The Real History Behind Game of Thrones, Part 4: The White Walkers
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Their slaves built towering pyramids and served in ruthless armies — until a conqueror came to set them free. Meet the REAL masters of Slaver’s Bay.
Although the merchants of the city are fabulously wealthy, their legions of slaves labor in misery. While the masters bask in luxury, it is slaves who build their ornate manor-houses, tend their lush gardens, and prepare their banquets.
Traders come to the city from far-off lands, bringing jewels, rare wines and exotic spices — to be enjoyed be the masters, not the slaves. Gold and silver pile up in the masters’ vaults — but any slave who dares to snatch a handful will suffer the cruelest death.
For thousands of years, this has been the way of things. Until one day, an army of screaming horse-riders descends from the wild steppe.
This horde’s commander (it is said) cannot die; has been chosen by Heaven to set the slaves free, and to purge the masters from the earth. The undefeated army has already accepted surrender from many cities — but not from this one, the strongest and richest of all.
While the masters watch in horror, ten thousand riders thunder toward their gates. The horde lays siege. The city’s defenses collapse. Howling horsemen breach its walls — and slaves rise against their masters.
Suddenly, the world is turned upside-down. Masters are nailed to crosses, vaults of riches are emptied — while thousands of slaves pack up their meager possessions, beginning the long journey back to their ancestral homelands.
This isn’t Slaver’s Bay on Game of Thrones. All these things really happened — in Iraq, about 2,600 years ago. The horsemen weren’t Dothraki, but a confederation called the Parsa. And their leader wasn’t a Khaleesi, but a man named Kourosh.
King Kourosh — or “Cyrus the Great,” as he would later become known — commanded a vast confederation of warriors from the Eurasian steppe: not only Persians like himself, but also Medes, Babylonians and Cimmerians, along with ferocious horsemen known as “Askuzai,” who were ancestors of the Scythians you met in Part 2 of this series.
The city they sacked was known as Ninua. It was, perhaps, the wealthiest city in the world — capital of a cruel empire that ruled this land by iron and blood for more than three hundred years.
And though the liberator Kourosh could not have known it, one group of slaves he set free would write down the story of their captivity — and would teach their children, and their children’s children, to recite that story word-for-word, so the truth would never be forgotten.
These former slaves would become known as the Hebrew people — and the tale of their captivity and liberation would form the core of what we, today, call the Tanakh, or the Old Testament. And it was their name for the great city that became immortalized in our cultural memory.
The Hebrews called it Nineveh — the “wicked city of Nineveh.” And they’re still celebrating its downfall nearly three thousand years later.
But “wicked” though Nineveh may have been, it was far more than just a shrine of debauched parties and idolatrous worship — though, no doubt, it must have appeared that way to the slaves who served its masters.
Modern archaeology has revealed that Nineveh was a highly cultured capital, home to tens of thousands of people — a metropolis of ornate palaces, luxuriant gardens, sprawling marketplaces and world-famous schools.
Nineveh was home to the ancient world’s greatest library — a towering archive of some 30,000 texts, assembled from the records of every known civilization.
According to tradition, the Royal Library of Nineveh served as Alexander the Great’s inspiration for the Library of Alexandria. At its peak, Nineveh’s library may have housed even more texts than Alexandria’s — some of which were thousands of years old, even to those ancient librarians!
Nineveh’s last great emperor, Ashurbanipal, left numerous inscriptions boasting not only of his military achievements, but also of his lifelong scholarly pursuits:
“I, Ashurbanipal, within the palace, understood the wisdom of Nabu [god of scribes]… The best of the scribal art, such works as none of the kings who went before me had ever learnt… I wrote on tablets, checked and collated, and deposited within my palace for perusing and reading.”
Ashurbanipal claimed to be able to read long-dead languages like Sumerian and Akkadian, which were spoken thousands of years before his lifetime — much as later kings would boast of their erudition in Latin and Greek.
Scholarship, however, was only one area in which a king was expected to excel. Ashurbanipal also bragged of collecting exotic animals from distant lands — and of cultivating royal gardens containing every known herb and fruit.
In fact, many archaeologists now believe that the “Hanging Gardens of Babylon” were not Babylonian at all, but may have been built by Ashurbanipal in the much wealthier city of Nineveh.
But, of course, only Nineveh’s wealthiest citizens could hope to enjoy the pleasures of strolling in the royal gardens, reading ancient texts in the great library, and tasting fine wines and rare spices from the markets.
Beneath Nineveh’s ultra-wealthy elite, middle classes of merchants, politicians, scribes, soldiers, chariot-makers, beer-brewers and ship-builders were just struggling to get by — holding out hope, perhaps, of breaking into the city’s upper crust someday.
And at the very bottom, innumerable slaves labored at tasks too undignified for freemen: sweeping streets, carrying litters, stomping grapes and cleaning toilets.
