Guest Post at Tower of the Hand: Laboratory of Politics, Part III

At long last, my third post in the Laboratory of Politics series is complete! This time, Braavos past and present goes under the microscope.

Check it out!

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35 thoughts on “Guest Post at Tower of the Hand: Laboratory of Politics, Part III

  1. rw970 says:

    I interpreted the Titan leaning on the shoulders of its brothers to be referring not to other Titans but to the cliffs on its side, from which the main part of the Titan was formed.

  2. David Hunt says:

    That was, to me, the most interesting of these Essos articles so far. Even I could see the parallels to Venice, but I was historically ignorant enough that the Amsterdam allusions went entirely over my head.

    • Thanks! Glad you liked it.

    • David says:

      Seconded, on both counts. Braavos is my favorite place in ASOIAF, and this essay was a much-anticipated read.

      @Steven: in the absence of gunpowder, would you agree with the idea that the Braavosi developed water dancing as an organized, state-sponsored martial art to maximize their naval effectiveness? Given the relatively public “face” of the Faceless Men, could they have acted as consultants in its development?

      Sure, they can build ships much faster, but that alone can’t explain their naval supremacy; they’d have to replace crews as well as ships if they lost them one-for-one on a regular basis.

      We have highlights of naval combat from Blackwater Bay (Davos), the Shields (Victarion), and Oldtown (Sam); key threads throughout include the use of archery as a deterrent and soften-them-up tactic, ramming to permit boarding and damage hulls, and the occasional siege weapon on larger vessels… but the crux of it is still the post-boarding melee. Other than “because they’re pirate ninjas,” I’m not seeing another good explanation for how the Braavosi would hold their own in a fight against, say, Ironborn pirates.

      Oooooh. Now, *that,* I want to see.

      • David says:

        Addendum, in support of the idea that water dancing has an element of state sponsorship: if I recall my height-of-the-European-dueling-mania history correctly, governments were usually keen to pass (ineffective) laws forbidding the practice, usually backed by aristocrats concerned with a) keeping the peace and b) keeping knightly skills from being sullied by the dirty, plebeian hands of those upjumped merchants. =P

        The lack of mention of similar laws in Braavos suggests that the Sealord somehow benefits from the presence of lots of violent young men challenging one another to lethal duels – otherwise, why watch a source of labor & military recruits bleed itself away? The sense of Braavosi nationalism explains why the administration doesn’t necessarily fear a violent uprising, but it’s hard to see why they’d accept nightly duels if they didn’t come with the trade-off of a ready force of mobilizable pirate-ninjas.

      • It’s an interesting idea, but…dueling isn’t very useful on a pitching deck of a ship – the pirate’s cutlass is way more like a machete (and in fact often started as a machete) than a rapier. Shipboard combat is a pretty haphazard hacking and slashing and clubbing affair.

        Building ships faster means you have more ships, and usually when you outnumber your enemy, you don’t end up taking one-to-one losses.

        • David says:

          I take your point RE: superior odds minimizing casualties.

          RE: water dancing, though, I think it’s worth pointing out that Syrio’s training seemed as much about using a mentality as using a weapon – I don’t think it’s fair to equate it with historical rapier or smallsword fighting, even if bravo’s blades are similarly designed.

          Syrio spends a lot of time emphasizing awareness (“Look with your eyes,” etc.) amidst chaotic circumstances. That’s arguably useful in any combat situation, but perhaps more so in the haphazard melee of a boarding action than amidst regimented lines of charging cavalry or the infantry set to receive them.

          The smallsword and rapier were developed for duels and self-defense, sure… but I think the duels of the bravos are a by-product of water dancing, not the purpose of it.

  3. Sean C. says:

    Regarding the internal politics of Braavos, one of the weirdest/most interesting little bits of history in “The Rogue Prince” was that Laena Velaryon was betrothed to the son of a Braavosi sealord, before he died and the son squandered his father’s fortune. So…was a Braavosi noble house on the verge of getting its very own dragon? How would that have affected their whole system of government?

