With all the fire and blood in Game of Thrones’ final few episodes, it’s easy to forget that all of this dragon-related violence has happened before. Almost 300 years ago, Jon Snow and Daenerys’ ancestor, Aegon Targaryen, united the Seven Kingdoms through a vicious campaign that earned him the nickname, The Conqueror. At the heart of Aegon’s conquest were the Targaryen family’s three dragons, Balerion, Vhagar, and Meraxes.
While Westeros may have been powerless against Aegon’s dragons at the beginning of his conquest, the various lords of the land slowly developed tactics and weapons to use against them. But Aegon, aspiring conqueror that he was, developed his own maneuvers as a counter. And both sides of this centuries-old push and pull of battle were on display during the Battle of King’s Landing.
[Ed. note: this post contains major spoilers for Game of Thrones season 8, episode 5]
After the underused, but impressive Euron shot down and killed Rhaegal with Qyburn’s scorpions in episode 4 of season 8, Dany brings a few new tactics to her fight at King’s Landing. More specifically, she flies straight down onto Euron’s floating arsenal, and burns the fleet to a crisp. But Dany wasn’t the first person to think of this. In fact, this specific move was originally used, as far as we know based on George R.R. Martin’s writings, by Aegon himself at Harrenhal.
The castle of Harrenhal was, and still is, the largest in Westeros, built with five large towers and massive walls designed to withstand any siege weapon on Westeros — at least the time of its construction a few years before Aegon’s conquest. Harren the Black, the lord of Harrenhal, was one of the last houses in the Riverlands to surrender to Aegon, thanks to his confidence in his castle’s defenses. In Harren’s own words, “I built in stone. Stone does not burn.” When Harren declined to surrender to Aegon, the Conqueror simply said, “when the sun sets, your line shall end.”
Later that night, when the moon was high in the sky, Aegon flew Balerion above the clouds until they were directly over Harrenhal. Then Aegon swept straight down on top of the castle commanding Balerion to burn it as they flew. Herren was right that stone doesn’t burn, but everything else in the castle did, and hot enough to melt the masonry of Harrenhal into the ruined towers we see in season 2 of the show.
It is worth noting, though, that when Harrenhal burned it didn’t have scorpions defending its walls, so Dany’s assault on King’s Landing was likely the first time Aegon’s maneuver had been used against these specific weapons.
It’s unclear when exactly in Westerosi history scorpions were first used. But we know for sure that Qyburn isn’t the first person to think of taking down a dragon by firing a very large bolt out of an even larger crossbow.
The first time of consequence that scorpion-like weapons were used was 10 years after Aegon’s conquest in the First Dornish War. Rhaenys Targaryen rode Meraxes into battle against the Dornish castle of Hellholt, and the Dornishmen had scorpions ready for her attack. To Qyburn’s credit, none of those ancient scorpion bolts could pierce Meraxes’ scales, though one bolt caught the dragon straight through the eye, causing the beast and Rhaenys to fall from the sky. The impact destroyed the tallest tower of the castle.
The Battle of King’s Landing was a picture perfect encapsulation of the push and pull of medieval warfare. Dany brought in dragons, so Qyburn turned to history to fight back. His big crossbows are just an improved version of these nearly 300 year old devices used to kill Meraxes. But when he improved them, Dany too looked back to history and employed her own version of Aegon’s dive bomb tactic to dodge the scorpions. Too bad no one told the Lannister soldiers and the Golden Company what to look for.