Slaves had built the great city of Nineveh, and slaves kept it running from one day to the next. Some were debtors; others were children who’d been sold into slavery by their parents — and countless more were captives from the empire’s relentless military campaigns.
In our modern machine-driven world, we easily forget this crucial fact: every ancient society we admire was built on the backs of suffering slaves.
Although we now know that Egypt’s pyramids were built by well-paid craftsmen, thousands of slaves did labor in the Nile’s fields and factories. Slaves also outnumbered freemen in classical Greece, with as many as 80,000 serving their masters in Athens alone.
Slavery in ancient Rome is so infamous that we hardly need a reminder. While some faithful Roman slaves might hope to buy their freedom, millions more were sent to die in the gladiatorial arena — or were executed by the humiliating torture of crucifixion when they resisted.
And yet it was not the Romans who first invented the punishment of crucifixion. That honor goes to the Neo-Assyrian Empire — the rulers of Nineveh.
Assyrian “crucifixion” was crude, even by Roman standards. Its earliest form was simply impalement on a stake — an invention the Assyrian kings were evidently quite proud of, since they immortalized it in sculpture on their palace walls:
And this was only one of the many ways in which the Assyrian army earned their reputation as “the Nazis of the ancient Middle East.”
Assyrian soldiers often practiced what we, today, would consider genocide: if the ruler of a subject city managed to whip his people into rebellion, Assyria would slaughter not only the rebel army, but would sometimes butcher the entire civilian population, too — including the horses and dogs.
Or, if the conquered people were slightly more fortunate, they might be thrown into chains and force-marched to a distant land, to live out their days as exiles — like the Hebrews did.
The Assyrian army would then smash the city’s temples and walls, melt down its gold and silver relics, destroy its rulers’ monuments, and forbid any survivors from speaking the rebels’ names aloud in public.
Assyrian kings didn’t just defeat their enemies — they tried to wipe out every trace of enemy peoples ever having existed at all.
If this sounds too exaggerated to be real, remember that all these acts (and worse) were recorded in detail — not only by Hebrew chroniclers, but even by Assyrian kings themselves, who proudly inscribed records of their terror campaigns on their palace walls:
“I reduced the temples of [the rebellious land] to naught… I carried away their bones. On their lands I sowed salt. I built a pillar at the city gate and I flayed all the chief men who had revolted and I covered the pillar with their skins; some I walled up inside the pillar, some I impaled upon the pillar on stakes.”
— Ashurbanipal of Assyria
Such ruthless campaigns required a fanatically disciplined army — which the Assyrian Empire spent hundreds of years building and training.
More than a century before the golden age of Nineveh (in the 700s BCE), the Assyrian emperor Tiglath-Pileser III decreed that able-bodied men could be hired as full-time soldiers in the pay of the state — creating one of the first professional armies in world history.
Assyrian soldiers were outfitted with uniforms and weapons, given food and housing, and trained every day at specialized military bases.
At those training camps, Assyrian soldiers learned to fight in ordered ranks, with square shields and long spears — creating the phalanx fighting style for which the Roman army would later become famous.
“[Assyrian] infantrymen fought in squads of ten, each headed by an NCO, and grouped into companies of five to twenty squads under the command of a Captain. They were well protected and even better equipped, for Assyria was fielding the very first iron armies: iron swords, iron spear blades, iron helmets and even iron scales sewn as armour on to their tunics… Rather than sandals, they now wore the Assyrian military invention that was arguably one of the most influential and long-lasting of all: the army boot. This was the first all-weather, all-year army.”
In other words, Nineveh’s army was the real-world equivalent of the Unsullied.
But the more cities that army subjugated, the more enemies it made. As the Nineveh grew wealthy from its conquests, the survivors of Assyrian massacres began to band together.
Until, in 612 BCE, that alliance of rebel horsemen came riding down out of the Persian hills, and smashed the gates of the world’s mightiest city.
If we may believe the Hebrew chronicler Nahum, a brutal battle raged within the city for months, as Assyrian soldiers fought the invaders street-by-street and house-by-house.
At last the allied armies breached the palace wall. Inside, they discovered vaults of gold and jewels, a harem of beautiful women from every corner of the empire — and of course, the Royal Library.
The allied fighters put the palace to the torch. Ironically, the resulting blaze helped preserve most of the library’s texts, which were engraved on clay tablets!
In fact, we have Assyrian librarians to thank for our modern understanding of far more ancient languages like Sumerian and Akkadian — for which the scribes of Nineveh have (unintentionally) left us annotated dictionaries!
So was Nineveh a “wicked” city — or was it a Heaven on Earth? The answer would depend entirely on whether you lived as a slave, or as a master.
P.S. — for a much deeper dive on the philosophy that inspired Ashurbanipal to create his Royal Library, check out this article: