Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! Laboratory of Politics, Part V: Old Volantis


Over on Tower of the Hand, I’ve published the penultimate part of my Laboratory of Politics series on the various polities of Essos. This time, I fact-check the previous essays against the World of Ice and Fire, and examine the politics, economy, society and historical parallels for the oldest of the Free Cities, the Freehold of Volantis.

Check it out!


69 thoughts on “Guest Essay at Tower of the Hand! Laboratory of Politics, Part V: Old Volantis

  1. David Hunt says:

    Just read the Volantis section. I can see where your twitter comment about fantasizing Dany burning it to the ground comes from.

    I’ve got nothing to specifically comment on regarding the article other than that I enjoyed it.

    On a (barely) related note, your comments on the church of R’hllor reminded me of Leigh Butler’s blog at (A Read of Ice and Fire) where she’s reading all the books for the first time and summarizing and commenting on chapters. She’s calls the followers of R’hllor “Holy R’hllorers.” I read that recently and decided that it needed to be shared.

  2. ad says:

    I’ve always thought the scale of slavery in the free cities a bit odd. The only real world parallel would seem to be the Caribbean. That society worked that way becuase free colonists had perhaps a 50-50 chance of surviving five years before some tropical illness killed them. Africans lived longer, but they were all slaves.

    But even they slowly built up a native born population. Even though most of them were born in slavery, some would be freed in each generation.

    Volantis has been around for more than a thousand years, and for most of that time has had a reasonably stable population. (And it does not appear to be the disease ridden charnel house that was Jamaica or Barbados anyway.) By now, freedman and their descendents should make up most of the working class – so why are they still importing slaves in such numbers?

    • I’m guessing a lot of Volantene freedmen and their descendants leave for other Free Cities where there’s less social prejudice and it’s easier to rise in status.

      • Grant says:

        I find it strange that their lack of political representation hasn’t led to them common cause with the slaves of Volantis. Extending political enfranchisement to the lower classes was one of the ways that slave-owning American elites successfully split the poor and slaves politically in the 18th and 19th centuries.

        • On the contrary, the post-Reconstruction use of the poll tax to disenfranchise poor whites and poor blacks was generally popular.

          • Grant says:

            But that was after the cultural establishment of slaves as being at the bottom of the order, wasn’t it? By the time of post-Reconstruction in the American south you’ve got close to two centuries of white supremacist beliefs.

            I suppose it could be explained if there were any supports made available to poor whites that weren’t to any blacks, besides political enfranchisement. For example the rule of blacks giving up front seats to whites*. But I don’t think that they mention any such equivalent made available to freemen in Volantis.

            *There have to be plenty of articles written on this over the past twenty years at least, when I have time I’ll see if my computer can access my APSA account.

          • My point is that you can get solidarity in favor of white supremacy through a variety of different methods, both positive and negative reinforcement.

            An interesting example of this is the way in which the interracial Readjuster movements in the 1880s were targeted by the Bourbon elite.

      • ad says:

        That would require a huge number of emigrants leaving for countries they know nothing about and have no relatives in. I can’t really think of any pre-modern parallels.

        (I suppose the Free Cities have had a massive slave immigration rate and a stagnant population for centuries because the auhor wanted them to…)

  3. Grant says:

    On the issue of bribery and independent policy, it is possible that it was the shocking nature of events that made possible such a shift in Volantene foreign policy, and the bribe was really just sealing things. The article does mention how much of an earthquake Dany is for coastal Essos politics.

    But the number of slaves, that can only be really explained I think by Martin’s need to show the reader how many people are enslaved and the fantasy focus on making things bigger.

    • Agreed. It was more accelerating an existing trend. On the other hand, we don’t know what Illyrio’s policies were that got displaced.

      • Grant says:

        We really don’t know much about Illyrio, save that his stated policies seem contradicted (or at least questioned) by his actions. We have some statements, some things he has done in the past and possibly some hints, but relatively little established fact. By this point in the books we’ve got a pretty good idea of nearly every single actor I think, with the exceptions of he and Varys. And those two are indirectly responsible for a lot of the plot, so I’m hoping we get some real answers on them in the next book.

