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William Robertson

A View of the Progress of Society in Europe from the Subversion of the Roman Empire to the Beginning of the Sixteenth Century (1769)

Section III (pp. 106-119)

Note editoriali

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations

View of the political constitution of the principal states in Europe, at the commencement of the sixteenth century.

Italy at the beginning of the Sixteenth Century - The Papal Power - Alexander VI. and Julius II. - Defects in Ecclesiastical Governments - Venice; its Rise and Progress; its Naval Power and its Commerce - Florence - Naples and Sicily - Contest for its Crown - Duchy of Milan - Ludovico Sforza - Spain, conquered by the Vandals and by the Moors; gradually re-conquered by the Christians - Marriage of Ferdinand and Isabella - The Royal Prerogative - Constitution of Aragon and of Castile - Internal Disorders - " The Holy Brotherhood" - France; its Constitution and Government - The Power of its Early Kings - Government becomes purely Monarchical, though restrained by the Nobles and the Parliament - The German Empire - Power of the Nobles and of the Clergy - Contest between the Popes and the Emperors - Decline of Imperial Authority - Total Change of Government - Maximilian - The real Power and Revenues of the Emperors, contrasted with their Pretensions - Complication of Difficulties - Origin of the Turkish Empire: its Character - The Janizaries - Solyman.


Having thus enumerated the principal causes and events, the influence of which was felt in every part of Europe, and contributed either to improve internal order and police in its various states, or to enlarge the sphere of their activity, by giving them more entire command of the force with which foreign operations are carried on; nothing farther seems requisite for preparing my readers to enter, [107] with full information, upon perusing the history of Charles V, but to give a view of the political constitution and form of civil government in each of the nations which acted any considerable part during that period. For as the institutions and events which I have endeavoured to illustrate, formed the people of Europe to resemble each other, and conducted them from barbarism to refinement, in the same path, and by nearly equal steps; there were other circumstances which occasioned a difference in their political establishments, and gave rise to those peculiar modes of government, which have produced such variety in the character and genius of nations.

It is no less necessary to become acquainted with the latter, than to have contemplated the former. Without a distinct knowledge of the peculiar form and genius of civil government in each state, a great part of its transactions must appear altogether mysterious and inexplicable. The historians of particular countries, as they seldom extended their views farther than to the amusement or instruction of their fellow-citizens, by whom they might presume that all their domestic customs and institutions were perfectly understood, have often neglected to descend into such details with respect to these, as are sufficient to convey to foreigners full light and information concerning the occurrences which they relate. But a history, which comprehends the transactions of so many different countries, would be extremely imperfect, without a previous survey of the constitution and political state of each. It is from his knowledge of these, that the reader must draw those principles, which will enable him to judge with discernment, and to decide with certainty, concerning the conduct of nations.

A minute detail, however, of the peculiar forms and regulations in every country, would lead to deductions of immeasurable length. To sketch out the great lines which distinguish and characterise each government, is all that [108] the nature of my present work will admit of, and all that is necessary to illustrate the events which it records.

At the opening of the sixteenth century, the political aspect of Italy was extremely different from that of any other part of Europe. Instead of those extensive monarchies, which occupied the rest of the continent, that delightful country was parcelled out among many small states, each of which possessed sovereign and independent jurisdiction. The only monarchy in Italy was that of Naples. The dominion of the popes was of a peculiar species, to which there is nothing similar either in ancient or modern times. In Venice, Florence, and Genoa, a republican form of government was established. Milan was subject to sovereigns, who had assumed no higher title than that of dukes.

The pope was the first of these powers in dignity, and not the least considerable by extent of his territories. In the primitive church, the jurisdiction of bishops was equal and co-ordinate. They derived, perhaps, some degree of consideration from the dignity of the see in which they presided. They possessed, however, no real authority or pre-eminence, but what they acquired by superior abilities, or superior sanctity. As Rome had so long been the seat of empire, and the capital of the world, its bishops were on that account entitled to respect; they received it; but during several ages they received and even claimed nothing more. From these humble beginnings, they advanced with such adventurous and well-directed ambition, that they established a spiritual dominion over the minds and sentiments of men, to which all Europe submitted with implicit obedience. Their claim of universal jurisdiction, as heads of the church, and their pretensions to infallibility in their decisions, as successors of St. Peter, are as chimerical as they are repugnant to the genius of the Christian religion. But on these foundations the superstition and credulity of mankind enabled them [109] to erect an amazing superstructure. In all ecclesiastical controversies, their decisions were received as the infallible oracles of truth. Nor was the plenitude of their power confined solely to what was spiritual; they dethroned monarchs; disposed of crowns; absolved subjects from the obedience due to their sovereigns; and laid kingdoms under interdicts. There was not a state in Europe which had not been disquieted by their ambition; there was not a throne which they had not shaken; nor a prince who did not tremble at their power.

