Game of Thrones and Ancient History II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards

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GoTAH II: Davos, Ramsay and the Cannae Stratagem at the Battle of the Bastards

File 23-06-2016, 22 15 33

Hannibal Barca

In 216BC, the Italian countryside played host to the Battle of Cannae between the forces of Carthage and the legions of the Roman Republic during the Second Punic War. Fresh from two major victories, the great Carthaginian general, Hannibal Barca, squared up to an enormous congregation of Roman legions. Despite being heavily outnumbered, what Hannibal achieved on that battlefield still echoes over twenty-two centuries later as one of the greatest military defeats ever inflicted and the archetypal battle of annihilation for prominent military commanders throughout history.

In 303AL, by the reckoning of HBO’s Game of Thrones, the forces of House Stark, led by Jon Snow, marched to take back their former capital from their betrayers, House Bolton. The confrontation on the plain outside Winterfell would be known as the Battle of the Bastards due to the illegitimate births of the commanders of both sides.

On the surface, there does not seem to be too many connections between these two battles. But looks can be deceiving…

The writers of the Game of Thrones S06E09 “Battle of the Bastards”, David Benioff and D.B.Weiss, have since confirmed Cannae’s inspiration for their epic depiction of the battle for the North, but the eagle-eyed viewer who knows their Second Punic War will have recognised elements of the Cannae Stratagem.

File 23-06-2016, 22 13 35indexLady Sansa Stark, Jon Snow, Tormund Giantsbane and Ser Davos Seaworth © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

In a meeting with his fellow commanders, Ser Davos Seaworth expresses his worry over the extent to which they will be outnumbered by the forces of Lord Ramsay Bolton. To combat this, he proposes a defensive strategy to lure Lord Bolton’s superior numbers forward by having the Stark centre stage a feigned retreat, which would draw the Boltons forward into the pocket between the two Stark wings, surrounding them on three sides.

This kind of refused centre was the tactical centrepiece of Hannibal’s plan at Cannae. The major difference was in scale. The Battle of the Bastards saw about 2,400 Stark men and Wildings square up to 6,000 Boltons and HBO did a fantastic job in portraying how much of a bloody, crushing mess that could be. Now, just think what it must have been like at Cannae in 216BC where it was 80,000 Romans crushed together by 50,000 Carthaginians…

File 23-06-2016, 22 16 31Hannibal’s refused centre at Cannae

However, as the Battle of the Bastards plays out, the tables are turned and in a direct reversal of Cannae, it is the smaller force that gets hemmed in and crushed together. This reversal can be traced to another example of Cannae’s influence over the Game of Thrones writers – the use of psychology.

File 23-06-2016, 22 15 21Lord Ramsay Bolton: Hannibal’s psychological avatar? © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

Hannibal Barca was a master of it, reading the Romans like a book, predicting what they would do well in advance and planning for it accordingly. It had served him well at Trebbia and Lake Trasimene and at Cannae he used it to literally and figuratively crush the Romans. Somewhat surprisingly, it was the spiteful Ramsay Bolton who was cast as the avatar of Hannibal’s psychological abilities. He had shown himself an able psychological (and physical) torturer but had yet to display any ability on the battlefield. However, in using Rickon Stark for target practice, Ramsay was able to cunningly, if unsubtly, goad Jon Snow into abandoning the Cannae Stratagem.

File 23-06-2016, 22 09 47Undermining the Cannae Stratagem © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

The seeming failure of Ramsay to shoot Jon Snow when he was in range could also be linked to Hannibal’s reading of the Roman leadership. At Cannae, the joint command between Terentius Varro and Aemilius Paullus provided an opening for Hannibal as they seem to have had a difference of opinion over how to proceed, the former keen to attack and the latter more reticent. Eager to spring his trap, Hannibal offered battle on a day the reportedly more reckless Varro had overall command, who obliged by charging into that trap. Outside Winterfell, Ramsay Bolton wanted Jon Snow to react rashly and lead his forces into an attack, abandoning their defensive position. Had Jon been killed, command would have passed to Davos who would have followed the original Cannae battle plan.

File 23-06-2016, 22 11 56An Impenetrable Hedge of Swords, Shields and Pikes © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

Despite the decidedly un-Cannae-like cavalry clash (which would have horrified Hannibal) that followed his good use of psychology, Ramsay then also takes up the Hannibalic tactical mantle. With Stark forces fully committed in order to survive the initial clash, Ramsay sent in his own infantry. Surrounding the mass of Stark men on three sides, these Bolton shielded pikemen initiated a Cannae-style crush, the suffocating horror of which is magnificently realised by the combination of superb editing, camera work and sound.

File 23-06-2016, 22 11 16Closing the Bolton Noose © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

File 23-06-2016, 22 16 18Closing the Carthaginian Noose

At Cannae, when the jaws of Hannibal’s trap closed, this initiated a day-long butchering of the mass of Roman soldiers caught within by the ever-tightening Carthaginian noose; a day that saw perhaps up to 73,000 Roman soldiers killed or captured. And while the numbers were nowhere near as ridiculous, caught in Bolton noose, it appeared that the remaining Stark forces were about to face a similar grizzly fate as the Romans at Cannae.

File 23-06-2016, 22 15 09Jon Snow fights for air in the crush © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

Only the timely arrival of the Knights of the Vale prevented such a repeat. And while there were no such reinforcements at Cannae, the charge of the Arryn cavalry into the rear of the Bolton lines does mimic part of its ancient blueprint. After routing the Roman cavalry, Hannibal’s horse charged the rear of the legions, although there is academic argument over whether or not the Carthaginian cavalry could have caused the level of casualties reported by the ancient sources.

File 23-06-2016, 22 14 55The Knights of the Vale charge the Bolton Pikemen © 2016 Home Box Office Inc.

One slight issue with the depiction of the battle came with the closing of the Bolton noose. With the Bolton cavalry decimated, the writers needed some way to hem in the Starks, and they chose a pile of dead and/or dying men and horses. This has raised a few eyebrows. Hundreds of bodies could pile up but would they really do so in such a way, forming a wall? It seems unlikely, although it might be added that in the chaos of such a brutal contest, almost anything could happen.

And it is this visceral, claustrophobic chaos that the Battle of the Bastards does such a terrific job in capturing, complete with the horrifying crush at Cannae, as well as the inspirations of Hannibalic tactics and psychology.

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