The Republic of Venice, The Greatest Jewel of the Mediterranean?
To visit Venice is a dream of every passionate traveler. The city, crisscrossed with channels and marvelous relics of art and culture, is one of Italy’s most sought-after tourist destinations. But how much does the average visitor know of the thousand-year history behind this jewel of the Mediterranean?
The modern-day city of Venice was once the sprawling maritime Republic of Venice, a rich and influential dominion that spread through much of the Mediterranean. This Republic had its fair share of ups and downs, but it was always a center of cultural and artistic development.
Being the foremost naval power in Europe, Venice was instrumental in sending ships to all corners of the world, establishing trading routes and bringing a touch of the exotic into Europe. Sadly, after a millennium of rich heritage, the Venetian Republic was finally dissolved. But those centuries of glory and riches are still well-remembered in history.
How Did the Venetian Republic Come to Be?
Throughout its history, the Venetian Republic was formally called “The Most Serene Republic of Venice” (La Serenissima Repubblica di Venezia). However, it was usually just called “La Serenissima”, both by its inhabitants and those who lived in its sphere of influence.
This title was reserved for a number of European nations, and denoted a royal, esteemed status. However, Venice was not a kingdom or a country as such; it is best described as a city-state. A city-state whose influence spread throughout the waters of the Adriatic and beyond, with its wealth depending solely on maritime power.
Venice sits in a lagoon, cut off from the mainland ( Mario Hagen / Adobe Stock)
Put simply, the Republic of Venice was a thalassocracy, a state whose power resides mainly at sea, with little or no territorial possessions inland. As one observes the unique location of Venice, this term quickly becomes understood.
The city is situated at the very center of the Venetian Lagoon, an enclosed bay off the Adriatic Sea in the far north east of Italy. One could say that the sea “begins” from this point on. Either way, the Venetians always had only a single clear direction towards which they could expand: the sea.
To find the origins of the Republic, we need to go back to the time when Germanic tribes descended into the Italian Peninsula. Around the mid 600s AD, as the Langobards and the Huns swooped in on Italy, many refugees fled towards the sheltered and sparsely populated coastal lagoons.
With the sea to their backs, these coastal communities could be well defended and were of little interest to the ravaging invaders. These communities grouped together for mutual assistance and protection, and they soon stabilized, coming under the protection of the Byzantine Empire.
The Doge And Independence
By the early 700s AD the area was known as the Byzantine province of Venice, and was soon to receive its first official ruler. The first official “Doge” of Venice was called Ursus Ipato, who was recognized by the Byzantine officials in Constantinople and given the titles of Dux and Hypatus.
The Doge was the name of the official title of the ruler of the Republic of Venice. The title originates in the Latin word dux, meaning leader, and for the Venetians the Doge acted as chief magistrate and was elected for life by the aristocracy of the city-state.
The Doge of Venice, and his distinctive hat (Santa Maria Gloriosa dei Frari / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
From the start, the politics of Venice were dictated by its old noble families. The city-state was heavily aristocratic, and these nobles acted to limit the extent of the power a Doge had, creating a balance of sorts.
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These noble families formed a powerful merchant class within the city-state, and their dominance over political matters made Venice more akin to an oligarchy than an actual republic. But even so, Venice stood apart from its neighbors: they created their own political system, enshrining their own rights within it but ensuring that no one family became all powerful.
As the republic evolved, the Doge came to be elected by a specially created panel of local citizens, further cementing its democratic principles. And as the city grew in stature and wealth it began to exert its own influence on those around it, until by the year 814 AD, Venice was formally recognized as independent by the Emperors of Byzantium and the Carolingian rulers in the West.
The Battle For The Adriatic
For Venice to carve out its place in the Adriatic in the early medieval age, it had to wrest power from the many pirates who roamed these waters, in particular the Slavic Narentines (Serbian pagan seafarers). It was during the rule of the 13th Doge, Pietro Tradonico, who ruled from 836 to 864 AD, that the military might of Venice came to the forefront.
Thanks to the new and advanced military and a powerful navy created by Pietro, Venice would dominate the waters of the Adriatic for centuries to come. And the Doges that followed would continue his battles against the sea pirates for almost 150 years.
Pietro II Orseolo (Domenico Tintoretto / Public Domain )
Around the year 998, under the rule of Pietro II Orseolo, the influential 26th Doge of Venice, the republic finally emerged as a capable and influential city state. The Doge successfully defeated numerous pirate strongholds on the Dalmatian coast, especially in Istria, and was able to finally subdue the Slavic Narentines around 1000 AD.
With the Adriatic free for trade, the astonishing rise of Venice began in earnest. The clear seas saw the start of five centuries of prosperity and peace in that coastal region.
The Rise Of The Venetian City-State
Pietro II Orseolo was one of the foremost Doges of Venice, ruling at a time when these officials held immense power within the city-state. A Doge ruled for life, and was chosen by the “popolo”: the people.
This was in stark contrast to the surrounding European powers, whose rulers boasted divine right and God’s grace as placing them to the throne. A Doge however, had to earn the trust of the people, and crucially could not betray it.
For example, in 1172 AD, a Doge was outright murdered by the people after acting against the advice of his counselors, and gaining plenty of enmity in the city. In that way, the nobles and the citizens of Venice made sure that their city wouldn’t suffer centralized power and dictatorship.
But at the same time, those powerful families were likewise prevented from taking all the power for themselves, thanks to the complicated system of government that was devised. However there were challenges to this political system, and after a failed rebellion orchestrated by two prominent Venetian nobles in 1310, a change was needed.
