Book Review: Actual History is Better than Game of Thrones

I know lots of people who are excited about the impending premier of the 8th and final season of Game of Thrones. It’s a compelling show, no doubt. But where will these people turn when the season is over? I would humbly suggest the book Ghost on the Throne, by James S. Romm.

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Ghost on the Throne concerns the fallout from the premature death of Alexander the Great, shortly after he conquered an empire that stretched from the Balkans south to Egypt and east to India and Afghanistan. This is real history, but there are strong parallels with the GoT plot line.

Both stories begin with the death of a king, and both stories are driven by the ruthless and bloody politics of dynastic succession. In Ghost on the Throne, that succession was made especially complicated and murderous because Alexander tried to unite his empire by marrying into the royal families of several regions.

Alexander the Great

With Alexander’s passing, each one of these royal widows and their offspring were thrown into a bloody contest. Failure to consolidate control over the throne meant death, because none could allow their legitimacy to be undermined  by a living rival.

Alexander’s leading generals engaged in shifting alliances (sometimes involving marriage) with the royal widows and children, using them to advance their own ambitions. Some wanted to hold the empire together while others sought to take control over a particular region, but all sought legitimacy through connection to the dead Alexander and his royal house, the Argeads.

game of thrones
Scene from Game of Thrones


James Romm, a professor of classics at Bard College, is a very skilled storyteller. The raw material he works with has enough of the fantastic and grotesque to quicken the heartbeat of any HBO director.

For example, Alexander’s embalmed body was hijacked while being transported back to Greece. Ptolemy, a general who had taken control of Egypt, engineered the seizure. Control of the body conferred enormous prestige, so Ptolemy created a shrine for it in Alexandria, where it attracted pilgrims for decades.

Then there were the Silver Shields, an elite infantry unit whose shields were literally coated with silver as a sign of Alexander’s favor. They played an outsize role in the power struggles of the period. Their loyalty could be bought for the right price, causing them to switch sides more than once on the eve of battle.

James Romm

And we cannot forget Alexander’s daughter Adea. In a move to consolidate dynastic power, Adea married her uncle Phillip, Alexander’s mentally retarded brother. She was a teenager at the time.  A bona fide warrior princess, she would eventually lead an army into battle, dressed in the armor of an infantryman.

I could go on, but you get the idea. One difference between Ghost on the Throne and Game of Thrones is that GoT has a clearer division between heroes (or at least sympathetic characters) and villains. While many are compelling, it’s a challenge to identify any of the major figures in the post-Alexander era as heroic. Still, Ghost on the Throne would make an excellent TV show.

11 Comments on “Book Review: Actual History is Better than Game of Thrones

  1. History is often stranger than fiction and infinitely more enthralling because of the fact that it actually happened…and it often leads me into the Google rabbit hole.

  2. Sounds like a good book to put on the tottering TBR pile. One of my daughters went to Bard College. A good school in a beautiful part of New York that is only two hours north of New York City.

  3. Sounds like an excellent book, thanks for the recommendation. I do love Game of Thrones, but I also love real history and historical fiction (fictional stories set in the past with occasional real people as characters). I think I’ll check it out.

    • Yes, I love historical fiction as well as straight history. Good historical fiction – there’s a lot of drivel out there. Have you read Wolf Hall by Hillary Mantel? Fantastic!

  4. Exciting stuff. Is it historically accurate? Historians have been embellishing history ever since ‘The Romance of the Three Kingdoms’, after all.

    • Not sure I can judge. But I will say that he presents conflicting evidence and explains his conclusions about what he thinks happened when the record is not conclusive.

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