One Black Eye and Ten Long Legs: A Military Analysis of Euron Greyjoy

Euron Greyjoy looks out from the bow of a longship, by Allan Douglas

A while back, I wrote some meta where I explained that Euron Greyjoy was a poor strategist, cavalier toward long-term strategy and sustainability, coupled with his partial madness. In response, MadeinMyr criticized my essay, writing a response testifying to Euron’s strategic merits. A careful analysis of Euron and those surrounding him, and comparison to real-world examples of military commanders in similar situation, will show that Euron is nothing of the sort and that Euron falls short of that lofty perch.

The Difference Between Strategy and Tactics

Strategy and tactics are two aspects of military maneuver ripe for confusion. Prior to analyzing Euron’s strategy and tactics, let’s define our terms:

  • Tactics are the means to seize an initial, local, or intermediate objective.
  • Strategy is a full campaign plan, the final and highest objective with which victory is achieved.

When evaluating tactics and strategy, it’s critical to understand that a person can be good at both, neither, or good at one and not the other. And so, we have to identify Euron’s strategy, which the Crow’s Eye so helpfully rants during the main narrative at the kingsmoot. Euron’s strategy isn’t to gain the Shield Islands, it isn’t to maintain Iron Islands independence, it’s to conquer Westeros. His vector to do this is to ultimately bind a dragon with his magic horn, using it to overwhelm Westerosi opposition, forcing them to surrender and accept Ironborn dominance. So when I’ll claim that Euron’s strategy is a poor one, this is what I’ll be referring to. It’s a common lexical mistake among laymen to use ‘strategy’ when the proper word to use is ‘tactics,’ and it can cause fundamental misinterpretations of arguments. Now, with that being made clear, we can move on to the story as it stands.

The Strength of the Ironborn – The Cold War Numbers

We also need to identify clearly how much strength the Iron Islands has. This is critical because much of madeinmyr’s argument that Euron is an excellent strategist comes from the notion that the Crow’s Eye has 900 longships, with 20,000-30,000 men to crew them, while the Iron Fleet, the “hard heart of Greyjoy strength” as described in Theon’s chapters, are 100 larger half-longship half-war galley ships with 10,000 experienced men. This makes one thousand ships, which fits the claims heard in Cersei’s chapters of A Feast For Crows (emphasis mine)

“A thousand ships!” The little queen’s brown hair was tousled and uncombed, and the torchlight made her cheeks look flushed, as if she had just come from some man’s embrace.”

Yet right away, that number should ring falsely, and indeed it does to several men of the council.

“A thousand ships?” Ser Harys Swyft was wheezing. “Surely not. No lord commands a thousand ships.”

Some frightened fool has counted double,” agreed Orton Merryweather. “That, or Lord Tyrell’s bannermen are lying to us, puffing up the numbers of the foe so we will not think them lax.”

This very technique of double-counting enemy military numbers has historical parallel in our own military history. In the American Civil War, shadowing (observing a force without engaging, typically for reconnaissance purposes) pioneer and future-private eye Allan Pinkerton often mistakenly double-counted Lee’s army. The speed at which they moved led Pinkerton to count the same men twice, thinking that a unit of such size was not able to cover that much ground in such a short period of time. Euron’s ships are explicitly mentioned to be raiding, thus hitting and running, creating the ideal circumstances for this type of error.

But even the text supports that number being too high. For instance, Theon spies House Goodbrother (one of the most powerful Iron Islands houses) mustering their strength of ‘forty ships,’ not one hundred. So, how do we reconcile Martin’s claim that the high lords of the Iron Islands can float a hundred ships, yet we see that House Goodbrother can only spare forty? Where are the other sixty? Balon is mustering for war, holding 150% strength not even in the harbor is beyond foolish, it’s borderline treasonous.

The answer lies in one of the most frustrating things historians encounter when studying wars, the difference between actual numbers and theoretical numbers. Errors creep into historical accounts mistaking theoretical numbers, to include stripping garrisons and conscripting additional men for temporary service, into actual numbers. The classic example is one of the largest battles of the Three Kingdoms era, the Battle of Red Cliffs. T’sao T’sao claimed 800,000 men on his side at the battle. The Han dynasty’s census of China put the number of people in China at 56 million, meaning that somehow, after a generation of devastating and bloody war, T’sao T’sao was still able to field 1.5% of the total population of China just on his side. Modern estimates rightly dismiss this claim and put the number of men at Wulin at approximately 100,000, and the same can be said about the Ironborn strength.

Within Ironborn cultural mythos, many able-bodied men (and women) take up arms when necessary, but these people still need to eat, still need to maintain war materiel (including their ships). Even the great bureaucratic machines of Rome couldn’t afford to keep more than 1% of their population mobilized. In times of emergency, people can be temporarily conscripted to boost this number (almost always for defense where material doesn’t need to be shipped to the field), but only for the shortest length of time, lest the entire domestic sector collapse for lack of able individuals to sustain a war engine. So, using madeinmyr’s most conservative estimate of 20,000 individuals crewing these 900 ships, plus the 10,000 of the Iron Fleet, we’d be looking at 30,000 seaman. At 1%, the height of Rome’s mobilization percentage, that would mean a population of 3 million people on the Iron Islands. 3 million people, on islands never described as thickly populated.

That number is far too high. Even if we accept that Martin is never the best when it comes to numbers, we can still find relative comparisons within the text itself. If the Iron Islands can raise 30,000 troops, that’s 75% the size of the Riverlands and Westerlands and their 40,000-strong armies, and a rough third of the richly populated Reach, and the Iron Islands are fractions of the size of these larger, wealthier regions, and much more sparsely populated. A raiding and fishing culture can’t produce a population to equal that of an agricultural society living in an equivalently-sized fertile region, as we see throughout history. Even at an impossibly high conscription rate, the difference won’t easily be made up.

The evidence is clear, the Ironborn do not have the numbers that are being proposed.

