Tactical Overview – The Unsullied
Ser Jorah Mormont claims – multiple times – that the Unsullied are the finest infantry in all the world, but since Ser Jorah and reality are not exactly on talking terms, that claim ought to be put to test.
Tactics and organization
Unsullied are described as utilizing typical phalanx tactics. In the legend of Three Thousand of Qohor – essentially a retelling of the legend of 300 Spartans – the Unsullied “locked their shields, lowered their spears, and stood firm” against 20 000 Dothraki screamers. Then they proceeded to stand still, weathering arrow barrages and cavalry charges alike.
Unsullied are chosen young, for size, speed and strength. Only one boy in three survives the training. They master shordsword, shield and three spears, and are described as unfallingly loyal – their main selling point is in fact obedience. Unsullied are eunuchs, cut young, and thus lack the physical strength of grown men. They are also given wine of courage which removes their sense of pain. Unsullied have no names, only bestial titles which change every day.
Training is extreme. Those who cannot remember their names are culled in training, along with those who cannot run all day in full pack, scale a mountain in the black of night, walk across a bed of coals, or slay an infant of a slave woman. They are also given a dog to care for, which then they have to kill at the end of a year; any who fail are killed. They have no life outside the duty, and are not expected to own things, steal or anything else. Unsullied have no officers of their own, as they are trained only to obey, and are themselves unlettered.
Daenerys’ Unsullied however are different from originals. She bought 8 600 fully trained Unsullied and 5 000 untrained Unsullied. She also allowed them personal names, and to mix with other people.
Unsullied at least initially do have good campaign discipline, as they are seen cutting stakes for a fortified camp. It is unknown how fortified the camp is, but the fact that it is fortified at all places them at level of more disciplined Westerosi forces such as Lannister troops and the Golden Company. But since conquest of Mereen they had been used primarily as guards – precisely what Astapori warned against – and some had been going to pleasure houses, alone – as assassination of Stalwart Shield shows. This may well reduce them to the level of obscene jape by the time they arrive to Westeros.
Ghiscari legions are equipped in same way as Unsullied and use same tactics, but are citizen soldiers who serve for three-year terms.
Kraznys mo Naklob states that all the Unsullied are masters “of spear and shield and shortsword”. Unsullied-as-sold wear only tunics over white linen clouts, conical bronze helms, spears, shields and swords. Normal equipment is sword, shield, spear, sandals, quilted tunic and bronze caps.
Being eunuchs, Unsullied have no testosterone. Testosterone increases agression, builds lean muscle mass, reduces body fat and turns on the immune system. Unsullied would be slower, weaker and less intelligent than normal humans. Just as importantly, Unsullied would have nothing to fight for – they have no ethnic, national or familial loyalty. They would also have no pride, which is one of primary factors in survival of people. As prepubescent castrati, Unsullied would have no facial or body hair, have high voices, grow tall and graceful, have low strength and no muscle definition, and be nonagressive. Castration leads to long limb bones, incomplete bone fusion and low bone density.
These problems are even more pronounced because the Unsullied are a phalanx. Phalangite combat is essentially a showing match. In such circumstances, high muscle mass, short limbs and low centre of gravity are a definite advantage. Unsullied are the exact opposite.
Lack of pain is also significant disadvantage. Dulled senses – even if it is just pain – means that they will not notice injuries, or may even injure themselves accidentally. As a result, they will be prone to dying of infections. This is especially a problem due to their compromised immune system, as noted before.
Unsullied also do not have names, until Daenerys allowed them their names back. She also allowed them to mingle with other people. This is contrary to the warning Kraznys gave her – that the Unsullied would forget who and what they are. In essence, they would start fearing death as they would have something to live for. This lack of fear was the Unsullied greatest advantage – they “knew no other life” than fighting and dying. But Daenerys gives them precisely this “something to live for”, giving them freedom, life beyond being a slave, and even their individual identity (by allowing them to choose names).
Daenerys had also bought boys still in training, and those yet to be cut, to replace losses. But unless training is carried out to old standards – which is unlikely – influx of new troops in units will cause friction and reduced effectiveness. Between these and other factors, Unsullied discipline has started to suffer serious decay by the time Daenerys had taken over Mereen. This can be seen from the example of murder of Stalwart Shield, who had gone to a pleasure house alone – despite Kraznys stating that Unsullied have no desires. Even his name is indicative, Stalwart Shield’s murder indicating cracks in the Unsullied as a whole.
Loss of discipline, and also breakdown of traditional structure, will have serious consequences for the Unsullied. Loss of discipline, as noted, is already evident, and may well reduce the Unsullied to an armed mob. This has direct implications for humane consequences of her eventual invasion of Westeros, which may well turn out far more bloody than strictly necessary.
