Welcome to the first “Kit Review” post. In a ‘kit review’ post, rather than looking at a scene or sequence, we’re going to look at a character (or type of background character) and all of their ‘kit.’ We’ll try to figure out if the kit has a historical model and how well it manages to be historically plausible.
This time, we’re looking at the Unsullied. I thought this was a pretty decent idea: I spent a fair amount of time beating up on GoT last time (here), so it seemed only fair to single out something I think, overall, works really quite well. That’s not to say I don’t have some criticisms, but overall, I think the design for the Unsullied is one of the relatively few really successful kit designs on Game of Thrones.
Here is how these sorts of ‘kit reviews’ will work: first we’ll establish the historical basis of the design, if there is one. That can set some of the ground rules for the plausibility of the design. Then we’ll look at armor, weapons, and finally other equipment. So, without further ado: Onward!
The historical basis for the show’s design of the unsullied is actually very clear: these are Greek-style hoplites, fighting in a phalanx formation. That may be a touch surprising if you are thinking in terms of 300 or other pop-cultural depictions of Greek hoplites (many of which stress their whiteness to an uncomfortable degree). But the combination of close-order infantry tactics, spear-and-shield combat kit and relatively heavy armor (especially compared to their regional competition, like the Dothraki, or the Second Sons), all point to the Greek hoplite as the tactical exemplar.
What is interestingly different is the cohesive principle involved. Let me explain: historically, a great deal of the trouble in producing good heavy infantry was in getting it to cohere under the stress of battle. Battle is scary – being charged by cavalry especially so – but heavy infantry derives its effectiveness from a fairly tight (just how tight varies) body of infantry working and fighting together. Men must be psychologically fortified to that task, or the stress of battle will reduce the formation to a mob – and then the infantry to corpses. When examining infantry, then, it is important to ask “what psychological principle keeps these men in their ranks?”
For the hoplite, it was a community principle. A Greek hoplite fought next to his neighbors, friends and family. To flee battle was deeply shameful and impossible to conceal. Even if, by some miracle, your friends and family next to you in the battle line did not see, effectively fleeing meant casting off the heavy hoplite shield. This is the root of the Spartan mother’s exhortation to her son to return “With his shield or on it” – to return without the shield meant dishonorable flight. While this is often presented as a somehow uniquely Spartan sentiment, it was not: almost every city had laws punishing those who threw away their shields, and the opprobrium of flight was very strong. For most humans, permanent social stigma is one of the few things worse than death, and this pressure kept the hoplite phalanx together under stress.
The Unsullied don’t have this cohesive principle, exactly. As enslaved persons, the Masters have denied them their dignity, families and even their own names (this, sadly is historically accurate – it was common in systems of ancient slavery to legally and psychologically seek to obliterate the family and community ties of enslaved people by renaming them. Even when freed, former Roman slaves became part of the Roman citizen body and part of their former master’s gens, or clan, rather than returning to their original community). Slave-soldiers may seem like a bizarre fantasy invention, but it has solid (if depressing) historical precedent.
In this case, I suspect G.R.R.M.’s inspiration was probably the Ottoman Janissaries. Janissaries were originally recruited as boys, by force, from the religious minorities of the Ottoman Empire and trained as soldiers. They were some of the best infantry in Europe or the Middle East in their hey-day, much like the Unsullied’s reputation for military excellence in Essos. The cohesive principle then becomes a mix of professionalism, combined with the fact that for each Unsullied, the army itself has become his family and community. No one wants to let their community down.
In terms of their structure, then, the Unsullied are tragic and noble and quite historically plausible. The only qualm I have is that any city which could produce such high quality infantry would ever consider selling them en masse. Of course, the fate of Astapor and all of the Masters demonstrates why, if you have truly excellent infantry, you keep it.
