History and Legends of Game of Thrones: Sellswords.

WARNING: SPOILERS!

It’s fair to say that most of the Game of Thrones universe is in some form of conflict on a pretty much constant basis, probably because warfare and fighting makes for a much more exciting read than learning about “Ivan the Peasant” and how much grain he produced during the harvest or “Bob the Accountant” and how he managed to wipe away his lord’s debts (although who knows, in the right hands that could make for an interesting story…).  Anyway, most of the Game of Thrones universe is embroiled in conflict and much of that fighting is either done by private armies of paid men at arms

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or professional knights.

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However, relying on any one of these types of soldiers for your army requires a couple of things: either a large prison population, a large treasury capable of paying and equipping a standing army, or enough land to give to a large number of knights that allow each of them to afford the training, armor, and horses according to their station.  These are three things that locations such of the Free Cities don’t have (they could rely on slave armies but history and the show has proven that it is usually a bad idea) so what do they do instead?  They rent armies in the form of mercenaries.

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With all the petty little wars the Free Cities fight anyone who is capable of using a sword and has a band of like minded compatriots can make a fortune fighting for whatever side they choose.  Groups like the Second Sons (named so because traditionally the first son in any family usually inherits everything leaving the second son to make his fortune any way he can) have been around since the Doom of Valyria, finding enough work and pay to stay together for over 400 years.  Instead of being loyal to a specific lord or land these mercenary companies are simply loyal to whoever can pay them the most and once their services have been bought professional courtesy dictates that they remain loyal to the side writing their paychecks.  However, while some sellswords and mercenary companies have proven to be loyal soldiers and even good friends to many of the main characters.

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if they think your cause is hopeless and you don’t have a chance of victory they will leave you rather than be butchered.

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Despite the notion that most of the fighting in the Medieval Ages was performed by noble knights in shining armor and a lord or king’s personal army of men at arms, Medieval and Renaissance warfare had a long and not so proud tradition of mercenaries willing to fight for the highest bidder.

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This painting with the rather garishly dressed group of men carrying large poleaxes is a painting of a Condottieri company, Medieval mercenaries for hire.  Like the Free Cities, the city states of Italy were not especially suited towards raising and maintaining a large standing army or large numbers of knights.  As a result, wealthy cities like Milan and Venice often resorted to paying “contractors” to fight their wars for them.  And like the many frequent wars between the Free Cities in the Game of Thrones books, there was plenty of business to go around.

Like the Second Sons the Condottieri held themselves to particular standards.  They would maintain their loyalty to their patron, as long as their patron kept paying them.  Also, quite a few mercenary captains were the distant relatives or bastards of wealthy families, people who were cut out of inheriting their family’s wealth and became soldiers of fortune to pay the bills.

Despite all the talk of honor in combat and loyalty that many of the character in Game of Thrones like to prattle on about at the end of the day the most important objective was victory over your opponent and mercenary companies provided a quick and easy way to bolster armies with experienced and skilled soldiers.  The importance of mercenary Condottieri in Renaissance warfare would also lead to the decline of the feudal lord and his knights and the rise of the professional army in European history.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: The Free Cities continued

On Monday we talked about how the Free Cities of Essos.

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Bear a striking resemblance to the Italian city states of Renaissance Italy.

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Today we’re going to go into a bit more detail on each of the Free Cities and which real life city state they share the most in common with.  This means the format is going to be a little bit different where instead of devoting the first half of the article to the Game of Thrones topic and the second half to its historical counterpart we’re just going to give each city their own paragraph.  Also, there will be lots of overlapping and this entire article is based on my opinion only so if you disagree or think differently please leave a polite and detailed explanation in the comments below.  Anyway, here we go!

Volantis:

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Volantis is the southern most of the Free Cities and also has the closest ties to the Valyrian Freehold.  They attempted to rebuild the empire but were defeated by the combined efforts of the rest of the cities.  Their southern location and ties to the former empire make them similar to Renaissance Rome.

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Like Volantis Rome existed as a reminder of Italy’s once former glory as a united country.  As the seat of the Catholic Church Rome held quite a bit of power over Italy and the rest of Europe.  While Rome never reclaimed its place as the dominant Italian power it did play a major part in organizing several key alliances that kept Italy mostly free of encroaching European powers.

Braavos:

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Probably the most well known of the Free Cities Braavos is home to some of the most powerful organizations in the Game of Thrones universe.  The city was founded in secret by a collection of former Valyrian slaves and was hidden from the rest of the world until the Doom of Valyria where it established itself as a political and economic powerhouse.  After sailing under the legs of the Titan of Braavos there is so much you can do from seeking loans and money from the famed Iron Bank, hiring Braavosi sell swords, or if you’re really desperate hiring one of the Faceless Men to assassinate your target.

