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“Aegon saw that three hundred years ago when he stood where we are standing. They painted this table at his command. Rivers and bays they painted, hills and mountains, castles and cities and market towns, lakes and swamps and forests… but no borders. It is all one. One realm, for one king to rule alone.” –A Storm of Swords, Davos IV
Aegon Targaryen. Aegon the Conqueror. Aegon the Dragon. Few men changed Westerosi history as much as the dragonlord with the dramatic vision: one continent, one realm, one king. In a continent marked with wars from Dorne to the Wall, the notion that one man could control all of Westeros was nothing short of a fantasy. There are three major ethnic groups, three dominant religions, at least eight distinct regions each with their own cultures and subcultures littering a continent roughly the size of South America. Holding such territory under a single authority would be almost impossible without a way to project the authority needed, though this did not stop kings from trying. Arlan III Durrandon, the Storm King of that time, extended his reach to the Riverlands, though every generation a Riverlander would attempt to overthrow him. The Hoare kings of the Iron Islands would do the same three centuries after the Stormlander conquest, invading the territory with the help of Riverlander infighting, defeating the overeager Arrec Durrandon (who marched ahead of his baggage train, a disaster that spelled doom for many generals both in A Song of Ice and Fire’s world and our own), and placing himself as King of the Riverlands, subjecting the Riverlanders to thralldom for three generations.
The Hoare kings could boast that they controlled the largest swath of territory in Westeros, but a new invader was rising in the east, and would conquer almost the entire kingdom, in fire and blood.
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The Aegon Doctrine – Air Superiority And Title Confirmation
“Though he dealt harshly with rebels and traitors, he was open-handed with former foes who bent the knee.” –The World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest
To understand Aegon’s conquest, it’s necessary to understand his overall strategic outline, which for this piece is dubbed the Aegon Doctrine. A military doctrine is a guide to standardizing military action, and forms the basis for how an armed force conducts itself. Conquering a massive continent is a difficult military exercise even with superior numbers and technology, but Aegon’s initial host numbered three thousand at its highest estimates. Any one of the kings of the Seven Kingdoms could field an army at least five times its size, and even lesser lords could boast armies of equal number. However, raw numbers are far from the only metric used to measure armies. Morale, geographic features, deception, and countless other factors can affect the outcome of a battle. In military science, these myriad features are called ‘force multipliers,’ named for their ability for a force to act and achieve objectives that a much larger force would be required to do so without the aforementioned advantage. Aegon had a force multiplier that none other could match: three powerful, trained dragons, and his tactics mandated the use of these fire-breathing creatures early and often.
The military advantages of dragons cannot be overstated. A dragon’s breath offers significant tactical advantages and possesses a great deal of flexibility in its application. Dragons can burn crops to starve an enemy, set fire to camps, cut off paths of retreat or advance to corral enemies on the field, or simply burn men alive where they stand. Fire on its own is a powerful tool. Few things can disrupt formations and spook horses better than a well-placed fire, and dragons have the ability to start fires almost instantaneously at any point on the field they desire during a battle, saving a commander the tricky logistics of organizing fire attacks. Their wings, too, offer significant military advantages. A sharp-eyed dragonrider can execute reconnaissance missions in almost complete safety far beyond the speed of a classical outrider, and castle walls offer no protection against an enemy that can fly. A dragon is a highly mobile combination of field artillery, shock troop, combat engineer, and siege engine. In addition, a dragon is incredibly difficult to lock down and slay. In Westerosi history, the number of dragons who had been killed in combat without the aid of another dragon is small, and in most cases, the dragon’s mobility was negated in some fashion. Dragons were the superweapon of Westerosi medieval warfare, capable of achieving campaign victory despite any disparity of forces. In modern day terms, dragons were the ultimate in close air support.
“The dragons are the ultimate weapon in the world of Ice and Fire. They’re controlled by only a few people. You can win wars with them, win battles with them, but that doesn’t mean you can govern successfully with them—build a successful society and culture. In that sense, they are like nuclear weapons.” – GRRM, Vocativ Interview
Close air support, the use of aircraft to attack hostile targets in close proximity to friendly ground forces, was developed during World War I, and it was used to tremendous success in the Battle of the Somme, where an improvised squadron of Royal Flying Corps (the predecessor to Great Britain’s Royal Air Force) planes dropped bombs on entrenched opponents. This asset was recognized quickly, and air support entrenched itself into mainstream military doctrine during World War II. The advent of air technology quickly reduced the effectiveness of the prevailing philosophies of ground combat at the time, trench warfare. Against this new combined arms doctrine of ground and air forces working in concert, trenches became little more than signposts for artillery and bombers to guide their strikes. Additionally, the development of aircraft would help sign the death knell of the capital ship in 20th-century navies (the development of the guided missile destroyer would be the true end for these larger vessels, but that is beyond the scope of both dragons and this essay).
Dragons have no analogue in historical medieval warfare, but find an equivalent in the modern day to match their speed, maneuverability, and firepower: the armed helicopter. Helicopter use exploded into prominence during conflicts in the middle of the 20th century, a notable example being the Vietnam War. With their hovering capability, helicopter gunships were not dependent upon maintaining airspeed, and could adapt faster to changes in enemy position, as well as reach more areas and deliver munitions with a higher degree of accuracy than conventional fixed-wing aircraft. Its use in both transport and close air support offered great flexibility to armies for addressing both combat and logistical concerns, and the helicopter remains a key component of modern-day military tactics.
However, there was a second tenet of the Aegon Doctrine that, while not as flashy as dragons, rivaled the fire-breathing beasts in importance: confirmation of titles toward defeated opponents. Lords that took arms against Aegon, survived the battle, and bent the knee were, more often than not, permitted to keep lordship over their holdings. In medieval history, this was rare. Conquered territories were often seized and divvied out among allied lords. In feudalism lands and holdings were among the only currency that kings could use to barter with vassals, and these subordinates often expected titles as a reward for funding and training levies for use in a feudal overlord’s wars. By confirming titles to defeated lords instead of seizing them as rewards for his loyalists, Aegon lost one of his critical means of rewarding and motivating vassals.
However, Aegon was by all accounts a foreign conqueror, and certainly he had enough political sense to know that few would yield to him without a fight, especially with his numerical inferiority. By confirming the titles of those who yielded to him, Aegon offered an out for Westerosi lords, a means by which to escape destruction, and a chance for Aegon to bloodlessly conquer his enemies and keep them whole to better utilize their troops and resources. It is also worth noting that Aegon began his war with few vassals, far too few to administer the entire continent of Westeros if he won. Empowering them with all of the conquered lands would give them the manpower to overthrow him, should they desire to, while filling Westeros with angry former landholders, eager to avenge their losses and recoup their lost income and status.
This strategy proved most effective at all stages of his campaign. By confirming former enemies, he offered the notion that Westerosi lords will be rewarded if they fly the three-headed dragon banner, instead of being stripped of their castles, lands, and their noble status. It’s a lesson that Jon Arryn would mirror in his successful overthrow of the Targaryen dynasty three hundred years later. In more immediate terms, Aegon would see how the Aegon Doctrine would serve him when he faced his next opponent: Harren Hoare, King of the Rivers and the Iron Islands.
