46

Slavery is rampant in Volantis and Lys. Pentos isn't much better, with indentured servants who are slaves in all but name--and the only reason they aren't slaves in name is because Braavos forbids it. The cities seem to be largely under the boot of powerful trading lords such as Magister Illyrio. So why are they called the Free Cities?

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    Compare to the Free City of Danzig or the Free Cities of the Holy Roman Empire, which, while less autonomous than the Free Cities of Essos, are still the precedent. – hobbs Jun 26 '17 at 6:37
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    Free to have slaves! – Paul D. Waite Jun 26 '17 at 7:18
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    Just adding a quote as reference to the other answers (which are correct : P) >"The Nine Free Cities are the daughters of Valyria that was, but Braavos is the bastard child who ran away from home." >–Priest of the Many-faced God to Cat Of The Canals – Joao Duarte Jun 26 '17 at 8:44
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    @PaulD.Waite "But have you subscribed to all the basic freedoms?" "Yes, Ambassador, to all of them. I am the only ruler in all the worlds who has subscribed to the ultimate freedom. And the ultimate freedom is the freedom to own slaves. There is no freedom more ultimate than this, to own and traffic in the buggers. You know, Ambassador, that I have a good double for you, to take your place if anything happens to you." – user14111 Sep 7 '17 at 8:00
  • The countries that explicitly mention their democratic nature in their name (the Democratic Republic of Congo, the People's Republic of China, the Democratic People's Republic of (North) Korea, ...) are almost stereotypically the worst offenders of their citizens' rights. One can argue that the name is an attempt to counteract the actual day-to-day perception. The Founding Fathers of the US fled from UK persecution, because they were being persecuted by the UK for persecuting others, which they wanted to be able to do. American freedom is (cynically) the freedom to persecute others. – Flater Sep 7 '17 at 13:29
44
+100

Valyria needed more and more precious metals, this led to an expansion of their empire. This expansion led them across Essos to the area in which the Nine were founded. However, they were "free" because they were not directly ruled by the controlling power in Valyria.

On the shores of Essos, the Valyrians raised cities, which we know today as the Free cities, Their origins were diverse.

Qohor and Norvos were founded following religious schisms. Others, such as Old Volantis and Lys, were trading colonies first and foremost, founded by wealthy merchants and nobles who purchased the right to rule themselves as clients of the Freehold rather than subjects. These cities chose their own leaders rather than receiving archons dispatched from Valyria (often on dragonback) to oversee them. It is claimed in some histories that Pentos and Lorath were of a third type—cities already extant before the Valyrians came whose rulers paid homage to Valyria and thus retained their right to native rule. In these cities, what influx of Valyrian blood there was came from migrants from the Freehold, or political marriages used to better bind these cities to Valyria. Yet most of the histories that recount this take as their source Gessio Haratis's Before the Dragons. Haratis was himself from Pentos, and at the time, Volantis was threatening to restore the Valyrian empire under its control, so the notion of an independent Pentos with origins distinct from Valyria was a most politic convenience.

However, it is clear that Braavos is unique among all the Free Cities, as it was founded not by the will of the Freehold, nor by its citizens, but instead by its slaves.

The World of Ice & Fire, Valyria's Children


The distinction that sets the Nine apart is not their size but their origins. At their height before the Doom, other cities, such as Mantarys, Volon Therys, Oros, Tyria, Draconys, Elyria, Mhysa Faer, Rhyos, and Aquos Dhaen were grand and glorious and rich, yet for all their pride and power, none ever ruled itself. They were governed by men and women sent out from Valyria to govern in the name of the Freehold.

Such was never true of Volantis and the rest of the Nine. Though born of Valyria, each was independent of its mother from birth. All but Braavos were dutiful daughters, neither making war upon Valyria nor defying the dragon lords in any matter of significance; they remained willing allies and trading partners of their mother and looked to the Lands of the Long Summer for leadership in times of crisis. In lesser matters, however, the Nine Free Cities went their own ways, under the rule of their own priests and princes and archons and triarchs.

