Monday, 20 May 2013

Are the Lannisters the Literary Julio-Claudians?

Hey everyone. It's been a while, but then I had a dissertation to finish and some exams to study for. And the first one of those is tomorrow, so I'm profitably using my time by blogging about something completely unrelated.

 This week, I'm looking at the links between a real Roman domus or family (lit. "household") and a fictional one. Maybe you've seen the picture of Joffrey Baratheon and Caligula that circulated a couple of weeks back? By the way, if you're worried about spoilers, I'll say this: I have read all the books, and I'm not up to date with the TV series. However, to my knowledge all the stuff I'm gonna mention has already happened in the show. I won't reveal any big plot twists, but there might be small fragments of spoiler here and there. If you're a purist, maybe give this one a miss?

The cruel and insane Caligula, Roman Emperor from 37 AD to 41 AD.
 Don't worry, I was horrified too.

 Anyway, here are some of the Lannisters' more famous attributes:

Money, and Lots of It.

Don't you know a Lannister always pays their debts? You do now.

Its A Trap -  It's a trope!

 The Julio-Claudians were Augustus' descendants, and they were incredibly wealthy for the most part. After the civil wars, Augustus had so much money he was able to bail out the state and still he was the richest man in Rome. Of course, he was also the Princeps and you probably wouldn't want to be richer than him. If you were, he'd probably just have you executed for treason and confiscate your stuff. This was a money-making technique used mostly by "bad" emperors, but it did come around every so often.

An Iconic Patriarch

Let's face it, Tywin Lannister is pretty badass. He's also smart, ruthless, and a pretty poor parent.

Its A Trap -  It's a trope!

 Yup, Augustus had many of these traits. However, Augustus did not have any male children, and so was not succeeded by his direct descendants. Instead, his family tree was made up of those descended from his daughters and those adopted into his family. Even where adoption was concerned, Augustus was not fortunate, having all of his chosen successors die before him. In the end, succession fell to Tiberius, an older senator who really, really did not want to rule. Augustus was also used as a role model by emperors long after his own domus ceased to exist, a fate which will, I fear, escape Tywin.


Those Lannister twins, eh? Twins! And incest! It's like this is some kind of prime time cable TV show run mad! Don't worry:

Its A Trap -  It's still a trope

This one has also shown up in The Borgias recently, and is actually fairly common as invective. Don't like that dynasty who seem to be doing better than yours? It's cool, just accuse them of incest. It's the kind of statement that's easy to make, hard to prove but even harder to disprove. Julio-Claudian example: Agrippina the Younger supposedly tried to seduce her son, Nero (according to Tacitus), in an attempt to regain power over him. Suetonius doesn't really bother with providing a political motive: he just says, after travelling anywhere in a litter together, their activities were "betrayed by the stains on his clothing." (Suetonius, Nero 28). Right then.

Caligula was also accused of incest with his sister, but we'll return to that in the next section.

Killing an Otherwise Defenceless Small Child Because He Might Be a Harm to You Later On?

C'mon, at least the Bran incident has to be original to the Lannisters, right? Sorry, but: 

Well, okay, to our knowledge none of the Julio-Claudians ever threw a small child out of a window. However, remember I said Caligula and his sister might have been making the beast with two backs?  Well, there's  story about that which was told to us by our ancient history teacher. I am pretty much 99% certain that it never happened, and at least a bit concerned that it originates with the I, Claudius TV series. However, since we're talking about tropes, and frankly almost everything we know about any of the Julio-Claudians is subject to heavy construction and reification anyway, I'll pass it on. Take with a pinch of salt!

Supposedly, Caligula had a bit of a breakdown while Julia Drusilla (the sister) was pregnant. Unfortunately, Caligula's particular madness made him think he was Kronos the titan. You might remember that he ate his children except Zeus, who survived to overthrow him. I think you get where this is going. Caligula performed an amateur cesarean section, and proceeded to eat the baby. Needless to say, Drusilla didn't survive. 