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Harren’s Folly – Conquering the Riverlands
“No king was more feared than Black Harren, whose cruelty had become legendary all through the Seven Kingdoms.” –The World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest
Despite the significant advantage of his dragons, Aegon also demonstrated that he had a head for the sort of preparatory work that a protracted military campaign required, and this is very evident in his choice of beachhead. A high hill near a fresh source of running water, what would later be known as Aegon’s High Hill was far from both Harrenhal and Storm’s End, the capital holdings of his two closest and most quarrelsome rivals. Any march from Harren the Black or Argilac the Arrogant could launch against Aegon would take weeks, and that does not count the inevitable muster and training time for the raw levies that came from not maintaining a royal army. The hard ground on Aegon’s High Hill meant that his troops would have less risk of disease and firm footing in the event that an enemy army ever marched on Aegon’s beachhead. He was defended from Argilac the Arrogant by a river crossing, and had open terrain with clear visibility to his north, in the event that Harren marched a Riverlander army south to meet him.
The first pitched battle Aegon would face would not come from Harren or Argilac, however, but from Lords Darklyn and Mooton, both the heads of wealthy port towns with a combined 3,000 men at their command, meaning that their forces either outnumbered the Targaryen host or equalled them. The account of the battle lasts only two sentences in The World of Ice and Fire, in which Orys Baratheon commanded a host of infantry while Aegon provided air support with Balerion the Black Dread. The one-sided battle to follow confirmed the power of dragon power and the asset of air superiority over his opponents.
With Duskendale and Maidenpool under his thumb, Aegon gave the order to mobilize and march. The would-be conqueror had three dragons, and so Aegon dispatched three armies to face his three closest foes. The greater portion of his army went south on a mission to subjugate the Storm King. This infantry force crossed the Blackwater Rush under the command of Orys Baratheon with Queen Rhaenys providing draconic support. Queen Visenya was dispatched to escort Daemon Velaryon’s navy on a mission against Gulltown and the Arryn fleet. The most difficult of missions, however, Aegon reserved for himself: the submission of Harren Hoare.
It isn’t hard to see why Harren Hoare would be Aegon’s choice. Harren Hoare, of every Westerosi king, controlled the most territory, and was acclaimed as the most fearsome. Harren’s chief holding of Harrenhal was the closest major castle to Aegon’s landing site, un-cleverly named the Aegonfort, which was a crude wooden castle surrounded by a log palisade supported with earthwork. With the Iron Islands and the Riverlands under his control, Harren could theoretically field the largest army with which to face him. With the Mootons and Darklyns swearing fealty to Aegon, Aegon had poached two of the most significant holdings east of Harrenhal. No matter who Aegon chose to fight first, conflict with Harren was inevitable. If the Dragon abandoned Maidenpool (a stone’s throw away from Harrenhal), he would prove that he would not defend the Westerosi lords who submitted to him, invalidating the Aegon Doctrine and inviting vassal unrest. Military and political necessity mandated that Harren would have to be dealt with promptly.
The Iron Islanders first attempt to strike at Aegon (known as the Battle of the Reeds) on the southern shore of the God’s Eye ended disastrously. However, two of Harren’s sons had a better idea in the Battle of the Wailing Willows. Using their superior sailing abilities, the two rowed with their own troops on muffled oars to attack the Targaryen troops from behind. While details on this daring attack are scarce, this attack has all of the hallmarks of a classic commando raid. Using stealth and mobility, Harren’s sons were able to sneak around the posted guards and attack from an unexpected direction, likely under cover of darkness, creating disaster for Aegon’s army and inflicting heavy casualties.
Night attacks were often some of the most complex maneuvers carried out in medieval warfare. Communication technology was incredibly limited, and the stealth required for a successful ambush meant that the Ironborn army would not have the ability to communicate using drums, horns, or torches, until it came time to launch the attack. There are sparse details on the Battle of the Wailing Willows, but we can make educated guesses for a few key points. Likely, this engagement was very short, lasting only a few hours, given that it was still nightfall when Harren’s sons cast off to sail over the God’s Eye. It was probably a raid on the Targaryen camps that enjoyed success, and so Harren’s sons pressed the attack, turning it from a raid into a fully-fledged night battle. The ironborn proclivity toward lightning raids, relying on catching guards unaware and using their ships to attack lightly defended positions, would have translated very well into this sort of engagement. It likely was a slaughter, with ironborn raiders attacking half-asleep troops as well as burning tents, fodder, and provisions, then melting back into the night before Aegon could rally a counter-offensive upon Balerion.
This engagement also marks the first time that the weaknesses of a dragon start to become apparent, weaknesses that would be exploited during Aegon’s Dornish campaign. Without a clear target, dragons have little to burn, and dragons require a rider to direct their fires intelligently. By attacking Aegon at night, Aegon was unable to identify targets for Balerion to set aflame until the ironborn were upon Aegon’s camp, nigh-on guaranteeing destruction of Aegon’s own forces with friendly fire, rendering his mightiest asset largely useless. Unfortunately for Harren’s sons, they were unable to get to safety before daybreak, and Aegon was able to burn their ships on the open water after sunrise as they sailed back to Harrenhal. As mentioned before, the use of airpower was disastrous against sea targets. Harren’s longships were flammable and defenseless against a dragon assault, and Harren lost two tactically-proficient commanders mere hours after they achieved a dramatic victory.
While the loss of two of Harren’s sons was a setback, it paled in comparison to Harren’s next disaster. His subjugated Riverlanders rose up in rebellion, furious at their overlord’s cruelty in working them to death on his construction projects and stealing their gold for himself. Where Harren had enjoyed a commanding majority of men over Aegon Targaryen, he found that now he was drastically outnumbered, surrounded on all sides by hostile Riverlanders, his own Iron Islanders many miles away, and Aegon advancing toward Harrenhal.
Some might call Harren foolish for resisting Harren and remaining in his castle, but the only castle that had actively resisted a dragon was Castle Stokeworth, the defense of which was largely half-hearted and the castle itself much smaller and easier to burn than Harrenhal. Dragons were in the common stories of Westeros, but few besides historians steeped in Essosi and Valyrian history would know of the true power of Valyrian dragons. While dragons were impressive, Harren nonetheless had faith in his castle’s ability to outlast a siege, and believed that the thick walls could defeat a dragon’s flame long enough for a bowman to drop the dragon (or possibly its rider).
“Yield now,” Aegon began, “and you may remain as Lord of the Iron Islands. Yield now, and your sons will live to rule after you. I have eight thousand men outside your walls.”
“What is outside my walls is of no concern to me,” said Harren. “Those walls are strong and thick.”
“But not so high as to keep out dragons. Dragons fly.”
“I built in stone,” said Harren. “Stone does not burn.”
To which Aegon said, “When the sun sets, your line shall end.” –The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon’s Conquest
Aegon proved Harren’s confidence to be unfounded, however, by using the same tactics that were used against him during the Wailing Willows. Aegon and Balerion attacked at night from an unexpected direction, sweeping quickly behind Harren’s defenders and setting them aflame before they could react. Harren burned with the rest of his household and troops in a massive inferno, and ended Iron Island rule over the Riverlands.
