The worst acts of destruction in history have often been defended in moral terms. The taboo against killing innocent people proves violable enough when the cause is carrying out eye-for-an-eye justice (Alexander the Great sacking Persepolis in supposed revenge for Xerxes’s burning of the Acropolis) or forcing a swift peace (the United States’ atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki). The chilling logic that has been used to portray the razing of entire cities as enlightenment can sound a lot like what Daenerys Targaryen said on Sunday’s Game of Thrones: that “our mercy” is “toward future generations who will never again be held hostage by a tyrant.”
To viewers, Daenerys’s decision to obliterate the Westerosi capital of King’s Landing, a seaside city of 1 million people, would seem to transform her into “the Mad Queen.” After her army’s successful breaching of the city walls with the help of her dragon, the defending Lannister forces surrendered. Yet Khaleesi continued raining fire on men, women, and children indiscriminately. These are cruel acts, and they may have a purpose: Lords who would otherwise be unlikely to support a foreign invader, especially when news has spread of Jon Snow’s hereditary claim to the Iron Throne, must now fear that if they resist Dany, they’ll end up as ashes, too.
Possibly the most divisive episode in Thrones history, “The Bells” was redolent with reminders of real-world history: the Dresden firebombing, Vesuvius’s mass charring of bodies, Hitler and Eva Braun’s bunker death, and even the recent rubble of Aleppo. Conquering soldiers took license to rape and slaughter civilians, just as they have throughout humankind’s existence. Looking for more historical context on scorched-earth generals like Daenerys, I spoke with Barry Strauss, a historian at Cornell University who specializes in leaders of the ancient world. His most recent book is Ten Caesars: Roman Emperors From Augustus to Constantine. This conversation has been edited for clarity.
Spencer Kornhaber: Does the destruction of King’s Landing remind you of any episodes from history?
Barry Strauss: Historically, if people surrender when they’re approached by the enemy forces, they’re supposed to be treated humanely. If they resist, then the attacking army has the right to sack them and destroy them. This sounds like it’s in between. [The forces of King’s Landing] did resist, and when they realized it wasn’t going their way, they surrendered. That doesn’t put the defenders in a very strong position. Defeated cities in sieges are not a place you want to be.
There’s an infamous example in the Peloponnesian War: the island of Melos. The Athenians ask them to surrender, and leadership refuses and submits to a siege instead. The people of Melos are defeated—they don’t surrender—and then the Athenians kill all the men and enslave all the women and children.
Kornhaber: Viewers are now debating why Dany showed no mercy. When a place is defeated in a siege, has what happens next typically been thought of as a moral question for the conqueror? Or more of a strategic question?
Strauss: Unless the conqueror is completely bloodthirsty and not very intelligent, they’d always have strategic questions: How can we make this work for us? In the ancient world in particular, they don’t want to massacre most of the people, because they can enslave them. It’d be like destroying property. In the example I gave you in Melos, the Athenians massacred the men but they enslaved the children. So they’re making their point, they’re getting their revenge, but they’re also making a profit.
Kornhaber: When you say they’re making a point by massacring the men, what is that point?
Strauss: “Don’t mess with us!”
In Thucydides’s history of the Peloponnesian War, the Athenians famously debate the very question you just asked [about the point of brutality], because there’s an earlier example [than Melos] of a city that does surrender. There’s a siege of the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesbos. They hold out for a number of months and then realize they’re going to lose. It’s a city that’s run by an oligarchy and they don’t want to arm the common man till the last minute, because they don’t trust the common man. When they do arm the common man, the common man says, “Hey, we’re starving. Let’s surrender to Athens.” So they do.
Now the question is: What should the Athenians do? The Athenian assembly says, “Surrender, shmender. They’re all guilty. Let’s massacre all the men and enslave the women and children.” The next morning, they have a change of heart and debate it. One hard-line speaker says, “As a matter of justice, we need to kill all of the men because they did great harm to our city.” The next speaker says, “As a pragmatic matter, we should not kill them. If we kill all their men, then future rebels will never surrender and always fight to the death.” If you lay siege to a city, the only way to win is to starve them out, which takes a long time and is hard on you. So the higher wisdom is to spare them, not because we’re humane, but because this’ll serve our purposes later.
Thucydides is telling this story because he wants the readers to see how horrifying this is. Athens has become so brutalized by war that nobody can get up to say, “This is an atrocity! We’re good guys. We don’t do things like that!”
So that’s an example of a city that sounds a lot like King’s Landing. They resisted, and then they surrendered, and then the Athenians debated what to do before deciding for pragmatic reasons not to carry out a massacre. They still end up executing 1,000 men. It’d be nice if we knew what the population of the city was at the time, but we don’t. We figure that 1,000 men is a lot—10 percent of the adult-male population, maybe 20 percent? The bottom line is that in warfare in the ancient world, even if you surrender, your future’s not going to be a happy one.
