De Re Militari | Book Reviews

William Caferro

Mercenary Companies and the Decline of Siena

Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, 1998. ISBN: 0-8018-5788-0.


Those familiar with Siena will know the Sala della Pace in the Palazzo Pubblico.  On one wall, Ambrogio Lorenzettis frescoes depict an idealised vision of the perfect Italian commune and its hinterland.  Facing this image of good governance, however, is its counterpart - a land of devastated farms and ruined cities, fear and violence.  Although Caferro only refers to this fresco (admittedly painted some years before the period he covers) in an oblique manner, its imagery forms the backdrop for his book.

            In the years between 1342 and 1399, the Sienese republic endured some thirty-seven raids con ducted by companies of mercenary troops.   Like hosts of two-legged locusts, these devastated the lands of the republic until it bought them off.   Caferro’s book, which is drawn from detailed study of Siena’s financial records, seeks to assess the cumulative financial impact of these raids.   This was devastating; the ransom payments in question accounted for some of the largest single expenses met by the communal treasury.   Hitting a city already in difficulties after the Black Death and compounding the effects of plague and famine, they pushed the republic into an ultimately fatal crisis.   Caferro logs the increasingly desperate financial straits of the commune.  Successive regimes sought to widen the base on which forced loans were levied both geographically and socially.   Taxes were mortgaged years in advance to repay these loans.   Unlike Florence, Siena was never able to consolidate its debt.   Administration buckled under the strain and by the 1390s, Siena was reduced to holding fire sales of the contents of communal warehouses and borrowing from abroad.   The city had become a Visconti satellite well before it finally surrendered its independence in 1399.

            The picture Caferro paints is a clear one and, in broad terms, convincing.   One could raise some quibbles.  The years 1342-99 are treated somewhat in isolation.   Even granting that the Companies were a phenomenon peculiar to the second half of the 14th century and that here may be problems with record survival, it would be interesting to know how Siena coped with military crises before 1342 and, especially, after 1404 when it threw off Visconti overlordship.  Caferro’s comments on the 15th century are curt and uninformative.   More seriously, the book only gives a partial account of Siena’s relations with military entrepreneurs.   Other wars (with Perugia in 1358 and Florence in the 1390s, for instance) are excluded from consideration, distorting the picture.   Finally, it would have been useful had Caferro gone even further into the relationship between the Companies and dissident groups in Siena, be they members of the landed nobility or wool carders, who sought to make use of them for their own ends.   Much of Siena’s difficulty came from the inability of its fragile late 14th century regimes to either co-opt or overawe powerful interest groups.

            Could the Sienese have coped better?   Caferro thinks not.   He may be right.  Siena, a small state without much strategic depth situated in one of the cockpits of Italy, may have faced insoluble problems, rich enough to be a tempting target but not rich enough to afford an effective defence.   Nevertheless another view is possible.   Caferro argues for a consistency of approach from regime to regime.   To this reviewer’s eye, the consistency lies in its incoherence.   The Sienese authorities seemed unable to stick to a coherent approach.   Scorched earth tactics were half heartedly tried and abandoned.   Fortifying rural strong points was started and given up.   The state only started taxing subject communes in 1371, and then only half-heartedly.   More seriously, no coherent policy on whether or not to fight the Companies existed.   Caferro argues from the figures that resistance, even when successful, was in the long run more expensive than paying ransom.   This is contestable.  Siena seems to have had a rather confused relationship with the troops it did hire, underlined by the inconsistent pay rates highlighted by Caferro.   In essence, Siena tended to pay top florin for second-rate commanders hired short term in moments of panic.   No Sienese regime seems to have considered hiring someone at the top of his trade like Hawkwood, accepting that his men would become semi-permanent residents in the state.  Perhaps this was a consequence of the instability of the republic.   If this is right, then the real failure of the Sienese state in the late 14th century was political rather than military or administrative.

            Those of us used to the depredations of bodies like the Companies north of the Alps may be surprised at how little evidence there seems to be for small scale peasant resistance to the invaders.   Caferro mentions a couple of cases (including one in the mid 1390s where the local resistance was highly effective) and the Companies regularly sought payments for horses lost on campaign as part of their ransom agreements.  Nevertheless there is little sense of the low-level harassment which such intruders encountered in France.  Perhaps the judicial sources which highlight this aspect of warfare in France are lacking; perhaps the Italian countryside really was more demilitarised than its French counterpart.   Caferro’s sad tale also serves to remind those of us used to the panegyrics lavished on Charles V for clearing his lands of disorderly soldiery that to a substantial extent this was achieved by pushing the burden on to the shoulders of others.

Brian G. H. Ditcham