So, while the cohesive principle for the Unsullied is more like the Ottoman Janissaries, in terms of equipment and battle tactics we should be thinking like a Greek hoplite. And while there are some flaws here, for the most part, the Unsullied do quite well. The overall coverage of the armor – which seems to strike some people as looking unrealistic – actually makes a good deal of sense (on this, see my Order in Armor post here). The armor they wear covers all of the first-tier areas (head and body) and one of the second-tier areas (shoulders), but none of the third-tier (legs, arms), which is the right order. The one potential oddity is the visor on their helmets, but we’ll return to that in a moment.
What about the body armor? The overall shape of the armor, which strikes some viewers as strange, is actually historical: it is the same tube-and-yoke construction as the Greek linothorax. While bronze breastplates or Gerard Butler’s magnificent abs tend to dominate the popular culture image of the hoplite’s armor, the linothorax was the most common (in scholarship sometimes called a ‘type-IV’ armor, ‘shoulder piece corselets’ or ‘tube and yoke’ corselets. If you are curious about the armor type in general, the best work on it is Aldrete, Bartell and Aldrete, Reconstructing Ancient Linen Body Armor (2013)). So the basic concept, of an organic (leather or textile) armor in this style is perfectly historical and entirely appropriate to this kind of soldier.
As with a lot of GoT, the execution of that armor concept has some problems. The main one is material. That armor of the Unsullied appears to be tanned leather of the sort you’d make into a jacket; that it is clearly flexible is shown by the fact that it is belted in the back to pull in the waist. Leather armor did exist (some enthusiasts, well-meaning but misinformed, sometimes suggest leather armor did not exist at all; this is not true) but it was not this kind of leather. I’m sure I’ll come back to this in more depth in the future, because it is such a common problem, but for now, let’s just note that leathers used as the primary material for armors are not flexible or supple, but instead tend to be very rigid. That said, I’m willing to let this slide and assume that we are meant to understand that these armors are made of either rigid leather (like cuir bouilli) or layered laminated textile (as with the linothorax; this would also be quite rigid), but the costume team had to make some concessions to practicality.
The second issue is a slight coverage problem: no effort is made to protect the hips, groin or thighs. Historical armors for hoplites typically attempt to protect this area, for reasons that are obvious from the above picture: a blow to the upper legs or groin can easily be lethal (there are a lot of arteries there) and those areas are fairly vulnerable to a blow from below. I would have liked to have seen some sort of covering for this part of the body, either Greek style hanging strips (they’re called pteryges), or a skirt of mail or padded textile. Once they get to Westeros, the Unsullied seem to add a padded jacket to their armor, which is a fantastic addition (but more on this at the end).
What about the helmets? These are obvious not Greek helmets, but they’re not far off from a later European helmet design, the pikeman’s pot, particularly Eastern European ‘pots’ of the mid-17th century. These featured the same high metal strip at the center of the face, although not quite so high as the Unsullied’s one. I am actually quite sure this is the design being copied, and the designers have, by and large, done a decent job of it. The face-masks are an interesting choice not present on many pikeman’s pots. They would offer important protection, but covering both the ears and mouth is going to make battlefield control – something the disciplined Unsullied are famous for – difficult. It is not an accident that Roman and Macedonian helmets – meant for disciplined soldiers following orders – tend to prioritize vision, speech and hearing over protection.
In contrast, the quintessential hoplite’s helmet, the Corinthian helmet, covers the ears and obstructs much of the face. A Greek hoplite army was essentially an unguided missile – the general gave the order to attack and (with a few notable exceptions) was mostly out of control of the battle. For a formation that wasn’t capable of complex maneuvers, there wasn’t as much need for individual hoplites to be able to speak and be heard. That said, the Unsullied visor flips up easily (we see Grey Worm do this again and again to give orders). I think this design is plausible.
Armor Grade: B+; some of the material and coverage choices are strange, but overall, this is plausible and I love the distinctive look it gives the Unsullied.
One thing to keep in mind is that weapons tend to follow tactics (and vice-versa), which is to say that there tends to be a close connection between how a soldier is expected to fight and the equipment they will bring to that fight. The Unsullied certainly fight as hoplite-style heavy infantry, with close-formation shield walls. And their weapons are quite well adapted to that kind of warfare.
