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How do the Ironborn still have such a strong military?

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It's worth mentioning that the Ironborn did not sustain heavy, major losses during the War of the Five Kings. They were able to invade, pillage and occupy the undermanned, weakened North in a blitzkrieg that no one saw coming. And as most of the North's strength was south of Neck with Robb Stark or on the other side of the continent standing their ground, the Ironborn had no real organized opposition. That's not saying that they haven't had losses.

But outside of Theon, there have been no major casualties. Everything has been minor. And no, Balon doesn't count because his death has very little to do with the War of the Five Kings.

 

I also have to point out that the the Ironborn culture has this thing called salt wives that gives them leave to make more children. Sure I know that salt wives aren't real wives but everywhere else in Westeros, lords, knights and captains are only allowed one wife and paramours -- as they are frowned upon -- are kept secret if they are kept at all.

The Ironborn are also a warrior race; they are professional soldiers which makes them very good at fighting. Especially since most of their opponents aren't other professional soldiers (i.e. knights) but against smallfolk conscriptions who may or may not have good equipment and good training.

On 8/3/2020 at 3:07 AM, BloodyJollyRoger said:

Maybe the Storm God is influencing Euron.

No, it's the Great Other.

I'm almost sure of it.

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11 hours ago, Lord Varys said:

The crucial thing there is that the Ironborn are a true warrior culture, where men do fish and fight for a living; the bulk of their men do not plow fields or harvest crops.

And that is not an aspect of their culture that ever went away. They play their finger dances in peace and war alike, never forgetting who and what they are.

As for their resources - they do not magically regain their ships. Balon had nine years to rebuild his fleets, and we have no indication that Robert burned all their (war) ships - which is completely unlikely considering his lazy attitude and failure to take Balon's head for his treason and rebellion.

Prior to that we have the Ironborn not involving themselves in a major war between the Conquest and the Dance, and them not exactly suffering many losses in ships during the Conquest.

Lady Johanna dealt them a major blow, true, but afterwards they had decades to recover until Dagon's days - and we don't know how this he is going to go down yet. I don't think Aerys I is going to burn all his ships, either.

The Ironborn seemed to flourish during the long reign of Lord Quellon, meaning Balon really had a strong basis on which he could build when he decided to start his rebellion (sort of like Harwyn Hardhand profited from the reign of his father).

And one should not really downplay the Ironborn as traders in times of peace. They have a lot of ships and should be heavily involved in the trade in the Sunset Sea, especially in those long eras of peace - meaning they should be able to buy wood aplenty in the North and the West and the Riverlands - especially in long bountiful summers.

That aspect of culture should actually result in them having a weak military. This "strong warrior = strong military" mentality you have outlined above only really works in tribal or early Medieval armies. But armies in Westeros are late-Medieval: massive, tightly organized, and deployed over long distances. And Westeros itself is huge. In such a setting, tribal armies relying on "warrior" culture, such as Ironborn, should be profoundly useless. Dominant armies in medieval Europe were Frankish (highly professional, tightly organized), Byzantine (ditto), and in 15th century Hungarian (highly professional, tightly organized, numerous) and Ottoman (ditto, but to even greater extent).

Problem with them rebuilding fleets is... where do they get resources from? Viking Scandinavia was massive, and was 90% forrests. Iron Islands are neither. Also, Vikings were traders first, raiders second. They traded all across Europe, and beyond. Do we have any evidence of Ironborn being significant traders even in Westerosi context, let alone wider Westeros-Essos context?

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The natural answer is that the story demands it.

But a more interesting answer is that perhaps a clue can lie in the combination of a warrior society combined with a society in which women may have to deal with less controll and restrictions?

