WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FOR THE FIRST SEASON OF GAME OF THRONES.
Today is an important day, the day we talk about one of the single greatest and most intimidating group of individuals to ever roam the known world of Game of Thrones, a people led by the kind of man that makes women swoon and men wish they had grown their hair out longer and practice scowling in the mirror: The Dothraki.
The Dothraki are a group of nomadic horse warriors that occupy a massive stretch of grassland in central Essos known as the Dothraki Sea.
Due to the vast steppes and the difficulty of finding any other resources other than grass anyone who expects to make a living here has to rely on horses for transportation and as a result horses factor heavily into Dothraki culture, so much so that any Dothraki who is incapable of riding is no longer fit to lead them or isn’t even fit to exist as a free man at all. Most of the Dothraki diet consists of horse meat and fermented mare’s milk and by the time a Dothraki child is four years old he is expected to be able to ride and fight from horseback. With such a brutal culture living in such a desolate place it’s no wonder that the Dothraki respect strength above all else and will only follow a leader, or khal in the their language, they deem worthy to follow.
In regards to their weapons and fighting style the Dothraki prefer speed and agility over brute power and defensive tools such as armor. As a result they tend to ride into battle with very little armor and prefer to use hit and run tactics while firing arrows from deadly recurve bows at tremendous range. When they do charge in for close combat they use a wide variety of weapons like lassos and bolas to unhorse opposing riders and the infamous arakh, a curved sword with a single razor sharp edge, for scything through exposed riders and armor (note: the picture below is more in line with what is in the books rather than the show).
The Dothraki have played an important role in the history of Essos, usually a role that involves a lot of burning and pillaging. After the Doom of Valyria the Dothraki realized that their former neighbors to the east were substantially weaker and were just sitting on mountains of plunder and armies of slaves that were ripe for the taking. Under the leadership of Khal Temmo (it is worth mentioning that Khal Temmo became the leader he was by cutting off the hands, feet, and genitals of a rival Khal and burning them in front of his eyes before killing him because that’s how Khal Temmo rolls) a massive hoard of over 10,000 horse riders attacked and burned their way through the former Valyrian Empire. Determined to make the Century of Blood live up to its name the Dothraki were poised to sack the city of Qohor but were defeated by a small force of Unsullied eunuchs.
After this defeat the Dothraki were content with remaining in the Dothraki Sea barring the occasional raid into Free City territory. When this happens the Free Cities are usually content with buying them off with tribute of gold or slaves. However, during the events of Game of Thrones the deposed Targaryens attempted to forge a treaty with the most powerful khal in several generations: Khal Drogo.
Unfortunately, Drogo’s attempt at being the first Dothraki to cross from Essos and invade Westeros was thwarted with his untimely demise and while many of the Dothraki who followed him left to travel back to the Dothraki Sea, his wife is determined to continue where her husband left off, only this time she has dragons.
It is very difficult to find an exact historical parallel to the Dothraki because the concept of “steppe dwelling nomads who rely on horses for transportation and are very good at fighting from horseback” is a surprisingly broad category that can refer to dozens of ethnic groups. What is clear is the location of the Dothraki Sea, which is very similar to the steppes of central Asia and southern Russia.
Like the Dothraki Sea the steppes are oceans of grass and not much else. Resources that are required for a more sedentary lifestyle like a constant supply of water or timber or mineral deposits required to build any sort of lasting shelter, are hard to come by and as a result anyone who wants to survive has to rely on horses for covering the vast distances of the steppes in search of pasture and other resources. Despite the hardships many different people have adopted this nomadic lifestyle with great success such as the Scythians,
their descendants the Alans,
and the Cumans, a group of people who would eventually be better known as the Cossacks.
You’ll notice a couple of similarities among all three of these photos. First, they are all carrying bows and arrows since it turns out that if you depend on either hunting or keeping predators away from your flocks in order to survive you tend to get really good at shooting things and second, they all look like they’re either fighting or about to fight since it also turns out that having to defend your resources from other neighboring tribes makes you really good at fighting which you can then use to extract tribute from your more sedentary neighbors. But if we really want to draw a direct comparison to the Dothraki of Game of Thrones we’re going to look at two more nomadic warrior races: the Huns and the Mongols.
The Huns were a group of pastoral nomads from what is now known as the Ukraine and parts of Russia. Around 434 A.D the Huns united around a single leader, Attila the Hun. Although not much is known about his early life other than the fact that he was born into a family with royal blood or how he rose to power what isn’t debated is the effect he had on the ancient world. By asserting his leadership over the Huns he was able to overrun the neighboring Alan tribes and force the Gothic tribes into Roman territory. Once he realized that the Roman Empire was weak and ripe for the taking he promptly invaded and wound up carving out an empire larger than Rome.
His effect on the fall of Rome coupled with his claims he was the scourge of God make him a parallel to Khal Temmo in the books. For Khal Drogo we’re going to look a bit farther.
In the Game of Thrones universe Khal Drogo is one of the most powerful Dothraki warlords in existence. Capable of mustering an army of over 40,000 rabidly loyal warriors Drogo has never been defeated in battle. Also he has an interest in foreign women, seeking to marry someone exotic, in this case one of the last Targaryens. In my opinion, Khal Drogo shares several similarities with the real world Genghis Khan of the massive Mongol Empire.
Like Drogo Genghis was a great leader among his people (they even share a similar title: Khal and Khan) and built a massive empire on the back of his fiercely loyal armies of horse archers.
The Mongol Empire was legendary for its size and surprising tolerance towards other religions and people (provided you paid your tribute and didn’t revolt because if you didn’t God help you) but just like Khal Drogo it started to crumble after the death of its leader Genghis. Granted the empire itself would last for more than a century after his death but interestingly enough it was the death of Genghis that saved Western Europe/Essos and Westeros/England from being pillaged.