Sparta: The Inspiration Behind the Unsullied?

dany-unsullied

Recently, in the comments of this post, “K. Wolf” asked if I take requests (I do) and if I could write an article about the Unsullied. He wrote, “I read book 3 <Storm of Swords> and I was wondering about the Unsullied. Their training seemed unbelievably cruel and I was wondering if that was based on real history.”

There are many parallels between the Unsullied, the disciplined eunuch-warrior slaves,  and Spartan history. In fact, there are so many similarities it seems likely George RR Martin may have based the Unsullied on the ancient Spartans, the fiercely disciplined military society in Ancient Greece. But, first let’s recap the Unsullied in Game of Thrones (Season 3).

To build up her army, Daenerys travels to Astaport to buy 8,000 Unsullied slaves. The Unsullied soldiers are unquestioningly, unflinchingly obedient to whomever holds the scourge, the symbol of their ownership. The Unsullied will stand at attention for hours “like bricks” until, if not dismissed, they faint or die. These exceptional warriors are the only non-mounted soldiers who proved a worthy adversary to the Dothraki.

unsullied-spears

© HBO

The Unsullied’s military excellence comes at a price though. Their severe training begins at age five when the slavers eviscerate any sense of self-determination from them along with their genitals. After they are castrated, each boy is then given a puppy to raise. After a year, the slavers order the boy to kill the puppy. If the boy refuses, he is killed and fed to the surviving dogs. The Unsullied training is uncompromising and lethal: only one in three boys survive.

Is there a historical precedent for such a cruel training regimen? Yes, the training of young boys in Ancient Sparta mirrors that of the Unsullied.

map-ancient-sparta

Ancient Sparta. Source: Created by Marsyas on Wikipedia. Licensed through Creative Commons.

Sparta was a city-state in Ancient Greece who achieved military dominance from roughly 650 to 371 BC. The Spartans, the army, and their training practices were so tough they reverberate through the ages. Even over 2300 years since the Spartan society fell into decline, we are still fascinated by them and immortalize them in films such as 300.

Sparta was, arguably, the first democracy. Women were equals and ran Sparta while men were at war. The Spartan army comprised men from the ancient Greek city-state of Sparta. Spartans lived in a militarized culture. Their highest value was not human life or compassion but military prowess, and they constructed their society to achieve it.

Like the Unsullied, the Spartan training regimen was staggeringly bloody, unrelenting, and remorseless. However, unlike the Unsullied who were slaves, only sons of Spartan citizens had the “honor” of joining their prestigious military, which leaders throughout Greece revered.

Vetting boys for the army started shortly after birth: sons who were not good enough were killed. To begin, the Spartan mothers bathed their male sons in wine. If the baby survived, the father brought him to the Spartan elders’ council, the Gerousia, who determined if the baby was worthy of the Spartan militia and healthy enough to survive the training. If deemed the baby unfit, the child was tossed into a chasm by Mount Taygetus, left to die of exposure, or made into a slave.

If the Gerousia let the baby live, mothers were told not to coddle the boy or indulge his fears of the dark or being left alone and to feed him plain food. The mothers also continued bathing their sons in wine – possibly because they believed the wine tempered healthy babies and triggered convulsions in babies with epilepsy or other health issues.

Once training began, the Spartan boys’ physical world was cold and had little ease. They wore almost no clothing, even in the winter, so they would become accustomed to extreme temperatures. While training, they were essentially naked and barefoot. Given scant comfort, they slept on reed mattresses without much to keep them warm, except maybe thistledown.

The Spartan boys were not fed enough. The trainers deliberately gave the boys subsistence portions to teach the boys how to endure hunger when the army was on the march. However, the trainers let them steal food, but flogged them if they were caught — not for theft but for failing to be stealthy. The Unsullied, incidentally, are not permitted to steal.

