Sultans, Red Weddings, and Stern Measures

Sultans, Red Weddings, and Stern Measures


Hard men are sometimes called upon to do distasteful things that the soft and foolish reprehend as treacherous and cruel. Tywin Lannister encouraged Walder Frey to murder guests he’d taken under his own roof and with whom he’d broken bread. Within his own circle, he was unapologetic:

Explain to me why it’s nobler for ten thousand men to die in battle than for a dozen to be killed at dinner.

He’d committed an outrage against all the laws of gods and men, something abominable and unforgivable, but in so doing he’d taken a few lives to save many. In fairness, he was not so disingenuous as to claim he’d been moved by tenderness. He went ahead with an atrocity to end a war and strike down foes that were a grave threat to his family. He didn’t care about the fate of foot-soldiers, either his or the Starks. He did care about the survival of his house and his heirs. His daughter and grandson may gloat but he remained grim, understanding that odium will always attach itself to such treachery but still willing to bear that odium.

There is a dour altruism in paying an awful price to buy life and peace, but that altruism is merely folly if the price doesn’t yield the projected return. The blood is spilled and the price is paid irrevocably and finally; the blessings, however, are all to follow. Will they follow?

The object was to teach his enemies a lesson. Let the Northerners remember what happens when they march against the South. Their failure is assured and the penalties will be dreadful. The induction should be simple and obvious, but different minds may trace the same premises to very different conclusions. In reviewing their disasters and defeats, even the downtrodden will find some excuse, some extenuation, and they are sure that one small correction will lead to victory and the retrieval of their fortunes.

If the vanquished owe their defeat to being outwitted or betrayed, if they can ascribe their failures to bad luck, they will easily convince themselves that this time they’ve learned, this time they won’t make the same mistakes, this time they will win. Only the most daunting and inarguable arithmetic can surely and perpetually dismay a defeated yet still formidable foe that further resistance is futile. Only if they see that they must pit hundreds against thousands, knives against guns, boys against men, will they submit.

Tywin seeks to inflict suffering and loss so bitter that his foes will never dare to face him or his again. Yet men and women feel fairness and unfairness more keenly than good or ill. A solitary animal will want a warm, dry den and a full belly but a social animal will compare his lot with his fellows. Men and women are social animals not solitary ones, and while they want comfort, pleasure, and nourishment, they want to have their due share of these even more. If they have food and shelter, they will still be dissatisfied if others have more for no good reason. They will readily lose some if their rivals lose more.

No true utilitarian can ever be envious but human beings are envious. In our depths, we are more envious than we are covetous. We want more, but we also want our neighbors to have less. If we harbor such rancor for our neighbors what may we be willing to suffer to harm our enemies? We will plunge down into perdition if we can drag those we hate down with us. The winds in Europe blow from west to east, but in the First World War it was the Germans who first unleashed poison gas. Stymied and furious, and giving no thought what they were bringing down on themselves, they broke open the pestilential vials and the cloud of poison crawled over to the French lines. The Allies had hesitated to use so noxious a weapon, but the barrier had fallen, the seal was broken, and from then on, the winds wafted their own deadly clouds into the strongholds of the Germans and held the enemy poison off.

To a rational mind it is the numbers that tell. Poets and boys may want to festoon war with nonsense like honor, but that’s like frilling iron with lace. Shrewd men, hard men, know that it’s resources and money that win wars. Yet to go to war is in itself irrational. Whether it’s because they’re deluded, foolish, or just spiteful, men will hurl themselves to destruction against all odds and all reason. We are too mad and too unpredictable to be so easily cowed or predicted.

It was customary among the Ottoman Turks for the Sultan who’d just taken the throne upon the death of his predecessor to execute every other claimant. These murders were lamentable but they were preferable to the civil wars that would have resulted from the contention of several aspiring Sultans. This custom sacrificed fewer than a dozen to save thousands.

This purge followed every accession and so it came to be anticipated. Mustapha, the presumed successor to Suleiman, the greatest of all the Sultans that had come before and who came after, had been borne by his favored concubine Gulbehar. Yet despite her proven fertility and long-standing affection, she was ultimately replaced in the Sultan’s heart by a newcomer named Roxelana. Roxelana had two sons of her own with Suleiman and she knew that when he died and Mustapha took the crown, they both were doomed. If they were to live, Mustapha must die. Sharing Suleiman’s bed and his counsels, she had many opportunities to bring the father to fear the son as a usurper.

Old and infirm, Suleiman had remained behind in the capital while Mustapha led the armies. As they lay together, Roxelana murmured to him of Mustapha’s great ability and popularity with the troops. Suleiman’s Vizier, a man Roxelana had raised to power, seconded her warnings and reported that the soldiers were more than ready to cast off a Sultan who could barely mount a horse and kept to his seraglio with one much younger, stronger, and already with them in the field. Suleiman became fearful and wondered why Mustapha would squander the most promising seasons of his reign waiting for his aged father to die on his own when his rule might begin at once.

Roused to action, Suleiman gathered a host and set forth. He made camp at Eregli and summoned his son and heir. Mustapha’s friends and followers begged him not to go but he answered that if he were to lose his life he can do no better than give it back to him from whom he’d received it. He obediently went to his father’s pavilion where he was met instead by three mutes with bowstrings and strangled.

Since it had become plain that the question of the succession was to be decided while the Sultan yet lived, Roxelana’s two sons were soon battling. They fought and the cruel and debauched Selim triumphed over the amiable and capable Bayezid. The decision of battle had awarded the throne to Selim and for the peace of the Empire, Bayezid had to die. The fugitive had taken refuge in the court of the Shah of Persia, and after extended negotiations, Suleiman was obliged to pay his arch-enemy an enormous sum for the privilege of executing his own son.

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