  4. Amestria says:

    “While it doesn’t seem like Braavos has quite recognized the manufacturing potential of the system of interchangeable parts, division of labor, and assembly lines that it’s put into practice at the Arsenal, the model is right there waiting for some ambitious merchant or artisan to put into practice and fuel an industrial revolution in the Secret City.”

    Have you considered that their merchants might utilize the arsenal to build merchant ships when its not building warships? If the Braavosi could build quality merchant vessels more quickly and cheaply then their competitors that would be a big advantage.

    • They do that already – which is quite useful and important. But in terms of the bigger impact, it hasn’t spread out to consumer goods yet.

      Venice had this in RL; but the real impact on productivity didn’t happen for a hundred and fifty years, and Venice missed out.

  5. Amestria says:

    “The most obvious difference is the ethnicity of the city – the Free Cities of Essos, as sometimes people forget, are ethnic Valyrians and for the most part (with the notable exception of the Myrish) you should be imagining a bunch of Daeneryses running about”

    Am I the only one who hears “Myrish” thinks “Rhoynish”? Both are dark eyed, dark haired, dark skinned people.renowned for their craftsmanship. Not all of them would have fled to Dorne.

    • S. Duff says:

      Huh, good connection. Maybe the Valyrians rounded up all the Rhoynar who weren’t killed or fled and deported them to what would eventually become Myr.

    • And certainly the Valyrians would have taken a lot of Rhoynish slaves during the wars. I like this.

      • Amestria says:

        I’m inclined to think that Pentos and Norvos both have quite a bit of Andal blood, or the blood of an Andal-like people, flowing through their veins, given their locations and the fact its doubtful *every* Andal crossed into Westeros. Hence a lot of them probably look white but not *quite* Valyarian.

        No one’s ever remarked on the dark looks of the Braavosi, as opposed to the Dothraki, the Ghriscari, the Asshai, the Summer Islanders, the Salt & Sand Dornish, and some of the Myrish (Thoros is unremarkable, Taena very olive), so I’ve kinda pictured most of them as having lightly tanned skins, the sort most people would get from working outside in the sun (the average peasant and trader would be pretty brown), so Westerosi perceive their appearance as unremarkable. This would be a world away though from the Valyarian look though still found in Lys and Volantis.

    • Roger says:

      Interesting idea. And very possible.

  6. ajay says:

    The patriarch of the Prestayn is known by his last name alone – “Prestayn sat alone, a man so ancient you wondered how he ever reached his seat” – and his aloofness suggests a social standing above even that of the other Keyholders.

    Aha, Prestayn! I wonder if he is formally “Prestayn of Prestayn” – a very good title for the head of an immensely rich clan that thinks itself very much first among equals. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Stars_My_Destination

  7. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, please allow me to congratulate you on producing a particularly excellent article! (it’s very easy to see your fondness for the Hidden City in the loving detail with which you addressed it’s structure).

    A few thoughts:-

    -:One sometimes wonders if the historian’s motto ought to be “HISTORY – Resurrecting the past from scraps of gossip, slander and speculation since Herodotus” but am not sure this has quite the right ring to it!

    -:My best guess is that the Moonsingers and the freedmen who founded Braavos managed to overwhelm the crew of a slave ship and seize the vessel (possibly parlaying that single capture into several by virtue of successful piracy), proceeding to use it to mount an escape.

    -:I would also be less than surprised if Braavos prospered initially by dint of offering the city-states of the Valyrian Freehold a way to do business without being obliged to fork over a majority of their profits in tariffs, which would certainly attract business to the Hidden City (could the payment to the Freehold after the unmasking have been payment of dues ).

    -:I’d also say that it’s not impossible the Banks of Braavos were set up to launder profits and possibly even forge credentials that would allow the traders of Braavos to slip in under the noses of whatever financial watch-dogs guarded the gold of the Freehold.

    -:It’s not impossible that the Titan itself might actually pre-date the city of Braavos, meaning that the methods involved in it’s construction may be a mystery even to the Bravos themselves.