  4. Winnief says:

    Great analysis as always Steve, and I have to agree with you that from the sounds of it, Dany’s going to raze that city and good riddance. Braavos is SO much better and as you said clearly represents the future. The whole city of Braavos actually feels centuries ahead of everywhere else and much more like the SHakespearean Elizabethan Renaissance than anything else.

    Makes sense thematically but of course it will further delay Dany’s arrival in Westeros.

    Also gets to something I’ve felt for a while. If/when Dany does stop the Others and fights in Westeros, I don’t feel her destiny is to rule there-she’s much more a creature of Essos and I would prefer she start a new empire to the East or resettle Valryia or something.

    • David Hunt says:

      She might raze Volantis, but I’ve read people speculating that she’ll head east through Asshai and come at Westeros from the West as an explanation for Quathe’s seemingly contradictory prophesy. Personally, I’m not sure that I’d like that…

      • TakatoGuil says:

        We’ve been told by GRRM that no POV will see Asshai, so that ain’t happening. Thank goodness. The scale of the world makes the mere suggestion laughable.

        • Yeah, the damage done to the timeline would be really dangerous; even if you can sail from Asshai to the west coast of Westeros – i.e, if there’s not another continent in the way and I think there is one – the amount of time it would take is at least several months to years.

          • Winnief says:

            For that matter, I think Euron Greyjoy’s banishment from the Iron Islands should have been longer to make his claim to have seen Asshai AND Valyria more plausible, but I guess it might *just* fit.

            But yeah, Martin can’t afford to delay Dany any longer or have more world building. Things have to start happening there *soon*. Volantis at least is on the way between Slavers Bay and Westeros so is a logical stopping point at any rate.

          • I think the fact that it wasn’t that long speaks to Euron’s lack of credibility.

            Agreed. The advantage of Volantis is that it’s a good way to capstone the anti-slavery thing and it’s in the right direction.

          • Winnie says:

            Agreed on Euron’s lack of of credibility…it just makes it even harder to believe that the Iron Born at the kingsmoot believed *anything* he told them since it simply defied common reason.

      • I think that was originally part of the plan, but GRRM’s decided pretty heavily against going to Asshai.

        But Quaithe’s prophecy is easy to do at least from the directional stuff:
        – east to go west; she’s done that already. (i.e, to return home you need to learn from Essos)
        – south to go north; she’s done that. (i.e, you’re going to wind up in the final battle)
        – to go forward you most go back; she’s done that. (i.e, finish your business with the Dothraki)

    • Personally I think you’re going to see a slave revolt first leaving the masters to retreat within their black walls. Those walls would then make quite an effective oven leaving the rest of the city for the slaves to rebuild a living society.

    • Kuruharan says:

      I wanted to chime in agreement on Dany being a creature of Essos and not Westeros. This is something I’ve thought before but few other people seem to have noted it.

      • David Hunt says:

        I’ve often thought that one of Dany’s problems fitting in in various Essosi cultures is that she’s a creature of Westeros. Specifically, her attitude regarding slavery is very much in tune with the attitudes of Westeros. Of course, it’s also the ideology of Braavos where she spent her first years, so maybe I’m just fooling myself…

        • Winnief says:

          She definitely got the Braavosi attitude towards slavery, but her style of dress, the way she takes lovers, the mysticism she travels in, even her attitude towards warfare seems more Essos somehow than Westeros. Which may serve its uses in the times ahead but still..

          The story needs her to get to the Seven Kingdoms eventually and KL, but somehow, whenever I think of Dany there she seems…out of place. Beautiful, exotic, fascinating, and terrifying. But again out of place with no natural ties to any of the religions of the Seven Kingdoms, to the lands, or to the people.