Between influx of new recruits and mixing with normal slaves, Unsullied military structure is also breaking down. Kraznys states that when Unsullied were sold in units of ten, results were very poor. But not only did Daenerys allow Unsullied their own names, she is also using them to patrol city and as guards – much like the fat Unsullied guards at Illyrio’s mansion that she had disparaged. Further, she specifically tells Unsullied to travel and patrol in pairs rather than large units, and has them choose their individual names. Beyond giving them something to live for (as noted before), this also loosens their cohesion and discipline.
Astapori themselves doubted that Unsullied, even their own, would be capable of defeating knights of Westeros. That is a very real doubt, and one that does not have to do only with tactical and technological questions. In Westeros, knights are integrated into society, and their military service is valued. Even ordinary troops are not that badly treated, and are often well-equipped and disciplined, as can be seen from Lannister and Stark troops at Green Fork. This social investment directly leads to increased cohesion. Astapori treated their Unsullied as vermin. This automatically means that Westerosi knights, and even ordinary foot soldiers (potential green conscripts aside), will have been more effective than Unsullied even if all other things were equal. But they were, and they are, not equal, which only serves to excarberate the issue. I will note here that, while slave soldiers as a concept are not an implausible idea – historically, Mameluks and Janissaries were both such troops – these were always high-status slaves, who in both cases eventually proceeded to essentially take over the government. You do not abuse somebody and then proceed to give him means to kill you if you have any working brain cells. Daenerys, however, has an opposite problem, giving the Unsullied so many freedoms that it harms their effectiveness.
In terms of tactics and equipment, Unsullied are most similar to Sumerian phalanx – not so much Greek one, as they lack proper support units (in fact, phalanx as a formation never became obsolete, being used in various forms by Macedonians, Classical Romans, Byzantine Romans, 15th century Hungarians, Swiss, French… list goes on. However, Unsullied-style phalangite-only-phalanx did become obsolete quite quickly – even Greek phalanxes quickly realized need for extensive light infantry and cavalry support, hence peltasts. And Sumeran phalanx itself had archers). Further, while wiki states that Unsullied use round shield, actual shield type does not appear to have been stated in the text. Stone block of prince Eanatum shows soldiers marching in a phalanx with spears and large rectangular shields. Fact that they are formed in a phalanx, which requires training, discipline and organization, means that these are professional soldiers.
Block shows nine soldiers – tenth is missing – of which one is an officer with an axe. There are six spears in each space between the shields, all held by two hands. This may imply a unit of 60 (6 ranks deep in 10 lines). However, as each spear is held by two hands, this implies that these are not short stabbing spears of Greek phalangites, but rather long pike-like weapons, similar to later Macedonean phalanx. Such long spears are also confirmed in archeological records, which themselves indicate the existence of two types of spears: short stabbing spears, and long pikes. There would have been six rows of pikes in Sumeran unit.
Problem is that Sumerians used large square shields similar to Roman scutum. These are too large and heavy to be used with a long pike – pikemen either carried small shields (e.g. Macedon phalanx) or else no shields (15th century pikemen). Shields as Sumerians will have used would have restricted them to usage of one-handed weapons – a short spear, sword or an axe. Soldiers behind the first line would have carried two-handed spears and no shields. This setup is similar to one used by some 15th century militaries – troops of John Hunyadi and Matthias Corvinus will have deployed pavise carriers equipped with one-handed spears in front, and troops with two-handed weapons (crossbows and polearms) behind them. Thus first rank of Sumerian phalanx will have had duty of protecting the rest from various projectiles and enemy spears. Phalanx itself likely will not have used organic missile troops, but would have relied on militia archers to fill in this void.
Overall, Unsullied with this model fit well into antiquity-inspired military culture of Essos, Slaver’s Bay in particular. But compared to Westerosi armies, which range from 10th to 15th centuries as a military model, they have a significant number of weaknesses:
- Tactics. Unsullied (and Sumeran) tactics are excellent against more primitive armies. But they would be helpless against charge of Westerosi heavy cavalry – especially on the flanks – and would also suffer terribly from missile fire. Even armour would not affect this much, as they are trained to face similarly primitive opponents.
- Equipment. Unsullied weapons and equipment simply are not modeled to deal with opponents in Westeros. Bronze weapons are inferior to steel weapons and armour of Westerosi soldiers. Spear-and-shield combination leaves them at significant reach and striking power disadvantage compared to Westerosi pikemen and lancers, and shield is inferior protection compared to plate armour.
- Structure. Unsullied are all spearmen. If one wants to support them with different types of troops, these need to be acquired separately. But such combination would still be significantly inferior to an organic combined-arms units, such as Golden Company or some Westerosi armies. Even within “best infantry” clarifier, Unsullied are still inferior to combined-arms infantry armies.