Now I'll grant you that this is very speculative until we get a lowborn perspective on some average Ironmen settlements and so can see what goes on in the daily life of these people. But given how for example Balon could raise Asha as his heir and how Balon's wife could leave Pyke to live in her original family's seat, it does seem like women hold a stronger hand than on the mainland when also taking into account Balon's conservative, even reactionary, disposition on many other issues. In fact the only occasion I can think of where a wife can leave the house of a husband she's fallen out with is in Dorne, which is supposed to have a social values that are more positive to women's freedom.

Thus it seems to me that given a warrior ideal which isn't restricted to the nobility, there is a greater percentage pool of manpower that can be mobilized and done so faster than what can be done in regards to the smallfolk on the mainland. And if its true that women have more freedom than on the mainland, it would make sense, at least to me, that women can replace men in the economy to a larger degree than, once again, on the mainland and thus allow for a greater percentage of men to be mobilized.

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The Ironborn don't need to have 20,000 warriors to be a threat to the Reach. They aren't trying to conquer and hold territory on the mainland. They're raiding and pillaging at will right now. That can easily create widespread fear and chaos. They're able to do that because the Shield Islands give them a secure nearby base to operate from and the Redwyne fleet is in the wrong ocean. If the apparent strength of the Ironborn bothers you just remember they haven't actually been put to the test yet. Everything has been raids and sneak attacks so far. Even the Shield Islands were taken by a sneak attack.

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On 8/4/2020 at 6:59 PM, Lord Varys said:

The crucial thing there is that the Ironborn are a true warrior culture, where men do fish and fight for a living; the bulk of their men do not plow fields or harvest crops.

And that is not an aspect of their culture that ever went away. They play their finger dances in peace and war alike, never forgetting who and what they are.

As for their resources - they do not magically regain their ships. Balon had nine years to rebuild his fleets, and we have no indication that Robert burned all their (war) ships - which is completely unlikely considering his lazy attitude and failure to take Balon's head for his treason and rebellion.

Prior to that we have the Ironborn not involving themselves in a major war between the Conquest and the Dance, and them not exactly suffering many losses in ships during the Conquest.

Lady Johanna dealt them a major blow, true, but afterwards they had decades to recover until Dagon's days - and we don't know how this he is going to go down yet. I don't think Aerys I is going to burn all his ships, either.

The Ironborn seemed to flourish during the long reign of Lord Quellon, meaning Balon really had a strong basis on which he could build when he decided to start his rebellion (sort of like Harwyn Hardhand profited from the reign of his father).

And one should not really downplay the Ironborn as traders in times of peace. They have a lot of ships and should be heavily involved in the trade in the Sunset Sea, especially in those long eras of peace - meaning they should be able to buy wood aplenty in the North and the West and the Riverlands - especially in long bountiful summers.

Exactly.

I also think it's worth mentioning that the Ironborn can raid the lands beyond the Wall. It's actually easier for them to raid, pillage and harvest the Haunted Forest and the lands of the Ice River Clans than it is for them to heckle the Free Cities.

And even then....think of the political and economic repercussions if the Free Cities are being attacked and harassed by people of Westeros and the king of Westeros is turning a blind eye to it.

Edited by BlackLightning

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21 minutes ago, BlackLightning said:

I also think it's worth mentioning that the Ironborn can raid the lands beyond the Wall. It's actually easier for them to raid, pillage and harvest the Haunted Forest and the lands of the Ice River Clans than it is for them to heckle the Free Cities.

I am almost sure that Haunted Forest exists only eastern side of continent. After all western side north of the Wall is known as Bay of Ice and Frozen Shore. So to get access to any timber IB would have to go around whole Westeros.

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On 8/4/2020 at 1:38 AM, Lord Lannister said:

Honestly, it's just best not to think too much about demographics, economics and military strength in ASoIaF. They're what the plot needs them to be.

personally I find a pleasure in bitching about it ;-)

grrm wanted to put some vikings into the story and so he did

Edited by broken one

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I agree with much of what was said above, but I would like to add that even as traders the Ironborn are at a disadvantage compared to islands off the east coast of Westeros, because they have nothing to the west. Instead they need to travel a farther distance to get in on any lucrative trade with Essos.

