Machiavellian Genius


When it comes to understanding Stannis’s military mind, there are a few good questions to start with:

What is the inspiration for Stannis’s military genius?

Where does he get his principles regarding the conduct of warfare?

How do these notions support the allegations in the Night Lamp theory that Stannis intentionally deceived people about Mance Rayder and also the Karstark betrayal?

Taking a brief look through military thinkers from the real-world, particular those from the antiquity, we make an interesting discovery:

Given what we know, Stannis shares much in common with Livy and in particular the commentaries that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote about Livy in his seminal military works, Discourses on Livy and The Art of War.

This essay aims to highlight the strong parallels between the Discourses on Livy, The Art of War and the strategies Stannis is using.

The value of this effort is not predictive but supportive: by establishing a congruency with known historical geniuses we provide a context that implies Stannis’s resourcefulness is not strictly constrained to the battlefield and to a dogmatic obedience to ‘justice’ or ‘lawfulness’.

NOTE: This essay is optional in that it only provides context for some of Stannis’s fundamental strategies. If you are more interested in seeing how Stannis conquers the north, you may wish to directly proceed to the first essay in the second volume of the Mannifesto, The Road to Barrowton.


  1. Stannis the Student. Evidence of a critical reader of history.
  2. Lessons from the Real. The various lessons from Machiavelli that seem to have applicability for Stannis.
  3. Conclusion. Putting these findings together, what they say about Stannis’s holistic approach to military campaigns.


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?”

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.

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Several passages from Livy are incredibly relevant when it comes to understanding the complexity of Stannis, both as a general and as a politician.

The use of religion as a catalyst for political gain

And it is seen that for Romulus to institute the Senate and to make the other civil and military arrangements, the authority of God was not necessary, but it was very necessary for Numa, who pretended he had met with a Nymph who advised him of that which he should counsel the people; and all this resulted because he wanted to introduce new ordinances and institutions in that City, and was apprehensive that his authority was not enough. And truly there never was any extraordinary institutor of laws among a people who did not have recourse to God, because otherwise he would not have been accepted; for they (these laws) are very well known by prudent men, but which by themselves do not contain evident reasons capable of persuading others. Wise men who want to remove this difficulty, therefore, have recourse to God. Thus did Lycurgus, thus Solon, thus many others who had the same aims as they.

This passage essentially suggests that when needed, a leader can resort to invoking religion to establish popular support for an otherwise unpopular idea.

When you consider this in context with Stannis is makes entirely too much sense. His men are completely outnumbered on Dragonstone and yet they agree to support his cause, many of them because of the apparent support of R’hllor.

And yet Stannis clearly only cares for the red god and Melisandre insofar as they serve his needs:

“When I was a lad I found an injured goshawk and nursed her back to health. Proudwing, I named her. She would perch on my shoulder and flutter from room to room after me and take food from my hand, but she would not soar. Time and again I would take her hawking, but she never flew higher than the treetops. Robert called her Weakwing. He owned a gyrfalcon named Thunderclap who never missed her strike. One day our great-uncle Ser Harbert told me to try a different bird. I was making a fool of myself with Proudwing, he said, and he was right.” Stannis Baratheon turned away from the window, and the ghosts who moved upon the southern sea. “The Seven have never brought me so much as a sparrow. It is time I tried another hawk, Davos. A red hawk.”

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Allowing an enemy to starve itself

No one should commit his fortune against a host, which time and the disadvantage of the place makes to deteriorate daily.

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.

What’s even more amazing about this passage is that Stannis virtually cites it himself, specifically with regards to his campaign against the Boltons:

“Bolton has blundered,” the king declared. “All he had to do was sit inside his castle whilst we starved.”

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The risk of waiting

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.

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.

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Goading an enemy via deceit

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.

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.

This of course ties into the abduction of Arya. In addition to the various other reasons for immediately attempting to recapture her from Stannis, the Boltons are put in the position of being ‘defeated’ through trickery which is far less glorious a defeat than on the battlefield. This could be a factor in helping to goad them into attacking.

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Encouraging retreat

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.

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.

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Winning by necessity

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.

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.

When you consider that Stannis’s men are starving, there is the very real sense that a victory at the crofter’s village and the capture of the Frey supplies is imperative in order to survive.

Once again Stannis imply this same idea:

“His men will be well nourished, ours go into battle with empty bellies.”

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The fair use of deceit

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.

When you consider the ideas proposed in this series of essays, deception has been a key part of Stannis’s overall campaign strategy, both in the north and elsewhere.

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The loyalty of the discontent

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.

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.

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Espionage and Inception

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.

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.

This is most powerfully realized when you consider that Mance’s abduction coerces a Bolton attack, thus granting Stannis the advantage of forcing his opponent to act in a manner of his choosing.

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Handling Enemy Spies

If you should have present in your army someone who keeps the enemy advised of your designs, you cannot do better if you want to avail yourself of his evil intentions, than to communicate to him those things you do not want to do, and keep silent those things you want to do, and tell him you are apprehensive of the things of which you are not apprehensive, and conceal those things of which you are apprehensive: which will cause the enemy to undertake some enterprise, in the belief that he knows your designs, in which you can deceive him and defeat him.

If Stannis suspects that agents of the Boltons have infiltrate his forces in an attempt to gain intelligence, rather than destroy these spies out right, he should attempt to poison the knowledge that they provide to the Boltons.

This facet of deception provides vital on several occasions for Stannis.

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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. Indeed, Stannis more-or-less paraphrases a few of them, and where he does not his actions exemplify them.

These ideas reinforce the basis for arguing that Stannis is not a simple general, but someone who employs a great deal of intelligence of dexterity in his campaigns. This in turns serves to lend additional credence to my suggestions of his deceits regarding Mance Rayder and the Karstarks, in other essays in this series.

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<the mannifesto>

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2 thoughts on “Machiavellian Genius

  1. heidelbergchad

    I like the thinking behind this, but it seems to me that the biggest problem with it is that you conclude that Stannis tricked Bolton into sending troops to battle outside of Winterfell as a result of the abduction. Stannis could not have possibly goaded Bolton into attacking by abducting “Arya” because the decision to send out troops was made in response to infighting between the Freys and the Manderlys, which served as a cover to the abduction. The sequence of events don’t allow for the motivations you attribute to them.

    1. cantuse Post author

      My theory is based on what would have happened—had Little Walder not died. That event precipitated a massive deviation from the original plan.


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