History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Iron Bank

WARNING SPOILERS!

Today we are going to talk about an organization more powerful than any lord, king, or army.  This organization has the power to make or break kingdoms and can mean the difference between prosperity or utter ruin.  I am of course talking about the Iron Bank of Braavos.

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The Iron Bank was an organization that was founded when the Valyrian Freehold still ruled Essos.  They were founded by a collection of tradesmen and merchants who decided it would be much more profitable to pool all their resources together and loan out money for others to risk on shops and ships rather than do it themselves.  The name of the Iron Bank comes from the disused iron mine that was used to store their combined wealth and even though they all agreed to work with each other they made sure that each member had at least two guards loyal to each of them guarding the vault at all times.

Out of all the organizations and locations we’ve talked about on this blog series the Iron Bank is probably the most influential.  They show this by forcing anyone who seeks money, whether it’s a king or a commoner, to sit on simple stools while they sit on massive gilded chairs lording over the fates of kingdoms.

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When the Lannisters assume power and the War of the Five Kings begins it is the Iron Bank that loans the money for the Lannisters to wage war.  When Tywin and Jeoffry kick the bucket, Cersei declared the Lannister’s debt null and void which pisses off the Bank to no avail (it turns out that while the Lannister’s unofficial motto is “a Lannister always pays his debts” the Bank’s motto is “The Iron Bank always gets its due”).  In response the Bank agrees to back the claim of Stannis Baratheon to the Iron Throne and grant him a considerable loan.

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The idea of powerful banks controlling the fate of nations is nothing new.  One of the most powerful banking families of the Renaissance and the historical equivalent of the Iron Bank was the rich and powerful Medici Family

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Like the Iron Bank the Medici had their paws in everything.  They were responsible for founding the Medici Bank in 1397 and made a fortune investing and trading in cloth. This made them fabulously rich and they used their new found wealth to gain political power.  The Medici’s produced several popes and two queens of France, all of them loyal members of the family and all of them bringing the gifts and gratitude of a grateful and powerful bank.  Their wealth was further displayed by the great works of art and architecture they commissioned such as Michelangelo’s David.

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and the Florence Cathedral.

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Although the Medici would eventually fall from grace they helped bring about an explosion of art and culture and for a while, controlled the fate of Europe through the money it lent and borrowed.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: the Faceless Men

WARNING: SPOILERS!

Today we’re going to talk about one of the most mysterious and deadly groups of cutthroats and killers in the entire world of Game of Thrones: The Faceless Men.

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Almost nothing is known about the Faceless Men due to their extreme secrecy.  What we do know through the show is that they are headquartered in Braavos at the House of Black and White

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They were founded during the height of the Valyrian Empire by slaves who worked in Valyrian mines.

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And they are very good at two things: killing people and disguising themselves to look like others.  It is made very clear in the books that their reputation is fearsome and with a big reputation comes a high price.  Also, they prefer to work from the shadows, coupling their ability to disguise themselves with a talent for making deaths look like “accidents”.  Nobody knows where this power comes from exactly but in might have something to do with the CAVERN OF FACES THEY HAVE HIDDEN IN THEIR HEADQUARTERS!

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One thing’s for sure.  Whether they get their power from some unknown magic or the presumed centuries of experience they have had killing people the Faceless Men are the deadliest weapons in the world and you do not one after you.

The Faceless Men are tricky to pin down as an actual historical group since it would make sense that any organization that depended on this level of secrecy would very much like to have their name removed from the history books.  That being said there is an actual group of deadly warriors that does share some similarities with the Faceless Men: the Hashashin or more commonly known as “The order of Assassins”.

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Unlike the Faceless Men the Hashashen were not mercenaries for hire.  Instead they were an Islamic religious sect known as the Nizari Isma’ili, a splinter group of predominately Shia muslims who preached a belief in reason, cooperation, and social justice.  The politics and logistics of Muslim religious orders and countless breakaways are far too complicated for this article but for now all that you need to know is that the Nizari were in a position that required a small number of followers to fight off a much larger enemy force, which resulted in the foundation of the Order of Assassins.  While not much is known about their exact foundation (see the need for secrecy above) it is widely believed that a man named Hassan i Sabbah founded the order in the 11th century.

