Broadly Speaking: A Companion Interview

Iberian Theories of Empire: An Interview with Giuseppe Marcocci

By Elsa Costa

Giuseppe Marcocci is an Official Fellow and Lecturer in History at Exeter College and Associate Professor in Iberian History (European and Extra-European, 1450–1800) at the University of Oxford. His research has mostly focused on religious history and the history of political culture. He has written on conversion and persecution of religious minorities in the Iberian kingdoms and their overseas possessions, Spanish and Portuguese debates over race and slavery, as well as the Iberian theories of empire and colonial authority across the Iberian globe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His latest book The Globe on Paper: Writing Histories of the World in Renaissance Europe and the Americas (Oxford University Press, 2020) reconstructs the transformation of historical writing in the age of exploration.

Marcocci spoke with Elsa Costa about his recent JHI article, “Iberian Theories of Empire in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries” (volume 83, issue 4).


Elsa Costa: Thank you for this wonderful article, which encouraged me to question my assumptions about intellectual interchange between Spain and Portugal in the sixteenth century. In my own work I highlight the permeability of the barrier between what we normally conceive of as Renaissance humanism and what we call Spanish scholasticism, but reading this piece I became a little more aware of the extent to which this is a pan-Iberian story. I want to start with a very ambitious question. By the time of Vitoria, as you explain, the tendency is for the Portuguese to believe in the Pope’s real power to adjudicate international disputes, while Vitoria famously asserts that the papacy only has religious power. This comes in the wake of enormous concessions given to Spain and Portugal by a relatively strong, pre-reformation papacy—the bulls Dum Diversas and Romanus Pontifex for Portugal in the 1450s, and the pase regio in the Americas granted to Spain between 1493 and 1508. How is it that the Portuguese become so content with the Pope’s ability to make these huge grants by personal fiat, while Vitoria is uncomfortable with personal mediation and insists on staying within the impersonal (and more secular) realm of natural law? Is this strictly a matter of territorial dispute, i.e., the Portuguese attachment to their alleged papal mandate to exercise maritime control of Africa, Asia, and Brazil? 

Giuseppe Marcocci: Thank you very much for this question, Elsa. Should we reduce Portuguese theories of empire to a matter of mere political interest, and therefore see them as less relevant or sophisticated than the Spanish? I don’t think so. True, the Portuguese empire was relatively weak. It had to fight for its survival almost from the start, but it ended up being the early modern empire that lasted longer than any other, which I believe also depended on ideological factors. The assumption that only great empires have real imperial ideologies is wrong.

The possibility of considering together two rather dissimilar empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese is what makes the perspective that you call “pan-Iberian” so productive. It is a perspective that invites us to do something other than comparative history. Its origin can be traced back to the debate over global history and connected history that took place at the École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales in Paris about twenty years ago. Books like Serge Gruzinski’s Les quatre parties du monde (2004), or Sanjay Subrahmanyam’s articles on the connected histories of the Iberian empires in the American Historical Review (2007), have changed the field, or at least the rhetoric of the field. There is some excellent work on the so-called “Iberian world”––which is better understood as a mosaic than in flat binary terms in any case. One has only to think of historians like Fernando Bouza, Pedro Cardim, Tamar Herzog, or Stuart Schwartz, to name a few. Too often, nonetheless, the word “Iberian” in the title of an article or a volume disappointingly corresponds to an exercise in juxtaposition or, even worse, assuming excessive uniformity. Nor is the idea of an “Iberian world” unproblematic. While scholars grapple with the significant fact that at some point in the sixteenth century, areas as distant as Central and South America, the Iberian Peninsula and various other territories in Europe including large part of Italy, coastal outposts and strips of land in North, West and Southeast Africa, the Persian Gulf, Western India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, and South China came to participate in aspects of Iberian culture, they may easily gloss over local histories. As ethnohistorians show for Colonial Latin America, indigenous sources can allow us to rewrite the history of the Spanish conquest. Therefore, it is important that we do not understand the notion of “Iberian” as self-sufficient, as if studying what the Spaniards and the Portuguese did and said is all that matters.

