Keeping Hostages can be Dangerous in Game of Thrones and in the Real World

Keeping Hostages can be Dangerous in Game of Thrones and in the Real World


Theon Greyjoy captured Winterfell, the greatest castle of the North, with only twenty men. How did Theon, a man not otherwise notable for his exploits, perform such an amazing feat of arms? Theon was able to decoy the Starks and then seize their seat because, as their former hostage, he knew them so well. He was sure that if he besieged Torren’s Square, the Starks would feel bound to defend their vassals and the bulk of their forces would be dispatched to raise the siege. After scaling the walls of the now nearly undefended Winterfell with grappling hooks, Theon and three others moved to the postern gate turret and killed the oscitant guard Alebelly. Inside the walls and as yet undetected, they opened the main gate for the remainder of their force. Because he was raised in Winterfell and grew up among the Starks, Theon knew exactly how Bran and Rodrik Cassel would react and with this knowledge he could decoy them with the feint on Torren’s Square and penetrate the weakest points in the defenses of the fortress itself.

There have been occasions throughout history when a former hostage who spent his childhood among a fighting force, previously deemed invincible, was able to overcome them because of this experience. Philip, one of the princes of Macedon, was sent to live as a hostage in Thebes as a guarantee of his father’s good behavior. While there, he was instructed in the use of the phalanx by the greatest military leaders in Greece, Epaminondas, Pelopidas, and Pammenes. No other military formation could stand up against the mass of overlapping shields and the bristle of spears that was the phalanx. The Greeks had used it to throw Darius’ army of invasion back into the sea. Another phalanx held the pass at Thermopylae against nearly a hundred times their number of Persians. The Persian army, unable to dislodge the Greeks within the narrow confines of the pass, could only overwhelm the puny force opposing them after circling around and surrounding them. An army of hoplites later destroyed these same invaders at Plataea. A contingent of Greek mercenaries stranded in the heart of the Persian Empire marched through hundreds of miles to reach the sea and freedom, cutting through Persians, Medes, Armenians, Chalybians and innumerable tribesmen as they went.

Philip learned the uses of the phalanx, and upon returning home and ascending the throne, he improved upon them. He lengthened the spear into the sarissa, over twenty feet long and carried by several men so that the points were staggered into rank upon rank. His phalangites were conscripted to serve full-time rather than just part of the year, and they were drilled ceaselessly. Leading this new army he’d created, Philip conquered the Greeks and at Chaeronea he crushed the same Theban’s who’d been his captors and his tutors.

Successful warriors may be figures of dread to strangers or enemies, but a prolonged familiarity will dispel this fear and sense of awe. The often overlooked but observant gaze of the child hostage will take in these warriors as they get drunk, fart, trip, scratch themselves, vomit, squabble, and fall into the countless errors and foibles common to all humans. The hostage will learn to skirt their strengths and attack their weaknesses.

Flavius Aetius, a noble Roman given over as a hostage to the Huns, rode with them, learned to fire the composite bow, became familiar with their method of fighting, and met the nephew of their leader, Attila. Aetius later became general of the Western Roman armies and Attila succeeded to the leadership of the Huns. Attila led his horde against the Eastern Roman Empire again and again, until, their livestock seized, their treasures looted, and their population dwindling, these eastern lands were still incapable of repelling an invader but they were now bereft of anything that could entice one. Turning to the Western Roman Empire, the Huns crossed the Rhine and entered Gaul, sacking Trier, Metz, Cambrai, and Rheims, but bypassing Paris as too small and poor to be bothered with.

It was Aetius who lead the Roman army sent to meet him. The Roman general made an alliance with Theodoric king of the Visigoths and their combined army fought Attila and his Germanic allies at Chalons. The battlefield was flat and empty, perfect for light cavalry but one hill on the left of the Hunnish position was quickly occupied by Visigoth heavy cavalry, and it was a charge from this height that won the battle. Using their speed and mobility, the Huns extricated themselves and retreated into their camp. The encampment was fortified by a ring of wagons but there was no hope of victory or even escape. Faced with defeat but unwilling to be taken alive, Attila ordered a great funeral pyre to be collected, determined to burn himself alive before being captured.


Preferring two barbarian nations that were sure to tear at one another, rather than one barbaric power supreme on the European continent and soon to overwhelm the tottering Roman Empire, Aetius now strove to save the Huns from annihilation. Theodoric having been killed during the battle, his son Thorismund was now king and Aetius advised him to rush back to his own capital, representing that his brothers were plotting to seize the crown for themselves. This disingenuous counsel was heeded and Attila was permitted to retreat across the Rhine. For the next two years, he continued to maraud and pillage before dying of an aneurism on his wedding night, much to the alarm of his fearful young bride.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *