Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! A Laboratory of Politics, Part II

Over on Tower of the Hand, I’ve put up Part II of my series on the politics of Essos. In this part, I discuss the rise and fall of the great empires of Essos, and how their development has shaped Essosi politics in the years since the Doom of Valyria.


Check it out!


20 thoughts on “Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! A Laboratory of Politics, Part II

  1. Andrew says:

    Excellent job, I have been waiting for this for a while.

    1) One of Hizdahr’s titles if “Octarch of the Old Empire”, perhaps suggesting a council of eight ruling the Ghiscari Empire? An oligarchy, possibly what the governments of Astapor, Yunkai and Meereen are based off of.

    I think the Ghiscari do have some Babylonian influences with their stepped pyramids, temple prostitution, and gardens on the pyramids resembling the famed “Hanging Gardens of Babylon.”

    2) With the Celtic influence for the Rhoynar, would you say Garin’s historcal influence is Vercingetorix? He supposedly united the Gallic tribes into a large army, soemesimates putting it at the size of Garin’s, in a campaign against Rome’s encroachment on Gaul. Like Garin, Vercingetorix also won a tactical victory only to be defeated and captured in the next battle.

    • Abbey Battle says:

      I would like to argue that the Rhoynar more closely resemble the Hellenistic World of the Alexandrian Successors than The Celts and I would also argue that Garin the Great bears a closer resemblance to Phyrrus of Epiros than he does to Hannibal or Vercingetorix (although there does appear to be something of the great Gaulish chieftain in his fate); their fondness for the finer things in life, feuding like Hatfields and McCoys, possibly even their … flexible attitude to romance all seem to point towards the Seleucids or even the Ptolemies (especially given what seems to be the centrality of the Rhoyne to their culture).

      • I don’t think Phyrrus works – Garin didn’t invade Valyria, but rather was seeking to unite and defend his people. It’s the uniting part I think that ti[s it over into Vercingetorix territory. Likewise, the cultural parallels are also celtic and specifically Welsh – the different system of inheritance, the importance of the princely title – with a good mix of Moorish Spain.

        • Abbey Battle says:

          Fair enough and quite true; still, I’d argue that the institution of the paramour finds it’s closest parallel in the Hellenistic institution of the Hetaira and I would also suggest that the free-and-easy attitude to sexuality amongst the Rhoynar recalls no particular historical culture (although for some reason ‘The Greek Myths’ by Robert Graves popped into mind, not necessarily with any pertinence to the topic at hand).

          . . .

          It has just struck me that comparing the Rhoynar to Moorish Spain makes a lot of sense if one imagines Dorne to resemble the Maghreb, which means the arrival of Nymeria and her fleet could be a parallel to the Grenadian exodus to North Africa in the wake of the ‘Catholic Kings’ Isabella and Ferdinand expressed desire to see their newest subjects convert or suffer the consequences.

          I should also mention that I do agree with the idea that Garin the Great parallels Vercingetorix to a considerable degree, but I would also suggest that the fleeting nature of his victories in the field and the fact that those victories in fact brought the doom of his people down upon them (rather than merely staving off a conquest already in process) would make comparisons with Phyrrus of Epirus not entirely invalid either!

          • I would go the other direction – Dorne is Spain and Nymeria is the invasion/migration of the Moors into Spain, with the Stony Dornish being the mountain holdouts of Aragon.

    • 1. That’s a good catch – oligarchy makes sense, as slavemasters tend to be extremely touchy about their position vis-a-vis one another, so giving power to one man might be too dangerous. Sure, there’s Babylonian, also some Assyrian influences, a lot of Carthage, but also a good bit of Rome, etc.

      2. Damn…I meant to make the explicit parallel there, but forgot to write it up. Yeah, especially the way that the ritual display of the prisoner was a big part of Rome/Valyria’s triumph.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        One gets the horrible feeling that the Valyrian Triumph, like it’s Roman equivalent, also climaxed with the ritual execution/human sacrifice of their vanquished opponent – albeit I do suspect that the Valyrians would not have subjected that opponent to a method of execution so pedestrian as strangulation.

        My bet is that if The Red Faith picked up it’s habit of incinerating captives from anywhere, it’s from Old Valyria; I suspect that R’Hllor is a fairly young ‘God’ but that the traditions underpinning the sorcery of his followers dates from the days of the Freehold and it’s sorcerous masters.

  2. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, please allow me to compliment you on producing another excellent articles and forgive me for adding a quibble:-

    – I still believe that the Tiger Hegemony Wars were a cycle of conflicts, more like the Hundred Years Wars than the Wars of the Alexandrian Successors, which means that I think you may be telescoping events together in your description of the conflict; I agree that a maritime assault on Braavos would be high on the ‘Tiger To-Do List’ but would be astonished if they actually got far north enough to bring a serious fleet of their own to bear.

    Quite frankly I think that their most serious efforts to do so were scuppered at Dagger Lake and through what seems to have been a successful Pentoshi/Tyroshi Naval Alliance; I agree that prior to the release of ‘The World of Ice and Fire’ I have no real proof for this theory, but I do think that what we have at this point makes this the likeliest scenario.

