She was the jewel of the Empire, the gleaming city in the sea. Born out of the ashes of Rome she is Venice. But why did Venice become the power that she did? Why once she rose to ascendancy did she fall? Surprisingly the answer to both these questions is the same. Venice rose because of her naval power and her key placement on the trade routes and in the sea and she fell for these same reasons.
Refugees fleeing the fall of Rome and the barbarian invasions that followed founded Venice. (Norwhich pg 7) In the beginning the islands in the lagoon that would one day become Venice were seen as nothing more then a temporary refuge from the barbarian hordes that were destroying the Italian mainland; however when the barbarians showed no signs of leaving the refugees in the lagoon began to view it as more then a temporary refuge and Venice was born. (Norwhich pg 9) Created by a people sick of war and the devastation it left in its wake the people of Venice were leery of granting anyone power over them. They created a democracy with an elaborate set of checks and balances to ensure that no one would have the sort of power that led to the corruption and fall of Rome in their new home of Venice. (Roper)
The people of Venice were also weary of being driven from their homes and forced to swear allegiance to foreign powers. (Norwhich pg 15) The lagoon gave them a strong natural defence and often made them too much of a bother to go after (Roper) but they worried this was not enough to ensure the safety of their home. Already surrounded by water and in need of ships simply to survive what they did next was only logical: they built a navy. Not just any navy but one, which would become the most powerful in the known world and make them the undisputed masters of the waves. (Norwhich pg 32)
Still while this navy was powerful one must not forget that it was built by a people weary of war and as such its primary purpose was not military. Venice built a fleet of merchant ships with which to rule the waves. (Roper) Not only that but her people also became merchants. Venice was not to be a city built on war but one built on trade. There was nowhere her ships could not go and nothing they did not carry. (Roper) The entire world went through Venice. She was right in the middle of the all the major trade routes including those to the Orient. At that time Venice could do no wrong; all the world vied for a seat at her table and she was truly the jewel of the sea. (Norwhich pg 164)
There were a few others reasons for Venice’s rise in power. One of course pertained to her location. Not only was the lagoon in the centre of a vast network of trading routes it also had a vast number of natural defences. Surrounded as she was by treacherous waters, changing currents, and hidden rocks and shoals even for a determined enemy Venice was a tough nut to crack. (Lackey pg 52) Also the relatively isolated location of the city caused the islanders to be independent and self-sufficient. Though Venice nominally swore allegiance to the Byzantine Empire that had replaced Rome she was truly an independent nation. (Norwhich pg 35) There was also a religious reason for Venice’s ascendancy: St. Mark. The world at that time was strongly catholic with the church often holding more power then the ruler of a country. Italy was no exception; there was status to be won by being a holy city. A status Venice needed. Having only a minor saint they held little power within the church. Venetians always being a daring people decided if they could not attract a powerful patron saint they would simply have to steal one. That is the story of St. Mark. The high priest of Venice had a vision in which St. Mark appeared to him and demanded to be moved to Venice from Alexandria where he was currently enshrined. Now the people of Venice knew that the people of Alexandria would not simply give the body of St. Mark to them so they came up with a plan. When the next fleet of merchant ships went to Alexandria a very special group of people were on board. People that had been charged with the holy mission of retrieving St. Mark’s body and bringing it home to Venice. Which they did during the night before the Venetian fleet was set to sail the body of St. Mark was stolen from its shrine and wrapped in pork. This is where true Venetian cunning came into play because of course the body would be discovered missing before the Venetians could leave and their ships would be searched but the religion of the searchers caused them to abhor pork and they did not search through the packages of pork. Thus the Venetians were able to spirit St. Mark out and Alexandria and install him in Venice; ensuring their place as a religious power. (Roper)
All the things mentioned so far made Venice great. Her large fleet of merchants, her highly defensible location, the acquiring of St. Mark’s body, her refusal to put the reigns of power in the hands of one man, her ideal location on the trade routes, and her independence. Still Venice was not destined to remain a world power. She fell. It has been stated earlier the reasons for Venice’s rise also were the reasons for her fall. You say perhaps she was invaded to challenge her stronghold on trade, or her rule of the waves or perhaps a holy war was declared on her for stealing the body of St. Mark?
The decline and fall of Venice was not so swift or so bloody as that. It was a slow and painful thing. As technology improved trade routes changed and fewer and fewer traders had reason to go to Venice. (Roper) Britain: once a barbaric backwater became a world power and the trade routes changed to accommodate them. The new world was discovered and suddenly the most important trade was across the ocean; something Venice was ill placed and ill equipped to handle. Finally Venice’s fleet once the envy of the world sunk into disrepair and her ascendancy of the waves was ceded to Britain. (Lackey pg 300)
The very things that made Venice great made her unchanging and unable to adapt to a new world. Venice lost her hard won independence and became simply another city in Italy; no longer a shining jewel. The world no longer had need of Venice and she had no way to change. Those who cannot adapt are quickly left at the wayside and Venice is an example of that.
The Venetians built a vast trade empire that was the envy of the known world. Venice managed to maintain her independence and rule the waves for centuries. In the end though she was unable to find a place in a changing world and became simply another note in the history books.
1. Norwhich, John. A History of Venice. England: Penguin Books, 1982
2. Roper, Dr. Venice, Italy. July 2006.
3. Lackey, Merecedes; Eric Flint and David Freer. The Shadow of the Lion. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2002
Written by Beth Ramsay.