A possibly unlucky Spartan's helmet - note the dent. Also, note the similarities between this helmet and the helmets of the Unsullied.
On left, a possibly unlucky Spartan’s helmet – note the dent. There are some similarities between this helmet and the helmets of the Unsullied on the left.
Spartan helmet exhibited at the British Museum, photo by John Antoni: licensed under Creative Commons. Image of the Unsullied via Wikia, © HBO.

 

According to historian David George, the entire Spartan society conspired to strip the Spartans of their identity. Likewise, the slavers ensured the Unsullied felt worthless. Every morning, the Unsullied had to draw a new, demeaning name based on vermin, such as Grey Worm. By the time Daenerys lets them select a new name, some can no longer remember their birth name – that’s how blurred their identity had become.

Another value the Unsullied and Spartans share is a refusal or resistance to acknowledging pain. In Season 3, Kraznys cuts the nipple off an Unsullied soldier: the soldier does not even flinch. Daenerys is amazed. In Storm of Swords, Daenerys is told the Unsullied drink the wine of courage with every meal “from the time they are cut.” This nightshade concoction makes them feel less pain as each year passes.

Ancient Sparta did not have the wine of courage, but military trainers strongly encouraged Spartan boys not to cry out or reveal pain. Every year, the Spartans held a combination of an endurance and bravery contest and a religious ritual, known as diamastigosis, in which Spartan boys competed to see who could withstand flogging the longest without screaming or passing out.

Men flogged the Spartan boys before an altar Artemis Orthia sanctuary. Each boy’s family cheered their son on, shouting encouragement not to pass out. The boy who stood the longest was highly honored. Sometimes, however, boys died during this extreme contest.

Spartans subordinated every desire to the state goal of military dominance. Spartan deference to the state was so extreme that men let physically superior (younger, fitter) men impregnate their wives so the women would give birth to the strongest sons possible. The number of children Spartans could have was limited and men couldn’t live with their wives until they were thirty, when military service ended. In Sparta, the slaves, who could live with their wives and have unlimited children, had more freedom than the Spartans themselves.

In contrast, the slavers of Astapor do not prize strength in the Unsullied as much as discipline. Because the slavers fully castrate the boys, the boys will never grow as strong as intact men.

Spartan dominance eventually declined for a variety of reasons. They refused to innovate their military tactics to offset improved battle strategies by their opponents. The Spartans numbers also dwindled because they would not permit anyone to earn citizenship who wasn’t born to it and yet they threw citizens out of the military. By 371 BC, the Thebans crushed the Spartans at the Battle of Leuctra. The next year, the Thebans marched on Sparta and freed the Helots who had been enslaved for centuries.

By

* In A Storm of Swords, Jorah explains the Unsullied’s training regimen to Daenerys in more detail than in the TV show, so this post also draws on information about the Unsullied in Storm of Swords.

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."

25 Comments

  • Reply July 12, 2013

    KWolf

    Thanks for doing this! It was an interesting article, I’m not a she though =P

  • Reply July 12, 2013

    Jaime Adair

    Oh my gosh! I’m so sorry!!! I’ll change the article. (BTW, I hope it is okay that I mentioned you and your comment in the article. I thought it might be all right since you made the comment publicly.)

  • Reply July 12, 2013

    Jaime Adair

    When I wrote this article, I found myself questioning our (society’s) lionization of the Spartans.

    We name football teams after them (e.g., the Michigan State Spartans), we make movies about them (“300” and others), laconic is a good word, and the word “Spartan” is even taking on a positive connotation – at least for décor.

    Is our admiration of the Spartans a good thing? After all, they practiced eugenics, killed babies, and valued lethal military prowess above all it seems.

    Anyone – any thoughts on any of this? Any thoughts on what draws us to the Spartans? Is it simple respect for excellence, or is it something darker than that?