Kornhaber: Dany might hope that her show of force will keep the other kingdoms from resisting her now. The concept of “Don’t mess with us”—of being brutal for the sake of deterrence—did it work in the ancient world?
Strauss: Sometimes yes and sometimes no. The Athenians were unpopular, and later they suffer a big defeat in Sicily. Their enemy, the Spartans, raises the flag of rebellion and many city-states rebel against Athens. Those rebels weren’t deterred.
In the case of the Romans, who were a lot more brutal than the Athenians and were able to bring much greater military power to bear, deterrence was generally more effective. But never 100 percent. Not many states are going to wake up one morning and go, “I’m sick of Rome, let’s rebel.” But if Hannibal and the Carthaginian army show up and say, “Hey, let’s rebel against Rome,” then in spite of Rome’s reputation for brutality, there are people who do rebel.
Kornhaber: Are there cases of brutality like this backfiring on conquerers because their own people decide the ruler is unjust or insane? Dany will now be seen as a mad queen and have to worry about dissent on her own side.
Strauss: Yes. Caesar is exceptionally brutal when he conquers Gaul. He ends up bragging that he killed a million men and enslaved a million civilians. One of Caesar’s political opponents at home says that Caesar’s behavior is so immoral that he should be arrested and handed over to the Gauls so they could do with him what they want. That doesn’t happen. But many Romans are convinced by Caesar’s behavior in Gaul that he’s a tyrant. At least indirectly, it’s one of the reasons why he’s assassinated in the end.
In the case of Athens, there are two revolutions against democracy in favor of a more oligarchic regime. They have many complaints against democracy. One is that democracy puts the mob in control, and the mob engages in atrocities. Euripides in Athens writes a play called The Trojan Women, which focuses on the women of Troy after Troy is captured. The play is seen as a commentary on the atrocities that Athens is carrying out in the Peloponnesian War, so it’s clear that there are people in Athens who think it’s immoral.
Kornhaber: Dany has long talked about her conquest by saying that she’s going to bring about a more just, liberated world. She does what she does for the mercy of future generations. Is that a rationale you hear throughout history to justify atrocities?
Strauss: An example where they specifically say that people will understand us later? Honestly, that sounds like the Nazis.
For the Romans and Greeks, it’s understood that they’re doing this for the good of their society and that sometimes it’s necessary to be brutal in war. Pericles, in his funeral oration, which was the model for the Gettysburg Address, says that we’re fighting for democracy. He talks in great detail about freedom and equality and the good life. But he doesn’t specifically say that justifies massacring civilians. I can’t think of any specific examples where the Greeks or Romans would say, “It’s a terrible thing we are doing, but it’s for the greater good.” There were also protests. Tacitus, the Roman writer, comments famously, “They make a desert and call it peace.”
Kornhaber: The Greeks and Romans didn’t have Dany’s dragon fire, which more resembles modern aerial weaponry. Can you speak to how considerations about mercy and brutality play out in modern warfare, once you have firebombing and the potential of nuclear annihilation?
Strauss: The lesson that slowly seeped in after World War II is that the use of terrible technological weapons should no longer be disproportionate. People should try to spare civilians as much as possible. Of course, in World War II, firebombing creates tremendous massacres of civilians. It was justified at the time by saying that terror would end the war more quickly.
In more recent years, we now have the technology where you can do pinpoint bombing. Maybe that’s still a misnomer, but it’s much easier to spare civilians now than then. But not every country does. When the Russians put down the Chechen rebellion, they pretty much flattened the city of Grozny. They weren’t being very careful about who they spared and who they didn’t. So you still see considerable brutality in warfare.
Kornhaber: Dany’s conquest recalls the paradigm of mutually assured destruction to some extent, no? Or at least the rest of the realm now knows they’re going to get nuked by a dragon if they rise up.
Strauss: Mutually assured destruction did work. It had a salutary effect of keeping the great powers from making war on each other. Of course, it didn’t prevent war at the margins, and many civilians were killed in those wars. But it did at least prevent general war in Europe between the Soviets and the Americans.
Kornhaber: Stepping back as a Thrones viewer and a historian, is there any particular historical figure you’ve thought about a lot with Dany?
Strauss: She certainly is a reminder of the Roman stereotype of Cleopatra. Cleopatra is presented as the evil seductress and the mad queen. The real Cleopatra was a much, much shrewder operator, more in control of things, and more careful than [what] we get [in depictions] from the Romans or in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra.
The good Daenerys is a reminder of Joan of Arc. Or of Boudica, the great British rebel against the Romans who rallies her people to fight for their freedom. Boudica was not averse to using violence against civilians: She burns down the Roman capital of Londinium, after all.