          Heck, it would in itself be a challenge for the show’s wardrobe people to adapt Dany’s *look* to the colder more medieval environment. She might have to ask Sansa to sew her some new gowns/cloaks. Dany being the child of fire seems most at home in the deserts, the Dothraki sea, and other hot climates. Which while it make her suited to Dorne in some respects, almost puts her at odds with Kingdoms about to experience a long winter.

          Maybe that’s one reason Martin’s been delaying her arrival so long because he has trouble picturing it too.

  5. Abbey Battle says:

    Excellent work as ever Maester Steven!

    I must admit that one wonders if the Tiger-cloaks of Old Volantis are more Mamelukes or closer to Janissaries – since Old Volantis is clearly a sister-city of Constantinople the latter seems more appropriate – although strictly speaking I’m not sure Janissaries count as slaves, rather than something more like conscript soldiers.

    In any case I’d be willing to bet a star to a stag that if or when the incinerator roars through Old Volantis then it’ll be the slave soldiers who gather up the Volantenes (especially if the Mother of Dragons shows her usual knack for moving on to conquests anew).

    Still, bad as the Old Blood in the Black Walls undoubtedly are, I wouldn’t wish a horde of Dothraki screamers backed by the SCALY Black Death on the scum of the Basilisk Isles, never mind a city with some pretensions to civilisation and a target-rich environment if ever there was one.

    On another note, I remain confident that the fleet which sought to target Braavos during the Century of Blood sailed out of The High Kingdom of Sarnor; we know that the Hidden City made war on the Tall Men for the hegemony of the Northern Seas and we know that the latter were not of a mind to co-operate even as the Khals led their hordes into the Grasslands to burn out the Tall Men – I say that a failed co-operative venture is as likely to have left them soured on cooperation as any other factor.

    I fear, however, that this remains to be STATED.

    Stay Well Maester Steven and MERRY CHRISTMAS to you and all those reading this!

    • I think it’s a mix, same with the Unsullied.

      Yeah, I don’t think the Black Walls are going to be a safe space.

      I don’t think it’s the Sarnori.

      • Abbey Battle says:

        Out of curiosity might I please ask why not? (there seems to be no really solid PROOF for any given view, but there is hard evidence that the Bravos warred down the Tall Men and what we know about the Century of Blood would seem to indicate that they were less active against the Volantenes than one might expect, given their considerable differences – I’d argue that focussing on the sea routes across the North of Essos is as reasonable an explanation as any).

        I must admit though that it is equally possible that Pentos took a slap at their habitual nemesis and that – if this were their first War or even their second – its not impossible they would be unwise enough to risk the Titans wrath.

        I do understand that you remain convinced that the Tigers got far enough North along the West of Essos to try to gouge the Bravos, but I will maintain that this seems unlikely given the sheer strain on pseudo-medieval logistics.

        They quite simply lack either the bases or the friends to make a serious go of a direct assault on Braavos.

        Hurry up FIRE AND BLOOD, for we’ll be at loggerheads about this little disagreement until you settle things for us!

        • I just don’t see much from them in the way of naval power or westward expansion. Rather, they seem to be more focused on horses and chariots and fighting amongst themselves or the Dothraki.

          Whereas the Volantenes have a large fleet and were trying to conquer the west.

          • Abbey Battle says:

            The problem is that we have an explicit mention of a sea-fight between the Bravos and the Tall Men, but every battle mentioned in connection to the Great Tiger Hunt features some other power – Tyrosh and Pentos in the Narrow Sea, Argilac Storm-King in the debatable lands, Lyseni Exiles headed for Home (sponsored by Braavos and offered everything but a red carpet by Aegon the Dragon), Norvos and Qohor on Dagger Lake … from what we hear it would be very, very difficult for a Volantene fleet to get as far north as Tarth, never mind the Hidden City.

            Although it is interesting to wonder if the apparently-early demise of the penultimate King of Mountain and Vale (father of little King Ronnel), as well as the apparent dearth of naval power there – despite there being at least some indications of a proud naval tradition, in which battles with Volantenes are mentioned – might be connected to some sort of Volantene operations in the area.