Nothing was wanting to render this empire absolute, and to establish it on the ruins of all civil authority, but that the popes should have possessed such a degree of temporal power, as was sufficient to second and enforce their spiritual decrees. Happily for mankind, at the time when their spiritual jurisdiction was most extensive and most revered, their secular dominion was extremely limited. They were powerful pontiffs, formidable at a distance; but they were petty princes, without any considerable domestic force. They had early endeavoured, indeed, to acquire territory by arts similar to those which they had employed in extending their spiritual jurisdiction. Under pretence of a donation from Constantine, and of another from Charlemagne or his father Pepin, they attempted to take possession of some towns adjacent to Rome. But these donations were fictitious, and availed them little. The benefactions, for which they were indebted to the credulity of the Norman adventurers, who conquered Naples, and to the superstition of the Countess Matilda, were real, and added ample domains to the holy see.

But the power of the popes did not increase in proportion to the extent of territory which they had acquired. In the dominions annexed to the holy see, as well as in those subject to other princes in Italy, the sovereign of a state was far from having the command of a force which it contained. During the turbulence and confusion of the middle [110] ages, the powerful nobility, or leaders of popular factions in Italy, had seized the government of different towns; and, after strengthening their fortifications, and taking a body of mercenaries into pay, they aspired at independence. The territory which the church had gained was filled with petty lords of this kind, who left the pope hardly the shadow of dominion.

As these usurpations almost annihilated the papal power in the greater part of the towns subject to the church, the Roman barons frequently disputed the authority of the popes, even in Rome itself. In the twelfth century, an opinion began to be propagated, "That as the function of ecclesiastics was purely spiritual, they ought to possess no property, and to claim no temporal jurisdiction; but, according to the laudable example of their predecessors in the primitive church, should subsist wholly upon their tithes, or upon the voluntary oblations of the people" (1).

This doctrine being addressed to men who had beheld the scandalous manner in which the avarice and ambition of the clergy had prompted them to contend for wealth, and to exercise power, they listened to it with fond attention. The Roman barons, who had felt most sensibly the rigour of ecclesiastical oppression, adopted these sentiments with such ardour, that they set themselves instantly to shake off the yoke [1143]. They endeavoured to restore some image of their ancient liberty, by reviving the institution of the Roman senate, in which they vested supreme authority; committing the executive power sometimes to one chief senator, sometimes to two, and sometimes to a magistrate dignified with the name of The Patrician. The popes exerted them with vigour, in order to check this dangerous encroachment on their jurisdiction. One of them, finding all his endeavours ineffectual, was so much mortified, that extreme grief cut short his days. Another, having ventured to attack the senators at the head of some armed [111] men, was mortally wounded in the fray (2). During a considerable period, the power of the popes, before which the greatest monarchs in Europe trembled, was circumscribed wwithin such narrow limits in their own capital, that they durst hardly exert any act of authority without the permission and concurrence of the senate.

Encroachments were made upon the papal sovereigntyt, not only by the usurpations of the Roman nobility, but by the mutinous spirit of the people. During seventy years of the fourteenth century [1308-1377], the popes fixed their residence in Avignon. The inhabitants of Rome, accustomed to consider themselves as the descendants of the people who had conquered the world, and had given laws to it, were too high-spirited to submit with patience to the delegated authority of those persons to whom the popes committed the government of the city. On many occasions they opposed the execution of the papal mandates, and on the slightest appearance of innovation or oppression, they were ready to take arms in defence of their own immunities. Towards the middle of the fourteenth century, being instigated by Nicholas Rienzo, a man of low birth and a seditious spirit, but of popular eloquence and an enterprising ambition, they drove all the nobility out of the city, established a democratical form of government, elected Rienzo tribune of the people, and invested him with extensive authority. But though the frantic proceedings of the tribune soon overturned this new system; though the government of Rome was reinstated in its ancient form; yet every fresh attack contributed to weaken the papal jurisdiction: and the turbulence of the people concurred with the spirit of independence among the nobility, in circumscribing it more and more (3) [112]. Gregory VII and other domineering pontiffs accomplished those great things which rendered them so formidable to the emperors with whom they contended, not by the force of their arms, or by the extent of their power, but by the dread of their spiritual censures, and by the effect of their intrigues, which excited rivals, and called forth enemies against every prince whom they wished to depress or to destroy.

