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Private Defense in the History of Genoa

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The city of Genoa is often excluded from histories of medieval and Renaissance republicanism. Similarly, Genoa is also absent from discussions on the rise of territorial states in northern Italy. This exclusion can be explained in various ways. To be sure, the Genoese have demonstrated a lack of interest in writing political philosophy and in intellectualizing their civic values. But, more importantly, Genoa represents an unwelcome contradiction for all the comprehensive theses proposed by scholars to describe the “progress” from medieval chaos to modern state building and statecraft. In other words, because statist historians do not know how to tackle Genoa, they very often ignore it. In this article, I will not give a complete account of the history of Genoa—its rise as a maritime community in response to Islamic raids, its sophisticated constitutional history, and its countless commercial colonies and business networks scattered across the Mediterranean world and beyond.1  I do not have the space to accomplish all this.

Rather, my aim here is to focus on a particular aspect of Genoese history, namely, military organization and defense. I shall not flesh out a systematic theory of private defense, its practical feasibility and its moral superiority to various forms of warfare state and to the state monopoly of violence, because I would not be qualified to attempt such an endeavor, and anyway Hans-Hermann Hoppe, Bob Murphy, and Walter Block (among others) have already articulated such a theory.2  Instead, I will simply offer some examples of historical episodes surrounding private wealth and private arms in Genoa that do not fit current historical narratives about the rise of the modern, militarized and territorial state. I include private wealth in this discussion, because, as we shall see, private wealth was strictly linked to the ability to raise private armies, build private fleets, and develop financial/diplomatic ties akin to insurance.

In a sense, what I wish to do is simply wonder. Does the history of Genoa—and in this instance, specifically, its tradition of private defense—fit into modernist, teleological narratives about state formation? Does it exemplify, or even simply imperfectly sketch, an alternative to state-run monopolies of violence—an alternative that is more respectful of property rights and less conducive to wasteful aggression? This subject is relevant for Austro-libertarians, because if we wish to question the legitimacy of the modern state, we have to explore examples from history that show how all government “services” have at some point been offered in alternative, effective ways by private actors or privatized “governments.”

Private Wealth

The Italian Wars were a long and tragic series of conflicts starting in 1494 and fought mainly across the Italian Peninsula. They had a multiplicity of objectives, among which were the control of cities such as Milan and Naples but also the leadership of Christendom in the difficult fight against Ottoman Islam. To make a long story short, the main contestants were France—a kingdom that since the end of the Hundred Years’ War had become one of the most militarized on the entire continent—and Spain—whose Habsburg rulers held a transnational collection of crowns and titles including of the Holy Roman Empire. This conflict between regional powers kickstarted or hastened the demise of medieval communes and local self-government in Italy, because small states could not survive in the brave new world of large standing and mercenary armies raised by foreign princes. To survive, independent Italian states had to come to their senses and modernize, tax away, and build efficient bureaucracies. This, in a nutshell, is the story we are told. A triumph of Machiavellian determinism.

And yet it is interesting to consider what happened in the late 1530s, when the French king Francis I sent a request to the Genoese doge (the traditional title for the head of government in Genoa). The request was very straightforward: Francis I knew that Genoese funds were being used by his Habsburg rival, Charles V, to finance military campaigns, and because Genoese merchants were at that time trying to mend the relations between their city and France in order to continue to access the French markets, Francis demanded as a sign of goodwill that the doge order some public funds to be lent to his court as well, not just to the Habsburg Spanish one. The reply that the French king received from Genoa shows the intellectual and ideological gap separating this Italian republic from its increasingly “modern” neighbors. The doge and the Genoese government, baffled by the French request, explained how in Genoa the state owned almost nothing and its funds were very limited. The doge went on to explain to the French court that yes, it was true that the Spanish monarch had received money from Genoa, but he had done so by dealing on the capital market and borrowing money from private Genoese citizens, aristocratic families, and professional moneylenders. If the French king needed funds, he was very welcome to do the same.

Was the doge bluffing? No. He was not. Since the fourteenth century, Genoa’s constitutional order had embodied a medieval conception of freedom that favored the dispersion of power and limited public expenditures. And from the fifteenth century, the creation of the Bank of St. George had represented yet another obstacle to the centralization of power and state formation. St. George was not merely a bank, but rather a spontaneous, crossclass organization of creditors who effectively privatized tax farming and took over the administration of the colonies in the Levant: very often the members of the assembly of St. George were the same businessmen who had invested in trade across the Mediterranean. They were skeptical toward the idea of empowering a specific doge or the communal government with a standing army or a navy—yet they were ready to put together funds necessary to ensure the survival of their colonies and the rule of law. As a result of these institutional changes (which I can only mention here), sixteenth-century Genoa was still a medieval polity, with a series of overlapping jurisdictions, and a city of private family wealth and power—what George Gorse has aptly described as the “antithesis of Venice.”3

Private Arms

The exchange of missives about a loan to the French court had not been the first misunderstanding—to use a euphemism—between the French and the Genoese. Genoa had started the Italian Wars on the French side, and it had even been sacked by Spanish troops in 1522. Coups and countercoups were too many to list and would be boring and pointless. What is significant is that during the 1520s, as Genoese-French relations deteriorated, the Genoese and the Spanish Habsburg monarchy slowly, at times painfully, but progressively understood each other. The Habsburgs had crushed the last ambitions of medieval liberty in Castile, but the rest of their empire (including other parts of Spain such as Aragon) was a loose patchwork of different political and institutional traditions, a composite monarchy that had to be mindful of local autonomy and tactful in dealing with issues concerning military support and financial contributions. The Habsburgs had to weave a network of different local elites, an international pool of families ready and willing to contribute funds, troops, and warships—for reasons as varied as prestige in their own communities, a shared religious faith, and personal friendship with the emperor.

This Habsburg system was comparatively flexible and, for the Genoese people, much more palatable than the arrogant French demands for military “contributions”—that is, for extraordinary taxation. The progressive mutual understanding between Genoa and Habsburg Spain created the conditions for a change in alliances. First as a consequence of the 1522 sacking and then in the aftermath of an anti-French aristocratic coup, Genoa switched sides, and by 1528 the Spanish-Genoese alliance (which would last for more than a century) had been born.

This alliance was based on mutual interests and on the respect that the Spanish emperor showed toward Genoa’s independence and constitutional organization. I want to stress once again that it was through a process of diplomatic trial and error that the Spaniards realized just how irascible the Genoese could be when a friend overstepped and attempted to treat them like a dependency or (worse) like a “modern” polity with public funds and public assets. In 1524, in the aftermath of the Spanish sack of Genoa and during a first attempt to coordinate Spanish and Genoese interests, the emperor Charles V ordered his ambassador in Genoa to demand that the Genoese contribute to the impending imperial assault against the coast of southern France. The result of such a demand? I will let you be the judges. Here is my translation of part of the letter that the Spanish ambassador sent to Charles V:

I have put pressure on the doge of Genoa to get him and the people of this republic to arm as many ships as possible. However, he says that in case it will be necessary for the expedition to Provence he will arm as many ships as possible, but the Genoese will not do it simply to accompany the galleys of your Majesty to assault the coast of Provence, because this would have damaging consequences for this community.4

In other words, virtually all of the Genoese galleys were privately owned. The few galleys that the doge eventually put to sea did not fight for the Spanish in Provence but remained near the Italian coast to patrol the Ligurian Sea. Some Genoese galleys did take part in the naval confrontation in Provence: but they were galleys of the Doria family, which had been hired by the French.

Just like the episode concerning loans suggests that Genoa remained a city of private wealth, so the episode that I have just described confirms that Genoa was late in the so-called development of a monopoly of violence: most arms remained in private hands. This anomaly has been occasionally noted by historians. Rodolfo Savelli has discussed the idea of late medieval and early modern Genoa as a “repubblica disarmata” (an “unarmed republic”).5  And Thomas Kirk has dedicated part of his book on Genoa and the Sea to the sixteenth- and seventeenth-century debates on the creation of a public fleet.6

An interesting fact is that, although historians usually assume that from the early modern period every polity that wished to survive had to have a centralized and militarized state, the “unarmed” Genoa survived the storm of the Italian Wars and with its private arms represented a pivotal part of the military coalition that defended Christendom from the Ottoman threat in the Mediterranean.

To be sure, private families owning military assets that are simultaneously economic assets for commerce and as a kind of capital good would not wish to risk such assets in senseless military adventures—or rather would be relatively less inclined to do so than state bureaucrats and heads of state who have confiscated such assets or built them using other people’s money, and who can externalize the cost of aggressive behavior onto others. Indeed, it is amusing to see that within Genoa the “modernist,” statist, Machiavellian party was annoyed precisely by the resilience of the model of private defense that (to them) constricted Genoa’s imperialistic potential.

One of these Genoese dissidents was Uberto Foglietta, who in a 1559 book on the political situation in Genoa accused the Doria family of keeping its galleys instead of giving them as a gift to the republican government. Foglietta’s warmongering attitude descended into utter absurdity when he claimed that the Genoese could have conquered Lombardy, Pisa, and the rest of Tuscany if they had had a unified government and the will to wage war. In the writings of Foglietta and other members of this party, often called the “new nobility,” we read of a contraposition between private interests and the public good. Writers like Giovanni Recco used this contraposition to call for both the armament of a public fleet and higher taxes on private wealth.

These were mostly the frustrated voices of the losers of the long debate on a state fleet. A large fleet of galleys was never financed and never built by the republic, and between the sixteenth and the seventeenth century the number of public galleys at the disposal of the doge remained very low, usually no more than four. In the meantime, a much larger number of galleys—privately owned by the Doria, but also by the Lomellini, the Centurione, and other Genoese families—were hired out to Spain.

A Remnant

What I have suggested thus far with a few examples (and obviously skimming over several complex issues) is that medieval Genoa was characterized by private wealth and private self-defense. This is not to say that Genoa had no taxes at all or to deny that at times the communal government had armed public fleets for a limited period. But what matters is the trend, the institutional tradition, and the value system emerging from a study of Genoa.

This pattern continued even after the earthquake of the French invasion of Italy, after the Machiavellian revolution in political theory, and after most of Genoa’s neighbors embarked on what most historians see as the inevitable voyage toward progress and the modern state. Even after fiscal pressure was slightly increased in the 1560s, Genoa remained a remnant of medieval genius, private wealth and arms, and limited government—with not only the local church but also the Bank of St. George guaranteeing a plurality of jurisdictions.

Yet there is one more thing to say, or one more aspect that should make us wonder. The consensus among historians of Renaissance republicanism is that, between the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Italian polities could survive only by taking one of two available paths. Either they became signorie—the form of government linked to a dynasty—or they turned into imperialistic republics that increased their territory at the expense of neighboring cities. This is a change seen as rational and teleologically oriented toward the modern state. For example, according to Fabrizio Ricciardelli:

Contrary to what happened in Spain, France, and England, where the territorial unification was achieved on a national scale, both the signorie that asserted themselves, thereby squashing every form of republicanism, and the Italian communes that did not give in to the will of authoritative signorie gave life to regional states, each of which sought to expand itself.7

I shall here simply point out that Genoa does not fit into this account. To make a long story short, Genoa remained both antiseigneurial and territorially small. No noble family was ever able to transform the republic into a signoria—not even the Doria family, led by the great and longevous admiral Andrea, who effectively held the destiny of the city in his hands once he ousted the French in 1528. Similarly, no military campaign was launched to enlarge Genoa’s traditional territorial possessions, which were the narrow strip of land east and west of the city, the fortresses guarding strategic passes through the mountains, and the island of Corsica. A large-scale military expansion was impossible, because as we have seen, the Genoese state lacked both a standing army and a large public fleet.

As late as 1625 the Genoese government had at its disposal a very limited number of soldiers. In that year, when the Duchy of Savoy invaded the Genoese territory, Genoa defended itself with recourse to a mix of strategies. To be sure, extraordinary funds for the payment of mercenary troops were approved. But more interestingly, in 1625 the defense of Genoa was effective also thanks to nonstate means: first, diplomatic pressure on its traditional ally, Spain, whose reputation was on the line and whose finances partly depended on the private loans coming from Genoese moneylenders; secondly, the troops privately organized and paid by wealthy families (for instance, by the Genoese aristocrat Francesco Serra); finally, the militias, which were groups of ablebodied males in each town and village of the Genoese territory with a duty to arm themselves and rally to the defense of their territory in case of invasion. These militias were neither paid nor armed by the government, but represented a traditional form of self-defense—and therefore could not be employed for political aims in times of peace nor for military adventures beyond the borders of the republic.8  It was only after the war of 1625 that the medieval conception of private defense in Genoa started to give way to what resembles state formation, first in 1626, when a new alliance with Spain laid out Genoa’s duty to pay for an army of more than fifteen thousand men, and then in the following years, with the introduction of new or higher taxes to cover military expenditures.9


In conclusion, I have briefly illustrated the peculiar resilience of a republic with a weak, premodern state, and the fascinating fact that the availability of private arms and private wealth rendered a conquest of this republic by a foreign power always difficult—its pacification and annexation almost a mirage. This remained true even after a sack, even after putting a new, friendly doge in charge of the government. Because, after all, what could a doge in Genoa really do?

  • 1For this history, see Steven Epstein, Genoa and the Genoese, 958–1528 (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Matteo Salonia, Genoa’s Freedom: Entrepreneurship, Republicanism, and the Spanish Atlantic (Lanham, MD, and London: Lexington Books, 2017). On the sophisticated practice of arbitration by a foreign podestà (developed by Genoese citizens during the High Middle Ages), see Avner Greif, “Self-Enforcing Political System and Economic Growth: Late Medieval Genoa” (November 1997), https://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.49207.
  • 2Hans-Hermann Hoppe, ed., The Myth of National Defense: Essays on the Theory and History of Security Production (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2003).
  • 3George L. Gorse, “A Question of Sovereignty: France and Genoa, 1494–1528,” in Christine Shaw, ed., Italy and the European Powers (Leiden: Brill, 2006), 190.
  • 4Lope de Soria to Charles V, April 30, 1524, Colección Salazar y Castro, ms. 4301, A-31, f. 223, Real Academia de la Historia, Madrid.
  • 5Rodolfo Savelli, Politiche del diritto e istituzioni a Genova tra medioevo ed età moderna (Genoa, 2017), 356–77.
  • 6Thomas Kirk, Genoa and the Sea (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005).
  • 7Fabrizio Ricciardelli, The Myth of Republicanism in Renaissance Italy (Turnhout: Brepols, 2015), 28.
  • 8Carlo Bruzzo, Note sulla guerra del 1625 (Genoa, 1938).
  • 9Filippo Casoni, Annali della Repubblica di Genova, vol. 5 (Genoa, 1800), 109–10.
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