Venice: Empire Of The Sea


I’ve always found the Venetian Republic of the Middle Ages extremely intriguing. To start with, Venice was one of a very few world empires that held relatively little land. Their empire was sea-based.  The Venetians occupied ports and islands and way-stations across the known world, but all their domains taken together added-up to a relatively small amount of dry land. Even their home city-state was a smattering of islands and a lagoon.

The Venetian relationship to the sea was so important to them, that once a year, they even conducted a ceremony in which Venice “married” the Sea.

Furthermore, the Venetian State grew very, very wealthy– and yet it produced hardly anything at all. Venice made most of its dough acting as the world’s middle-man.

As Roger Crowley writes in City Of Fortune: How Venice Ruled The Seas

“The city’s prosperity rests on nothing tangible– no land holdings, no natural resources, no

agricultural production or large population” … so they… “lived in perpetual fear that if its trade routes

were severed, the whole magnificent edifice might simply collapse.”

Often, the middle-man economic position occupied by Venice was between the Christian and the Muslim world. Sometimes, this would get them in hot water with the Pope, as every now and then, some Pope would declare that– that’s it!– we’re not trading with those Mohammedans any more! But, of course, Venice had every reason to go right along trading. Once, the entire city was actually excommunicated, and the Doge (Venice’s leader) had to negotiate a re-entry of Venice back into the fold.

Venetians, themselves, were very Christian, and greatly venerated Saint Mark, their patron saint. However, the way they ran their Empire was pragmatic, and most of the Empire, most times, was actually ran in a quite secular way. The Venetian State ruled over a variety of religions, but the main thing for the Venetians was that goods kept flowing, and money kept coming in.

As Crowley remarks, Venice was neither fully West nor fully East. They were Roman Catholics who, due to some of their land-holdings, actually were subject to the Greek Orthodox rulers of the Byzantium Empire.

One particularly interesting occurrence in Venetian history was their involvement in the Fourth Crusade. In this notorious Crusade, it was not the Muslims who ended up being attacked and pillaged by the Crusaders– but their fellow Christians. As the Venetians were one of the few powers which could build and operate enough ships– and handle the necessary logistics– to get the thousands of Crusaders to the East, the Crusade-organizers hired them for this gargantuan task. It took the Venetians two full years to get everything together. Crowley calls the deal, “the largest commercial contract in medieval history.”

To make a long and disgusting story short, the Crusaders ended up sacking Constantinople and replacing the Greek Orthodox Emperor there with a Latinized Roman Catholic one. For many years afterwards, Venice would occupy a portion of Constantinople or one of its suburbs.

Eventually, even a great sea-empire like Venice must meet its demise.

The Black Plague of the mid-1300s hit Venice especially hard. Indeed, Venice was probably the port-of-entry for the Plague to enter Europe. Venice’s population of 100,000 (one of the biggest in Europe) was cut by about 2/3rds; the population would not reach 100,000 again until the 1700s.

In the mid-1400s, Venice fought and lost a long and bruising battle with the rising Ottomans. By the early 1500s, Venice was dipping its flags to any passing Ottoman ship or port. As the Ottomans took control over much of the sea, Venice began to rely on its overland trade more and more– the networks of routes later to be called the “Silk Road.”

The death blow for the Empire came around 1500, when Venice received the news that Vasco de Gama had rounded the Cape Of Good Hope at the Southern tip of Africa. Now there would be a sea-route to the West, and Europe could skip over the costly middle-men traders like Venice. The centuries-long boom time was over for the Italian city-state.


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