In my book The Globe on Paper (2020), which is about histories of the world written in Renaissance Europe and the Americas, I argue that we should listen more carefully to the conversations that occurred across cultural, linguistic, and political borders in the early modern world. This also applies to theories of empire. Imperial ideologies have been the subject of much comparative analysis since Anthony Pagden’s Lords of All the World (1995), but the depth of their mutual interaction and exchange is still rarely considered, especially when it comes to early modern European empires. Surprisingly enough, this is particularly true in the case of Spain and Portugal. We have a lot in common here, such as the Catholic political thought and the legacy of the Roman imperial tradition. We have writings and thinkers who moved across the two sides, and well beyond the metropolitan centers. There was a large conversation going on, partly encouraged by religious orders and their global networks, and of course, the union of the crowns under the same Habsburg monarchs between 1580 and 1640 was also important. But as you rightly point out, there were also considerable points of divergence between Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire.

To come to the time of Vitoria, clearly imperial debates did not occur in mid-air. Charles V’s annoyance at papal interference in his overseas dominions, especially after the falls of the Aztec and Inca polities dramatically reconfigured the Spanish enterprise in America, was not unrelated to his invitation to Vitoria to deliver public lectures on the rights of indigenous people in Salamanca. But we would have a very poor understanding of what was going on if we reduced Vitoria’s rejection of the papal power to grant a Christian ruler the right to conquer lands inhabited by non-Christians to an attempt to please Charles V. The same would go if one argued that the Portuguese attachment to mid-fifteenth-century papal diplomas was merely driven by the aim to defend an advantageous position respect to European competitors. The Portuguese perfectly knew that papal power was a double-edged sword. They had learned it after Columbus’s return from the first journey to the Caribbean. It was no chance that the crisis triggered by Alexander VI’s concessions to Ferdinand and Isabella was resolved autonomously by the two monarchies with the Treaty of Tordesillas.

After 1494, both Iberian sides shared the principle that the global order established at Tordesillas was inviolable and its exact definition was a matter to be decided between them. How to achieve this in relation to the papacy was another issue. Of course, individual thinkers were important. By the time of Vitoria, ideological lines as regards the Portuguese empire were largely dictated by traditionalist theologians, among whom stood out Pedro Margalho, curiously enough the main competitor of Vitoria for the main chair in Theology in Salamanca a few years earlier. Even on a personal level, there was something deeply Iberian in the distinct directions taken by Spanish and Portuguese theories of empire in 1530s. But there is another way to look at things. It has to do with law. The supremacy that was acknowledged to Roman imperial law in Spain, as a result of the Castilian tradition of the Siete Partidas and the very fact that Charles V was also the Holy Roman Emperor, placed Vitoria in a context that encouraged the recovery of natural rights discourse in a way that Canon law, which had the highest priority in case of controversy in Portugal and obviously could not overlook papacy, would never do. Hence, the importance that we reflect on the strong jurisdictionalism that distinguished Portuguese theories of empire. It alerts us to their rich and complex nature. For instance, the exercise of interpretation of papal diplomas as carried out by the royal council called Mesa da Consciência, established in 1532, was certainly generative of creative thinking.

More generally, what I tried to show in the article is that when one looks at the circulation of people and ideas, it becomes difficult to say what exactly is Spanish or Portuguese in Iberian theories of empire. At first, this may seem an exaggeration. But if we think of imperial ideology as a fluid debate instead of a rigid doctrine, we cannot disregard that not infrequently important Spanish thinkers lived for long time in Portugal and spoke and wrote about the Portuguese empire, as was the case with Monzón or the Doctor Navarrus (but also famous Jesuits such as Molina or Suárez, who were professors in Coimbra). There were also Portuguese jurists who were active in territories of the Spanish monarchy, such as Afonso Álvares Guerreiro in Naples or Serafim de Freitas in Valladolid. And of course, our knowledge is limited by the fact that there were many levels of discourse as well as self-censorship. No one appeared to follow Vitoria’s ideas in mid sixteenth-century Portugal, which clashed with an official line that was content with papal diplomas, but his teaching circulated through manuscripts. The Spanish Martín de Ledesma, one of his disciples, held the main chair of Theology in Coimbra. Vitoria’s ideas were presumably discussed in some of his lectures. Certainly, they are referenced in handwritten commentaries by Portuguese theologians from the second half of the sixteenth century. But even when it became more accepted to quote and even use Vitoria’s arguments, roughly around 1570s, there were still theologians in Portugal who approved his positions in their personal notes but refuted them in their published work.