            Hmmm … I still think a direct attack on the Colossus by the Volantenes unlikely, but I cannot call it IMPOSSIBLE.

          • I must have missed that mention – where is it in WOIAF?

          • Andrew says:

            Page 295 “The Shivering Sea”

            “the last great war fleet of the Kingdom of Sarnor was sent to the bottom by the Sealord of Braavos.”

  6. So Steven, my question would have been more pertinent after your Braavos entry in this series, but some of your commentary in this one made me wonder: What is the over/under that Braavos will take an active role in the fighting when Daenarys finally reaches western Essos?

    We have historical examples of Braavos entering into military engagements with (at least partially) the goal of breaking slave power in western Essos. And now we’ve seen an unofficial arm of the Braavos government (the Iron Bank) take a very active role in the War of the Five Kings. Wouldn’t it make sense (both politically and plot-wise) for the purple sails to reach out to assist in the demise of chattel slavery in the known world?

    • Winnief says:

      They may not take an active role in Dany’s struggles personally but in the fight against the White Walkers and the Long Night. Remember if that really is destined to affect other regions like Essos then Braavos will have just as much incentive to get involved, (perhaps supplying dragon glass weapons from the Arsenal,) as anyone.

      That could be another reason for Stannis’s loan and having Tycho at the Wall-it gives the Iron Bank a first eye view so to speak of what’s going to be happening. And yet another reason why the show seems so eager to get Braavos and the Bank so firmly established in the lexicon quickly. Heck that might settle the debt question-cut a deal with the Bank to help them ensure the White Walkers/Wights never cross their borders in exchange for forgiveness of the gold they sunk into Westeros-or at least better repayment terms.

      And yeah, the Black Walls are soon going to be tombs. I see Aegon at Harrenhaal all over again.

    • An active role…not sure. Certainly, if Volantis bites it, the Braavosi will have a large role to play in trying to fill the political vacuum.

      • Brett says:

        It would lead to a pretty massive re-alignment in the politics of the Nine Cities. If the entire system of masters and slaves collapses in Volantis, then the internal legitimacy of the slave regimes in Lys and Myr (as well as the “river towns”) is going to be challenged as well. It’s almost a pity it will be a side-show to what’s going on in Westeros. .

      • Winnief says:

        Oh yeah, Braavos definitely becomes even more powerful and important in ever in that situation.

      • jefff says:

        Are there actually examples of ideological cooperation in pre-French Revolution periods of republican/egalitarian upheaval? Did, say, the late medieval Italian communes have a sense of mutual aid? I know like Many-Headed Hydra posits an ideological-and-personal-but-not-really-material link between the English Revolution and the other revolutionaries of the 1630s-40s–French peasants, Masaniello’s revolution in Naples, the tail end of the Dutch Revolt. What would historical egalitarian intervention/nation-building look like, in your opinion?

        • Pre-French Revolution is a bit difficult – I would say the best example of that would be the more-than-slightly self-interested interventions by Athens in favor of democratic regimes around the time of the Peloponnesian War.

      • WPA says:

        Though considering the Bravosi aversion to dragonlords- you’d think they’d be equally wary of a potentially dynastic power holding dragons whatever Dany’s views might be.

        On Volantis, a Haitian revolt-situation seems like the “best” case scenario. I doubt it ends well for any involved.

  7. Abbey Battle says:

    Just popping in to send a belated Seasons Greetings to one and all, as well as my best wishes for a Happy New Year to you Maester Steven!

  8. OTL says:

    Can’t wait for all the sexist Dany haters to have to read/watch the destruction of slavery in all of western Essos!

    I actually read a youtube comment that said that Dany was stupid for “disrupting the economy of Slavers Bay”. Like as if that’s more important than human emancipation. It really surprises me the amount of hate she comes in for.

    Maybe I’m in a minority but crucifying those slavers was one of the best parts of season 4.

  9. KrimzonStriker says:

    I find myself largely in agreement with your essay, though I’ll add in a caveat on the disputed lands and why it might be worthwhile to still fight for him. While presently it might be a wasteland it doesn’t seem to ever be stated that it’s unrecoverable like say Carthage or Old Ghis in this world. If either of the three cities managed to outright claim and secure the disputed lands I don’t think it inconceivable to repair and make them profitable again, the problem is the constant warfare prevents any one power the stability in allowing such a recovery to take place. Hard to find a reason to raise crops there if there’s a risk of them being burned down the next day. But between the blood and ashes the area SHOULD still technically be fertile enough to rebuild I would think.

    I’ll also add that I’m a bit worried with the timeline on whether we’ll see Danny in Westeros until the very end of the series at this rate given the powder keg in Volantis that would surely attract her attention, along with the campaign of vengeance she would likely be wrecking across Essos for the majority of the Winds of Winter it feels like.

    Oh and I finally saw your response back in November 7th regarding our discussion on the Reynes and Tarbeck rebellion against the Lannisters. Basically I countered your point regarding the Reynes and Tarbecks level of military preparedness f if they wanted to overthrow House Lannister. I observed that based on their past actions it largely seemed as though the Reynes and Tarbecks wanted to achieve their goals over subduing House Lannister through non-violent means like financial and diplomatic sabotage, and only used rebellion as a threat/bluff to cow Tytos in checking Tywin rather then actually trying to force the issue militarily. I mean, technically speaking the Iron Throne is obligated to defend House Lannister’s rights as Lord Paramount, an actual overthrow makes no real sense in terms of plausible success. Likely this was all just a negotiation tactic on their parts and they didn’t really think it would come to force of arms in the end.

    • If the book is right, they’ve been a wasteland for three hundred years. That’s pretty conclusive.

      And I disagree – Tywin was Tytos’ oldest son, they were going to have to force the issue some day.

      • KrimzonStriker says:

        Not necessarily, there had to be a recovery period during the Three Daughters era remember? That would have interrupted the warfare for a good couple of decades at least to rebuild/re-cultivate the disputed lands before they went back at it again.

        Given that Tytos checked Tywin before, along with the fact that Tywin was only what, 17, 18 at the time I think it actually reasonable they underestimated him. I’m only taking into consideration all their past actions, by and large it was financial subterfuge they used against House Lannister, not force of arms, which lends credence as to why they were so unprepared when it actually came down to it. And that doesn’t address my larger point as to how full-scale rebellion would have realistically worked with the Iron Throne hovering over the distance to potentially intervene, especially considering that Twin and Aerys were friends by that point. And again Tywin did ILLEGALLY take control of his father’s bannermen after all. That would have caught most people who didn’t know Tywin personally off guard I feel. Given Tytos’ character this just feels more like a strategy conducive to him, of bluffing and intimidating him into giving them what they wanted rather then actively seeking a real confrontation.

        • WOIAF says it’s still messed up.

          I’m just saying, they were not idiots. They would have known that Tytos was going to die eventually.

          • KrimzonStriker says:

            It’s messed up now, but I think it was being overly general in saying 300 centuries of nonstop fighting when logically that couldn’t have been possible during the era of the three sisters.

            He wasn’t then, and Tytos was still 40 when they did rebel. It was 6 years after the Reynes rebellion before he finally kicked the bucket from a heart attack anyway, that’s a long time to ask to maintain a sufficient standing army in the meantime for a feudal society, gold or no gold, which might have extended to 20 more if Tytos lived to a natural death at a minimum. You can’t really fault them for not projecting that far ahead, or for failing to see Tywin turning all those calculations on their head by taking control of the Lannister bannermen without his father’s leave.

          • KrimzonStriker says:

            Three Daughters, my bad. In any event saying it’s been a wasteland ALL that time feels like the overly general/exaggerated statement scholars usually like to add for brevity’s sake in their recordings for a nice, seamless, and space saving historical summary.

  10. […] here, hammering on similar themes until they take on the status of cultural commonalities. As with Volantis, there is a strong emphasis on ostentation and opulence – everything in Qarth is huge and […]

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