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Venice from its origins to the Fourth Crusade

Updated: Sep 17, 2021


The origins of Venice are still a dark chapter in the history of the Middle Ages, about which the sources we have tell us little, often inter alia mixing reality and legend in an inextricable way.

The only thing that is truly certain is that Venice was born Byzantine and remained so for some centuries. The Venetians (or "Venetics" as the Byzantines called them) already elaborated a legend in the 10th century, which is known in the work of Constantine VII Porphyrogenitus (the erudite emperor on the throne of Byzantium from 913 to 959), according to which their city was allegedly founded in "a deserted, uninhabited and marshy place" at the time of the invasion of Attila, when the Hun king devastated the Venetian mainland, destroying Aquileia and other smaller towns. The story was intended to ennoble the origin of the lagoon city by making it derive from a dramatic event that strongly affected the collective imagination.

But the reality was more modest: the Venetians did not settle in deserted territories and the migration took place over a long period of time. The islands in which Venice would have formed were in fact already inhabited in Roman times, even if we are unable to say whether they were settlements of a certain importance or simply a few isolated houses or at most small villages.

Significant in this regard is a letter from Flavius ​​Aurelio Cassiodoro, the Roman senator who was minister of the Ostrogoth kings, to whom we owe a description of the lagoon in a letter dated 537-538 with which he ordered the transport by ship of food supplies from Istria in Ravenna.

These had to pass through the internal route (the so-called "Septem Maria" from Ravenna to Altino and, from here, to Aquileia) under the control of the "maritime tribunes" of the Venetians and the circumstance offers Cassiodorus the opportunity to describe the lagoon environment where you could sail even when the weather conditions did not allow you to venture into the sea.

The inhabitants, he adds, had their homes there "in the manner of waterfowl", with boats tied out as if they were animals, and their only wealth was fishing and salt production. An environment, apparently, with a still primitive social structure, but we can also ask ourselves to what extent the author's rhetoric may have distorted the reality of the facts.

The birth of Venice, beyond what the legends tell, was a slow process, and all in all obscure, which began in the second half of the sixth century and lasted for about seventy years or even more, until at least the ninth century, if it is considered the formation of that urban complex which today is the city of Venice. Even if they were inhabited, the lagoons continued to remain a secondary element compared to the nearby cities of the mainland which had reached a particular flowering in Roman times.

Among these the main one was Aquileia; then came Oderzo, Concordia, Altino, Padua and Treviso, whose importance had grown at the time of the Ostrogoth domination. All these centers, which contributed to the birth of Venice to varying degrees, had as a common feature the presence of fluvial connections with the sea through which trade had been exercised since ancient times.

The cities linked to the birth of Venice were part of the large province of Venetia et Histria, established as the tenth region of Roman Italy at the time of Emperor Augustus and became a province when Diocletian had reformed the administrative order in the third century.

The region was so called by the two pre-eminent populations, the Veneti and the Histri, and extended over a large territory that from Istria came to include most of the Tre Venezie up to the river Adda in present-day Lombardy. "Venice - wrote the Lombard Paolo Diacono in the eighth century - is not only made up of those few islands that we now call Venice, but its territory extends from the borders of Pannonia to the Adda river, as evidenced by the Annals in which Bergamo is called city ​​of the Venezie ”and further on provides an explanation of the origin of the name Veneti:“ the name Veneti - even if in Latin it has an extra letter - in Greek means 'worthy of praise' ».

The history of Byzantine Venice begins at the time of the Gothic War, the long conflict with which Justinian I reconquered Italy. Venetia et Histria - where the Byzantines appeared in 539 - was a secondary front, but nevertheless suffered the devastating consequences of the war, which brought with it destruction, violence, famine and recurrent epidemics.

Towards 540 it was subdued by the imperials; then during the Ostrogothic counter-offensive of the 1940s it was divided between these, the Goths and the Franks to finally return under the empire around 556 when the generalissimo Narsete managed to bring the border back to the Alps.

A chronicler of the time writes that after the end of the war Italy had "returned to its ancient happiness" but, if it ever existed, it lasted very little. In 568, led by their king Alboin, the Lombards from Pannonia invaded Italy, crossing the Julian Alps and spreading across the plain. Within four years almost all of Italy north of the Po was conquered and the invasion put an end to the territorial unity of the Veneto region where, in the eastern part, only Padua with the nearby castle of Monselice, Oderzo, remained to the Byzantines. Altino and Concordia.

It was also the cause of the beginning of a progressive displacement of the populations of the mainland: in the face of the newcomers, whose ferocity was proverbial, the lagoons offered a safe haven due to their inability to conduct operations that required the use of fleets.

