George R. R. Martin is a skilled sociologist. His Game of Thrones books contain a well-constructed world with realistic power dynamics. While fictional evidence should never be mistaken for real evidence, fiction can nevertheless be a good way to learn complicated topics from skilled authors, and Martin’s work holds many important lessons. One of these is the reign of Robert Baratheon.
In the books, Robert has a reputation as an embarrassment, and the nobility regard him as failing to live up to the grandeur and dignity of the throne. Robert himself shares this view, and laments that he is out of his depth as an administrator.
However, his reign is a time of unrivaled peace and prosperity. The noble houses keep their uneasy truce. Travel and commerce are safe. The people are untroubled by internal strife or outside threats. The only interruption is Balon Greyjoy’s rebellion, which Robert swiftly crushes at the head of a unified realm. There may be little for historians to write about, but from the perspective of the great mass of peasants, this period is far better than what came before or after, and they love Robert for this.
There’s a telling incident during the initial skirmishes between the Lannisters and the Tullys, before Robert dies and the conflict breaks out into open warfare. A Tully village is sacked by soldiers disguised as bandits. We learn of this from Eddard Stark’s perspective, when the survivors approach the throne to appeal for justice. This is a pivotal step forward in the plot, but also a striking illustration of how the society is functioning: the peasants believe they can appeal to the king and receive justice. Under the reign of an Aerys or a Joffrey, such an appeal would be unlikely to occur and less likely to be granted. Under Robert, however, their faith is not misplaced. Eddard, acting in Robert’s stead, dispatches soldiers to stop the raiders.
The obvious objection here is that the quality of Robert’s rule is merely due to his advisors. Robert himself lacks the interest or ability to govern, and everything is handled by his council. The peasants in the example above spoke to Eddard because Robert was away hunting, and even if he were not, he would have found some excuse to make Eddard do his job. The realm runs smoothly because of the decisions of men like Eddard Stark, Petyr Baelish, Varys, and John Arryn, not Robert Baratheon.
This is true so far as it goes. However, it is Robert who chooses these advisors and keeps them in line. Robert is an excellent judge of character and ability who entrusts matters of state to those best fitted to the roles. Some of his choices show Robert’s reliable competence, such as appointing Arryn as the King’s Hand, or Baelish as treasurer; others show his inspired genius, such as pardoning his former enemy Barristan Selmy to be commander of the Kingsguard. All of Robert’s picks are highly talented, and all are reliable enough while he lives.
Notably, several of these lieutenants turn rogue after Robert’s death in ways they would never have dared during his life. While Robert reigned, Baelish embezzled from the treasury, and once went so far as to send a proxy to poison an old man, whose death was assumed to be natural. Varys kept his sources to himself, but reliably passed his information on to the crown. He even sent an assassin after Daenerys, the prized pawn of Varys’s co-conspirator, rather than disobey Robert’s order to have her killed. These men are opportunists who have a good sense for how far they can push Robert, and never cross the line for fear of his retribution. Once Robert is gone, Baelish and Varys grow bold and uncontrolled, and both eventually murder their lieges with their own hands.
For all his disinterest in the administrative details, Robert is able to manage his subordinates effectively, giving them enough of what they want to keep them working with the system, while making it clear that excessive disloyalty will be crushed. His fascination with tournaments is actually an asset here: it provides the younger generation of knights and young lords with a way to keep busy and win martial glory without getting into costly wars, thus stabilizing a key component of the realm.
However, Robert has a crippling flaw as a leader: he is paying little or no attention to his succession. This leads directly to the civil wars which break out immediately after his death. In a kingdom like Robert’s, where many powerful actors are held together only by the will and skill of a single monarch, that monarch is obviously a massive vulnerability. A good king has two options: either ensure that there is a successor who will take over and continue managing the system, or else restructure the society so that a single powerful leader is less necessary. These methods both have their pros and cons, but Robert does neither. On the one hand, he leaves the position of king as central and powerful as it was when his reign began. On the other hand, he neglects his presumptive heir, making no effort to ensure that Joffrey has the skills or temperament to be a good king, and also neglects the political problems surrounding the succession (in particular, the tensions with Robert’s disaffected brothers and their claims to the throne).
This is why, as soon as Robert is dead, the entire system flies apart and an era of bloody civil war begins. He had the skill to keep the entire complex system under control, and his successors did not.