Many attempts were made by the popes, not only to humble those usurpers who lorded it over the cities in the ecclesiastical state, but to break the turbulent spirit of the Roman people. These were long unsuccessful. But at last Alexander VI, with a policy no less artful than flagitious, subdued or extirpated most of the great Roman barons, and rendered the popes masters of their own dominions. The enterprising ambition of Julius II added conquests of no inconsiderable value to the patrimony of St. Peter. Thus the popes, by degrees, became powerful temporal princes. Their territories, in the age of Charles V, were of greater extent than at present; their country seems to have been better cultivated as well as more populous; and, as they drew large contributions from every part of Europe, their revenues far exceeded those of the neighbouring powers, and rendered them capable of more sudden and vigorous efforts.

The genius of the papal government, however, was better adapted to the exercise of spiritual dominion than of temporal power. With respect to the former, all its maxims were steady and invariable; every new pontiff adopted the plan of his predecessor. By education and habit, ecclesiastics were so formed, that the character of the individual was sunk in that of the profession; and the passions of the man were sacrificed to the interest and honour of the order. The hands which held the reins of administration might change, but the spirit which conducted them was always the same. While the measures of other governments fluctuated, and the objects at which they aimed varied, the church kept one end in view; and to this unrelaxing constancy of pursuit it was indebted for its success in the boldest attempts ever made by human ambition.

But in their civil administration, the popes followed no such uniform or consistent plan. There, as in other governments, the character, the passions, and the interest of the person who had the supreme direction of affairs, occasioned a variation both in objects and measures. As few prelates reached the summit of ecclesiastical dignity until they were far advanced in life, a change of masters was more frequent in the papal dominions than in other states, and the political system was, of course, less stable and permanent. Every pope was eager to make the most of the short period during which he had the prospect of enjoying power, in order to aggrandize his own family, and to attain his private ends; and it was often the first business of his successor to undo all that he had done, and to overturn what he had established.

As ecclesiastics were trained to pacific arts, and early initiated in the mysteries of that policy by which the court of Rome extended or supported its spiritual dominion, the popes, in the conduct of their temporal affairs, were apt to follow the same maxims, and in all their measures were more ready to employ the refinements of intrigue than the force of arms. It was in the papal court that address and subtlety in negotiation became a science; and during the sixteenth century, Rome was considered as the school in which it might be best acquired.

As the decorum of their ecclesiastical character prevented the popes from placing themselves at the head of their armies, or from taking the command in person of the military force in their dominions, they were afraid to arm their subjects; and in all their operations, whether offensive or defensive, they trusted entirely to mercenary troops.

As their power and dominions could not descend to their [114] posterity, the popes were less solicitous than other princes to form or to encourage schemes of public utility and improvement. Their tenure was only for a short life; present advantage was what they chiefly studied; to squeeze and to amass, rather than to meliorate, was their object. They erected, perhaps, some work of ostentation, to remain as a monument of their pontificate; they found it necessary, at some times, to establish useful institutions, in order to soothe and silence the turbulent populace of Rome; but plans of general benefit of their subjects, framed with a view to futurity, were rarely objects of attention in the papal policy. The patrimony of St. Peter was worse governed than any part of Europe; and though a generous pontiff might suspend for a little, or counteract the effects of those vices which are peculiar to the administration of ecclesiastics, the disease not only remained without remedy, but has gone on increasing from age to age; and the decline of the state has kept pace with its progress.

One circumstance farther, concerning the papal government, is so singular as to merit attention. As the spiritual supremacy and temporal power were united in one person, and uniformly aided each other in their operations, they became so blended together that it was difficult to separate them, even in imagination. The potentates who found it necessary to oppose the measures which the popes pursued as temporal princes, could not easily divest themselves of the reverence which they imagined to be due to them as heads of the church and vicars of Jesus Christ. It was with reluctance that they could be brought to a rupture with the head of the church; they were unwilling to push their operations against him to extremity; they listened eagerly to the first overtures of accommodation, and were anxious to procure it almost upon any terms. Their consciousness of this encouraged the enterprising pontiffs, who filled the papal throne about the beginning of the sixteenth century, to engage in schemes seemingly the most extravagant. [115] They trusted that if their temporal power was not sufficient to carry them through with success, the respect paid to their spiritual dignity would enable them to extricate themselves with facility and with honour (4). But when popes came to take part more frequently in the contests among princes, and to engage as principals or auxiliaries in every war kindled in Europe, this veneration for their sacred character began to abate; and striking instances will occur in the following history of its being almost totally extinct.

