Watch out! Spoilers ahead.
“Perhaps I cannot make my people good, she told herself, but I should at least try to make them a little less bad.”
At this point, much of the world has watched and digested what happened in the final season of Game of Thrones. Whether you hated it, enjoyed it, or have come to terms with it, beloved character Daenerys Targaryen slaughtered a million civilians despite their surrender.
That decision ultimately led to Jon Snow’s betrayal, in which he felt compelled to murder her to save future cities from utter destruction.
The final season of Game of Thrones had been leading up to this momentous decision for some time. They put Dany up against the wall, exhausted her armies, killed her best friends and allies, and denied her affection from the man she loved. There were moments in prior seasons, too, where she displayed her capacity for cruelty, but such was her popularity that viewers would celebrate or just forget them.
GoT fans have strong feelings about the direction of the final season and Daenerys’ character arc, but either way, everything boiled down to one harrowing choice. As a benevolent dictator (or monarch depending on your views), she invaded and conquered a populated city and decided to go full scorched earth, killing everyone instead of taking civilians as slaves or new citizens. Which brings us to the question:
Would That Have Really Happened?
Sadly, yes. It absolutely could have, and did. For our purposes, we’re relating what Dany did to a real instance in ancient history, since Game of Thrones was set in the Middle Ages but also draws from various cultures and periods throughout time.
There are many instances where conquerors or opposing armies have obliterated cities full of civilians with indomitable weapons or armies. The Hiroshima and Nagasaki bombings, the bombing of Dresden, and the Blitz immediately come to mind, and that’s just from World War Two. There was also the time Roman emperor Caesar brutally conquered Gaul, or when ancient Athenians slaughtered all the men on the defeated island of Melos to make a point.
Dany’s particular situation, however, bears some resemblances to the story of Boudica.
A Tale of Two Queens
There’s an interview in which Game of Thrones showrunners David Benioff and D.B. Weiss note that Dany’s slaughter of King’s Landing wasn’t premeditated. In a split second, she made a decision driven by her fiery temper to “make things personal”. While this went against seasons of character development, it at least accounted for the fact that Dany, who was quite intelligent, made a very bad strategic choice — she eliminated people who could have been useful to her later.
For Boudica, it was personal too.
Born around AD 30, Boudica was the partner of Prasutagus, leader of the Iceni, a wealthy Celtic British tribe. It was around this time that the Romans had begun conquering the wild, barbaric Britain. Rather than strip various tribes of their land and kill their leaders, which might lead to revolt, Roman forces worked in alliance with some of them.
Such was the case for the Iceni, who were proud of their independence but not against a peaceful alliance. When Rome came knocking, Prasutagus continued to rule over his lands as an ally. He was even considered a Roman citizen. When he died, he left his kingdom to the emperor and his young daughters. A half-and-half split. He hoped this act of deference would keep his family and kingdom intact while still showing loyalty to Rome.
A Brutal Betrayal
Unfortunately for Boudica and her children, Iceni land was much too tempting. Rome ignored Prasutagus’ will, annexed his kingdom, and seized his property. When Boudica resisted, she was publicly flogged and her young daughters raped. This was a huge affront to the Iceni and a personal trauma and humiliation for Boudica and her family. She mobilized quickly thereafter.
In AD 60 or 61, while the Roman governor Gaius Suetonius Paulinus was busy campaigning on the island of Anglesey on the northwest coast of Wales (then called Mona), Boudica called on her people to revolt. She rallied other frustrated tribes, including the Trinovantes, who had been displaced by Roman veterans in their native lands and heavily taxed.
This Means War
Like Dany, Boudica was not above allowing her armies to commit atrocities in the name of war. Sources reported that the rebels were merciless and cruel. They cut people up, hanged, impaled, and crucified them. It’s almost certain there were rapes.
The rebels first struck Camulodunum, now Colchester. The Romans, hasty in their conquering of territories, hadn’t bothered to fortify them will walls or defenses, and so Boudica’s army was able to walk in and smash the city. They methodically burned the town and destroyed buildings before decapitating a statue of Nero. They took the head as a trophy.
Next, Boudica moved on to Londinium, now known as London. Word of the uprising reached Suetonius, and he considered battling the rebels there. Sobered by Petillius’ defeat and his lack of numbers, he sacrificed the city instead. Everyone who did not evacuate was mercilessly tortured and killed, Romans and Britons alike. Boudica felt no need to take prisoners. They burned London to the ground. Tracings of a thick charred layer of debris are still found under the city to this day.
All Men Must Die
After the sacking of London, a third and final battle happened at an unknown location. This time the rebellion wouldn’t be so lucky. Suetonius was able to outmaneuver the inexperienced tribesmen with a smaller Roman army. He successfully stamped out the uprising in the process.
No one knows how Boudica died, but some suspect she poisoned herself to escape capture.
It’s important to note that the only sources we have of Boudica’s existence and the rebellion were Roman, and so are naturally biased. She may have never actually existed at all, at least by the name we know her.
There was a rousing speech that was said to have been given by Boudica to her army before attacking:
“It is not as a woman descended from noble ancestry, but as one of the people that I am avenging lost freedom, my scourged body, the outraged chastity of my daughters. This is a woman’s resolve; as for men, they may live and be slaves.“
It’s a stretch to imagine that this happened, not the least because other Celtic leaders never gave speeches before heading into battle. If it did occur, it would be something to behold. Similar to the charismatic, spine-tingling speeches Daenerys Targaryen gave to her Unsullied and Dothraki armies from atop Drogon, her dragon.
Boudica and Dany both represent ruthless female leaders who rebelled against those who wronged them. It’s estimated that Boudica’s armies killed as many as 70,000–80,000 people. While Dany killed more people in one fell swoop at King’s Landing, Boudica’s numbers still reflect a staggering act of destruction and loss of life. If GoT was real and happened in the Middle Ages, Dany might well have taken her cues from the great Celtic queen herself.