The Greyjoy Rebellion – What Can Euron Be Held Accountable For?

Even in the beginning, we see Euron’s less than stellar grasp of greater military strategy. While the fault for the Greyjoy Rebellion primarily lies at Balon’s feet, and I certainly am not excusing Balon for the strategic error, Euron does show some lackluster traits that fit the overall analysis. In my estimation, Euron Greyjoy’s role in the Greyjoy Rebellion was mostly advisory. He did come up with the plan to burn the Lannisport Fleet (which according to Martin, runs 30 ships large), but then he disappears from the narrative. We must give credit where it is due, burning the Lannisport fleet is good tactics as it prevents the nearest threat from decisively engaging the Greyjoys before their nascent rebellion could get off the ground. This is reminiscent of the Chinese Battle of the Red Cliffs, where T’sao T’sao’s fleet was burned while his ships were chained together and prevented him from utilizing his superior numeric advantage.

However, there is no follow-up offered by Euron. Was no counsel offered to face the Redwyne fleet, the traditional west coast rivals of the Ironborn? While Balon suffers from a truly staggering amount lack of foresight, neither he nor Euron would be so simple as to ignore the fact that the Redwynes exist. Even if they believed Robert did not have their loyalty and the Redwynes would not raiserise their banners or ships for Robert, there was still the royal fleet, to which Balon understood would need to be beaten at sea. Now, certainly, Euron could not have been consulted on this, but why not? He clearly had an advisory role, and there’s no mention that Euron somehow lost Balon’s ear between those two strategic meetings (which would not have been very far apart). We know that Balon, from both the planning on Lannisport and Theon’s Pyke chapters in A Clash of Kings, holds war councils regularly, thus Euron suddenly being on the outs for the next war council seems unusual. Moreover, Euron is never in Balon’s bad graces until 297 with the Victarion salt wife affair. If Balon indeed “did not wish to bolster the prestige of an ambitious and incredibly dangerous younger brother who could conceivably threaten his children,” why take his advice into consideration at all with Casterly Rock? Balon has two adult-aged sons who command their own glories. Why would he fear Euron enough to put him in the doghouse after one idea, and have no one ever mention it once in text? There’s not enough evidence to suggest that Euron was specifically denied a seat at the table.

It’s simply too far-fetched to believe that Balon would simply 180 on Euron, including him in his highest level of war councils only to immediately snub him afterward, yet not do the same to Victarion, who if anything, earned even more glory than Euron. Certainly, Euron has more ambition and is much more intelligent than Victarion, but why, if that was such a worry, is no mention ever made of it in any of our Ironborn point of view chapters? Why is Euron welcome on the Iron Islands until a wholly separate incident causes his exile? Rather than invent the notion that Euron came up with a successful plan then refused an ignominious command because Balon feared his ambition, Occam’s razor cuts that their was no plan to defeat the royal fleet because there was no plan save to beat Stannis in open naval combat. Even more so, if Euron refused an ignominious command as is suggested, why would Balon, if he so feared his brother’s ambition, not seize Euron and execute him for failing to obey orders? Why would Euron be welcome on the Iron Islands after behaving in such a fashion?

Euron Objectives, Tactics, and Strategy in the Reach Campaign

Now, we get into the heart of the matter, where we actually have some hard data to look at. Like many military campaigns, Euron’s objective with his campaign is political. He knows that even upon winning the kingsmoot, his reign won’t be secure. Aeron (who hates and fears Euron) commands respect amongst the Drowned Men; Victarion (who desires rulership of the Iron Islands) holds sway of a great number of the traditionalists and has the Iron Fleet to back him. Asha (another rival) has a firm control of the sentiments of House Harlaw, the number two house of the Iron Islands. Euron won some love with his dramatic appearance and his riches at the kingsmoot, but the luster of that will wear off without something concrete behind it. Buying loyalty is not permanent, Euron is intelligent enough to know this and continuing the stalled out war against the North will not fulfill the big promises he made.

Euron enjoys the spoils of victory, by Mathia Arkoniel

Euron is successful early in his campaign against the Reach. He takes the Shields, put four new lords to weaken and isolate his rivals. By naming four ironborn lords as the new holder of the Shields, he takes a step toward his grand political objective of dividing the base of the anti-Euron factions on the Islands by giving his enemies appointments that invest them tacitly in Euron’s new kingship.

However, can Euron Greyjoy and the Ironborn hold the Shield Islands militarily?  Even if the numbers that Garlan Tyrell can muster at Oldtown are exaggerated (which they likely are), the Reach armies are largely unblooded. More importantly, the Redwyne Fleet, the largest collection of vessels left in Westeros with the Iron Fleet in Meereen and the royal fleet at the bottom of the Blackwater, is sailing back to the Reach. Euron is still facing a massive deficit in manpower and materiel. The Reach, the most heavily-populated of the Iron Isles, can wash over the depleted armies of the Ironborn, now without their prized Iron Fleet, the ‘hard heart of Greyjoy strength.’

MadeinMyr also suggests that Euron is close to “pulling (the taking of Oldtown) off”, which we hear of in Sam’s Oldtown chapters:

“Once inside the walls they meant to set the port ablaze and open a gate from within whilst we fought the fire.” (AFFC, Samwell V)

In truth, there have been cases where an open gate has made the difference in the seizure of a city. The fall of Constantinople, Publius Cornelius Scipio’s conquest of Carthago Nova, the taking of Neapolis, all are testaments to the power that securing a gatehouse can have in conquering a city. This might be enough to make the argument sound convincing on paper, but there’s a key oversight. All of those conquests required an army deployed to take the walls once the gate was opened. Thus, the argument is no longer, could the crew of one ironborn ship utilize the chaos of a burning port to secure a gatehouse, but could the crew of one ship secure a gatehouse for the rest of Euron’s occupation force to land, muster, and march to Oldtown? Euron’s forces are not within view from the towers of Oldtown, so his intrepid ironborn attack plan is far different than is proposed. Even in the best circumstances, getting an army to land, muster, and march takes hours if not days. We don’t have a count of the strength of Oldtown’s city watch, but we do have one for King’s Landing, which Tyrion helpfully outlines for us in Tyrion XI of A Clash of Kings.

“The gold cloaks were almost as uncertain a weapon. Six thousand men in the City Watch, thanks to Cersei, but only a quarter of them could be relied upon.”

We know that Cersei inflated the numbers of the Watch, and Tyrion suggests perhaps a quarter were competent soldiers, and Oldtown is slightly smaller than King’s Landing. All of these dock our total, so conservatively, we can estimate around 900-1000 competent Watchmen in the city. No Tyroshi ship holds 900 men, no medieval ship, whether cog or hulk or dromon, held that many men. Even the great Spanish galleons or Genoese war carracks didn’t hold that many men. If attack has a preferred 3:1 attack ratio, Euron is attacking below 1:1 odds. There are lopsided odds, and then there are foolhardy ones, and absent something such as happened in Winterfell with the depleted garrison, I’d say this goes beyond an unreasonable leap to an absurd one. This proposed seizure of Oldtown goes beyond the militarily impractical and into the realm of the outlandish, and so we can safely dismiss the argument that Euron had a reliable plan to take Oldtown as mere idle talk.

Where We Go From Here – Euron’s True Objective

So, if Oldtown can’t be taken, if Euron doesn’t have the ships or the manpower to fight the Redwyne navy and Reachmen army, then what is his plan to ‘take everything’ as he claimed at the Kingsmoot? Euron’s plan has been what it was from my first argument, supernatural means to take and hold his territory. No matter which way you look at it, Euron is going to need his dragon to achieve his complete and final victory. A dragon would mitigate the massive size disparity Euron faces in the Reach and give Euron the strength he needs to force a surrender. Aegon the Conqueror used his dragons as force multipliers when he took Westeros, and Euron wants to perform the same task. The problem is that Euron is gambling his strategy on securing the dragons and deploying them fast enough to stave off his enemies and force their surrender. He’s enacted his plan before he has the tools required to implement it successfully. That is what is meant by being cavalier about strategy, and why Euron is a poor strategist.

Euron’s game is, and has always been, buying time for him to get his dragon. Victarion took approximately four months to get to Meereen, so he’ll need a little less time to bring a dragon to the east coast of Westeros, assuming that the dragon horn works perfectly. By taking the Shield Islands, he’s fixing the Redwyne and royal eye west instead of east, looking at the Ironborn and not the oncoming dragon that he plans to bring. While this might be considered by some to be a strategic move, remember, Euron doesn’t have the dragon yet. He does not know if his dragon horn will work. And even if it does, he still needs to bring it to Westeros to use it. Euron is all-in, hoping to draw an inside straight because he has no other cards worth playing.

Euron’s first and final objective, by Mathia Arkoniel

This fits Euron’s personality. Openly disdainful of the ironborn, he throws their cultural taboos in their face when he sells the Shielders into slavery and mocks their holiest customs. Euron ultimately doesn’t care about the success of the Ironborn and their taking of the Shields, his purpose is altogether different. He wants his dragon, to dominate and humiliate the world much as he dominates and humiliates Victarion, Lord Hewett, and everyone else he can. His campaign in the southwest looks doomed to fail because Euron doesn’t care whether it succeeds. The taking of the Shields is irrelevant, a sideshow to getting him the dragon and the power that it entails. He’ll let the Reachers fight his ironborn, and throw those lords who so recently opposed him into the grinder to rid himself of past enemies. That campaign will fail because Euron doesn’t care if it succeeds. All that matters is his dragon, and he’s thrown all-in on the hopes that his dragon will be there for him. Those are the moves of a man cavalier about strategy.


Filed under ASOIAF Analysis, ASOIAF Character Analysis, ASOIAF Military Analysis, ASOIAF Political Analysis, Uncategorized

58 responses to “One Black Eye and Ten Long Legs: A Military Analysis of Euron Greyjoy

  1. A brilliant article. I’m still uncertain about Euron’s true motives. He may be intending to conquer, to live the life of a libertine, and there are theories he is working with the Others, perhaps inspired by his similarities to Bloodraven. But I think, like the Bolt-on theory, this is missing the idea that the selfishness of the nobility, such as Boltons, Freys, Lannisters, Tyrells, Renly, Littlefinger, Greyjoys. distracts them from the true threat. Euron is a greedy and cruel libertine, not a master thinker, someone who concocted his plan suddenly and hasn’t though the whole thing through. Poor Quentyn did a decent analysis of Euron and how his plans show opportunism. He may be a good tactician but like Robb Stark he shows some strategic weaknesses, though he’s weaker then Robb. As you pointed out, the plan relies on something he hasn’t got yet, he is very much a gambler, win all or lose all on one thing. That is the mark of a bad strategist.

  2. Sir Theodred of Pennytree

    great essay , but i have a few questions , didnt victarion have some fault in the greyjoy rebelion and not only balon and euron ? he was there he could have given some good advice, and about the taking of oldtown i think the city will be taken or atleast atacked and heavely depleated by the atack, if they can rapidly secure a a gatehouse and flood the city with ironborn it could be done, it doesn t need to be thousands of ironborn a few hundrends or a 1000 could do it, if i had to gess i would say that 1000 ironborn are better then a 1000 city watchmann ironborn are renowned for being great warriors and lets not forget the confusion that could be happening in the city it the docks are on fire, now i dont believe that the hightower will be taken i dont think the hightower family has much to fear , and if i was the ironborn i would take the city burn it or do as much damage as possible and run away to my ships again . Do we know how many soldiers the ironborn have in their atack on the reach 1000,2000,3000 ?

