Second Sons

In Game of Thrones, bands of soldiers-for-hire (known as “sellswords”) sell their fighting services to the highest bidder. Without loyalty to a country or king, they fight for whomever holds their contract. In the “Second Sons” (Season 3, episode 8), Daenarys encounters a company of sellswords in Yunkai known as the Second Sons.


The Second Sons present themselves to Daenerys. From left to right, Prendahl na Ghezn, Mero, and Daario Naharis. Linked via Wikia © HBO.


“Men who fight for gold have neither honor nor loyalty. They cannot be trusted.” – Ser Barristan Selmy
 “They can be trusted to kill you if they are well paid…” – Jorah of Mormont
 “They’re called the Second Sons. A company led by a Braavosi called Mero. The Titan’s Bastard.” – Jorah of Mormont (s3, ep8,  5:04)

Led by the vulgar Mero of Braavos, the Second Sons are particularly untrustworthy and fearsome mercenaries. Daenerys tries to induce the company’s captains to fight for her. However, the captains are already under contract and, instead, the coarse Mero treats Daenerys like he’s at a brothel. Later, after leaving Daenerys, Mero plots to kill her. However, the long-haired Daario Naharis, double-crosses and kills his fellow captains, invades Daenerys’ tent, and swears allegiance to Daenerys.

The name “Second Sons” is not insignificant. The company named Second Sons is so-called because it comprises second sons of lords and merchants who are to inherit nothing.

The Second Sons company points to a fundamental problem of the middle ages: primogeniture and what to do with surplus sons. To us, the idea of primogeniture seems grossly unfair and contrary to all our values about equality. However, this was not the medieval perspective.

The medieval noble was primarily concerned about power and legacy. (If you listen to Tywin Lannister, he is always talking about his legacy.) Families in the middle ages took the long view. Rather than thinking solely of their children’s immediate needs, famlies thought ahead many generations. To preserve a family’s land and prevent it from being divided until there was nothing worth inheriting, noblemen left their entire estates to their eldest sons. Kings encouraged this practice since they required strong, powerful nobles with lots of retainers to protect and administer their territories.

The tradition of primogeniture, in which only the eldest son inherits the father’s estate, set siblings up to hate each other. Without an estate, there was no room for men in the middle ages. Second and third sons could either join the church, try to make a living fighting (either through a lord’s patronage as part of his retinue or as a mercenary), live off of the heir at the family estate, or live beyond the law.

If their families couldn’t obtain a rich heiress for them to marry (so they could get estates of their own) or buy a spot in the church for them, the sons would struggle to find a place for themselves in their world. As a result, primogeniture created a situation in which the second- and third-born sons might find themselves wishing for their eldest brother’s death.

George RR martin clearly gets the pivotal effect of primogeniture. He takes the Edward IV, Clarence, and Richard III conflict and turns it into a repeated motif of the three brothers (Robert, Stannis, and Renly Baratheon; Theon Greyjoy and his two dead biological brothers; and even Robb Stark, Theon, and Jon Snow). In most of these cases, there is either a power struggle or one brother is disenfranchised.

Game of Thrones and, in fact, the entire middle ages, are speckled with sibling rivalry gone wrong. From the warring sons of Henry II to Clarence’s attempts to oust his brother Edward IV, the middle ages are overflowing with fraternal competition and attempted fratricide. So much so, in fact, that Neil Gaiman parodies fratricidal royal brothers in Stardust. (The seven brothers keep off’ing each other as they claw their way to the throne.)

Episode: Second Sons, Season 3, Episode 8

To be continued…


Jamie Adair is the editor of History Behind Game of Thrones, a website about the history behind George RR Martin's "A Song of Ice and Fire" novels and the hit TV show, "Game of Thrones."

1 Comment

  • Reply June 22, 2019

    Jordan Mann

    Loving this thread. It should be noted that there are shades of the Wars of the Roses in the story leading up to GoT. Richard II (like Aegon Targaryen) is a flawed king who forces his otherwise loyal cousin Bolingbroke (later Henry IV) (like Robert Baratheon) to take the throne in order to survive. The breaking of the rule of primogeniture sparks chaos and unrest and ultimately leads to rebellion and instability.

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