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.
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.
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.
|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 Jamie Adair
* 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.