Of all the Italian powers. the republic of Venice, next to the papal see, was most connected with the rest of Europe. The rise of that commonwealth, during the inroads of the Huns in the fifth century; the singular situation of its capital in the small isles of the Adriatic Gulf; and the more singular form of its civil constitution, are generally known. If we view the Venetian government as calculated for the order of nobles alone, its institutions may be pronounced excellent; the deliberative, legislative, and executive powers, are so admirably distributed and adjusted, that it must be regarded as a perfect model of political wisdom. But if we consider it as formed for a numerous body of people subject to its jurisdiction, il will appear a rigid and partial aristocracy, which lodges all power in the hands of a few [116] members of the community, while it degrades and oppresses the rest.

The spirit of government, in a commonwealth of this species, was, of course, timid and jealous. The Venetian nobles distrusted their own subjects, and were afraid of allowing them the use of arms. They encouraged among them arts of industry and commerce; they employed them in manufactures and in navigation; but never admitted them into the troops which the state kept in its pay. The military force of the republic consisted entirely of foreign mercenaries. The command of these was never trusted to noble Venetians, lest they should acquire such influence over the army as might endanger the public liberty; or become accustomed tot he exercise of such power, as would make them unwilling to return to the condition of private citizens. A soldier of fortune was placed at the head of the armies of the commonwealth; and to obtain that honour was the great object of the Italian condottieri, or leaders of bands, who, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, made a trade of war, and raised and hired out soldiers to different states. But the same suspicious policy, which induced the Venetians to employ these adventurers, prevented their placing entire confidence in them. Two noblemen, appointed by the senate, accompanied their army when it took the field, with the appellation of proveditori, and, like the field deputies of Dutch republic in later times, observed all the motions of the general, and checked and controlled him in all his operations.

A commonwealth, with such civil and military institutions, was not formed to make conquests. While its subjects were disarmed, and its nobles excluded from military command, it carried on it warlike enterprises with great disadvantage. This ought to have taught the Venetians to rest satisfied with making self-preservation, and the enjoyment of domestic security, the objects of their policy. But republics are apt to be seduced by the spirit of ambition, [117] as well as kings. When the Venetians so far forgot the interior defects in their government, as to aim at extensive conquests, the fatal blow which they received in the war, excited by the league of Cambray, convinced them of the imprudence and danger of making violent efforts in opposition to the genius and tendency of their constitution.

It is not, however, by its military, but by its naval and commercial power, that the importance of the Venetian commonwealth must be estimated. The latter constituted the real force and nerves of the state. The jealousy of government did not extend to this department. Nothing was apprehended from this quarter that could prove formidable to liberty. The senate encouraged the nobles to trade, and to serve on board the fleet. They became merchants and admirals. They increased the wealth of their country by their industry. They added to its dominions, by the valour with which they conducted its naval armaments.

Commerce was an inexhaustible source of opulence to the Venetians. All the nations in Europe depended upon them, not only for the commodities of the East, but for various manufactures fabricated by them alone, or finished with a dexterity and elegance unknown in other countries. From this extensive commerce, the state derived such immense supplies, as concealed those vices in its constitution which I have mentioned; and enabled it to keep on foot such armies, as were not only an over-match for the force which any of its neighbours could bring into the field, but were sufficient to contend, for some time, with the powerful monarchs beyond the Alps. During its struggles with the princes united against it by the league at Cambray, the republic levied sums which, even in the present age, would be deemed considerable; and while the king of France paid the exorbitant interest which I have mentioned for the money advanced to him, and the emperor, eager to borrow, but destitute of credit, was known by the name of Maximilian [118] the moneyless, the Venetians raised whatever sums they pleased, at the moderate premium of five in the hundred (5).

