Is House of the Dragon Inspired by This 1970s BBC TV Series?

The influences for House of the Dragon run deep...including this 1970s TV adaptation of a literary classic.

Aegon II (Tom Gynn-Carney), Alicent (Olivia Cooke) and Ser Crismón (Fabian Frankel) at Aegon II's coronation in House of the Dragon
Photo: Ollie Upton | HBO

This article contains spoilers for all of House of the Dragon season 1.

Author George R.R. Martin draws on lots of different things for inspiration when he writes his A Song of Ice and Fire series, which was adapted into Game of Thrones and now House of the Dragon. The influence of the medieval era on the history of Westeros is well known, from Henry I making his barons swear loyalty to his daughter Matilda just as Viserys I makes his lords swear loyalty to his daughter Rhaenyra in Fire & Blood (adapted into House of the Dragon), to the conflict between the Starks and the Lannisters in A Song of Ice and Fire that partly mirrors the conflict between the real life houses of York and Lancaster in the 1400s.

But there’s another semi-historical influence on Martin’s world that is not so often talked about. In 1934, Robert Graves’ novel I, Claudius was published. It was written as the fictional autobiography of the Roman emperor Claudius, and between the novel and its 1935 sequel Claudius the God, it covers the reigns of the Roman emperors Augustus, Tiberius, Caligula, and Claudius, with an introduction to early Nero. In 1976, it was adapted for the BBC into a very well-received 13-part TV series starring Derek Jacobi, Siân Phillips, and Brian Blessed as Claudius, Livia (the wife of Augustus) and Augustus, respectively.

George R.R. Martin is a fan of this TV series, and it was one of the many things that influenced the shaping of his world of Westeros and Essos. In 2020, he posted about the show on his ‘Not A Blog’, and called it “one of the greatest television series ever made” (and added that he has also read and enjoyed the novels). Back in 2014, he told Esquire that the grumpy and unpopular leader Stannis Baratheon was partly inspired by George Baker’s performance as Tiberius in I, Claudius.

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It’s not surprising, then, to find references to I, Claudius peppered throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. In A Storm of Swords, Tyrion remembers that people said of his mother Joanna that although Tywin Lannister ruled the Seven Kingdoms as the Hand of King Aerys II, he “was ruled at home by his lady wife” – this is a reference to Claudius’ assertion in I, Claudius that “Augustus ruled Rome, but Livia ruled Augustus”. In the same book, Jaime remembers a servant finding him and his sister Cersei in bed together and Joanna separating them and ordering them never to do that again, which echoes a scene in I, Claudius in which Claudius’ mother Antonia finds her grandson and grand-daughter Caligula and his sister Drusilla in bed together, and to say she is not impressed is putting it mildly.

Several characters have clearly been influenced by characters from I, Claudius as well. In addition to Stannis, Aerys II Targaryen has more than a bit of Nero about him, in his enthusiasm for burning down the city he is supposed to be ruling. Joffrey Baratheon/Lannister is surely at least partly inspired by John Hurt’s celebrated performance as Caligula; a young, blonde ruler who has been raised in a royal household, is the product of a lot of in-breeding, and who has a sick sense of humor and regularly mistreats servants, relatives, and wives/fiancées. Tyrion plays the role of Claudius in Joffrey’s court, the non-able-bodied uncle who is quietly trying to get on with ruling the city and minimize the damage his nephew is doing.

Martin clearly continued to be influenced by I, Claudius when he came to write Fire & Blood, the book House of the Dragon is based on. I, Claudius is not the only book written as an imagined work of history, but it is one of the best known. The format of Fire & Blood, which is written as if it was a history book that exists in Westeros in a later period, echoes not only the pretend-autobiography format of I, Claudius, but even the actual Roman history books it was based on. Author Robert Graves is known for his translation of Roman biographer Suetonius, but it is the historian Tacitus, who liked to report multiple different interpretations of events, whose style is replicated in Martin’s fictional Archmaester Gyldayn.

There are smaller nods and references throughout as well. Larys Strong’s limp and his tendency to be underestimated echoes Claudius’ limp, stammer, and twitch, as a result of which he is both under-estimated and left alive while everyone else kills each other in the battle for power. Claudius was also, like Larys, Otto Hightower, and Daemon Targaryen, a second son who was overshadowed by a popular older brother who predeceased him. One of Archmaester Gyldayn’s sources for Viserys’ court is a jester called Mushroom; I, Claudius dramatizes Tacitus’ and Suetonius’ claims that Claudius was poisoned by a mushroom fed to him by his niece/wife Agrippina.

As you can tell from that last sentence, although the medieval period of the Anarchy was a major influence on the royal household’s relationships in Fire & Blood, it was not the only one. Roman emperors did not approve of incest and it was not considered acceptable in Roman society. However, “bad” emperors, that is, emperors who were unpopular, were assassinated, and were written about in very negative terms by historians like Tacitus and Suetonius, were frequently accused of incest.

I, Claudius dramatizes these accusations and generally takes all of them literally – Caligula sleeps with all three of his sisters (Drusilla, Livilla, and Agrippina), and Nero sleeps with his mother (the same Agrippina, called Agrippinilla in the TV series so viewers can tell her apart from her mother). And Agrippina really gets around, because her uncle Claudius is given special permission to marry her by the Senate, in the only one of these relationships that is definitely historically accurate. So while the Targaryens’ incest probably owes more to ancient Egypt, in which Pharaohs were considered living gods and where the Ptolemaic Pharaohs regularly married siblings together, I, Claudius has something to answer for there as well.

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In some places, the TV adaptation of House of the Dragon has removed the I, Claudius references in favor of their own interpretation of the story. For example, Archmaester Gyldayn says Mushroom claimed that Alicent poisoned Viserys’ wine in the end, though Gyldayn is skeptical since Mushroom was not there at the time. This immediately calls to mind one of I, Claudius’ best scenes, the death of the Emperor Augustus.

The early episodes of I, Claudius are dominated by the marriage of Augustus and Livia. Livia was Augustus’ wife and in real life she was his partner in ruling. However, the Roman historians Tacitus and Cassius Dio reported rumors that after fifty years of marriage, she eventually poisoned Augustus because he was considering recalling his exiled grandson Agrippa Postumus to be his heir instead of Livia’s son by her previous marriage, Tiberius. I, Claudius dramatizes every rumor about Livia poisoning people or having them killed in order to ensure Tiberius’ succession as completely true – she comes out as quite the serial killer by the end of it.

By the end of Augustus’ life he is on to her and refuses to eat anything except figs he has picked himself, so Livia smears poison on the figs while they are still on the tree. In the television adaptation, she monologues at the dying Augustus for quite a while (Brian Blessed has never done such silent acting before or since) and then, when he has passed away, greets Tiberius with a grim “Don’t touch the figs”. Mushroom’s accusation against Alicent implies the same thing, that she has finally poisoned Viserys to death in order to make sure that her son Aegon takes the throne over her step-daughter Rhaenyra.

In House of the Dragon, Alicent’s final conversation with Viserys plays out quite differently. She doesn’t appear to have poisoned him, and she seems to genuinely believe that Viserys is telling her he wants their son Aegon to be king, rather than wickedly scheming to replace Rhaenyra with her own offspring. However, there are still echoes of Augustus’ death in the episode that follows. After Augustus passes away, Livia tells the Senate he is sleeping until she has made sure that her son Tiberius has arrived and is ready to take over power. Similarly, Alicent and the Greens avoid announcing the news of Viserys’ death until they have found Aegon and set him up for his coronation, though the television versions don’t leave him to rot for quite as long as the book versions of their characters do.

Despite these changes, the influence of Clavdivs (as it is affectionately known) on House of the Dragon is still clear. Like I, Claudius, House of the Dragon is set mainly in royal palaces, and characters rarely interact with anyone outside of the royal household. The focus is on personal relationships and political intrigue, and on an increasingly complicated family tree in which half the characters have the same name and everyone appears on their own family tree at least twice.

House of the Dragon is notable for having two lead female characters in Rhaenyra Targaryen (Emma D’Arcy) and Alicent Hightower (Olivia Cooke) and they owe something to the memorable women of I, Claudius. The TV variant of Alicent Hightower is not quite as scheming as Livia – or rather, not yet. But she certainly shares Livia’s status as a step-mother and determination to put her own son on the throne, rather than her step-daughter or step-grandsons, and perhaps she will pick up Livia’s knack for poisoning as the show goes on. Rhaenyra’s devotion to duty echoes Claudius’ mother Antonia, though Antonia would be horrified by Rhaenyra’s extra-marital sex life.

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And Rhaenys, the Queen That Never Was, has some similarities with Agrippina the Elder, the mother of the younger Agrippina, who was accused of wanting to be Queen by the Emperor Tiberius (who also killed her and two of her sons). Rhaenys is similarly just trying to stay alive and protect her family in an increasingly violent world, she is far less interested in being Queen by the time the show starts than the men around her think she is, and she is frequently the voice of reason and sanity, a character who does not share some of the sexual and/or violent tastes of her younger relatives, or the cutthroat methods of her rivals.

Like House of the Dragon, the early episodes of I, Claudius are dominated by a ruler struggling with an impending succession crisis when he dies. Augustus, like Viserys in the first couple of episodes, has one daughter by an earlier marriage but no sons. Rather than divorce his current wife Livia, Augustus marries his daughter off to his best friend, and they produce three grandsons, who become his heirs. However, his wife Livia is determined to put her own son by an earlier marriage, Tiberius, on the throne and systematically removes the competition – three young men named Gaius, Lucius, and Agrippa Postumus. We can see these three reflected in Viserys’ three Velaryon grandsons Jacaerys, Lucerys and Joffrey. We have already seen Lucerys die in something that was not quite an accident while away from home, just as Lucius did in I, Claudius; we will have to wait and see if Jacaerys is poisoned and Joffrey exiled, as Gaius and Postumus were.

Later episodes of I, Claudius portray the fallout and the increasingly tense relationships between the younger generations of the family. How much of that we will see reflected in upcoming seasons of House of the Dragon, we don’t yet know. But it seems likely that many of the themes of I, Claudius – which went on to include orgies in the palace (Caligula), the ruler arranging the murder of his own nephew/adopted son by witchcraft (Tiberius), multiple instances of close relatives killing each other, and every single Emperor being murdered/assassinated – will be reflected in the themes of upcoming seasons of House of the Dragon.