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Night's Watch - Historical Analogies

Continuing my completely non expert illustrated wander through the possible historical back stories of Game of Thrones I arrive at the base of the wall to consider what historical organisation were the Night's watch based on?

The Romans

The first thing that springs to mind is obviously The Romans manning the outer defences of the empire such as Hadrian's Wall or the Rhine defences (see article on the Free Folk here). Most people know that the walls and various defences were built by Legionaries but were not manned by them. Instead Auxiliary units from all over the Empire were used to man the defences. As an example Birdoswald fort on Hadrians wall was manned mainly by Dacians from modern Romania whilst there were about 70 different Auxiliary units in Brittannia in AD 150 from just about everywhere in the Empire except Britain. Briton Auxiliaries were sent away to places such as Pannonia, Moesia and Dacia to name a few!

This is an interesting reversal of the situation in Westeros where the Builders are not the elite military as the Legionaries were initially in the Roman Army.

Watch Builders with Crossbows

and with Roman Scorpions...

Like the Watch these men were in it for the long term with a 25 year service period and not allowed to marry (officially) until there service was done - although as they were often stationed in the same location for many years, unless on campaign, it would seem likely there was plenty of 'fraternisation' and settling of families outside the forts in the nearby Vicus. During their service they were subject to Roman Army rules and regulations and were probably as well trained and equipped as legionaries by the second century. At the end of their 25 years if they survived they were awarded Roman citizenship which passed to their children thus Romanising both the original troops and the area in which they then settled.

So on the surface there are similarities to the watch however there are differences. Firstly whilst petty criminals could be accepted those going to trial for major crimes could not so rapists, murderers etc would be ineligible. Secondly as mentioned above there was certainly significant intermarriage of Auxiliaries with local natives and on retirement most Auxiliaries probably settled wherever they were posted. This excerpt from Current Archaeology as an example..

"it was an infantryman, Lucco, son of Trenus, who was undoubtedly the most fortunate. He survived the harsh realities of three Pannonian Wars (AD 92-95), and then the inferno of the First Dacian War (AD 101-102). With the sort of luck that must have felt like divine intervention, Lucco missed combat in the Second Dacian War (AD 105-106) by mere months; he was discharged from the army in January AD 105, just before hostilities commenced. On his retirement, he settled in the lands of the Azali, near modern-day Szo˝ny in Hungary, alongside members of the tribe of his wife, Tutula, daughter of Breucus, and their three children: Similus, Lucca, and Pacata."

or here where we have the tombstone for the son of the Dacian's commander at Birdoswald...

So it would seem a little less harsh than the Watch on relations with locals....

The Military Orders

Born out of the Crusades after 1099 AD the military orders were largely created initially to help and defend the pilgrims visiting the Holy Lands. These were the Knights Hospitaller, Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights. Without going into great detail all three Orders had similar monastic rules including poverty and chastity and all became powerful guardians of the frontiers, first in the Holy Lands against Islam then against generic non Christians in Eastern Europe, then against Islam again on Rhodes and Malta...

All wore distinctive uniforms the Hospitallers wearing Black and the Templars adopted beards apparently!

As religious fanatics they were known for their battlefield ferocity and were bound not to surrender until the last Military order banner fell. They were the shock troops of Crusades and built powerful fortresses from which to dominate their areas whether Krak des Chevaliers in modern Syria

or Malborg Castle in Eastern Europe.

These Military Orders became enormously wealthy and influential as they were seen as protectors of Christendom even though they were literally hundreds of miles from Rome, Paris or London. This sounds very much like the Watch in the pre Game of Thrones era. A force of almost religious knights respected and supported in their ascetic life by all the kingdoms they protected from afar. It was a place where honourable but frankly surplus younger sons could be sent to live out a useful life.

However like the Watch the Military Orders went into decline as interest in Crusading fell and fear of their wealth and influence increased. As most people know King Philip IV of France had the Templars destroyed and their assets seized in the early 14th century. The Hospitallers were driven from the Holy Lands thence from Cyprus and Rhodes by Islamic Sultans until finally making their last and successful stand on Malta in the late 16th Century. There they continued until Napoleon put an end to them in the 1790s - a shadow of their former glory.

Even the Teutonic Knights after several centuries slaughtering random East Europeans in the name of Jesus, were ousted from their spiritual home of Prussia in 1525, remaining only as a rump scattered across the Holy Roman Empire.

Like the Watch, as the threats they had defended Europe from seemed to fade from the forefront of peoples' minds so they became diminished in wealth and personnel. Forever calling for aid which hardly ever arrived. In the case of the Templars being entirely extinguished. Like the Watch when the threat reappeared in the 16th century the Hospitallers of Rhodes and Malta fought valiantly to halt it being virtually destroyed in the process.

Finally a few books touching on these ramblings!

Hadrians wall in the time of the Romans - Embleton - Classic

Empires of the Sea - Roger Crowley - Epic read about the Hospitallers, the sieges of Rhodes and Malta and the Battle of Lepanto

Crusaders - Dan Jones - say no more

Holy Warriors - Jonathan Phillips - good on motivations of 'holy warriors'

The Teutonic Knights - William Urban - military history of Eastern European campaigns


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