Gorged on Grief: A Political Analysis of Aegon III Targaryen

AEGON III.jpg

Aegon the Dragonbane, by Amok

Under Viserys I, Westeros turned into a powder keg as the blacks and the greens vied for power with one another. After Viserys died and his son Aegon II took the Iron Throne, that powder keg exploded into the Dance of Dragons: a two-year civil war characterized by high casualty counts and royal murder. When the smoke finally settled, Aegon’s half-sister and rival Rhaenyra had been devoured by Sunfyre, Aegon II poisoned shortly thereafter by his own courtiers, and Rhaenyra’s son Aegon the Younger, a boy of eleven, had become Aegon III, the seventh king on the Iron Throne.

For 26 years, Aegon III would lead Westeros through political instability and the death of the last dragon. Aegon is not remembered fondly by Westerosi, either for his personal shyness and somber attitude or for his refusal to treat with his vassals and generally broken reign. Yet oddly enough, during his majority, there were no foreign or civil wars and no rebellions. Could this merely be chalked up to war fatigue after the Dance? Or was there something to Aegon the Unlucky after all?

Welcome to the next installment of The Three Heads of the Dragon essay series, the first multi-author essay series for Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire. This series covers the kings, pretenders, and ladies of the Targaryen lineage from the dynasty’s fiery beginnings to its bloody end. This essay will cover the 26-year reign of Aegon III, often called the Broken King, as he struggled to rebuild a nation torn apart by civil war.

The Hour of the Wolf: Cregan Stark, the One-Day Hand

Aegon III ascended to the throne amidst much political turmoil. His predecessor, Aegon II, was poisoned by his own courtiers for desiring to continue the war, willing to cut Aegon the Younger’s ear to prove his point and daring defiance to the bitter end.. The greens were in control of King’s Landing, but the remaining blacks had an unblooded army under Cregan Stark, ready to punish green strongholds for abandoning their oaths to Rhaenyra Targaryen. With Aegon II dead, Rhaenyra’s son (and Cregan’s chosen claimant) the new king by law, and the realm currently seeking a peace between black and green orchestrated by Corlys Velaryon, this lord of Winterfell found the realm in a most confusing state.

Northern honor, however, dictated that those who poisoned King Aegon II pay for their crimes for their foul act, and thus Cregan Stark used the presence of himself and his army to force the newly minted Aegon III to accept him as Hand of the King. With the king still in his minority, Cregan Stark would effectively be the most powerful person in the realm, and it is the first time a Stark is noted to have wielded such raw political power south of the Neck.

“Cregan Stark served in that office for a single day, presiding over the trials and the executions.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

Cregan had twenty-two men arrested for the murder of Aegon II, among them Ser Gyles Belgrave of the Kingsguard, Master of Whisperers Larys Strong, Ser Perkin the Flea, and Corlys Velaryon himself. Presiding over the trials with near-absolute royal authority, Cregan Stark oversaw all twenty-two trials (and it must be noted, twenty-one had guilty verdicts rendered), and ordered executions for all the convicted conspirators. Most took the black and joined the Night’s Watch, while Larys Strong and Gyles Belgrave elected to take death at hands of the Hand. Then, as quickly as he was appointed, Cregan Stark resigned his chain of office and returned home to the North.

Cincinnatus abandons the plow for the Roman dictatorship – Juan Antonio Ribera

This momentous occasion has a famous parallel in history: the dictatorship of Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus, the patron saint of civic virtue. In 458 BC, beset by the Sabines and Aequi, and with one of the two Roman consuls under siege and far from Rome, the remaining consul looking to the traditional solution that Rome fell to in times of crisis: dictatorship.

Dictatorship was not the malicious concept we know in the modern world; in Rome, the dictatorship was a democratically elected position for a limited time period, when the standard bureaucratic practices of the Roman Senate could not be afforded because of some grave and immediate threat to Rome. Cincinnatus (working a plow at his farm if the popular tale is to be believed) set aside his farmland to take control of Rome when its hour was most desperate. There, he set the famed patrician-soldier Lucius Tarquitius as his Master of Horse (the number two man of Rome during a dictatorship, essentially his own Hand of the Dictator), and raised him to supreme cavalry commander. Cincinnatus mandated all men of fighting age report for military service, and took to saving the eternal city the way only a Roman could. Leading from the front, between his own infantry and Tarquitius’s cavalry, he surprised and obliterated the Aequis at Mons Algidus. There, demonstrating remarkable savvy, he took a token offering of blood and submission, then surrendered his dictatorship to Rome a mere two weeks after he had been named to Rome’s most powerful position. Rome had been saved; for Cincinnatus, it was time to retire, and Rome was the better for it. Cincinnatus would later be made dictator again, to stop a plot to install a monarchy; once again, he took care of the matter and subsequently surrendered the dictatorship to Rome.

