Venice History – Why on earth did they build a city in the middle of the water?
One could argue that the reason why Venice is situated right there is strategic. The truth, just like in so many other cases during the history of man, could also be just coincidences and chance. There is not one single event when somebody got the brilliant idea to start building on the mud. Things happened and one thing led to another and at some point, the people living out there on the sandbanks realized that the particular position in the middle of the lagoon had its benefits. One thing that is beyond any doubt though is that Venice history did not start in 421. That part simply isn’t true.
So, this is in very broad lines, what happened…
Giuseppe Verdi wrote an Opera named Attila. Venice history flashes through at the end of the Prologue. There’s a scene where the desperate fugitives from the mainland finally reach a safe haven in Venice.
The Opera tells the story of the great Hun King who conquered a major part of Europe and came down through Italy, burning, killing, and spreading fear until he reached Rome. There he had a vision and instead of plundering the eternal city of its unspeakable richness, he stopped, prayed to the Christian God, and died.
In Verdi’s story the people of Aquileia, now a small, sleepy village on the northern coast, close to Slovenia, fled into the Venetian lagoon away from all this. There they founded Venice.
Although this is not entirely correct, there is some truth in it
When the Roman empire collapsed in 395/479 A.D., a lot of different barbaric tribes came into Italy from the north. They wanted to have their piece of the cake – the wealth of the Romans. In fact, they went all over Europe, looting, and pillaging, taking what they could get. And they pushed other peoples further north or further south, east or west. This is known by historians as the migration period. In Veneto, the region of Venice, they came in waves, one after the other. And the invasions lasted for hundreds of years.
And from living under a stable, Roman organization, the citizens found themselves not knowing if they would actually live to see the next day. Or if they would still have a family when they came home from working in the fields.
Venice started out sometime in the 5th century. But at that time it probably was no more than a few cabins on the sandbanks. In 452, for the first time, the Roman inland cities were sacked, and the meager settlements in the lagoon started to grow. But it would last all the way until the beginning of 800 Venice before had become a real city to reckon with.
Then again; for the simple farmer, it wasn’t crucial if the Master was this or that, Roman or not Roman. What was more important was how much taxes he had to pay, and how much labor he had to offer. And if he was left at peace for the remaining of time. Life for the little people was probably pretty hard anyway with diseases, bad harvests resulting in famine, and fear of God, without additionally having to fear getting the head chopped off by the Huns.
Attila, King of the Huns, conquists Italy.
So the first barbarians weren’t really conquering the land. They looted and stole and then, being fought by locals and Byzantine troops, they returned from where they came or just simply died. The first one who really administrated the territory, even if it was for a limited time was Attila, the Hun. He plundered Aquileia in 452, just as Verdi claimed. Aquileia, with its enormous stone fortification, was at the time the fourth biggest city in Italy and the 9th in the whole Roman empire.
It is said that Attila was able to penetrate and conquer the city thanks to the defense wall, of which a part incidentally collapsed during the siege. If it hadn’t maybe Venice’s history would have been different. Maybe Venice even today would be a small fishing village sleeping in the lagoon far away from the historical mainstream.
Venice History after Attila – The Goths
After Attila came first the Heruli, and then the Goths. They held Veneto until mid-500 A.D. when the Byzantines conquered it… Or took it back. The Byzantines were the remaining part of the Roman empire. With the capital in Constantinople, today’s Istanbul, they continued to dominate the Mediterranean. And they were very much present in all of Italy and, of course, in Veneto.
After a few years, a new wave of conquerors came – This time it was the Longobards. The locals must have been quite fed up with all these brutes raiding their lands. So they probably felt that the safest direction was southeast, towards the new Roman capital. And that was the path into the shallow, muddy water of the lagoons.
All of northeast Italy has a very low coastline. There are not one but many lagoons of various dimensions. Further south there is the river Po with its huge delta crowded with fish, birds, and other sea life. The lagoons were not an empty wasteland. They were rich hunting grounds for fishermen and rangers. And they provided gold from the prosperous salt industry. So it was not like the poor civilians ran desperately into the swamp, away from the brutality of the barbarians. It must have been a much more calculated and slow transfer of people and resources from one rich part to another.