The Council of Ten (Francesco Hayez / Public Domain )
Therefore, the Council of Ten was created. This council was made up of ten members of the richest, most powerful Venetian families, themselves chosen by the wider Great Council. The council of ten was charged with controlling the faction from which the rebellion emerged, and was given broad jurisdiction over matters of state security. And so they ruled for centuries, as one of the main governing bodies of Venice from 1310 to 1797.
Wealth, Power And The Crusades
With their control of the Dalmatian coast and the Adriatic secured, Venice became the region’s foremost power. As the world entered the High Medieval period, the Venetian Republic emerged as one of the wealthiest European states.
It held absolute control over the trade between the Levant and Europe, Asia and Africa, and all along the Mediterranean. And, while it was principally a merchant aristocratic republic, it was nevertheless involved in warfare.
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Almost from the very start, Venice was a principal actor in the Crusades. They provided their powerful war ships to the Byzantine Empire, and in return received many trading privileges that furthered their wealth.
Venice was a powerful maritime state, and they were not afraid to showcase that power, both to their allies and their enemies. One such episode occurred during the Fourth Crusade. Around its beginning in 1199, the Venetians were tasked with building a fleet that would ferry the Crusaders across the sea and, one gathered in Constantinople, on to the Middle East.
The Venetian Arsenal, the astonishing beating heart of Venice’s maritime power ( phant / Adobe Stock)
However, as the Crusaders were unable to pay for this fleet, the Venetians decided to settle the debt, by any means at hand. Together with the Crusader army, the Venetians betrayed their word and attacked Constantinople in 1204, razing and looting the city. It is often cited as the most disgraceful sacking of a city in recorded history, and the most lucrative.
Following the Sack of Constantinople, the Venetians increased their wealth immensely. They also expanded their territories, acquiring Candia ( Crete) and Euboea (Negroponte), which alongside the Peloponnese would later become the core of Venetian territories outside of the Adriatic.
However, all those territories would soon come under threat, as a new power arrived into Europe, threatening all that the Venetians gained. And that new power was the Ottoman Empire .
A War That Lasted Centuries
The Ottoman Turks crossed into Europe in the 1300s and quickly established themselves as a dominant opponent of Christian Europe. This led to a string of wars with the Venetian Republic. These wars, known as the Ottoman-Venetian Wars, would last for almost 250 years, from roughly 1463 until 1718.
The focus of these conflicts was the Venetian possessions in the Peloponnese, as well as their control of Crete and Cyprus. For much of these wars, the Venetians were at a disadvantage, suffering many defeats. And it took its toll on the republic, with the Ottoman Empire managing to greatly weaken its power and sap its wealth.
A Renaissance Jewel In The Med
When they were not dominating the trade in the Mediterranean or waging wars on the European seas, the Venetians excelled in arts and culture. The city produced many renowned painters of the Renaissance, such as Titian, Canaletto, Giorgione, Tintoretto, and many others.
A Canaletto painting of Venice. The Doge’s Palace is to the right (Jean Louis Mazieres / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 )
During the Baroque period, Venice also yielded many influential composers, such as Marcello, Willaert, Zarlino, and perhaps most famously Vivaldi. What is more, the city of Venice became the home of some remarkable monuments of Renaissance architecture. The city is filled with lavish basilicas, palaces, arches, and palladios. Venice to this day is a jewel of culture and artistic achievements.
Being the foremost naval power of the Mediterranean for many centuries, Venice naturally also produced some renowned seafarers. And not all of them were simply merchants or warriors. Venice was also home to explorers.
Perhaps the most famous of these was the legendary Venetian merchant traveler Marco Polo . Widely hailed as the greatest ever European explorer, Polo spent more than twenty years travelling across Asia and along the Silk Road , exploring the parts of the world that were quite unknown to Europeans at the time. Thanks to his travels, Europe gained the first significant look into the Mongol Empire , China, India, and Persia.
Decline and Dissolution
Alas, all vast empires and powers eventually meet their end. After roughly 1,100 years of existence the Republic of Venice ceased to exist in 1797, during the rise of the French leader Napoleon Bonaparte .
But this was a long time coming. In the previous decades, and throughout much of the 18th century, Venice had experienced a steep decline. Unable to maintain a hold on its territories, and weakened by its conflicts with the Ottomans, Venice was becoming a relic of its past glories. And as the times changed, with Europe standing at the brink of a new age, the once sprawling city-state was forced to yield to the will of Napoleon.
The on-going wars between the Christian Venetians and Muslim Ottomans sapped the power of the republic (Unknown Author / Public Domain )
The city changed hands several times after that, until it finally became a part of a united Italy in 1866. Never again was it an independent maritime power with its own political influence. However, the splendor of past ages never diminished.
Even today, Venice is hailed as one of the world's prettiest cities, and is a major tourist hotspot. It was a center for the developments of art and culture, and cities modelled on it sprang up across the Italian peninsula over the ages: Siena, Florence, and Milan being just a few.
The Venetian Republic is a crucial example of how thalassocracies can be vulnerable and challenging to maintain. With most of their territories lying across the seas, the Venetians always had a hard time maintaining a firm grasp on them. Their power and wealth lay in their ships and their trading capabilities. And when these began dwindling, the downfall of Venice was unavoidable.
Top image: The Doge’s Palace in Saint Mark’s Square, Venice. Source: Mapics / Adobe Stock.
Contarini, G. 2019. The Republic of Venice: De magistratibus et republica Venetorum. University of Toronto Press.
Lane, C. F. 1973. Venice, a Maritime Republic. JHU Press.
Lambert, T. 2021. A History of Venice. Local Histories. [Online] Available at: