Soldier Emperor:
Napoleon’s Pope
By Mike Bennighof, PhD
May 2019

While Pius XII did not wish to involve German Catholics in a “conflict of conscience” over Adolf Hitler’s policies, previous popes had shown much greater physical and moral courage. Pius VII, pope during Napoleon Bonaparte’s reign as Emperor of the French, developed into a staunch foe of the Corsican.

Pius VII, born Luigi Barnaba Chiaramonte, became pope in 1800 after a lengthy conclave held in Venice rather than French-occupied Rome, from which he emerged as the compromise candidate. Austrian interests held sway at the conclave, and the new pope came to Rome in an Austrian warship.

Despite the anti-French nature of his election, Pius VII attempted to work with Napoleon, then holding the office of First Consul. After some tense negotiations, the two arrived at a concordat to govern church-state relations in France. Napoleon threw a temper tantrum when handed the first agreement reached between French and papal diplomats, and hurled the document into a fireplace. Calming himself, he then had dinner with Pius’ secretary of state, Ercole Consalvi, worked through the night with him, and by the morning a pact acceptable to both sides had been reached.

Within a year, Napoleon had begun to step on the papal slippers, issuing the Organic Acts that unilaterally altered the concordat. And in 1801 and 1802, Pius VII disputed the secular takeover of the ecclesiastical states of Germany (the independent bishoprics) by Napoleon’s German puppets. This came to a humiliating end in 1803 when the French ruled in favor of the temporal rulers.

Pius VII, enemy of Napoleon.

When Napoleon declared himself Emperor of the French in 1804, he summoned Pius to crown him. Pius agreed to do so, but at the penultimate moment, Napoleon took the crown from the pope and placed it on his own head. The symbolic relegation of pope from benefactor to servant was not missed by many.

Thereafter, Pius VII’s opposition to Napoleon steadily grew. The pontiff refused to annul the marriage of Napoleon to Josephine as well as that of his brother Jerome to an American shipowner’s daughter. In February 1808, French troops occupied Rome. In May 1809, Napoleon formally annexed the Papal States to France. Pius responded by excommunicating the emperor and all French troops within Papal territory.

Though the French revolutionaries had enthusiastically adopted atheism, Catholicism remained, as the Concordat had it, “the majority religion of Frenchmen.” Excommunication deeply undermined imperial authority, and Napoleon demanded that it be rescinded. Pius refused.

The pope’s divisions.

On the night of 5 July 1809, French soldiers broke into the Quirinal Palace and dragged the pope off to France. The pontiff spent the next five years in French captivity, at times spitting defiance at Napoleon, at others signing humiliating agreements while under the influence of fever and insomnia, only to repudiate them later. In 1814 the French returned him to Rome, and for the remaining nine years of his reign Pius became a steadfast reactionary.

Soldier Emperor: Austrian Escape Variant

Our game Soldier Emperor covers much of this time-frame, but its campaign scenario opens in 1803, after the Concordat has been signed. There are special rules encouraging the Austrian and Spanish players to protect the Papal States from the French. But there’s always room for more!

As a variation, if the French player conquers the Papal States, the Austrian player rolls one die to determine the fate of Pius VII. On a result of 1 through 4, he falls into French captivity and there is no effect on play. On a result of 5 or 6, he escapes into Austrian lands. Afterwards, the Austrian player (only) may use the “Act of God” card to issue a condemnation of Napoleon. Each time Napoleon is condemned, the French player immediately loses 10 money and 5 manpower.

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Mike Bennighof is president of Avalanche Press and holds a doctorate in history from Emory University. A Fulbright Scholar and award-winning journalist, he has published over 100 books, games and articles on historical subjects. He lives in Birmingham, Alabama with his wife, three children and his dog, Leopold.