The Enlightenment Strikes Back: Holy War and the Absence of Religious Violence in Empire: Total War

By Thomas Lecaque

The Total War series prides itself for their “historical authenticity,” saying, “We aim to create games which evoke the feel and spirit of an age as much as the events that actually occurred in it, and this is influenced by many things: chiefly our research and reading around the period of course, and we consult closely with leading period historians.”[1] They admit openly that media portrayals constitute the basis of the “feel and spirit of an age,” which ultimately means that aesthetics trumps the rest. And this is a fundamental issue in 2009’s Empire: Total War’s presentation of religion in the eighteenth century.[2] Empire: Total War is fundamentally a game of violence, conquest, and imperialism, and negates the causes of at least 50% of the conflicts of that period: religious violence, doctrinal differences, the call to proselytize, and hatred of heretics. In “evoking the feel and spirit” of the eighteenth century, Creative Assembly has chosen to fetishize the ahistorical pop culture vision of the Enlightenment, a faux secularization that obfuscates the continuing power of religion to shape politics, culture, intellectual history, and, of course, warfare.

Empire gives a window dressing of religion—religious structures can be built (though not in the cities), missionaries of various types pop up as special units (to convert populations), and religious difference is seen as a source of rebellion. But these are the only examples of its existence. Religious violence, specifically religious rebellions, or the integration of religion in a military sphere, is ignored.  The previous Total War title, Medieval II, included excommunication, crusades, and jihads as important components to gameplay, in addition to a papacy and the Papal States; Empire removes all of these, renames the Papal States the “Italian States,” and gives no indication of religiously motivated wars.[3]

I want to give two quick examples of how this fundamentally misrepresents warfare in the eighteenth century, before turning to why this presentation—ahistorical and incorrect—matters. First, crusading still existed in the eighteenth century and did not formally end until Napoleon Bonaparte ended it in the last years of the century only to reinvent it for his own purposes.[4] The Knights of Malta exist as a non-player faction in the game, though without a Papacy and without crusades. Even outside of the continued militant order, though, crusading and holy war existed, formally and informally. The Great Turkish War from 1683 to 1699 was between the Ottoman Empire and a Holy League, joining the Holy Roman Empire, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and the Venetian Republic, under the patronage and leadership of Pope Innocent XI and with his fleet joining them.[5] After Imperial victories in 1697, Turkish banners and horse-tail standards were displayed in the Cathedral of St. Stephen in Vienna during a mass celebrating the victory—so the war was considered sacral beyond the rhetoric of the League’s founding.[6] By 1712, Pope Clementine XI had canonized Pope Pius VI after a campaign over a century long using and bolstering the narrative of holy war against heretics and the Turks.[7] During the Seventh Ottoman-Venetian War (1714-1718), that same Pope, Clement XI, organized the final Holy League with the Portuguese, Papal States, and Knights of Malta joining the Republic of Venice against the Ottomans. King John V of Portugal used participation in the Holy League and the June 19, 1717 Battle of Matapan to emphasize, as Iván Rega Castro writes, “the imperial image of Portugal and its commitment to the ‘holy war’ against Islam.”[8] That emphasis, of John V as a crusader, would carry on at his funeral and memorialization in 1750 and become part of Portuguese royal identity.[9] And by the latter half of the century, crusading rhetoric brought back by anti-Revolutionary forces, as Glauco Schettini has shown.[10]  Crusading was alive and well across the eighteenth century, not solely as a function of the Knights of Malta, but in a renewed interest by the papacy at the start of the century and the complex, ongoing legacy of that interest in some kingdoms. 

It is important, however, that holy war rhetoric is not solely the province of the Catholic kingdoms of Europe. The French and Indian War was filled with holy war rhetoric on both sides—and in the scripted “missions” given to both Britain and France, conquest of New France or of New England is made a requirement for victory. Protestant preachers in the English colonies gave militant sermons throughout the century—Jonathan Edwards’ “The duties of Christians in a Time of War,” during King George’s War (1744-1748), is an immediate example, not only justifying violence via scripture but directly praying for the victory of the expedition against Cape Breton.[11] During the Seven Years’ War, those ramped up. Samuel Davies’ sermon “Religion and Patriotism the Constituents of a Good Soldier: A Sermon Preached to Captain Overton’s Independent Company of Volunteers, Raised in Hanover County, Virginia, August 17, 1755,” for example, called for assembling troops against “Indian and Popish” forces, and William Vinal’s “A sermon on the accursed thing that hingers success and victory in war,” written about Braddock’s defeat, says of the battle, “Tell it not at Quebec, publish it not in the Streets of Paris, lest the Daughters of France rejoice, and the Sons of Anti-christ triumph.”[12] This kind of rhetoric would carry on, beyond the French and Indian Wars, as it were, into the American Revolution—Abraham Keteltas’ 1777 sermon, “God Arising and Pleading His People’s Cause,” makes the conflict an apocalyptic struggle, a holy war against the British.[13]

Empire: Total War removes all of this in favor of a more simplistic world, a rational one, where religion may exist but only on the peripheries of power. Gone are crusades, religious violence, and religious impulses triumphing over secular ones, or warfare that goes beyond politics, trade, and power. This is the distorted mirror of our 21st-century beliefs in the Enlightenment—that humankind magically became rational beings, the past was a superstitious age, and we flipped a switch and suddenly became different. Scholars know better; but the AHA survey on “Where Do People Get Their History?” has video games higher as a source than college courses and equal with history lectures.[14] Religion doesn’t disappear at the dawn of the modern age. It certainly doesn’t become a tame thing, safely relegated to the back of the mind and pushed out of the narratives of power and politics and war. The eighteenth-century is the last age of crusading, perhaps, but it is still an age of holy war.