The next morning, he accepted the Riverlander oaths of fealty and raised Edmyn Tully as the Lord of the Riverlands, a move largely in accord with the Aegon Doctrine, but also a personal reward to Lord Tully for being the first lord to raise the dragon banner over his own castle. With that, Aegon secured a large supply of fresh troops, plenty of provisions from the fertile Riverlands, and a powerful symbol of victory in the burning ruins of Harrenhal, the largest castle Westeros had ever seen.
What is Dead May Never Die – A Hoare Victory?
It’s hard to see how Harren Hoare could have defeated Aegon Targaryen. With the Riverlords abandoning him to declare for Aegon, Harren was forced to remain in Harrenhal by necessity. His own household troops were vastly outnumbered by hostile Riverlords, and Aegon’s dragon could attack Harren at any point if he attempted to retreat. He was largely cut off from the Iron Islands, and with his castle surrounded, messenger ravens to the Iron Islands to either reinforce his own position or draw off the Riverlanders with a possible attack on Seagard was a chancy proposition at best.
Had Harren’s sons retreated much earlier under cover of darkness, or abandoned their longships on the shore of the God’s Eye while they blended into the population of the southern Riverlands near the God’s Eye river, they perhaps could have harassed Aegon’s forces with night attacks or engaged in a Dornish-style guerilla war. This could have easily happened had Harren departed Harrenhal, met up with his sons, and harassed the Targaryen forces. However, Harren did not have the luxury of abandoning Harrenhal to enact an insurgency effort in the vein of the Dornish. Dorne’s ability to sustain such a war depended on the smallfolk supporting their lords, or at the very least, not outright hating them. Harren’s cruelty meant that he could not count on support when the going got bad, and so he could not have defeated Aegon in the vein of the Dornish. It would have been far more likely that Harren’s forces would have been attacked, bound, and delivered to Aegon, or someone simply informing one of Aegon’s scouts where Harren and his sons were hiding, for a chance at a lordship or bounty.
Had Harren predicted Aegon’s attack strategy, however, he may have done a better job in his defense of Harrenhal. Harren’s stronghold was a large castle with many places to station scorpions, arbalests, and bowmen. If Harren had the presence of mind to station some defenses facing inward, it was possible that a lucky archer could have shot Aegon off his mount, or a scorpion bolt could have struck Balerion and brought him down. In that event, however, he still faced a Riverlander revolt and two dragonriders likely hell-bent on vengeance. Given the price of defiance that the Hoare clan levied on rebelling Riverlords, they are not likely to leave the field (nor does Harren seem characteristically likely to extend an offer of amnesty in exchange for returning home). The Iron Islands too, would be slow to muster, given that all of Harren’s sons are in Harrenhal, there would be no single commander to rally and lead the Iron Islands, likely resulting in a fragmented attack plan led by individual Lord Reavers, and jockeying for power at home in the hopes of being elected the next Iron King at the kingsmoot, further muddling any Ironborn counter-offensive. Unfortunately for the Ironborn, their chances of victory were very remote from the beginning.
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The Last Storm – Conquering the Stormlands
“The old warrior king roared that he did not intend to die as Harren had, cooked inside his own castle like a suckling pig with an apple in his mouth. No stranger to battle, he would decide his own fate, sword in hand. So Argilac the Arrogant rode forth from Storm’s End one last time, to meet his foes in the open field.” –The World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest
The Storm King Argilac the Arrogant certainly must have known Targaryen reprisal was inevitable after he cut off the hands of Aegon’s emissary. To that end, he had called his banners before Aegon had even crowned himself king. Like Harren, Argilac had to contend with other threats, including a pirate invasion of Cape Wrath and a Dornish invasion of the marches on the border, but unlike Harren, Argilac’s vassals proved significantly more loyal. While Massey’s Hook sided with the Targaryens, most of the Durrandon vassals marched under the banner of their Storm King.
“After crossing a river, you must stay far away from it. If the enemy crosses a river, do not meet him in the water. When half of his forces has crossed, it will then be advantageous to strike.” -Sun Tzu, The Art of War
As with the Wailing Willows, the Targaryen forces suffered significant setbacks in their campaign against the Storm King. While crossing the Wendwater, forces under Lords Buckler, Errol, and Fell attacked the Targaryen host, slaying over a thousand men (an altogether meaningful number of casualties given that the Targaryen host and the forces he gained from Crownlander houses still put estimates of his forces as less than ten thousand, and neither the Riverlanders nor the Lords of Crackclaw Point were currently in the Baratheon army). However, Rhaenys proved the use of dragonfire again as she set what would later be called the Kingswood ablaze, stymying the three lords from carrying out further campaigns against Orys Baratheon’s host.
Argilac Durrandon was given the epithet ‘the Arrogant,’ but with the power of dragonfire, holing up in a castle had proven not to be an option for weathering an assault. While Storm’s End is noted as having protective wards within its walls, it is not known to what extent such wards would protect against a dragon, or even whether Argilac knew of these spells or believed in their existence. As such, Argilac needed to do battle and find some other way of neutralizing the dragon if he had any chance of maintaining his sovereignty. While he may as well have been justifiably considered arrogant for other actions taken place over his long life, the choice to pitch battle, given his alternatives, was not a foolish one. It was certainly difficult to engage in open battle against a dragonrider, but with staying put being certain death, it was the choice between bad and worse, and Argilac chose the lesser of two dangers.
Queen Rhaenys proved the asset of her dragon in intelligence gathering, and was able to successfully report the size and disposition of Argilac’s forces to Orys Baratheon, who responded by taking up position on favorable terrain, establishing themselves on the high ground south of Bronzegate. Argilac outnumbered Orys Baratheon’s forces two-to-one, and he had a significant four-to-one advantage in knights and heavy horse. The weather proved a formidable adversary, with blinding rains and gale-force winds. While several of Argilac’s chief bannermen suggested waiting for the rains to pass, Argilac ordered an evening battle in the middle of a raging storm.
Fighting at night during a raging storm can seem suicidal, but in 1560, Oda Nobunaga set forth with 2,500 men from his home base of Owari castle. Using a storm to mask his approach, his men approached the camp of powerful daimyo Imagawa Yoshimoto, and there took his camp completely by surprise, slaying Yoshimoto despite being outnumbered 10-1 by modern estimates. Night offers chaos and confusion that skilled commanders can exploit, seizing victory where a daytime battle would only offer defeat.
The weather would prove to be a significant detriment to Argilac’s heavy horse. The storm softened the earth around the hills that Orys Baratheon had encamped upon, blunting Argilac’s heavy cavalry charge. It is worth mentioning however, that Orys’s early arrival and seizure of the high ground merits as much credit as the weather for breaking up the Durrandon heavy cavalry. Had Orys either not received such early scouting reports or not had the wits to recognize good terrain, Argilac could have seized the hills himself and been in the enviable position of charging downhill on firmer soil with the wind behind them, a combination that would have likely done significant damage to Baratheon’s infantry.
