Soldier Emperor:
Venice Unleashed

By Mike Bennighof, Ph.D.
February 2017

On 15 May 1797, French soldiers entered Venice to officially put an end to the Republic. No foreign army had ever set foot in the city before, and Ludovico Manin, the 120th and last doge, quietly gave way to a municipal government everyone knew to be the puppet of the French commander in Italy, Napoleone Buonaparte. Later that year, having thoroughly looted the proud city of cash, artwork and other treasures, the French handed Venice over to Austrian rule.

It was a sad end to a long history. Usually outnumbered and outgunned by its adversaries, for centuries the Serene Republic had used astute diplomacy and commercial cunning to maintain its power. By the 18th century, its trading families had instead invested their profits in safe agricultural ventures on the mainland, while the city’s major asset became its justly-famed courtesans. Visitors poured into Venice to sample its sexual and other entertainments, but the Republic’s power steadily declined.

Venetian firepower, from an earlier, grander age.

The Venetian Senate and Grand Council declared itself neutral in the war between the French revolutionaries and most of Europe, but showed itself distinctly pro-Austrian when the fighting spread to northern Italy. Yet Venice did little to strengthen its armed forces, even after playing host to the Comte de Lille, pretender to the French throne. In the Senate, Francesco Pesaro argued strenuously that neutrality could only be defended with strength. Other Senators pointed out that such rearmament would mean taxes on the Republic’s wealthiest families, something they would not tolerate. And recruiting troops might antagonize France, Austria, or both.

Not until 1796, following Buonaparte’s strong of victories in Italy, did the Senate take Pesaro’s warnings seriously. In June, the fleet was ordered home from Corfu and placed on full mobilization — only 11 small and terribly obsolete warships were found fit for service. New ships would take time to build; despite the Senate’s fears, the Grand Council secretly ordered a new program since shipbuilding could easily be hidden with the Arsenal. Under an open threat from the French, Venice backed down on army mobilization. Yet when offered an alliance by the French, the Venetians spurned Buonaparte.

Venetian artillerymen of the previous century.

Not until French incursions sparked revolts in the mainland cities of Brescia and Bergamo did Venice begin to arm, putting 10,000 men into the field in early 1797. Taking this as a provocation, the French occupied Verona and other cities. In April, the Veronese rose against the French and a Venetian fortress shot up a French warship. Infuriated, or at least making a pretense of fury, Buonaparte demanded the Republic’s abject surrender. After only brief discussion, the Senate crumbled. The Serene Republic was destroyed.

Venice had considerable military potential. Its regular forces numbered about 5,000 in 1795; traditionally most were Croats recruited in Dalmatia. The Republic’s wealth and population base could easily have supported a regular army many times that size. Assuming, of course, that the rich would pay to defend their Republic.

Venice’s most important military asset, the famous Arsenal, was Europe’s first assembly line operation and in many ways provided the model for the modern industrial age. Arsenalotti manufactured galleys using a modular system that would not be out of place in a 21-century installation, under the firmest secrecy. As Venice’s power waned and the oared galley gave way to what Venetians called “fat” ships, so did the Arsenal’s manufacturing capability, but when the French entered in 1797 they found nearly a dozen 74-gun ships of the line in various states of construction. The secret nature of the new program meant that the channel outside the Arsenal had not been dredged; the big new ships could not have been floated out without considerable and very public effort. There’s also no evidence that recruiting had begun for crews, though the navy had considerable surplus personnel aboard its watch vessels and useless war galleys.

Venice’s Arsenal.

Though considered a quaint relic by many, known mainly for the acrobatic performances put on by its workers on holidays, the Arsenal retained an enormous productive capacity. When Napoleon began to rebuild his naval power after Trafalgar and placed numerous orders in Venice, the Arsenal quickly outstripped French shipyards. Despite a steady decline in the Republic’s seafaring, especially after Venetian traders were allowed to lease foreign vessels, the Queen of the Adriatic still boasted a large number of able seamen and experienced officers.

In our Soldier Emperor game, there is no independent Venice. But even in scenarios taking place after the Republic’s fall, conquered minor nations can be brought back into play through the Liberation rule (18.3). And so today we’re putting the Serene Republic into the game.

Although Venezia begins the 1803 scenario under Austrian control, France is the original conqueror and thus forbidden from liberating the Republic. Venice can only be restored starting with Venezia, but other territories can be added: Croatia, Corfu and Crete.

Venice has one army and three fleets. Only one fleet may be built and in play unless Croatia is part of the Republic, in which case the other two fleets may be built. If Croatia is subsequently lost, the fleets are not removed from play, but may not be replaced if lost as long as Croatia is not part of Venice.

Venice’s alliance modifiers are:

  • Britain: 0
  • France: Prohibited
  • Prussia: 0
  • Austria: +2
  • Russia: 0
  • Spain: +1
  • Turkey: +1
  • Starting Forces: None
  • Recovery Number: 1

You can download the new Venetian playing pieces here.

Click here to order Soldier Emperor now!

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.