The World of Ice and Fire, The Free Cities

Further reading: A Wiki of Ice and Fire: Free Cities

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    This answer deserves the most votes because it quotes original sources. – RichS Jun 26 '17 at 21:47
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    +1. This is the correct answer (The Colonial Background and being Free of Direct Valyrian rule, thus giving them the name Free cities) and the one which actually cites sources. Idk why the the accepted answer got accepted or 108 UVs – Aegon Jul 3 '17 at 7:15
  • @Aegon It got accepted because it was posted well before the others and serves as a nice, succinct explanation of the incorrect assumptions stated in my question. I can't justify the upvotes; Skooba's answer is definitely the better answer and is the only answer to have my upvote. – ApproachingDarknessFish Jul 3 '17 at 7:55
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    @ApproachingDarknessFish Fastest Gun in the West gets the Upvotes, many times on expense of higher quality answers which are posted after that. None of us have any control over that phenomenon. But Choosing the correct answer is something we, nay, you do have control on. If you think that this is better than the accepted answer, you can and should change the accepted answer. – Aegon Jul 3 '17 at 8:04
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    I have accepted this answer in response to Aegon's comment on the previously accepted answer. – ApproachingDarknessFish Jul 3 '17 at 23:19
103

They rule themselves, and aren't ruled by an outside power. The freedom is on the level of the city, not on the level of the individual person within the cities.

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    So, basically a city-state? – xDaizu Jun 26 '17 at 10:10
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    @xDaizu - just do a CTRL-F for "free city" in that article, please. Those are literal synonyms. – Davor Jun 26 '17 at 13:28
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    @Davor I know, I know, that's why I added the link. My comment was not defiant of the answer, it was supportive! In any case, I was confused that J-Smith didn't mention the well-known historical term, that's why I proposed it, in case they wanted to edit it in :) – xDaizu Jun 26 '17 at 14:15
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    The cities were free do to whatever they liked, such as keep slaves. Liberty for me, not for thee at its finest. – Shadur Jun 27 '17 at 10:50
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    @Davor I would understand that free city is a city state which is either surrounded or have been surrounded by larger states. I wouldn't call Greek city-states free cities, neither cities on pre-Roman Italian peninsula. – Maciej Piechotka Jun 27 '17 at 18:45
32

The free cities are free of Valyria, from who they broke free when Valyria fell. Braavos which was founded by slaves who fled Valyria rather than breaking free later is a free city in the same sense.

They are self-governed cities owing no allegiance to any empire. Their individual interpretations of civil rights are not the reason for the name; although in Braavos, the title could possibly have dual meaning.

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    The first part is not correct, they free cities never had to break free... they were free from the start. – Skooba Jun 26 '17 at 19:43
8

The Free Cities originally were colonies of the Valyrian Freehold - most of them directly, only Braavos was an exception as it was founded by former Valyrian slaves and never directly under Valyrian control, although it still had to fear its former masters. When Valyria was destroyed, they got freedom from their overlords, so they called themselves the "Free Cities".

Compare it to the many similar labels the United States got after their indepence. From the perspective of poor European peasants (slaves but in name too), it was the "Land of the Free" for sure - no aristocrats around anymore. Yet it did have it's very own slaves (from Africa) that only gradually got the same rights as their white neighbours (and one could argue that they are still not entirely equal today).

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    Your answer isn't wrong but as others have pointed out, it's more about self-government not about individual rights. "Free cities" were a real thing in Europe. – Chris Jun 26 '17 at 8:34
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    That is what I wrote in the first paragraph, isn't it? They gained indepence from Valyria. The US example is to show that winning independence from outside "masters" doesn't automatically equal having equal rights on the inside in the real world either. – Annatar Jun 26 '17 at 8:45

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