    • somethinglikealawyer

      I’m sure Victarion had some fault as well, but the essay was about Euron and well, no one credits Victarion as a strategic mastermind.

      Flooding a city with people takes longer than you’d expect.

  3. SmilingOwl

    I was reading the bold statement about Euron’s final goal being conquerinv Westeros with dragons, and i was thinking “dont do that, Euron’s statements can’t be trusted!!!” And there ya go. Pure moment of awesomeness 🙂

    Keep it up!

  4. Mike Target

    One thing you forgot, Euron is really repeating history. If you go back to Dunk and Egg books, you see Ironborn fighting in the North and raiding the Reach. They lost then. They’ll lose now.

    Greyjoys seem to crown themselves as kings launch a rebellion whenever the Crown in King’s Landing so much as looks busy.

  5. Stargaryen

    Regarding the numbers of Seamen, I guess I was on the assumption that Euron brought these men with him, they weren’t Iron Islanders, therefore the actual # of Iron Islander men is the men from Victarion’s 100 ships, NOT Euron’s 900 ships. Or am I mistaken?

    • Niall

      Euron only brought the silence with him. The 900 ships is the combined fleet of the Ironborn houses who swore allegiance to Euron. They are the traditional raiding longships the Ironborn have used for centuries. The Iron Fleet is the 100 heavy warships built by Balon for his wars and bound to the Seastone chair itself. Think of it in the same way as the Iron throne has a Royal fleet, but also is overlord of the fleets belonging to all the houses of Westeros.

  6. Grant

    What’s interesting (or baffling) is the lack of memory of how this keeps ending. They have done this more than once since Aegon, and it ends usually the same way. They lose any territory they had, the rest of the Seven at best tolerate them and a lot of them die. Sure there have been reformer kings before, but they keep going back to the idea of ‘while everyone’s busy let’s try to stab them in the back’. And this time Balon started a war that was completely insane shortly after that last insane war he started.

    My absolute best guess is that Balon was one hell of a talker, so good at romanticizing history that they were willing to let themselves be deluded into thinking that this time it would somehow be different.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      It’s common during times of turmoil to focus on glory days, and the Ironborn have a lot of work to do to improve their lot. Their lands aren’t very fertile, after all. It’s easy to blame someone else for a problem and seek your pound of flesh.

      • Grant

        The thing is, most of the Ironborn lords and captains should be able to remember quite well just how badly they lost in the last war, and how much it cost them in goods and lives. Now it’s true that we see at the Kingsmoot that they aren’t so enchanted with the idea of continuing the war as they were to start it, but I think it’s got to be a testament to Balon’s skills that he convinced them to fight at all.

    • Niall

      They don’t have a choice. Their culture is based on the population being controlled by constant warfare and their economy being held up by Thralls. The situation when Balon came to power is that Ironborn cannot fight among themselves and cannot raid the rest of the seven kingdoms. They are not suffering losses in warfare and are not capturing new Thralls. They have to go all the way to the Free cities just to raid, and the logistics of bringing captives back on such a journey is prohibitive. Basically if the Ironborn do not want to starve, they must either start killing each other, start working their own fields, emigrate or start raiding the seven kingdoms again. The only one of these which is acceptable to a leader who wished to remain a leader is raiding the seven kingdoms again, thus war is inevitable. Balons second war done when the seven kingdoms looks like breaking up is actually quite sensible


    “He’ll let the Reachers fight his ironborn, and throw those lords who so recently opposed him into the grinder to rid himself of past enemies.”

    Sounding very Bolton-esque. Mayhaps that was Euron’s real strategy with the Shields?

  8. Will

    Another point that should be brought up re:Euron’s lack of strategic insight – the Ironmen are terrible conventional soldiers. They are excellent sailors, raiders and marines, but their culture, training and equipment make them I’ll-suited to taking large territories or cities. Ironmen train and equip themselves as light infantry. They are minimally armored and focused on speed, agility, and ferocity of engagement. Seaborne fighting would by necessity involve small forces, that while cohesive units with excellent morale and esprit de corps, do not train for set piece battles against large enemy forces. Ironborn are skilled at destroying isolated enemy installations, or larger ones that do not expect to be attacked. Attacking the Reach in any fashion other than raids is utterly foolhardy.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      I’d say they aren’t very good at holding territory. They’re great at raids, the longship can accelerate quickly and land in about a foot of water, meaning that any beach is a potential invasion front, but they are undisciplined forces unused to pitched combat. They’re great at sneak attacks, which explains their initial gains, but they fold quick when facing a talented commander (Stannis as an example)

    • Niall

      I am not sure where you get all that. It is even specifically pointed out in Victarion and his men wear heavy armour in seaborne fighting where his opponents fear to. There is nothing to say they “train and equip themselves” as light infantry. Being both full time warriors and sailors they can no doubt act as light infantry should the need arise but beyond a lack of heavy cavalry for obvious reasons they do not seem to fight any differently than any other house, and are almost certainly more heavily armoured than the levies they would often face, just as was the case with the vikings they are based on. Given their social elite is not fighting on horse back, and that their entire military is essentially professional they are almost certainly the best heavy infantry in westeros. The only thing specific to the ironborn is the dislike of sieges because the Old way favors fighting man to man.

  9. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, any chance of giving us an audio version??

  10. The main problem with this is that Euron NEED to win and preferably win big initially. If not – what is his purpose in the story? Ironborn have weak staying power and can´t take big losses in order to say a threat. So, first of all – Euron will defeat the Redwyne fleet, because from a Doylist perspective he must – in order to be a credible threat. How? Doesn´t matter – he must or his story will end before it had even begun and therefore it doesn´t matter if his strategy is good, it will work for him in the initial stage.

    My guess is therefore that the ironborn will have great success but ultimately failing taking Oldtown. They will act as a stress-factor for the game within Oldtown – the maester conspiracy, the Hightower entrance in “the Game” and the hidden secrets within those learned walls.