Thomas Lecaque is an Associate Professor of History at Grand View University in Des Moines, Iowa, located on Baxoje, Meskwaki and Sauk lands. His primary research area is on the crusades and apocalypticism in the High Middle Ages, but he teaches broadly in medieval world, vast early America, and video games and history courses. He can also be found @tlecaque

Title Image: Collage of images from Empire: Total War.

Further Reading:

Byrd, James P. Sacred Scripture, Sacred War: The Bible and the American Revolution. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2013.

Castro, Iván Rega. “’There Was a Man Sent from God, whose Name was John’. Discourse on and Image of the King of Portugal during the Christian-Ottoman Conflict in the Early Eighteenth Century.” In A Mediterranean Other: Images of Turks in Southern Europe and Beyond (15th-18th c), eds Borja Franco Llopis and Laura Stagno. Genoa: Genova University Press, 2021. Pp. 76-104.

Kidd, Thomas. The Protestant Interest: New England after Puritanism. New Haven: Yale UP, 2013.

Levernier, James. Souldiery Spiritualized: Seven Sermons Preached Before the Artillery Companies of New England, 1674-1774: Facsimile Reproductions. New York: Scholars’ Facsimiles & Reprints, 1979.

Schettini, Glauco. “18th-Century Crusaders. The War against France and the Catholic Counterrevolution, 1789-99.” In Cosmopolitan Conservatisms: Countering Revolution in Transnational Networks, Ideas and Movements (c. 1700‒1930), eds. Matthijs Lok, Friedemann Pestel, and Juliette Reboul. Leiden: Brill, 2021. Pp 152-171.


[1] “Total War FAQ,” Games Workshop, 2022, . Accessed 1/28/2022.

[2] Creative Assembly, Empire: Total War, Sega, March 2009. PC.

[3] Creative Assembly, Medieval II: Total War, Sega, November 2006. PC.

[4] Thomas Lecaque, “The Last Crusade: Napoleon and the Knights Hospitaller,” Age of Revolutions, December 16, 2019.

[5] Ludwig van Pastor, The History of the Popes from the Close of the Middle Ages, vol. XXXII (London: Kegan Paul and Co., 1891), 199-201.

[6] Daniel C. Waugh, “News Sensations from the Front: Reportage in Late Muscovy concerning the Ottoman Wars,” in Rude & Barbarous Kingdom Revisited: Essays in Russian History and Culture in Honor of Robert O. Crummey, eds Chester Dunning, Russell Martin and Daniel Rowland (Bloomington, IN: Kritika, 2008), 498.

[7] Giuseppe Capriotti, “Becoming paradigm: the image of the Turks in the construction of Pius V’s sanctity,” Il Capitale Culturale, Studies on the Value of Cultural Heritage, Supplementi 06 (2017), 189-221.

[8] Iván Rega Castro, “’There Was a Man Sent from God, whose Name was John’. Discourse on and Image of the King of Portugal during the Christian-Ottoman Conflict in the Early Eighteenth Century,” in a Mediterranean Other: Images of Turks in Southern Europe and Beyond (15th-18th c), eds Borja Franco Llopis and Laura Stagno (Genoa: Genova University Press, 2021), 77-78.

[9] Castro, 91-97. 

[10] Glauco Schettini, “An Eighteenth-Century Crusade: The War Against Revolutionary France and the Origins of Modern Catholicism, 1789-99,” Age of Revolutions, December 11, 2019,

[11] Gerald McDermott and Ronald Story, The Other Jonathan Edwards: Selected Writings on Society, Love, and Justice (Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 2015), 106-111

[12] Samuel Davies, Religion and patriotism the constituents of a good soldier. A sermon preached to Captain Overton’s Independent Company of Volunteers, raised in Hanover County, Virginia, August 17, 1755 (Philadelphia: James Chattin, 1755),;idno=N05830.0001.001 ; William Vinal, A sermon on the accursed thing that hinders success and victory in war, occasioned by the defeat of the Hon. Edward Braddock, Esq., general of all the English forces in North-America, who was mortally wounded in an engagement with the French and Indians, near Fort Du Quesne, and died of his wounds the third day after the battle : which was fought July 9. 1755 (Newport: J. Franklin, 1755),;idno=N05980.0001.001

[13] Abraham Keteltas, God Arising and Pleading His People’s Cause; or The American War in Favor of Liberty, Against the Measures and Arms of Great Britain, Shewn to Be the Cause of God (1777) (Newburyport, MA, 1777),

[14] Peter Burkholder and Dana Schaffer, History, the Past, and Public Culture: Results from a National Survey (Washington, DC: American Historical Association, 2021).

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