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Sabbah was an extremely charismatic leader who ran his new order of warriors out of the captured mountain fortress of Alamut in northern Iran.

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Here Sabbah trained his followers to become some of the deadliest and secretive fighters in the known world.   His fighters were known to throw themselves into a battle with little to no regard for their own lives, appear from nowhere, and utilize tactics that had more in common with modern terrorist organizations such as Hamas or al-Qaeda.  Despite these brutal tactics they worked and the Nizari were left alone until they were finally beaten after the Mongols came in and laid the Middle East to waste.

A quick note on the word “assassin”.  The exact origin of the word is debated but it is believed that the Nizari’s enemies claimed that each soldier would consume a drug called hashish in order to get into a killing frenzy.  Members of the order were therefore called “hashashin” which would eventually become the modern westernized “assassin”.

No matter what their exact origin the Order of Assassins left a trail of bodies and blood that inspired tremendous fear, so much fear that they are still remembered in stories and books to this day.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The High Sparrow and the Bonfire of the Vanities

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF GAME OF THRONES AND INFORMATION ABOUT A VERY SPECIFIC CHARACTER!

Today we are going to take a break from the big ideas and grand scale events of the show and talk about one particular person: The High Sparrow.

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We’ve already discussed the High Sparrow’s position on things the Faith deems immoral and we’ve seen his minions of the Faith Militant perform an act so awful and so soul shattering I’m surprised it hasn’t caused an uproar yet.  I am, of course, talking about this.

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Yes, it seems the Faith Militant has left the people of King’s Landing with fate worse then death, a world without booze.  I’ve mentioned before that the Faith is dead set against all form of vice including gambling, sodomy, and most tragically drinking but at the same time it’s hard to completely hate the man since he has also preached that all men are equal in the eyes of the gods and that people should make it their duty to help those in need.  The High Sparrow has led the Faith Militant on a crusade against sin and while that isn’t all that special in itself what’s really interesting is that it has a direct historical parallel.

Just like the Faith Militant several of the real world Medieval Catholic holy orders would occasionally stage large coups in populated cities and wage a war on vice and sin.  One of the most famous of these coups was staged by this man.

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This is Girolamo Savonarola, a Catholic friar who dressed plainly and had several strong opinions on what was right and wrong.  Like the High Sparrow Savonarola preached for reform in the Church and against excess and immoral behavior.  Savonarola’s sermons were also quite apocalyptic and were very critical of what he deemed to be the immoral practices of the Church and of the people of Renaissance Florence.  While this did not make him many friends in high places (he was excommunicated from the Church in 1497 by Pope Alexander VI) he did prove to be incredibly popular with the common people.  This culminated in him leading bands of people through the streets of Florence and carrying out the infamous Bonfire of the Vanities in 1497.

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The Bonfire of the Vanities was Savonarola’s attempt to return the city of Florence to a more pious state.  He and his bands of children would wander around the city, knocking on the doors of the rich and powerful, and demanding any luxury items or secular works of literature and art.  As you can see above they were all gathered into a big pile and burned (no account on whether or not they destroyed barrels of wine but I’m sure they did).  Unfortunately Savonarola’s power and reputation would not last.  His views and ideals became too unpopular (nobody liked to live in Medieval Europe sober for too long) and all the powerful enemies he made were more than happy to see him burned as a heretic and traitor.

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Author’s Note: If I’ve wound up spoiling the future fate of the High Sparrow in this post I am truly sorry.

So there you have it, a direct historical counterpart to a specific event and person in the Game of Thrones world to a real life counterpart.  Thank goodness this is just a fantasy novel set in a time long ago.  It’s not like leaders and pundits today are going on about the corruption of society or anything.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Faith Militant

WARNING: SPOILERS FOR THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF THE SHOW AND SOME OF THE BOOKS!

Today we are going to talk about the newest political player in the show and one who threatens to turn the entire balance of power upside down: the Faith Militant.

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Members of the Faith Militant are easily recognizable from their plain black robes, the seven pointed star of the Seven scarred into their head, and their rabid devotion to the fundamental teachings of the Faith and hatred of all vice and foreign influence.  Over the course of just a couple of episodes the Faith Militant has essentially taken over Kings Landing after being shrewdly backed and re armed by Cersei Lannister.  With their new power they patrol the streets forcefully removing activities such as gambling, prostitution, and worship of foreign idols.  They have also proven to be completely fearless and even the king himself must submit to their authority.