    Also, my guess is that, due to their martial culture and GRRM allowing them to do other superhuman feet like rebuilding themselves completely in 10 years, 5% of their population is mobilized from Islands with 500.000 in population, giving them 25.000 troops. I recall seeing a video with Elio saying about the same thing.

    • Kuruharan

      This post touches on a underlying structural issue with story analysis and comparing what happens in the story with what happened or happens in the real world.

      That problem is Martin can write into his story actions and outcomes that make no rational sense or could not happen in the real world but it is driven by the dictates of the story in his head.

      Another example is the Battle of Ice where almost all rational signs point to Stannis winning (at least in the initial stages), but due to the influence of the TV show giving (possibly) giving away part of the story, the idea is growing that Stannis is somehow going to find a way to lose it even though that doesn’t really make a whole lot of sense given what we know.

      Of course, another point to consider that the Ironborn are a weed in Martin’s garden that has grown out of control and he doesn’t have a coherent idea about what to do with them.

      • Sir Theodred of Pennytree

        i am pretty shore stannis will win the battle of ice i think it has been pretty well setup up the way he will do it.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        Martin rarely does that though, just write the desired victory without worrying about the flow of cause and effect.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      Euron may indeed win something big. But it won’t be because of his strategic acumen. Maybe he conjures a thunderstorm and turns the Redwyne Fleet into matchsticks. Maybe his dragon flies to him and he burns them at sail. Neither makes him a competent strategist with conventional forces, which is how he is often portrayed.

      As for being a credible threat, he’s already one. He’s continued the war, distracting the Reach from the greater threat of Aegon VI and the even greater threat of the Others.

      • Sir Theodred of Pennytree

        i think martin s battles are fine i never felt robbed of something or groaned at a result of a battle, they are not perfect but honestly for my experience with other epic fantasy novels martin puts a lot more thinking into these things, althought my experience his not the most extensive.

    • Don’t forget that Obara is determined to attack Oldtown, I could see that being a factor. And GRRM has said that Willas and Garlan are going to save the Reach, so there must be a credible threat, not something like Whispering Woods where they just win automatically.

  11. Ben

    Euron Greyjoy seems to me to be a classic demagogue in the vain of Donald Trump or Mussolini in the sense that he just promises his supporters to conquer the world and riches beyond their wildest imagination, casting aside all doubts and long term thinking. Also he advocates the reductive assumption that if the Ironborn are to win, then everyone else must lose, as opposed to Asha’s more collaborative approach. Like the demagogues of history, only a defeat on the field can burst their little “crazy” bubble and they lose power.

  12. KrimzonStriker

    I feel there’s a little too much underestimating of the Ironborn in order to discredit Euron (who I agree is delusional). All your points against them being able to project the forces you’re talking about, at least initially anyway, might apply against the feudal armies of mainland Westeros. I’m not saying they ARE fielding a 1000 ships and 30,000 men but I do think they could be closer to that number then you may suspect if they really pushed it/scrapped the bottom of the barrel.

    One of your arguments is that the Ironborn could never sustain an army of that size with their likely low population numbers, that even the best bureaucracies, which a decentralized feudal society will not have, could never sustain more then a small percentage of their population as an armed force at any given time. But In many ways I view the Ironborn as almost a sea version of the Dothraki, who have no agriculture period but boast a huge population number centered around a migratory and war-oriented lifestyle. Consider that 7 out of every 10 Ironborn is a fishermen, meaning more then half their population has boats of some kind or another which can in turn be converted/outfitted for war if need be. At the same time that the Ironborn would be enriching their hosts with the plunders of war they’d also be able to have the dual function of all their ships doubling as foragers that draw sustenance from the sea to help feed their armies in the field as Victarion would often do with the Iron Fleet on his journey to Meeren. Shipwrights could in turn serve on board the Ironborn long-ships directly, effecting necessary maintenance through field repairs and scavenging commandeered enemy vessels.

    And the drawbacks of the sparse fertility of the Iron Islands would have a countervailing effect of driving that abnormally high rate of conscription you referred too, even outright volunteering by the boat load as it were, with the appeal of bettering their quality of life through the culturally/societally indoctrinated Old Way. At the same time some of the production drop on the Iron Islands themselves can be offset some by the implementation of thralldom to work the fields and mines while the bulk of the native population is committed to war.

    And to be fair to Euron, Victarion is often credited/blamed for the debacle at Fair Island. Just as we couldn’t give Euron the credit had the Ironborn won that battle we can’t just assign him the blame if he isn’t even mentioned. It’s possible the issue of dealing with the reprisal from the Royal Fleet was simply a division of labor, where Euron was off reaving like Balon’s sons were before pulling back to defend the Isles after Victarion’s/the Iron Fleets defeat. The matter of dealing with the Redwyne Fleet to me seems to fall under a tactical matter anyway ( which you have admitted Euron seems to have a fair hand at given his strategys against the Shields and Lannisport) and not specifically related to Euron’s completely bonkers strategic goals. The odds are stacked against him but Euron DOES have a slim probability of beating the Redwynes out of his/the Ironborns existing/available resources, somehow. I do agree the taking of Oldtowns though is nonsense rumormongering.

    • KrimzonStriker

      Anyway, My main point was that I think you’re making conclusions about the Ironborn without fully taking into consideration how their unique mindset/culture can effect the amount of forces they can field differently from the rest of the Seven Kingdoms.

      • Grant

        The problem there is that would be pretty short term mass war involvement before costs would force them to stop. Food, ship building and materials for the building, weapons etc., the Iron Price method is ill suited for getting them what they need for an extended conflict in contrast to the powers in continental Westeros. Compare that to the Lannisters, who were able to raise fresh forces and a new royal fleet even with problems like a multi-front war, Cersei’s personalist leadership and money problems.