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On 8/4/2020 at 6:41 AM, frenin said:

The only semi canon talks numbered their strenght in about 17k forces. 

25000 seems hard to believe. 

IIRC, it was mentioned that Theon had 8 longships and around 250 men under his command while Asha had 30 longships and around 1,000 men under her command. That should be a little over 30 men per longship and they have about 400 longships. The Iron Fleet consists of larger ships made for battle and Victarion has 100 under his command. The ships of the Iron Fleet are supposed to be around 3 times as large as their longships. That would mean that they have about 12,000 warriors for their longships and around 9,000 for the Iron Fleet. 20,000 sounds about right.

Edited by Lee-Sensei

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On 8/5/2020 at 12:15 PM, Lion of the West said:

The natural answer is that the story demands it.

But a more interesting answer is that perhaps a clue can lie in the combination of a warrior society combined with a society in which women may have to deal with less controll and restrictions?

Now I'll grant you that this is very speculative until we get a lowborn perspective on some average Ironmen settlements and so can see what goes on in the daily life of these people. But given how for example Balon could raise Asha as his heir and how Balon's wife could leave Pyke to live in her original family's seat, it does seem like women hold a stronger hand than on the mainland when also taking into account Balon's conservative, even reactionary, disposition on many other issues. In fact the only occasion I can think of where a wife can leave the house of a husband she's fallen out with is in Dorne, which is supposed to have a social values that are more positive to women's freedom.

Thus it seems to me that given a warrior ideal which isn't restricted to the nobility, there is a greater percentage pool of manpower that can be mobilized and done so faster than what can be done in regards to the smallfolk on the mainland. And if its true that women have more freedom than on the mainland, it would make sense, at least to me, that women can replace men in the economy to a larger degree than, once again, on the mainland and thus allow for a greater percentage of men to be mobilized.

What you described is exactly what Vikings were like (warrior society, extensive woman's rights) - and their success, against 10th century European armies, was decidedly mixed. They were feared because they could appear with no warning, but any sort of somewhat professional army (feudal levies, mercenaries... anything other than conscripted peasants) was able to throw them back. Problem was that they could appear with no warning, so getting professional army into place was rather difficult; and seeing how Vikings themselves were professional raiders (Viking means "raider", technical name would be "Scandinavians"), local militia was not capable of defeating them.

Ironborn however are 10th century army and society living off the coast of continent that is stuck in 12th - 15th centuries. There is literally nothing beyond "bullshit grade plot armour" that can explain why they are still able to go raiding. They should have gotten colonized or else wiped out by now.

Edited by Aldarion

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11 hours ago, Aldarion said:

What you described is exactly what Vikings were like (warrior society, extensive woman's rights) - and their success, against 10th century European armies, was decidedly mixed. They were feared because they could appear with no warning, but any sort of somewhat professional army (feudal levies, mercenaries... anything other than conscripted peasants) was able to throw them back. Problem was that they could appear with no warning, so getting professional army into place was rather difficult; and seeing how Vikings themselves were professional raiders (Viking means "raider", technical name would be "Scandinavians"), local militia was not capable of defeating them.

Ironborn however are 10th century army and society living off the coast of continent that is stuck in 12th - 15th centuries. There is literally nothing beyond "bullshit grade plot armour" that can explain why they are still able to go raiding. They should have gotten colonized or else wiped out by now.

True that although the fact that Westerosi don't seem, since the days of the Andal Conquest, to have engaged in genocide attempts is a mark in their favor. I feel I need to make my opinion clear for everyone reading this.

Anyway, unless I recall wrongly, the reason for the Iron Islands behavior is in the world considered to be a matter of "geographic determinism". As in first the First Men came became the Ironborn, then the Andals conquered the Iron Islands and turned into new Ironborn because they just couldn't steer things around with too little present resources to do anything but reave to try and lift themselves from poverty.