In resigning the Handship immediately after taking care of business, Cregan Stark cemented his reputation as a man above the petty factionalism of the greens and blacks. He had come ostensibly to fight for the blacks,yet he showed himself willing to fight for the rights and body of Aegon II – a king he despised – because it was the correct and proper thing to do. A king’s death was regicide no matter how ill-loved the king was, and a regicide was always deserving of punishment. By punishing the betrayers of the greens, Cregan Stark gave the realm some much-needed closure after the chaos and disaster of the Dance. His stark justice brought the greens and blacks closer together, in support of their new king, and restored honor to the position of king’s counselor. If betrayal of a king was treason, then the betrayers were punished by the office of the king as traitors, and balance and faith in the central monarchy was restored.

This is not to say that Cregan Stark was perfect in his prosecution of this matter. Corlys Velaryon, the man who had been abandoned by the blacks and taken into the greens at high rank, was uniquely qualified to be the bandage that bound up the wounds of the war, but Cregan’s Northern sense of honor would not permit someone complicit in Aegon II’s poisoning to escape without royal punishment. It took the combined efforts of Black Aly Blackwood and Corlys’s granddaughters, Baela and Rhaena Targaryen, to convince Cregan Stark to permit Corlys to go free, words to rule, and wound to set. In this, we see one of the greatest conundrums that have wrangled ethicists and philosophers to this day, that of ontological versus utilitarian ethics. Murdering a king and betraying an oath are inherently detrimental to feudalism, yet both spared the realm further war. Perhaps to the Sea Snake, the peace justified the means, but such an answer wouldn’t satisfy Cregan’s Stark’s need for justice. Why Cregan relented in this matter is still a mystery. Perhaps Black Aly Blackwood was the right type of woman to persuade him; perhaps Baela Targaryen, scarred and wounded by Aegon yet fighting for peace, won over the notoriously stubborn Northern honor. Whatever the case, Cregan Stark bowed before pragmatism, the Sea Snake kept his head, and the Great Houses forged their peace.

The Hour of the Wolf was a bloody and tense time, but it followed a bloody and tense war, and Westeros benefitted greatly from the actions of Cregan Stark, the One-Day Hand.

The Regency Years

“The period of Aegon’s regency…was presided over by a council of seven.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

No time in Targaryen history is so little described and yet so interesting than the five years of Aegon III’s regency. The culture of political intrigue, combined with a rash of mysterious illness, amounted to five years that is teased most tantalizingly in The World of Ice and Fire. The full story is suggested to be released in another historical supplement, but the information we have gives a taste of information, containing the wealthy Peake family, Essosi interference, grasping regents, and all of the other ingredients for a rich stew of fascinating history.

A regency is typical when the monarch is a minor; a child could hardly be expected to make decisions for an entire monarchy. However, the regency of Aegon III was one of the most strange regencies in Westerosi history. A typical king in infirmity or minority would have his Hand act as regent, or perhaps the queen mother or another designated appointee. However, in Aegon’s case, the nobility established a council of seven regents to administer his kingdom for the five years until his minority ended. Many of these regents were powerful nobles of the black faction, including Lady Jeyne Arryn – the so-called Maiden of the Vale – the Sea Snake Corlys Velaryon, and Torrhen Manderly, the probable second son of the sitting Lord Manderly.

However, there were also several powerful members of the greens on the regency council, including Manfryd Mooton, who had abandoned Rhaenyra’s cause when Rhaenyra ordered him to kill his guest Nettles; moreover, two prominent nobles sworn to green houses had also found their way onto the council, Lords Caron and Westerling. Rounding out the seven was Grand Maester Munkun, who as a chained maester would (hopefully) be seen as politically neutral. Three blacks, three greens, and one maester made a precarious balance, all with the hope of keeping the wounded land together.

Only after a long and brutal civil war could such an idea take root. Both factions might rightly fear reprisal if the other were in power, so they looked to balance the factions and unite them toward a common purpose. For this reason, reason, Aegon III would be betrothed to Aegon II’s only surviving child Jaehaera Targaryen. The prospective child of those two would be a child half-black and half-green.This joining of rival houses and hope for an heir to bind the realm together continued well past the regency of Aegon III. In A Game of Thrones, Joffrey and Sansa’s prospective child would be a joining of four of the five Great Houses of Robert’s victorious coalition: Baratheon, Lannister, Stark, and Tully. This same desire would lead to Tyland Lannister being appointed Hand of the King. With the king a ostensible black, the Hand being a senior green would mean that Westeros truly desired a joining together rather than a savage tearing of lands, titles, and incomes away from those on the “losing” side. By having a careful balance of power, no faction could look to grasp power the way the greens and blacks did before the war. This regency council was a feat that is perhaps unequaled in Westerosi history. A Great Council had happened before to determine matters of succession, but never had Westeros been ruled by a committee instead of a single sovereign. Never before had so many shared the responsibility of reigning over the continent, but if the nobles of Westeros expected smooth sailing, they would be in for massive disappointment.

Joint letter of the five elders, from the Wikimedia Commons

In history, a regency council is unusual. In monarchical systems of yore, a king would be replaced by a single regent, and the government would continue as usual, just with the regent in place of the king. Of course, the regent usually had more politicking to deal with than a king given that he was merely placed in trust during a monarch’s incapacity, while the monarch was often either a representation of divinity or divinely appointed and charged by a deity. However, the regency council of Hideyori Toyotomi was remarkably similar. Hideyori, son of the famed Hideyoshi Toyotomi, was not even a toddler when Hideyoshi established a council of five of his most senior vassals, called the tairo, to act as regents until Hideyori aged to adulthood. Hideyoshi’s goal was to have these five keep the others in check, so that none could gain power over the other and his son to take over when he grew older. Unfortunately for Hideyoshi, Ieyasu Tokugawa was more powerful than all of the other tairo put together, and Japan divided into two factions, with war breaking out at Sekigahara a mere two years after the council was established.

Unwin Peake certainly looked to be someone who could have easily caused the realm to divide much the same way as Ieyasu did. When he took over the Sea Snake’s position following his death, he almost immediately went to work advancing his own power. When the Winter Fever hit Westeros, the Hand of the King Tyland Lannister and one of the regents, Roland Westerling, succumbed to the deadly disease. Torrhen Manderly also had to abdicate his position because his father and brother had died, requiring him to govern White Harbor. This left a void that Unwin was quick to exploit, getting himself named Hand of the King and using that position to fill court positions with his kin, including naming his bastard brother Mervyn Flowers to the Kingsguard (who was later expected to have had a hand in Queen Jaehaera Targaryen’s death). When he attempted to wed Aegon III to his own daughter after Jaehaera’s suspicious suicide, his naked power grab was transparent to all, and the council blocked the betrothal. He threatened to resign his position, but the council was happy to oblige him. Unwin had banked on his authority as regent and the power of his house to force the issue. He had stepped beyond his authority as regent in an attempt to make himself the sole backer behind the throne. In essence, Unwin went all-in on his move to seize power, but the regency council had called his bluff, and Lord Peake left with nothing.

Much like feudal Japan in the final years of the 1500’s, the regency years are marked with massive political instability. In the short five years of Aegon’s regency, only one of the regents would maintain the position for the full five years. One regent, Lord Rowan, would be accused of treason and tortured. Six people would be made Hand of the King (not counting Cregan Stark, who essentially bullied his way into the position in the beginning of Aegon’s reign), and the king himself would be under siege by his own Kingsguard for almost three weeks. The Winter Fever would ravage the continent, the Red Kraken would reave up and down the west coast, and even wealthy Lysene bankers would get involved in a three-way struggle among themselves, the regents, and the Peakes. Yet while any of these problems easily equalled the struggles of Maegor’s or Aerys I’s reigns, Aegon’s realm faced no sustained campaign of civil war. No Lord Paramount seized an ancient title and an ancient crown. Why?

War fatigue is an easy answer, but too simple on its own. The War of Dornish Conquest and First Blackfyre Rebellion took many men, and many wished to continue ever forward. Nor could disease and other non-human sources cause men to seek to overthrow the sitting king. Many natural phenomena were used to justify either the support or overthrow of the reigning monarch: the Red Comet in the novel series is used by many rival claimants as justification for their rule, and a septon preaches treason against Aerys I using the Great Spring Sickness as proof of the Blackfyre family line’s right to rule Westeros. The answer instead is that this council addressed problems and quickly achieved success, maintaining faith in the central government. When the Peakes plotted, the council stopped Lord Unwin. When pirates and ironborn raided, Oakenfist as agent of the council stopped them. When the Hand threatened the king, he remembered his duty, and stopped Mervyn Flowers. All of these actions portrayed competence in light of the instability and stewardship of the realm, and kept confidence that the problems plaguing Westeros would be resolved in due time. Public displays of effort (and success in these moreso) count for a great deal in government, and while it is not the only metric of rulership, a ruler who doesn’t try is a drastic hindrance for a kingdom.

Aegon’s Three Promises

“I mean to give the smallfolk peace and food and justice. If that will not suffice to win their love, let Mushroom make a progress. Or perhaps we might send a dancing bear. Someone once told me that the commons love nothing half so much as dancing bears. You may call a halt to this feast tonight as well. Send the lords home to their own keeps and give the food to the hungry. Full bellies and dancing bears shall be my policy.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

This quote seems to sum up Aegon III’s outlook on rule. Having seen the brutal civil war take most of his family, and seeing his mother eaten with his own eyes, Aegon looked to avoid the war that had taken so much from so many. The brutal reigns of his mother and uncle were seared into his memory, and so Aegon III looked to focus on fulfilling basic needs. The realm did not need the glorious battles of Aegon I or the great feats of engineering seen during the Old King’s reign. Aegon felt that Westeros needed time to heal, to repopulate, and to let itself grow from the wounds of the war, even if the king never could grow from them himself.

