The Romans are Coming, “Tyrion” Purple

tyrian-purple

Images from Game of Thrones © HBO.  The portrait in the upper left corner is  Byzantine Empress Theodora (center), wife of Justinian I, wearing Tyrian purple.  The portrait in the lower center is Justinian I from the sixth century clad in a Tyrian purple robe. The background in this image is Charlemagne’s Tyrian purple funeral shroud, which was made in Constantinople. All other images are from Wikimedia Commons.

The Romans are coming to History Behind Game of Thrones, but they’ve been marching very slowly. (We have a couple of articles prepared but we’re waiting on something very special before we publish them.)

Many people have written in noting the parallels between the Western and Eastern Roman Empires (aka the Byzantine Empire) and Game of Thrones. This is very helpful – thank you! (I definitely will be noting you explicitly as the series continues.)

Superficially, people often compare Game of Thrones with the Wars of the Roses. Sure, there are similarities; however, there are layers upon layers of “historical symbolism” and allusions. I’m beginning to think that the Wars of the Roses storyline is only at the surface layer.

lannister-tyrian

This may not be all the layers and influences on the Lannisters, but it might be a start.

While researching the Purple Wedding and Attila the Hun, I started wondering about symbolism of the color purple in the “Purple Wedding.” For example, the purple wine, the purple color of Joffrey’s face as he dies, and most importantly the use of a specific shade of purple for the costumes.

Purple was used all throughout the Middle Ages for royalty. However, the specific shade of purple used for the Lannister costumes is closest to Tyrian purple, which is strongly associated with Byzantium (the Eastern Roman Empire).

Is there greater symbolism involved – and does the symbolism point to the heart of the Lannister story?

Perhaps, at the heart of the Lannister court – that is, the deepest layer of historical symbolism – is the scheming, complex, and sometimes lethal court politics of the Eastern Roman Empire.

tyrian-purple-game-of-thrones

Screen capture from Wikipedia

The Eastern Roman nobility went nuts for Tyrian purple. A child born to a reigning emperor was born “in the purple.”  In Byzantium, sumptuary laws tightly controlled access to Tyrian purple silks.

The intensity of Tyrian purple may have improved with age. It did not fade. Given the not-so-nice behavior of Tywin and Cersei Lannister, you may find it amusing to hear that Tyrian purple is made from predatory snails, or, to put it bluntly, a slug with armor. 

“Tyrian” and “Tyrion” are nearly indistinguishable when you say them aloud in a (North) American accent. Is the only person possessing true nobility in the Lannister clan Tyrion?  (Maybe this “true nobility” is a symbol of his true parentage — Tywin has certainly dropped enough hints on the show that Tyrion is not his son.)

The Lannisters wear Tyrian Purple quite a bit. I don’t think this is a coincidence. Is this a way of symbolically pointing to an underlying basis in the Byzantine empire? It seems like an odd coincidence the showrunners would happen to clothe the Lannisters in a shade of purple that echoes imperial Rome.

As corny as this sounds, to show support for one of my favorite characters — Tyrion — in his “time of trial,” I’m changing the color of the top and bottom bars on this website to Tyrian purple.

 

Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "Songs of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

10 Comments

  • Reply May 6, 2014

    Watcher on the Couch

    I am going to have to ration my visits to this site because I have some mundane jobs I must press on with and stop procrastinating, but my comment follows. On British Channel 4 some while ago there was a factual history series “The Worst Jobs in History”, introduced by Tony Robinson (Baldrick in “Blackadder” but I don’t know if “Blackadder” crossed the Atlantic). One of the worst jobs touched upon was the job of preparing the purple dye from the mollusca. If I remember rightly it was a stinky process (but don’t take that as gospel).

    • Reply May 6, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Lol. Yes, you’re absolutely right. I did read those snails stunk when they crushed them. It makes you wonder if the fabric also stank as a result.

  • Reply May 6, 2014

    Jun

    OMG I am genuinely freaked out. Is it possible that Lord Tywin is right about Tyrion? It’s been talked about a lot by online fans but I’ve always resisted this suggestion. Now I’m not so sure. (This blog is too polite for me to leave any expletives to express my complicated feelings about this issue.)

    • Reply May 6, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      ROFL. I don’t know… It could be that Tywin is wrong: lots of people suspect adultery when none exists. Either way this could be an ironic parallel to the Catelyn/Jon relationship and storyline.

      I think it is really weird (or intriguing) because GRRM has all of this symbolism. A bit of spoiler (from my articles, not the show) but in the conclusion to the Princes in the Tower series I had planned to show more “evidence” – or what I see as evidence :) – that GRRM sees “Richard III as being innocent as a rose.”

      I think GRRM stacks layers and layers of historic symbolism on all of his characters. Roughly speaking, at least given my conclusions, I think the logic might be something like this:

      Richard III = is innocent and one of the only truly noble nobles of the period. GRRM includes symbols to communicate this point. (I’ll explain this later.)

      Therefore, Tyrion – as an instantiation of Richard III – is also innocent. (By extension, Tyrion is also one of the only true nobles.)

      Tyrion’s name is nearly Tyrian – which implies he was born to the purple. (Surely this can’t be a coincidence. It is such an unusual name.) GRRM has admitted he spent a significant amount of time selecting names for his characters. (The conventional literary “best practice” is to choose symbolic or meaningful names for your characters.)

      When I began looking at the Byzantine empire, I started noticing things that would indicate he may have used it. The Purple Wedding, the use of eunuchs – distinctive items that you might not see in other historical periods.

      When you look at what is going on at a symbolic level, a different story is beginning to form. I think in the next two (or more – lol ;) ) novels we will begin to see multiple contenders to the throne emerge. I think that is where all of the illegitimacy plots are going.

      I have a theory that Dendry may be Cersei and Robert Baratheon’s son. Jon Snow may be the son of Ned Stark’s sister. If you add in Tommen (maybe), Daenerys, and Tyrion, we could be back to five claimants to the throne again.

      A truly happy ending for many ASOIAF fans would be Tyrion on the throne. Either that or GRRM is setting us up for another massive disappointment.

      This is just a theory, but the symbolism is weird – and probably not a coincidence. What’s the story within the story? GRRM has to drop hints or else people will say he was dishonest. Are these symbols the breadcrumbs he has been laying to get to that point?

      BTW, I haven’t had a chance to reply to it yet, but thank you for your lovely compliment on your other comment.

      • Reply May 6, 2014

        Jun

        —TV Spoiler alert—

        If Tyrion is “purple” just because he’s going to sit on the Iron Throne then I’m totally fine with it. But I have very complicated feelings about the possibility that he is Aegon Targaryen’s son. He has mismatched eye colors, one the Lannister green and the other black, which may be Targaryen purple. All along I have been very invested in his “daddy issues” (to quote a line from the TV series “Girls”, long story). I’ve always felt this particular family relationship is very Shakespearean. It is painful for both the father (especially if he suspects adultery by his beloved Joanna) and for the son, which is what makes this story line so compelling. If, however, Martin suddenly reveals that Tyrion is indeed a Targaryen, I feel it would invalidate or at least reduce the weight of the tragedy, even though it would also quickly absolve him of the sin of a kinslayer.

        IIRC, the phrase “Purple Wedding” is the book fans’ invention and has never been referred to as such by Martin himself. Nevertheless it does not change the fact that purple is a royal color and Tyrian is associated with Tyrion. I can’t wait to see more analysis on who/what else is associated with Tyrion’s character. I don’t think it necessarily means that Martin believes Richard III was innocent. He could also be toying with our expectations based on our familiarity with the Shakespeare play. ASOIAF is not only deeply rooted in history but also in Shakespeare. Of that I have no doubt. Cersei in Book 4 reminds me of Richard III in the second half of the play (and possibly Macbeth) — the paranoia and egomania. The effect of power on people is not all good.

        • Reply May 6, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          Ugh. I just lost the last comment I drafted from my iPad so this one will be briefer. :)

          Thanks for the Purple Wedding tip. Darn. I knew I should have checked that last night, but I was wrote that article very late at night after I ran out of time to finish cannibalism part 2. (I vaguely recalled hearing before it was a fan nickname — and I didn’t remember seeing it in the books.) I may need to tweak this article out of pride… :)

          Re: Tyrion
          Do you mean Aegon V? Isn’t he too old to be Tyrion’s father? The eye observation is very intriguing.

          Re: Richard III
          Well, I’ve been wondering if there are any counter interpretations actually. Eg if GRRM presents the good and bad (innocent/guilty) interpretations of Richard III in any of his characters? I believe he does this with Warwick. I wrote a couple of articles about this.

          Walder Frey is like the treacherous side of Warwick who betrayed Edward IV because he was upset Edward broke his (near) promise to marry (a French princess) – see here for the article. Balon Greyjoy is like the seafaring face of Warwick the privateer (aka pirate) and Warwick the man who betrayed his spiritual son (and son-in-law) Clarence. (I think this is the article linked here.)

          • May 7, 2014

            Jun

            Sorry I meant Aerys.

        • Reply May 6, 2014

          Jamie Adair

          I completely agree about Shakespeare actually. In some ways, think ASOIAF/GoT is in someways a reaction towards and in others a reaction against Shakespeare’s histories, but I haven’t looked at this yet and I don’t have any clear ideas. I’ve studied a lot of Shakespeare over the years, and I took a course on just Shakespeare in my English degree. But it has been years and I’d need to reread and really study it. It is very foggy in my brain at this point… Plus I’ve never read Henry V or Henry VI.

  • Reply May 7, 2014

    Roxane

    Oh non please no “Tyrion is a secret Targ” there is no way G RR Martin would allow that to happen it’s way too cheesy.

    • Reply May 7, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      ROFL!

Leave a Reply

What do you think?