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A Quarter and a Half of the Roman Empire

Lion of St Mark in Hvar, Croatia

Enrico Dandolo, who accepted the silly cap and umbrella of the dogeship in 1193, was 90 years old and blind. Legend has it he lost his sight in Constantinople, either in a street brawl or at the hands of the imperial torture-masters.

If he indeed held a personal grudge, he found his opportunity for revenge with the beginning of the Fourth Crusade. In 1201, an embassy under the great medieval chronicler Geoffroi de Villehardouin came to discuss the ferrying of crusaders in Venetian ships. The following spring, some 33,000 men were to be transported to the Holy Land, at the cost of about one and a third pounds of silver each.

For a kicker, Venice asked for only one-half of all territories conquered. The Venetians cleverly leaked a detail of the arrangement: instead of Palestine, the destination of the Crusade was to be Egypt, the leading Muslim sea power, and Venice’s biggest trading partner. This was strategically a sound move, but bad for crusading propaganda.

The next spring, as a result, only one-third of the expected number of crusaders assembled in Venice. The Venetians refused to lift an anchor; they wanted the full package price, and they saw no reason to waste money feeding their guests until the agreed sum was raised. The starving crusaders passed the hat round but came up some 34,000 silver marks short. No problem, Enrico Dandolo said: simply make a stop on the way to deliver us the rebellious city of Zara (modern Zadar, Croatia) on the Dalmatian coast.

Zara was taken, amidst bloodshed. About the same time, events in Constantinople took an interesting turn – one tyrannical usurper had been tossed out by another. The deposed tyrant’s son, Alexius IV, cried out for vengeance. Whether or not the Venetians had planned it all along, the idea was now obvious: restore the pretender Alexius to Constantinople, and perhaps pick up a bit of booty on the side. Venice’s Egyptian embarrassment was solved, while providence had supplied the thickheaded French knights to square accounts with the Byzantines.

To a medieval mind it was a breathtaking deed: divert the Crusade and attack the fabulous city, the heir of Rome. The assault was quick and merciless; Dandolo himself, disembarking under the very walls under constant fire, led the Venetians and French to the attack, and Constantinople fell for the first time in its 900-year history.

Alexius was crowned, but during several months of uncertainty a Greek reaction threw him out again. Now the Westerners decided that only a complete sacking would repay their expenses. On 9 April 1204, the allies attacked again. The Greeks, although grievously outnumbered, fought bravely for three days until the Theodosian walls were breached.

The carnage was frightful, and was followed by history’s all-time biggest daylight robbery. After the traditional three days’ sack (during Holy Week, as chance would have it) and months of more methodical looting, 900 years’ accumulation of imperial spoils was packed into the holds of Venetian galleys.

Historians, inexplicably misty-eyed over corrupt, useless Byzantium, often exaggerate the crime of Dandolo and his allies – as if they were responsible for the triumphs of the Turks two centuries later; as if they had done anything more than liquidate a bankrupt concern.

The Venetians got all the best (like the famous bronze horses of the Hippodrome), and in the division of the Empire that followed they showed their cleverness again. They let the French keep the city and most of its mainland provinces, impoverished and hard to defend (their ‘Latin Empire’ was a disaster, and lasted less than 60 years), contenting themselves with the islands and strong points that lay along their trade routes. Still it was a considerable prize, ‘a quarter and a half’ of Byzantium, as the treaty quaintly put it, and a manageable little empire that wouldn’t get in the way of doing business.

Venice, now a European power in her own right, lacked experience in such matters and farmed her new colonies out to her nobles to be run as feudal possessions. Politically and religiously, it was an oppressive rule, though perhaps no worse than any of the other states of the region. Venice’s spectacular success, and her stranglehold over the Eastern trade, had also earned her a new supply of enemies.

Of these, the most bitter and dangerous was Genoa. Genoese trading concessions often existed next to those of the Venetians in the cities of the Levant, and conflict was inevitable. Fighting broke out in 1253, over Acre; Venice won, but it was only the beginning of a war that lasted 127 years. In 1261, the Greeks recaptured Constantinople from the Franks.

The new Emperor, Michael VIII Palaeologus, was understandably anxious to be avenged on the Venetians: he gave the Genoese the Quarter of Galata in Constantinople for a base and encouraged them to seize the Black Sea and Aegean trade. Also in 1261, and not entirely coincidentally, Marco Polo’s father and uncle began the first of their voyages to the distant East; if there were any new trade possibilities avoiding Constantinople, Venice’s merchants meant to find them.

Altogether, the 13th century was not the best of times for Venice. Business was still booming, and goods flowed into the markets of the Rialto, as one contemporary noted, ‘like water from the fountain’. The city continued to deck itself with new glories: most conspicuously the churches of San Zanipolo and the Frari. But the expense of defending its new possessions put the Republic under heavy strain. Besides the wars with Genoa, the collapse of the last crusader states in the 1290s hurt trade and forced Venice into uneasy alliances with the Muslims.

At home, the lower classes felt pinched, politically as well as economically. During the course of the century the Maggior Consiglio gradually tightened its hold over the Republic, giving the Venetian constitution the rough form it was to keep for the next 500 years. With the famous/infamous Serrata (locking) of the Consiglio in 1297, the Venetian élite turned itself into a hereditary caste. The only qualification for an inscription in its ‘Golden Book’ was to have had an ancestor in an elected office. ‘Locked’ out were the overwhelming majority of Venetians, with no chance of ever taking part in public life. Locked in were not only the wealthy, but also some poor people with illustrious ancestry.

This new caste enforced very strict codes of conduct for itself; as soon as he turned 25, a patrician had to pay heavy taxes and was duty bound to the State for life, liable at any time to be selected for an office that probably would cost more money than it paid.

The motivation for these reforms was perhaps more fear of revolution from above than from below. All over Italy, city republics were falling under the rule of strongmen signori, taking over where merchant élites could not resist factionalism or restrain their appetites. The Venetian élite were remarkably clear-sighted: if their ship of state was to avoid foundering, they must remain at the helm. And if they were to have absolute privilege, they had to accept absolute responsibility.

Not that all Venetians accepted the new order of things. The first revolt among the disenfranchised occurred in 1300 and was brutally suppressed. A more serious disruption came in 1310, the Tiepolo uprising. Baiamonte Tiepolo, the ‘Gran Cavaliere’, came from a noble family that had produced two doges. But Baiamonte’s supporters were nearly all noblemen, and their attempted coup found no support among the common people, who apparently had already decided that the political monopoly of one class was preferable to a tyrant.

One important innovation came about as a result of the revolt, as expressed in an old song:

In the year one thousand three hundred and ten.
In the midst of the month for harvesting grain.
Baiamonte passed over the ponte
and so was formed the Council of Ten.

The Council of Ten, originally an emergency body formed to root out Baiamonte’s supporters, was to become the most powerful part of the state machinery. More powerful than the doge, the Ten guarded Venice’s internal security, looked after foreign policy, and, with its sumptuary laws and sententious taboos, still found time to look after the moral conduct of the Venetians.

Next...the mainland empire

Text © Dana Facaros and Michael Pauls

Images by: benito roveran, Creative Commons License