The second to last episode of Game of Thrones's sixth season featured the biggest battle of the entire series so far. Dubbed the "Battle of the Bastards," it was our first real look at how two organized Westerosi armies would clash on an actual battlefield.
Interestingly though (and despite the fact that one side fielded a giant and was led by a guy who was magically brought back from the dead a few weeks prior), much of what we saw was based on some very real military tactics.
Spoilers For Game Of Thrones Season 6 Follow
To recap, the episode saw Jon Snow and Sansa Stark leading an army to retake Winterfell from House Bolton. Unfortunately for them, they were forced to do so with a woefully inadequate army comprised of mostly Wildlings, and the soldiers of a few minor Houses.
Ramsay Bolton on the other hand, had the defensive advantage, a much larger and better trained army, and the support of prominent northern families like House Umber. In terms of pure numbers, the Stark army had absolutely nothing on the Boltons'.
Luckily though, the Stark children had one small glimmer of hope: Ramsay Bolton's rule over the north was tenuous without Sansa by his side to secure his claim over Winterfell. Ramsay therefore believed that he needed to meet the opposing forces in the field, rather than wait out a siege, in order to prove his strength to the northern Houses.
With the two armies set to meet on a relatively even battleground, Jon Snow and Davos Seaworth devised a plan to try and compensate for their lack of numbers. Hoping that Ramsay would be bold or reckless enough to take the offensive, the Stark army built out their own defensive line, digging trenches to help negate the Boltons' superior cavalry forces.
This would optimistically give their Wildling footsoldiers a fighting chance in the chaos of a melee.
Unfortunately, Ramsay Bolton was far too clever, baited Jon Snow into a really obvious trap, and took away all hope of an even playing field.
Ramsay allowed Jon Snow's army to charge, intentionally creating a focused, blood-fueled point of combat. He even had his archers fire directly into the middle of it all, just to further the carnage. He correctly surmised that once the Stark forces began to take heavy losses, their commander (or in this case, Davos Seaworth), would be forced to commit the rest of their reserve forces.
In short, what Ramsay basically accomplished here was funneling the entirety of the Stark army into a single spot on the battlefield, and what happened next really showcased the extent of his tactical genius.
With the attention of the Stark army fixated, Ramsay brought in his secret weapon: a battalion of heavily armed and armored soldiers, completely battle-fresh, who encircled the entire Stark army with a wall of shields.
They then methodically advanced, using long spears to render their foes almost completely helpless. Had it not been for the intervention of the Knights of the Vale, Jon Snow and his army would have been completely annihilated.
While it might have felt like a pretty fantastical sort of battle strategy, this incredibly effective tactic was actually based on some very real military history.
Specifically, the creators of the show turned to the Battle of Cannae, which took place in 216 BC, for inspiration. The conflict was fought between a large Roman army, and forces led by the legendary military commander Hannibal.
On paper, Hannibal was at an extreme disadvantage. His opponent had fielded over 30,000 more men. However, much like Ramsay Bolton, Hannibal had a plan.
His strategy there was to draw the Roman forces into a focused melee. He then curved his offensive line around the Roman army in a rough crescent shape, encircling them. To close the circle (since Hannibal didn't have a handy wall of corpses to count on), he attacked the rear of the Roman army with cavalry, nullifying their numerical advantage.
Just like the Battle of the Bastards on Game of Thrones, the resulting real-life battle was a slaughter. Hannibal's losses totalled under 6,000, while the Roman army was nearly entirely destroyed. Only 10,000 of the original 86,000 Romans survived to surrender when the dust had finally settled.
Additionally, the Bolton shield formation itself was inspired by another bit of historical military tactics. Known as the Macedonian phalanx, the formation was made famous by Alexander the Great, who used it to conquer the Persian Empire.
Very similar to what we saw in Game of Thrones, the phalanx involved rows of soldiers wielding 18-foot long spears. This created a wall of points that was extremely difficult to defend against, and nearly impossible to break through.
This method of fighting would eventually evolve into the Roman legions, who wielded large shields similar to the ones we saw used by the Bolton army.
All told, the Battle of the Bastards was a fantastic piece of cinematic warfare to watch, due in large part to a grounded sense of realism and plausibility. This of course was made possible by the show's commitment to detail, and its crew really taking the time to research and integrate actual battlefield tactics.