Tag Archives: HBO

History Behind the Thrones: The Unsullied of Essos and Egypt’s Slave Dynasty

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

maxresdefault

As the series currently sits Daenery Targaryen is currently hangin’ out in Mereen, playing queen with approximately the same level of effectiveness that I imagine a bull would run a china shop.

However, in spite of her constant bumbling, fumbling, and stumbling, she has thus far managed to maintain her precarious position of power in a city, society, and culture she knows absolutely nothing about. This is due in large part to The Unsullied: Daenarys’s personal army of highly trained former slaves.

dany-and-unsullied-house-targaryen-34441433-1738-978

These highly trained soldiers make up one of the most feared military forces in the world (in spite of their lack of testosterone) and with them behind her Daenarys has been allowed (thus far) to mismanage the cities of the old Ghiscari Empire to her heart’s content. This isn’t exactly uncommon in history. Rulers throughout time have taken, and held power, in spite of their own amble deficiencies because they had a strong military force at their back. However, there is one particular group from history that I am often reminded of when I see The Unsullied; The Mamluks.

For a little under 300 years the Mamluks established a dynasty that expelled the Crusaders from the Middle East, halted the advancement of the Mongol Hordes under Hulagu Khan (grandson of Ghengis Khan), and just generally acted like badasses from their Sultanate in Cairo. What is interesting about the Mamluks, however, is that they are not a particular “house” or “dynasty” but rather a specific rank or caste of slave soldiers in Egypt during the middle ages. They were a military caste under direct control of the Ayyubid Dynasty (the dynasty of Saladin) until they overthrew their masters and established their own Sultanate in 1250.

In the case of the Mamluks they were purchased as young boys (much like the Unsullied) and trained until they had gained mastery in their martial way of life. At this point they were freed, but still expected to stay with and serve the master who had purchased them, only as free men now. The Unsullied are in fact free by Daenerys’s own decree, but rather than choosing to attempt to return to whatever remains of their lives before they were purchased, they too have chosen to stay with their self proclaimed master (Daenerys). In either case, however, the rest of the world still considers the two forces “slave armies” in spite of the fact that they are actually freedmen.

In either case, however, we have a region of our given world which is rich in history, tradition, and culture. In the case of the real world Egypt, one of the cradles of civilization whose famous Nile River was sustaining powerful Kingdoms while Western Europe was simply concerned with the size of their goat herds. And in the case of George R. R. Martin’s world the city of Mereen within the boundaries of the old Empire of Ghis was already old and mighty before the fabled Valyria had even been brought into existence. And in both cases a once disenfranchised, but supremely important martial, servile class has risen up to commandeer and rule this civilization.

Now, the parallel isn’t perfect, but there are several key factors relating the two groups. The Mamluks were never castrated as the Unsullied are. The Mamluks were prized horsemen skilled with a steppe short bow since the boys taken as slaves to be added to the Mamluk ranks were at first largely from the Kipchak Turks on the Steppes of Eastern Ukraine. The Unsullied, in turn, are prized infantry men employing hoplite tactics. In both cases, however, the spear or lance, has been made central to the depiction of these warrior elites.

Mamluk Lances

unsullied1

Unsullied: Also proficient with the use of pointy things.

Moreover, their reputations as warriors of fabled skill and prowess permeate the whole world int he case of both groups. And perhaps even more interestingly, both groups were compared to Steppe Tribes in order to prove their martial worth. The Mamluks famously defeated a depleted Mongol force in Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, halting the advance of the once unstoppable Mongol Hordes at long last. This victory over the allegedly invincible Mongols allowed Europeans to justify their subsequent defeats at the hands of the Mamluks. After all, they explained, these are the same warriors who defeated the Mongols, its no wonder we were defeated. It wasn’t a fair fight.

The Unsullied, then, when Daenerys is first told about them, are compared favorably to Martin’s own Mongol Horde, the Dothraki. The Slavers in charge of training and selling Unsullied inform her that these are some of the only warriors in the known world who can possibly defeat a Dothraki Khalasaar.

In both situations then we have a caste of elite, world renowned slave soldiers. They are both freed and both rise to immense importance in the political affairs of the world around them (either creating a Kingdom of their own in Egypt as the Mamluks did or as the backbone of a fledgling Empire in the case of Daenerys). The Mamluks eventually fell to the Ottoman Turks whose use of gunpowder proved too much for even an exceptional military tradition such as theirs. It remains to be seen what kind of fate will ultimately befall the Khaleesi and her besieged army in Mereen. However, whereas the Mamluks could constantly replenish their ranks, either with the acquisition, training, and freeing of more slave boys or, ohhh… idk… by procreating… the Unsullied are not so fortunate. So whatever Daenerys does, if she plans to use the Unsullied for it she better act quickly, cuz no matter how powerful these guys are they have a definitely shelf life. *cough* *cough* GO TO WESTEROS ALREADY *cough*

History Behind the Throne: The Weapons of Westeros – Valyrian Steel

The new season of HBO’s Game of Thrones is nearly upon us, so I figured now was as good a time as any to dust off the ol’ History Behind the Throne series! So without further ado, here is your intro as always, and we’ll get to today’s topic! A quick look into some of the Weapons of Westeros!

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

Varys Examining Assassins Dagger

Valyrian Steel is an oft talked about and hotly sought after commodity in the world of Westeros. We learn via several characters that this intriguing metal is stronger than any iron or steel made by modern smiths, but lighter, more malleable, sharper, and more deadly than anything currently created by the smiths of Westeros (or Essos for that matter). Moreover, we’ve learned throughout the show that smiths in the time we are viewing have lost the knowledge necessary to create Valyrian Steel (thereby making it even more rare and valuable) and very few even have the knowledge of how to rework a Valyrian blade into a new weapon.

Valyrian Steel comes from the oft discussed fallen Empire of Old Valyria.

Valyrian Steel Location

Back then it was plentiful and used to craft the weapons of the once mighty Empire to fuel and press their conquests across the world in which Game of Thrones Takes place. When the Valyrian Empire fell, however, the art of crafting was lost and became clouded in mystery. Rare and highly skilled smiths are still known to be able to re-work already made Valyrian Steel, but the art of creating it from scratch is no more at the time of our story.

Because of its extreme rarity and usefulness the possession of a Valyrian Steel weapon serves as a status symbol in Westeros, and the mere possession of such a weapon can bestow immense amounts of prestige onto its holder. Which explains why, in the picture above, Varys found it to be such a curiosity that a “common catspaw” such as the assassin sent to kill Bran Stark would possess a dagger of Valyrian Steel.

Eddard Stark with Ice

Owning Valyrian Steel is exclusively the prerogative of the extremely wealthy and the extremely rich. Many of the Great Houses of Westeros have, as treasured family heirlooms passed down through the heads of the House, a Valyrian Steel weapon. Take, for instance, Ned Stark’s former sword Ice which was to be passed down to his son Rob before it was stolen by the Lannisters.

Ice Extended

 

And indeed, after stealing the sword from the murdered Ned, Tywin Lannister had it reforged into two blades, one for his son Jaime and one for his grandson the King Joffrey.

 

 

Even with all the Lannister wealth he could not buy a sword, and when he finally had one in his possession (even if it was the treasured heirloom of another house) he wasted no time in reforging it (at great expense) into a new heirloom for his own family. And although Jaimie ultimately rejected his gift, and gave it to Brienne who, again, is struck dumb by this immensely valuable gift.

Or take for instance Longclaw, the Valyrian Steel Heirloom of the House of Mormont. Lord Commander Jeor Mormont decided to give the sword to Jon Snow rather than passing it down to his own son Jorah Mormont who he feels has dishonored his house and his family.