    -:I agree that Volantis is the party with the strongest motivation to launch an attack against Braavos, but I still suspect that the attack on Braavos was instigated by the Volantenes rather than carried out by the Tigers themselves; I maintain that keeping the Pentoshi and Tyroshi from liberating Myr or setting a stranglehold on the Stepstones would be hard enough without trying to send an expeditionary force as far North of their strongholds as Braavos.

    -:I’d say that it’s impossible to BUY the world entire, but that you can RENT the most useful parts of it remarkably cheaply if you know which pockets to line; the problem is that gold may be useful but it’s mighty unhelpful when the man in front of you declines to be bought and feels inclined to TAKE what you have for his own free of obligation.

    -:I’d say the smart money is on the Braavosi franchise being Timocratic; given that this is very definitely a merchant republic, it’s hard to avoid the suspicion that while Freedom isn’t too expensive, the franchise is as much an investment as a right!

    -:I suspect that Free Speech in Braavos invokes the freedom to accept the consequences to almost the same degree as it does in Westeros (albeit in a somewhat different way); put another way Braavosi playwrights may enjoy much the same freedoms as a Westerosi Fool, but anyone foolish enough to diss a Bravo to his face or play Cicero in the teeth of the wrong Patrician will find their wagging tongue pinned down …

    -:I’d also like to point out that while Westeros is infinitely less democratic than Braavos, I doubt the commons of Braavos are regularly treated to the spectacle of the highest and mightiest in the Land (or their offspring) knocking one another tip over tails at Tournament for the amusement of the common folk!

    (I don’t intend to dispute the Democracy of Braavos, merely point out to other readers that the Republic is no more free of cynicism, human failure and hypocrisy than Knightly Chivalry – just ask Machiavelli!).

    -:I’d argue that while the Free Cities have a strong Valyrian descent, I’d argue the purity of that descent varies from city to city given the use and misuse of conquered populations as well as outright slaves.

    Admittedly this is a theory with only minimal support, although I hope to acquire more evidence from ‘The World of Ice and Fire’ on this point.

    One again please allow me to congratulate you on pulling together an excellent article and say that I can hardly wait to see the others in the series! (I’ll be especially interested in seeing if you think the Volantene system owes more to the Consulars of Republican Rome or to the rather less democratic Triumvirates that helped mastermind it’s downfall).

    • Glad you liked it!

      – It seems like it was a lot more than one ship.

      – That depends on Valyrian tariff policy, which we don’t know anything about.

      – It’s possible that’s how the banks got their start, but GRRM’s video about the origins of the IB doesn’t sound like that.

      – The FM seem to have institutional memory of the “raising” of the Titans, which suggests otherwise.

      – Overreach is both consistent with Volantis’ other actions and how empires fall in general. And if you’re an expansionist slaveholding noble obsessed with the glory of Valyria, a nation of runaway slaves is something of a stick in the eye.

      – It’s quite possible it’s timocratic, but it’s not necessary. Property requirements for office would have the same effect, for example.

      – re: Free Speech, I don’t think so. If the Sealord laughs at a mummer’s Sealord getting shat on…

      – the ethnic admixtures of the Free Cities are something I’d like to have cleared up, especially given the various descriptions of their “looks.”

      • Amestria says:

        “– re: Free Speech, I don’t think so. If the Sealord laughs at a mummer’s Sealord getting shat on…”

        But failing to praise the right courtesan after dark can easily get you killed…and when a new Sealord needs to be chosen “the knives come out.” Like, people can talk courtesans during the day and politics while there’s a sitting Sealord, but when night comes or a choosing is taking place you can die for it. One thing we know about Braavos is that they are very okay with private violence AS LONG as there are firm limits on when and how it is undertaken. You can kill people in duels at night but not day and assassinate an enemy by going to the Faceless Men but not by doing it yourself. It makes sense they’d have a similarly circumscribed time or way for killing each other over politics. Outside that, live and let live.