    I also believe that Argilac the Arrogant and Aegon the Dragon intervened at different points in the cycle of conflicts that brought the Century of Blood to a close, which means they were unlikely to have taken the field together.

    – Now, having said all that I still admire your analysis of the Valyrian Freehold and the Empire of Old Ghiscar: your analysis of the latter offered a number of interesting surprises, by virtue of what seems to be the very plausible theory that the Ghiscari Empire was a commercial one, on the whole (which gives them a very Punic feel).

    It is also rather chilling to contemplate the sheer havoc wrought by the Khalasars; I’ve never been particularly fond of the Dothraki and nothing you have suggested gives me any more of a liking for these devourers of dwelling-places (although one can only look in awe and not a little terror on the sheer SCALE of the devastation they leave behind them).

    Once again please allow me to express my continuing admiration for your analysis (even where I disagree with them, I find fine food for thought) and my best wishes for your health!

    • – Sure they were a cycle of conflicts given the century they were fought across, but given limited information I’m painting with a broad brush. However, the information we have doesn’t quite point to that theory: Dagger Lake wasn’t anywhere near the Braavosi and yet Braavos was definitely involved and we know of a major naval conflict with Braavos and some unnamed party during the Century of Blood. Also, there’s no discussion of Pentoshi or Tyroshi naval forces but rather an emphasis on their land armies. I actually think it’s quite possible Argilac and Aegon served together – after all, Argilac would later seek a marital and military alliance with Aegon, and it would make sense that he’d turn to what he saw in action.

      – glad you liked it! Yeah, I didn’t have space to get into the full scope of Dothraki activity – especially the mountain kingdoms that were attacked and the question of whether the Dothraki were always centered in the sea that bears their name or came over the mountains from the realms of the Jhogos Nhai, given the real-world history of “barbarian” invasions caused by other tribes pushing them out of more distant territories.

      • S. Duff says:

        I personally think it’s the other way around – the Dothraki forced the Jhogos Nhai over the mountains from western Essos. I think this because their religion, the moonsingers, wound up being the dominant religion in Braavos. So that suggests there was some major back-and-forth between Valyria and the Jhogos Nhai, even if it was just slave-taking.

        • TakatoGuil says:

          The World app suggests against this – the city of Nefer once was a vast kingdom (its decay had already occured around the time of the first Dance), and its people are cousins to the Jogos Nhai. So unless the growth and collapse of the kingdom happened in the span of a couple centuries tops, the Jogos Nhai have been in the plains for quite some time.

          • S. Duff says:

            That doesn’t necessarily debunk my theory. Maybe they migrated over the mountains much earlier? Or the mountains were what caused the two ethnicities to become distinct in the first place? There’s plenty of explanations.

        • Amestria says:

          An alternative explanation is that Jogos Nhai Moonsingers were slaves of the Valyarians and their religion became influential after they played a leading role in the foundation of Braavos. To me that makes much more sense than the Braavosi adopting the religious beliefs of a group of nearby nomads.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        I must admit Maester Steven that your series on Essos is one of my favourites so far! (even if I do suspect that we are both equally likely to find out personal theories demolished upon our first read-through of ‘The World of Ice and Fire’); I do agree that it’s equally possible that Argilac and Aegon saw service together, but I will argue that it’s unlikely that there was no naval component to the Tyroshi/Pentoshi campaign against the Tigers.

        Tyrosh being an Island city will likely focus as much on projecting naval power as Braavos (perhaps as Genoa or Pisa to Braavos’ Venice?), so it occurs to me that they might well have contacted Argilac the Arrogant in the first place because he could provide a reinforcement to the strength of Pentos on land in their stead, whilst the Pentoshi themselves kept their own strength at sea; my guess is that a pincer attack on Myr is their most likely objective in this case, although how successful this might be (or how accurate my deductions may be) is an interesting question.

        I am also somewhat convinced that Aegon’s intervention in the East is most likely to have been as a ‘Naval Aviator’ (any war effort that involves Braavos involves ships – Braavosi being thrifty operators, they’d probably be downright eager to see their opponents smashed with only minimal loss to the Hidden City – therefore why not employ that most efficient exponent of incendiary warfare a dragon?).

        I admit that I’m still not convinced that the Tiger fleet ever got anywhere near Braavos during their wars; I still think that the Stepstones make too much of a strategic choke-point for them to pass without prohibitive loss (especially with Tyrosh, Pentos and possibly even the Stormlands willing to make life difficult for them on the way North) and more to the point the Tigers have no bases north of Myr, which would make it very difficult for them to launch an attack in any kind of strength.

        I’ll repeat my guess that the naval attack on Braavos was launched by a proxy (by Tigers of a different stripe, if you will) and that Dagger Lake was fought as part of an attempt by the Volantenes to take territories along the Rhoyne and it’s tributaries that would allow them to launch an overland attack on Braavos from a secure base of operations (possibly at the same time their naval proxy launched an attack from the sea).