Jeor gives Jon Longclaw

Lord Commander Mormont won’t allow his son to dishonor the blade as well and therefore decided to give it to Snow. This not only elucidates the great financial value inherent in these blades, but also an almost spiritual value placed upon them by their owners.

But how, then, could the show’s creators convey this message that Valyrian Steel was truly something to be treasured, loved, sought after, and even borderline worshipped by the show’s characters? It couldn’t simply be another hunk of metal like any other sword, or else noone would be able to tell the difference. It couldn’t be too gaudy and resplendent or it would resemble the various cheap stand ins the less fortunate Lords of Westeros try to craft in order to make themselves look powerful in spite of their lack of the treasured metal. Valyrian Steel’s beauty is in its austere and cold appearance and the solemn air about it. Lucky for the show’s creatures, they have a historic counterpart to draw upon yet again… Damascus Steel.

Damascus steel comes from, who woulda thunk it, Damascus, in modern day Syria.

Damascus map

Now, the development of this metal started in India, but as far as Medieval Europe was concerned (the historical counterpart to George R.R. Martin’s world) it came from the Middle East, and specifically the sword-smiths of Ancient Damascus. As the story goes, Europeans first came into contact (pun intended) with the metal during the Crusades. Just like in Martin’s world the metal is said to have been (and modern tests prove it was indeed) both harder, lighter, and more flexible than the standard steels available to Europeans at the time. Ergo, it was said that a Damascus Steel blade wielded by a Saracen defending his homeland could cleave a Crusader’s sword in two, and cut straight through his steel mail armor. This was given as an excuse for failed crusades at times and while the veracity of this claim is quite rightfully disputed modern tests have shown that Damascus Steel WAS both superplastic and exceptionally hard simultaneously.

Sad Crusader

Moreover, just like with Valyrian Steel, the ability to craft these weapons was eventually lost in the 18th century (although modern techniques of reproduction do exist). But the most important factor in drawing comparisons between Damascus Steel and Valyrian Steel is the appearance. Here’s Jon Snow’s Longclaw up close.

Longclaw up close

Go ahead and click on the picture to get a full resolution view of it, and you’ll notice a black wavy pattern throughout the middle of the blade. This is the way HBO’s prop designers have chosen to depict Valyrian Steel. And its no difficult feat to take a look at a Medieval Damascus Steel Blade and notice the similarities in the patterns.

1600-medieval-knight-sword-damascus-steel-5

While Jon Snow’s blade may have a more orderly pattern (which tends to happen when its designed in a prop studio) the basic forms are the same.

Both metals were highly sought after in their own times and environments. They eventually ceased to be made and as such remaining products had their value skyrocket, and they became valued heirlooms for the rich and powerful. In either event the possession of such items was a sign of power and prestige in these Medieval societies regardless of their physical properties or the veracity of their superior capabilities. Items can demonstrate worth and value beyond their monetary price, and this is clearly seen in how characters in Martin’s world value their Valyrian Steel. These blades can house hundreds of years of family history inside their beautiful patterns, and therefore need to be carefully cared for as we so often saw Ned doing with his blade Ice in Season One. Moreover, this makes it all the more painful to see someone like Tywin destroys hundreds (or maybe thousands) of years of Stark history by destroying their Valyrian Steel Greatsword, Ice to create blades for his own House. History is not always an ethereal thing, but can be quite corporeal when attached to valued items and artifacts as it is with these blades. In my opinon, then, their existence and the importance placed on them in George R. R. Martin’s world heightens the depth of the world, and makes it feel that much older and more treasured for the viewer. These swords are more than just a prop or plot point, they add immense depth to the series by their very existence, and help make this show even more rich than it already was.

History Behind the Throne: Valyria and Ghis, Essos’s Founding Feud

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

wallpaper-daenerys-targaryen-1600

Daenerys Targaryen. One of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones universe. Either because people legitimately like her story line… or because HBO has a habit of getting her naked at frequent intervals…but hey… whatever brings the casual fans in I guess? …

edited naked dany

Either way, her role in this world is actually much more significant than tits ‘n’ ass. In her current state, as we left Season 4 she is serving as a fulcrum on which two ancient civilizations of Essos bend. But let’s roll it back to the beginning for a second.

Dany is currently dickin’ around in the East. Particularly in the land of Old Ghis. The Ghiscari are a proud and ancient people who built a civilization so large and mighty, that even now, thousands of years after its fall from dominance, it still forms a prominent geopolitical pole .

Valyria and Ghis

The remains of the Ghiscari Empire are the three slave cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen, all three of which Dany has recently conquered… or subjected in some way… or something.

Dany Astapor

Dany Yunkai

Dany Meereen

NOW this is important because the Targaryens are the last of the Valyrians left in the world today. Furthermore, Valyria was Ghis’s ancient rival, so there is a lot of loaded narrative here with a Valyrian descendant conquering Ghiscari descendants. Moreover, it is in this rivalry that we see perhaps the best (although not the only) historical parallels for both Empires. Valyria and Ghis are Essos’s version of Rome and Carthage (among other rivals of Rome throughout her history) with Valyria serving as Rome and Ghis Carthage.

rome and carthage

In the case of either example (Valyria and Ghis or Rome and Carthage) the two Empires’ rivalry plays itself out over a great, and economically strategic body of water. In the case of Rome and Carthage, this was the Mediterranean Sea, the most important body of water in the history of Western Civilization. For Ghis and Valyria, however, this means Slaver’s Bay and the Gulf of Grief, strategically and economically important because of its central location along the southern boundary of the continent of Essos, and the fact that it opens up toward the continent of Westeros. In either case then we have two budding superpowers staring one another down over the veritable highway of commerce of their times and places.

This meant that at first they were not in direct contact with one another, and as such were not rivals at the beginning of their histories. Indeed, in either situation (Martin’s world or the real world) one of the two Empires is far older  (Ghis and Carthage) while the other is a relative upstart who only rose to challenge their elders many years after the elders’ rise.

carthage kangaroo

Any student of classical history has heard of the Punic Wars between Rome and Carthage. The reason these wars were called “Punic” was not in reference to Rome’s puny arms (as perceived by the Carthaginians listed above) but was rather because the Carthaginians were descended from ancient Phoenicia (located in modern day Lebanon and Israel), and the Latin work for “Phoenicians” was “Punic.” Now, the Phoenicians were super ancient and super famous. I mean suuuuuper famous… they invented the Alphabet! (phonetic? Phoenician? MIND BLOWN)

ALPHABET

BUT ANYWAY the Phoenecians got their start around 1200 BC, and an offshoot of these people, who still spoke their language, were the Carthaginians whose capital city (Carthage) was founded in 814 BC. To put that in perspective, 400 years later, before the Etruscan Wars Rome only controlled a small strip of land on Italy’s Western Coast about the size of Delaware. They weren’t even one of the 5 most powerful nations in Italy let alone the whole of the Mediterranean like Carthage. So Carthage had a far older history and culture than Rome, and far richer and more powerful economically, culturally, and militarily.

