THE WAR OF ST. SABAS 1256-1270

Acre - Kingdom of Jerusalem - reconstruction

Acre - Kingdom of Jerusalem - reconstruction


In the XIII and XIVcentury the main trade competitors of Venice were the other Italian maritime republics, especially Pisa and Genoa. They first tried to reach an agreement in 1238 but their strong trade competition caused increasingly dangerous conflicts over their trading business in the Eastern Mediterranean and  little by little led eventually to inevitable open war.

While Venice was increasing its power in the Adriatic sea, on the other side of the Italian peninsula Genoa was getting more and more powerful in the Tyrrhenian. 

The were three main commercial routes at the time in the Mediterranean sea: the Latin Empire (called Romania), Alexandria (Egypt) and the lands conquered by the crusaders (called Outremare); the Latin Empire had been under Venetian control since 1204, Alexandria, after the failure of Louis IX's first crusade, was then in the firm hands of the Egyptians, Outremare was the only area where more maritime powers had access.

Venice Genoa Pisa 1262Venice and Genoa tried to reach an agreement in 1238 to join forces against the pirates that were supported by Federigo II king of Sicily; but the interests at stake were too attractive and the historical rivalry between the two maritime powers was too strong to guarantee an actual alliance. After the IV crusade the maritime powers that were flourishing with the trade with the “Levant”, realized that the constant state of war of the Outremar powers was actually a good thing for their own business: apart from the usual trade of standard goods, there was an opportunity for them to supply military goods and services: they could rent ships to pilgrims and crusaders, they could sell wood to make fortifications and war machines, they could lend money to finance governors and knights. Very often, in exchange for such goods and services, the maritime republics would get the permission to have their own settlements in the most important ports. They would get an entire town “district” which included piers, houses for the merchants, warehouses, a church, an oven, a mill and a square for the market. In some cases they could also have a high wall built all around their district and have their own army to patrol it. Such “districts” were like small colonies where very often, diplomatic and spying activities would take placeIn the middle of the XIII century the largest city in the Crusader States was the town of Acre, where Pisans, Genoese and Venetians had their own districts.

Acre and Tyre War of St. Sabas

Acre and Tyre

The war of St. Sabas began as a minor skirmish between 2 rival districts but in little time grew more and more to reflect the historical rivalry between the two more powerful maritime powers of the time, Venice and Genoa. The Genoese and the Venetian districts were separated by the Montjoie hill, on top of which stood the Monastery of St. Sabas. The hill belonged to the Genoese but the possession of the monastery was claimed by both sides and the matter was in the Courts. Both parties were very interested in the possession of the Monastery because of its important strategic position over the port of Acre. While negotiations were being discussed in order to find a diplomatic solution, the first major armed conflict took place in the beginning of 1256: The Genoese decided to force the issue and with a sudden attack, seized the hill and took possession of the Monastery. As the Venetians protested and stood up for their rights, the Genoese picked up their weapons and went down the hill to devastate the Venetian district. Aided by their Pisan allies, the Genoese pillaged and burned down Venetian houses and warehouses and then moved on to the port to burn down Venetian ships as well.

War of St. Sabas

War of St. Sabas

Meanwhile the Genoese Consul, Simone Vento, had managed to get a document from the Prior of the Hospitallers that acknowledged the right of Genoa to keep possession of the Monastery, but the Venetians claimed that the Prior did not have the authority to release such document. At the same time Marco Giustinian had managed to get a letter from Pope Alexander IV, that stated that the Monastery belonged to the Republic of Venice. No document could solve the issue and the conflict began to involve other political and military forces of Outremar.

It must be noted that the issue was not just the possession of a monastery but it was a reflection of a deeply rooted, 200 years old, rivalry over control of the trade of the “Levant” that was itself a crucial factor to determine which Maritime Republic would be the most powerful in Italy. Genoa’s direct competitors in western Mediterranean, namely the Knights

Lorenzo Tiepolo

Templar and the merchants from Provence and the Prince Boemond of Antiochia, sided with Venice, whereas the merchant communities of Catalogna and

Ancona, the Hospitallers,  the Barons of the  Crusader States, especially Philip of Montfort, lord of Tyre formed an alliance with Genoa; Pisa had initially fought on thee side of Genoa but following diplomatic and commercial agreements with Venice, eventually joined the “Serenissima”. The Genoese felt betrayed and 1257 with a sudden action occupied the Pisan district and gained access to their section of the port. The Genoese victory did not last for

Acri columns

Acri columns in Venice

long, as 14 Venetian galleys captained by Lorenzo Tiepolo, son of Doge Jacopo Tiepolo and a future Doge himself, arrived in Acre in the midsummer of 1257. The Venetian soldiers disembarked and rejected the Genoese, burnt down their ships, seized the hill, took

possession of the Monastery and stormed the Genoese District but could not take it as it was well defended by the Hospitallers. Tiepolo had two pillars of the monastery removed in order to carry them to Venice in triumph; the pillars can still be seen today as they adorn Piazzetta S. Marco close to Porta della Carta (Papers Door) of the Doge's Palace (Palazzo Ducale).