This was a wise policy. The treasury was close to empty, and levies were stretched thin due to the high casualty count of war. Another poorly-handled disaster might be the breaking point for the Targaryen dynasty. By focusing inward toward rebuilding that which had been destroyed, Aegon looked to quell popular revolt through satisfying natural instincts. As seen in the novel series itself, the commons get angry when they starve, when their persons are threatened due to a lack of peace, and when they see injustices firsthand, such as Eddard Stark’s beheading in the most holy Sept of Baelor. By promising fulfillment of these basic needs, Aegon III looked to make himself a humble king, one without the ego that would lead Alicent Hightower and Rhaenyra Targaryen to bleed the realm.

Though he strove to give the realm peace and plenty in the wake of the Dance, Aegon III proved unwilling to court his own people, or his lords.” –The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

Yet his quote also suggests that he himself preferred to distance himself from the pomp and circumstance of the court. Aegon III was deeply depressed most of his life. He would go days neither speaking nor touching anyone around him, and spend whole days locked in his chambers, brooding and sulking. He would not engage in the royal progresses that Aegon I and Jaehaerys I were famous for, and he seemed to focus his reign more upon the smallfolk (those who would rarely see him, if ever) than his lords, who might reasonably expect to see their king in their lifetimes. This refusal to treat with his vassals was problematic, as it is tied to the intrinsic nature of feudalism.

Unlike many other forms of government, feudalism is deeply personal, based entirely on oaths of service and the relationship between a king and vassal. The personal touch is how a king makes his vassals feel valued when he cannot afford to give them titles, lands, or honors. When vassals feel valued, that feeling subconsciously invests them in the continued peace and success of the king’s reign. The ability to travel also has a profound ability to project a king’s royal power and authority, and the perception of a king’s power is vital in feudalism. By not being able to treat with his subjects, he lost the ability to project power in a way that had a tangible effect on his vassals. Much like his uncle and predecessor, Aegon’s own personality quirks would hamper his authority, and impact his rule, despite the best intent in his Three Promises.

Aegon would certainly deliver on his promises. There is no record of widespread famine during his reign despite the burned land and were no wars (though Corwyn Corbray would die from a crossbowman at Runestone, suggesting there were some conflicts assuming it was not a freak training accident or personal quarrel). Moreover, when imposters came claiming that they were Daeron the Daring, whose body had never been confirmed at the Second Battle of Tumbleton, Aegon swiftly and decisively proved them to be false, much as Henry Tudor would do upon assuming the throne of England. We never received confirmation of whether he financed royal dancing bears or a progress for his fool, but he certainly put forth an effort to keep his people fed and entertained.

This fixation on full bellies and dancing bears sounds like a famous jab in political science spheres: “Bread and circuses.” This witty slogan was a popular term coined by the Roman satirist Juvenal to describe how many emperors ruled their subjects. A noted cynic, Juvenal said that most of the public was appeased through superficial means, namely enough bread to satisfy hunger and circuses to satisfy their attention. This diversion would cause the public to ignore greater concerns of the empire for the selfish satisfaction of their immediate desires. As long as there were bread and circuses, the Roman populace would be satisfied and not worry about anything else, whether it be the decline of the Empire or corrupt officials. By keeping the Roman people from their historic tradition of political involvement, according to Juvenal, the powerful kept a populace lulled into complacency, and he spares neither the corrupt powerful nor the easily-placated masses in his Satire X.

However, Aegon seems to lack the requisite cynicism for a true believer of the panem et circenses theory of governance. Rather than being cynical in his statement to Hand of the King Lord Manderly, Aegon noted that he meant to give the land peace and justice before giving them dancing bears or Mushroom’s ribaldry. His statement speaks to a curious blend of idealism and practicality that characterize many of the better monarchs and leaders of Westeros. While standing for high-minded principles, Aegon nonetheless understood that these ideas might not be enough to win over the masses, and thus might need a dancing bear to smooth everything over.

All Eyes on the Throne

Neither high-minded policy nor dancing bears, however, could fix Aegon’s public approval rating. As a deeply withdrawn individual, very few people interacted with him on a personal level, including those who might reasonably expect to do so (such as the small council or his primary vassals). While the Hand and the small council might be able to handle the day-to-day business of running the kingdom, the king’s absence would almost certainly be noted from his court. It was this absence that led others to view Aegon III negatively, and forms the primary shortcoming of his rule.

Leadership vs. management or administration is a frightfully all-too-common false dichotomy bandied about in seminars and self-help books. Most often the former is seen as desirable while the latter is an afterthought; the mere paperwork to running a team, business, or nation. Often, administrative ability is thought to be what poor leaders hide behind to hide their lack of leadership, but this sells the definition short. Leadership is the ability to unify and galvanize a group toward a goal, while administration is the organizational talent needed to achieve the goal. In an autocratic system of government, by necessity, the king must be a leader because he is the sole director of national-level goals and policy. When he encounters resistance, he must be the one to galvanize his subordinates, through convincing, diplomacy, intimidation, or raw power, to move his entity where he needs to go. Yet an active king can also be a great manager, as Jaehaerys I proved in his extensive codification of Westeros’s legal system (though Jaehaerys was also unquestionably a great leader, with his ability to get so many people to buy into his vision, and his ability to wrangle difficult vassals like the Starks if necessary).