However, things did not stay that way. Rome would eventually rise to a point where it rivaled mighty Carthage in the Western Mediterranean. Moreover, both powers in the West far exceeded the strength of their Eastern Mediterranean peers. Indeed the power disparity was so great that many writers in the East looked upon the coming Punic Wars as a battle between two Western Superpowers to see who would earn the right to conquer the East once the war concluded. But I digress… Roman expansion…

Roman Imperial expansion is often portrayed (especially by the Romans themselves) as a series of defensive engagements which only became offensive in order to secure peace and stability for the future. Rome could not coexist with potential threats and hostile nations on her borders, so she sought to conquer and assimilate them. (Please disregard the fact that by conquering one hostile nation on your borders, all you do is add several NEW bordering hostile nations… this argument did not fit in Roman politicians’ logic…)

It was this logic and narrative, however, that pushed Rome to conquer the whole of the Italian Peninsula, and when they were done with that, to engage the Carthaginians in Sicily. Sicily was considered crucial to Rome’s national defense, as it represented (in Roman tacticians’ minds) a launching point from which Carthage could hypothetically invade the Italian mainland. Eventually, a war broke out… then another… and then another… and by the end of it all Rome ground Carthage into the dust, and literally sowed the soil of Carthage with salt so that no civilization could ever rise there again (a little poetic but you get the point).

sowing salt

The same basic story structure holds true for the Valyrians and the Empire of Ghis. Ghis was far larger and more powerful than Valyria in all conventional ways, buuuuut Dragons… Sooooo many Dragons…. burny burny smash smash…

…so that happened. Valyria was able to defeat Ghis, through the use of Dragons, just as soundly as Rome defeated Carthage. However, just as Carthage eventually rose again as a great city (this time as a Roman municipality re-founded and populated by Romans) so too did the people of Ghis not disappear from the history books. Their ancestors remained in the mighty cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Meereen… uuuuntil dragons came back and visited them again…

Unfortunately for the Ghiscari, dragons don't generally just pop in for tea...

Unfortunately for the Ghiscari, dragons don’t generally just pop in for tea…

It is also often said, by the Romans themselves, that Carthage kept them in check both militarily and morally, and once Carthage fell, the world was next. There was no longer any power that could stop Rome. The same appears to have been true for the Valyrians, as once they had disposed of their rivals across Slaver’s Bay they spread West conquering all of Western Essos, and the vast majority of Westeros (later on when the Targaryens left Dragonstone). In doing so both Empires spread their language (Latin was the lingua francia of Europe and High Valyrian serves the same role in Martin’s world) and culture throughout the known world. The Free cities in Essos still speak forms of High Valyrian just like the major cities of Western Europe (Paris, Vienna, Madrid) still spoke Latin even after Rome’s fall, at least in positions of political and religious power.

However, the Carthaginian parallel isn’t perfect. The Ghiscari seem to have devoted a great deal of time and energy adding to a contiguous, continental Empire (likely in order to procure slaves) whereas Carthage was a maritime nation interested in colonial expansion only in so far as it could serve her merchant marine and her navy. In this way, then, Ghis resembles Rome’s next great rival. The only Empire that ever managed to check her growth, many years after the fall of Carthage and widespread Roman expansion: Persia. Whether it was Darius all the way down to the Parthians or the Sassanids… Persia was always portrayed as a menace to the Western world. Whether it was the Greeks or later (and for much longer) the Romans, Persia was always the menace at the gates. The evil power waiting to storm the citadel and sack the Western World (aka the good guys, cuz thats the way history works… but hey, those Persians probably had big bold mustaches which honestly even I’m intimidated by today…).

shahs of sunset

So anyway if we consider the fact that, in spite of Valyria’s crushing victories over Ghis on Dragonback, Ghis, in some form, survived (in the form of the three great cities of Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen) then the Carthaginian parallel doesn’t hold true for the whole of history. Thus, George R.R. Martin appears to have inserted a Persian influence on the Ghiscari. The Persian Empire, though battered, beaten, and vastly changed, remained in existence in one form or another well into the 20th century. More importantly to our discussion, however, is the fact that Persian culture remained an alternative pole to offset its Roman counterpart on the Mediterranean. Zoroastrianism represented vast departure from Roman religious practices, and meant Persia was not only an alternate military, political, and economic counterweight to Rome, but a religious and cultural one as well. Persia and Rome, then, broke the ancient world up into 2 camps divided by their power and rivalry. Also, as an aside, and to further cement the parallel between Ghis and Persia, the primary symbol of Zoroastrianism, the Faravahar, strongly resembles the Harpy Iconography which dominates Ghiscari Religion even down to the time period we are watching now (long after Old Ghis has fallen). [If you recall we saw the Harpy in Astapor, when Dany went to purchase the unsullied, we saw it again over the walls of Yunkai, and a Third time within the city of Meereen. After Dany conquered Meereen she covered the Meereenese Harpy with an enormous Targaryen banner to assert her dominance. We even see the Harpy in those beautiful opening credits to the show.

harpy and faravahar

This is yet another example of how visual mediums, such as television shows like Game of Thrones, have such a distinct advantage in quickly elucidating points over mediums such as books. Seeing a Zoroastrian Symbol quickly reminds the Western viewer that we are looking at an Eastward-ly oriented culture, and must therefore be wary of all that we don’t know about it.

This is an important point, because it defined the foundation of “East” and “West” differences for the Mediterranean world (a legacy which has lasted centuries). The East was always known as different. It was a foreign and scary place… a mentality that reached a boiling point during the crusades after the east became Muslim BUT ANYWAY something similar happened in the world of Game of Thrones. Ghis, though defeated, served as the Eastern most border marker for the Empire of Valyria as they primarily expanded west. This meant that both Persia and Ghis capped the eastward expansion, both territoriality and culturally, of their respective rivals, and kept them relatively bottled up in the west.

In either scenario then we have a younger, ascendant power which rises up to crush its older, traditionally more powerful rival. This victory allows the upstart power to establish its culture, language, etc, as dominant in the conquered terrain. This expansion happens primarily in the West as the defeated power(s) remain a wall, guarding against eastward expansion for the ascendant power.

However, eventually this massive Empire falls, leaving behind a new era. In the case of the real world this is the Middle Ages, and in the world of George R. R. Martin this means the era in which our story takes place. This initial expansion of culture, however, sets the stage for the development of future successor kingdoms and civilizations (the Free Cities and even Westeros for the Valyrians or the eventual Kingdoms of Europe in the real world.)

What we see from Daenerys, then, is incredibly interesting (at least to a dork like me). At the end of Season 4 she mentioned that she intended to stay in Meereen, rather than moving on to conquer Westeros immediately, in order to learn how to be a Queen. By subjugating the remnants of Old Ghis and setting up a new Kingdom for herself in the rubble of her forebears’ rival’s civilization she is essentially forcing a unification of the two old rivals. The Valyrian people and their civilization were both wiped out in The Doom (something we don’t know anything about right now, but probably looked something like this…). The Ghiscari people survived, but their leadership and their Empire did not. Dany, then, is building a new Empire constructed out of the remnants of the two warring rivals, the Ghiscari people and the Valyrian leadership.

So much of Dany’s storyline, in fact nearly all of it, is about “returning home.” To her this means to Westeros. To her family’s throne which is her’s by right. However, this is a home she has never seen and knows nothing about. Indeed she has never once stepped foot on Westeros. She was born on Dragonstone island, and had to flee to Pentos with her brother immediately thereafter. So when she talks about returning home to Westeros, she means a return to the home of her ancestors, the Targaryeans. However, in establishing an Empire in Ghis she is doing herself one better. Valyria is her true home if she intends to consider the lands of her forebears, even if she has never visited them. So while fans like me have been urging Dany on for four seasons to return to Westeros, perhaps her mission is better completed here in the remnants of Ghis, a land fought over by Valyrians and Ghiscari for centuries.

Dany is physically acting out the idea that two separate peoples or nations can form one definition or ideology through rivalry. Valryia and Ghis’s combined history was defined by their rivalry the same way Rome and Carthage or Persia and Rome were. However, in rivalry these nations became so intertwined that from the outside looking in they’re all a part of the same larger narrative. That means they’ve always been part of one substance, and all Dany is doing is taking that from idea to reality. Valryai and Ghis (and Rome and Carthage) measured themselves against one another for centuries, and as such even when one was defeated, they survived in the minds of the other if nowhere else.