The main weapon of the Unsullied is a long thrusting spear; the spears they wield look to be about 9 feet in length, which is right around the longest a one-handed thrusting spear can be before it gets unwieldy. The design of the spear-tips, a leaf or tear-drop shaped blade of metal with a strong mid-ridge (the thick bit running down the center) connected to the haft by way of a socket – this is a design that is immediately familiar across a wide range of cultures and contexts. The props used in the show look a bit thick and bulky for the length of the spear, but I assume this is a concession to on-set safety.
One issue is how the Unsullied occasionally use these spears: these are thrusting spears, not ‘hewing’ spears. Some spears have tips designed to be able to cut as well as thrust. However, the tips for hewing spears tend to be larger and bulkier (to provide a cutting surface and the strength to cut with it); consequently, the shafts have to be shorter to keep the weight and balance of the weapon under control. The spears the Unsullied seem to have really are thrusting spears, and the length backs that up. It might be possible to cut with these, as is sometimes shown, but it would be far from the best use of the weapon.
Spear hafts, being made of wood, tend to break. As a result, spear-armed soldiers the world around have almost always carried back-up weapons, typically daggers and swords. It is worth noting: far, far, far more swords were carried as backups to spears than were ever carried as primary weapons, historically speaking. The clear intent of the show design is for all of the Unsullied to carry a short, straight dagger as a backup weapon. As you can see in this image below, all of the outfits have a loop for the dagger to be held, but it looks like the prop department only had a couple of daggers. Again, this is an understandable limitation; we can assume for grading that all of the Unsullied have daggers.
That said, for close-combat heavy infantry, a dagger is a fairly unimpressive backup weapon, and the Unsullied dagger looks to be bronze. A fairly short iron sword, like a Roman gladius or a Greek xiphos, or a curved sword like the Greek kopis or even the Nepalese kukri, would make a lot more sense than a small bronze dagger. Spears break a lot, so if Daenerys wants her Unsullied to be able to fight effectively, she should provision them with some iron (read: steel) swords. The lack of equipment changes is something we’ll come to at the end.
The final weapon here is the shield. The Unsullied use round shield with what appears to be a strap grip (it is actually very hard to find a good shot of the back of one of these shields – the showrunners really aren’t very interested in what the common soldier would see in battle and we rarely view events from their perspective). That means the arm is passed through a strap which then rests on the elbow, and the shield is gripped by a second strap – you can see the setup here:
That grip is absolutely fine – it is the grip of a hoplite shield. What I find strange is how small these shields are. Round shields for use in shield-wall formations (like the phalanx, or Anglo-Saxon shield walls) are typically quite large. A Greek shield, called an aspis, was around 3 feet across. Anglo-Saxon shields have a different grip system (center-boss grip vertical), and are somewhat smaller – they average around 2 feet, but some are as large as 3 and others are smaller. The shields the Unsullied use are so small they don’t appear to often cover the entire body – which is much too small. For this formation to work, men (in closed ranges) need to be covering the men around them (specifically, the man to their left) with their shield.
You can see in the image above how this is facilitated – the center of the shield is at the elbow strap (called the porpax), meaning that half of the shield projects out to the left of the wielder. The mechanics of center-grip Anglo-saxon shields are different, but the end result (covering your neighbor) are the same.
I think the reason the Unsullied shields are too small has to do with materials – they look to be made entirely of a single material. Greek aspides often appear to be entirely made of metal, but they are not – almost all of the shield is wood, with a very thin metal covering on the front face. It’s possible that, for ease of making, the Unsullied’s shields for the show were simply stamped out of metal, and thus had to be kept small to keep the weight under control. Even made primarily of wood, the Greek aspis was quite heavy, around 16lbs, and it is not hard to imagine that being very hard on actors who might have to shoot the same fight scene several times to get all of the necessary footage and coverage.
Weapon Grade: A-; they’re missing a good sword and there are some concessions to practicality, but these are, by and large, the right weapons for the right job.
This is an easy section to write – there is one problem and it is overwhelming: where do the Unsullied keep their stuff? Soldiers need to carry a lot of stuff on the march: spare rations, cooking implements, spare clothes, camping supplies, etc. The average Roman soldier carried around 44lbs of equipment not counting weapons and armor.
