: namely, the Late Roman Empire of the mid-6th century AD.

The character I have in mind is Narses, a Roman courtier of Armenian descent who flourished at the lethal, glittering court of the Emperor Justinian I and his consort, the former prostitute-turned-Empress Theodora. The court of Justinian's time was a snakepit, every bit as deadly as the fictional court of King's Landing, where ambitious senators and aristocrats vied for imperial favour. One particularly nasty specimen, an official named John the Cappadocian, was rumoured to keep a set of dungeons under his private chambers in the Great Palace, where he spent his leisure hours torturing political rivals.

Narses, depicted on The Ravenna Mosaics
Little is known of Narses' background, or when he arrived at court, but he swiftly rose up the greasy ladder of power and ambition. Like Tyrion, he was said to be a dwarf, lean and deformed of body, but (as one chronicler describes him):

"He was a man of sound mind, and clever at adapting himself to the times. He was not versed in literature or practised in oratory, but made up for it with the fertility of his wits..."

Sound familiar? Quick-witted and able, Narses rose to become the Emperor's steward and high treasurer, responsible for dealing with his master's finances and payments from the imperial treasury. Eventually he become the commander of Justinian's bodyguard, Grand Chamberlain and Master of Soldiery, and was entrusted to lead Roman armies on campaign in Italy. Despite his physical disabilities and total lack of military training and experience, Narses proved to be a superb general, with a natural grasp of logistics, siege warfare and battlefield tactics.

Conleth Hill as Varys
I have left out one small (?) but significant detail: Narses was a eunuch. When or why he was deprived of his family jewels is unknown, but it didn't hinder him from enjoying a spectacular career.

Tyrion Lannister is no eunuch - quite the opposite - but another character from Martin's series springs to mind: Varys, nicknamed 'The Spider', a smooth politico and spymaster who spends much of his time in the shadows, scheming and plotting, while everyone else gets on with murdering each other. Like Narses, Varys is a eunuch, but doesn't let it bother him.

So there you have it - Tyrion Lannister, the Imp, is based on not one, but two charismatic imperial courtiers who flourished in the Late Roman Empire. Or that's why I think, anyway...


  1. Love this David. At the moment I'm reading "The Lady Queen: The Notorious Reign of Joanna I, Queen of Naples. It appears Martin got a lot of ideas from this era of medieval Neapolitan history. It's kind of fun finding these bits of inspiration from history that Martin might have used.

    1. Thanks Susan. Certainly is! Martin claims to have taken his inspiration from the doings of the Capets and Plantagenets, but I suspect he has cherry-picked bits of information from all over the place.