However, the weather also proved to give Argilac some significant advantages as well. The heavy winds and rains rendered Orys’s bowmen worthless. The wind blew blinding rains into the faces of Orys’s troops, significantly impairing their ability to withstand a charge by Argilac’s lighter infantry forces. Without archery or the ability to react to charging opponents, the high ground that Orys had seized had its value drastically diminished, and the late hour and blinding rains left Rhaenys unable to take wing with her dragon. As a result, Orys had his positions overrun and his center broken on the Storm King’s third charge, and only timely intervention by Rhaenys’s grounded dragon was able to turn the charge aside. The dragon again proved its worth by scaring the warhorses of the charge and turning the charge’s momentum in upon itself.
Yet it was Orys Baratheon’s duel with the Storm King that finally decided the battle in the favor of the Targaryen forces. Argilac had slain six men and was holding off another six, but Orys dismounted and approached the aging Durrandon king. Baratheon offered one final chance to yield, but Argilac, true to his epithet, refused, and engaged Orys in battle. Both men wounded the other, but the younger Orys proved victorious over his older foe. Once their king was defeated, the Stormlanders lost heart and routed.
Argella, Argilac’s daughter and the new Storm Queen, proved just as belligerent as her father when the offer came to parlay. Her castle guard, on the other hand, proved to be less loyal to her as they had to her father (or perhaps they merely wished to avoid sharing in the same fate as Harren the Black’s house and guards), delivering Argella bound, gagged, and stripped bare to Orys Baratheon’s camp. To Orys’s remarkable credit, he treated his captive with honor, clothing her and honoring her father who had been his enemy scarce days before. Orys took the Durrandon arms, words, and seat for himself in honor of the Storm King, and in compliance with the Aegon Doctrine, confirmed Argilac’s vassals as his own, permitting them to retain their lands and seats for themselves.
A Raging Storm – A Durrandon Victory?
Unlike Harren the Black, Argilac Durrandon came rather close to defeating the hostile army against him on multiple occasions.
A river crossing is an incredibly dangerous maneuver for any army. Had his three harrying lords been joined by more forces and kept their camps hidden behind the treeline, they might have decisively crushed the advancing Baratheons, conceivably inflicting three or four thousand casualties on the Baratheon host, sending them back to the Aegonfort until Aegon could reinforce them from further north.
While this may seem militarily unfeasible, history is full of advancing armies crushed during a perilous river crossing. During the Second Punic Wars, the Carthaginian commander Hannibal Barca tricked the Roman consul, Tiberius Sempronius Longus, into fording a river at chest-height before his troops had fed. The tired, freezing, and hungry Romans were then faced with a well-rested, well-fed, and well-warmed Carthaginian force attacking, with Hannibal’s brother Mago emerging from behind to wreck havoc upon their rear lines. In all, the battle was a slaughter, with the Romans losing approximately two-thirds of their forces, with Hannibal taking far less despite his numerical inferiority. In ancient and medieval warfare, routs to such an extent were not common, but they were far from unheard of.
During the Last Storm, if Argilac had ordered his knights to dismount and fight on foot with the spearmen, it’s possible that an infantry charge could have broken the Baratheon positions on the first two hills much sooner. If Argilac knew the position of Rhaenys’s dragon, he could have forced the Baratheon infantry toward Rhaenys’s position with his own superior numbers, putting Orys’s own troops between Meraxes and the Durrandon forces, which may have prevented Rhaenys from using dragonfire to break Argilac’s final charge. This technique, hilariously dubbed ‘hugging,’ was used by the Viet Cong against the United States troops. Viet Cong soldiers would wait in ambush until the United States forces were almost upon them, hoping that the risk of friendly fire would deny their enemies the use of fire support and artillery. If Argilac was able to deny Rhaenys the use of her dragon, Orys would be in considerable danger from Argilac’s mounted knights. While Orys was undoubtedly a puissant warrior, it is unlikely that he could have withstood Argilac’s heavy charge outnumbered such as he was. Finally, during Orys and Argilac’s duel, both wounded the other, and so it’s certainly feasible that Argilac could have emerged the victor, and the Durrandon troops would have held their ground, possibly surrounding and taking down the grounded Meraxes and Rhaenys.
Even so, a victory on those terms would have only provoked a vicious counterattack. As proven by Dorne when they would later successfully take down Meraxes, eliminating one dragonrider only stoked Aegon’s ire, and he would have likely flown down to the Aegonfort, rallied survivors, and went forward on a bloody path of vengeance. Even if Argilac had taken out Orys and Rhaenys, he would have to contend with Aegon at the head of an army of Riverlanders, and likely Visenya as well, intent on burning Storm’s End to slag.
As proven by Rhaenys, the heavily wooded terrain of the northern Stormlands prevents a Dornish insurgency, as hiding places can be smoked out with dragonflame. The Red Mountains provide better cover, but the mountains do not intersect the marching route between the Aegonfort and Storm’s End.
With a few changes in tactics, Argilac could have significantly bloodied Aegon’s armies, but the woodlands of the Stormlands prevented a viable insurgency against Aegon’s dragons, and he could not rely on heavy rains and brutal winds to ground dragonriders two more times before they burnt the larger portion of his army and holdings.
Reach for the West – Conquering the Westerlands and the Reach
With the two most belligerent kings subdued, Aegon recalled his sisters from their respective missions to reinforce him in the face a new threat. King Mern IX Gardener of the Reach and King Loren I Lannister of the Rock had put aside their differences, called their banners, and raised an army 55,000 strong, the largest army seen in that era of Westerosi history. This anti-Aegon coalition did not simply include a large number of raw levies, but five thousand mounted knights and six hundred lords. This army of the Rock and the Reach, two of the wealthiest of the Seven Kingdoms, was undoubtedly well-equipped and well-financed as well.
In our own histories, armies could be this large (and even larger) in the era of Rome, but during the Middle Ages, an army of this size was a logistical feat that bedevilled most commanders. It wouldn’t be until the 16th century that European armies would exceed 100,000 men. Part of the reason is simple, no medieval kingdom was ever as large as the Roman Empire in its heydey, which at it’s largest point was just shy of two million square miles, and no medieval kingdom was certainly as large as any of the Seven Kingdoms. By contrast, the largest European kingdom during the Middle Ages was the Holy Roman Empire, which even at it’s largest was a fifth of the size of its namesake. Only the fertile wheatfields of the Reach could feed such a massive army, and even then, likely only for a short time.
Regardless, the two kings’ massive army was indeed a threat to Aegon’s small army, which numbered 11,000 at best estimates, with a crippling lack of mounted knights. Without dragons, the Reach/Rock army could encircle and obliterate the smaller Targaryen host. If there ever was a true test of the dragon’s power and Aegon’s ability to deploy them intelligently, this would be it.
The two armies would meet on open, flat ground, primarily grasslands and wheat fields. There was no high ground for either army to occupy, and no ridges or other natural features to anchor a battle line and prevent flanking. There was no rain to soften the soil or winds to render bows useless. It seemed like perfect conditions for a traditional Westerosi battle, one where the most powerful element of the Westeros military, the mounted knight mounted upon a heavy warhorse, faced off against the most powerful element of the Aegon Doctrine, the dragon.