Retroactive Recap: The Wonderful World of HBO’s Oz

OZ

So because I am a degenerate with too much time on my hands I’ve been binge-watching several different shows the last few months. The most recent show I started, however, is HBO’s late 90s escape into the world of federal penitentiaries; Oz.

Ozposter

Now, when I hopped into this show all I really knew about it was a reference on Arrested Development.

But it turns out there’s actually a pretty good show behind that joke. Oz takes us into the world of Oswald State Penitentiary in New York State, and in spite of layers upon layers of unintentional comedy, still manages to provide an incredibly entertaining viewing experience. Furthermore, I’m very interested in Oz as a building block of the HBO brand. It strikes me as exactly the kind of attempted “gritty” show HBO was supposed to be producing in their infancy, before it was a name brand, and when it was still hocking subscriptions with the fervor of a college freshman accepting beers at his first party. HBO was the network that could show nudity, violence, and anything they wanted. They were allowed to take on subject the big networks, and even cable networks, wouldn’t touch. So what better place to host an HBO show than a prison, right?

My problem with Oz, however, is that rather than depicting a “realistic” idea of a prison, it seems to represent some kind of caricature of what someone in the late 90s thought a prison looked like. They have everything that High School kids like to pretend prison is all about. Differnt gangs along racial lines; you’ve got your Aryan Brotherhood, your Black Muslims, your Black gangstas (complete with one character is is apparently from Cameroon or something?), Latinos, Italian Mafia types, an Irish guy here or there… all the stables of a good prison joke. But it doesn’t stop there. There are of course the “prags” which Oz tells us is slang for “Prison Fags”… the inmates forced to be sex slaves for other prisoners… which I guess could be something believable if they didn’t all end up looking like this on the show…

oz105prag

… uhhh… yeah…. where did they even get a fishnet shirt in prison? … anyway… So Oz actually takes place within the “Emerald City” of “vice-warden” Tim McManus [whom the audience may choose to associate with as they attempt to play politician and decide what the best prison system would be] who has complete control over an individual cell block ( “Em City” ) in which he is trying to experiment on how to improve  the American prison system. He is of the opinion that prisons are not reforming inmates, as they should do, but rather serve as holding grounds where individuals simply wait until they are released and can commit the same crimes again, therefore re-booking their ticket back to the Wonderful World of Oz. Here, then, we see the deeper agenda of the show. It is a social commentary lamenting the current state of the American Prison System (circa 1997).

Characters such as Kareem Said (A Black Muslim Imam and religious zealot) bemoan racial discrimination within America on whole, and the disproportionate numbers of African American males interned in the prison system. The “war on drugs” is fleetingly touched upon as a failure by the fact that drugs easily and frequently permeate through the prison walls. If American society cannot even keep drugs out of maximum security prisons, how could it possibly contain drug use in free society?) The morality and pragmatism of the Death Penalty are debated vehemently by the prison staff and elected state officials. And perhaps more poignantly, the show’s creators call into question the usefulness of a prison system in general (in a capacity other than ‘long term holding cell’ ) by giving us another character with whom we are supposed to relate, Tobias Beecher.

Tobias_Beecher

Beecher represents everything your average middle class white guy (like yours truly) might fear would happen to them if they went to prison. He committed a crime which although certainly more prevalent in the 90s, is still an issue today. He drove drunk and killed a little girl and has been sentences to serve out his punishment in Oz. He enters Oz as a dorky former lawyer who clearly has no place in the prison. He is quickly turned into another inmate’s “Prag” and tortured in countless ways. He turns to drugs (heroine) to escape his situation before finally suffering a mental breakdown near the end of Season 1, and ultimately collapsing into an utter maniac during the riot which takes place on Season One’s finale.

hbo06

The idea with Beecher, it seems to me, is to show how inhumane the prison system is and how it can take your every day Tom, Dick, or Harry, who made one (atrocious) mistake, and turn them into a monster. You did not put a monster into prison but you will inject one into society when Beecher gets out, thus illustrating that the prison system has the exact opposite effect than it is intended to have (that of rehabilitation). Prison in many ways is meant to dehumanize, and in the case of Beecher, he ceased to be a human as a result of his time there. Moreover, this issue even extends to pollute the guards. The guards smuggle contraband from drugs to cigarettes into the prison, and while some of them are painted as corrupt from the start, others, such as officer Diane Whittlesey , are corrupted in front of our very eyes, thus again elucidating the corrosive nature, in the show-writers view, of the American prison system.

Now, I think these issues are all worthy topics of conversation, even today, twenty years after Oz’s run on TV. However, in television form all these story-lines seem overly condensed, simplified, and truncated. In a way it feels like elucidating them in this way belittles the point, especially when it takes place in a world I already feel is a caricature, not strongly based in reality, in the first place. When an issue as large as the death penalty is dealt with in a scant 50 minute time frame, a veritable cornucopia of material slips through the cracks. It just feels like its not a long enough period of time to fully dissect the issue in an intelligent manner.

In a lot of ways then it reminds me of a quote by Chuck Klosterman when talking about Royce White. White is a notably troubled individual who had his NBA career derailed due to various mental ailments which plagued him. Klosterman once described his as “the smartest eighth grader you’ve ever met” but he was of course referring to a 21 year old man. This is the same kind of vibe I get from Oz a lot of the time. Its like the magna opus of some angsty high school teenage kid who wants to rant and rave against societal issues which disturb him, but he lacks the tools to make his points clear and to present these points in the best manner possible. It just doesn’t feel perfectly executed as so many later HBO shows dealing with similar topics have.

All that being said, it seems to me like Oz set the tone and laid the foundation for those spectacular HBO products like The Wire (even sharing several key actors, as HBO shows are want to do) and True Detective. The Wire in particular deals with many of the same societal issues, but does so in an altogether more calm, collected, and cultured way, thus improving on the foundation which Oz built.

wire_logo

true-detective

Oz by no means is a bad show or a bad idea. Certain things seem quirky and strange to me, but I absolutely love some of the other decisions made with the show. It makes use of a theatrical tool which I personally am fond of, by having the narrator be one of the characters in the show, but having the two individuals seem wholly distinct from one another. Our narrator is a wheelchair bound prisoner in Oz who, when acting as narrator, wears a microphone / headset that evokes imagery of a Church Tent Revival preacher, opening our eyes to the world of Oz, explaining the mentality and  life of the inmates. However, when he transitions back into prisoner he has none of the characteristics of his omnipresent, all knowing, fourth wall breaking narrator, but is just another prisoner (thus giving the things he says as narrator credibility, even if the two individuals seem distant from one another).

Augustus Hill, your narrator

Augustus Hill, your narrator

He uhhh... he spins around in a big glass box suspended in the prison when he makes his monologues... I just roll with it (hehehe... get it? Spin? Wheelchair? Roll? Dammit I'm so clever)

He uhhh… he spins around in a big glass box suspended in the prison when he makes his monologues… I don’t really get it so I just roll with it (hehehe… get it? Spin? Wheelchair? Roll? Dammit I’m so clever)

All told this show does a ton of things well, and you can clearly see how it broke ground for HBO as a network and was an integral cog in building the network that I know and love today. The Coolio-lookin’ narrator, references to Brad Pitt’s breakout film Seven, and Seinfeld, make us painfully aware that the show is very much a product of the 90s, but in truth I’m having a lot of fun going back and viewing this specific issue through that lens.

In some ways its fun (albeit slightly disheartening) to see some of the same issues being discussed today, and to see how those issues were viewed, dealt with, and thought of a couple decades ago. Clearly this show has a lot of strengths in its own right, and I believe watching it with this historical lens just adds one more strenght to the show. Even if it can be incredibly ridiculous at times, I certainly haven’t stopped watching it yet, and I haven’t stopped enjoying it yet either. I still have 5 more seasons to go after finishing season 1, but hey… Game of Thrones isn’t back for another 6 months anyway, right?

