Briefing - "Venne, Vide, Fuggi," The Neapolitan Campaign in the Papal States, 1798
The 1790s were a turbulent decade in Europe, for Revolutionary France was endeavoring to spread the ideas of "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité," not to mention French domination, over the rest of the continent. During these wars Naples had allied itself with Britain and the other anti-French forces, not least because Queen Maria Carolina was the sister of France’s late Queen Marie Antoinette. By the autumn of 1798 the French had invaded the Papal States, occupying Rome, and proclaiming the “Roman Republic,” while carting off lots and lots of loot.
On November 22nd, supported by both the Neapolitan and British fleets, the Neapolitan Army, commanded by the Austrian General Baron Karl Mack von Leiberich, undertook to oust the French from Rome.
The Neapolitans, 40,000 strong labored under severe handicaps. The troops were largely untrained, the supply system was very poor, and equipment and food were in short supply; Even King Ferdinand I, who accompanied the expedition, went without food or a change of clothing for 36 hours (which was probably less of an imposition on the king than might be assumed, as he was a first class slob). However, since there were only about 16,000 French troops defending Rome, the Neapolitans did rather well, as their opponents fell back to concentrate in the upper Tiber Valley, save for 800 men who ensconced themselves in the historic Castel Sant’Angelo. As a result, the Neapolitans captured Rome on November 27th, to the acclamation of the people. Mack (who spoke no Italian and was a Protestant, to boot!), whom Napoleon would later call “unfortunate,” attempted to press on. Mack carelessly split his army into six columns, five of which attacked on a broad front, while the sixth was sent by sea to Livorno escorted by the small but efficient Neapolitan fleet, supported by Lord Nelson’s British squadron. So while the French were concentrating their forces, which would eventually total c. 50,000, Mack was dispersing his. This permitted the French to win a series of small battles at Borghetto, Rignano, Rieti, Nepi, and several other places over the next few weeks, inflicting some 10,000 casualties on the Neapolitans. Mack and King Ferdinand decided to abandon Rome on December 7th. Plagued by cold and heavy rains, the Neapolitans fell back, with thousands of men deserting.
The Neapolitan campaign in the Papal States had been a disaster. They had been soundly defeated, yet had not once engaged in a major clash with the enemy, and the operation laid Naples open to a French invasion, which came within days, and succeeded in overrunning the entire country in a few weeks.
In joking reference to Caesar’s famous message, one Neapolitan wit remarked that in the aftermath of his campaign in the Papal States, King Ferdinand might well have sent home the message, "Venne, vide, fuggi – I came, I saw, I fled."