Game of Thrones: Rebel Queens

TV and Film

HBO’s adaption of George R.R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire has been met with enormous critical acclaim, scooping up numerous awards and winning an intensely dedicated fan base. Fans of the show love the complex story lines, impressive character and world building and of course the rampant sex and violence.

Another reason to love the show is the wealth of strong and interesting roles for women. From the monstrous queen regent Cersei to wilding warrior maiden Ygritte, Game of Thrones showcases a diverse range of women navigating a feudal landscape.

Martin has made no secret about the fact that many of the plots and key figures were inspired by real historical events – particularly the Roman Empire and medieval Europe. The show has been compared to the English wars of the roses, the Hundred Years’ war and the crusades – but how do the women on the series compare to real rebel women?


Note: These comparisons are based on the characters as presented in the TV series Game of Thrones and may differ from the book series A Song of Ice and Fire.

First up – the Queens of Game of Thrones:

Cersei Lannister-Baratheon vs. Margaret of Anjou and Elizabeth Woodville

One of the simplest and most prevalent comparisons, Cersei Lannister typifies the circumstances of many medieval queens. Used as a political pawn, her marriage to Robert Baratheon before the beginning of the series formed an alliance which effectively ended a civil war. When her husband dies, she devotes herself tirelessly to ensuring that her sons maintain the monarchy – and that she remains the power behind the iron throne.

Margaret of Anjou – Passionate, proud, strong willed

Royal 15 E VI  f. 2v  Presentation scene

Margaret of Anjou (source)

Margaret of Anjou was a key player in the wars of the roses and figurehead for the Lancastrian faction. French born, she was married to King Henry VI of England and often ruled in his place due to his mental illness. Contemporaries described her as ‘passionate and proud and strong-willed’ – which was fortunate, because her husband was not.

It is also worth mentioning that Margaret of Anjou’s son, Edward of Lancaster, was described as being particularly cruel and bloodthirsty, talking of ‘nothing but cutting off heads and making war, as if he had everything in his hands or was the god of battle…’ – when he was only thirteen years old…

Elizabeth Woodville – The White Queen

Elizabeth Woodville was a famous beauty who married king Edward IV when he was fresh from his victory over the Lancastrian faction. The Woodville family became hugely influential within the royal court thanks to a number of tactical marriages and Elizabeth had a total of ten children with Edward – impressive, considering that he (like Baratheon) was not well known for his fidelity.


Elizabeth Woodville (source)

When Edward IV died, Elizabeth’s son was a child, but she did not have anywhere near as much power as Cersei. Her two eldest boys by Edward IV (known as the princes in the tower) were reportedly murdered by their Uncle to prevent them ever succeeding to the throne, and the wars of the Roses raged on.

Elizabeth did contribute to ending the feud – she and Margaret Beaufort conspired to have their children (Elizabeth York and Henry Tudor, respectively) marry, effectively uniting the two houses for good.

Daenerys Targaryen vs. Cleopatra, Zenobia and Mavia

Fan favourite Daenerys’ plotline is one of the most fantastical on the show. Living in exile (initially with her elder brother) she is the last in the line of previously reigning monarchs. The Targaryen family have a history of intermarriage and madness, but Dany seems to have escaped the family curse and (after her brother is executed) really comes into her own.

She makes a few politically shrewd alliances with some very influential men who only serve to increase her own power. Along the way to reclaim the iron throne Daenerys conquers various city states, gathering support.

Cleopatra – The Last Pharaoh


Lilli Langtree as Cleopatra (source)

Cleopatra VII is one of the most obvious influences when it comes to Daenarys – particularly when comparing their family backgrounds. The Ptolemies of ancient Egypt were notorious for ‘keeping it in the family’ and intermarrying to protect the throne. This tactic was as frequently disastrous for them as it was for the Taraegryens.

Like Dany, Cleopatra also lived in exile in the desert for some time, until she was placed back on the throne by Julius Caesar (here there is some parallel with Jorah Mormont). Cleopatra had more autonomy than Daenerys earlier in her life and had not only both of her brothers killed, but her sister too. Not content to rule Egypt alone, Cleopatra attempted to expand her political reach by connecting herself with two prominent Romans – first Julius Caesar, then Marc Antony.

Fans can only hope that Daenarys does not meet the same tragic end as Cleopatra – but of course the queen of the Nile didn’t have dragons.

Zenobia – Enemy of Rome

Zenobia, like Daenarys, began her political life as a client queen, considered harmless by


Queen Zenobia’s last look upon Palmyra by Herbert Schmalz (source)

the Roman Empire. When she began to exhibit more aggressive traits, expanding her borders and moving in on Egypt, Rome was distracted by its own internal problems (much like the civil war in Westeros) and did not act until it was almost too late.

Zenobia ruled Egypt for four years before Rome gathered the strength to take it back, and the warrior queen was taken back to Italy in chains – what happened to her next is unknown, so there is still some hope for Daenerys.

Mavia – The Warrior Queen

Another desert dwelling rebel queen was Mavia, a skilled warrior who ruled over a confederation of Arab tribes who were particularly skilled at combat on horseback (not unlike the Dothraki). Mavia also managed to capture Egypt from the Romans – and achieved what Zenobia and Cleopatra could not.

This queen’s forces were so powerful and defeated the Roman army so many times that in the end the emperor was forced to sign a treaty in her favour.

Margaery Tyrell-Baratheon vs. Catherine of Aragon and Anne Boleyn

Margaery’s plotline also exemplifies the trajectory of many medieval queens. First betrothed to Renly Baratheon, she is shown as being politically astute when she must quickly reassess her allegiances after his death. Margery swiftly switches sides, using her family’s wealth as leverage.

Her second choice, Joffrey, also dies within hours of their wedding ceremony. Not to be deterred, Margaery simply remarries Joffrey’s younger, milder mannered brother, Tommen. Clever, cunning and a good match for mother-in-law from hell Cersei, Margaery


Catherine of Aragon (source)

is regularly shown using her beauty and sexuality to get what she wants.

Catherine of Aragon – The Spanish Princess

Catherine of Aragon also had a rocky start to married life. The Spanish princess travelled to England to marry heir to the throne Arthur. After a brief honeymoon period, the teenage prince suddenly died. In an attempt to protect the alliance their marriage provided, Catherine was then married to Arthur’s younger brother, Henry VIII.

As with Margaery and Tommen, Catherine and Henry had an age difference of six years. Early in the marriage Henry was described as being infatuated with his queen and she was well liked by the English people. However, it was not to last…

Anne Boleyn – Mistress to Queen

Which brings us to Anne Boleyn; ironically Catherine of Aragon’s greatest enemy also


Anne Boleyn (source)

bears a resemblance to Margaery. A woman who famously used sex and sensuality to win the favour of the king, Anne was also a highly intelligent woman who kept her eyes on the prize.

Balancing a flirtatious and fun exterior with her world class education and cunning, Anne Boleyn is often perceived as cold-hearted in her pursuit of the throne – which of course was eventually her downfall.

Next: Game of Thrones – Warrior Women. How do Arya, Brienne and Ygritte match up to their historical counterparts?


Galla Placidia – 388 – 450 – Ravenna, Italy

Ancient Rome, Constantinople, Italy

Galla Placidia

As the Roman Empire buckled and fell around her, Galla Placidia remained stalwart and dedicated to ruling by any means.

Early years:

The daughter of an emperor, Theodosius I, Placidia was an extremely precocious child. She was given her own household to manage and granted financial independence before she was even in her teens. She was given the title Noblissima Puella (most noble girl).

In 394 she moved to the royal court in Mediolanum (ancient Milan, northern Italy), where her father died early the following year. Theodosius was succeeded by Placidia’s half-brother Arcadius. Arcadius was considered a weak ruler, too much under the control of his domineering wife, Aelia Eudoxia and the General Rufinus.


Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Meanwhile, Galla Placidia spent much of her time in the care of her cousin, Serena, and her husband Stilicho the Vandal – a man of ambition.

Arcadius died in 408, leaving behind his seven year old son, Theodosius II as the Eastern Roman Emperor. Stilicho saw his chance and began preparing to head for Constantinople to act as the little emperor’s regent. He told the emperor of the Western Roman Empire, Honorius, Placidia’s other half-brother, not to join him. Honorius became suspicious when an officer called Olympius suggested that Stilicho might be planning to usurp the imperial throne.

Olympius and Honorius acted quickly, leading a military coup and having Stilicho executed. His death left Placidia (who was in Rome at the time) unattached to any household.

