This Sunday marks the end of the truly heroic third season of HBO's Game of Thrones. One of the pleasures of following both the TV series and the books is trying to figure out what author George R.R. Martin is doing with these characters. The most engaging game in the whole Song of Ice and Fire saga is played between its cruel author and his traumatized fans. Martin sets us up with these fascinating and conflicted people. We fall in love with their misguided nobility and desperate struggles (or evil natures and selfish schemes) and then BAM! Out of the blue Martin kills them off and cuts them out of our lives. With each episode and chapter we fans struggle with whom to invest our emotions so that we're not left with that aching numbness in the pit of our collective stomachs when a favorite character dies.
One character that I'm especially worried about is Daenerys Targaryen. So far her storyline has survived all the obstacles Martin has put in her path: family members, assassins, marriage, childbirth, funeral pyres, slave traders, and warlocks. But with Martin we are like Jon Snow, in that we "know nothing" about what is really going on behind the scenes in the Game of Thrones. Are we safe in our emotional attachment to the Mother of Dragons? Will the next chapter bring a sudden and devastating end to our brave Khaleesi? It is our complacency that Martin is playing with, our faith in the idea that every story has a hero or at least a couple of main characters that make it to the final page.
Like Albert Einstein, "I am convinced that He (Martin) does not play dice" with Westeros. There is a message in buried in the Seven Kingdoms and once unearthed this message will enable us to understand what is really going on and who is going to win the Iron Throne. Martin's love of history is our best clue to that message.
Martin claims that his saga is strongly influenced by 15th century England's War of the Roses and the general milieu of medieval France. Recently Martin admitted that historical events in Scotland inspired scenes like the Red Wedding (The Black Dinner and Glencoe Massacre). Using this intelligence I've started scanning the annals of history looking for Game of Thrones-like figures hoping to discover the inspiration and perhaps even the ultimate fate of Daenerys Stormborn.
Northmen and Ironborn, Free Folk and Children of the Forest, allow me to personally introduce you to Zenobia, Queen of the Palmyrene Empire, Warrior Queen, descendent of Cleopatra, and a Roman Augusta. A better model for Daenerys in the historical record can not be found (at least by me).
It's likely that you have never heard of the 3rd-century's Queen Zenobia and yet she is exactly what the 21st-century looks for in a modern woman: She was a freedom fighter who revolved against the Roman Empire. She was a conquerer who expanded her empire into Egypt, Anatolia, and Syria. She was an excellent athlete and horse rider and would march alongside her soldiers into battle. She was an exemplary mother who insured that no one blocked her son's claim to the throne. She was a brilliant ruler of noble birth who played Roman politics like a champ and put the Palmyrene Empire on the map. Zenobia was also something of an ancient super model, "more beautiful than Cleopatra" and a member of the Greco-Roman intelligentsia, hanging out with the brightest poets and philosophers of her day.
The historical Zenobia's personal story has strong parallels with that of the fictional Daenerys: Both woman lived in a brutal hyper-masculine world where women were generally relegated to supporting roles. Both started on their journeys to queendom by marrying kings who ruled at the edges of a vast empire. Both had the guts and drive to assume command when their husbands were murdered and had to gain the trust and loyalty of an initially skeptical populace. Both personally led their armies into battle, chose their target wisely, and won major battles. Both Zenobia and Daenerys were descended from illustrious and politically powerful ancestors. These ancestors and their own ambitions gave both women a strong claim to the seat of power at the center of their respective worlds.
There are differences between our two queens: Zenobia had no dragons and her parents were probably not siblings. Daenerys seems to be meandering a bit on her way to claim the throne where as Zenobia wasted no time in directly disposing of the local Roman rulers, expanding her empire, and I bet she would have marched like Caesar into Rome had not the Roman Emperor Aurelian stopped her.
How Zenobia was defeated, captured, and brought back to Rome by Aurelian just might give us some hints as to what Martin has in mind for Daenerys. At the very least Zenobia's story should be a mini-series starring Scarlett Johansson. (The Black Widow's backstory does not hold a candle to Zenobia's.)
By 271 AD the Roman Empire had temporarily split into three mini-empires: The Gallic in the north, the Roman in the center, and the Palmyrene in south. This sounds like Westeros' three general factions: Starks and their bannermen in the north, the Lannisters and Tyrells in the center, and Daenerys the last confirmed Targaryen in the far south-west.
This was a era of chaotic change for a usually stable Roman Empire. Tribes of barbarians (the Goths, the Visigoths, and the Vandals) were streaming like Martin's Wildlings into Romanized provinces of Gaul. These Germanic tribes were not fleeing white walkers but winter was coming: There is evidence of a "cold period" that caused crops to fail and encouraged these barbarians to migrate into the warmer southern regions and bring with them the seeds of the eventual dark ages.
Zenobia took advantage of all this madness in the Roman Empire to carve out her own little sphere of influence and interrupt the flow of grain into Rome. The office of emperor in Rome had several contenders and Rome's generals and royal families, like those of Westeros and the Seven Kingdoms, were too busy to fighting and poisoning each other to pay much attention to Daenerys, I mean Zenobia, and her growing empire until the bread stopped arriving from Egypt.
When Aurelian (Jon Snow or Jamie Lannister) finally took charge as emperor, he first put down the Gallic rebellion in the north and then headed south to deal with Zenobia. In the Battle of Immae (in modern Turkey) Aurelian's forces should have been debilitated by the desert heat and a lack of heavily armored Calvary. Zenobia should have enjoyed an easy victory on her home turf. But Aurelian turned the tables on the Zenobia by leading her forces on a long and fruitless chase in the hot sun. In a battle scene that could have been written on Martin's word processor the Palmyrene armored soldiers and horses were worn out and defeated by the more agile Roman legionnaires.
Usually Aurelian killed his defeated enemies and burned their homes to the ground. But in a move worthy of a Jon Snow (I'm not really a killer) or Jamie Lannister (I am really a killer but tired of it) Aurelian granted general amnesty and Zenobia lost the support of her people.
Aurelian's forces chased down and captured Zenobia and her son as they were fleeing on horseback. Zenobia was not killed but rather taken to Rome to answer for her crimes. Unfortunately we don't know exactly what happened to Zenobia but there are three versions that suggest three possibilities for Daenerys as well.
Spoiler Alert! (Don't read beyond this point unless you want to know what I think the ultimate fate of Daenerys will be.)
Zenobia kills herself and her son on the way to Rome. I can easily imagine Daenerys fighting to free herself and her dragons but she's not the suicidal type. It's totally out of character. Daernery's is no brooding Sansa.
Upon Zenobia's arrival in Rome she is tried and convicted of treason and Aurelian has her and her son beheaded. This is a more plausible outcome in the Game of Thrones universe but we are late in the storyline and I pray to the old gods and the new that Daenerys didn't survive for five books to get the Ned Stark treatment.
Zenobia is brought before Aurelian in "golden chains." Aurelian is so impressed by her beauty, intelligence, and dignity that he frees her to live to an old age as a respected philosopher and socialite. Zenobia even remarries and her descendants live well into the 4th-century.
I love a happy ending -- after the requisite amount of suffering and bloodshed! I can see this version as the final chapter in book seven where Jon Snow (or Jamie Lannister) pardons Daenerys and her dragons, they fall in love, and rule the Seven Kingdoms and fight the long winter from a shared Iron Throne.
(Until Arya Stark comes along in the night as a Faceless Man and kills them all...)
If this theory feels like it's too far fetched I leave you with one last piece of evidence: Zenobia means "Power of Zeus" in ancient Greek. Daenerys is composed of two Celtic words, "dae" (to shine) and "nerys" (lady). Could the "shining lady" of Martin's imagination and an historical queen infused with the glowing "power of Zeus" be one in the same?