      • Amestria says:

        “– The FM seem to have institutional memory of the “raising” of the Titans, which suggests otherwise.”

        The titans were raised the same way the great castles of Westeros were raised. With magic.

        • Only 2 castles we know of used magic – the Eyrie, Casterly Rock, etc. were entirely man made. It’s possible the Titan(s) was/were created with magic, but there’s no evidence that points to us yet.

  8. scarlett45 says:

    Thank you so much for writing Steven. I always enjoy your work.

  9. Roger says:

    That was an interesting essay to read. Good work.

    I don’t now much about Amsterdam’s story, but for me Braavos has always been inspired by Venice. Acording to the legend, Venice was founded by refugees from Aquileia, a city destroyed by Atila’s Huns. The first Venetians hide in the small islands, wanting the sea’s protection.

    PErsonaly I highly enjoyed the description of Braavos’s urban life, and I’m hoping to see more of the other Free Cities.

    I get the impression the Braavosi freed Pentosi slaves for: a) have a “pro-Braavos” party into the city b) reduce competence. Having to pay workers is expensier to Pentos than to have slaves c) reducinc PEntos economy.

    I’m not sure there are popular elections in Braavos. i get more the impression only the noblemen vote. Also elections are peaceful. It’s been stated that the current Sealord is sick, and if he dies, knifes will be drawn and blood will flood.

    Ancient Rome was based in slavery, too, but social ascension wasn’t impossible. And many people did it. While trading was considered an un-patrician activity, many did it through their former slaves (liberts or freemen). And many freemen became very rich, like poet Horatius’s father, the protagonist of the Satiricon, or the aidees of emperor Claudius. Ancient Romans didn’t consider working the land was despictable. For example when general Pompey menaced with dimission once, he said he would return to his lands and plow.

    • Glad you liked it. Absolutely, Venice is an influence, but it’s not the only one.

      While it’s possible that “only the noblemen vote,” it’s not clear from the text. Unlike, say, Volantis or Pentos, where we have a very clear picture of who can vote and who can’t, Braavos has been left ambiguous. And we don’t know what the basis for nobility would be – Valyrian heritage certainly isn’t available for those purposes.

  10. Brian says:

    Steven, great post as usual.

    On the Iron Bank specifically…what do you think the inspiration(s) for it was/were? I can think of the Medici (who were heavily involved in Italian politics and intrigues), but I don’t remember much of their impact outside Italy. I know they backed Edward IV but if I remember right, that was their ultimate undoing. Any thoughts?

    • The Medici”s undoing was largely Lorenzo il Magnifico’s disinterest in banking and Piero II’s weakness, but the family recovered handily – Cosimo I taking Siena and becoming Grand Duke of Tuscany, Fernandino getting a Medici on the papal throne, etc.

      The Medici’s impact outside of Italy…well, let me introduce you to Catherine de Medici, Queen Regent of France.

  11. Abbey Battle says:

    Maester Steven, one believes that I can speak for the assembled Historians by saying that I prefer to admire Her Majesty’s virtues from a safe distance – some few centuries on the right side of her time feels right to me!

    On a more serious note, a few more thoughts have occurred to me relating to your article and the comments upon it:-

    -:First, I’d just like to suggest that it’s entirely possible that the preferred tactic of Braavosi ships faced with marauders is to adopt the tactics of Ancient Rhodes-at-Sea and focus on turning a sea-fight into a contest of ship-handling skills rather than hand-to-hand boarding (favouring the Ram over the Corvus if you prefer); this would certainly put many pirates at a disadvantage since their entire criminal career revolves around NOT sending shiny, precious or just plain fungible loot to the bottom where it cannot be sold or otherwise exchanged for a helping of booze, broads and/or recreational sodomy.

    -:It strikes me that a potentially-major reason for Tyrosh and Pentos to conclude an alliance with the Storm-Lands would be to deny the Tigers bases on the other side of the Step-Stones (a policy which Bravoosi money may have played some part in cementing).

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