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Before the events of the show the Faith Militant had a long and often troubled history.  They were established during the early reign of the Targaryans when they perceived the Targaryen family as unfit to rule (they didn’t like the practice of each Targaryen marrying a family member, incest is a big no no in the Faith of the Seven) and rose up in revolt.  The early faith was divided into two groups.  The Poor Fellows, who were recruited from the lower classes and women, were light foot soldiers who looked exactly like the zealots running around in King’s Landing now.

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And the Warrior’s Sons, who haven’t shown up in the show but are mentioned in the books.

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The Warrior’s sons were different from the Poor Fellows in that they were nobles and knights who fought with full armor and better weapons while the Poor Fellows had nothing more than clubs and axes.

After the Faith rose up against the Targaryens they met serious opposition with the rise of King Maegor the Cruel.

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Maegor lived up to his name and brutally suppressed the revolts of the Faith, but any attempt at crushing them would be met with horrendous casualties and even more revolts to put down.

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The Faith Militant would eventually be disbanded with the death of Maegor and the rise of Prince Jaehaerys who agreed to pardon any member of the faith who had revolted in exchange for peace.  The revolt was over and the Faith remained peaceful until the War of the Five Kings and the new rise of the Faith Militant.

The role of the Faith Militant and the power that orders like the Warrior’s Sons and the Poor Fellows wielded follows a direct parallel to real world organizations such as the Knights Templar and the Knights Hospitaller.

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Like the Warrior’s Sons, military orders like the Templars recruited from the nobility and knightly class.  They were originally founded to help guard the routes to holy sites like Crusader occupied Jerusalem (a service which they charged fees for) and protect the well being of Christians everywhere.  While orders like the Templars are among the most well known they were certainly not the only ones and each order enjoyed the privilege of have to answer only to God, an authority that would help lead them to do terrible things in the name of their faith.

The Poor Fellows of Game of Thrones have a slightly different origin then their wealthier brothers.  During the Medieval Ages it was not uncommon for large groups of poor and downtrodden penitent sinners to gather into large groups and wander around the country performing penitence for their sins and others.  They would often beat and whip themselves in their shame and became what we call flagellants today.

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The flagellants became infamous in the mid 1300’s when the Black Death was sweeping Europe.

L0004057 The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://images.wellcome.ac.uk The plague of Florence in 1348, as described in Boccaccio's Decameron. Etching by L. Sabatelli after himself. Engraving By: Giovanni Boccaccioafter: Luigi Sabatelli and Pier Roberto CapponiPublished:  -  Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons by-nc 2.0 UK, see http://images.wellcome.ac.uk/indexplus/page/Prices.html

Since it was believed that the Death was divine punishment from God large bands of people gathered together to whip and beat themselves in an act of penitence.  This culminated in a large number of revolts such as the Peasant Revolt of 1381, when a large number of English peasants who were fed up with lousy pay and the fear of death, revolted against their former masters demanding substantial change.

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With rich knights and lords defending the Church with their lives and swords and the peasants using their faith to rally and punish those they saw fit the Church/Faith Militant was and continues to be a powerful political force that lords and nobles must pay heed to.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Church and State in Westeros

WARNING!  THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM THE MOST RECENT EPISODES OF GAME OF THRONES.  IF YOU ARE NOT CAUGHT UP IMPORTANT PLOT POINTS WILL BE SPOILED.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED!

One of greatest things about Game of Thrones in my opinion is the book’s treatment of organized religion.  George R.R Martin doesn’t treat the Faith of the Seven and the worship of the Old Gods as some minor subplot but rather establishes it as a powerful force in Westeros, both as a form of identity and as a powerful political force in its own right.  In the show the Faith is represented and nominally led by the High Septon who resides in King’s Landing.  He is seen officiating over the marriages, funerals, and coronations of all the important nobles, a job that gives the Faith the ability to shape the future of Westeros by declaring marriages and the alliances that come with those marriages valid.

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He is also seen crowning the kings of Westeros, implying that the right to rule comes from the favor of the gods and as their chosen representative the High Septon has the power to validate the rule of kings.