    • Reply July 12, 2013

      KWolf

      I think Spartan’s are “Cool”. Despite the reality of what there lives are like. They focus on the romantic version of them. Elite, highly trained and skilled super soldiers. The 300 story about them holding off a much larger force really sealed the deal for their popularity. They were hard people who were best there society had to offer. The name spartan’s even sounds cool too. Which is why the Halo games called there super soldiers Spartans and their is even an obstacle course named after them,

  • Reply July 13, 2013

    Jaime Adair

    Yeah, I hate to admit it, but I think the Spartans are cool too, or something. I’m not sure what. I think their dedication to excellence is inspiring. But, is dedication to excellence really a good thing when it is excellence in killing people?

  • Reply July 16, 2013

    Anonymous

    I enjoy reading your posts. I’m not sure that I agree with you that the Unsullied are based on the Spartans. Would a better comparison perhaps be the Mamluks, the great medieval slave army that defeated the Mongols and the Crusaders? It would seem to make more sense, especially as the Spartans took great pride in themselves and their status and themselves enslaved a whole group people they defeated in battle (helots).

    • Reply July 16, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Hey Anonymous,
      That is a great disagreement – I love it. I’ve heard of the “Mamluks” before, but I don’t know anything about them. But, the idea of a real-life slave army is really powerful. Imagine, forcing slaves to fight to the death for causes they don’t believe in. It is almost like saying:
      1. “You can either be killed or be a slave.”
      2. Then, when they agree to be a slave saying, “You can either be killed now (if you refuse our order to fight) or be killed later in battle.”

      I realize many people over the centuries have been compelled to fight in an army, but the idea of a real-life slave army is something else.

      Also, the timeline fits better. George RR Martin acknowledges that he draws on the crusades in Game of Thrones.

      re: your point about the Spartans enslaving defeated people
      That’s a great point because the Spartans didn’t deem the Helots to be worthy of being a warrior. In Spartan culture, it was the ultimate privilege to be in the army. Only citizens could become Spartan soldiers. While the Spartan culture was, at least according to some scholars, constructed around subsuming individuality into the goals of the state, the Spartans had pretty high self-esteem I think. However, in Game of Thrones, Unsullied soldiers had been stripped of their self-worth.

      Thanks for making this comment – it is fantastic. If I can get some good information about the Mamluks, I may try writing a blog post about them.

      • Reply June 29, 2014

        Anonymous

        Thing with the mamlucks was that if they survived long enough they got their freedom. And sometimes they got really rich too.

    • Reply July 15, 2016

      Blank

      I enjoyed your article but I think that the unsullied are more like the jannisaries of the Byzantine empire. Much like the unskilled they were taken from birth and castrated and grew up learning how to fight. The jannisaries also could be sold as an army

      • Reply July 27, 2016

        Jamie Adair

        Thanks for commenting. I’ve received many comments from people who feel that the Unsullied are closer to the Mamluks or the Janissaries. I tend to think that GRRM creates his characters and cultures from a mixture of historical people and events. I do think he may have found some inspiration in the Spartan’s training, but I think it is just as likely he also found inspiration in the Mamluks or Janissaries or all three and possibly some other things. He sometimes weaves in literary allusions or even pop culture ones (think: Princess Bride and Oberyn Martell). At some point, I may write an article comparing the Unsullied to the Mamluks and Janissaries because so many people have pointed out such great parallels on this thread.

  • […] somebody posted a compelling comment that maybe the Unsullied weren’t based on the Spartans but were based on the Mamluks.  He […]

  • Reply June 3, 2014

    Anonymous

    Are you going to open a discussion about (?) Snow who was.tourtured into aubmission?

    • Reply June 3, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Do you mean Theon who was tortured by Ramsay Snow?

  • Reply July 14, 2015

    rosswittenham

    That point about Spartans letting younger men sleep with their wives is really interesting. Younger men are genetically more likely to produce sons than older men. I wonder if this was something they were aware of.

    • Reply July 16, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Hmmm… They might have noticed a pattern over time. I definitely think that might be possible – although (thinking aloud) it would have to be a pretty dramatic pattern for it to be obvious. But, I do think that pre-modern people were significantly more observant about patterns in nature than we are today, so maybe it’s not inconceivable. Intriguing observation, Ross.