        Whatever use the reaving life might have for being able to bring an armed force to strike quickly, these guys are more well organized pirates than the occupation forces of the Hoare dynasty they romanticize.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Oh no doubt, I never said it wasn’t a short term solution (hence my qualifier of scrapping the barrel) only that I think they theoretically COULD project something close to the forces described initially. But once their initial army/fleet is overcome or receives a high degree of attrition there really wouldn’t be much left in the way of a reserve for them to sustain a war effort like the other kingdoms could. But until someone DOES stop them the Ironborn can likely ride that momentum for a good while given their culture and lifestyle.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        The thing is though, fielding an overly large army isn’t very effective when you use them to attack. If you conscript a bunch of people and make them essentially underwrite themselves, they’ll run out of materiel. Not necessarily food, but their equipment will wear, they’ll sustain losses, some get isolated and unable to reunite with the main force. Field repairs and commandeered equipment is unsustainable on such a large scale. The sword dulls, armor needs repairs, and making people fund themselves forces them further out in search of plunder, minimizing your effective force.

        I’m not neglecting the Ironborn’s culture, I’m just saying that the numbers are too high from a simple matter of population that even with a high conscription ratio to the point where domestic industry collapses, you can’t have that high a number given comparable regions elsewhere. It’s a simple matter of proportion.

    • KrimzonStriker

      But the issues you’re raising are over the long term though, the question was whether or not the Ironborn could CURRENTLY field the forces initially sighted, not on how long this could last. I’m reading through the series again and after the taking of the Shields Rodrik Harlaw does cite that they do have a thousand ships while he’s arguing to Euron they’d lose most of it on the journey to Slavers bay since most of their ships simply do not have the capacity to keep their cohesion and make that long a voyage without resupply, and as you’re pointing out would happen if they tried to an army/fleet that size they’re now spread out raiding all throughout the Reach to try to keep their war machine going. So while your points on how long they could sustain themselves are valid and taking effect in the story, it doesn’t change what appears to be the fact that they HAVE managed to raise such a force, at least for the moment.

      By the current timeline the Ironborn have suffered probably around 500 casualties caused directly from the War of the Fire Kings, between the loses at Moat Calin, Deepwood Motte, and Winterfell. Between the appeal of the Old Way and the fact that a warrior culture permeates throughout their society, along with having many veterans from the Greyjoy Rebellion, with ships available to most everyone in the populace, and the temporary bandage of pilfering enemy armories for weapons, commandeering replacement ships, and indenturing the services of thralls/slaves from their conquests for hard labor like smiting they need either a high rate of attrition over the course of a few years or receive a decisive blow against them before they stop. I once again look at the Ironborn as functioning more like a migratory nomadic horde such as the Dothrakhi rather then a nation state, a people who have no industrial base to speak of but somehow manage to keep the pillaging party going with some hosts in the tens of thousands until or unless someone manages to decisively crush their Khalasars, or they disband on their own because of infighting.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Sorry, I don’t mean by the current timeline, but by the end of their Northern campaign and the beginning of their attack on the Reach.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        I must confess, I’ve read, and re-read the Iron Captain, and I’ve not seen a single ship count anywhere in that chapter. So I can’t say that the Reader said that there was a thousand ships. Only Margaery claimed that number.

      • KrimzonStriker

        “When?” The voice was Lord Rodrik’s. “When shall we return… If a thousand ships set sail set sail, three hundred may reach the far side of the narrow sea”

        Admittedly he doesn’t explicitly say a thousand Ironborn ships but that seems like a rather specific number for him to be citing about what they would be taking on a hypothetical trek to Meeren while matching with Margeary’s claims coincidentally.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        Yeah, I think that’s just a number. The ironborn have greater than 100 ships, and he’s more expressing the danger of the journey.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Ah sorry about the extra ‘set sail’ was doing some editing to cut out extraneous text.

      • KrimzonStriker

        The quote came from the chapter called ‘The Reaver’ btw.

      • KrimzonStriker

        Well why not just say something closer to the actual number they have rather then going to a thousand? Like 500 becomes 200 or something? It’s a big number discrepancy from what we’re proposing they really have to use as a hypothetical example. And while I’m sure he’s probably rounding up as the reports of the Ironborn fleet Margeary is reading from are it seems oddly coincidental they both hit on the same number to describe their fleet.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        A thousand is simply easier. It doesn’t require him to math it out. After all, though, he’s not sending a thousand ships to Meereen. Even before Euron’s announcement, Rodrik will know that they can’t send their entire force to Meereen.

      • KrimzonStriker

        I don’t see how Rodrik could know that they wouldn’t have tried anyway though, the whole point of his argument is to convince Euron they can’t, and given Eurons delusions of grandeur I wouldn’t have put it past him to have tried initially before it blew up in his face. Heck with Euron disposing of his political opposition left and right Rodrik was putting his life on the line to rally the Ironborn against that folly. Sides I don’t see why it’s harder to math out something more in the ballpark of a few hundred if that was all they had, in order for the example to hit home. He got pretty exact in bringing it down to 300 afterall.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        Why do we say X times out of ten in hypothetical examples? Thousands, hundreds, tens, these numbers are easy to math and say in the middle of conversation.

      • KrimzonStriker

        But generally for rounding out an original number/amount. It makes no sense for to use such an exaggerated number as a thousand to describe their own fleet to me, because as you’ve just said, people use numbers in the hundreds, which would work just as well. If there was no actual Ironborn fleet to use as a basis/actual example then sure, the Reader can put out any round number that sounds good to make his point, but surely he doesn’t need to do that since he should how many ships are in the Ironborn fleet parked right outside and would better illustrate to the Ironborn how many of them sitting in that hall would die during the voyage. Even Victarion can count pretty well as he does when having to reconfigure the Iron fleet around its losses and prizes on the way to Meeren, and the Reader’s much smarter than most Ironborn.

      • somethinglikealawyer

        But he already knows that not all of them are going that way.

        I think it’s a zebra moment to say that this must be the troop count, when Rodrik is just using a nice round number. He knows that the Ironborn have more than a hundred ships, so a thousand is the next largest answer.

      • KrimzonStriker

        What do you mean he knows they’re all not going exactly? This is Euron we’re talking about, and he seemed pretty determined to try and take almost their entire fleet based on his responses to the Reader initially?

      • somethinglikealawyer

        They’re just going to take every fighter and boat they have to Meereen? Plus, they don’t have a thousand ships, as I’ve outlined in the original article.

      • KrimzonStriker

        I doubt any garrisons Euron left behind on the Shields would have substantially taken anything away from the total fleet, anymore then the garrisons at Moat Calin, Deepwood Motte, or Tohrren’s Square left behind in the North. And like the North, along your own point of putting former political opponents in charge of the Shields, I can see Euron abandoning them just as easily to get his dragons. Asha also made a point that Euron had basically emptied the Iron Islands of everyone other then Anvil Maker’s men who are hunting down Damphair. I can also imagine dragon fever being close enough to a crusading mentality to carry a good chunk of the Ironborn populace along for the ride.

      • While it is a romantic thought, Ironborn as seafaring Dothraki, the seas of Westeros I fear are insufficient to sustain inflated numbers in the way the Dothraki are able. While you make fair and astute comparison between the two cultures, there simply is not the formal economy for the Ironborn with which the Dothraki enjoy. The Dothraki economy thrives based upon an established and reliable trade with the other free-cities. I fail to name a single place that has the same arrangement with the Ironborn. A sufficiently large Dothraki hoard can demand goods without any bloodletting and regularly trades with the free-cities. I hypothesize that a more in-depth contrasting of the economies of the two cultures would need to be completed before you could even begin considering that Iron born could, based on cultural practices, raise a substantial force. Basically, the Dothraki are being subsidized by their neighbors, whose own economies are being bolstered by slave economics. Their is substantial spatial spillover effects which would not be available to the Iron Born.

  13. Kelly T

    Secret Targaryen (or Blackfyre) theories are a dime a dozen but Euron seems a likely candidate. Behavior-wise he’s a dead ringer for Aerion but with perhaps a bit more iron in his blood. The infatuation with dragons fits the mold as well though dragons as a means to and end is reasonable though he seems lacking that end, as his strategy to conquering Westeros seems a bit off. Physiologically he has that sky blue eye that fits the blood of the dragon mold, if nothing else. Though it is something that is not readily accounted for given his known lineage. There is a Blackfyre link between the houses, Torwyn Greyjoy I believe, that could possibly be of note. Maybe he was given one of Daemon’s daughters in return for a blood oath and is related to Euron? I don’t know just trying to see what puzzle pieces fit where. Could this give explanation to Lord Quellon’s reluctance to return to the Old Ways?

  14. Pingback: The Ravenry: Week of 2/22/2016 | Wars and Politics of Ice and Fire

  15. Niall

    To be honest I think much of the numbers issue has come from Martins use of the Vikings as a template for the Ironborn but then altering the culture. The Vikings (like other raiding cultures) did not maintain full time soldiers, there was no need to support a mobilisation. Vikings were subsistance farmers who supplemented their income with raiding. As such a very large proportion of the population could be involved in warfare in raiding season, far in excess of the 1% you talk of in more civilised lands. The Iron islands are similar in size and topography to the western fjordland of Norway or Denmark and larger than Gotland, or the Kingdom of the isles, all of which could indeed on the rare occasions they mobilised for war under a common leader put together 5-20k troops from far less than 3 million total population even after centuries of emigration to England, Ireland and France.

    The problem comes from the element of the ironborn culture which is not viking. The dependence on Thralls for food production. Martin probably did this to allow the ironborn to campaign outside of and beyond a traditional campaigning season. Vikings who don’t need to worry about going home for harvest seem a more powerful force. What it does however is effectively double or even triple the population needed to support a certain size of military. The Thrall population on the islands needs to be self sustaining while also producing the food to support the Ironborn when they come home. Where one man could produce for his family and still have a raiding season you now have one man available for combat all year but probably requiring excess food production from several Thrall families.

    This gets further complicated by what exactly is the status of a freed Thrall or the child of a Thrall who has been drowned. If they become Ironborn and do not work the land then that coupled with the ban on Ironborn internal warfare (population control) or raiding Westeros (gaining new Thralls) means the Ironborn must be heavily overpopulating the islands. One could argue Balon Greyjoys rebellions are a necessity forced on him by an increasing ironborn population and decreasing Thrall population (in fact no Thralls before Balon came to power). It seems all the Greyjoys recognise this factor, though Euron is clearly working to a different agenda.

    Finally the ironborn are allowed to produce food through fishing, and if they have access to great fisheries this massively increases the population able to be supported. If they have the Westerosi equivalent of the medieval Cod trade (started by the vikings) they could be an economic powerhouse even. Culture seems to suggest the ironborn do not care for fishing however, and certainly not the economic exploitation of fishing.

    So yeah I think Martin intends the Iron Islands to be able to field the 20-30k numbers mentioned but has not fully thought through the population dynamics needed to support that. 30k ironborn men of fighting age effectively means a population of 200k Ironborn at the very least once you include the old, infirm, rock wives and children, probably more like 3-400k. That Ironborn population will need at least the same again population of Thralls to support it, plus whatever Thralls do the “mining” that is mentioned plus more Thralls to produce food for the miners. So you are looking at at least a population of 1 million. To put that in context 11th century England is thought to have a population of around 1.5 – 2 million on 5 or 6 times the land area of the iron islands consisting of good agricultural value and very will implemented exploitation. Scotland which covered a similar area to England at the time but of much poorer agricultural land and less organised exploitation could only support half this at 0.5-1 million people.