History Behind the Throne: The Ironborn Raiders, Vikings of Westeros

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

tumblr_mirfivFKBs1qclh39o1_500

Alrighty, so I know I’ve written several of these articles about migrations, and you’re probably getting sick of them BUT I’ve got one more for you. Now, in the massive migration article we pretty much hit England’s history up to and through the Middle Ages, but for the sake of brevity I only touched on one specific migration very lightly. That would be the Danes aka vikings aka meanest baddest, beardliest dragon boat riders on Earth.

hashtag manliness

hashtag manliness

Ok… no more distractions. Anyway, when we last left our English heroes they had more or less formed an England-ish country in terms of borders and were comprised ethnically of Anglo-Saxons with a rich and patterned history of Romans, Celts, Saxons, Angles, and all sorts of happy funtimes genes. DIVERSIFY THE GENE-POOL! YAY!

ANYWAY! Everything was lookin’ all hunky-dory for these guys during the period formerly known as the heptarchy. (Aside: its called the heptarchy because there were allegedly 7 major kingdom’s during the period [hept being the Greek root for 7 and archy from the Greek for “to rule”] HOWEVER a lot of historians have kindof abandoned this nomenclature in more recent times, claiming it is a misnomer for a variety of reasons… mainly that there weren’t really 7 Kingdoms because the number often fluctuated as various kingdoms collapse, were conquered, reformed etc. (by the way… any of this sounding familiar Game of Thrones fans?? 7 Kingdoms?!?! OMFGROFLJAMZ THE PARALLELS ARE ENDLESS… anyway… Some historians get snooty about the phrase but ultimately the phrase does a good job of evoking the time period to which it refers so I’m gonna use it because fuck the police…

"Wooo! Seven Kingdoms! Yay! I bet nobody will mess this up ever!! Hurray and Huzzah!!"

“Wooo! Seven Kingdoms! Yay! I bet nobody will mess this up ever!! Hurray and Huzzah!!” Image via Wikipedia

Ok, so you have these 7 Kingdoms of NorthumbriaMerciaEast AngliaEssexKentSussex, and Wessex, and they existed, at one time or another, broadly over the approximate period from 500AD to 850AD. However, these Anglo-Saxon kingdoms had their little jam fest rudely interrupted beginning in the 9th century. You see, the 9th century AD as the beginning of the Viking Age, a period of Scandinavian expansion which would ultimately terrorized huge swaths of Europe, even ranging as far as Constantinople on the very edge of Europe.

Viking Expansion. Image via Wikipedia

Viking Expansion. Image via Wikipedia

Everybody knows of the Vikings badassery so I’ll try not to waste too much time here, but these guys were amazing. They were known to be superb seamen (laugh if you must) of Leif Eriksson is often given credit for discovering the New World when he led an expedition of Scandinavians to Greenland. Part of what made them such badass sailors, however, was the ship they used.

The Viking Longboat was the terror of Europe for hundreds of years. Because of the ship’s shallow draft (meaning it didn’t sink very deep into the water… unlike a large galley or modern battleship which sinks deeper into the water and ‘cuts’ through it like a knife, the longboat was flatter, more like a piece of paper floating on top of the water rather than a knife cutting through it. The cool thing about this meant that it could sail in deep water (the open sea) and shallow (major rivers of Europe) alike. This set the Vikings apart from other raiders in that not even inland cities were safe from them. Moreover, they weren’t dependent on wind to sail as their ships all came equipped with oars for manual power. In short, then, these guys were unstoppable beasts and you just had to pray they weren’t interested in taking your shit when compared to your neighbors.

viking raider

Moreover, using their ships they were able to carve swaths of land out of many European nations for themselves, including France (one of the superpowers of the day), and even conquering the entire Island of Sicily for themselves. Their own homelands, because of the climate and limited arable land, were incapable of supporting a large population. When the Scandinavian population exceeded certain natural limitations, then, they would carve out new territories out of their cowering neighbors’ land. (Or, even if they didn’t need land they would just go take those same cowering neighbors’ shit… because they needed it more… at least that’s what they told me… )

Asha Greyjoy... slightly more badass than her brother... and perhaps more "manly" at this point as well... eh? eh? See what I did there?

Asha Greyjoy… slightly more badass than her brother… and perhaps more “manly” at this point as well… eh? eh? See what I did there?

Similarly, George R. R. Martin’s Ironborn are revered sailors, feared raiders, and come from a homeland (the Iron Islands) which does not fully support their needs (thus necessitating the raiding). The Ironborn are credited with raiding the Lannister lands and lighting the Lannister fleet on fire in Lannisport. We are told Theon has an uncle who is off raiding in distant lands in Essos and the island far away from Westeros. They are known to raid the Stark lands frequently throughout history. And they do all of this on board ships which are undoubtedly Viking Longboats.

iron islands location

Perhaps more importantly, however, is just how far these two peoples, the Ironborn and the Vikings, could go when driven to their fullest extent. As mentioned, vikings began raiding England in the 9th century AD and continued into the 11th century. (Also, as a nerdly aside, History Channel’s show Vikings covers the beginnings of this story by bringing to life the Ragnar Lodbrok Saga and its an excellent show. If you’re suffering from withdrawal after Game of Thrones season 4 ends next month, I highly encourage you to go check out the first 2 seasons of Vikings.)

Watch me!

Watch me!

BUT ANYWAY the Vikings began raiding England in the 9th century. The hardest hit was the Kingdom of Northumbria which was just unlucky enough to be the first place the Vikings landed. At first they only raided monasteries and coastal towns but they gradually moved inland. Moreover, eventually they got sick of just raiding, because… y’know… its hard to haul all that gold and shit back on a boooooat and sometimes you don’t have enough rooooom so they decided “forget this… lets just conquer this place, and then we can hoard all our gold right here!” … so they did … and the Englishmen lamented.

peastnas

The Danes (meaning Vikings from Denmark at this time) conquered pretty much the entire center and northeastern corner of modern day England. Once they did so they established a new Kingdom of sorts known as the Danelaw (author’s note: convenient thing about Scandinavians is they tend to name things after what they are… so the Danelaw was just the region of England where the Danes’ Law governed the area.)

Image via Wikipedia

Image via Wikipedia

The Ironborn had their own sort of experience with this time of conquest about 60 years before the Targaryen Conquest. The Ironborn under their Iron King during this period expanded into the Riverlands (what we know of as the Tully lands) and built a massive Kingdom for themselves with a new capital at Harrenhall (that haunted castle we hear so much about). Under King Harren the Black the Kingdom was at its height, and he used his massive wealth to erect the gigantic castle which was allegedly impregnable. However, once Aegon the Conqueror crossed over with his dragons the castle didn’t look so impregnable. The castle withstood the Dragon’s onslaught in large part, however, their fired destroyed and dilapidated many portions of it. Moreover, Harren himself was burned to death within his own walls. With Harren’s death ended the great Kingdom of the Ironborn and they were forced back to their island and their raiding ways.

According to the Game of Thrones into, Harrenhall was not so fireproof as Harren the Black would have hoped

According to the Game of Thrones into, Harrenhall was not so fireproof as Harren the Black would have hoped

In both cases then we can see a warrior, seaborne, raiding culture with limited resources expanding to other regions, first simply for economic profit via raiding, but ultimately with the intent to conquer new territories entirely for their people. Moreover, both these groups, the Vikings and the Ironborn, were greatly successful at this. The Ironborn conquered an enormous kingdom for themselves on the mainland of Westeros and the Vikings conquered large portions of England, France, Italy, Sicily, and other regions.