  • Reply August 2, 2015

    A Murray

    I favour the Mamluk/janissaries angle, the enslavement, discipline & espirit de corps all fit the bill. The castration element is unusual, in that it is counterproductive in melee based warfare to have soldiers that are not as physically developed as men that have gone through puberty. I believe there are some examples of eunuch generals in Byzantium & Moghul India; but another castrated character, Varys is probably a more accurate representation of the role eunuchs played in history.
    Back to Sparta; I think the popular perception of Sparta and Spartans has been shaped by movies like 300 which paints them as a freedom loving people, neglecting to mention that Sparta was a slave state. Athenians are derided as ‘boy lovers’ when in fact the Spartans also practised the Hellenic custom of pederasty and culture of homoeroticism, young Warriors were paired with elders to create a supportive dynamic, inspiring each other to feats of bravery & to remain on the battlefield (as it would be shameful to flee if your lover/mentor had stood fast). The film also ignores the fact that the Persians were ultimately defeated by Athenian sea power.
    Homosexuality isn’t covered that much though in the Song, a relationship is hinted at between Renly & Ser Loras, there is the explicit physical relationship between Danerys & handmaiden, and the iron born engage in male rape, although the latter is more about asserting masculinity (in Ancient Rome it was acceptable to penetrate another man, but not to be penetrated) and power than any kind of relationship.

    • Reply August 3, 2015

      Watcher on the Couch

      At the time of Justinian there was a eunuch person in high command, Narses https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Narses though you have to scroll quite a long way down the page to read about battles. He features as a character in Robert Graves’ novel “Count Belisarius” though the first paragraph of the https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Count_Belisarius Wikipedia entry cites a quotation that the book although well written may not be 100% accurate. I am no expert on that period of history so cannot make a judgement as to the book’s veracity. I remember I thought it was a good read many years ago though it doesn’t have a conventionally happy ending.

      • Reply August 3, 2015

        Jamie Adair

        Thanks Watcher. I had no idea that Robert Graves wrote a novel about Byzantium. I’ll have to check it out when I get a moment. I just got his book about mythology and also The White Goddess. (I haven’t read either one yet.)

    • Reply August 3, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Hi A Murray,

      re: the Mamluks
      Yes, other people have suggested that as well, and I don’t disagree. GRRM usually draws from multiple sources for his characters and events. I definitely agree with your comment about Varys and eunuchs. Eunuchs have played an incredibly strong role in history, particularly in China and Byzantium; it is nice that GRRM highlights this.
      I didn’t realize that in Ancient Rome it was acceptable to penetrate but not be penetrated. This is very similar to the Vikings actually. They loathed the idea of submission.
      I think one reason homosexuality isn’t covered that much in ASOIAF is because there aren’t any exclusively homosexual characters who are point of view characters. Like you say, there are point of view characters who dabble in bisexuality though — Cersei is one example that comes to mind. (I don’t think this is technically a spoiler since that portion of the books has already made it to the screen.)
      Thanks for this great comment!

  • Reply December 16, 2015

    Ray

    Sorry to necro this thread, but I would like to agree with the idea that the unsullied are based on the Mamluks. It was a much larger phenomenon than that though. The Islamic world had multiple eras of large scale slave armies starting a little before the Sunni revival. This is from the wiki on the Safavid dynasty…

    Therefore, in 1540, Shah Tahmāsp started the first of a series of invasions of the Caucasus region, both ment as a training and drilling for his soldiers, as well as mainly bringing back massive numbers of Christian Circassian and Georgian slaves, who would form the basis of a military slave system,[87] alike to the janissaries of the neighbouring Ottoman Empire,[88] as well as at the same time forming a new layer in Iranian society composed of ethnic Caucasians. At the fourth invasion in 1553, it was now clear that Tahmāsp followed a policy of annexation and resettlement as he gained control over Tbilisi (Tiflis) and the region of Kartli while physically transplanting more than 30,000 people to the central Iranian heartlands.[86] According to Encyclopedia Iranica, this would be the starting point for the corps of the ḡolāmān-e ḵāṣṣa-ye-e šarifa, or royal slaves, who would dominate the Safavid military for most of the empire’s length.