Please forgive the very long response. That is what happens when you ask very ambitious questions! I will be more brief in my next answers.

EC: My second question is closely related to my first. In your discussion of Afonso Álvares Guerreiro, you mention how the Portuguese papalist position becomes associated with reviving medieval positions which either refuse to ascribe any legitimacy whatsoever to pagan polities, or which place very low barriers to just war against pagan polities. In your perception, does this association between ultramontanism and Christian expansionism go back to the Crusades (which can be interpreted partly as a bid to keep peace among Europeans by lowering the barriers to war outside Europe), or does it emerge specifically out of the context of fifteenth- and sixteenth-century Portuguese maritime activity, along with the struggle to remain independent from Spain?

GM: There has been much debate over the legal framework that emerged in association with the Crusades and its importance for European exploration. I think that specific aspects of its legacy can be traced in some papal diplomas concerning Iberian penetration into North Africa, or in the justification of the right to reduce persons of African descent to perpetual slavery, which was granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century. However, I tend to be skeptical about interpretations that emphasize direct continuity between medieval confrontation with Muslims, including the fragmented process that some historians still call Reconquista, and the cultural background to early modern Iberian imperialism. This is not to deny that medieval theories matter when it comes to your question about the right to wage war against non-Christian polities in the context of Spanish or Portuguese theories of empire. James Muldoon is the scholar who probably has the most accurate and influential work on this topic. It seems to me that what Guerreiro was concerned with is the thirteenth-century dispute over papal power. The position that became more popular and was still prevailing among early modern Iberian thinkers, was a moderate one, if still quite bellicose. It was usually ascribed to Pope Innocent IV, who argued that the Vicar of Christ had only indirect power over those who lived outside the Christian world and could not deprive them from their right to self-government and freedom only because they were not Christians––or were “pagans,” if you prefer to use the language of the sources. Guerreiro adhered to a more aggressive interpretation, which was promoted by Cardinal Hostiensis and the likes, according to whom it was always licit to wage war against non-Christians for the sole reasons that they were not Christians. The same position had been held in fourteenth-century Portugal by Alvarus Pelagius, a Franciscan friar from Galicia whose writings had a few editions between the late fifteenth and the early sixteenth centuries. However different, both doctrines of papal power significantly expanded the pontiff’s right to promote military action against non-Christians beyond Muslims. Therefore, these doctrines were of particular interest during the early age of European exploration.

I should clarify that the fact that the Portuguese recognized papal authority as a valid source of legitimacy for their empire is not the same thing as saying that they endorsed the doctrine of direct papal power over non-Christians. The diplomas that were granted to the Portuguese Crown in the mid-fifteenth century were based on an ingenious reinterpretation of the doctrine of indirect power according to which the pope had the right to entrust a Christian prince with sending armies against non-Christians who infringed natural law. Medieval theories were seen as repertoires of arguments that could always been reused and transformed for specific needs. Guerreiro was a supporter of the doctrine of direct papal power and, although he was Portuguese, he lived in Naples and did not refer to the Portuguese empire in his writings. Conversely, Martín de Azpilcueta, better known as Doctor Navarrus, was a Spanish canon lawyer who taught and wrote against such doctrines when he was professor in Coimbra. He made reference to its recent use to justify conquests in the Americas, although rather vaguely. His preference was for the doctrine of indirect papal. Navarrus coincided with the official Portuguese imperial ideology on this point. It is worth recalling, nonetheless that in the end the doctrine of indirect papal power complemented the theory of just war, which was broadly interpreted and still used extensively in early eighteenth-century Brazil to enslave indigenous people.