Rome under siege:

Stilicho’s death caused problems elsewhere. The foederati was a part of the Roman army made up  of northern European tribes, including the Franks, Vandals, Alans and the Visigoths. Following Stilicho’s fall, the foederati (who were seen as loyal to him) were targeted throughout Italy, their wives and children murdered en masse.


The foederati were understandably furious and baying for Roman blood. 30,000 men joined the army of Alaric I, King of the Visigoths, who led them across the Alps and attacked the city of Rome in the September of 408. The city would remain under siege for two years.

In 410, Rome was sacked by the Visigoths. Buildings were burned, statues torn down, palaces looted and captives taken. Among the prisoners of war was Galla Placidia herself.

Life with the Visigoths:

The circumstances around Placidia’s capture are unknown, but the historians Jordanes and Marcellinus Comes both mention that she was taken out of Italy to Gaul by the Visigoths in 412. Alaric I died and was succeeded as Visigothic king by Ataulf, who formed an alliance with Honorius.

Ataulf had executed two usurpers of the Roman imperial throne in 413, sending their heads directly to Honorius. The emperor was so pleased that he cemented the alliance with Ataulf by giving his consent to the Visigothic king marrying Galla Placidia.

Placidia and Ataulf were married in a roman ceremony in 414 and the couple travelled to Hispania (Spain) later that year. They had one child together, Theodosius, who sadly died in infancy.

Fall of Ataulf:

Ataulf was assassinated while in Barcelona in 415. A rival faction within the Visigoths proclaimed Sigeric, Ataulf’s enemy, as the new king. Sigeric lost no time in asserting his authority, murdering all six of Ataulf’s children (from a previous marriage). Placidia was once again a prisoner of war.

Historical accounts say that she was treated very poorly, forced to walk for miles on foot among Sigeric’s captives. This was shocking to the Visigoths, who eventually assassinated Sigeric himself and had him replaced with a relative of Ataulf. As the old king’s widow, a foreigner and with no children, Placidia was still in a precarious situation.

Fortunately, so was the new king of the Visigoths. Running out of food and getting desperate, he appealed to Honorius’ magister militum (master of soldiers), Constantius. The peace treaty included renewing the foederati status of the Visigoths and returning Galla Placidia to her brother.

Second marriage:


Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

No sooner than Galla Placidia had returned to Rome, Honorius forced her into marriage with Constantius. They had two children together, a daughter, Justa Grata Honoria, and a son, future emperor Valentinian III.

After everything she had been through, Placidia refused to retire quietly into domesticity. She expanded her influence at her brother’s court, involving herself in both court and church politics.

In 418, Placidia found herself on the losing side of a power struggle within the Church of Rome. Following the death of Pope Zosimus, two rival factions in the clergy elected their own popes, Eulalius and Boniface. The two popes threw Rome into religious and political turmoil.

Placidia was in favour of Eualius and petitioned the emperor on his behalf, personally writing letters summoning the African bishops to a synod in Italy. At first, Honorius did as his sister suggested and confirmed Eulalius as the legitimate pope. However, this did not stop the infighting in Rome, and while further synods were called in order to reach an agreement, Honorius demanded that both Boniface and Eulalius stay away from the city.

At Easter in 419, Eulalius went against the emperor’s orders and returned to Rome, attempting to sieze the papacy by force. He was repelled by the imperial army, and lost favour with Honorius. Boniface was proclaimed pope by April.

By 421, Honorius was thirty seven years old, unmarried and still without an heir. Constantius was proclaimed co-ruler of the Western Roman Empire – and Galla Placidia became the only Augusta (empress).


Stilicho, Serena and their son (source)

Constantius died in 421, leaving Galla Placidia widowed a second time.

Move East:

Shortly after her second husband’s death, something happened which forced Placidia out of the west. Her reasons for leaving are unclear, some sources say that she argued with Honorius, others that she was in fact too close to her brother, and accused of scandalous behaviour with him which required her to create some distance.


The Favorites of the Emperor Honorius, by John William Waterhouse, 1883 (source)

Whatever the reason, Placidia and her children arrived at the court of her nephew, Theodosius II, in 421, shortly after his marriage to Aelia Eudocia. In Constantinople, Galla Placidia’s title of Augusta was not officially recognised.