Furthermore, both these groups possessed a degree of cultural similarity. Of course the limited output of their homelands and the resulting emphasis on raiding have been elucidated already. However, raiding wasn’t the only output of resource scarcity in the homeland for these people. The Ironborn come from the Iron islands and are known for paying the Iron price (often involving bloodshed) rather than the gold price (just paying for it) for items. This emphasis on Iron is especially apt when looking at their Viking forebears in that Iron was both incredibly important and incredibly scarce in Scandinavia. There was no major mining of iron ore veins for them, but rather they had to make to with peat iron. Essentially, there was a lot of iron in the poor soil of Scandinavia, and the Vikings discovered that if you took a crapload of this bog dirt and burned off all the impurities you would end up with what they call bog iron (because the soil came from bogs) or peat iron (because the specific type of soil was called peat).

Peat Moss... bet you never though you could make an axe out of this! Crafty Vikings...

Peat Moss… bet you never though you could make an axe out of this! Crafty Vikings…

However, in order to produce this kind of iron you needed a loooooot of dirt to produce a little Iron. Because of this Vikings favored weapons such as axes and spears over broadswords and used wooden round shields rather than steel kite shields simply because in all these cases the latter items required more metal. They could produce 3 axes with the amount of metal it would take to produce one broadsword, and working with their limited resources they needed to arm as many men as possible. Iron, then, was both incredibly scarce and therefore incredibly important to the Vikings so it is only fitting that it became a central theme, even down to the name, of Martin’s Westerosi equivalents.

Vikings favored axes such as these to conserve on metal use. They could produce three axes with the same amount of metal it took to produce one broadsword. Moreover, an axe penetrates armor better than a broadsword, meaning they could even have an advantage over a knight in full plate mail.

Vikings favored axes such as these to conserve on metal use. They could produce three axes with the same amount of metal it took to produce one broadsword. Moreover, an axe penetrates armor better than a broadsword, meaning they could even have an advantage over a knight in full plate mail.

So in both Georgie’s world and the real world we can see that resource scarcity, ingenuity, and genetic badassery result in the production of a seaborne raiding elite which terrorized their more docile neighbors. Raiding becomes a way of life for resource starved peoples who eventually tire of the effort and carve more hospitable homelands out of their neighbors’ territory. However, I think I’d have to opt for Odin, Valhalla, and an eternity of booze, women, and battle over the Drowned God’s eternity of… idk… sitting at the bottom of the ocean? Or whatever the Ironborn do when they die… so point to the Vikings! Enjoy your rocks Ironborn. I’m sure they’re very nice in the summertime.

Walhalla by Max Brückner, 1896. Image via Wikipedia

Walhalla by Max Brückner, 1896. Image via Wikipedia

History Behind the Throne: The Free City of Braavos and The Iron Bank

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

We've heard a lot about Braavos before, but we've never seen it until now.

We’ve heard a lot about Braavos before, but we’ve never seen it until now.

So, last week’s episode of Game of Thrones, “The Laws of Gods and Men,” was far an away the best episode of the season so far in my opinion. However, for today’s topic, rather than talking about the dramatic conclusion to the episode I want to talk a little bit about where the episode opened because I LOVED the visuals of that almost as much in an impossibly nerdy way. The episode opens with a shot of Stannis aboard one of his few remaining ships, sailing to Braavos to consult with the Iron Bank, in his continued quest for the Iron Throne. However, as the screen slowly pans away from Stannis’s ship we see this jaw dropping sight…

Titan_of_Braavos

That, my friends, is the legendary Titan of Braavos, and if you’re at all as much of a nerd as I am you already know that this gatekeeper is a direct parallel to the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (hell, even the world “Titan” is taken from Greek mythology). Because 6 of the original 7 wonders have been lost to history (only the pyramids at Giza remain) there is a lot of murky history about the Colossus, but not enough to make people believe it didn’t exist. What we know for sources is that the Colossus, built in honor of the Greek sun god Helios, bestrode the entrance to Rhodes’ harbor, in the exact same manor as the Titan does here. In that way it serves as a guardian of either city (the City of Rhodes or Braavos) and is meant to intimidate the myriad individuals to come to trade in these ports of call.

rhodes maps

You see, historically, meaning in the Classical Age when the Colossus was first built and Rhodes rose to power, the small island city state did so primarily on the backs of trade. Rhodes was strategically placed to facilitate trade among the Greeks, Asia Minor (Turkey), the Levant (Syria etc.), and Egypt, all the major powers of the Eastern Mediterranean. So, as the world’s middleman for trade the Rhodians got pretty damn rich as a result. Now, people often tried to conquer the island to take this trade hub for themselves (most notably in the siege of Rhodes in 304. In fact, it was in celebration over the Rhodian victory in this battle that the people decided to build the Colossus in the first place) but were largely unsuccessful (in large part because of Rhodes’ ally Egypt).

Martin Heemskerck's 16th century imagination of what the Colossus (built around 280 BC) would have looked like

Martin Heemskerck’s 16th century imagination of what the Colossus (built around 280 BC) would have looked like

But in any event, in both the cases of Rhodes and Braavos we have an example of small city states who have reached a position of prominence and power largely as a result of commercial and maritime interests. However, the Rhodesian parallel does not work perfectly for Braavos because there was no real equivalent to the Iron Bank of Braavos in Rhodes. Now, in truth Rhodes had somewhat of a parallel for this, but it isn’t perfect. Rhodes was at its peak during the Classical Age (roughly the 5th through the 4th centuries BC), but found new life during the period of the period of the Crusades in the Holy Land (roughly 1000 AD to 1300 AD) because of its strategic position straddling the Christian and Muslim worlds. The crusaders, traveling by sea to the Holy Land to take back Jerusalem from the various powers who would conquer it over time, used Rhodes as a major checkpoint in their journey. They could stop there to rest, resupply, and restock before setting off to war.

crusader boat

failed crusade saladin

As a result, two orders of crusader knights, the Knights Hospitaller and the Knights Templar, more or less took political power in the island for various periods of time. These were not just groups of warriors who helped the Crusades by fighting for Christendom, but served other administrative purposes as well. Because these orders of Knights had branches and individuals throughout much of Europe they were able to act as some sort of an early bank or at least money exchanging service. Their order was far flung, having men in France, England, Italy, Turkey, Greece, and of course Rhodes. As such if a French nobleman needed to purchase something in Italian currency, he could go to his local Knights Templar and exchange the currency as needed. Moreover, because they had these cash reserves (often given to them by various nobles wishing to support the Holy Wars but not willing to… you know… fight and die and stuff…) they could also loan money out as needed.

He's more worried that the nuns will cane him again, than being impaled by a Seljuk.

He’s more worried that the nuns will cane him again, than being impaled by a Seljuk. (Image via http://dewfooter.deviantart.com/art/Warriors-in-the-Woods-fight-3-156705091 )

In this sense then the various Holy Orders worked as some sort of an early bank before “banking” became a codified practice again in Europe (the profession kindof fell out of style during the fall of the Roman Empire when Barbarians would… y’know… do barbarian stuff and kill whichever townsmen was sitting on the largest pile of money… whiiiich was generally the banker…) So in some sence, because these Holy Orders held control of Rhodes and because they provided banking-esque services to Europe they could be some sort of parallel for the Iron Bank as well. To find a more accurate parallel, however, we have to look elsewhere. Conveniently enough, however, that shot of Stannis’s ship entering the harbor of Braavos provides us with our other example.

Notice in that original picture that Braavos is actually a series of very close islands connected with bridges or simply boats which ferry people around. This might remind you of another European city. One with notorious flooding issues, beautiful canals, and perhaps a gondola or two? That’s right! Venice!

