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I've started reading Carlo Goldoni's play titled La guerra ('The War'). I haven't found any translation into English. One of the characters is Don Polidoro, the war commissioner. He praises war greatly because he expects to make significant profits and become very rich from it. In fact, from the first act, this character declares that he will always speak well of war and will never desire peace because at that moment he is already swimming in abundance thanks to the great business that wartime represents for him as a commissioner. There are several other characters who are certain that commissioners get rich thanks to the war. For example, in the Second Scene of the First Act, the ensign Don Faustino says:

La casa di un commissario di guerra è il fondaco dell'abbondanza. L'oro che consumasi nelle armate, non si perde sotterra; cola nelle mani di alcuni particolari, e i commissari ne hanno la maggior parte.

I'll try to translate it into English:

The house of a war commissioner is a store of abundance. The gold consumed in the armies doesn't vanish into the ground; it flows into the hands of a few individuals, and the commissioners have the largest part of it.

Some informations about this play can be found in Goldoni's Mémoires, which the author wrote in French:

      La vue de Parme m'avait aussi rappelé à la mémoire la bataille que j'y avais vue en 1746, et pour varier les sujets de mes, comédies, je composai une pièce intitulée la Guerra (la Guerre).
      L'action principale de cette pièce est le siége d'une forteresse, et le lieu de la scène est tantot au camp des assiégeans, et tantot dans la place assiégée.
      [...] Le tableau de l'armistice tracé d'après celui que j'avais vu au siége de Pizzighitone, [...]. [...].
      Je ne traite pas trop bien un commissaire des guerres qui avançait de l'argent aux officiers avec un intérèt proportionné aux dangers de la guerre. J'eus tort, peut-être, mais je n'avais rien fait de ma tête. On m'en avait parlé, on me l'avait montré, et je lai mis sur la scène sans le nommer.

My translation:

      The view of Parma also brought back to my memory the battle that I had seen there in 1746, and to vary the subjects of my comedies, I composed a play entitled la Guerra (The War).
      The main action of this play is the siege of a fortress, and the location of the scene alternates between the besiegers' camp and the besieged place.
      [...] The representation of the armistice drawn from the one I had seen at the siege of Pizzighitone, [...]. [...].
      I did not treat very well a war commissioner who advanced money to officers with interest proportional to the dangers of war too kindly. Perhaps I was wrong, but I had not thought of it myself. People had talked to me about it, they had shown him to me, and I put him on the stage without naming him.

So, according to the informations of the website of the event Pizzighettone fra XVI e XVIII secolo (Pizzighettone from the XIV to the XVIII centuries), the context of the play is that of the War of the Spanish Succession between the Habsburgs and the Bourbons:

Occupato dalla fazione borbonica nel 1701, lo Stato di Milano divenne campo di battaglia per gli eserciti dei due parti contendenti. Nell'autunno 1706 la piazzaforte di Pizzighettone fu assediata e conquistata dalle truppe congiunte degli Asburgo e dei Savoia, capitanate dal principe Eugenio di Savoia-Soissons (1663-1736).

My translation:

Occupied by the Bourbon faction in 1701, the Duchy of Milan became a battleground for the armies of the two contending parties. In the autumn of 1706, the fortified town of Pizzighettone was besieged and captured by the joint forces of the Habsburgs and the Savoy, led by Prince Eugene of Savoy-Soissons (1663-1736).

I don't know what the role of a war commissioner was in the 18th century. That's why my question is: why was it assumed that a commissioner would become wealthy through war?

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  • 1
    A partial translation is here.
    – verbose
    Apr 14 at 20:55
  • @verbose: I see: this a translation-adaptation of part of the Second Act.
    – Charo
    Apr 14 at 21:14

2 Answers 2

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In the mid-eighteenth century when the play La Guerra is set, the post of "commissario di guerra" (or "commissaire des guerres" in French) was common in many European militaries such as the Bourbon armies, and later in Napoleon's armies too. Goldoni was writing in the context of the War of the Spanish Succession, and so would have had the Habsburg, Savoy, and Bourbon armies in mind, in which the role and duties of this position were similar.

In essence, a commissario di guerra was a combination of a general staff officer, paymaster, and the chief quartermaster1, responsible for tasks such as "troop discipline, enforcement of military regulations, quantity and quality of the distributed supplies, repairs and fortification of the places, construction of the ovens [for baking bread CDS], lodging of the officers and soldiers, guard and conservation of food supplies (wheat, flour, oatmeal, medicines...), distribution at the end of each march, administration of the hospitals..."

These responsibilities gave ample opportunities for unscrupulous individual to enrich themselves. As they were responsible for providing supplies, with very little oversight, they could do the standard trick of buying cheaply and selling (to the army) at a profit, and of course, inflate profits further by adulterating the food to make it go further. Similarly they could buy sub-standard equipment and sell it to the army at inflated rates. This reddit thread recalls some infamous examples occurring in France prior to the Revolution "that the armies were being supplied with sub-standard goods, such as sabres made from tin instead of steel", and with boots soled with cardboard. If he happened to own land in the vicinity, a commissioner could also choose to billet troops on his property, so that he could pay himself compensation, as well as receiving the rent. Naturally as he was in charge of issuing their pay to the troops, there was the opportunity for more standard avenues of embezzlement too.