So I would think that the reason for the Ironmen's existance is that there's no ideology of genocide to offer this idea to Westerosi rulers and there's no resources on the Iron Islands to make it something worth conquering, and anyone moving to the Iron Islands will be face with the reality that there's very few resources to make a living off on those islands. Hence the new settlers are likely to soon become the new Ironmen.

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14 hours ago, Aldarion said:

There is literally nothing beyond "bullshit grade plot armour" that can explain why they are still able to go raiding. They should have gotten colonized or else wiped out by now.

How would you do that with winters that can last years? It shouldn't be possible at all to stage a large scale invasion of anything.

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40 minutes ago, The Hoare said:

How would you do that with winters that can last years? It shouldn't be possible at all to stage a large scale invasion of anything.

Winters are not as severe in th South, For regions such as the Stormlands, Westernlands, Dorne and the Reach,  a large scale invasion is perfectly doable.

And it's not like they can't  plan the war during winter and attack from summer to fall. 

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Some say that the Iron Islands are named for the ore that is found there in such abundance, but the ironborn themselves insist that the name derives from their nature, for they are a hard people, as unbending as their god.  TWOIAF The Iron Islands

Such riches as the Iron Islands possess lie under the hills of Great Wyk, Harlaw, and Orkmont, where lead, tin, and iron can be found in abundance. These ores are the chief export of the islands. There are many fine metalworkers amongst the ironborn, as might be expected; the forges of Lordsport produce swords, axes, ringmail, and plate second to none.  TWOIAF The Iron Islands

Mining and production of iron products sounds like a great way to make cash to build boats, maybe buy wood...just sayin'...

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On 9/5/2020 at 2:26 AM, Loose Bolt said:

I am almost sure that Haunted Forest exists only eastern side of continent. After all western side north of the Wall is known as Bay of Ice and Frozen Shore. So to get access to any timber IB would have to go around whole Westeros.

File:Westeros - Byound the wall.jpg

Not only does the Gorge River take you directly into the Haunted Forest, the peninsula in between the Frozen Shore and the mainland also looks like it be a good place to get wood from trees....regardless of how mountainous it is.

I don't see a reason why the Ironborn wouldn't go north of the Wall.

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Not only should the Ironborn have a lot of trade going on in the iron business ... which certainly would give them sufficient coin to buy both food in winter as well as as much timber as they might need for the ships.

But more importantly, one would expect the Ironborn traders to have more than just a finger in the gold and precious metal trade from Lannisport. The Lannisters are not known for their vast merchant or military fleets, yet their city is known even in Asshai. People from all over the world want goods from Lannisport, and one imagines the Ironborn are some of the people profiting from that trade ... at least in the peace time following the Conquest.

Prior to that the Lannisters must have had large fleets of their own to keep the Ironborn out of their waters.

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King Robert destroyed Lordsport, and the south tower of the curtain wall of Pyke, but the destruction of a fleet is usually a more abstract concept. When Aeron and Cersei talk of Stannis "smashing" the Iron fleet off Fair Isle, it is very unlikely that they mean all, or even most ships were damaged beyond repair.

Trafalgar, as smashing a naval victory as there ever was, shows this. Of the 33 French and Spanish ships that took part, one was blown up, 17 were captured by the British, 11 were able to sail back to Cadiz despite damage, and 4 into the southern Mediterranean. 4,500 allied men were killed, 2,400 injured. But 7,000 were taken as prisoners of war and the majority of these found themselves impressed into the Royal Navy, often crewing the same vessel they had been on in Trafalgar.

