Monday, June 11, 2012

Free City States

GRRM has said many times that while there are some clear sources of inspiration (Hadrian's Wall, for example) much of his world is inspired by different sources and direct one to one comparisons are rare.  Still, there seems to be an obvious analogy between the Free Cities and the City States of Italy and, to help me narrow down my cooking styles and ingredients, this seems as good a parallel as any.  Life in the Free Cities seems a little more historically advanced than in Westeros, comparable to the earlier start of the Renaissance period in Italy, and its eventual spread to other parts of Europe.

One can't help read about the "Doom of Volantis" without thinking of Mount Vesuvius and the fate of Pompeii, (to be discussed in greater detail later), and High Valyrian, a language forced on the children of the highborn and spoken with bastardized accent elsewhere in the world seems reminiscent of Latin.  Imagine Arya trying desperately to flee her Septa while being drilled in the fact that Gaul was indeed divided into three parts!

The nine Free Cities are Lys, Myr, Pentos, Braavos, Lorath, Norvos, Qohor, Volantis and Tyrosh. They are independent city-states that lie across the narrow sea on the western side of Essos, mostly on islands or along the coast. Mountains to the east separate the coast from the plains of the Dothraki Sea, though gaps in the mountain range provide the Dothraki people some access to the Free Cities. The Free Cities were colonies built by the ancient Valyrian Freehold, and later declared independence after the Doom of Valyria.  Similarly, the first Italian city-states appeared in northern Italy as a result of a struggle to gain independence from the  Holy Roman Empire. The Lombard League was an alliance formed around 1167, which at its apex included most of the cities of northern Italy.  Around 1100, Genoa and Venice emerged as independent Maritime republics. For Genoa the Holy Roman Emperor was overlord and the Bishop of Genoa was president of the city; however, actual power was wielded by a number of consuls annually elected by popular assembly. Pisa and Amalfi also emerged as maritime republics: trade, shipbuilding and banking helped support their powerful navies in the Mediterranean in those medieval centuries.

Between the 12th and 13th centuries, Italy was vastly different from feudal Europe north of the Alps. The Peninsula was a melange of political and cultural elements rather than a unified state. The very mountainous nature of Italy's landscape was a barrier to effective inter-city communication. The Po plain however, was an exception: it was the only large contiguous area, and most city states that fell to invasion were located there. Those that survived the longest were in the more rugged regions, such as Florence or Venice, which was protected by its lagoon. The rugged terrain of the Alps prevented the German Princes from attacking Northern Italy, safeguarding the country from German political control. Largely for these reasons, no strong monarchies emerged as they did in the rest of Europe; instead there emerged the independent city-state.
While those Roman, urban, republican sensibilities persisted, there were many movements and changes afoot. Italy first felt the changes in Europe from the 11th to the 13th centuries. Most notably, the city states developed as centers for urban life, commerce, and the re-emergence of the religious cathedral.

In recent writing on the city states, American scholar Rodney Stark emphasizes that they married responsive government, Christianity and the birth of capitalism. He argues that these states were mostly republics unlike the great European monarchies of France and Spain with absolute power vested in rulers who could and did stifle commerce. Keeping both direct Church control and imperial power at arms length the independent city republics prospered through commerce based on early capitalist principles ultimately creating the conditions for the artistic and intellectual changes produced by the Renaissance.

So what about Pentos?

Pentos is one of the Free Cities. It is a port located on the western coast of Essos. Pentos is a large port city, more populous than Astapor on Slaver's Bay, and may be one of the most populous of the Free Cities. It lies on a bay off the narrow sea, with the Flatlands plains and Velvet Hills to the east.  The city has many square brick towers, controlled by the spice traders. Most of the roofing is done in tiles. There is a large red temple in Pentos, and the 'Sunrise Gate' allows the traveler to exit the city to the east, in the direction of the Rhoyne. Pentos is a city where wealth equals power, ruled over by a prince with a council of magisters. The prince has a mostly ceremonial function while the rich magisters rule.  The prince is chosen from the forty families, and presides chiefly over balls and feasts. Three heralds travel with him: the golden scales of trade, the iron sword of war and the silver scourge of justice. On the first day of every new year, the Prince must deflower the maid of the fields and the maid of the seas. When the Pentoshi believe the gods are angry at them, such as after loss in a war or a crop failure, they sacrifice the prince by cutting his throat to appease the gods and then choose a new prince from amongst the forty families. The city survives largely by paying tribute to the Dothraki, and trying not to anger Braavos.

Which sounds like GRRM may have stolen the idea from these guys: (shiny nickel to anyone who remembers that reference!)

So, taking all of that into account, in my mind, Pentos = Pisa.  For starters, they both begin with a P.  Why not?  Second, like Pentos, Pisa is a commerce center on the northwestern coast or Italy.  Throughout much of its history, Pisa was sacked by various enemies including Vikings, Byzantines and Saracens.  No Dothraki mentioned...but enough other invaders to establish it as a vulnerable locale.  Pisa was a great sea power, credited with the invention of the battering ram (for when you really want to tell that other ship you don't like it) and was a leader in maritime trade.  The perfect home for a Magister cheese monger!

Why this is important is tonight I am making Pentoshi Duck! More to follow!


  1. I think Pentos is more like Genoa (Italy). The Palace of the Prince, infact, exists for real in Genoa: is a building constructed by Andrea Doria, the "Prince" of the City, while the genoese Palazzo Ducale, center of the government, is very similar to the Magister Manses.
    To add more, Pisa is not on the sea, contrary to many beliefs: the city is on the river Arno (the same river which flows through Florence), and the port of Pisa in middle ages was Porto Pisano which was on the mouth of the river Arno and was destroyed by the Genoese.
    To add more, the wars between Bravoos (which is clearly Venice) and Pentos are very similar to those between Venice and Genoa. :)
    My two cents :)

    1. PS: and Genoa was sacked in 935 AD by Saracens, sadly :(

  2. Excellent points. Thank you for the input. I apologize I have been dormant, but I hope to get cooking again soon, and yes...Bravoos is most certainly Venice.