The two kings elected to use traditional Westerosi tactics to take advantage of their superior numbers. With King Loren on the right and Lord Oakheart commanding the left, the two flanks would encircle and fall upon the rear ranks. Edmund Gardener, the crown prince of the Reach, would command the van and lead the charge against the front ranks of the Targaryen army, followed by his royal father commanding the center. King Mern, commanding the greater portion of the heavy cavalry which he had dubbed ‘an iron fist,’ would punch through the front ranks, overrunning and dividing the Targaryen army. Predictably, King Loren and Lord Oakheart would also press their advance, enveloping the Targaryen armies and destroying their commanders.
The Targaryen army was able, for the first time, to have a solid infantry line, functioning bows, and the full capabilities of their dragons in the same battle against a Westerosi king and kingdom. This battle would be the first that he was able to deploy all three dragons on the same field, and Aegon did not forget to notice the wealth of tactical options that multiple dragons afforded him. Aegon gave command of his infantry forces to Lord Jon Mooton, the first time, it should be noted, that Aegon appointed one of his new Westerosi vassals as general commander. Mooton established a forward line of spears and pikes to help fight against the mounted cavalry, placed bowmen in the second rank, and light cavalry on either side to help protect the flanks. This was a common formation in medieval warfare, with lightly armored bowmen protected behind the heavier infantry, and cavalry engaged on the flanks to prevent encirclement.
The Targaryen royals themselves, however, would fight from the air. Balerion was the largest and fiercest of the three, and as the oldest dragon, his scales were the thickest which afforded the beast the most protection against incoming missile fire. He was the best suited for applying fire directly upon his enemies, and so Aegon elected to take that battlefield assignment for himself.
To Visenya and Rhaenys, however, he gave a separate, but incredibly vital mission. With their dragons, they were to set fire not to the massed enemy forces, but to their lines of approach and retreat, arresting their movement and controlling the battlefield. In this, Aegon gave his two sisters a mission of area denial, to restrict the movement of enemy troops. Given how drastically outnumbered his own troops were and that his dragons would have their utility greatly reduced when the two armies were close enough to be in pitched battle with each other, almost inevitable given the mobility of Gardener’s heavy cavalry, the most dangerous component of the army of Two Kings, this tactic was undoubtedly one of the cornerstones of Aegon’s tactical plan for this decisive battle.
Roman Caltrops, from the Wikimedia Commons
Area denial has been practiced in both historical and modern-era warfare. The Roman Republic used caltrops to great effect to disrupt and destroy chariots of the Seleucid and Parthian Empires. In traditional medieval warfare, an army would dig ditches and place sharpened stakes diagonally upwards to cause injury to charging horses, an effective and low-cost tactic to prevent a cavalry charge. A dragon has the added advantage of requiring no supply or manpower to set a wall of flame before or behind an enemy position, though it suffers from potentially being undeployable in certain environments (snows, stony ground with little vegetation, deserts).
The battle was a triumph of draconic tactics. Lines of fire ignited the dry grain, and the winds fanned the flames to greater intensity, blowing toward the army of the Two Kings. Lord Mooton’s forces remain upwind and held position, firing arrows at any man brave enough to advance through the curtain of fire that protected his troops. King Mern would burn to death along with his entire extended family. Loren Lannister would ride his horse through a line of fire to flee the field. Over four thousand people died in the flames, and another thousand died of other battle wounds. Nearly half of the men fielded by the two kings would be killed or suffer burns to some degree. The Field of Fire was the definitive Targaryen battle in the Westerosi theater, the triumph of draconic military power.
Loren Lannister would be captured the next day, and here is where we see Aegon’s true commitment to the Aegon Doctrine. He had elevated Lord Tully as Lord Paramount of the Riverlands as a reward for his submission to Aegon before arraying against him in battle, and Orys Baratheon assumed the lands, sigil, words, and arms of House Durrandon by acclaim, but in confirming Loren the Last as Lord Paramount of the Westerlands, and even more impressively, naming him as one of his chief military leaders by granting him the status of Warden of the West, he was granting the same leniency given to lesser lords to a king, confirming the same lands that he had previously ruled as king. Loren was left equal in rank to Orys Baratheon in terms of vassalage, even though Orys had the secondary court appointment of Hand of the King, and this was an exceptional development. A hostile commander not only occupied a position as vassal, but a vassal on peer with those who followed Aegon. This tactic undoubtedly smoothed the later years of Aegon’s life, where he was not conqueror, but ruling king.
The Gardeners of the Reach, however, died out on the Field of Fire, and so the Reach was without a ruler and Highgarden had no central authority with which to surrender and swear fealty to Aegon. To resolve this, Aegon quickly advanced to Highgarden to settle the matter quickly, lest the Reach fall into inter-regional strife. Highgarden was at that point administered by the Gardener family stewards, House Tyrell, who held the position of castellan as a hereditary position in lieu of administering their own castles and lands. Harlan Tyrell yielded Highgarden and the Reach without a fight and was granted the title and lands as a reward for the bloodless turnover of power, in a similar vein to Lord Edmyn Tully of Riverrun. With the greater portion of the Reach and the Westerlands behind him, he was set to continue southward, to subdue Oldtown and Dorne, but Torrhen Stark and his own army of thirty thousand northmen demanded his attention.
Two Kings are Better Than One – A Lannister/Gardener Victory?
The Army of Two Kings attempted to seize a military victory, and tried to learn from the mistakes of Argilac Durrandon, but unfortunately for the both of them, they learned precisely the wrong things from the Last Storm. Argilac’s last gasp was a defeat, this is true, but they focused upon Argilac’s mistake and failed to take what Argilac did right into account. The two kings relied upon their heavy cavalry, and knowing the Durrandon’s charge foundered upon the muddy ground, ensured that their own knights would enjoy level terrain and firm soil capable of supporting the weight of a charge. In truth, the two kings selected the worst terrain possible to fight dragons. Grasslands support fires, but fields of wheat are exceptionally flammable and are taller than grasses, which facilitate greater spread of fire and more damage to troops than an open grassland or meadow.
The true success of Argilac’s battle, and the reason he was as successful as he was, was that the weather had grounded Rhaenys and Meraxes, preventing the dragon from being utilized to its fullest effect, and the rain impaired visibility, hampering the Baratheon forces further. The dragons in the Field of Fire had the ability to strike with relative impunity, and inflicted severe casualties on the combined Reachmen/Westermen armies. With perfect visibility, all three of Aegon’s dragons were able to avoid striking their own friendly forces with fire, and guarantee not only a decisive Targaryen victory, but an incredibly lopsided casualty ratio that increased morale and unit cohesion among Aegon’s forces.
The army of the two kings achieving success on the Field of Fire would be difficult if not impossible. The terrain is completely wrong for a battle organized against dragons, and without the ability to neutralize all three dragons on the field, the battle would be next-to-impossible to win. If Edmund Gardener or any other bold and talented commander of that era was able to conduct a night march, and get their troops into Aegon’s camp while they slept, they might have caused enough chaos to start undermining the Riverlander army that Aegon commanded. If Aegon had unwittingly unleashed his dragon on the camp in an attempt to burn the attackers and burned his own men instead, that could have been a disaster for Aegon’s westward expansion, possibly encouraging mass desertion and abandonment of Aegon’s cause. As Maegor the Cruel would later learn in his final nights, even a dragon means nothing when the entire country rises against you.