Stannis could smash Golden Storm in half with Fury, but could hardly have done the same for every other ship in the fleet. Ships are designed primarily to float, rather than to sink other ships, and it's a trick that damages the ram as well as the rammed ship.  The Ironborn longships, with their experienced rowers and their speed-conscious design, are well suited to retreating beyond the reach of a galley weighed down with tripple decks,  heavy arms, and the men to weild them. It is not as if they would wait in line for their smashing. I suspect the only reason Golden Storm was lost, was that Aeron insisted on taking the fight to the admiral's flagship for personal glory, and Golden Storm was the flagship of that particular fleet.

We hear nothing about the doings of Victarion, who was the first admiral of the Iron Fleet, in this battle, or those of Euron. I suggest it is because they were not there at the time, and that two thirds (or more) of the Iron Fleet were not there with them, and under their command. 

After the firing of the Lannister fleet moored at Lannisport (fire being a far more effective way of completely destroying a wooden vessel- as the Battle on the Blackwater also shows), Victarion and Euron might already have been too far to row to the defence of the Iron Isles in time, and perhaps too scattered to be able to get any but their swiftest, lightest vessels to Fair Isle to delay Stannis. 

If Aeron had been their rearguard in the Lannisport action,  or had been commissioned with moving swiftly into the strait at Fair Isle in pursuit of Stannis, he would have been accompanied by the weakest or the fastest vessels, not the strongest or the greater part of the fleet. 

 At that time, Stannis had been rebuilding the Royal fleet from the wreckage at Dragonstone (storm and rock being another effective way of destroying ships completely) for only three or four years. His flagship was not of a size to be put together, fitted out, and crewed overnight. It's very presence indicates it was made a priority over half a hundred longships. So Aeron's share of the Iron fleet might have been regarded as sufficent for the smaller Royal fleet, and formidible enough to be regarded as "the Iron Fleet" by their less experienced mariners.

Given what we know of Aeron before the battle, it is difficult for me to believe that this feckless pissant would be given responsibility for anything that might require strategy, diplomacy, or certain victory. I guess that his job was to delay Stannis in the straights, giving the Botley home defences a chance against Robert and the Northmen. If he won, all the better, but his purpose would be gained even if he lost.

Victarion might have preferred to take the hardier ships and the greater part of the fleet around the windward side of  Fair  Isle, where they could spread over a greater part of the ocean, eyes to spot Stannis's fleet if he should attempt to suprise them by taking the longer route. He gives us his reasons for splitting a large fleet on a different occassion

Quote

"Nine-and-ninety ships we had … a cumbersome beast to shepherd across the seas to the far end of the world. If I’d kept them together, the faster ships would have been held hostage to the slowest. And where to find provisions for so many mouths? No port wants so many warships in their waters. The storms would have scattered us, in any case. Like leaves strewn across the Summer Sea.”

(ADwD Ch56 The Iron Suitor)

Euron would very likely decide to further his own career on the Summer Seas or the Rhoyne, as soon as he knew that he couldn't reach the Iron Isles before the Northmen. He would see he was going to get the credit for Lannisport, and no more blame than his brothers for leaving the Iron Isles vulnerable. So why risk adding his ship and his men to this fool's errand? We know Euron Croweye had got himself a reputation for living the Old Way from Ibben to Asshai before Silence left the Iron Isles for the smoking seas seven years after. Perhaps he resumed it when he learnt that Stannis had passed Lannisport already.

Whatever Victarion and Euron were actually doing at the time, they were not sailing with Aeron into the strait at Fair Isle to meet Stannis.

Ironborn ships can survive on fishing, trading, piracy, as sellsails, and as security forces for trading fleets. Their crews of expert and co-ordinated rowers are appreciated by anyone who understands the role speed plays in the maritime environment.

They don't have to mass in the Iron Isles to keep themselves alive. In fact, it is probably better if they don't, as that would have made the greenlands overlords suspicious. (Balon takes the precaution of impounding all trading vessels in Lordsport, the next time he hosts the Iron Fleet).