The constitution of Florence was perfectly the reverse of the Venetian. It partook as much of democratical turbulence and licentiousness, as the other of aristocratical rigour. Florence, however, was a commercial, not a military democracy. The nature of its institutions was favourable to commerce, and the genius of the people was turned towards it. The vast wealth which the family of Medici had acquired by trade, together with the magnificence, the generosity, and the virtue of the first Cosmo, gave him such an ascendant over the affections as well as the councils of his countrymen, that though the forms of popular government were preserved, though the various departments of administration were filled by magistrates distinguished by the ancient names, and elected in the usual manner, he was in reality the head of the commonwealth; and in the station of a private citizen, he possessed supreme authority. Cosmo transmitted a considerable degree of this power to his descendants; and during the greater part of the fifteenth century the political state of Florence was extremely singular. The appearance of republican government subsisted, the people were passionately attached to it, and on some occasions contended warmly for their privileges; and yet they permitted a single family to assume the direction of their affairs, almost as absolutely as if it had been formally invested with sovereign power. The jealousy of the Medici concurred with the commercial spirit of the Florentines, in putting the military force of the republic upon the same footing with that of the other Italian states. The troops which the Florentines employed in their wars consisted almost entirely of mercenary soldiers, furnished by the condottieri, or leaders of bands, whom they took into their pay.

[119] In the kingdom of Naples, to which the sovereignty of the island of Sicily was annexed, the feudal government was established in the same form, and with the same defects, as in the other nations of Europe. The frequent and violent revolutions which happened in that monarchy had considerably increased these defects, and rendered them more intolerable. The succession to the crown of Naples had been so often interrupted or altered, and so many princes of foreign blood had, at different periods, obtained possession of the throne, that the Neapolitan nobility had lost, in a great measure, that attachment to the family of their sovereigns, as well as that reverence for their persons, which, in other feudal kingdom, contributed to set some bounds to the encroachments of the barons upon the royal prerogative and power. At the same time, the different pretenders to the crown, being obliged to court the barons who adhered to them, and on whose support they depended for the success of their claims, they augmented their privileges by liberal concessions, and connived at their boldest usurpations. Even when seated on the throne, it was dangerous for a prince, who held his sceptre by a disputed title, to venture on any step towards extending his own power, or circumscribing that of the nobles.

From all these causes, the kingdom of Naples was the most turbulent of any in Europe, and the authority of its monarchs the least extensive. Though Ferdinand I., who began his reign in the year one thousand four hundred and sixty-eight, attempted to break the power of the aristocracy; though his son Alphonso, that he might crush it at once by cutting off the leaders of greatest reputation and influence among the Neapolitan barons, ventured to commit one of the most perfidious and cruel actions recorded in history [1487]; the order of nobles was nevertheless more exasperated than humbled by their measures (6).

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations


(1) Otto Frisingensis de Gestis Frider. Imp. lib. II. cap. 10.

(2) Otto Frising. Chron. lib. VII. cap. 27, 31. Id. de Gest. Frid. lib. I. c. 27. Muratori, Annali d’Italia, vol. IX. 398, 404.

(3) Histoire Florentine de Giov. Villani, liv. XII. c. 89. 104 ap. Murat. Script. Rerum Ital. vol. XIII. Vita di Cola di Rienzo, ap. Murat. Antiq. Ital. vol. III. p. 399, &c. Hist. de Nic. Rienzy, par M. d. Boispréaux, p. 91, &c.

(4) The manner in which Louis XII of France undertook and carried on war against Julius II. remarkably illustrates this observation. Louis solemnly consulted the clergy of France, whether it was lawful to take arms against a pope who had wantonly kindled war in Europe, and whom neither the faith of treaties, nor gratitude for favours received, nor the decorum of his character, could restrain from the most violent actions to which the lust of power prompts ambitious princes. Though his clergy authorized the war, yet Anne of Bretagne, his queen, entertained scruples with regard to the lawfulness of it. The king, himself, from some superstition of the same kind, carried it on faintly; and, upon every fresh advantage, renewed his propositions of peace. Mézéray, Hist. de France, fol. edit. 1685, tom. I, 852. I shall produce another proof of this reverence for the papal character, still more striking. Guicciardini, the most sagacious, perhaps, of all modern historians, and the boldest in painting the vices and ambition of the popes, represents the death of Migliau, a Spanish officer, who was killed during the siege of Naples, as a punishment inflicted on him having opposed the setting of Clement VII. at liberty. Guic. Istoria d’Italia, Genev. 1645, vol. II, lib. 18, p. 467.

(5) Hist. de la Ligue faite à Cambray, par M. l’Abbé du Bos, liv. V. Sandi, Storia Civile Veneziana, liv. VIII, c. 16. p. 891, &c.

(6) Giannone, book XXVIII, ch. 2, vol. II, p. 410, &c.

Home | Editorial note | Preface | Section I | Par. i-ii | Par. iii-v | Par vi-x | Section II
Section III (pp. 106-119)
| Section III (pp. 120-139) | Section III (pp. 141-166)
Proofs & Illustrations