Recently, somebody posted a compelling comment that maybe the Unsullied weren’t based on the Spartans but were based on the Mamluks. He wrote:
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).
I think this comment brings up a great point. I don’t know a lot about the Mamluks, but they seem like a good fit for the Unsullied. I was ready to write, “Hey I guess I was wrong.” But, then, while looking over a draft of this post, it hit me that the Spartans and the Mamluks might have inspired the Unsullied. As George RR Martin has said many times, he doesn’t draw exclusively from period, person, or event: he likes to mix and match.
While the Mamluks may be the basis of the slave-army concept, I think George RR Martin drew from the Spartan Battle of Thermopylae for parts of the Unsullied’s backstory. To see the parallel, let’s begin by looking at a Storm of Swords, the basis for Season 3, since it contains more information than the TV show.
Initially, in a Storm of Swords, Daenerys is unconvinced purchasing Unsullied slave soldiers could strengthen her army. All the Unsullied she had seen were fat and lazy guards who didn’t ride horses. To convince her, Jorah Mormont tells her about the Unsullied’s stand against the Dothrakis at Qohorik.
Four hundred years earlier, Khal Tommo led a 50,000 man khalasar on a sacking and burning rampage. As he approached, the Qohorik strengthened their walls and bolstered their forces. They hired sellswords and, as an afterthought, bought 3,000 Unsullied. Once the battle began to turn, the sellswords fled. The Unsullied, however, stood firm between the 50,000 mounted Dothraki and the city gates.
The Unsullied didn’t flinch when the Dothraki charged at them on horseback. The slave-warriors created a wall of shields and spears in their traditional phalanx formation. After two days of fighting and eighteen charges, only 600 Unsullied remained. However, 12,000 Dothraki died, including Khal Tommo. The new Khal considered this a defeat. The horde paraded past the Unsullied, chopped off their braids, and threw them at the Unsullied’s feet to pay respect to the Unsullied.
This description of the 3,000 Unsullied standing against 50,000 men sounds very similar to the Spartan Battle of Thermopylae, which immortalized their legend.
Battle of Thermopylae
Towards the end of the Spartan era, in August 480 BC, a tiny group of 300 Spartans faced off against a 80,000-man Persian army in a narrow coastal pass at Thermopylae, Greece.
The Spartan 300’s defiant last stand remains a symbol of unyielding courage and iron will to this day. Recently immortalized in movies like 300, remains a cultural touchstone. Over two thousand years later, military schools still teach the Battle of Thermopylae as an example of what a tightly disciplined underdog can accomplish against a much larger force.
In the days before the face off, a massive Persian army invaded from the north. The Greeks mustered up a puny 7,000 man army of various Greek city-states, including Sparta. The Spartan King Leonidas led these forces and met the Persian army at the narrow pass.
The Persian commander, Xerxes, choose to wait days to attack so his fleet had time to arrive. Finally, on the fifth day, the Persians attacked.
While the Greeks did not have many men, they had the advantage of terrain. The narrow coastal pass created a bottleneck. The large Persian army couldn’t proceed with their invasion without getting past the Greeks who blocked the pass.
The Greeks held the Persians off for two days and killed roughly 20,000 Persians. However, the Greek forces also lost about 2,500 men.
On the seventh day, however, a Greek traitor revealed a mountain path that led behind the Greeks. This enabled the Persians to outflank the Greeks and destroy one of their few advantages. (Outflanking is a military tactic in which an army maneuvers to attack the enemy forces from their sides or on multiple sides.)
At this point, just when the Spartans needed support the most, Leonidas mysteriously dismissed all the troops except the surviving Spartans and 900 Helots (slaves). Seven hundred Thespians chose to stay, stating they wouldn’t abandon Leonidas and his men.
Herodotus , who chronicled the Battle of Thermopylae, speculated that Leonidas sent away the other Greek forces because he cared about their safety and realized the other Greeks didn’t have the will to face near certain death.
Herodotus writes that Leonidas had time to get away before the Persian troops arrived from the back path. However, Leonidas chose not to order the Spartans to retreat. He may not have ordered the Spartans to leave because he knew that, regardless of the danger, the Spartans would never abandon the battlefield.
Unlike the Unsullied who survived, the Persians slayed Leonidas and all the remaining men except the Thespians who surrendered. The Persian commander Xerxes ordered Leonidas’ body to be decapitated, staked, and crucified. The Spartans considered this sacrilegious so they retrieved his body, presumably at great risk to themselves – demonstrating courage not unlike that of the Unsullied.
By Jamie Adair