EC: The debate over Machiavelli’s claims about Roman religion in the Discourses on Livy is one which was very common in sixteenth-century Iberia. Yet the way in which it maps to the debate over the legitimacy of pagan polities and the right of conquest is ambiguous. On the one hand, if Roman religion was completely illegitimate and did not in any sense secure God’s favor, this would seem to map to the Portuguese papalist argument that pagan polities have little essential legitimacy. On the other hand, the argument that pursuing “worldly glory” is not such a bad thing, quietly paraphrased from Machiavelli, frequently shows up in encomia for Spanish and Portuguese colonial expansion (and in mirrors for princes in general). Can you speak a little more about why you chose to open with this particular debate?

GM: With pleasure. In the first place, I wanted to show that there was a moment in which even when it came to religion, Iberian theories of empire could still go beyond scholasticism. The debate over Machiavelli and his praise of the civic religion of the ancient Romans as opposed to Christianity with respect to encouraging military valor, was very intense in the second quarter of the sixteenth century. It came well before the strong interest in The Prince, which is evident in late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century Jesuit writers and their dissimulative strategies. Machiavelli’s position in the Discourses on Livy hit a raw nerve. It was also because of the insinuation that the true heirs of the Roman soldiers were the Turks. This was highly problematic from the point of view of Catholic empires such as the Spanish and Portuguese. Why did God permit the Roman empire to become so great? Why was something similar happening again with the Ottomans? It was a truly Iberian debate, in which many famous humanists engaged, from the Spanish Juan Ginés de Sepúlveda to the Portuguese João de Barros. Some of them harshly condemned Machiavelli as an author who favored pagans and Muslims, others were captivated by his idea of a link between religion and military value and endeavored to reconcile his argument with a Christian perspective. Several scholars have explored this dispute over Machiavelli since Adriano Prosperi highlighted its importance in an article from the late 1970s. In a volume that Lucio Biasiori and I edited in 2018, the mid sixteenth-century Iberian discussion is presented as being part of a much deeper and ambivalent interaction between the reception of Machiavelli and the perception of the Islamic world in early modern Europe and beyond. But what mostly interests me in the clash between Monzón and Azpilcueta in the 1540s, to which I specifically refer in my article, is that this debate between two Spanish thinkers taking place in Portugal helps us understand why official attitudes towards Machiavelli deteriorated so rapidly there unlike in Spain, whose inhabitants continued to be allowed to read his writings, including the Discourses on Livy, for another forty years or so.

The other reason that I decided to open my article with this episode is that it demonstrates that Iberian theories of empire were not static. Not only did they provide a set of arguments to be used against rival empires, but imperial ideologies themselves were the outcome of internal conflicts and a periodic redefinition of power relations among different thinkers. For long time, Catholic political thought and the Roman imperial tradition were the two main sources of inspiration for Iberian theories of empires, but there was a clear hierarchy. After roughly the mid-sixteenth century, classical culture could remain a point of reference only if purged from its most dangerous elements, whose risks Machiavelli exemplified. The hegemony of scholastic theology was obtained through episodes such as the public exposure of Monzón’s conciliatory approach toward the Discourses on Livy. Obviously, things changed over and over again. Historians of Iberian imperial ideologies and cultures, nonetheless, may show greater awareness of these tensions and anxieties as well as the domestication that the Roman imperial tradition went through over the course of time. The point is analyzed in works that are milestones in the field, such as Marie Tanner’s The Last Descendant of Aeneas: The Hapsburgs and the Mythic Image of the Emperor (1993), and Sabine MacCormack’s On the Wings of Time: Rome, the Incas, Spain, and Peru (2007). I also believe that there is still a lot to learn from authors such as Marcel Bataillon or, on a less compelling intellectual level, José Sebastião da Silva Dias.

Elsa Costa is Assistant Professor of Early Modern Atlantic History at Fulbright University Vietnam. She was previously a postdoctoral fellow at Duke University, where she also received her PhD in 2021. She has received fellowships from UCLA, the Fulbright program, the Tinker Foundation, among other institutions. Her research focuses on the evolution of theories of sovereignty in the early modern Ibero-American world, and she has published on a range of topics in the history of European and Latin American philosophy and political thought.

Featured image: Baptism of Philip II (source: Wikimedia Commons, public domain)