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Unfortunately the high Septon is revealed to be a bit…lax in his duties as the leader of the Faith and in the show he is seen cavorting with prostitutes which the Faith generally frowns upon.

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As a result of these activities certain members of the Faith rise up against the High Septon while being led by another individual called the High Sparrow.  The High Sparrow has a more literal and by the book interpretation of the Faith’s teachings by shunning things like fancy clothing or even shoes.

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Feeding the poor and destitute of Kings Landing.

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And punishing anyone who disobeys the rules of the Faith.  Even the High Septon is not immune to the Sparrow’s discipline once the Lannisters give him the authority to do so.

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Due to his zealous adherence to the rules of the Faith and worship of the Seven the High Sparrow has shown himself to be absolutely fearless in his use of violence and punishment for those deemed wicked.  He even arrests the children of the Tyrell family, one of the most powerful families in Westeros, on charges of sodomy and purgery to the Faith.  He is able to do this because he believes that everyone is equally accountable to the gods no matter what their status.  With an army of zealots at his back and a righteous cause to lead them the Faith of the Seven is a political power that is to be feared and is only growing stronger.

I’ve mentioned before that the Faith of the Seven is similar to the established worship of Christianity in Medieval Europe and the Faith’s organization and power in Westeros is no different.

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During the Medieval Ages the Catholic Church was an incredibly powerful, wealthy, and important organization that had a huge impact on the livelihoods of everyone from the most powerful king to the lowliest peasant.  While the kings and monarchs of Europe lorded over people and territory the Church lorded over the souls of all Christians and if you crossed the Church you risked losing your soul to Hell and nobody wanted to be associated with someone like that.  Since the Church was responsible for overseeing the state of Christian souls they had the power to approve and annul the joining of souls, an event some like to call marriage.  Since the Church was responsible for overseeing marriages this allowed them to approve or condemn any royal alliance formed by marriage giving them incredible power over the royal families of Europe.

Like the High Sparrow’s mission the Church also played a major part in the social welfare of Medieval Europe.  The Church was incredibly wealthy controlling acres of land, building massive cathedrals, and receiving roughly 10% of every Christian’s income in the form of tithes.  You don’t build structures like this

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without some serious money.  Despite a considerable amount of corruption and greed one of the greatest missions of the Church was its charitable works and what it accomplished for the poor and destitute of Europe.

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Alms giving and humble living were important hallmarks of Medieval Christianity and many religious orders and other holy groups devoted themselves to teaching the poor and healing the sick, traditions that carry on to this day.

Finally there is was the Church’s firm belief that they answered only to a higher power and had authority above and beyond the laws of men.  Probably the greatest example of Church power was the battle of wills between Pope Gregory VII and King Henry IV of the Holy Roman Empire (what we now know of as Germany).  The Pope and the King began to quarrel over who should be allowed to appoint important church officials to certain lands in an event known as the Investiture Controversy.  Basically what happened was that The King argued that he should decide who got to hold and collect income from land he owned while the Pope argued that no religious official should be controlled by an earthly king.  The Pope wound up excommunicating the king, cutting him off from the moral support of the Church and effectively banning him to Hell.  It got so bad for Henry that he had to travel to Rome dressed in rags and prostrate himself in front of the Pope as a repentant sinner.

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The message was clear.  The Pope was the supreme authority over the souls of Christians and would not be bullied by kings and other earthly rulers.  Since the Church had a responsibility to safeguard these souls it should have a certain measure of authority over them on Earth allowing the Church to tie itself directly to the affairs of the state.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Century of Blood

After the Doom, a huge cataclysmic event that destroyed the Valyrian peninsula and the seat of Valyrian power, everything started to go to hell in a hand basket.

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With the center of their empire destroyed all the little city states and lords with half a brain realized that they no longer had to fear a legion of dragons descending from on high to wipe them out if they stepped out of line and promptly revolted.  There were three major events during the Century of Blood that would shape the history of the Westeros and Essos for ever.