The Lannisters had a few options if they didn’t march on the Field of Fire. If instead, Loren had adopted a more cunning tactic and sent raiders out from the Golden Tooth to storm Riverlander castles while their troops were largely away, that might have severely undermined Aegon’s army cohesion and morale. While dragons are great weapons, a dragon and its rider cannot hold territory by themselves. By storming the Riverlands and undermining Targaryen authority, Loren Lannister could have stirred up anti-Aegon sentiment which could have left Aegon in a position of trying to quell revolts at his rear, distracting him from his objective of seizing Casterly Rock and Highgarden.
If the Westermen instead attempted to bottle up in the Westerlands, the territory there is perfect for a Dornish-style guerilla war. The cave systems and rugged terrain make exploration difficult, make hiding from aerial reconnaissance much easier (tricks used to great effect in the highlands and cave systems of Afghanistan in our modern day), and the terrain makes marching men in and out time-consuming and vulnerable to attack.
The Gardeners had less options available to them. The terrain of the Reach is largely open and flat, which prevents the sort of safe havens that facilitate the sort of guerilla warfare that the Dornish could inflict. What’s more, they were unsupported by one of their most powerful bannermen, House Hightower. Without a reliable way to defeat the dragons, perhaps through stealth or night raids, House Gardener’s lands are too open and too flammable to defeat Aegon in pitched battle.
Image by Chase Stone
Staying Warm Through Winter – Conquering the North
Torrhen Stark had emerged from the North with 30,000 soldiers at his back, ready to do battle against Aegon Targaryen in a rejection of his claim over the North. In some ways, it was inevitable that the Northmen would elect to fight rather than acknowledge Aegon’s supremacy in his message. After all, Torrhen was probably well-aware of Theon Stark “The Hungry Wolf” and his steadfast resistance of the Andal invasions. So, it would never do to have Torrhen Stark acquiesce to Aegon’s paper demand; his own bannermen would revolt and attempt to take the Crown of Winter for himself. Torrhen Stark gathered his bannermen and marched to face Aegon Targaryen in battle.
Aegon was not so fool as to leave an army of thirty thousand to ransack the northern part of his kingdom, and he advanced to meet Torrhen at the Trident with a great host of his own, and Aegon prepared for battle enjoying an advantage he had never enjoyed once in his entire campaign: numerical superiority. While the Northern army had 30,000 strong, Aegon’s forces numbered 45,000, with men from all corners of Westeros behind him. Further heightening his advantage, he had all three of his dragons ready for disposal.
King Torrhen was faced with a very tricky proposition. Defeating that army on its own would be very difficult, to say nothing of dealing with Aegon’s three dragons. His scouts had reported the damage that had been wrought at Harrenhal and he undoubtedly learned of the fate of King Gardener at the Field of Fire.
He took counsel, as expected, before the battle. His advisers believed that Northmen valor could win where southron chivalry had failed, and others urged falling back to Moat Cailin, the North’s primary defensive structure against which no ground army had ever taken from the south. His bastard half-brother Brandon Snow offered to slay the dragons under cover of darkness, a tricky longshot gamble.
Though a battle would be a dicey proposition, Torrhen had selected his ground wisely. With a river between Aegon’s army and his own, and with Torrhen the invader on hostile soil, the onus was on Aegon to advance over the river and defend his holdings instead of Torrhen. Fortunately for the Conqueror, he could easily do so with his dragon instead of his army, mitigating the river crossing advantage that Torrhen enjoyed.
In the end, with Torrhen’s knowledge of the fate of Harrenhal and of the Field of Fire, Torrhen elected to submit to Aegon’s authority rather than risk a battle. Rather than have thousands burned on the banks of the Trident, Torrhen took the harder path and swore fealty. In return, Aegon, true to his word and the Aegon Doctrine, confirmed Stark as the Lord Paramount of the North and Warden of the same, high honors in Aegon’s new kingdom.
That Aegon would confirm those titles to Stark was never in question, especially following the raising up of former enemy Loren “the Last” Lannister. If Aegon had done so, he would have certainly risked insurrection from the Northmen as well as undermined his own royal authority as supreme executor of treaties in his proto-nation.
So, with a knee and an oath, Aegon conquered the North bloodlessly, and turned his attention to the two remaining kingdoms: the Vale of Arryn and Dorne. He dispatched Visenya to handle the former and Rhaenys to secure the latter. With his army now numbering over 75,000, Aegon likely believed that the other kingdoms would capitulate much like the North did. He himself went to secure the submission of Oldtown, the largest city in Westeros and the seats of two of Westeros’s most powerful institutions: the Citadel and the Faith of the Seven. His theories on the bloodless submission were proven correct when he found the gates of Oldtown open, the Hightowers amenable, and the High Septon willing to perform the religious rites to crown him the King of Westeros, a ceremony that would add a great deal of credibility to his reign going forward.
Snow Smothers the Flames – A Stark Victory?
King Torrhen had a hard task ahead of him if he desired to retain his crown, attempting to defeat a larger force with his inferior one. Retreating to Moat Cailin would only delay the inevitable, as dragons can simply bypass the defensive fortifications and melt them with dragonflame. However, one possibility merits specific mention: Brandon Snow’s near-suicidal desire to march forth at night and slay the dragons using stealth.
How Snow would attempt this is not mentioned in any text, and it is entirely possible that it is simply arrogant confidence that several characters from the larger novel series express. Certainly, striking from stealth seems to have a higher chance of success than attempting to take it down while on the wing, breathing fire every which way. Archmaester Marwyn suggests that the maesters know a way to eliminate dragons, though whether any maester conspiracy existed at that time period has little to no evidence supporting it. If there is some sort of secret weakness to kill dragons known to maesters in the timeline of the novels, it’s possible, though unlikely, that Brandon Snow, or perhaps a greenseer tapped into the knowledge of the weirwoods, knew something about it as well.
“A dark-eyed youth, pale and fierce, sliced three branches off the weirwood and shaped them into arrows.” –A Dance With Dragons, Bran III
It was also possible that perhaps Brandon knew some magic of the Children of the Forest, some sort of power that could turn weirwood arrows into dragon-killing weapons all their own. Certainly, magic was a part of the world, and if tales are to be believed, the Children know some truly destructive magics, though they mostly seem like nature magics as opposed to ensorcelling arrows, given that they required obsidian weapons instead of magically ensorcelling weirwood arrows to slay Others. It’s also highly possible that if this were the case, that Brandon was simply delusional and believing in a power inside of weirwood that was not real. There is no definitive evidence either way.
If Brandon Snow was able to defeat the dragons through some unknown method, whether poisoning their meals, some sort of magic from the Children of the Forest, or simply jabbing a sword through their eyes while they slept, the North’s odds improve significantly. The means by which Aegon was able to project his authority over the massive territory that is Westeros, and the tool by which he can enforce submission, are his dragons alone. Without his dragons, Aegon risks his own army turning on him and collapsing. The Riverlanders might remain loyal given that they owe their freedom from the ironborn to Aegon, but the Reachmen and Westermen might have alternate ideas with Aegon’s only force multiplier eliminated. Loren Lannister might even join Torrhen the victorious dragonslayer in a coalition of kings; he was clearly amenable to the idea already at the Field of Fire.
