‘Game of Thrones’: The actual historical roots of the enormous ‘Battle of the Bastards’

At least 70 horses were required for filming “The Battle of the Bastards.” CREDIT: HBO

A day has passed since “The Battle of the Bastards.” Now is the time to pour a soothing glass of grape water – or perhaps a jug of sour goat’s milk – and to process the bloodiest, most intense and beautifully shot battle in the “Game of Thrones” run.

Most of the episode was taken up by the battle between the Bolton army (led, naturally, by Ramsay Bolton) and Jon Snow’s ragtag team of soldiers. It was enormous in terms of scope – before it aired, Entertainment Weekly reported the filming required 600 crew members, 500 extras, 160 tons of gravel, and at least 70 actual horses – and historical importance. It was based on one of the most famous battles in history: the Battle of Cannae.

Everyone should pour a Cersei-size goblet of Imp’s Delight out for director Miguel Sapochnik, who helmed the episode after making his indelible mark on Westeros with “Hardhome” (the White Walkers episode). He told Entertainment Weekly that filming Sunday’s episode was “the most logistically complicated thing I’ve ever been involved in.”

After reading the script and surveying Saintfeld, the private field in Northern Ireland where the battle was shot, Sapochnik decided he would need 42 days to shoot it. He was given 25. But, by focusing on true historical reference points, he was able to pull it off, much to the delight of critics everywhere.

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A quick recap of the battle: Jon Snow’s and Ramsay Bolton’s armies faced off in two straight lines with their leaders front and center, when Ramsay pulled one of his final, cruel mind tricks. He sent bushy-haired Rickon Stark running toward Jon, while he casually shot arrows at him and (presumably) purposefully missing. Until, of course, Rickon was only feet away from Jon – then, an arrow pierced through his heart while blood spurted from his mouth. Jon, losing his temper, charged the entire Bolton line alone, forcing his army to follow.

Thus began a battle so fraught with casualties, the ground disappeared under mounds of corpses (and what will soon be corpses). Jon’s army lost all sense of order as arrows rained down upon them. Once Ser Davos, who had remained behind with the reserves, brought the last set of Jon’s soldiers into the fray, Ramsay employed his secret weapon: several rows of disciplined soldiers who had remained far from the battle.

These soldiers surrounded the writhing, fighting mass, entirely encircling them with a wall of shields. The only things poking out from between those shields were long spears, which the Bolton soldiers used to stab the trapped soldiers as they slowly marched forward. It was truly a death vice.

To history buffs, much of this battle might feel familiar. Classics scholars probably did a double-take at that shield wall, which they would have correctly recognized as a Macedonian phalanx. Fully developed by Philip II of Macedon and used by his son Alexander the Great to conquer most of Persia, it refers in broad terms to a military arrangement formed by several rows of men bearing those large shields seen in Sunday’s episode. They use the spears to stab through the “wall,” which is essentially impenetrable.

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Those history buffs might also have noticed the familiar strategy employed by Ramsay – pulling Jon’s entire army into a disoriented, bloody mass and encircling it with fresh, organized soldiers. Called the “pincer movement” or “double entrapment,” it is a tactic that has been used in many battles over the years, including the 1415 Battle of Agincourt, on which the scene was originally going to be based.

But “needs changed,” so Sapochnik chose to base it on what might be the most famous example of the strategy: the Battle of Cannae during the Second Punic War, in which a small army led by Hannibal defeated a tremendous Roman army in 216 B.C.

Sapochnik told Entertainment Weekly:

“Initially we based BOB on the battle of Agincourt which took place between the French and English in 1415. But as needs changed, as did budgets, it became more like the battle of Cannae between the Romans and Hannibal in 216 BC.”

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In that famous battle, Hannibal led a Carthaginian army of about 50,000 soldiers. The Romans had almost twice that. Just as in the show, the armies met in two straight lines, but while the Romans’ line grew disoriented in the chaos, the Carthaginian line widened to a crescent. Hannibal’s soldiers slowly encircled the Romans, as cavalry sneaked up behind the fighting men to close the circle and, eventually, slaughter most of the Romans.

And, unlike in Jon’s case, the Romans did not have a Littlefinger/Sansa-led deus ex machina waiting around the corner.

Of course, in the episode, Jon’s soldiers attempted to escape the trap by using the pile of corpses as a stairway of sorts. “Game of Thrones” co-showrunner David Benioff said that idea came from American history.

“‘The Battle of the Bastards’ becomes incredibly compact,” Benioff told IGN. “All these men, all these combatants, crammed into this incredibly tight space on the battlefield. You read accounts of the battles in the Civil War where the battles were piled so thick it was actually an obstruction on the battlefield.”

As they say, in the game of thrones, you live or you die. But apparently, you learn some history along the way.

Video: Here are three things to know from battle-filled Episode 9 of the sixth season of “Game of Thrones,” including what to look out for in next week’s season finale. (By Jenny Starrs and Adriana Usero / The Washington Post)



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