The first of these big events was the attempted reconquest of the Valyrian Empire by the city of Volantis.  Volantis was the single largest Valyrian city that survived the Doom and realized that it was in a position to reconquer and preserve the Valyrian Freehold.  As a result, they promptly invaded and re conquered the cities of Myr and Lys.  However, their attempts to conquer the remaining cities who had declared their independence: Pentos, Norvos, Quohor, Tyrosh, and Lorath met with failure and eventual military defeat partly due to the aid of the mysterious “secret city” of Braavos and the refusal of the last remaining Dragonlords to help Volantis re establish control: the Targaryens of Dragonstone.

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While all this was going on in the former empire the Targaryens were busy plotting their own moves on Dragonstone.  Aegon did not want to re establish the Valyrian Empire, instead he looked west and saw a massive land filled with rival kings and ruler ripe for the taking.  Westeros was currently undergoing two huge invasions: the Ironborn from the north and what would become the Dornish from the south.

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We’ve already talked about the Ironborn and their empire but it’s worth mentioning Dorne.  They currently live in the southern most part of Westeros and are not native to the island.  They were actually from Essos and came to Westeros as refugees from the rule of the Valyrians.  We’ll talk about them later but for now there is one more important event we need to talk about, one that shook the entire known world to its core and still makes the cities of Essos and Westeros shake in terror: the Dothraki.

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The Dothraki were nomadic horsemen from the large steppes of central Essos known as the Dothraki Sea.

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We’ll cover aspects of Dothraki culture and their historical counterparts next time because it really deserves a post of its own but for now all you need to understand is the impact they had on Essos.  The Dothraki came charging out of the steppes like wildfire and with no central power to keep them in check they ran rampant, killing and burning everything in their path.

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Only two cities were able to withstand their rampage.  Mureen was able to buy them off with gold while Qohor was able to finally halt the advances of the horde by beating them in a pitched battle thanks to a contingent of Unsullied warrior eunuchs.  Despite the Century of Blood living up to its name the cities and culture of Essos remained and even began to prosper.  While the Valyrians had fallen it was replaced by a patchwork of old tradition and new cultures, ready to welcome the rise of Westeros with everything from goods to soldiers.

As stated in the previous article the Doom of Valyria mirrors the fall of the Roman Empire in our history.  While there was no cataclysmic event that shattered the Romans all at once there were several smaller events that led to the collapse of half the Empire and the sack of Rome itself.

While theories about the fall of Rome abound from the the struggling economy to the decline of moral principles, one of the most popular and dramatic explanations was the hostile takeover of Rome by barbarian hordes. See, the Empire had been suffering almost constant civil war, plague, and barbarian raids starting in 235 A.D and ending around 285 A.D, a time known as the Crisis of the Third Century.  By its end the Empire was teetering on the brink of collapse when the emperor Diocletian decided to split the Empire into the East and West Roman Empires.

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It worked for a while with Rome continuing to exist and the new Eastern Roman Empire flourishing from its new capital of Constantinople.  However, while the East prospered the West faced a new set of challenges when a large number of Germanic tribes began to move into Roman territory and set of a new set of wars.

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These new tribes like Ostrogoths, Visigoths, and Vandals were fleeing a greater threat, one of the many historical equivalents to the Dothraki, the Huns.

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We’ll talk more about the Huns and their descendants later but for now all we need to know is that they fought from horseback, came from the steppes of Central Eurasia, and were reknown for their ferocity in battle.  Once the Germanic tribes were clear of the Huns by entering Roman territory they struck a deal with Rome.  In exchange for allowing to live on Roman land the Germanic tribes would help protect the empire from the Huns.  Sadly, it didn’t work out for long and in 476 A.D an Ostrogoth leader named Odoacer (who had adopted Roman customs and rules but was still culturally Germanic) sacked Rome in order to pay his soldiers and by default became King of Italy.  For all intensive purposes, Rome had fallen.

The reaction to the sacking of Rome mirrors the ending of the Century of Blood in the Game of Thrones universe both in the reactions it fostered and effect it would have on the former empire.  After the hostile takeover by the barbarian hordes Italy was no longer unified.  Instead it was carved into various small kingdoms ruled by different ethnic groups that would eventually looked like this.

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How each of those states sprung into existence is for another time but it mirrors the formation of the Free Cities in Essos.

As for the attempted re establishment of the Valaryian Freehold by Volantis that shares similarities with the Eastern Roman Empire.  Despite the fact that Rome had fallen in 476 the Eastern Roman Empire in Constantinople was thriving.  Under the rule of the emperor Justinian.