Aegon was convinced that his actual actions would be enough to win over his people. He, like many other business executives, was fixated on results, and for a business, this mindset works very well. Companies, after all, are judged by their returns and balance sheets. Westeros, however, is not a business, and political leaders require different skills than commercial ones. Aegon neglected the public perception element that political actors must practice, much the way Tyrion Lannister does during his tenure as Hand of the King throughout A Clash of Kings. If Tyrion was monstrous, and only capable of monstrous things, how could this distant king bring about anything by his distance? A king who never bothered to court his vassals crafts an image of a king who wouldn’t bother for a great many things, and this image was to Aegon’s detriment. Image counts for a great deal, and if a political actor does not take it upon himself to seize his own image, others will craft an image for him, and it will most likely be less than flattering.

Feudalism also has its own unique problems when it comes to a king who doesn’t treat with a vassal. At the end of the day, a feudal relationship is between two people, and like any relationship, there are expectations by one person set upon the other. A king who locks himself in his chambers for days at a time could be seen as absent or disinterested in his vassals, much the same way as a vassal who is slow with his levies or taxes could be seen as disloyal to his king. While the king is granted more leeway given his status, he must still put forth the effort to make his vassals buy into his vision and himself as king, and Aegon simply didn’t do that. Making matters worse, his primary promises were what he was expected to do as Protector of the Realm. He had no overreaching goal or mission statement, as Aegon I did with his ‘one land, one king’ concept of Westeros. Aegon III merely wished to do what he was supposed to do as Lord of the Seven Kingdoms. Westeros needed a vision after that brutal civil war, something for lord and commoner to strive for, and Aegon wouldn’t give them one. It’s no mistake that his sons, Daeron and Baelor, would be looked upon more fondly by lord and peasant alike as both held a strong vision clearly understood by the highest and lowest alike. That both would do more to harm the realm than Aegon ever could is often forgotten by those same observers.

It’s no secret that the most popular of the Targaryen kings are seen as the most successful by the in-universe observer, even if that is entirely not the case. Viserys I barely did much on the Throne and did nothing to prevent civil war, but he sold himself as a genial man eager to continue the peace of his grandfather, and people believed him. Aegon took strides to separate himself from his mother and predecessor, both of whom enjoyed putting men’s heads on spikes, with his commitment to peace and justice, but he sold it by steadfastly refusing pomp or celebration, a vital part of the medieval relationship. Unlike his regency council, or even Viserys’s tenure as Hand, the king could not count on results. The king has all eyes upon him, and so he must be seen. He was a king without time for his vassals, and his vassals would remember that.

Inaugural Photograph of Abraham Lincoln, 1861

Recurring depression is common enough that many historical figures have been retroactively diagnosed with major depressive disorder. While any retroactive diagnosis of historical figures needs to be taken with a grain of salt, it’s certainly obvious that many political leaders suffered from depression, and there were even some who rank among the all-time great political minds. Abraham Lincoln, 16th president of the United States, was considered by many political scholars to be one of, if not the greatest, men to ever sit the Oval Office, and it’s almost certain he suffered from clinical depression. Contemporaries paint Lincoln as a very gloomy man, with his law partner remarking that “melancholy dripped from him as he walked.” Yet where Lincoln was gloomy and depressed, it also gave him a clarity of mind that mirrored Aegon’s blending of the high and low into policy. Lincoln found focus in the elimination of slavery, and opposed it on moral principles, but he conceded that slavery existed and looked to find ways to end it, rather than rendering it immediately illegal as many abolitionists desired. He crafted his political narrative as a natural extension of the Founding Father’s wishes to seem less radical to non-abolitionists and not alienate either side of the abolition debate that could rob him of needed political capital.

“I once knew a hotel keeper in St. Louis who boasted that nobody had ever died in his hotel. Of course, anytime a guest was in danger of dying, he was carried out to die in the gutter.” -Joke sourced to Abraham Lincoln

To Honest Abe’s credit, he found coping mechanisms that endeared him to his fellows. He was fond of telling jokes, which many who understood his character recognized as something that he needed to make him laugh, rather than to make others laugh. Those jokes, combined with the humility that he gained from many of his failed business and political ventures, made Lincoln into a quietly endearing figure that lent him a gravitas which he used to dramatic effect, especially in delivering speeches. Aegon III, however, could not find a coping mechanism that could get him to treat with his subjects and vassals, and so he could never gain the same political weight that Lincoln earned over his presidency. How different his rule could have been if he had been able to tell a few jokes.