But it would be far more likely that Brandon would be killed, either by sentries or the dragons themselves, and then Torrhen risks an angered Aegon, depending on how successful Brandon was in his mission. Slaying one dragon (or one dragonrider) almost certainly provokes Aegon’s wrath in the vein of Dorne, and it would be difficult to secure victory in that circumstance. Even enraged, Aegon didn’t seem to make tactical mistakes to the point where his life was endangered.
Dornish-style insurgency, however, might work in the North. The wolfswood is large and flammable, but many portions of the land are stony and less flammable. The great size of the North means ample places to hide. But winter presents its own problems for the North. If Aegon’s forces burn winter towns and Winterfell itself, a great many people will die the coming winter, making a Dornish-style insurgency difficult to sustain past autumn, especially if Aegon is provoked in the manner of the Dragon’s Wroth. The irregular seasons only make this tactic riskier, and if the winter is mild enough, Aegon can burn winter towns during winter whilst everyone is huddled together, destroying the chief defensive element that insurgencies rely on to sustain themselves: decentralization.
The second is, strangely, Northern honor. Shirking from facing foes is seen as cowardly and distinctly un-Northern. Short-sighted readers might think that Northern honor precludes the use of clever tactics, but Robb Stark is clearly lauded for his ability to ambush, flank, and destroy armies piecemeal, but Robb was always on the field, with his men, doing the hard tasks that wars require. By fighting a guerilla campaign, there’s a necessary diffusion of responsibility and delegation that a pre-communications revolution society would have to adopt, and how this would stand in the face of the onus of personal responsibility is a tricky one.
If Brandon Snow couldn’t murder those dragons, the North had too much going against it at that point during Aegon’s campaign to be victorious.
Falcon’s Last Flight – Conquering the Vale
“And it was said afterward that the little king flew thrice around the summit of the Giant’s Lance, and landed to find himself a little lord.” –A World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest
Aegon first attempted to conquer the Vale while he was riding forth to subjugate Harren the Black. His plan was simple, entrust Daemon Velaryon, his new master of ships, with the Targaryen navy, assign Queen Visenya as escort, and attack Gulltown, the principal port of the Vale. The Arryns had a hodge-podge navy quickly assembled to meet this threat, but they were aided by a dozen Braavosi warships.
The Targaryen attack was a complete debacle, with a third of Daemon Velaryon’s navy sinking alonging with the admiral himself, and another third boarded and captured by the Valemen. Visenya Targaryen, quick to wroth, responded by burning all the ships to cinders, rendering the engagement a Pyrrhic victory at best for the Vale, though it saved Gulltown and prevented the Targaryen conquest by sea. This loss of naval power, however, would cause the Sistermen to revolt against Arryn rule, naming themselves independent. Without a navy, the Arryns were unable to subdue this revolt.
After achieving the submission of the North, Aegon sent Visenya Targaryen back to the Vale to bring it into the fold. Sharra Arryn, the Queen Mother and regent of the Vale, multiplied the size of the garrisons, fortified the Bloody Gate, and made strides to ensure that the Vale was not a target easily cracked. Without naval power, the only way the Targaryens were entering the Vale was by the land road through the Bloody Gate. Aegon’s numerical advantage could be nullified with the narrow mountain passes, and the Eyrie would likely stand unconquered.
Unfortunately for Sharra Arryn, she neglected to take into account that a dragon can fly, like every other monarch that took the field against the Targaryens did. Visenya Targaryen flew over the steep mountain passes and waycastles that made the Eyrie so unassailable, and landed in the central courtyard completely unimpeded. From there, she quickly seized Ronnel Arryn, the child Lord of the Vale, and was able to quickly ensure the relatively polite surrender of the Vale.
In chess, the safety of the king is paramount. A side could be down both pawns and pieces, but by placing the king in checkmate, that side wins the game regardless of point deficiency. While chess and many other similar strategy games are based on war, reality doesn’t render a king or general so sacred as the board. In pitched battle, losing a king is tragic, but inevitable. It often guarantees a rout, but history has examples of kings dying in battle, whose successors would later go on to win the war.
However, that hardly means that a royal can neglect his own security, and with Visenya bypassing all of Sharra Arryn’s protections to seize the boy King in his own stronghold, she was able to prove the indefensibility of the Eyrie against the dragons of the Aegon Doctrine, and the indefensibility of little Ronnel Arryn against the commanders of the Targaryen army. Through courtesies, Sharra Arryn was able to save face and arrange the bloodless submission of the Vale to the growing Targaryen holdings, but she still lost Vale sovereignty due to her inability to recognize the capabilities of the enemy. By fixating on traditional doctrine in the face of new threats, Sharra Arryn lost wholly and utterly.
To New Heights – An Arryn Victory?
An Arryn victory during the first stage of the Targaryen invasion is difficult. The only time in Westerosi history that a naval force successfully defeated a dragon was during the Battle of the Gullet, during the Dance of the Dragons. Prince Jacearys Velayron flew his dragon too low, and crashed into the sea. While a triumph of classical physics, Visenya Targaryen is more experienced a dragonrider than her descendent, and doesn’t seem likely to make the sort of reckless mistake that young Jacearys did.
It is certainly possible, though incredibly unlikely, that one of the Arryn sailors could get lucky, lodging an arrow or grapple on Vhagar and bringing him down into the sea. In that case, the Arryn fleet remains unburnt, Visenya Targaryen is likely drowned, and Aegon’s conquest shifts dramatically. The death of a dragonrider so early in Aegon’s campaign likely emboldens his opponents and highlights the advantages of disabling a dragon’s mobility. This could potentially translate into better tactical decisions by Argilac (depending on how quickly he learns of the news, it may come too late regardless), by the Army of Two Kings, or by Brandon Snow the would-be dragonslayer. The Vale suffers greatly, of course. Gulltown is likely burnt to the ground, as would Runestone and the other vassal castles. The Eyrie is primarily made out of marble, which has a slightly higher melting point than the granite of most other castles (~1340°C against ~1240°C) which probably wouldn’t matter much to Balerion, given that he is capable of flames of temperatures over 1500°C, the melting point of iron.
The second stage is a new beast entirely. First and foremost, Sharra Arryn would had needed to prepare for inevitable dragon incursion in an entirely different fashion. Ronnel Arryn would need to be kept secure, and a household guard brought to protect the Eyrie. Had this guard slain Visenya Targaryen after she landed, possibly by treachery (the advantage of being in the Eyrie would be complete information control. Visenya was little loved, and it would be trivial to spin that she was the aggressor. Shooing out Vhagar would be a difficult exercise, however), the Vale would likely have to embark on a Dornish-style guerilla campaign. Fortunately for the Vale, the stony terrain and narrow passes lend itself well to this sort of warfare. There are plentiful hiding places and the difficult passes lend themselves well to ambushes of terrain. Aegon would likely have to melt the Bloody Gate to advance his forces, and the right tools might be able to bring down Balerion during the struggle.