        I further suspect that Norvos and Qohor were the target of serious charm offensives from both the Hidden City and the Tigers to ensure that at least one or better yet both would lend their assistance (or at least refuse to extend that assistance to their rivals).

        . . .

        I hope that wasn’t TOO long-winded and that my self-confidence was convincing, rather than arrogant! (thank you for letting me ramble regarding my pet theories under your own, somewhat more polished ones by the way).

    • Amestria says:

      “It is also rather chilling to contemplate the sheer havoc wrought by the Khalasars; I’ve never been particularly fond of the Dothraki and nothing you have suggested gives me any more of a liking for these devourers of dwelling-places (although one can only look in awe and not a little terror on the sheer SCALE of the devastation they leave behind them)”

      And when you consider that the Dothraki are familiar with ghost grass and Vaes Dothrak has statues taken from the Shadowlands, it seems quite probable that the Dothraki were also responsible for the ruin of Stygai. If that’s the farthest extent of their devastation then one can reasonably infer that there are quite a few ruined (or ruined and rebuilt) cities between Asshai and Vaes Dothrak that people further West are completely unaware of.

      Given that the Dothraki have reached as far East as the Shadowlands and regularly go as far West as the Pentosi coast, I don’t think mountain ranges, rivers and deserts are quite the barrier that Steven thinks they are. The geographic explanation alone is too simple. After all, Qarth might be surrounded by the Red Wastes, but it is also surrounded by the world’s greatest fortifications and Xaro does not like the thought of Dothraki khals coming to visit.

      The geographically shielded, wealthy, *and* warlike Free Cities might have just been better able to resist the Dotraki then the geographically closer and less warlike Qartheen and Ghiscari commercial colonies. Near Essosian slave and mercenary armies might have been unable to stand against the Dothraki in the open, but fighting off an attacker from behind Valyarian made city walls is quite a different matter. These cities also had the wealth to buy Unsullied from Astapor to fight in the open and buy off future Dothraki Khals without jeopardizing their prosperity.

      Yi Ti meanwhile is a very large and probably populous country, the source of many of the world’s spices, and its princes are probably quite powerful. The mostly nomadic Jogos Nhai, who have their own little steppe domain, might also serve as a barrier to the Dothraki.

      • Why is it too simple? We don’t have evidence of the Dothraki east of the mountains – and historically mountain ranges acted as effective barriers against quite a few horse nomad peoples.

        • Amestria says:

          “We don’t have evidence of the Dothraki east of the mountains”

          There are two pieces of evidence that some Dothraki at one point went east of the Bone Mountains and all the way to the Shadow Lands.

          First, in Vaes Dothrak there are plundered statues that Jorah says are likely from the Shadow Lands:

          *** “Where is the city?” she asked as they passed beneath the bronze arch. There were no buildings to be seen, no people, only the grass and the road, lined with ancient monuments from all the lands the Dothraki had sacked over the centuries.

          “Ahead,” Ser Jorah answered. “Under the mountain.”

          Beyond the horse gate, plundered gods and stolen heroes loomed to either side of them. The forgotten deities of dead cities brandished their broken thunderbolts at the sky as Dany rode her silver past their feet. Stone kings looked down on her from their thrones, their faces chipped and stained, even their names lost in the mists of time. Lithe young maidens danced on marble plinths, draped only in flowers, or poured air from shattered jars. Monsters stood in the grass beside the road; black iron dragons with jewels for eyes, roaring griffins, manticores with their barbed tails poised to strike, and other beasts she could not name. Some of the statues were so lovely they took her breath away, others so misshapen and terrible that Dany could scarcely bear to look at them. Those, Ser Jorah said, had likely come from the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai. ***

          p. 374 (Harper Voyager 2011)

          Whether they are or aren’t from the Shadow, they certainly are from lands east of the Bone Mountains. Equally important, Jorah believes that at some point in the past the Dothraki plundered the Shadow Lands. There’s probably a good reason for this belief.

          Second, the Ghost Grass of the Shadow Lands has a very important place in Dothraki mythology:

          **“The Dothraki sea,” Ser Jorah Mormont said as he reined to a halt beside her on the top of the ridge.

          Beneath them, the plain stretched out immense and empty, a vast flat expanse that reached to the distant horizon and beyond. It was a sea, Dany thought. Past here, there were no hills, no mountains, no trees nor cities nor roads, only the endless grasses, the tall blades rippling like waves when the winds blew. “It’s so green,” she said.

          “Here and now,” Ser Jorah agreed. “You ought to see it when it blooms, all dark red flowers from horizon to horizon, like a sea of blood. Come the dry season, and the world turns the color of old bronze. And this is only hranna, child. There are a hundred kinds of grass out there, grasses as yellow as lemon and as dark as indigo, blue grasses and orange grasses and grasses like rainbows. Down in the Shadow Lands beyond Asshai, they say there are oceans of ghost grass, taller than a man on horseback with stalks as pale as milkglass. It murders all other grass and glows in the dark with the spirits of the damned. The Dothraki claim that someday ghost grass will cover the entire world, and then all life will end.”***

          p. 219 (Harper Voyager 2011)

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