Of course, Aegon III never won a major war either, so that certainly didn’t help his cause.

The Death of the Dragons

This matter of perception was exacerbated by the death of the last dragon during Aegon’s reign, for which he earned the epithet ‘Dragonbane.’ Dragons were the prime instrument of power for the Targaryen dynasty, and the loss of dragons came with a substantial loss of power and prestige. No longer could Targaryen monarchs set fields on fire to corral and burn hostile troops; no longer could they melt the castles of rebel lords, or scout out a hostile force free from harm.  No longer could even a peacetime king quickly fly across the realm to treat with his vassals (and remind them, ever so subtly, of their overlords’ power).

However, even more damaging than the tactical and logistical powers of dragons, the image of the Throne and royal power would suffer with the loss of the great flying beasts. The dragons were how Aegon forged his kingdom, and help to cement the Targaryen’s high position over the Westerosi. After all, the dragons were the symbol the Targaryens used to signify their connection to ancient Valyria, the greatest nation that the world had ever seen. Violet eyes and silver hair could be found in the Free Cities, but only the Targaryens had and rode the dragons, the sole province of the Valyrian dragonlords who ruled their Freehold. Without them, the only remaining link was the blood of the dragon. While some on Dragonstone might have treated the Targaryens as semi-godlike with their prized blood, others would recognize that royal blood can be shed just as easily as lordly or common blood. Their bloodline might be special and exotic, but a bloodline could not breathe fire.

Banner of the Holy Roman Empire, circa 1400

In medieval Europe, the Holy Roman Empire would be the most famous example of this concept. By taking the trappings of Rome, the Holy Roman Empire tried to present themselves as the inheritor of Rome, and thus, the Holy Roman Emperor was the proper successor of Rome and rightly held the imperium, the right of military power and authority. In addition, the Holy Roman Empire, in claiming true succession from Rome, could disinherit the Byzantine Empire as the successor of Rome. Byzantium followed Orthodox Christianity instead of the Catholicism that was present in Western Europe, and the Catholics of Western Europe did not wish to see imperium in the hands of someone who did not recognize the supreme authority of the Roman Pope. So the Holy Roman Empire took the trappings of Rome to install itself as the rightful heir to Rome, just as the Targaryen dragons were the proof of rightful succession of Old Valyria. The Byzantines claimed imperium as well, stating that they were the Eastern Roman Empire and the true heirs to Rome after the West had fallen. This claim would go so far as to have a Byzantine emperor arrest an envoy with a letter referring to him as the “Emperor of the Greeks”; the Byzantines proudly identified as Romans, even long after the Western Empire had collapsed and Rome spent generations outside of their control. Imperium and the inheritance of Rome were powerful tools, one that kings and emperors would covet most hungrily.

Few dragons survived the Dance of Dragons, and among those that survived, none would be mastered. The dragons would never grow large after the war, though the reason why remains up for exploration. Silverwing was never mastered again and made a home on Red Lake, Sheepstealer disappeared with her owner, and Cannibal simply disappeared. Without an understanding of the reproductive and egg cycles of dragons, it’s hard to discern whether this rapid decline was a natural occurrence or not. A lack of mates might be an issue, as all of the dragons were far from each other and could not fertilize eggs that another had laid. True, Aegon I had only three dragons and no apparent problems getting more from these them, but it’s possible that dragon interbreeding (a necessity, given how few in number they were) could have caused genetic problems that would plague the line with infirmity down the road. Vhagar and Meraxes might have been able to avoid this genetic problem as their eggs could have been fertilized by one of the other four dragons the Targaryens brought with them to Dragonstone, but later dragons in the lineage would be forced to interbreed, thereby introducing birth defects. The small, stunted hatchlings that were birthed after the Dance might have hit that genetic threshold, or perhaps the eggs and embryos within were damaged by the war in some fashion.

“Who do you think killed all the dragons the last time around? Gallant dragonslayers armed with swords? The world the Citadel is building has no place in it for sorcery or prophecy or glass candles, much less for dragons.” -A Feast for Crows, Samwell V

Archmaester Marwyn, however, suggests that the dragons were exterminated by the maesters in an attempt to rid the world of uncategorical magic and other phenomenon that did not fit within the scientific reality that the maesters wished to be the intellectual masters of. There is a notable decrease in dragon hatchings after Aegon III took power, and a sudden decrease in specimen health, size, and viability which seems too quick to be a natural degradation. The Citadel is the Westerosi repository of knowledge, including both biology and toxicology. If a maester had the inkling ,the tomes of the Citadel might have knowledge of a poison which could harm even the mighty dragons. This maester might then have attempted to poison dragon eggs in an attempt to kill them. If a lethal poison did not exist or could not be fabricated, perhaps this maester could stunt their prenatal development, which could be another reason why the last of the dragons to be birthed were sickly and misshapen. If this poison could impact the ability to lay living eggs, or to fertilize eggs already laid, the death of the dragons could be achieved without the unreliable poisoning of a dragon’s food or the very risky poisoning of dragons directly.