Stylistically Braavos is all over the place.  The Titan of Braavos is reminiscent of the Colossus of Rhodes, a giant statue that was commissioned to celebrate the defeat of the Hellenistic general Demetrius.

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We’ve talked about how the Iron Bank and the Faceless Men are similar to the Medici bankers of Florence and the Assassins of the Nizari but the city’s foundation, location, and importance to the Game of Thrones universe make it similar to the real life city of Venice.

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Like Braavos, Venice was founded in response to the fall of the Valyrian/Roman Empire and the chaos that ensued.  The collection of refugees and fugitives that settled the marsh and swamps that would become Venice would eventually turn the city into one of the most powerful trading posts and naval powers in the world.

Qohor and Norvos:

I’m lumping these two cities together because both are known for producing weapons and a very distinct class divide.  Both these cities were founded by religious dissidents who disagreed with the Valyrian practice of religious freedom and grew to become their own separate states.  Norvos is most famous for its strange long axes

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while Qohor is known for its fine metal work, including being one of the only places that is still capable of re working Valyrian steel and for beating back the Dothraki with a group of 3,000 Unsullied.

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While the religious overtones of the foundation of each city is similar to Rome (told you there would be some overlapping) each city’s martial tradition and skill at working metal makes them both strongly similar to the city state of Milan.

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Milan grew out of the fall of the Roman Empire to become one of the richest and most powerful city states in Italy (it still holds the position today as one of Italy’s economic powerhouses).  Interestingly enough one of Milan’s most famous exports was its armor, which was renown for its quality and strength.

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Milan also grew powerful with the influence and the patronage of the Sforza family, one of the great families of the Renaissance, who were most famous for being the patron and benefactor to the great Leonardo da Vinci.

Tyrosh, Lys, Myr, Pentos, and Lorath

I’m lumping the last five together because there isn’t that much information to go off of in the books or show.  Each of the cities have their own distinct product or specialty to contribute: Myr has the Red God, Lys has poisons, prostitutes, and pirates, Tyrosh sells cloth, Pentos has its location, and Lorath doesn’t really have anything.

Of the remaining five cities only Tyrosh and Lys stand out as the historical counterparts to Renaissance Florence and Genoa.  Florence began its rise as an Italian power by trading in cloth, a tactic that parallels Tyrosh and led the rise of the Medici family.

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Lys, and to a lesser extent Tyrosh and Lorath, are coastal and depend on maritime trade, fishing, and piracy for survival.  This parallels the rise and reign of Genoa as one of the great maritime powers of the Medieval Ages, a position that put them at odds with Venice on more than one occasion.

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And there you have it, a breakdown of each of the Nine Free Cities in Game of Thrones and their historical counterparts of Renaissance Italy.  I hope you find this article informative and educational.  If you disagree or have a different opinion on the locations and historical counterparts to each of the Free cities please leave it in a well worded and polite comment below.

History and Legends of Game of Thrones: an Introduction to the Free Cities

Today we’re going to talk about one of the most violent and politically sensitive areas in the Game of Thrones universe, a place where history and modern culture collide and anything can be yours for a price: The Free Cities.

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The Free Cities are the various former colonies, cast offs, and trading posts of the Valyrian Empire and each of them either owe their existence to the Valyrians or in the case of cities like Braavos, sprang into existence because of Valyrian culture and policy.  After the Doom of Valyria the cities became dogs without a master and began to fight among themselves to see who would take the place of the former empire.  Of all the cities Volantis had one of the stronger claims since it was one of the first and oldest Valyrian colonies but the city’s efforts to rebuild the empire were foiled when they were unable to convince the Targaryens to join them.  After the initial fighting died down a bit, and after the invasion of Khal Temmo was beaten back by a band of Unsullied each of the cities realized that the Empire wasn’t coming back and settled into a pattern of trade, commerce, bickering over smaller plots of land, utilizing small armies of paid mercenaries to settle disputes, and paying off the Dothraki every now and then to prevent each city from being sacked.  While the Free Cities are no longer the dominant political power in the Game of Thrones universe their trade and occasional disputes make them an important part of the cultural and political landscape.

We’ve talked about the Doom of Valyria before in this series of articles and how it was remarkably similar to the series of migrations, invasions, and looting that causes the end of the Roman Empire.

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This is important because after the fall of Rome the Italian Peninsula would wind up being divided in a fashion similar to the Free Cities of Game of Thrones.

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We’ll get into the details and specific politics of the Italian city states later (heck, we could have run an entire season’s worth of articles on the Free Cities and their historical counter parts if we wanted to) but for now all we need to understand is this: the fall of Rome as a central power destabilized the entire region and turned what was once a single empire into a squabbling collection of city states.

That’s not to say each of the states were completely powerless.  The Papal States became the center of Christian Europe while cities like Venice and Florence became economic powerhouses but the fact remained that Italy, like its fictional counterpart in the Free Cities, was divided into weakened tiny city states that still have an impact on politics to this day.