Venice in the years around 1000.
Venice history is a chain of incredible ingenuity. From a very humble origin as refugees, without land, and without resources, they started to build their empire. Because they were determined to create something that could last. And to do that, they needed resources, especially since they didn’t have any land. They needed to gather money and gold to buy everything from others. They couldn’t grow or gather very much by themselves, apart from fruit, vegetables, and fish, and of course, the salt from the lagoon.
In the year 1000, the republic started to get tired of the constant threat from the Dalmatian pirates. From the other side of the Adriatic Sea, the Narentines continuously stole their goods, killed their sailors, and sank the Venetian ships. So the Doge Pietro II Orseolo came over with an impressive fleet and after some severe fighting (..they raised the city of Lastova to the ground.), they could conquer the eastern side of the Adriatic Sea.
The Venetians weren’t really interested in the land, they just wanted the strongholds and to be able to keep the trade routes safe. So it was a rather spotted territory. But still, this meant that most of the Adriatic Sea became a Venetian homeland, and it strengthened the relationship with the Byzantines even more. This wasn’t the end of Slavic piracy from the eastern Adriatic coast, but now Venice was present with ships and soldiers.
The Holy Roman Empire
On the mainland and the Italian peninsula, the Franks held a firm grip. As they did in all of central Europe. Now the Franks were called The Holy Roman Empire, and they would become one of the most powerful European Empires ever. At around the year 1000, they were still quite divided into various regions and geographical parts but they were in charge.
In the late 11th century a conflict arose between the catholic church and Pope Gregory VII, on one side, and the Holy Roman Empire on the other. This was a political conflict and the fighting was not so much military as propagandistic.
Quite interestingly, Henry IV, King of the Holy Roman Empire persuaded his bishops to excommunicate the Pope. The Pope, in turn, excommunicated the King, declared him deposed, and dissolved the oaths of loyalty made to Henry.
In all of this, Venice stayed neutral. Venice’s history already pointed towards neutrality. Religion, royal disputes, and successions never interested them very much. They always focused, and still focus on prosperity. It’s the business that counts.
Venice was more about the Islands in the Mediterranean than Italy and Europe.
To keep the trading safe and free from pirates and all kinds of enemy activity, the islands in the eastern part of the Mediterranean became ever more important. And since they mattered, very often military conflicts occurred. Cyprus and Crete were fought over, but before that Corfù right across from the southern part of the Italian heal, was a war zone.
The Normans started to appear in the south of Italy already at the beginning of 1000. And in 1081 they took Corfù but were kicked out again soon after by the Venetians. During the years that followed Corfù was ping-ponged between Venice, The Normans, and Genoa.
Anyway, as a result of the military action, Venice and the Byzantine Empire formed the Byzantine–Venetian treaty of 1082. This gave Venice even more freedom in trading throughout the Byzantine territory, completely safe and without having to pay taxes. In change, The Venetian should help the Byzantines to defeat the Normans. Venice didn’t really do much to honor this since their few but well-defended coastal cities in the Adriatic were never really threatened.
Fighting the Byzantines
Some say that this treaty was one important factor as to why the Byzantine Empire declined and eventually died. The Republic, on the other hand, got richer, and richer by the hour. In fact, the Venetians soon got so confident and powerful, that they started to see their former masters and buddies as a threat. And in 1122 they attacked. The first of many wars between the Byzantine Empire and Venice was a reality.
And in 1204 they completely sacked Constantinople together with the Fourth crusader army.
But why would they attack their former ally?
Actually, the tension had been growing throughout the eastern territory. Venice was the privileged state but they acted more as the oppressors than the guests. And the Byzantines took action to balance the Venetian influence by inviting their enemies, Genoa. When the chance came to help a Byzantine prince retake the throne, they grabbed it. They took the town, lost it, took it again, and then when the new rulers couldn’t pay the tribute, they sacked it for three days. The famous bronze horses (now copies) over the front entrance of the Saint Mark’s Basilica are from Constantinople.
The sacking wasn’t all Venice’s doing. It was the complete failure and miss-targeting of the 4th crusade that opened for the horrifying scenes in the richest city of the eastern Mediterranean, and most of the crusaders were french. Venice was mostly navigating the ships. Still, most of the loot went to the Venetian republic.
The fourth crusade and the not very Christian Christians.
The 4th crusade was a strange and sad story. Venice had promised to ship the army over to Jerusalem for a sum of 85.000 silver marks. When only 12.000 soldiers showed up instead of the planned 33.500 (Many had opted for other routes), there was a dispute over the payment. 35.000 marks were all they had and the Doge threatened to keep them interned.
So the destination slowly changed from the Holy Land to the eastern Adriatic coast… Just to fill up the treasure coffins. They sacked Zara, a wealthy town in Croatia now in the hands of King Emeric of Hungary and Croatia. This was the first time the crusaders had attacked a catholic enemy. They then helped Venice putting order to the eastern shores and eventually attacked Constantinople, another Christian city. The crusaders were excommunicated by Pope Innocent III who then rescinded the ex-communication… For all, but the Venetians.
The Byzantine Empire was restored half a century later, but it was a shadow of its former power, divided into various smaller Byzantine and Latin states. It had no influence on European history anymore and 200 years later it was smashed by the Ottomans.
But before that, they had left a huge vacuum for others to fill. And first in line was the Venetian republic. They kept many of the Byzantine strongholds throughout the eastern Mediterranean, including Crete and the eastern part of Greece as well as most of the archipelago. Crete, very interestingly, they simply bought from Boniface de Montferrat. They then had to fight their biggest adversary, Genoa, for it but in the end, it was Venetian for 400 years.
The longest conflict in Venice’s history – Genova.
Cyprus, on the other hand, came into the hands of the Crusaders and the Lusignan family. During the 13th- and 14th century both Genova and Venice gained trading- and tax advantages on the island through diplomacy, bribes, and cold, hard threats. Cyprus was an important stronghold against the Muslim offensives, the only one still in the hands of the west.
These two city-states had an ongoing conflict for a couple of hundred years. On stake was the trade to the oriental shores, as always. The San Saba wars in the middle of 1200 were the beginning, and the Chioggia wars at the end of 1300 were the end. At the Peace of Turin 1381, after 150 years of wars and both states deadly tired of the continuing killing, they finally settled for a seize fire and an end to the conflict. They just couldn’t keep it up any longer, and the trading had to be secured. After that Venice lived on prosperously while Genova declined and could never again threaten the Venetian domination of the eastern Mediterranean.
Genova actually was very close to destroying Venice. They held Chioggia and in 1379 they were as far in as the outskirts of the city before they were driven back. Venice lost quite a few naval battles but was able to build new ships and recruit new soldiers thanks to the very well-organized state structure and the amazing capacity of the Arsenale, the shipyard.
…And then came the Ottomans.
After the peace with Genoa, Venice could operate undisturbed in the east for some time. But already in the 14th century, there was a new power coming from the orient. And in the following century, this Empire became a new obstacle for the republic. An obstacle that would eventually contribute to the decline of the military and political power of Venice… I’m obviously talking about the Ottomans.
A unique strategy in European history.
Why was Venice so prosperous? And for such a long time? How could they get so rich and how could they become such a military superpower of the time?
I would say it has to do with the people, the mentality of the Venetians. They were (…and are, still today) a trading nation. They didn’t care much for dogmas, traditions, religious vows, or restricting political ideas. They wanted things to be operational, practical, and economically winning. Venice’s relationship with the catholic church was always that of mutual respect but intense control, so as not to let religious matters interfere with business. The republic had laws that limited the power of the Papal state, and it was tolerant of other creeds and beliefs.
For example, when the Jews were oppressed and thrown out of almost every corner of Europe, they could still find a relatively safe haven in Venice, where the first-ever Ghetto was instituted. The Jews could continue with their religious rites but under the guarding binocular of the republic. More important was that they could continue with their business to gain for both the Hebrews and Venice.
Another example… The Venetian aristocracy wasn’t a closed club for mutual admiration as in most of the other medieval cities in Europe. It was a much more open category. You could become noble from doing important things for the state, being a war hero, or sometimes from just being filthy rich. And this, of course, created a much more dynamic and innovative society.