After the Goths came the Longobards
Venice history has very much in common with the history of the Longobards. They dominated Veneto for over 200 years, from mid-500 to mid-700. In the beginning, they shared the territory with the Byzantines. But as years went by they gradually pushed them towards the southeast, towards the sea. So the patriarch of Aquileia moved to Grado on the coast. And as many remaining Roman inland settlements were sacked, the other towns further out increased their numbers and importance, Caorle, Eraclea, Chioggia, and the urban centers inside the Venice lagoon; Torcello, Murano, Rialto (…that later became the city of Venice) and the Byzantine stronghold on the Lido island: Malamocco. And with the constant threat of the Longobards, they collaborated both militarily and politically.
The beginning of the Republic of Venice was not in Venice.
Actually, the first Venetian republic was formed on the mainland, in Eraclea or Heraclia as the Roman name was (…it is not the same town but it’s close enough). And it wasn’t really a republic, not yet anyway. It was a vassal state of the Byzantine Empire. And the title Doge is from Dux, a Roman title. In Venetian, it is pronounced Doxe (doz:e)
The Franks – And the history of Venice comes to a conclusion.
In 774 the Longobards were kicked out of Italy by the Franks, who had a new King. A tough and stratigìcally prepared warmonger… Charles the Great. From 781, his son, Pippin was King of the Longobards (that wasn’t really the Lombards, but the part of the Longobard-Kingdom that covered northern Italy.). He was as much a War-King as his father and immediately started attacking the Byzantine western borders, i.e. the Venetians.
The Venetian republic was already a reality and the associated cities didn’t want to give up their independence to just another tyrant. But the Franks, unlike the other barbarians, had a strong fleet. They attacked from the sea and the cities on the Adriatic coast, Eraclea, Caorle, and Chioggia, which until then had been relatively safe started to become vulnerable.
It is said that the outnumbered Venetian fleet with help from Constantinople is supposed to have defeated the Frank fleet of Pippin in 810. The Venetians retreated to the inner parts of the lagoon, and when the Frank ships followed them, they got stuck in the mud. The Venetian lighter and smaller boats could then burn them where they stood, without the Franks being able to take advantage of their bigger and stronger vessels. The final battle took place right outside Rialto
The capital of the Venetian Republic was at the time Malamocco, being the strongest fortification around the lagoon. Already in 775, the Bishop’s seat was moved to Olivolo, at what is now San Pietro in Castello, in Venice. After 810 the administrative center was also moved to Rialto/Venice. And with enemies coming in from both land and sea Rialto/Venice was after that never contested as the natural capital of the republic.
Every empire needs a saint, someone to call their own protecting angel, someone who confirms the rule and the legitimacy of the authority… At least in those days, that was a must. The Byzantines had San Theodor. And in 828 two sneaky merchants, Rustico da Torcello and Bon da Malamocco sailed over to Alexandria in Egypt and robbed the Body of Saint Mark right under the nose of the Egyptians.
They hid the saint’s body under a load of pork meat. As the Muslims didn’t want to have anything to do with the dead pigs, they let them pass. They brought the body over the Mediterranean and back to Venice. And so the republic got its own Saint, Saint Mark. At this point, Venice history is more or less ready to reach out for world domination… Well, at least dominating the eastern Mediterranean. Venice continued to be somewhat connected to Constantinople for many hundreds of years, but these events made her independent. And the path to wealth and glory was initiated.
A final consideration.
If you look at Venice’s history in this light, it is obvious that it was a very strategically safe place to build a city. Venice has no fortification. You wouldn’t find many medieval towns without stone walls all around, guard towers, and thick oak gates for entering and leaving. But Venice is completely defenseless. This is because there is no need for it. The lagoon is a far better defense than any stone fortification or steel bars. You can’t come from the land because horses and carriages sink in the mud. And you can’t come from the sea if you don’t know exactly where the underwater channels are and when to go, and the Venetians kept all that a well-hidden secret. This is another of her many uniquenesses, a medieval city without strength… only beauty.