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The Byzantines invaded and retook most of Italy, and while he was initially successful his reconquest stretched Byzantine resources too far and left them vulnerable to revolt and even more foreign invasions.  The Roman Empire was done with for good this time and would never rise again.  Europe was fractured into hundreds of petty kingdoms all fighting with each other.  Now all the players and pieces are in place for the events of Game of Thrones and the Medieval Ages.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Valyrian Steel

WARNING: THIS POST CONTAINS SPOILERS FROM SEASON 1 AND THE RED WEDDING.  YOU HAVE BEEN WARNED.

Today’s post is short, sweet, and loads of fun.  Today we are going to take a break from the big ideas and grand events of the books and show and look at a very specific material from the books and show that leaves heads and jaws rolling: Valyrian Steel.

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the books and show Valyrian Steel is a strange and almost mythical material that was created during the height of Valyrian power.  When Valyria fell, like all great empires usually do, the secret to making the material was lost and only a finite amount of the stuff remains.  The steel is remarkably light yet will cut through a man’s armor and weapons like a hot knife through butter so any sword made of Valyrian steel is basically the fantasy equivalent of a lightsaber.  As a result, any family who possesses a sword made of Valyrian Steel keeps it as a treasured heirloom and give the swords names like “Ice” or “Oathkeeper” and “Heartsbane”.  They are also so integral to each bearer’s honor and family that Tywin Lannister saw fit to melt the Stark’s Valyrian greatsword down into two swords as a giant middle finger to the Starks after the Red Wedding.

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Two other features define Valyrian steel other than its rarity and deadly capability: It is extremely difficult to reforge, requiring an extremely skilled smith and techniques that are more similar to magic than science and it is also known for the intricate designs that seem to be woven into the metal itself.

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Happily everything described in the books and the show about this strange material can be traced back to a real world super metal that made legendary swords: Damascus Steel, also known as Wootz Steel.

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Our first record of Damascus steel comes from India where it is believed that it moved to the Middle East and into Europe around the 3rd century AD.  Like it’s Valyrian cousin, Damascus Steel was famous for its beautiful patterns engraved on the steel.  Also like Valyrian Steel, it was incredibly difficult to make and was renowned for making fine swords.

While there was no magic involved in making Damascus steel the forging process was incredibly complex and almost seemed like alchemy.  Without going into too much detail steel is essentially iron with a tiny bit of carbon mixed in.  A smith would take a lump of iron, add a high amount of carbon into the molten metal, and beat and reheat the metal until all but a tiny amount of carbon was left.

Steel is processed at India's Tata Steel Plant in Jamshedpur. India's Tata Steel is likely to make a formal takeover bid for Anglo-Dutch steelmaker Corus Group at a higher price than previously offered, press reports said on 19 October 2006. The Business Standard newspaper said Tata Steel was likely to raise its offer of 455 pence per share - which values Corus Group at 4.05 billion pounds (6.03 billion euros, 7.56 billion dollars) - due to possible counter bids.

The trick was getting the right amount of carbon, too little carbon and the sword would be too soft to cut anything (not good when you’re fighting someone with armor) and too much carbon would leave the sword brittle and prone to shattering (REALLY not good in battle).  Somehow, the metallurgists responsible for Damascus Steel were able to make a metal that was both hard enough to cut well and soft enough to not break in battle while employing techniques that were similar to modern nanotechnology and haven’t been replicated for centuries (you can find out more, and the source of everything I just described here).  One of the most famous examples of this is the “Ulfberht” Sword.

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Not much is known about the sword’s origins except the name Ulfberht is stamped on the blade.  We don’t know if it’s the owner of the sword or if it’s the smith who made it but we do know that it was made of the same material, or at least something similar, as Damascus swords.  This was a prized luxury item that was only reserved for the very rich and powerful, say a lord or powerful king.  The Ulfberht sword would have been the real world equivalent of the Stark’s sword “Ice” and would have been something its owners would have cherished.