The fleet straggling home can easily disperse into the two or three vessels that each Lord on the Iron Isles commands, and the single ships can return to their peace-time occupations, without a mainlander knowing they were ever a part of the Iron fleet.

We know Asha was employing Black Wind as a trading vessel within a couple of years of the failed rebellion.

Quote

Asha sailed the Black Wind down the coast, trading. They called at Fair Isle and Lannisport and a score of smaller ports before reaching the Arbor, where the peaches were always huge and sweet...Was that six years ago, or seven?

(ADwD Ch26 The Wayward Bride)

Once Balon had bent the knee, the Ironborn could flourish under the King's peace, building bigger and better docks, ships, and castles to replace the old. 

Perhaps not every Northern lord would sell them wood, but the Lord of Bear Island was rich in little else, and wanted a swift s̶l̶a̶v̶i̶n̶g̶ s̶m̶u̶g̶g̶l̶i̶n̶g̶ pleasure vessel to call his own. Summer allows them to travel well beyond the wall, where nobody can stop them felling timber, and the free folk might willingly help them for iron. They might not be detected felling trees around seadragon point or the Stoney Shore, given the state of the roads and the density of the woods. Or again, there might be lords willing to trade with them in peace-time. Or trade with Tyroshi who then trade with Ironborn.

Edited by Walda

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10 hours ago, Lion of the West said:

So I would think that the reason for the Ironmen's existance is that there's no ideology of genocide to offer this idea to Westerosi rulers and there's no resources on the Iron Islands to make it something worth conquering, and anyone moving to the Iron Islands will be face with the reality that there's very few resources to make a living off on those islands. Hence the new settlers are likely to soon become the new Ironmen.

Genocide has been a recurring feature of history (when population geneticists today talk about "population replacement" discovered via ancient DNA, it's basically that). I don't think any ideological innovation is needed for it. And the expected result would be few living on the Iron Islands and the mainlanders not permitting them to build up much of a fleet.

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9 hours ago, frenin said:

Winters are not as severe in th South, For regions such as the Stormlands, Westernlands, Dorne and the Reach,  a large scale invasion is perfectly doable.

And it's not like they can't  plan the war during winter and attack from summer to fall. 

Agriculture isn't only about cold.

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11 hours ago, The Hoare said:

How would you do that with winters that can last years? It shouldn't be possible at all to stage a large scale invasion of anything.

Summers also last for years. And depending on how harsh winters are, you can continue war throughout winter with no issue (look at Hungarian-Ottoman Wars - many campaigns were fought throughout winter, which could be harsh indeed. I have overview here and here).

13 hours ago, Lion of the West said:

Anyway, unless I recall wrongly, the reason for the Iron Islands behavior is in the world considered to be a matter of "geographic determinism". As in first the First Men came became the Ironborn, then the Andals conquered the Iron Islands and turned into new Ironborn because they just couldn't steer things around with too little present resources to do anything but reave to try and lift themselves from poverty.

So I would think that the reason for the Ironmen's existance is that there's no ideology of genocide to offer this idea to Westerosi rulers and there's no resources on the Iron Islands to make it something worth conquering, and anyone moving to the Iron Islands will be face with the reality that there's very few resources to make a living off on those islands. Hence the new settlers are likely to soon become the new Ironmen.

That I agree with. But fact still remains that Iron Islands do not offer resources necessary for the Ironborn lifestyle - wood primarily, as they are too small an area for extensive forrets. And in that regard, you have actually a very problematic conundrum:

  • If Ironborn are to have enough population for any kind of viable military, entire islands have to be under plow (Vikings did farm despite fish being a major part of the diet) - and they would probably have to have holdings on the continent anyway
  • If ironborn are to have plausible population density with regards to their wood requirements, they would have population less numerous than their military
  • If the Ironborn have enough wood and realistic population, their entire military would number in single-digit thousands at most, with total fleet of around 100 at most.

So no matter how you cut it, Iron Islands make no sense.

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