Venice in the Middle Ages and beyond, like Rhodes and Braavos alike, was a maaaaaaaaajor trading hub. Venice was less on the front lines of the many wars with Islam (unlike Rhodes) so in many ways it was a much safer place to keep your money. Moreover, in the Renaissance, when modern banking was developed more or less, the first bank established was in Venice. While they may not have the charismatic individuals such as the Medici’s running things, that makes the parallel even better. Tywin Lannister tells us that the Iron Bank is comprised of individuals, but that individuals are incredibly dispensable. No individuals matters as much as the whole. While the Medici’s (in Florence, a major competitor with the Venetian bank) definitely represented a proverbial head which could be cut off to kill their bank, Venice had no such family. They were a nameless, faceless organization which could unleash a horrible wrath on those who did not pay their debts (or even those whom the Venetians simply felt threatened their commercial interests, as the citizens of Constantinople harshly learned in the Fourth Crusade).

asdf

BUT SPEAKING OF CRUSADES AGAIN just like Rhodes, the need for a bank in Venice rose largely from the Crusades, as various Kings wishing to wage war in the Holy Land needed to raise large sums of cash quickly in order to fuel their war efforts (as the Lannisters have done in Westeros with the help of the Iron Bank during the war to secure Joffrey’s position on the throne). So, while Braavos may have started as a parallel for Rhodes with its dependence on trade and big fucking statue on its harbor, the visual representation of the city itself which the show provides for us hints that at some point it developed from the marginal Rhodes to the very much central and very powerful Venice of Renaissance Italy.

venetian rich guy

Alright so I think its also interesting to note a little bit of Westerosi history here. When Valyria went on its Roman-esque conquest of the known world they moved all the way to the Westernmost border of Essos. Moreover, once there they built several colonies which became known as the Free Cities (after Valyria’s fall). We’ve heard of a lot of these in the show including Pentos (where Daenarys and her brother Viserys struck a deal to marry Khal Drogo), Lys (where the poison used to kill Jon Arryn [the tears of Lys] came from), Tyrosh (where Daario Naharis (Daenarys’s mercenary captain is from), and Braavos. What is interesting, however, is that while all those other cities are former colonies of Valyria, founded by Valyrians and therefore sharing Valyrian culture from the ground up, Braavos was founded by refugees fleeing the Valyrian conquest (much the the Rohynar who fled to Westeros). Now, while the Braavosi ultimately became “Valyrian-ized” culturally and adopted their language I think this is an important part of their history. It pushes us back on our see-saw scale of history towards Rhodes. Rhodes was ethnically, culturally, and linguistically Greek when it was conquered by Rome. So while it too was ultimately Latinized, it started as an independent nation which resisted Rome (much as the Braavosis resisted Valyria by… well… fleeing…).

rhodes whining

The Venetians cannot serve as a parallel in this sense because their city’s Latin and Roman roots are too deep. Braavos, then, is a bit of a historical melting pot for us. One part Rhodes and one part Venice to make their unique blend of historical distinctiveness from their fellow Free Cities, trade based economy, and world shaking bank (bet you never would have thought you’d hear that term here huh? But remember… this is the world with Dragon Accountants so you probably should have assumed as much). All three cities are able to maintain political power and independence in spite of their small size (being largely one city or a small island with only 1 major city) through their economic might, and in truth are able to turn this might to became major powers in their respective worlds. Braavos may be technically the strongest of the three, being that they are a fusion of the best parts of both Venice and Rhodes at their heights, but hey, they both have a pretty badass entrance to their city, so I’m in either way.

img_9184

History Behind the Throne: The Rohynar Invasion

History Behind the Throne is a series discussing the historical influences embedded within the Game of Thrones series. For an introduction to the series click HERE. This is meant to be a discussion within the world of the HBO series, meaning anything that has happened on the show so far is fair game to discuss, but if you choose to comment NO BOOK MATERIAL AND SPOILERS ARE ALLOWED. Thanks! Aaaaaalso if you like it and want some more click HERE! Thanks again!

Labled Rohynar Map Revised

So I know we just spent 3,000 words talking about various population migrations into Westeros BUT I have another one I’d like to talk about. I mentioned The Rohynar Invasion in the last article, but held off going into detail with because I think it, along with the Ironborn’s Invasion, was a more unique story than the other migrations in that it is categorized as an “invasion.” The Rohynar Invasion was just that too. It started with a people being dislodged by an expanding superpower and seeking safe havens, but became an invasion when the Rohynar refugees became embroiled in the politics of Westeros. Their real world counterparts, the Moors, shared a similar story. The Moors (or the Umayyad Dynasty) were displaced from their seat of power in Damascas, Syria, and fled all the way to Spain… conquering a new Islamic empire for themselves on the fringe of Christian Western Europe.

Moors path

For the Rohynar, however, it all started with those damned Valyrians and their Dragons (as apparently all conquests in A Song of Ice and Fire do). Ok, so you know Slaver’s Bay where Daenarys has been hanging out for the last 79 episodes? Well in the current timeline of the show that area is made up of three rival (though not warring) and ethnically linked cities called Astapor, Yunkai, and Mereen. The primary residents of these cities (I say primary because the majority of the citizens are slaves from all corners of the world) are a people called Ghiscari. They used to be incredibly powerful in Essos and had a great empire called Ghis. However, somewhere around 1,000 years before the show starts Ghis was conquered by their neighbors just across Slaver’s Bay… Valyria. With Ghis gone there was noone to keep Valyria in check. This meant they could continue their expansion westward into their old neighbors to the west, the Rohynar.

Dragons... the ultimate trump card...

Dragons… the ultimate trump card…

The Rohynar resisted, successfully at first, but ultimately were overcome by the Valyrian dragons, purportedly losing 250,000 men in the conquest. Once the battle was lost the remaining Rohynar (mainly women), led by their ruler (a female) Nymeria (the person Ayra chose to name her direwolf after), fled from Essos to Westeros. Specifically, Nymeria led them to the Dornish Peninsula. Once there, since the Rohynar were mainly women (although more akin to the legendary Amazon Women in that they were warriors, like their men) they intermarried heavily with the Dornish. Specifically they became linked to House Martell, and with the two groups allied, the Martells became the dominant military and political force of Dorne and Rohynish cultural influence spread throughout the peninsula. It is also important to note that, culturally, this female orientation became very important to the fleeing Rohynish, and subsequently became a fixture in Dornish culture. After the Martell/Rohynar took control of the peninsula, Absolute Cognatic Primogeniture (which is fancy-speak for saying whichever kid is born to the royal family FIRST, whether male OR female, becomes next in line for the throne. It is an unusual form of inheritance in the middle ages as most societies would practice Agnatic Primogeniture, meaning the first born MALE inherits, regardless of whether or not he has an older sister) became the rule of inheritance in Dorne. This whole process then is why Oberyn Martell, while in King’s Landing, continuously throws barbs at the other houses (specifically Lannisters) that in Dorne women are not treated as crudely as they are north of the Peninsula (along with the fact that he believes his sister, Elia, who was married to Rhaegar Targaryen, was murdered by the Lannisters during the Siege of King’s Landing).

