It may seem strange that in only a few centuries, a relatively small group of refugees in a swampy land, managed to become a powerful Republic governed by sophisticated laws;  even though they did not have neither woods nor forests they had the strongest navy of those times; even though they did not have fertile lands, they were able to sell corn to virtually anybody; even though they had only a small territory of 2 square kilometers they had managed to stand up to the Empire of Charles the Great, the largest empire of the Middle Ages; they had also managed to conquer the town of Ravenna (capital of the Greek Hexarcate) and give it back to the Eastern Empire.

Yet, numerically, the Venetians were only a tiny population if compared to Carl the Great’s Empire or the Eastern Empirehe Venetians did not have lands but they had the sea, therefore they developed the only activity they could engage in: trade. Their goal was to become a commercial bridge from West to East. Since ancient times the trade route between East and West had been the Tyrrhenean Sea: ships coming from the East would reach modern day France, then Mainz through the Rodan river, the Flanders through the Rein river and so on, up to England and the other Northern European countries.

The Venetians proposed an alternative route, the Adriatic Sea and the Po river, through which they could reach France and Germany thanks to their advance shipbuilding ability.

Venice merchants were scattered all around Europe and the Middle East. Initially Venice did not try to conquer new territories and preferred to get the monopoly of the markets.

The military navy was only used to defend the homeland against raids from Slavs and Hungarians and to make the commercial routes safer against the pirates.

Venice was still largely depending on the two big empires and therefore tried to juggle them and do whatever was in its power to prevent that the more powerful Teutonic Empire did not prevail over the weaker Eastern Empire, at least until Venice had become powerful enough to be able to do without both of them.

In 992 Doge Pietro Orseolo II managed to to put Venice in a position to easily beat any trading competitor by getting from the Eastern emperor Basil II a lot of commercial rights and privileges: reduction of commercial duties, Custom expenses and warehouse taxes; priority for loading/unloading, protection against harassment from port officials and so on.

Furthermore Venice often offered military support to the Eastern Empire in exchange for more commercial privileges, money and rights to have warehouses and dwellings in various ports and exemption of duties in all the ports of the empire



After the year 1000 the crusades began, the goal was to liberate the Holy Sepulcher. The first crusade was launched by Peter the Hermit: thousands of people migrated to the South but they had no organization, no knowledge of military technique and no food. It was like a horde of barbarians that tried to get food by looting and plundering the villages they were passing by. Most of them were eventually killed by the populations they were invadingwas then clear that in order to prepare such expeditions it was necessary to have enough resources and to keep contact with the homeland.

In following expeditions ship-owners from Pisa and Bari provided the vessels while the Venetians preferred to stand back, At a later stage, after realizing  how many trading and commercial privileges the crusaders and their suppliers could get (especially Genoa, Venice n. 1 competitor, that managed to get entire neighborhoods in the conquered towns) Venice changed its policy and decided to start supplying the crusaders with ships.

Venice therefore participated in the crusades not out of deep religious feelings but merely in order to get more trading rights and free ports of call in the Eastern Mediterranean. Only at a later stage, when the competition of other sea-powers such as Pisa, Genoa, Ancona and Amalfi became stronger, Venice decided to set up a colonial empire. But such change of policy was more due to the events that took place during the XII century rather than Venice own ambition: the relationship between Venice and Greece had been very unstable, with a series of battles, ceasefires, alliance and battles again.

Meanwhile in Italy Frederick I Barbarossa succeeded to Conrad, his goal being to reestablish the imperial authority in Italy where the power was held by Municipalities, the Normans and local feudal Lords. But Frederick I was defeated in Legnano in 1176 and turned to Venice for help. In 1177 Venice received the ambassadors of the Norman King William II, the Pope, the Municipalities and Frederick’s and proposed all parties to accept an armistice. Frederick I along with the Pope Alexander III and the main Italian Princes gathered in Venice to sign the treaty: Venice was therefore clearly acknowledged as an European authoritative powernot wanting to risk losing the commercial privileges they had gained in the lands that were about to be invaded by the crusaders.



Pope Innocent III launched the IV crusade against Egypt that at the time was the center of the Muslim power. French, Italian and German armies took part in this expedition and Venice accepted to supply ships, crews and provisions for the transportation of about 35000 soldiers, 4500 horses, weapons, ammunitions, was machines and waterhen the time came to pay Venice the agreed upon fee, not everyone was able to pay the due amount. Venice then asked the debtors to compensate with military support to reconquer the town of Zadar (Croatia) that meanwhile had risen up. The proposal was accepted and about 300 ships left Venice under the command of the 80 years old Doge Enrico Dandolo.

Doge Enrico Dandolo

Doge Enrico Dandolo

Shortly after the fall of Zadar, Alexios Angelos, son of Isaac II Angelos (dethroned emperor of Costantinopoli) after escaping from prison, joined the crusaders and proposed them to divert the crusade and march on to Costantinopoli to restore his father Isacco on the throne. He promised huge wealth in exchange and committed himself to do whatever he could to unite the Latin and the Greek church.

The Venetians agreed, thinking that if the expedition would be successful they would have the opportunity to get trading rights and commercial access in the whole Greek territory and put an end to the long lasting conflicts with the Greeks. Furthermore thanks to this diversion, the crusade target would be moved from Egypt to Costantinopoli and this also was better for Venice that had very good business relationships with the Egyptians.

Alexios IV Angelos

Alexios Angelos

Eventually Alexios' proposal was accepted and the fleet sailed towards Costantinopoli; on the way there, the crusaders occupied Corfù, Negroponte and other Ionian islands and shores, despite the Pope’s outrage. It did not take long for the crusaders to conquer Byzantium problems arose when the time came to keep the promises, pay the army and give up the Greek religion; the Emperor admitted he did not have the 200.000 marks he had promised to pay as a reward.

The Venetians decided not to leave until they would be paid. Turmoil and riots broke out, the Greeks strangled Alexios and fought to death against the crusaders, but eventually, in April 1205 the town fell. This was the end of the IV Crusade: the initial target was Egypt the final target was the looting of Bisantium. The war booty was huge: Venice took away money, jewelry, marbles, statues and the 4 bronze horses made by Lysippos that adorned the hippodrome and that now adorn St. Mark Basilica.

Lysippos' horses

Lysippos' horses in the Basilica museum

The Venetians also acquired a series of islands and shores and thus were able to link all their ports, expand their trading activity and increase the safety level of their trading voyages. With regards to the appointment of the new emperor, the Venetians did not vote for their Doge but for Baldwin of Flanders.

Dandolo preferred to remain Doge of Venice, a respected and feared head of a brave, organized Republic rather than become a Latin emperor of Greek subjects and a catholic king of  orthodox-separatist people; he would have been a hated emperor, head of a political systems that was supported by unreliable allies. This period was a turning point for Venice that since then became the greatest colonial power of that age. 

Doge Dandolo’s worries proved to be founded as the Greeks started to organize turmoil and rebellions to overthrow the government; at the same time conflicts arose among the Emperor supporters who sought supremacy and prominence over one another.


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