A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

In the previous entries in this series, I’ve disclosed the basis for which Stannis would secretly keep Mance alive, as well as how Stannis benefited from the Karstark betrayal –a betrayal that he likely already knew was coming.

I’ve also pointed out that Stannis is not the type of commander to ‘wing it’ unnecessarily. Yes, medieval battle was rife with risk and uncertainty, but Stannis certainly studies every possible element. No detail is left out of his calculus.

How did Stannis plan to defeat the Boltons and win the north? By remembering his histories.


This is one of several essays in a series discussing Stannis’s campaign for the north:

  1. Stannis: Less Draconian, More Utilitarian
  2. Counterintelligence: Using the Bolton Machine Against Itself
  3. Stannis and the Covert King
  4. A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

Stannis as a Military Historian and Critic

We know that Stannis is a huge student of history; readily recalling the legacies of the old Targaryen kings and their conquests. Not only does he study histories, but he critically studies history. This is observed when Stannis corrects Jon regarding the conquests of Daeron:

“When the Young Dragon conquered Dorne, he used a goat track to bypass the Dornish watchtowers on the Boneway.”

“I know that tale as well, but Daeron made too much of it in that vainglorious book of his. Ships won that war, not goat tracks. Oakenfist broke the Planky Town and swept halfway up the Greenblood whilst the main Dornish strength was engaged in the Prince’s Pass.” Stannis drummed his fingers on the map. “These mountain lords will not hinder my passage?”
— JON IV, A DANCE WITH DRAGONS

What this really shows is that Stannis does not just passively accept the knowledge from such texts; he compares it against other accounts to draw more objective truths from the histories.

What’s really important is that Stannis has been a very active, thoughtful student of military history. This means that he also has most likely read discourses on strategy in general, or devised them himself.

Of course, what Stannis might think is truly beyond us. However, given the rich similarities between Westeros and medieval Europe, one cannot help but believe that there would be treatises on war in both worlds, both full of universally applicable guidance.

To this end, I can see how Niccolo Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy provide a tremendous insight into Stannis’s military guideposts. While the book obviously doesn’t exist in Westeros, I believe many of the concepts are so universal that Stannis either learned of them himself (via book or maester) or arrived at them himself after his own studies.


Lessons from Machiavelli and Livy

Several passages from Livy are foundational to understanding Stannis’s basic military strategy, and need to be discussed before we can arrive at his strategy proper:

No one should commit his fortune against a host, which time and the disadvantage of the place makes to deteriorate daily.
—Discourses on Livy: Book 3, Chapter 10

No intelligent lord should commit to fighting an enemy that will consume itself, if left alone. Stannis cannot expect Roose Bolton to engage him. He cannot expect Bolton to engage unless he can demonstrate that he’s not just going to erode away due to desertion, starvation, sickness and the like.

Stannis needs to find a way to force Bolton to either see Stannis as an enduring threat he cannot simply outlast, OR he needs to compel Bolton to abandon the logic in this rule.


For a Prince who has an army put together, and sees that from a want of money or of friends he cannot maintain such an army for any length of time, is completely mad if he does not try the fortune (of battle) before such an army would be dissolved, because by waiting he loses for certain, but by trying he may be able to win.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book 3, Chapter 10

Stannis’s hodge-podge army is composed of varying loyalties and religions. In the absence of food and the spoils of victory, he would be naive to assume that his host will endure long.

And truly, in waiting he loses for certain.

Stannis has a burden to use his army, or lose it. Until such time as he has earned (or paid for) loyalty, his forces will grow increasingly restless.

Likewise, this similarly rule similarly applies to Bolton. If there ever came a time where Bolton’s armies could not be sustained indefinitely, the Bolton must attack or inevitably, he loses. This is another key for Stannis.


There is something else to be esteemed greatly, which is, that in losing one ought also to want to acquire glory: and there is more glory in being overcome by force, than by some other evil which causes you to lose.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book 3, Chapter 10

When an opponent is faced with their choice of two defeats, either on the battlefield or by deception; opponents will always go for the battlefield. There is more glory in defeat and/or surrender through force than there is in being defeated with subterfuge alone.

Thus if Stannis could coax Bolton into sensing defeat via trickery, yet gave him the option of regaining glory on the battlefield, Stannis can draw Bolton into a fight.


