Long before anyone ever dreamed of gondolas or plates of liver and onions, an Indo-European people called the Venetii (or Henetii, or Enetii) occupied most of northeast Italy. They probably came from Illyria or Asia Minor about 1000 BC, a trading nation, who also produced very good wine. Rome gradually developed colonies in their territory, and the Venetii settled in comfortably as Roman provincials in the 2nd century BC.
Roman Venetia, with its wealthy cities – Aquileia, Padua, Verona and Altinum – was one of the favoured corners of Italy. Many of the islands of the Lagoon were already inhabited; besides fishing, salt-pans furnished the most important element of the coastal economy. Several busy Roman roads passed through Venetia on their way across the mountains to Illyria or Pannonia, convenient for trade – and also, as Rome decayed, for invaders.
Alaric the Goth began the troubles, sacking Aquileia in 401. Attila the Hun repeated the performance in 452: the Scourge of God, and a figure who has passed into legend in the Venetian chronicles. His destruction of Aquileia, one of the greatest cities of the Empire, started the first flight of population into the lagoons.
Apparently, it was no picturesque flight of woebegone refugees – rather a planned migration, a refounding of cities that had no chance of survival on the mainland. The first generations brought their furniture, and later returned to the old towns to bring back stone for new buildings. Small communities grew up around the lagoons: the Aquileians settled mostly in Grado, the Altinese on Torcello mainly, as well as Burano. The Paduans sent a colony to the island of Rivo Alto – Rialto, the centre of the Venice that was to be, traditionally founded on 25 March, in the year 425.
Everyone needs salt, even during the fall of empires. And the new settlements had a near monopoly on it, enough to support them through the worst troubles. With trade disrupted, they had to fall back on their own resources to ship it and to protect the ships: right from the start, necessity led them to their first steps in their ordained vocation, as a commercial nation and a naval power.
Necessity also taught them to work together. As early as 466, the 12 lagoon settlements were electing their own tribunes to coordinate common actions and policy. Already in the 500s, both the Gothic kings and the eastern emperors had to treat them with kid gloves: sovereignty over them could be pretended but not easily enforced.
In the Greek-Gothic Wars (535-54), so destructive for the rest of Italy, the Venetians fortuitously chose the winning side. Their fleet aided the Byzantines in taking the Gothic capital, Ravenna, and in return they received their first trading privileges in the East. In gratitude for Venetian aid, Narses the Eunuch, Justinian’s victorious general, built a church to St Theodore where St Mark’s stands today.
More importantly, Narses invited the Lombards over the Alps to assist in his campaigns as mercenaries. These most unpleasant of all Teutonic barbarians soon overran an impoverished and exhausted Italy, and delivered the coup de grâce to the surviving cities of the Venetian mainland. Another, still larger, wave of refugees fled to the Lagoon. In these darkest of times it was clear that any future lay here.
Next...Venice in the Dark Ages.
Images by: DeFrog, Creative Commons Licence