Two years after her arrival in the east, Honorius dropped dead, leaving a power vacuum in the western empire. In the scramble to find a suitable heir, Joannes, the head of civil service in Rome was proclaimed emperor by Castinus the Patrician.

Theodosius had other ideas, and began preparing Galla Placidia’s son, Valentinian (aged four at the time) for the imperial office. Joannes was overthrown in 425 and Valentinian proclaimed Augustus of the Western Roman Empire. Placidia would be his regent.

Beginning by pacifying her family’s enemies with a peace treaty, Galla Placidia’s twelve year regency over her son began to return stability to the western empire.

Upon Valentinian’s eighteenth birthday in 437, Placidia’s regency ended, though she continued to exercise political influence up until her death in 450 at the age of 62. Having lived through a siege, twice survived enemy capture, been a queen of the Visigoths, a prisoner of war and an empress of Rome, Galla Placidia had faced enough adventure and intrigue for ten lifetimes.

A pious Christian, Placidia built and restored many churches during her time in power. These included the Basilica of Saint Paul and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem.

The mausoleum of Galla Placidia in Ravenna is a UNESCO world heritage site.


Mausoleum of Galla Placidia (source)

In literature:

  • Two stanzas in Alexander Blok‘s poem Ravenna focus on Galla Placidia’s tomb.
  • Louis Zukofsky refers to the mausoleum in his poem 4 Other Countries:

“The gold that shines/ in the dark/ of Galla Placidia,/ the gold in the/ Round vault rug of stone/ that shows its pattern as well as the stars/ my love might want on her floor…”

  • Carl Jung refers to Galla Placidia in his autobiography Memories, Dreams, Reflections.

In music:

  • Spanish musician Jaume Pahissa wrote the opera Galla Placídia in 1913.

On television:

  • Galla Placidia is played by Alice Krige in the 2001 American TV Miniseries Attila.



Galla Placidia on

Galla Placidia: The Last Roman Empress – Hagith Sivan

Galla Placidia Augusta: a biographical essayStewart Irvin Oost

On Wikipedia:

Egeria – fl. 380s – Hispania or Gaul – Jerusalem

Constantinople, France


Egeria, also known as Etheria or Aetheria made an incredible journey during the fourth century which she later wrote about in detail – making her one of the earliest authors of a travel book.

Far from being a leisure guide, Egeria’s work describes a pilgrimage taken over a number of years from the western reaches of the Roman empire to the heart of the Christian holy land. Scholars believe she may have been a nun.

As the beginning and the end of the Itinerarium Egeriae (‘Travels of Egeria’) are missing, there is no consensus on where she began her journey, though the most likely suggestions are Hispania (modern day Spain) or Gaul (France).


Mount Sinai (source)

It is likely that Egeria took notes as she travelled before compiling the final text at the end of her pilgrimage. The Iterarium Egeriae is written in the form of a letter to the women in her home town – she refers to them as ‘dear ladies’ and ‘sisters’ – it is not clear whether this means Egeria was a nun writing to the other women in her convent, or whether ‘sister’ is simply meant as a term of endearment.

The surviving text begins with her approach to Mount Sinai in Egypt, then her journey to Constantinople (in Turkey). Egeria spent three years in Jerusalem making various trips outwards to see a number of biblical and religious sites, including the tomb of Job (in Syria), the burial place of Haran (the brother of Abraham) and Saint Thecla’s shrine.


Constantinople (source)

As well as documenting her travels, Egeria took the time to detail religious services and practices during her time in Jerusalem. Her work remains helpful to liturgical scholars as she noted various celebrations and observances first hand, such as the date and celebration of Palm Sunday, Lent and even Christmas prior to its modern date of 25th December.

Egeria’s text also provides useful grammatical context for the development of Vulgar Latin during the 4th century, revealing the origin of the definite article used in modern Latin languages (e.g. Spanish, Italian).

Egeria’s letter home has become a fascinating snapshot of history as she managed to document so much of the changing world around her.


Later publishers of Egeria’s book mistakenly attributed her work to Sylvia of Aquitaine and the empress Galla Placidia.


The Egeria Project

The Pilgimage of EgeriaThe Pilgimage of Egeria – Translation by M.L. McClure and C.L. Feltoe

On Wikipedia:


Mavia ماوية – Reigned 375 – 425 – Syria

Ancient Syria, Syria


A century after Zenobia set her sights on taking Egypt from the Roman Empire, another Arab queen attempted the same thing. Where Zenobia had failed, Mavia not only succeeded – but also made Rome sign a treaty in her favour.