It is extremely unlikely to bring down Balerion, but the Vale, with its (relative) close proximity to trading towns like Braavos to help supply problems, could have potentially run a successful Dornish campaign. One of the more difficult questions, however, is whether they could have run a campaign of terror much like the Dornish did in Oldtown and other southron holdings. Part of the reason the Dornish campaign was so successful was not only their ability to resist Aegon, but their ability to inflict damage upon the holdings of Aegon’s vassals. Whether young Ronnel Arryn could have survived the hardships of a guerilla king is also questionable, but overall, the Vale has a stronger chance than many other kingdoms of Westeros.
Dornish Dreams Deferred – The Failed Conquest of Dorne
“This is Dorne. You are not welcome here. Return at your peril.” – The World of Ice and Fire, The Conquest
On paper, the conquest of Dorne seems like a sure thing. Dorne is neither the most populated, nor the largest of the Seven Kingdoms, with a long, vulnerable coastline. Aegon commanded an overwhelming majority of forces, and all three of his dragons were healthy and experienced. When Princess Meria Martell of Dorne refused to submit, Aegon oddly did not continue his forward momentum. The First Dornish War did not start until four years after Aegon was crowned by the High Septon. This loss of momentum seems very curious, completely opposed to his aggressive movements during the conquest of the other kingdoms.
When Aegon did strike, he advanced in typical Aegon Doctrine fashion, sending Queen Rhaenys to Plankytown whilst he escorted the land forces up the Prince’s Pass (Visenya is not mentioned in this campaign; she was probably managing administrative affairs in Aegon’s absence). Dorne, however, refused to fight in the sort of pitched battle that all the other kings of Westeros seemed intent to engage. Rather, they adopted tactics designed to frustrate, overextend, and hamper Aegon’s land forces and scattering whenever Aegon or Rhaenys took wing on their dragons.
Here, Dorne adopted tactics reminiscent of guerilla warfighters throughout history, from Lê Lợi’s campaign against the Chinese to Skanderbeg’s campaign against the invading Ottomans in Albania, avoiding pitched battle in favor of ambush, murder, and harassing supply lines. Aegon’s dragons were the thing to avoid, and for the first time in Westerosi history, an opposing army successfully exploited one of the primary weaknesses of dragons: the need for the rider to positively identify a target. By yielding their seats and waiting for the dragons to leave, the Dornish exploited the second weakness that applied to Aegon specifically: he only had three dragons and a lot of territory to manage. Aegon successfully acquired Sunspear and crowned themselves rulers of Dorne and the kingdom united, only to have their castellan thrown out the window and Dorne undo their work. When Harlan Tyrell, the Lord of Highgarden and Warden of the South, marched, his entire army vanished into the desert, likely a victim of the inhospitable Dornish terrain.
In any campaign, one of the greatest assets on a side can be time. If one side would grow in advantage while another withers with the progress of time, guerilla-style tactics can be very effective. It requires a steady stream of supplies, but some campaigns can be one simply by avoiding battle and waiting out the clock. This sort of strategy was recognizably adopted by the Roman dictator Quintus Fabius Maximus against Hannibal’s campaign in Italy. Hannibal had crushing victories in his early campaign, and Fabius decided to avoid Hannibal’s army, picking off his scouts and foragers and letting time grind down Hannibal’s invading army. These tactics are now known as Fabian tactics, in honor of the crafty Roman dictator. Here, the Dornish made Aegon’s army lose momentum and cohesion, waiting until other matters of state demanded Aegon’s attention, before striking quickly and decisively.
Later, Aegon would suffer greater setbacks to his key generals. Orys Baratheon would be captured and ransomed, but not before being maimed at the hands of Lord Wyl by losing his sword hand. Nobles would be murdered by Dornish assassins even in Aegon’s capital city, Nightsong and Oldtown were sacked by Dornish raiders under Lords Fowler and Dayne, and then to make matters much worse, Queen Rhaenys and Meraxes would be brought down at Hellholt, the dragon felled by a scorpion bolt. Aegon and Visenya responded with more fire, allegedly burning every holding in Dorne at least once save Sunspear, which was curiously untouched.
Whether the Martells made some sort of secret arrangement, or Aegon merely attempted to make it appear as such (such disinformation tactics are not unheard of, Hannibal attempted the same tactic against Fabius during the second Punic War), both Dorne and the Seven Kingdoms suffered, until Dorne used a note with unrevealed information that caused Aegon to end his campaign against Dorne for good. While the two would often engage in skirmishes, the declared non-aggression between the two kingdoms would stand until Daeron I.
One Land, One King – A Targaryen Victory?
In reflecting on his counterinsurgency experiences, David Galula, a French Army Officer and veteran of the Algerian War, theorized on how nation-states could win as counterinsurgents. Aegon would have done well to adhere to Galula’s 4 pillars which were:
The aim of the war is to gain the support of the population rather than control of territory.
Most of the population will be neutral in the conflict; support of the masses can be obtained with the help of an active friendly minority.
Support of the population may be lost. The population must be efficiently protected to allow it to cooperate without fear of retribution by the opposite party.
Order enforcement should be done progressively by removing or driving away armed opponents, then gaining support of the population, and eventually strengthening positions by building infrastructure and setting long-term relationships with the population. This must be done area by area, using a pacified territory as a basis of operation to conquer a neighbouring area. – Counterinsurgency Warfare: Theory and Practice, New York: Praeger Publishers, 1964
How well could Aegon have adhered to the four pillars, given that the Aegon Doctrine seemed intent on cowing a people into submission rather than winning them over? As Aegon’s campaign in Dorne kept foundering, the Dornish people kept becoming less and less won over by the power of Aegon’s dragons, and as Dorne kept being set aflame, fewer and fewer smallfolk could have been said to have been a ‘friendly minority.’ Aegon’s tactical inflexibility, seeing the people as an afterthought to the vision of one king over one continent, left him unable to quell this counterinsurgency.
Could Aegon have used some sort of clever tactic to force the submission of the hostile Dornish party, to allow friendly or neutral smallfolk to take over and flourish? This is a question that modern armies with a counterinsurgency mission wrestle with, even today. By denying Aegon targets for his dragons to attack or lords to capture and enforce submission, Dorne largely denied the greater portions of the Aegon Doctrine. Short of going house-to-house in the shadow city to search out and find any and all potential insurgents (a tactic sure to cost a lot of lives and stoke a lot of resentment among the smallfolk that Aegon had worked so hard to win over), or simply burning any building or cave they could find, there was little Aegon could do as well in a conventional sense.
The alternative was to get very sneaky and very bloody. If, for example, Aegon installed a false castellan to manage Sunspear, then sneak off to Ghaston Grey or one of the Stepstones islands, they could perhaps launch another attack before the Dornish had a chance to disperse again. This of course, doesn’t have the highest odds of success, and depends a great deal on communication and information management. Given the Dornish network to place assassins in King’s Landing, this seems to be almost as likely as Brandon Snow killing Aegon’s dragons, and so the Targaryens were left with a check on their ambitions and their pride humbled.