Since this blog is committed to historical accuracy, as well as blatant sensationalism, I'll give you the far, far more probable version of events. Drusilla was Nero's favourite sister, and they were very good friends. During his first illness (it's possible that this illness caused brain damage, or otherwise precipitated his madness), he made her his heir, the first woman ever to be named so in an Imperial will. However, Caligula survived and Drusilla was stricken by a fever that was rampant in the city. While she was ill Caligula stayed with her- despite a risk of contagion. When she died, he was certainly affected, but that doesn't have to point to incest. However, his mother was no longer alive (and something of a Princess Diana-like figure in her own time) so it is very possible the usual charge levelled against tyrants (incest with one's mother) was replaced here with incest with the favoured sister.

Interestingly, Caligula's extreme grief over the sister is treated as a little bit embarrassing or unmanly. Suetonius describes how "when she died, he appointed a season of public mourning, during which it was a capital offence to laugh, bathe, or dine in company with one's parents, wife, or children. He was so beside himself with grief that suddenly fleeing the city by night and traversing Campania, he went to Syracuse and hurriedly returned from there without cutting his hair or shaving his beard."- Suetonius Caligula 24. Wikipedia also says he refused to let them take the body, but doesn't have a reference, and I can't find it in the usual sources. 

However, those two combined are strikingly similar to Arian's description of the death of Hephaestion: "Some say that for the greater part of that day he flung himself down beside the body of his friend groaning and did not wish to be separated from him, until he was forcibly removed by his companions; in other accounts, he lay beside the body all day and all night; other writers say he strung up the doctor Glaucias, either because of the wrong drug being given or because he saw Hephaestion drinking heavily and allowed him to continue. I think it is likely that Alexander cut his hair over the body, especially because he had been eager to emulate Achilles ever since boyhood"- Arian Life of Alexander 7.14. 

Is it a trope? Quite possibly. I wouldn't be the least surprised if something like this happens in the later Game of Thrones books.

The Cuckoo in the Nest

That Joffrey Baratheon though, he isn't even Robert's son! At least the Julio-Claudians were all really related to each other! Nope:

Its A Trap -  It's a trope!

When emperor Claudius married for a fourth time (to his niece, Agrippina), his new wife brought her son with her, Nero. Claudius already had a son, named Britannicus so no-one would forget Claudius' one military campaign, but Agrippina persuaded him to adopt Nero, who was very slightly older. When Claudius died (supposedly poisoned by Agrippina, but science tells us that couldn't have been it, as they had no poison which acted as fast as the story requires) Agrippina acted fast and had Nero crowned emperor. 

Finally, what of everybody's favourite Lannister:

The Embarrassing Problem Child Who Turns Out to be Surprisingly Badass

Guess what?

Yup, emperor Claudius was disabled. He was supposed to have twitched, stuttered and limped and occasionally dribbled, and was a figure of fun throughout the court before his ascension. He has since been diagnosed by scholars as possibly suffering from cerebral palsy, though tourettes has also been suggested. However, Claudius was far from stupid. He was not in the direct line to the throne and never expected to have to conduct himself in public life (he was made emperor after Caligula was murdered by the Praetorian Guard, who also killed Caligula's immediate family, just in case) so Claudius made himself a scholar. He wrote a large number of historical works, detailing both Imperial and Republican Rome. He also proposed several changes to the Latin alphabet, adding letters which functioned like modern X and Y,  and also tried to reinstate placing dots to mark spaces between words (at this time, Classical Latin did not have spaces to indicate words), but none of these survived his reign. While emperor, Claudius also wrote an autobiography.

Unfortunately, none of these works survive, but we know he was the source for several passages of Pliny's Natural History and Suetonius read his autobiography as research for his own works (describing it as "lacking taste"). 

So there you have it folks, nothing is new under the sun! Of course, just because his work utilises tropes doesn't make George R.R. Martin a bad author: the fact that he's a bad author makes him a bad author! Tropes are just a part of human existence.

EDIT: I'm sorry about the way the text gets suddenly smaller in the middle of this post. I can't seem to fix it in the edit mode, since that displays all the text as the same size and format. Sorry!

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