Also known as Māwiyya, this fierce warrior queen ruled a confederation of Arab tribes (known as the Tanukhids) from her seat in southern Syria. Her husband had been king of the Tanukhids and once he died his power passed to Mavia.

She proved herself equal to the task, leading her army in open rebellion against Roman rule in the Middle East. Mavia rode at the head of her cavalry, leading troops into Phoenica (modern day Israel, Lebanon and Syria) and Palestine before finally reaching Egypt.

In Egypt Mavia met the Roman army in battle again and again, defeating them each time. Eventually, Rome consented to a truce – but Mavia set the conditions.

Mavia was a successful general and ruler largely because of her use of guerrilla tactics. Rather than fight from Aleppo, which would have given the Romans a target, she retreated with her troops into the desert, drawing on the nomadic tribe’s knowledge of the terrain. As a result, the Tanukhids were better prepared than the Romans and able to keep them guessing.

As for her conditions for peace, Mavia requested that a monk named Moses be made bishop over her people. Moses was supposedly a desert dwelling Christian Arab who impressed Mavia – and who possibly convinced her to convert to Christianity. To prove that she honoured the truce, Mavia married her daughter Chasidat to a Roman commander.

Peace was temporary.

Rome was soon at war with the Goths (in Eastern Germany) and called upon Mavia’s formidable forces for assistance. She provided cavalry, but her Arab army was not prepared for the environment of northern Europe and the Goths won, killing Roman emperor Valens.

The new emperor Theodosius I gave the Gothic kings and nobles a number of high profile positions within the Roman Empire at the expense of the Arabs. Furious at the lack of respect shown for their loyalty, the Tanukhids revolted a second time in 383. It is not clear whether or not Mavia led this revolt, but it was certainly the end of the Tanukh-Roman alliance.


God’s Self-confident Daughters: Early Christianity and the Liberation of Women – Anne Jensen

Rome and the Arabs: A Prolegomenon to the Study of Byzantium and the Arabs – Irfan Shahîd

Byzantium and the Arabs in the Fourth CenturyIrfan Shahîd

On Wikipedia:

Olympias – c.361/368 – 408 – Constantinople

Ancient Turkey, Constantinople


Olympias (also known as Olympias the Younger and Olympias the Deaconess) dedicated so much of her time and money towards good works and charity that John Chrysostom told her that she had done ‘almost too much’.

As with Marcella, Paula and Fabiola before her, Olympias began life as a wealthy noblewoman of lofty lineage. She grew up in Constantinople, at the time the capital of the Roman Empire, and was ethnically Greek.

Like every good Roman woman she was married to a man of equal status once she reached adulthood. Her husband Nebridius was Prefect of Constantinople, making her social position even more public. When Nebridius died and left Olympias widowed, she chose not to remarry, but instead focussed her efforts on supporting the church as a deaconess.

Olympias was not the first woman to be ordained as a deacon in the church. The Didascalia (a Christian treatise from the third century) encourages bishops to appoint women to these positions in the church hierarchy because women were often capable of ministering to other women while male deacons might not be appropriate:

“Appoint a woman for the ministry of women. For there are homes to which you cannot send a male deacon to their women, on account of the heathen, but you may send a deaconess … Also in many other matters the office of a woman deacon is required.”

Olympias herself personally financed and oversaw the construction of a hospital and an orphanage and dedicated much of her time to caring for monks exiled from Nitria (Egypt).

She attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Constantinople, John Chrysostom, with her good works and the two became lifelong friends. The friendship got her into trouble when Chrysostom was banished after his feud with the Roman Empress, Aelia Eudoxia. Olympias herself was exiled in 404 to Nicomedia (Turkey), where she remained for the last four years of her life.

Olympias is honoured as a Saint in the Roman Catholic (feast day 17th December) and Eastern Orthodox Church (feast day 25th July).

In the arts:

Olympias is one of the 140 Colonnade saints which adorn Saint Peter’s Square.


Saints on the colonnade, St Peter’s Square, The Vatican (Source)


Catholic onlineSt. Olympias

This Female Man of God: Women and Spiritual Power in the Patristic Age – Gillian Cloke

On Wikipedia: