by Roger Crowley
I seldom read straightforward narrative history these days; I have a pretty thorough knowledge of the basics of the history of Western civilization. However, this book attracted my attention because I have never read a history focused on Venice; all my previous reading treated Venice as part of other developments.
The book traces Venetian history up to about 1500. Interestingly, Venice is the only major Italian city that did not exist in Roman times. It was instead populated after the collapse of the Roman Empire as a haven from the anarchy and chaos of post-Roman times. The lagoon in which Venice was ensconced provided protected, and the inhabitants were initially fishermen, experts at seafaring, so they could easily defeat any attackers.
The ball got rolling for Venice around 1000 CE. The inhabitants had long since learned that trade was more profitable than fishing, and had been building up their trading capabilities, but all the pieces came together around that time. They had developed seafaring technologies that worked well for trade with Byzantium and the Levant, and they had developed social and legal institutions that supported traders.
Venice was always a republic, for the same reason that Greek cities were democracies — only more so. Monarchies and aristocracies are based on the power of landowners. Venice had no land so there was no basis for an aristocracy. Since trade was the only path to wealth, power was never concentrated into a few hands, which in turn kept potential tyrants in check. And because democracies enjoy greater public support than autocracies, Venice was more cohesive and stronger than its competitors.
Venice’s entire political stance, domestic and foreign, was determined by the needs of merchants. Peace was much to be preferred, but wars that gave them a competitive advantage were never shied away from. Everybody traded. Even the rowers of the galleys were alloted some space on board for their trunks of goods to trade. In fact, serving as an oarsman was the first step by which a poor lad could start climbing the ladder of fortune.
In 1204 Venice pulled off the greatest commercial coup in history. At that time, Byantium was the biggest and richest trading emporium in the Mediterranean basin, very possibly the biggest and richest in the world. The Venetians traded heavily with Byzantium, but so did their competitors, such as Genoa and Florence. Worse, the Byzantines exploited their pre-eminence to the fullest, tightly constraining access to the Black Sea with its connections to the Silk Road.
The Pope had called for a new crusade, the fourth, to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims. Only the Venetians had a fleet anywhere near large enough to transport the Crusader army, so a complex deal was arranged by which the Venetians devoted their energies to preparing and expanding their fleet, and would be paid handsomely. Yet, when the time came for the Crusader army to embark in Venice, few crusaders had appeared, and they had far too little money to pay their debt to Venice. Making the best of a bad situation, the Venetians embarked the small Crusader army and sailed down the Adriatic. But they forced the crusaders to attack a port on the Adriatic that had rebelled against Venetian rule. The city was Christian, and the prospect of a crusader army attacking a Christian city was unthinkable — but the Venetians were adamant, and the crusaders had to choose between being dump on the beach and capturing the city. Of course, when the crusaders captured the city, they sacked it, killing large numbers of Christians. Most of their loot went to the Venetians to pay for food.
There followed a series of complicated events by which the Venetians steadily maneuvered the crusaders into a corner from which the only exit for them was to attack Byzantium. Not Jerusalem, their true objective, but Byzantium, the largest, richest, and most important city in Christendom. This they did, and the resulting sack of the city shattered its power and paved the way for the fall of Byzantium to the Turks 250 years later. But for Venice, it was a triumph. They ousted their competitors from Byzantium and the Black Sea; they carried off much of the wealth of the city; and they established themselves as mercantile masters of the place.
The next 200 years were a golden age for Venice; it raked in unimaginable wealth and ruled the world of trade. But it began losing social cohesion, and things started going downhill starting around 1400. One by one, their stepping-stone ports scattered around the eastern Mediterranean were picked off. Trade volumes lessened and profits slipped. When Byzantium fell to the Turks in 1453, Venetians realized that the walls were closing in on them. A series of military defeats eviscerated Venetian military power, but it was the Portuguese discovery of the sea route to the Indies that sealed Venice’s fate. After 1500, Venice was no longer a power to be reckoned with.