The ecclesiastical authorities also feared these people, still largely pagan or at most of the Aryan faith, and the first to set an example was the patriarch of Aquileia, Paolino, who with the treasure of the church moved to the lagoon in the nearby castle of Degree.

The fugitives certainly thought of a temporary refuge, as it must have happened in other circumstances, but this time the events took a different course that went beyond the expectations of the protagonists. The Lombards settled permanently in Italy and their progressive territorial expansion ended up accentuating the movements towards the coast of the populations who did not intend to remain under their dominion.

Ultimately it was an epochal event, destined to change the course of history: on the one hand it caused the political fragmentation of the Italian territory, which lasted for centuries, on the other it was the determining cause of the origin of Venice, which perhaps in different conditions it would never have existed.

The Byzantines tried in vain to expel the Lombards, but their advance continued inexorably over the years, albeit with phases of remission and occasional imperial counteroffensives, up to the definitive fall of Ravenna in 751, where the exarchus who ruled the Italian territory on behalf of Constantinople, thus leading to the end of the rule of Byzantium in the center and north of the peninsula. The fate of the Venetian mainland was fulfilled in the first half of the 7th century.

In 601 the Lombard king Agilulfo at war with Byzantium took possession of Padua, destroying it and, a little later, of Monselice. The imperial presence was thus reduced only to the cornerstones of Concordia, Altino and Oderzo, equally however destined to fall.

In 616 Concordia was Lombard and around 639, when King Rotari led a thorough attack on the exarchate, it was the turn of Altino and Oderzo.

Most of the populations then took the path of the lagoons and, following the river routes that in more ancient times had marked their relationship with the sea, they settled in a wide coastal strip that went from the shores of Grado to those of Chioggia.

We are not able to have clear ideas about these movements, on which the Venetian sources are rather confused, but we can affirm that the most important concerned the transfer of administrative cadres from Oderzo to the new city of Eraclea or Eracliana, founded in those years at margin of the mainland by the will of the emperor Heraclius in order to give a new center to what remained of the Venetian province.

In this way, for the Venice of the mainland, the historical process begun with the Lombard invasion ended and ended with the birth of a new lagoon reality, consisting of a Byzantine administration governing a sort of federation of islands destined to give life to the future city of Venice.

The new political reality formed in the Venetian lagoons continued to be an integral part of the history of the Byzantine Empire for a couple of more centuries. Around 715 (or according to another chronology in 697) the lagoon islands had their own duke who began the long series of Venetian "doges".

According to local tradition, the first to be promoted to office was a citizen of Eraclea, named Paulicio, followed by a second Duke Marcello and a third named Orso, but modern criticism is rather wary of this interpretation and tends rather to to consider Orso the first true Venetian duke, placing his election around 726, when part of the Italian populations (and among these the Venetians) rebelled against the iconoclastic decrees of Emperor Leo III.

In other words, it would be a local governor elected in opposition to Byzantium when - as we read in the Life of Pope Gregory II - the subjects in revolt "without taking into account the ordination of the exarch, in every part of Italy elected their own dukes" but, even if this rebellion did take place, it lasted shortly and as early as 727 in an official document Leo III and Constantine V referred to Venice as "our province preserved by God". A little later, moreover, the exarch fleeing from Ravenna temporarily occupied by the Lombards found refuge in the lagoons and was able to recapture his city with the help of the Venetian fleet.

The Venetian islands remained under imperial rule even after the Lombards put an end to the exarchate in 751, but relations with Constantinople began to loosen to the point that in 804 it came to power in Malamocco (where the capital had been moved). a doge representative of the party in favor of the new power of the Franks that was gaining ground and, therefore, against Byzantium.

The territorial situation on the mainland had in fact changed profoundly: Charlemagne in 774 had put an end to the reign of the Lombards, conquering Byzantine Istria after some time. In the 19th century he also had himself proclaimed emperor, thus contrasting a new power with Constantinople with a strong desire for supremacy in the West.

In this way Venice actually passed into the Carolingian orbit without an apparent reaction from Byzantium, but when in 806 Charlemagne assigned Venice, Istria and Dalmatia to his son Pepin, in his capacity as king of Italy, the emperor Nicephorus I, to reaffirm the rights of Byzantium, sent a fleet that went to cast anchors in the Venetian lagoon. A Byzantine-Franco-Venetian war followed, with the arrival of another Byzantine fleet in Venice, a failed attempt by Pepin to conquer the islands and, finally, a peace concluded in Aachen in 812 with which Constantinople recognized to Charlemagne the title of emperor but in exchange he obtained dominion over Venice.