… And they didn’t have a King, an Emperor, or any other type of Sovereign. They had a Doge, and the Doge was elected.
The Political system. The longest existing republic in European history.
The first Doge (Paolo Lucio Anafesto)(…We’d like to think he was the first, but some historians doubt that it could have been him.), was a Byzantine military leader and as such, nominated by the Roman Empire. But as soon as Venice had become a nation, the Doge became an elected head of state. In the 8th- and 9th centuries, surely many of them dreamt about royal succession within the family. But the aristocracy punished severely any such attempt.
In the first three centuries, there were 28 Doges. 14 were deposed, 4 abdicated and one died in battle. Only nine lived to die as the Doge (The nomination was for life). The Venetians were determined to not submit to the normal feudal system but to practice a more flexible, functional and I’d like to think, modern political algorithm, where the leaders were voted rather than just nominated.
Venice’s Doge should know his place…
During the centuries of the republic’s existence, the nobles, through the Great Council, made changes to the laws to stifle the power of the Doge. He was to rule for the benefit of the republic and not himself.
The inside of the Doge’s Palace is an interesting piece of architecture. The walls of the courtyard look like they’re on the outside. When you look at them it is as if you were standing in the Saint Mark’s Square, looking at the facade of the Palace. This is intentional and it’s meant to be a signal to the Doge that he’s not protected inside the Palace. He’s supposed to work for the benefit of the Venetians, not the other way around.
The voting process is also interesting. The first centuries witnessed growing corruption in the system although many efforts were made to control it. But from 1268, the following system was in place all the way until the end of the republic in 1798:
An infallible voting system
The youngest counselor of the Great Council (A huge political council whose purpose was mainly to vote for the new Doge. It could be as many as more than 2000 counselors there…) walked out on the street to pick up a random young boy between 8 and 10 years. The boy would draw 30 names from a casket. From these 30 names, 9 were chosen by lottery. These 9 then had to name 40, reduced to 12 by another lottery. These had to elect 25 members, from which 9 were extracted who would then elect 45 councilors, from which to extract 11 who would finally appoint the 41 to whom the election of the new doge would be entitled. The random boy from outside the Palace was the one responsible for counting the votes and distributing the ballots.
On top of the world.
So, we’ve come up until the 15th century. This is when Venice is at its peak. The city of Venice, today a small town, full of tourists, was at this point one of the biggest cities in Europe. More than 150.000 people lived there. The republic was at its major extension. They held the Croatian coast, many ports on Peloponnesos, they had conquered Crete and in 1473 they got Cyprus. The Greek archipelago was mostly Venetian, and they had started to go inland from Venice. They had as many as 3300 privately owned trading ships… Not counting the Galleys that the Arsenale pumped out at a rate of one every two days.
It was a medieval superpower, and they were filthy rich. The business was extraordinary and they had so much gold that very often, instead of using brute force to get what they wanted, they simply bought it.
New enemies – The Ottomans
In 1387 the Ottomans captured and sacked Thessaloniki in eastern Grece. That was just the first of many battles between the two nations, and the 15th century became another warfare century for the Venetians. The Turks were well organized and very powerful. Adding to that, in many parts of Balkan they were actually preferred to over the Venetians. Venice had been the enemy of the Byzantine Empire for a long time. And the Islamics often had a softer hand when dealing with native civilizations.
In the 15th century another enemy, stronger, deadlier, and invisible started to have a disastrous effect on the republic. The first attack was in 1348 and in the centuries to follow it would come back and attack in the shadows and in the mist over 60 times. I’m talking about the bubonic plague.
All of Europe was affected but Venice more than others, having merchandise and people coming and going to the Orient on a daily basis. Apart from the terrible tragedies and horrors that the poor citizens had to succumb to, the plague also put an incredible strain on the economy. They just couldn’t make things work, when people continued to die.
So, when they had it all, gold, land, beauty, and culture, things had to start getting worse. When you’re on the top, the only way to go is down…