Battle of Acre – July 1258

Peace negotiations kept going on, but there was no third power strong enough to stop the civil war. Minor skirmishes went on with cannon shots from the towers of both Districts.

In June 1258 Genoa planned to take revenge against Venice and Pisa: they sent a fleet captained by Rossa della Turca that was soon joined by other Genoese warships that were patrolling the Outremar area. The fleet arrived in Tyre where they reached an agreement with the local governor, Philippe of Monfort; according to the agreement, 80 knights and 400 crossbowmen from Tyre would go towards Acre along the coast to reach a place called Vigna Nuova where they would join with a group of Hospitallers soldiers: the joint contingent was supposed to occupy the Pisan and Venetian districts as soon as the Genoese fleet was to attack the port of Acre. The Genoese fleet of 48 galleys and 4 warships arrived in Acre but in the meantime the Venetians had managed to get help from the Templars that promised to protect their districts. Venetians and Pisans then took place on their 40 galleys and armed another 70 smaller ships with crossbowmen and mercenaries.

The naval engagement that followed on June 24th was rather short and a disaster for Genoa: the Genoese lost 24 galleys and 1700 men were either killed or made prisoner. The Genoese allied land troops, seeing that their fleet was being defeated did not take action and returned to Tyro together with the Hospitallers. In Acre the Genoese population found shelter in the Hospitallers Hospital, but soon fled to Tyre for their lives. The Genoese district was totally devastated except for the church and that was the end of the Genoese presence in Acre for good.The power of the Venetians in the Latin Kingdom of Jerusalem seemed to be at its highest peak in 1258. During the next 2 years Venetians and Genoese attacked each other’s ships wherever and whenever there was a chance, thus bringing the trade in Outremar to a virtual standstill. The Genoese tried again to take revenge in the summer of 1259: Admiral Benedetto Zaccaria gathered a fleet of 20 galleys and sailed from Genoa to Tyre. Off the coast of Tyre, he engaged battle with a fleet of 24 Venetian galleys coming from Acre. Apparently one Genoese captain did not or could not take part in the naval clash and left his comrades to suffer another disaster for Genoa: Zaccaria was captured and taken to Venice where he was imprisoned.

At last a peace treaty was signed in 1261 to confirm the possessions each party had achieved: Venetians and Pisans would keep their districts in Acre whereas the Genoese were only allowed to stay in Tyre. The war was over in the Holy Land but the conflict between Genoa and

Michael VIII Palaiologos

Michael VIII Palaiologos

Venice went on elsewhere.The Genoese then found themselves excluded from the major port of the Sirian-Palestinian area and tried to find another way to get back on tracks. Michael VIII Palaiologos, Emperor of Nicea, for some time had been claiming the throne of Constantinople. The city had been controlled by Venetians since the 2nd crusade of 1202 and the power was held by the very fragile “Eastern Latin Empire” that obviously supported the Venetians and hampered the Genoese trade with the Black Sea.The Genoese then sought alliance with Michael VIII Palaiologos and signed the Treaty of Nymophaeum with the Nicaean emperor in 1261.Michael was planning  to defeat the Latin Empire and restore and lead the Byzantine Empire. In order to do so he needed a strong fleet to defeat Venice, which was ally of the Latin Empire and kept a patrol fleet of 30 ships in the Bosphorus to control the area and keep the Niceans at bay. Genoa offered him to wage war against the Latin Empire and restore the Greek Empire as long as the trade previlegies granted to the Venetians would be switched on to the Genoese. Palaiologos accepted and

Empire of Nicaea

Empire of Nicaea

prepared to attack Constantinople.According to the terms of the treaty, Genoa committed to immediately provide the Nicaeans with a fleet of 16 galleys and another fleet of 50 ships for the siege of Constantinople that Michael was planning. In return, the Genoese would get tax reduction and custom concessions throughout the Byzantine Empire, including their own trading district in Pera, opposite Constantinople, as well as other ports within the Byzantine Empire.

Venice lost their total trading supremacy over the sea while the Genoese set up a new port in Caffa on the Bosphorus that dominated access to the Black Sea in a much more advantageous position compared to the Venetian port of Soldaia.

Venice won the battles of Settepozzi in 1263, lost in 1264 to admiral Simone Grillo and won again in Trapani (Sicily) in 1266.Despite the defeats suffered in combat, the Genoese managed to keep trading undisturbed as the Venetian fleet was focused on the sea battles; on the contrary Venetian trade was severely affected as Genoese corsairs raided merchant ships that were sailing from Venice to the East.In 1270, thanks to the intermediation of Pope Clemente IV, Carlo D'Angiò and Louis IX of France, who wished to embark on a crusade and needed the rival fleets for this undertaking; a 5 years peace treaty was agreed upon and was renewed on the expiry date in Cremona 5 years later.However, the Genoese managed to gain more than Venice in terms of trading rights and commercial advantages, even though they had lost the final battle: the Latin Empire disappeared and the Greek Empire was restored, Genoa managed to be in a position where could influence on the politics of the new Byzantine EmpireVenice had strengthened its position in the Kingdom of Jerusalem, but failed to prevent the development and flourishing of Genoese trade businesses in the Byzantine world and their commercial domination in the Black Sea, which went on until the Ottoman conquered Constantinople in 1453.