Having a bastard as your concubine and paramour is frowned upon most places in Westeros, but not in Dorne. Lucky for Oberyn I suppose

Having a bastard as your concubine and paramour is frowned upon most places in Westeros, but not in Dorne. Lucky for Oberyn I suppose

In any event, similar to the Rohynish/Martell alliance, when the Moors invaded Visigothic Spain they were an incredibly powerful and fearsome new foe with whom the rest of Western Europe now had to contend.The Umayyad Dynasty (from whom the Moors were born) at its peak was the superpower of its day. Nobody could stop them, and they pretty much conquered whoever they wanted. All it took was enough motivation to encourage them to move troops into the area. As far as Middle Eastern Empires go (and this is especially impressive when you consider the fact that nearly all the Empires the classical world speaks fondly of came from the Middle East) they were the largest and most impressive. They conquered Egypt and the Nile (especially valuable even into the 19th century because of the vast quantities of grain they produced [Napoleon even attempted to conquer Egypt as one of his great campaigns]) Mesopotamia (the cradle of Empires and civilization), Syria (center of the former Seleucid Empire, successor kingdom to Alexander the Great’s Empire), Persia (antiquity’s ‘gold standard’ for what a big scary Empire from the East should look like), and even pushed into central Asia, time and again defeating those central Eurasian badasses that we determined were unbeatable a couple articles ago.

hun-devleti-ordusu

“Fuck it… time to pack up guys I’m over this…”

So the Umayyad’s were doing pretty well for themselves. However, all good things must come to an end. Eventually they fell prey to a dynastic, political, religious play for power and were displaced as leader’s of the enormous Caliphate (name for a Muslim Empire ruled by a “Caliph,” a political and religious leader) by the Abbasid Dynasty. The Umayyads, however, weren’t completely done hanging on to power. They rounded up their toys (read: soldiers) stuck out their tongues (read: fled begging for their lives) at the Abbasids, and went to go play in a different sandbox (read: Spain).

moors in spain

So in both cases we can see an ascendant power (either an entirely different state [Valyria] in the case of the Rohynar, or a dynastic overthrow from the Umayyads to the Abbasids) displace an old power. In both cases, however, the dislodged power is not completely shattered by their conquering foes. They are able to retain a significant, sizable force capable of conquering a new land for themselves in the west. Moreover, they were culturally unique in their new land, and rather than being assimilated they left their mark on the peoples of their new land. We’ve already talked about how the Rohynar altered Dornish society and made it more matriarchal, but the Moors also drastically impacted Spanish society. As was the case elsewhere in newly conquered lands for the Muslims, often times individuals could get away without converting by paying a tax to the state. However, vast numbers of individuals (both Jewish and Christian) did convert, but they never lost their roots entirely. Religious practices in Spain became somewhat hybridized although different religions often lived in different quarters within cities. The fact remains, however, that  a conquering came into a new area, used military might to dominate the regional hierarchy (I say regional because the Rohynar did not conquer all Westeros, only the southern part [Dorne] and the Moorish state of Al Andalus did not include the whole of Iberia, let alone the whole of Western Europe) and used their new positions of power to radically alter the culture of their new homelands.

Arabic High Culture bled into Iberia during the Moorish conquest, and many of Spain's cultural icons of today, such as the Alhambra pictured, were built by the Moors. (Image via http://artsofadventure.com/category/cordoba-2/ )

Arabic High Culture bled into Iberia during the Moorish conquest, and many of Spain’s cultural icons of today, such as the Alhambra pictured, were built by the Moors.
(Image via http://artsofadventure.com/category/cordoba-2/ )

Also, religiously, it is important to note that while the Dornish are followers of The Seven, they practice the religion in a manner unique to themselves. While a lot of hate and political ideology has gone into pointing out that Islam and Christianity are hated rivals, they both are 2 of the 3 so called Judeo-Christian religions. Christianity came out of Judaism, and Islam came out of Christianity, but they are all 3 evolutions of the same broad spectrum religious movement with the same monotheistic deity at its head (whether that be Yahweh for Judaism, God for Christianity, or Allah for Islam… they’re just three names for the same divine concept). Similarly then the Dornish are part of the same religious family as the rest of Westeros, but they practice it in their own manner. Indeed, as Oberyn told us this season the Dornish do not scorn bastards, they hold women in more or less equal stature as men.

Moreover, the show helps us out with this imagery of the Dornish being Arabic in origin in that they dress differently (flowing robes and silks which for the Moors were procurable because the Muslim world was linked to China while the Christian world was cut off from it due to their refusal to trade with the hated Muslims). Similarly the Dornish have more direct trade relations with the Free Cities in far Western Essos on the other side of the Narrow Sea. The Westorosi can trade with them as well, but their relationships are not as intimate as those of their southern neighbors. In the same manner, Franks and Germans could obtain porcelain and silks from China, but they had to go through more pain and hassle than Moors in Spain had to as the Moors were directly linked in to the Silk Road. The Moors were still connected to the Caliphate which meant they could trade all the way from Spain, through North Africa, into the Middle East and Central Asia, and beyond to the Far East.

Flowing and loose fitting silks would be much better suited for the climate in southern Spain, Arabia, and Dorne alike.

Flowing and loose fitting silks would be much better suited for the climate in southern Spain, Arabia, and Dorne alike.

It is also important to point out that in both cases these new migratory conquerors proved nearly impossible to dislodge from their new surroundings. Even the near-deified Charlemagne was not successful in his attempts to return Iberia to the Christians. In fact his failings were so stupendous they were made into an epic poem. The Song of Roland is one of the most famous literary, poetic works to come out of the Middle Ages, and is in fact all about Charlemagne’s army getting its ass kicked out of Spain by Muslims. Moreover, you know it must have been a good old fashion ass beating because the authors blame the final battle between the Christians and Muslims as one which the Muslims only won because they are sneaky and treacherous.

Untitled

Similarly, the Dornish/Rohynar were the only region in Westeros south of The Wall to resist Aegon the Conqueror and his 3 dragons. In either case then we have a foreign culture essentially breaking off a chunk of what the natives consider their territory (be those natives Catholics or Westerosis) and holding it in spite of the natives best efforts to dislodge them. Dorne, like Spain in the Middle Ages before the Reconquista, is considered part of a totally different world for all intents and purposes. Even though the Iberian Peninsula is geographically part of Western Europe, it was politically and culturally connected to the Middle East. While the Abassids and Umayyads obviously had bad blood between then, they were still part of the same culture group more so than either of them was a part of the Catholic world. Their value systems are different, their cultures are different, their cloths are different. Hell, even what they do for entertainment is different. Oberyn mentioned to Cersei that he was writing poetry in his leisure time in King’s Landing. Indeed, Arabic High Culture has been marked by an emphasis on poetry throughout its history, producing such works as 1001 Nights (or, in English ‘Arabian Nights’).

In short then there are cornucopia of parallels between the Dornish (post Rohynar Invasion) and the Moors. They have similar origin stories, both having been forced out of their formerly prosperous homelands, only to use their remaining military might to conquer a new land for themselves in the backyard of their would be rivals (the Westerosis or Catholics respectively). Once established in these new lands they both practice a degree of religious tolerance (or even conversion in the Rohynar case) but ultimately are able to unite the populace into one larger hybrid culture. Their movements were localized and limited in both cases (being contained in Spain for the Moors or Dorne for the Rohynar) but proved impossible to dislodge once there. Both of them ended up occupying  peninsulas (The Dornish Peninsula and the Iberian Peninsula) hemmed in by mountains (The Pyrenees for the Moors and the Red Mountains for Dorne) which made their positions incredibly defensible. Even attempts by legendary warrior kings (Charlemagne and Aegon) could not dislodge them, and they thus remained a thorn in the side of their neighbors whose culture they did not share.  Moreover they shared dress and recreational habits, and while Dorne and Spain remained more directly connected to the larger world, the rest of Westeros and Europe remained more detached. Moreover, while the Dornish did ultimately bend the knee to the Iron Throne, their Moorish counterparts ultimately fractured and were incorporated into one Christian Kingdom or another in a similar fashion. Both, however, maintain a swelling pride in their ancestry, history, and cultural uniqueness, thereby remaining unique alternatives to the greater cultural order to which they are geographically (though not ethnically) attached.

…Although the Dornish appear to embrace sexual promiscuity more than their Moorish counterparts… hey… don’t judge… George had to entertain himself somehow when he was writing all them pages…

oberyn-and-ellaria-photo