Hoplites are rarely shown lugging equipment around, but there is a reason for this. Greek hoplites had to be able to afford all of the weapons and armor they fought with, and as a result were often wealthy enough to keep a slave who would march to battle with them and carry all of their stuff. The Unsullied, being mistreated slaves themselves, are unlikely to have this luxury. Moreover, Daenerys army does not seem like the sort, especially early on, to have enough pack animals to simply throw all of that stuff in the baggage train. The Romans may have had (the evidence is unclear) something like one pack mule per every six soldiers, and Roman troops still had to carry the 40-odd pounds of stuff noted above.
This, I think, was a real missed storytelling opportunity to show the Unsullied as being a touch more human than they often appear – something other than a faceless mass humanized mostly through our interactions with Grey Worm. Let us see them hauling their gear – perhaps with something like the Roman sarcina (a marching pack carried on a stick). Once they are free men and can have things of their own, I’d love to see the diversity of things carried slowly multiply as these men begin to assert their long-suppressed individuality. One thing we know, for certain, about freed slaves is that they are quick to assert their denied humanity – the plethora of funerary inscriptions by Roman freedmen and freedwomen testifies to this fundamental human need. Watching the Unsullied struggle to reassert their humanity is one of the truly moving emotional threads in the show and sadly one I feel the showrunners are less interested in than I am (or that they tend to reduce humanity down to the presence or absence of genitalia, a set of jokes and preoccupations that was old two or three seasons ago, and is downright offensive now).
A final equipment note: The uniforms the Unsullied wear has a single loop for their dagger. This is asking the weapon to be damaged, corroded and blunted. Those backup weapons should get fully enclosed sheaths, not just simple loops.
Equipment Grade: C; This would be lower, but non-combat equipment is almost never portrayed in fiction, so I can hardly fault GoT too much for being average.
There’s one thing I have been putting off, and that is the failure of the Unsullied to meaningfully evolve their equipment after arriving in Westeros. The thing is, while the Unsullied armor is good compared to what we see in Essos, it is woefully inadequate compared to the much heavier and more advanced armor of Westeros. Lannister half-plate (assuming a design that actually matched the concept) would be a tremendous improvement over what the Unsullied currently have. We’ve also seen mail hauberks (a mail shirt down to the knees) in Westeros and one has to imagine wearing something like that underneath the Unsullied cuirass – providing some valuable protection to the arms, legs and groin – would be enormously desirable.
Again, I see this as a missed story-telling opportunity. When we first meet the Unsullied, they are all perfectly uniform, not because they are ‘badass’ but because their humanity has been stripped from them. They have been converted by the Masters into weapons and war-fighting tools. One of the ways we understand them and understand Daenerys is the way in which the Unsullied reclaim their humanity. Much of this in the show is very patronizing – Daenerys has to coach the Unsullied back to individuality.
What I would have loved to see is that, as the show progresses, the uniformity of the Unsullied begin to break down – not in a way that would compromise their effectiveness, but in the little ways soldiers tend to assert their individuality. They might decorate some of their equipment (painted shields are very common, historically). As the army encounters more and different kinds of enemies, the Unsullied might adopt weapons and armor from them – mail from the Second Sons or the arakh from the Dothraki (replacing those puny bronze daggers). Once in Westeros, we could see this begin to really bloom as the Unsullied found themselves able to obtain (via loot or requisition or purchase) elements of the more complex armor systems in Westeros.
We might see Daenerys begin her quest with an army of weapons, and end it with an army of men. I think that was a real missed storytelling opportunity, and I mourn the loss.
But overall, how successful is the Unsullied design? Very successful, I’d say. The combination of what is basically a linothorax with a pikeman’s pot fits the Unsullied battlefield role perfectly. The weapons are well chosen for the tactics these men use on the battlefield. I love this design – it is one of the few really successful ones from GoT.
Overall Grade: B+; This design works and is believable, despite some flaws. I just wish we saw more of these fellows.