The Big Picture

  • Balerion, the Black Dread, was the largest and oldest dragon in Westeros and played a crucial role in the history of House Targaryen.
  • Balerion was used as a weapon during the War of Conquest and the First Dornish War, and as an enforcer of Maegor’s tyrannical rule.
  • Balerion’s characteristics reflected the personalities of his different riders, showing that dragons have their own intelligence and instincts.

Dragons are always part of what drives people to Game of Thrones. Its portrayal of the fabled beast is one of its highlights, and any battle where dragons are involved is one that nobody wants to miss. With House of the Dragon, we’re treated to countless dragons of all sizes – including in the fateful fight between the small Vermax and the gargantuan Vhagar at the end of Season 1. The latter is the biggest and oldest dragon in Westeros at the time of the series, but there was once a bigger dragon around, and one who got to live longer — Balerion, the Black Dread. In both series, we only get to see his decayed skull after he’s been dead for years, but he was such an important dragon, that his very history is intertwined with that of the Seven Kingdoms.

house of the dragon poster

House of the Dragon

The reign of House Targaryen begins with this prequel to the popular HBO series Game of Thrones. Based on George R.R. Martin’s Fire & Blood, House of the Dragon is set nearly 200 years before Game of Thrones, telling the story of the Targaryen civil war with King Viserys.

Release Date
August 21, 2022

Ryan J. Condal, George R.R. Martin

Main Genre



Aegon the Conqueror and Maegor the Cruel Turned Balerion Into the Black Dread

Image via HBO

The history of the Seven Kingdoms as a unified nation begins with the War of Conquest. It’s a famous tale in A Song of Ice and Fire: Aegon the Conqueror rode Balerion along with his sister-wives, Rhaenys, who rode Meraxes, and Visenya, who rode Vhagar. Together, they conquered and unified the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros and, thus, began the rule of House Targaryen, with their three dragons as symbols of their strength.

It was during this era that Balerion earned the nickname “the Black Dread,” both because of his black scales and overpowering strength. He was responsible, along with Aegon’s strategies, for subduing Harrenhal and deposing House Gardener as ruler of the Reach at the Battle of the Field of Fire. Also, it was thanks to Balerion’s menace that Torrhen Stark, the last King in the North before the Conquest, bent the knee to House Targaryen. Once the Seven Kingdoms were unified and at peace, Aegon got the swords of his enemies to forge the Iron Throne, and it was Balerion’s mighty dragonfire that melted them and stuck them together. Aegon would also ride Balerion into battle during the First Dornish War, when Rhaenys and Meraxes were killed.

After Aegon the Conqueror died, his heir, Aenys I, ascended to the Iron Throne, but, thanks to some scheming by Visenya, it was her son with Aegon, Prince Maegor, who took the throne, not Aenys’ heir. Maegor was violent and sadistic and hadn’t claimed any dragons because he deemed all of them unworthy of him. Instead, he coveted Balerion, which he successfully claimed. Balerion served as an enforcer of Maegor’s tyrannical rule, spreading fear and destruction throughout the Seven Kingdoms.

Together, Maegor and Balerion ruthlessly crushed many rebellions, from the Vale of Arryn declaring independence during the reign of Aenys I to the uprising of the Faith Militant, already under Maegor’s rule. Despite being polyamorous and holding many wives at once, Maegor didn’t have any heirs, which weakened his claim to the Iron Throne. The main threat was Aenys I’s heir, Prince Aegon, known as “the Uncrowned” for having the throne stolen from him. He and his dragon Quicksilver clashed with Maegor and Balerion at the Battle Beneath God’s Eye, which gave Maegor more room to exert his tyranny upon the realm. Gradually, he lost power, because no one in Westeros could stand him anymore, and he was eventually found dead one morning, sitting on the Iron Throne. It was rumored that he was killed by the throne itself. One of the few good things Maegor did was build the Red Keep and the Dragonpit in King’s Landing to house Balerion and the other dragons.

Balerion’s Final Years with Princess Aerea and Viserys

Jon Snow riding on Rhaegal
Image via HBO

Maegor’s death left Balerion without a rider for years. The dragon flew back to Dragonstone and built a lair on the island, until, one day, a young and troubled princess came to claim him. Princess Aerea Targaryen had been Maegor’s heir but lost the throne to Jaehaerys I (Michael Carter). Aerea had a complicated history, with rumors that she had actually been switched with her twin sister for growing from a timid girl into a spiteful and willful young woman. To try and tame Aerea’s wild temper, her mother, Rhaena (whom Maegor had forced to be one of his queens) was always trying to tell Aerea to claim a dragon, so she could fly. When Aerea finally did it, it was Balerion that she claimed, and the two of them vanished.

At first, Rhaena thought Aerea had flown to King’s Landing, but the girl was nowhere to be found there either. Aerea and Balerion went missing for more than a year, and Jaehaerys offered rewards and sent countless expeditions after them, to no avail. One day, out of the blue, Balerion descended upon the Red Keep covered in serious bruises, with Aerea severely ill and barely clinging to him. She died soon after, but Balerion survived. It was said that Aerea was unable to tame him when she claimed the dragon and that he took her to the ruins of Old Valyria, where he was born. What happened in this interim remains unknown.

After that, Balerion became the first dragon to be housed in the Dragonpit after it had finished construction. By then, Dragon keepers were openly discouraging Targaryen royals to try and tame him, as he was old and slow. The last person to try it was Prince Viserys (Paddy Considine), who managed to claim Balerion but had a very short time with the dragon. Balerion was already so big and so old, that he could barely take off, which is why Viserys only rode him three times around King’s Landing – he couldn’t even reach Dragonstone. Less than a year later, Balerion died of plain old age, which is highly unusual for a dragon, and Viserys never bonded with another dragon afterward.

Dragons Often Reflect Their Riders’ Traits, and Balerion Was Proof

There are many fantastic beings in A Song of Ice and Fire. Through Game of Thrones, we know mostly of dragons and direwolves, and both of them share the interesting trait of reflecting their riders and owners’ personalities. Balerion may be the best example of how that comes to light in dragons. He had four very different riders and also met them in different stages of his own life, and the things he did with each of them were no coincidence, and also not just on command.

With Aegon the Conqueror, Balerion was used mostly as a weapon during the War of Conquest and the First Dornish War. But Aegon wasn’t an average warlord, so he knew Balerion could act as a deterrent, too, which is how he prevented more blood by having House Stark bend the knee and also why he traveled regularly through the Seven Kingdoms with Balerion, to remind his subjects of Targaryen might. Balerion never disobeyed, and knew his vital role – dragons are smart, not mindless beasts. Maegor the Cruel also saw the formidable tool that the dragon was and used him to exert tyranny upon the realm. With him, Balerion turned into a violent and fearsome creature.

But he also reflected the less dangerous traits of his last riders. Aerea, for example, was a confused and troubled young woman, who felt neglected by her family as she was constantly overtaken in the succession line. When she claimed Balerion, he acted on these instincts, and went to the place where he was born – a clear metaphor for longing for simpler times. Viserys, in turn, never demanded much from the dragon, who also didn’t mind just going around King’s Landing a few times. Even after Viserys was crowned king, he was never known for being assertive and commanding, which is why claiming a slower dragon with a big name suited him perfectly.

House of the Dragon Season 2 will premiere in Summer 2024. Season 1 is available to stream on Max in the U.S.

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