The imperial envoy who had dealt with Charlemagne, the spatario Arsafio, in 811 in the name of his lord, declared the pro-Frankish doge Obelerio and his two brothers associated with the throne deposed, replacing them with the loyalist duke Agnello Partecipazio, thus decisively restoring the city government under the influence of Constantinople.

These events marked the last direct intervention of Byzantium in Venetian life. The duchy, although formally subject to Byzantium, actually moved towards progressive independence, while maintaining a strong link with the empire for centuries. It is difficult to say when Venice became independent, bearing in mind that this happened without violent shocks, but only as a natural process of evolution.

The historical doctrine has advanced many hypotheses in this regard, placing the effective independence between the ninth and eleventh centuries at different times and it can only be said that already during the first half of the ninth century considerable steps were taken in this direction: Agnello Partecipazio transferred the capital in Rialto, thus giving a new physiognomy to the duchy, and in 828 under his successor Justinian the body of San Marco was brought from Alexandria to Venice where it became the symbol of the new city, replacing the Byzantine cult of San Teodoro.

And again, a few years later, the Venetians concluded a treaty with the Franks (the Pactum Lotharii of 840) with which they behaved neither more nor less as an autonomous state. This did not mean independence from Byzantium, at least as we usually understand it in our historical schemes: on the Byzantine side they continued to look at Venice as a distant province and on the Venetian side, it is unknown whether more for convenience than conviction, they continued long to accept an ideal supremacy of Byzantium.

Venice maintained a bond of substantial alliance with the East until the twelfth century, when relations began to crack under the Comnenian kings, and the most important aspect of this was the commercial privileges granted starting from Basil II in 992 and consolidated in starting from 1082 with the chrysobolla with which Alessio I Comneno allowed the Venetians to trade in almost his entire empire without paying taxes.

In addition to political ties, however, there was a cultural relationship in the broadest sense, by virtue of which Constantinople continued to be a model independent of political subordination, so much so that one can speak of a Byzantine Venice even when an effective dependence had ceased.

This relationship was widely manifested in the artistic field (and it is sufficient to recall the church of San Marco or the Pala d'Oro ordered in Constantinople in which the enamel of Irene Dukas "eu \\ sebestaéth au \\ gouésth" can still be seen), but above all in the influence exerted by the Byzantine court on the ducal one, found in the system of coregency, with which the oldest doges in the Byzantine manner tried to transmit power within their families, in the ceremonies of ducal investiture, in marriage bonds (among In the 9th and 11th centuries there are three Byzantine dogaresse) and, finally, in the granting of Byzantine noble titles to the Venetian dukes, a custom begun at the very origins of the duchy and preserved albeit discontinuously until the 11th century.

The following century led on the one hand to the full affirmation of Venice as a Mediterranean power and on the other to the progressive loosening and finally to the breaking of traditional ties with Byzantium.

The apex of the crisis was reached in 1171, when Manuel I Comnenus had the Venetians present in the empire unexpectedly arrested and all their assets confiscated. According to the city sources, it was a treacherous act, carried out in order to take possession of their wealth, according to the Byzantine ones of a just retaliation for their arrogance; but beyond the reciprocal retaliations, the fact remains that the relations between the two powers were irremediably compromised, despite subsequent attempts to bring them back to normality made with a series of treaties in 1187, 1189 and again in 1198.

Faced with the instability of Byzantine politics, and the danger that Constantinople, by now in decline, might end up in the hands of some hostile power, the intention perhaps matured in Venice to define these relations in a more lasting way and above all to guarantee the security of the commercial presence in the empire. .

The opportunity came with the Fourth Crusade, which started from Venice in 1202 and in which the Venetians led by their doge Enrico Dandolo also took part.

The crusade never arrived in the Holy Land and, due to a series of more or less fortuitous circumstances, it diverted to the capital of the East, which the Crusaders and Venetians conquered in April 1204, and then settled in much of its territory, thus establishing a Latin empire destined to last until 1261.

In this way Venice became an imperial power, overturning the centuries-old bond with Byzantium to its advantage and sharing the empire of Romania with the other victors. For contemporaries it was a just and necessary act, which Martin da Canal and others justify as a perfect expression of their faith and as an equally perfect execution of the pope's will.

It is, of course, propaganda, even if expressed with conviction, but also a significant expression of the civic pride of a city that has become a state. Venice "the most beautiful in the world" - as da Canal writes - was embellished even more with the war prey brought from Constantinople and, it can be added, in this way it ensured that numerous works of art were preserved from the ravages of time and of men to reach our days.

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