We know that Aegon, in the later years of his reign, attempted to bring mages from Essos in an attempt to waken dragon eggs, which suggests that Aegon did not desire the dragons killed off completely (despite his fears). Whether the end of the dragons was natural in origin or a systematic extermination by the maesters is beyond the scope of this essay; what’s important is that they were dead and gone. Aegon’s attempted revival looks like a surprisingly foresighted move, which makes sense given that the advice came from Aegon III’s incredibly shrewd brother and Hand, Viserys. Dragons were an essential part of Targaryen hegemony, and their ability to project force and authority over the massive continent of Westeros. For the security and stability of the realm, Aegon needed the dragons, and he would go to great lengths to restore them.

“He dreaded the sight of dragons – and had even less desire to ride upon one – but he was convinced that they would cow those who sought to oppose him.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

This move is actually a good indicator of Aegon III’s grasp of political realism, and with a little spin, could be an immense boon. Aegon III was undoubtedly mentally scarred by Sunfyre devouring his mother at such a young age. None could fault Aegon for fearing and dreading dragons after that day. However, seeking to restore them suggests that Aegon was willing to put aside his personal hang-ups and misgivings for the good of the Iron Throne itself, which was an attitude not seen since Jaehaerys and his focus on civic projects. The dragons were a necessary component of enforcing Targaryen power over the realm, and would be essential to providing the peace of Aegon’s Three Promises. By demonstrating himself above his own personal problems, he would separate himself from his tyrannical mother and grasping uncle. However, the mages were a failure, the dragons remained gone (for the time being), and Aegon would have to contend himself with less supernatural means of governing his realm.

The Strong Right Hand

“Viserys – who in his last years served as Hand – had the gift of charm, but he grew stern after his wife abandoned him and their children for her native Lys.” -The World of Ice and Fire, Aegon III

Aegon III was noted to be solemn, and neither courtly entertainments nor his beautiful wife could shake him from his deep depression. But one person could do what none other could; bring joy to the sorrowful. This would be Aegon’s brother, Viserys, who survived his captivity and returned after a kingly ransom during Aegon’s regency.

Viserys at this time was all Aegon was and more. As charming as he was shrewd, Viserys worked hand-in-hand with his brother to smooth much of his reign. Indeed, Viserys would often be the one to treat with nobles, providing the badly-needed personal touch to Aegon’s reign. Viserys’s bureaucratic excellence would truly be realized later in the Targaryen dynasty, but he undoubtedly aided Aegon’s troubled reign  with both his presence and his advice. It was Viserys who advised Aegon to attempt to re-awaken the dragons, and Viserys who would take over when Aegon fell into one of his dark moods.

Indeed, Viserys looked to be the first Hand that was arguably more powerful and a greater influence on the realm than his liege. While Maegor the Cruel certainly was a more capable warrior and more decisive than his brother Aenys, he was not named to the office until after he dispatched Jonos the Kinslayer, and he was not noted to do much from his appointment to his exile. Septon Barth was a learned and much celebrated Hand, but he was definitely not as powerful or influential as the Old King. Viserys seemed to be the first strong Hand to take control of much of the rulership of the kingdom, and the first in a long tradition of powerful capable hands. Brynden Bloodraven, Baelor Breakspear, and Tywin Lannister owe much to Viserys, who began the tradition of the competent, capable Hand.

Viserys would become less charming after his beloved wife would abandon him and their children for her native Lys, but he would still remain a competent administrator for his morose older brother. He would be instrumental in stopping the false Daerons from attempting to seize the Iron Throne for themselves, and his action during many of Aegon’s sulking fits would continue to propagate faith in the monarchy. While many might think the king weak for being so withdrawn, none would doubt that his effective Hand would be incapable of swift, decisive action. If Aegon was the compromise candidate, to push the blacks and greens together, Viserys would be the mortar that kept the Seven Kingdoms together.

Conclusion

How then, does Aegon III measure up against the rest of the Targaryen dynasty? The deck was certainly stacked against him, since he took office in the most troubled of times. However, he kept the realm out of major wars and knit together the wounds of the Dance. He promised peace, bread, and justice to all his citizens, and was one of the few politicians to deliver on his promises. He even had the soundness of mind to believe that his people might not be won over by the concepts embodied in a good king, and that satisfying the people requires satisfaction of the primal as well as the high-minded. In this, he was more than happy to use his royal authority to deliver a full suite of action to placate as many as possible. On paper, it would seem, that Aegon III was a great king. Perhaps not as great as his honored great-great-grandfather, but a wholly sensible and good-hearted king who truly desired the best for his realm and his people. Indeed, he cared much for the smallfolk in a way that wouldn’t be seen again until Aegon V with his commitment to ensuring that they lived their lives free from want or harm.