C. Manlius was with his army encountering the Veientes, and a part of the Veientan army having entered into the entrenchments of Manlius, Manlius ran with a band to their succor, and so that the Veientans would not be able to save themselves, occupied all the entrances to the camp: whence the Veienti, seeing themselves shut in, began to fight with such fury that they killed Manlius, and would have attacked all the rest of the Romans, if one of the Tribunes by his prudence had not opened a way for them to get out. Whence it is seen that when necessity constrained the Veienti to fight, they fought most ferociously: but when they saw the way open, they thought more of flight than of fighting.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book III, Chapter XII

In leaving a way for an enemy’s men to retreat, they will consider it. Deny them that outlet and they will fight ferociously to the last man.

Stannis benefits if he can confront Bolton in an environment where the Bolton men can be successfully routed. If Stannis lays siege to Winterfell, he only encourages such ferociousness in the Bolton men.


The Volscians and Equeans had entered with their armies into the confines of Rome. They (the Romans) sent Consuls against them. So that the army of the Volscians, of which Vettius Messius was Head, in the heat of battle found itself shut in between its own entrenchments which were occupied by the Romans and the other Roman army; and seeing that they needs much die or save themselves by the sword, he (Messius) said these words to his soldiers; Follow me, neither walls nor ditches block you, but only men armed as you are: of equal virtu, you have the superiority of necessity, that last but best weapon. So that this necessity is called by T. Livius THE LAST AND BEST WEAPON.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book III, Chapter XII

Converse to the previous passage, necessity as in the face of certain defeat can be turned to an advantage amongst your own men. If they are presented with a scenario in which they feel there is no escape, they too will fight ferociously.

If Stannis can control the narrative of the conflict such that his men feel retreat or surrender is impossible, then they are that much more encouraged to fight for victory.


Although to use deceit in every action is detestable, none the less in the managing of a war it is a laudable and glorious thing; and that man is equally lauded who overcomes the enemy by deceit, as is he who overcomes them by force.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book III, Chapter XL

This is almost completely self-explanatory. While deceit may not be looked upon highly under normal circumstances, there is no dishonor in a victory achieved through deception.


From this example, all who are discontent with a Prince have to learn that they first ought to weigh and measure their strength, and if they are so powerful that they can declare themselves his enemies and openly make war against him, they ought to employ this method that is less dangerous and more honorable. But if they are of a kind that their strength is not sufficient to make open war on him, they ought with all industry to seek to make him a friend, and to this purpose employ all the means they deem necessary, adopting his pleasures and taking delight in all those things that come to delight him.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book III, Chapter II

The relevance here is that Stannis should be well aware that several (if not most) of Bolton’s current allies are only joined to him out of an inability to openly revolt. This means there is no true loyalty, something that he can hope to take advantage of.


Epaminondas the Theban said nothing was more necessary and more useful for a Captain, than to know the decisions and proceedings of the enemy. And as such knowledge is difficult (to obtain), so much more praise does he merit who acts in a way that he conjectures it.
   —Discourses on Livy: Book III, Chapter XVIII

Obviously this means that Stannis benefits from whatever intelligence he can gather about the Bolton decisions and proceedings.

But it also means that Stannis benefits even more if he can conduct his behavior in a such a way that he causes the Boltons to behave in a predictable way.

Stannis obviously never heard any of these passages, but may have read or deduced similar opinions on his own. I bring them up as ‘guideposts’ to help justify my explanation of his strategy.

There are many and more relevant passages. It would be a sizable distraction to explain how each applies to Stannis’s plans, but it should not be too difficult to reconcile on your own.


The Strategy: High Level

In considering his strategy, remember the foundation I’ve put forward in the earlier segments in this series of essays:

  • Melisandre had her vision of the ‘grey girl’ and told Stannis.
  • Thus Stannis allows Mance to live based on Mance’s ability to help rescue the girl, whom all presume to be Arya.
  • Stannis and Melisandre know that the wedding is coming but not yet announced, so he has time to act.

Thus, Stannis’s high-level strategy is as follows:

  1. Establish his northern legitimacy, acquire more bannermen. Most likely completed by striking at a military target.
  2. Goad the Boltons to move the wedding to Winterfell.
  3. Send in the Mance to sow discord, abduct Arya.
  4. This forces the Boltons to fight him or else lose allies and loyalty, thus he defeats or outlasts them.