Basically, Goldoni was completely justified to say:

The gold consumed in the armies doesn't vanish into the ground; it flows into the hands of a few individuals, and the commissioners have the largest part of it.

as the commissioners were able to divert a reasonable proportion of the army's financing into their own pockets.

1 L'Escercito Borbonico dal 1789 al 1815, by Giancarlo Boeri, Pietro Crociani and Massimo Brandani.

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  • @Charo Then I think my answer is accurate: a commissario di guerra was a combination of quartermaster, paymaster, and a staff officer - a very important post and often an invitation to corruption. I didn't know about the particular mode of "money lending corruption" that Goldoni had in mind though. May 6 at 12:26
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Many examples show that in the 17th and 18th centuries, important civilian and military government officials were often very rich, and were often accused—accurately or not—of acquiring vast fortunes by vast corruption. Goldoni probably has some such examples in mind when he says that the war commissioner is waiting for the opportunity to enrich himself once war does break out.

One of the great English country mansions is Audley End House, though it is only a fraction of its original size. Thomas Howard, first Earl of Suffolk, and Lord Treasurer of England from 1614-1618, built it in 1603 to 1616. It was rumored that Howard embezzled a lot of money from the royal treasury. It is said that when King James VI & I visited, he said that Audley End was too big for a king, but just right for a lord treasurer. He was tried and convicted of embezzlement in 1619. He spent time in the Tower of London before being released.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audley_End_House

Nicholas Fouquet (1615-1680) Marquis of Belle-Île, should have paid more attention to that story. He was Superintendent of Finance from 1653 to 1661. From 1641 to 1661 he built splendid gardens and a great mansion at his estate Vaux-le-Vicomte. In 1661 King Louis XIV attended a great party at Vaux-le-Vicomte and was impressed by the great wealth and splendor on display, so much that he later hired the architect, painter, and gardener to work at Versailles. Fouquet was arrested soon after and he was sentenced to life imprisonment for corruption in 1664.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Vaux-le-Vicomte

James Brydges (1673-1744), 9th Baron Chandos, had many government offices, and was made Earl of Carnavaron in 1714 and Duke of Chandos in 1719. And he was Paymaster of the Forces (overseas troops of the British Army) from 1705-1713, during the War of the Spanish Succession. He also became extremely wealthy during his time in government, and was suspected of embezzlement. His country estate and Mansion of Cannons was one of the greatest of the era, though its reputation was highly exaggerated.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cannons_(house)

The first Duke of Chandos made unwise investments and people said that what he gained by corruption he lost by speculation. His heir had to sell Cannons for parts to pay off crushing debts. The 3rd Duke of Chandos died without a son in 1789, making the title extinct. His daughter, Lady Ann Elizabeth (1779-1836) married in 1796 Richard Temple-Nugent-Grenville, 2nd Marquess of Buckingham (1776-1839) who changed his surname to Temple-Nugent-Chandos-Brydges-Grenville in 1799. In 1822 he was made Earl Temple of Stowe, Marquess of Chandos, and Duke of Buckingham and Chandos.

The temple family motto was "How sweet are the Temples". Dear is a synonym for "sweet", and also for "expensive", and it was suggested their motto should be "How dear are the Temples", implying a belief that a lot of their wealth came from corruption. And the size of their wealth, however acquired, can be seen by visiting the Temple-Nugent-Chandos-Brydges-Grenville former estate and mansion at Stowe.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stowe_House

Going back to the time of the First Duke of Chandos, the Captain-General of the British army in the war of the Spanish Succession from 1702 to 1711 was John Churchill (1650-1722), the first Duke of Marlborough, and Prince of the Holy Roman Empire. And I read somewhere that when the Duke died and his will was probated someone reported that his wealth was over a million pounds (then worth many times that today) and claimed that was proof of Marlborough's corruption.

The Duke of Marlborough was presented with a country estate by a grateful nation and the government voted some money to build him a magnificent mansion, Blenheim Palace, as a monument to his glory. The Duke and the government both paid for the construction of Blenheim Palace from 1705 to 1712, and work stopped. The Duke resumed construction of Blenheim Palace in 1716. After the Duke suffered a stroke in 1717 his wife took charge, and cut expenses as much as she could, After the Duke died in 1722 she continued building until sometime in the 1730s. And anyone who sees Blenheim Palace will have to agree that if the Marlboroughs paid a significant percentage of the total cost they must have had great wealth—ill-gained or not.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blenheim_Palace# So I find it amusing to read that:

The 1st Duke, as a soldier, was not a rich man and what fortune he possessed was mostly used for finishing the palace.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blenheim_Palace#Failing_fortunes

And I have to say that anyone who could find the money to pay even a few percent of the total cost of Blenheim palace would have been very rich by most people's standards.

Marlborough's great ally was the Austrian general Prince Eugene of Savoy. Here is a link to an article about his winter palace in Vienna.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Winter_Palace_of_Prince_Eugene

Prince Eugene's summer residence in Vienna, the Belvedure gardens and estate, contains two palaces.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Belvedere,_Vienna

I don't know what the job of a "war commissioner" was in the 18th century. Maybe you shoud ask this question in the history stack exchange. But I hope that the examples I gave should demonstrate that many 18th century people would cynically believe that high officials, including "war commisioners" would gain great wealth from their jobs.

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