So there you have it, even the smallest details and materials from the books and show have potential historical similarities.  Tune in Wednesday when we return to form and start talking about the big ideas again.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: An Introduction to Essos

So now we’re at a point in the history of Game of Thrones where we can take a break from Westeros and explore some of the other parts of George R.R Martin’s universe.  Before we go on there is a quick correction.  I stated in previous posts that Aegon the Conqueror was born in Essos, the continent across the sea from Westeros.  It turns out that several very kind and helpful people have pointed out he was actually born on Dragonstone, a small island technically part of Westeros.  I was wrong and the internet was right.

Aegon’s lineage is interesting because while he was born in Westeros his family legacy places him firmly in the neighboring continent of Essos.

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Now if you thought Westeros was big, Essos is even more massive.  Essos plays an important part in several key subplots of the books and show serving as the base of operations for Daenerys “I am a goddess among men because I have the last three dragons and I am drop dead gorgeous” Targaryen and as a nice and busy stopover for any character that needs to either run away from Westerosi political intrigue or hire someone to make their problems go away.  There are hundreds, if not thousands, of diverse and interesting ethnic groups and cultures to look at and observe and most excitingly (and welcoming considering I need at least six more weeks of material for this blog) it has a long and detailed history of mighty empires and great works of art, culture, and magic created while the First Men and Andals were still fighting in Westeros.  Starting with the slave masters of the Ghiscari Empire and ending with the Doom of Valyria and the beginnings of Aegon’s Conquest, we are going to spend the next couple of weeks talking about the pre history of Essos.

This blog post may seem strange and short since we’re simply laying the ground work for future posts but it just wouldn’t be complete without a historical comparison.  It’s been widely alluded to before, and you probably won’t be too shocked to hear this, but Essos is basically Continental Europe and Russia.

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You can see the resemblance in shape and if we look at the history of Europe, especially everything east of Germany and around the Mediterranean Sea, there are quite a few similarities.  While the Celts still ruled Britain and the Saxons hadn’t arrived, the rest of Europe had already seen some of the greatest empires and civilizations known to world history rise and fall.  Starting with the Golden Age of Greece and ending with the Saxon invasion of Britain, we are going to compare the pre history of Essos to the long and detailed history of pre Medieval Continental Europe.

History and legends of Game of Thrones: The Field of Fire

So this is probably going to be my shortest post ever in this series.  For this article we’re going to look at one specific event in the Game of Thrones universe, the Field of Fire, and it’s historical counterpart the Battle of Hastings.

So after Aegon landed in Westeros he set about the daunting challenge of conquering the Seven Andal kingdoms.  While the Seven Kingdoms were divided each one of them had larger armies than his own.  Thankfully, their constant bickering meant that they couldn’t unite against Aegon and he could take them on piecemeal.  His greatest challenge would arise when two of the biggest kings of Westeros: King Lorren Lannister of the Rock ( from whom the Lannisters from the show trace their ancestry) and King Mern XI of the Reach (the place where the Tyrells would eventually rule, but that’s later).  Both kings realized that this foreign invader would have to be crushed and they united to form the biggest army Westeros had ever seen.

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All told the two kings had an army numbering over 50,000 including 5,000 heavy cavalry while Aegon could only field an army one fifth that size.  In the end it didn’t really matter though because Aegon had an ace in the hole: his three dragons.

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The battle went about as well as anyone would expect with a total rout of the Andals and complete victory for Aegon.  King Mern would perish in the fire and King Loren realized that he rather liked living and decided to yield to Aegon and submit to his rule.  The victory meant that Aegon controlled most of the South of Westeros and while there was still plenty of fighting to do, the Field of Fire showed that final victory was all but inevitable.

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The closet historical equivalent to the Field of Fire in real life history is the Battle of Hastings, fought in 1066 near the town of Battle in Essex England between the forces of the Anglo Saxon/Andal Harold II and the Norman/Targareyen army of William of Normandy.  You can visit the site to this day, it’s actually quite nice.

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Like Aegon, William had just landed his Norman Army and was facing the daunting task of subjugating an entire country with a comparatively small force.  Harold meanwhile had just finished fighting off another threat to his crown at the Battle of Stamford Bridge against a Norwegian king named Harald III (you see this a lot in history, not a whole lot of original names) and was unable to oppose William from landing safely.  However, once both sides were ready, a battle was set at Hastings that would decide the fate of Britain forever.