However, Aegon’s refusal to court his lords or his people significantly hurt his rule, and that could only be partially ameliorated by Viserys. As a sole monarch and leader, Aegon was the uniting figure of the Seven Kingdoms and he had to be the one to keep his people invested in the continued success of his reign. Much like Aegon I, he was quiet and introverted, but Aegon the Dragonbane did not make the public displays of power that Aegon the Dragon used to keep the realm together. Aegon could not use a dragon to awe the people, nor did he have a momentous conquest to remind his vassals of the might of the Iron Throne, and he never made a show of power like the royal progress the way his powerful ancestors did. So while Aegon I died richly celebrated as one of the mightiest and greatest kings of all time, Aegon III died as pitifully as he lived, broken and ravaged by a lifetime full of sorrow. For all the good that he brought to the realm, his shortcomings were the symbol that shrouded all of his good works, and he is not remembered fondly because of it.

The Broken King had hoped that peace and justice would have been enough, and dancing bears if that failed. He looked to provide dragons, but that dragon dream died on the vine. Aegon the Unlucky was correct in many things. His understanding that the king must provide much to his kingdom rivals that of the greatest kings in history, fictional or historic. Aegon III deserves praise in all that he brought, and all he attempted to bring, far more than he receives from in-universe observers. But in truth, what Westeros needed was its king, and sadly, that was the one thing that Aegon could not give.

9 Comments

Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF History, ASOIAF Political Analysis, The Three Heads of the Dragon

9 responses to “Gorged on Grief: A Political Analysis of Aegon III Targaryen

  1. GarthTheGross

    An excellent assesment! Very nicely written.

  2. Hagaroth

    Excellent essay on the not so well know king.

    Could it be thinkable that Aegon didn’t involve himself with other houses with reason ? I mean, the realm just finished the bloodiest war that ever happened on westeros, maybe second to the conquest itself, all the lord great or minor as resentment toward one house or another , if Aegon would start involving himself with his bannermen wouldn’t that been seen as favor toward the choosen house.

    If for example he wish to help house Hightower he would be seen as favorable toward the green, it might have help some house to come back up but he might have attracted the discontent of the Velaryon or any other black house. Right at this moment is personal involvment might have been to much for the realm, scratching a fresh wound does seem like a bad idea when he don’t have enough power to quell the unrest, dragon are gone almost all houses are in a weakened state, if one start to be greedy (like Peake, the fact that this house is still around nowaday is beyond me) it could have started another war that the realm would not be able to come back from.

    Delegating that to a member of the royal family with great power but is not the man itself looks like a far more effective way of dealing with his bannermen.

    Of course all that is supposition and is does not have any solid ground but it does look to me like a possible situation that Aegon would absolutely want to dodge.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      While it’s certainly possible, Aegon’s pattern of avoiding human contact for days at a time and locking himself in his chambers while Viserys handled civil administration sounds more like a personal quirk rather than a calculated move.

      We know that House Baratheon had royal disfavor in the years afterward (in TWOIAF), so I can’t say that absolutely no politics happened. I really think that if it was a more calculated move, Aegon would have had the political clarity to know that appearances were mandatory.

  3. Ser Friendzone

    Very nice profile. I found the Aegon III section the saddest part of the World Book. His Hand took his only friend and made him take beatings on the king’s behalf, then he dies from poison meant for Aegon. What a difficult hand he was dealt.

    I especially liked the parallel to Tyrion in ACOK; public figures ignore PR at their peril.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Glad you liked it.

      I wanted to work in the Gaemon Palehair tragedy, but I really couldn’t find a way to work it in with the broader-level political themes. I was thinking about using the poisoning, but I didn’t have enough evidence to suggest that someone was trying to poison Aegon III. Or rather, I didn’t have enough evidence to suggest who could have been behind it. Other than the Peakes and the Baratheons, we don’t see any evidence of other houses getting royal disfavor during Aegon’s reign.

  4. KrimzonStriker

    Wasn’t dispatching Oakenfist an unintended political blunder on Peakes part versus a display of political competence on the regency councils? Because he wanted to keep Alyn off the Council and thus prevent a strong, popular rival, while hoping the military adventures he sent Alyn on would kill him, providing Peake an opportunity to take the glory himself?

    • somethinglikealawyer

      That’s what TWOIAF says for the pirates in the Stepstones and against Dalton Greyjoy, but the common lord outside of the regency council would have no way of being privy to Peake’s scheme. The primary source is Grand Maester Munkun, who almost certainly would know, being a regent. His True Telling wasn’t published at least until after the Lysene Spring (since it mentions him not talking about Marston Waters being named Hand), so I’d say even if that knowledge was in Munkun’s True Telling, it wasn’t published yet.

      Sorry for not making that clearer.

  5. Targaryen-schmargaryen

    Great essay, although it meanders somewhat too far from the topic at times. The unknown specifics of the events around the time of the counsel governing the realm in his minority is something I’m intrigued to learn more about and I look forward to the means in which GRRM plans to reveal this.

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