Phalanx formation as utilized by the Unsullied was also notoriously inflexible – particularly if we assume a Greek phalanx (with round shield, which is implied by the Unsullied “locking their shields”) instead of Sumeran one. As already noted, not only do their weapons render them incapable of stopping a frontal charge of Westerosi knights, their formation also means that they are completely open to various flanking attacks and very vulnerable in rough terrain which could disrupt the formation. Phalanx tactics were primitive even in antiquity: Greeks were only as successful in resisting a Persian invasion as they were because the terrain allowed them to use phalanx like a cork in a bottle. Even a simple lateral move required the troops to be “professors of war”, though Spartan phalanx was somewhat more agile than typical Greek one (but this is still a competition of cripples, with Spartan advantage consisting of ability to wheel victorious flank and “roll up the line”). They were also incapable of redeployment during pre-engagement phase, something Roman forces did routinely. This may have been a case with Unsullied at Astapor, where Butcher King’s Unsullied achieved initial success, but got destroyed by a flanking attack.
Unsullied training seems to be an extreme form of Spartan training. Spartan training itself was already rather extreme. In fact, Spartan training checks out most of the characteristics of Unsullied training:
- deprivation from individuality
- material austerity
- extreme severity of punishment
- institutionalized killing of slaves
What is damning here is that Spartan training did not create uncommonly good soldiers. In fact, Spartans were average when compared to other Greek poleis. Average Spartiate was somewhat larger and fitter than average Greek thanks to their higher standard of living (they were nobility, essentially) but Spartiates only formed a minority of any Spartan army. At any rate, Unsullied are the exact opposite of this, being eunuchs and thus smaller and weaker than average soldier. But hoplite-style warfare required little practice, and there was no organized military training program in any Greek polis – which suggests that the extreme Unsullied training regime is completely worthless. And it definitely was in Ancient Greece. In fact, Spartans won less than half of all the battles they had fought, and they never defeated a Macedonian field army, which itself is half-assed compared to Roman legion, let alone the late-Medieval armies regularly deployed in Westeros.
Spartan defeats can be instructive. At Pylos/Spactheria, Athenian skirmishers and rowers simply refused to come to grips with the phalanx. Spartan phalanx, being an all-hoplite formation, eventually surrendered to what were essentially light skirmisher troops. Battles which Spartans won were often won by reputation. Greek armies lined up themselves based on reputation: most elite forces would take the right flank. As such, enemy left flank knew it was facing the toughest portion of enemy forces. And being aware of Spartan reputation, these substandard troops would often simply run away.
This could very well be the case with the Unsullied. The only open-field victory we do know of was won mostly thanks to discipline and the enemy’s stupidity. Dothraki in question attacked head-on while utilizing force which was predominantly light melee cavalry (as can be seen from their tactics: they charged eighteen times, but only “rode past” in a missile attack only three times). In other words, Dothraki relied predominantly on a type of troops which a spearmen unit (be it a Greek phalanx, Byzantine infantry square or Spanish tercio) is perfect counter to, and also failed to use horse archers to properly harass the enemy. But unlike either Byzantine infantry square, Spanish tercio or Hunyadi’s battle line, Unsullied phalanx completely lacks long-range missile capability (either bows or crossbows), leaving them vulnerable to combined heavy cavalry / missile cavalry tactics. Example of such vulnerability can be seen in case of Crassus’ defeat at Carrhae. Crassus lacked heavy cavalry, missile cavalry and missile infantry alike; he only had heavy infantry and some skirmishers. As such, Parthians were able to use missile cavalry to force Romans to bunch up (forming testudo), which then left them vulnerable to charge of Parthian cataphracts (heavy cavalry). If Romans deployed to face cataphracts, they made themselves vulnerable to missile fire. As such, a combination of longbow or crossbow infantry with heavy cavalry should be devastating to the Unsullied, especially since all these are far more lethal than Parthian equivalents which Crassus faced. In fact, crossbow bolts at short range should be capable of piercing the Unsullied shields.
Overall, Unsullied are completely out-of-date in comparison with Westerosi militaries. They would only be a threat if Westerosi armies were in fact predominantly a bunch of untrained peasants – but that is simply not the truth (see my analysis of Westerosi militaries). As such, Ser Jorah’s statement can be dismissed.
This has major implications for campaign in Westeros. If (as is likely) Daenerys and Aegon (Young Griff) come to blows in Westeros, Daenerys’ conventional forces will – if George Martin follows logic and history – prove completely useless. Even Dothraki will not save her, as historically Mongols only won out in Europe thanks to a factor of surprise/novelty – 14th or 15th century armies would have wiped them out in short order, as indeed happened in second Mongol invasion in 13th century (I may write more on the topic in the future). As a result, Daenerys’ only hope for victory will be in deploying her dragons and taking out either Westerosi armies or Aegon himself. Which would be essentially an undeserved victory – and sums up everything I dislike about Daenerys (she is set up so she essentially cannot lose).