The battle itself does not share a whole lot of similarities with its fantasy counterpart.  While William had a unique weapon at his disposal in the form of the first mounted knights to ever be used on British soil they did not have the dramatic impact that Aegon’s dragons had in the Field of Fire.

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While it is interesting to think of a line of armored warriors moving quickly on horseback being similar to a dragon the Saxon army was actually quite resilient and even almost won the day.  Harold was not a stupid man, he understood the strengths of his army and weaknesses of his enemy.  Harold was able to seize the high ground at Hastings and formed a Saxon shield wall made up of his best warriors and a collection of local militia.

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Despite what people might think, horses actually have a very strong will to live and are usually not keen on riding into a tightly packed wall of shields and spears.  What William was able to do though was to slowly break the Saxon army apart and defeat them piecemeal until only Harold and his elite bodyguard remained.  Harold was eventually cut down and while it is unclear exactly how he died, popular accounts say he was slain by an arrow in the eye.

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A quick note: the image above is from the Bayeux Tapestry, one of the most well known sources of William’s invasion and the battle itself.

While the Field of Fire and the Battle of Hastings do not share many details the most important thing is that they had the same impact on both their worlds.  The Field of Fire cemented the foreign Aegon as a major ruler in Westeros while the Battle of Hastings settled the dispute over who should rule England and placed William the Conqueror firmly in control over most of the island.  Both these men were huge figures in their respective histories and both of them would go on to found ruling dynasties that would last for centuries.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Aegon the Conqueror

Welcome to the post in this blog that is about one specific person.  The one man who united all of Westeros under his sole rule and shaped the modern day events of the book and show more than any one individual: Aegon I Targaryen more commonly known as Aegon the Conqueror.

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Aegon was not a native of Westeros and did not claim to be a descendant of any ethnic group that made up the population of Westeros.  He was from the neighboring continent of Essos and, unlike the Andals, he claimed to be one of the last surviving members of one of the continent’s last great superpowers, The Freehold of Valyria.  We’ll talk about Valyria and Essos later but for now all we have to know is that Aegon saw that his homeland was dying and there was a large continent to the west that was divided among seven squabbling kingdoms and was ripe for conquering.  With his two sister wives, Visenya and Rhaynes, Aegon looked west and headed towards Westeros.

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After successfully sailing his army across the sea and making landfall at the spot that would eventually become the city of King’s Landing (the people of Westeros are many things but creative naming is not one of their forte) Aegon would set about the daunting task of subjugating and ruling the Seven Kingdoms of Westeros.  It would not be easy.  Even though the Seven Kingdoms were not united and were fighting among each other they still possessed armies and resources that were vastly superior to his own and Aegon was a foreign king in a strange land who didn’t even speak the language of the people.  However, he did have one distinct advantage over everyone else, one that would prove to be so successful and complete that it allowed him to conquer a continent and establish a legacy that would last for thousands of years: dragons.

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After the Viking invasion of Britain, and their eventual assimilation into British culture, the cultural hodgepodge that was the British Islands would experience one final invasion that would forever change their culture and way of life: the invasion of William the Conqueror.

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Now, while there are several parallels between Aegon and William there are several key differences.  First and foremost, Aegon was Valyrian, a group of people who were ethnically and culturally different from the people of Westeros while William was the Duke of Normandy, a kingdom in Northern France that was founded by Viking settlers at the point of a spear.  Fun fact: the name “Normandy” literally means “land of the Northmen”

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Also, William had loose familial ties to the kings of England, and in fact the reason he invaded was over a dispute over who should hold the title of King of England while Aegon was completely separated from the culture and ruling class of Westeros.  He was a foreign invader in every sense of the word.

That being said, there are still many similarities between the two.  For example, while the Norman invaders of England did share the same ethnic background they had spent enough time apart to develop their own distinct culture and language.  The Normans spoke an early version of French and had developed many ideas that we would later associate with the Medieval Ages.  Ideas like chivalry, reverence for the sword as the weapon of choice, and the use of plate and mail armor.  However, the biggest similarity is that both Aegon and William had a secret weapon up their sleeve.  A weapon that would allow a comparatively small fighting force to conquer a large collection of many different kingdoms under their rule.  While Aegon had his dragons William brought a new style of fighting from his home that would prove very effective: armored cavalry.

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We’ll talk about how both rulers would use their innovations on Wednesday.