- "Valyria" redirects here. For other related topics, including specifically the capital City of Valyria, see "Valyria (disambiguation)".
- "At its height, the Valyrian Freehold ruled over half the known world, not bad for former shepherds . . ."
- ―Jorah Mormont
The term Valyrian Freehold refers to the area of land controlled by the Valyrians on the continent of Essos. Centered around the city of Valyria in the eponymous peninsula, the Freehold was the greatest civilization of its time, and at the height of its power covered over half the known world.
The Rise of Valyria
Thought to initially be a modest community of shepherds, the Valyrians rose to prominence five thousand years ago after they discovered dragons living in the Fourteen Fires, a string of volcanoes in the mountains of their homeland. After taming the mighty beasts, the Valyrians used them to conquer surrounding lands of the Valyrian Peninsula, and began expanding outwards.
The Ghiscari Empire, located on the the opposite shore of Slaver's Bay from the Valyrians, was the first major power to face them in battle. Seeking to halt Valyrian expansion, the Ghiscari declared war on their neighbors. Massive legions of Ghiscari slave-soldiers marched against Valyria in a series of five major wars, but each time they were defeated. The Freehold's forces then marched on the Ghiscari capital of Ghis and laid waste to it, leaving little more than a smoldering ruin behind and nearly eradicating the Ghiscari people and culture from history.
Afterward, the Valyrian Freehold became the dominant civilization in the known world, with its own language, religion and customs. The Freehold founded a number of colony cities, connected by a network of roads all of which led back to the capital city. Several of these colonies in the west became the Free Cities. They eventually came into conflict with the Rhoynar city-states along the Rhoyne River, leading to the Rhoynish Wars. The fighting culminated about one thousand years ago with the defeat of the Rhoynar and destruction of their cities, with the survivors fleeing in a mass migration led by Nymeria, whose refugee fleet eventually settled in Dorne in southeastern Westeros.
A few centuries ago, one of the great families of Valyria, the Targaryens, established the fortress of Dragonstone on an island off the coast of Westeros, using it as a trading outpost of the Valyrian Freehold.
The Doom and Aftermath
For nearly five thousand years, Valyrian supremacy remained uncontested. However, a cataclysmic event known as "The Doom" - a massive volcanic eruption of the Fourteen Fires - laid waste to the Valyrian capital, its people, and the surrounding lands. The Valyrian peninsula itself was shattered and the ocean came sweeping in, becoming the Smoking Sea. Dragons, as well as Valyrian recorded history, spells, and knowledge were lost. With its center of power destroyed, the empire collapsed. Of the mighty families of dragonlords who ruled the Freehold, only House Targaryen survived, as it had established Dragonstone far across the Narrow Sea years before the Doom.
The surviving colonies of the Valyrian Freehold split up into rival independent city-states. In the west, they became the Free Cities. In the east, the conquered Ghiscari cities of Slaver's Bay reasserted their independence, but five thousand years of Valyrian domination had swept away most of their original culture.
With the heartland of the Freehold destroyed, its surviving colonies to the west and east re-asserted their independence, politically fracturing the continent and initiating a series of savage wars for dominance known as the "Century of Blood", during which Volantis attempted to reform the Valyrian empire under their rule, but ultimately failed. Several of these colonies formed into the Free Cities in the west, and the cities of Slaver's Bay in the east. The Valyrian Peninsula itself in the center remained devastated and largely deserted.
Meanwhile, without the Valyrians and their dragons to keep them in check, the Dothraki mounted hordes swept across the continent from the central plains of the Dothraki Sea, plundering and carving out new domains from surrounding areas - from the Dothraki point of view, the Doom started their own golden age of conquest and expansion. In the far northwest of Essos, the hidden city of Braavos, founded by escaped slaves who fled Valyria, now revealed itself to the world. While the other Valyrian colonies were left in chaos, Braavos was an island of stability because it had no political or economic ties with the Freehold, and quickly rose to become the most powerful of the Free Cities.
The ruins of Valyria in the Smoking Sea remain and are considered to be cursed by other civilizations. Some believe that 'the Doom still rules Valyria', inhabiting it with demons and preventing anyone from ever entering the ruins and emerging alive. In response to the disease known as greyscale, the cities of the east send those most affected by the plague, known as the Stone Men, to the ruins of Valyria to die. The advanced disease means that few, if any, of the Stone Men retain any lucid thought, becoming monstrous creatures who attack any who wander through Valyria.
Surviving colonies in the Free Cities
Note: Braavos wasn't a Valyrian colony, but a hidden city founded by slaves who escaped from Valyria.
Surviving colonies in the Valyrian Peninsula
Surviving cities in Slaver's Bay
In the books
In the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, Valyria had no single ruler and was neither a kingdom nor an empire: officially, all of the freeborn landholders ("free-holders") had equal say in government, hence the formal name of their civilization was the "Valyrian Freehold". In practice, however, this meant that the Freehold was essentially an oligarchy, run by wealthy noble families. There were about forty such families of wealth, high birth, and strong sorcerous ability. Known as Dragonlords, they were the ones that owned dragons and tended to dominate the rest of the population. The Targaryens were one of these families, but far from the most powerful. Because this situation of powerful families was de facto rather than de jure, the dragonlord families were not noble houses as the Westerosi understand them.
The Freehold not only conquered the Ghiscari Empire, but also the city-states of the Rhoynar people established around the Rhoyne river, leading to that people's exodus across the sea to Dorne. The modern Free Cities, as well as several other cities throughout Essos, were established as Valyrian colonies and became independent after the Freehold was shattered. The major exception to this is the Free City of Braavos; located in the extreme northwestern corner of Essos, Braavos was founded by escaped slaves who fled their Valyrian captors, and the city remained hidden even long after the Doom of Valyria. For this reason, Braavos is thus sometimes referred to as the Bastard Daughter of Valyria.
The Valyrians had a strict policy of religious toleration; everyone in the Freehold, from dragonlord to slave, was free to believe in and practice whatever religion they chose, as long as they fulfilled their duties and paid their taxes. In fact, some of the Free Cities were founded by religious dissidents who found the Freehold too tolerant. Allowing such measures was basic good governance on the Valyrians' part, and also a means of keeping their large slave population under relative control (i.e. placated people were less likely to rebel). The Valyrians themselves had their own gods, but the maesters of Westeros believe that the dragonlords were so arrogant that they considered themselves above any religious affiliation, including their own.