    When the Kingdoms England and Scotland fought at Bannockburn 200 years later their populations had more than doubled from this level (soon to be halved again by the black death), yet the Ironborn (if they could field 30k troops) would have outnumbered their combined armies on the day by close to two to one.

  16. TheSmilingKnight

    I think both Euron and Victarion are red herrings. Get it? The bloody fish?
    Both are pompous overblown characters that attract attention and superficial fame, yet neither of them has any large role to play in the story of Ice and Fire. They are merely tools.
    And so destined to serve a purpose and then fail.
    Of course Euron will never get his dragon. Just as Victaron will never get his wife or his Dragons. All he is there for is to provide Daenerys with a fleet.
    And so fulfill the prophecies given to Daenerys by Quaithe and seen in the house of Undying.
    “A corpse standing at the prow of a ship with bright eyes and grey smiling lips.”

    “To go north, you must go south. To reach the west, you must go east. To go forward you must go back, and to touch the light you must pass beneath the shadow.”

    It is not a certainty but this may have a literal meaning, since Quaithe did call Daenerys to go to the Shadow of Ashai, where she will learn the “truth”.
    And then she may as well sail around the world to come to Westeros from a completely different angle then anyone expects.

    Euron probably has one more trick up his sleeve, just to keep the appearances. Remember, he had a warlock with him (i think) and did have purple lips like Warlocks do. But it wont amount to much one way or another.

  17. Arnt Foseide

    I am sorry, I canno agree to the numbers you state in your article. Look at the vikings, which the Greyjoys clearly seem to be based on, in some ways with spectacular similarity. In Norway, my country, the population was assumed to be as low as 100 000( but sure, some claim around 200 000), and the fleet was collectively at 310 ships. This does not account for ‘privately owned’ ships, which were common and could increase the total amount to as much as 500 ships.

    By comparing with the Roman Empire you are making alot of assumptions that are unlikely to hold up, the Greyjoys and our Vikings were far more warlike, as well as having far lower health care-standards, so the generic inhabitant of Norway would be far younger and more skilled at war than the average Roman.

    I am sorry that most of my sources for this is are in my native Norwegian, or I would point you to a number of enlightening texts.

    • somethinglikealawyer

      According to contemporary sources, Cao Cao had 800,000 people at Red Cliffs, and modern historians know that it wasn’t true. It was a very common practice to record far more people engaged in action than present. The Siege of Paris, for example, records at most 700 ships. Sorry, it’s simply too far-fetched, especially given the other hints we receive in the text.

  18. Björn Ironside

    Some interesting points to be sure.
    However let me make thus abundantly clear. THE IRON ILSES ARE NOT EQUAL TO ROME. Pardon me for yelling. But that comparison actually made me die laughing. If you look at any piece of literature you will find that Vikings oft used their women in raids. And unlike settled agricultural cities like Rome the Vikings or the Iron Born didn’t need to bring the harvest in. That is the job of a thrall. Most of their war material was taken.

    But again good points. May I also point to the somewhat recently released Aeron Damphair chapter for Winds of Winter. Counters alot of your points. Thanks. Feel free to chime in.

  19. aldariontelcontar

    Reblogged this on Military Fantasy and commented:
    Iron Islands are suggested to have a thousand ships. While it is true that, as pointed out by Blackfish, “Even the great bureaucratic machines of Rome couldn’t afford to keep more than 1% of their population mobilized”, reason for this lies in the nature of Roman military at the time. It was a fully professional standing army – men who had no job other than fighting. Much later, after Islamic invasions of 7th century, Roman military restructured itself on a semi-professional thematic model: each soldier was also a landowner, and used these lands to support himself. With this model, 11th century Roman military managed to field a total of 250 000 soldiers of ground force and at least additional 42 000 of the navy (this number is for 899). With population of 12 million, this comes to 2,4% of total populace. China during Tang dynasty managed to field army that was 1/65 of populace (or 1,5%). In 840, Roman army fielded 120 000 soldiers out of populace of 8 million as well as ~40 000 men in navy, for a total of 150 000 – 160 000 men, or 1,9 – 2% of populace. In the West, Alfred of Wessex could sustain 5 000 mounted troops out of 450 000 populace (1,1%).

    However, Iron Islands are based neither on ancient Rome nor on its Medieval iteration. They are, if anything, Vikings of Westeros. Now, in AD 1000, Norway had 200 000 total populace, Sweden 500 000 and Denmark 400 000. However, only Norwegians and Danes raided British isles (600 000 total). Now, raids could be anywhere from 3 to 30 ships; largest raid – Canterburry and London in in 850s – involved 350 ships, which would mean an army of 10 000 at least (at 30 – 40 per ship, it would come out to 10 000 – 14 000 men). This means mobilization rate of 1,7% – 2,3%; but it is unlikely both Norwegian and Danish Vikings were in the raid, so number could be as high as 7%. Paris raid had 300 boars carrying 6 000 – 8 000 men (20 – 25 per boat); so 350-ship-raid would still mean at least 7 000 men, or 1,2% of populace.

    Of course, short-term defensive mobilization of poorly-trained militia can and did reach 10% of total populace, but that is not what we are looking at here. So using numbers suggested in the post, that is 30 000 seamen in total, we are looking at total population of anywhere between 430 000 and 1 500 000. Fact still remains that Iron Islands almost certainly do not have that kind of population – in fact, a number fifth to tenth of that is more likely. If wall is 300 miles in length, total area of Iron Islands cannot be more than 10 000 square miles. Assuming population density of 4 people per square mile – a likely number, considering Iron Islands’ historical model and apparently not very good living conditions – total population would be 40 000 people. Even high-end population density of 32 people per square mile (~12 per square kilometer), only historically achieved in Mediterranean societies, still results in total population of 320 000 people. This means that – using high mobilization rate of 7% and low crew of 20 per boat – absolutely largest number of warships that Iron Islands can mobilize comes out to 1 120. However, actually reasonable number is 2 800 men and 140 ships.

    Links for details:

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s