The Dreadfort Plan

This is the plan Stannis had more or less developed by the time Jon joins his council in Jon IV, ADWD. Although it changed radically afterwards, there are some key observations to make.

  1. Assign ‘Rattleshirt’ to Jon
    Stannis does this so that Mance is left behind from his main forces, allowing Mance to move independently. This also puts Mance close to Jon, so as to hopefully observe his intelligences.
  2. Surprise attack at the Dreadfort
    The plan here is to take the Bolton’s castle by surprise and present a suddenly, looming threat to the Boltons.
  3. Boltons move to Winterfell
    This could be in response to Stannis, or merely just their chosen spot for the wedding; but Stannis expects them to setup at Winterfell.
  4. Trigger Mance’s mission when the wedding is announced
    This is why Mance is so close to Jon, so he observes when the wedding announcement arrives. This triggers his (and Melisandre’s) efforts to leave to be at the wedding in Winterfell.
  5. Mance sows discord, abducts Arya, returns her to the Dreadfort.
  6. Boltons must counterattack, are defeated while attempting to retake Dreadfort.
    Boltons seeing their disadvantage are forced to either watch their allies drift or move to besiege their own castle.

The Deepwood Plan

After Jon counseled Stannis, his actual plan changed greatly. During the chapter, Stannis is still rather trusting of Arnolf Karstark, but we see that by the end of A Dance with Dragons that seems to have changed.

What I mean to say is that Stannis didn’t just settle entirely for the attack on Deepwood as Jon proposed. He mulled over the facts concerning Arnolf Karstark, and decided he was being betrayed. At the very least we see that Stannis agreed to Mors price and earned his loyalty. There were other concerns, particularly since he could not reasonably force the Boltons to attack Deepwood. So his plans evolved:

  1. Assign ‘Rattleshirt’ to Jon
    Stannis does this so that Mance is left behind from his main forces, allowing Mance to move independently. This also puts Mance close to Jon, so as to hopefully observe his intelligences.
  2. Move through the wolfswood, gathering allies, and sneakily taking Deepwood Motte
    The expectation is that this will net him many northmen both during the march and also from the news of the victory.
  3. Boltons move to Winterfell
    This could be in response to Stannis, or merely just their chosen spot for the wedding; but Stannis expects them to setup at Winterfell.
  4. Trigger Mance’s mission when the wedding is announced
    This is why Mance is so close to Jon, so he observes when the wedding announcement arrives. This triggers his (and Melisandre’s) efforts to leave to be at the wedding in Winterfell. Melisandre and Stannis play off of his desire to ‘save his sister’ in order to garner his involvement.
  5. Stannis would march to a defensible place a small distance from Winterfell.
    From this place Stannis would carefully work on defensive measures, whilst waiting for Arya’s rescue and evidence of the Karstark disclosure of his location.
    It should be noted that the defensible place could not have been known ahead of time, and thus they would slow down as they approached Winterfell in order to spent time looking for a good place to use.
  6. Mance and Mors sow discord, abduct Arya, bring her to Stannis (or hides her).
    Mance sows discord in secret, discord being falsely attributed to a Stannis insider. This drives up discontent and a desire to attack Stannis. Mors shows up in concealment and plays his drums and horns to mislead the enemy that Stannis is nearby. Meanwhile Mance looks for the right opportunity to kidnap Arya and escape, bringing her back to Stannis, guided by Stannis or Mors’s scouts.
  7. The Karstarks betray Stannis’s location
    Stannis waits for evidence that the Karstarks are trying to aid the Boltons. He purposefully allows it to happen and then seizes them.
  8. Having lost their Stark jewel, the Boltons must bring the fight to Stannis.
    Boltons seeing their disadvantage are forced to either watch their allies drift or move forth to attack Stannis in the field.

Obviously this doesn’t disclose just exactly how Stannis defeats these approaching armies. I believe that is something he can’t plan for and has to adapt to. Stannis could not have reasonably planned beyond this point in my estimation.

3 thoughts on “A Strategy Emerges: Stannis and the Discourses on Livy

  1. Tom H.

    Really great analysis – not just this one, but all of them here. You’ve got a really good thing going here! Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  2. Matt

    Great analysis. To take it 1 step further: Stannis’s plan to beat the Bolton host was always to have Jon Snow do it with the wildlings. That is why he wrote the pink letter to lure him out of Castle Black.

    Reply
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