George R.R. Martin is a master of fantasy world-building - so much so that some people are more interested in learning about the history and lore of the Game of Thrones universe than actual historical events. Entire encyclopedias have collected stories from the past generations of Westeros, and some of those tales will inspire the upcoming HBO spinoff. While the adventures of Jon Snow and Daenerys Targaryen may not count as real history homework, it is apparent that Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire books take heavy cues from events that really happened.
Some of the best Game of Thrones characters are based on historical figures, and some of its grandest battles are practically shot-for-shot remakes of ancient conflicts. It’s true that some of the series’ plot points mirror historical events very closely, but one shouldn’t go looking in textbooks for Season 8 spoilers - George R.R. Martin always manages to twist even his more direct inspirations.
The A Song of Ice and Fire novels that inspired Game of Thrones are loosely influenced by an important real-world conflict: the Wars of the Roses. That period of civil unrest spanned three decades in the 15th century, and it's easy to see the connection to George R.R. Martin’s work.
During the conflict, two rival royal families, the Yorks and Lancasters, feuded over the throne of England. The parallel to the conflict between the Starks and Lannisters over the Iron Throne of Westeros is rather obvious, but Martin is an author who does his homework, so the similarities run much deeper than just the names. Mad kings, heirs being spirited away, and alliance-sealing marriages are all plot points in both the Game of Thrones and its real-world counterpart.
Martin has openly discussed how he took inspiration from well-known texts on the historical subject, telling The Guardian:
My model for this was the four-volume history of the Plantagenets that Thomas B. Costain wrote in the '50s. It’s old‑fashioned history: he’s not interested in analyzing socioeconomic trends or cultural shifts so much as... the plots and the betrayals, all the juicy stuff. Costain did a wonderful job on the Plantagenets so I tried to do that for the Targaryens.
Many characters in Game of Thrones are inspired by historical figures, but the entire character arc of Joffrey Baratheon appears to be based almost entirely on the life of Edward of Lancaster. The English prince lived during the 15th century during the infamous War of the Roses, and the similarities between the two are impossible to ignore.
Edward was born the son of King Henry VI and Queen Margaret of Anjou, and like Joffrey, he was rumored to be the result of an illicit affair by the queen. After being driven into exile with his mother thanks to the outbreak of fighting, young Edward developed a downright Joffrey-like disposition where he became obsessed with removing people's heads and waging vicious conflicts.
Edward of Lancaster also met his end while still a teenager, just like Joffrey, though his demise came via the sword.
Ramsay Bolton’s favorite method of torment is a Bolton family tradition and one of the most gruesome details in all of Game of Thrones. Flaying and skinning one’s enemies seems like something invented for a gritty fantasy series, but it happened at several points throughout history, including in the court of the Assyrian king Ashurbanipal.
After reconquering a city that had tried to leave his empire, Ashurbanipal reportedly asked for a pillar to be built at the city gate. Then, he had the rebel leaders flayed and used their skins to wallpaper the pillar as a powerful testament to his wrath. For good measure, Ashurbanipal had a few cadavers impaled and put on display, demonstrating true Ramsay-esque sadism.
The most obvious historical parallel in A Song of Ice and Fire is also the one that inspired the entire series. While the Romans didn’t have the technology to erect a towering wall of ice like the one along the northern border of Westeros, they did build Hadrian’s Wall across 73 miles of northern Britain.
Hadrian’s Wall was intended to keep out those the Romans saw as barbarians - Picts, in this case, instead of Wildlings. Just as the Wall marks the northernmost reach of Westerosi authority, Hadrian’s Wall was also seen as a marker of the Roman Empire’s upper limit. There was no analog to the Night’s Watch tasked with manning Hadrian’s Wall, though; it was just staffed by the Roman legions.
As George R.R. Martin tells it, his first inklings of the story that would become A Song of Ice and Fire began with a visit to Hadrian’s Wall:
The Wall predates anything else. I can trace back the inspiration for that to 1981. I was in England visiting a friend, and as we approached the border of England and Scotland, we stopped to see Hadrian’s Wall. I stood up there and I tried to imagine what it was like to be a Roman legionary, standing on this wall, looking at these distant hills. It was a very profound feeling. For the Romans at that time, this was the end of civilization; it was the end of the world. We know that there were Scots beyond the hills, but they didn’t know that. It could have been any kind of monster. It was the sense of this barrier against dark forces - it planted something in me. But when you write fantasy, everything is bigger and more colorful, so I took the Wall and made it three times as long and 700 feet high, and made it out of ice.