The Unsullied and the Battle of Thermopylae

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.

unsullied-GOT-thermopylae

The Unsullied may have been based on the Mamluks and the Spartans. Linked via Wikia (c) HBO.

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.

phalanx-unsullied-game-of-thrones

This illustration shows a phalanx formation. Not how the soldiers, who are marching in lockstep, form a shield wall and spears project through the ranks of the first soldiers . Licensed through Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

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

Leonidas_I_of_Sparta

Latter-day recreation of King Leonidas of Sparta. Image by Praxinoa licensed via Wikimedia/Creative Commons.

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.

300 Promotional Poster via Wikia.

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 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."

12 Comments

  • Reply July 23, 2013

    renatus1

    The Unsullied keep similarities with the Spartan army and with the Legions of Rome, but in the context in which they are inserted, on Essos, and more specifically in the Bay of Slaves and The Nine Free Cities, in my view, the best analogies to be made ​​are with groups of slave soldiers of the ancient Near East – as the Mamluks and Janissaries – and the elite force of the Achaemenid Empire, known as Immortals or the Ten Thousand Immortals. Focusing on the second option – since the Mamluks were cavalry soldiers and Janissaries were carrying firearms – the Immortals of ancient Persia were an elite infantry, as the Unsullied, and as they served both on the battlefield as at the cities and palaces, such as Imperial Guard. They participated decisively in the campaigns of expansion Persian Cyrus the Great, Cambyses, Darius I and Xerxes, between sixth and fifth centuries B.C.

    • Reply July 24, 2013

      Jaime Adair

      Renatus, fantastic and erudite comment. Thank you for sharing! Also, I just checked out your blog (http://historiadegeloefogo.wordpress.com/). It looks extremely good. (I will have to get Google translate out to read it. I’m looking forward to it.)

  • Reply March 26, 2014

    Mariana Castro

    I would suggest that you look into the Hellenistic Age a little bit more often here. The very battles for the throne after the death of an usurper king follows almost exactly the death of Alexander the Great in 323 BC and the events that followed it. If you want I can send you an outline of the Hellenistic Age and you can see for yourself.

    • Reply March 26, 2014

      Jaime Adair

      Hi Mariana,
      Thanks for reading! This is a great suggestion. I would love it if you sent me an outline. Please email me at jamie.adair at historygot dot com.

      Thanks!
      Jamie

  • Reply April 22, 2014

    David Wright

    Jamie, just one slight correction to your story: the 700 Thespians did not surrender, they died with the Spartans. There were 300 Thebans kept back under compulsion and it was these who surrendered. I have always felt that the Thespians never receive the honour that they deserve, as I believe that the 700 were almost the entire military age men in Thespis.

    • Reply April 22, 2014

      Jamie Adair

      Hi David,

      Thank you so much for pointing this out. I’m trying to remember, but I believe I read the very fact you state and may have “misspoken” when I wrote the article – I’m not sure why. Regardless, I’ll investigate this and quite likely correct the article. Thank you! Also, you’re right — they don’t get the honor they deserve for their sacrifice. Giving up all the men in your community, is a big deal.

      Jamie

  • Reply August 2, 2015

    A Murray

    Good article. It’s also worth noting that the Persians eventually had to withdraw from Greece when the combined fleet led by the Athenians tricked the vast Persian fleet into a narrow straight between Salamis and the mainland and destroyed them, as the Persians greater numbers restricted their ability to manoeuvre. I see a similarity in how Tyrion destroys the Baratheon fleet by luring them into the narrow channel and pulling up the chain. Someone else has pointed out the Greek Fire/Wildfire link I think. It’s also a bit of a stretch (pun intended) but the chain itself is reminiscent of the ingenious harbour defences allegedly built by Archimedes.

    • Reply August 3, 2015

      Jamie Adair

      Ha. Good pun. Yes, I’ve seen the Greek Fire/Wildfire link in quite a few articles around the web. I’ve never written about it partially because it is covered elsewhere. Yes, there are certainly a few links between ASOIAF and Byzantium.

  • Reply June 22, 2016

    shayan

    at begining say my english in not good so apologize for that !!!
    spartan and legion and persian immortal wasent slave but fight and traning at young age and legendry(i am persian)
    but the janneseri (real name is yani cheri) was slave soldier who taken from chrisian families
    and live in muslem families.
    but neither was Eunuch
    there some Eunuch soldier in history who work in king brothel
    i think the unsulid something between all task above.
    slave like jannesiry.
    strong like spartan
    conqueror like rome legions and persian immortal

  • Reply June 22, 2016

    shayan

    and something else
    if you think 300 spartan can defet army of persians (
    which means you dont know us:)

  • Reply July 20, 2016

    Josh

    I think if you bear in mind that the Sultan As-salih Ayyub died of complications from a battle wound, and that his wife seized control of his throne by freeing and empowering the elite Mamluk slave/warriors and using them to force her way into power, becoming the first female Sultana of Egypt, then the comparison between the Unsullied and the Mamluks makes a lot more sense.

    It very much parallels the story of Danaerys achieving power by freeing the Unsullied and using them to enforce her power base.

    • Reply July 27, 2016

      Jamie Adair

      Oh wow. Thanks for sharing that. I’m going to have to read up on that. It is very interesting.

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