    • Reply December 16, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      That’s a-okay. Feel free to revive old threads. 🙂 I wasn’t aware there were so many slave armies. Thanks for clipping that bit of Wikipedia. It really amazes me that people could even fight effectively for their oppressors. But I guess if it was kill or be killed, the enslaved soldiers would certainly go through the motions.

  • Reply March 3, 2016

    Lea Thomsen

    Hey so I am history student and ancient greece was my major subject last semester and there are some things in this article I disagree with.
    first of all the spartans were not the first democracy not even arguably because there was no democracy in sparta sure there were some democratic aspects like that there in theory was a opportunity for them to vote about the things the efors and the gerousia decided but compared to Athen Sparta was not much of a democracy at all and is in recent studys categorized mostly as an oligarchy wiht democratic aspects.
    Second of all the warriors in sparta were the citizens which I find hard to compare to the slave soldiers from the unsullied, yes they were obligated to join the army and live in the symposion from age 7 till (this can be argued) but it is supposed age 30 might seem like they are slaves to the state. But at the same time it was not a choice to live or to die like it is presented in this article, if a spartan was not able to join or stay in the army fx. if he was not able to give the amount of food to his symposion that was required and if this happened he was not killed he lost his citizenship and probably became a metic or simply “dishonored” and doomed to life a life among the metics which were not slaves but lived in kind of their own independt citystates which in crisis or when the spartans state demanded it followed spartan lead.
    Neither were the helots the spartan stateslaves originally wanted as spartan warriors. The helots in general belonged to a specific spot of land in sparta and to the family that lived on this land if a Spartan was sent to war he could bring/or would bring his helots to assist him in battle, but there is no evidence that the helots did actually fight.
    When sparta started to decline after the peloponesian war, they were in desperate need for new warriors so some scientist have argued that they used the “dishonored” former spartans and metics in their army but not the helot.
    overall this article seems to be based on the myth especially the romans liked to spread about sparta which was in fact one of the favorite holiday spots form romans to travel to. Spartan woman were NOT equal with spartan men they had arguably more rights than women in Athen but this again depends on which perspective you see it from.
    I therefore find it hard to see the connection between spartans and the unsullied.

    • Reply March 3, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Thanks for your comments and welcome. In Spartan culture, would men choose being dishonored over death?

  • Reply July 14, 2016

    Michael

    I agree there are many aspects of the unsullied are similar to spartans but no slave would be so well equipped by a spartan they would look like squires next to a Sparton. The Hot Pass is important and there were 300 Spartons but there were 1000-2000 slaves fighting with them. The more important battle was marathon fought by potters,farmers,artists you know mainly the non warrior castes that spartons spit on. Plus the battles on sea were more important then the hot pass. I think martin does not want to allude to the spartons since they were kind of inneffectual except for thermopalae where they really didn’t have a choice but to fight. Even the battle of Troy we remember more of paris and hector then any sparton. Even of the greeks under agememnon we remember odysseus and ulysses with more luster. Modern day he is almost mentioned more for his bad parentage of Elektra.

    No I argue this is daenerys’s gordean knot. Alexander used spears too more effectivly then any sparton. Even the mild persian undertone to Slavers bay. Spartons would probably not elevate most men of different race either but Alexander would he would even make his capitol in their lands. Leonidas was a king but Daenerys is great.

  • Reply July 17, 2016

    Jan

    They don’t fight like Spartans phalanx, rather Impi (Zulu) or persian Immortals…
    Unsullied helmet are similar to Polish hussar helmet. Many cultures i see here.

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