Venice: City of Fortune by Roger Crowley

How Venice won and lost a naval empire

City of FortuneThis book by Roger Crowley, published in 2011 by Faber and Faber, tells a narrative history of the Venetian overseas empire – so essentially a time span of ~1000 to ~1500 with the changing interactions with the dying Byzantine Empire, the rising Ottomans and the wars with the other Mediterranean trading powers. Crowley is a very good writer of narrative history, particularly in his field of Mediterranean naval warfare circa 1400. This book can in some ways be seen as a natural companion to 2005’s Constantinople: The Last Great Siege and to 2008’s Empires of the Sea. Those charted the fall of Constantinople and the ensuing battle for the remaining christian strongholds in Cyprus and Malta. This book on the other hand is a step backwards in time, giving the run up to those struggles from a Venetian perspective.

That perspective perhaps means that this is not a true companion to the other two. It is true that the history and fate of Venice was intertwined with that of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottomans, but here the focus is very much on Venice itself. On his frankly brilliantly laid out and presented website*, Roger himself tells his motivation for writing the book:

There are of course simply hundreds of books about Venice, but curiously few for the general reader that discuss its maritime empire or its commercial imperatives – the activities and locations which let the city exist. This silence in itself has furthered what historians have come to call the myth of Venice – the notion that the city was somehow a gravity-defying marvel, rising miraculously out of the haze of the lagoon and always destined for a unique greatness. This is how we all experience it for the first time. No matter how many gondola-and-Cornetto images precede that first visit, Venice never fails to strike us with utter astonishment, as something outside the norm. It always has done: the accounts of fifteenth century pilgrims are no different in tone.


He sets out to write a book that covers the hard work, modern thinking and grounded material city that developed to become that mythical. Clearly familiar with Venice through its links with his previous books, and its general ubiquitous-ness through the Mediterranean, it just became too fascinating a topic not to write on.

The book is divided into three sections: Opportunity, Ascent and Eclipse. The first of these running from their first forays into empire building around the year 1000 A.D to the somewhat controversial Fourth Crusade in 1204. Ascent follows the operation of this empire at its height, describing how and why it was so successful. Finally Eclipse tracks the decline and loss of this empire to the Ottomans from 1400 to 1503. Each of these sections have their own focus and arc, so it seems fair for me to cover each of these separately.

Opportunity: Merchant Crusaders

The title here is well chosen, as the building of the Venetian empire was initially a slow, haphazard process based more on opportunity and security than on a grand plan for domination. Venice had prospered as a trading city, its site and geography providing an ideal position located between the trade routes of the Adriatic for the East and the trade routes down the Rhine and past the Alps for the West. Though the city itself was on a number of muddy islands just off the Italian mainland, this provided security from the chaos that followed the decline of Rome. Without significant land or agriculture on these islands, the city became a merchant state without the feudalism that was taking over the rest of Europe. One problem, however, was that the route down the Adriatic could be tremendously dangerous with pirates from the shores of Dalmatia raiding the Venetian traders. On Ascension Day 1000, Doge Pietro Orseolo II set out to finally fix this by isolating and defeating the Croat pirates stronghold by stronghold and proclaiming himself Duke of Dalmatia. This was just the beginning of something much, much bigger.

4th CrusadeAlong with this longing for security, the other key factor in this story is the relationship between Venice and Byzantium. This gave Venice access to key markets and valuable goods from the East, but they weren’t alone among the trading republics seeking these. Venice had gained some key trading rights and a prized district in the city by the Golden Horn, but was having to jostle with Pisa and Genoa in order to protect these. Then a number of risky opportunities came along at once: first Pope Innocent III began seeking support for a new crusade – the crusader states were on the decline, they had been disastrously defeated at Hattin by Saladin and there were really just a few isolated ports left. Venice quickly volunteered for this and with the resources and skills to transport a large army to the East, they were welcomed despite a rocky relationship between them and the Pope over commerce with the Muslim states. Unfortunately, the logistics of this weren’t quite as simple – while the Venetian costs were not unreasonable given the challenge, they were more than the Crusaders could afford. At this point a solution was found – the debt could be paid by helping the Venetians cement their position in Dalmatia, leading to an attack the Christian city of Zara. A city that was actually under the protection of the Hungarian king, who had technically joined the crusade – though he never did take part. This obviously did not go down well with the pope or much of the army and let to excommunications for parts of the army.

Next came an offer from a Byzantine prince – he claimed to have been deposed from his rightful place as Emperor and would provide money and support if they could win the city back from his wicked uncle. The pope would love it, they insisted, a chance to unite the churches. The people would rise up and support him, the army would hardly have to work. Many of the crusaders were dubious, but the Venetian Doge Dandolo threw his weight behind the move and they went on their way – they needed the money and it was just too good to turn down. When they got there the pope demanded that they stop, and the people failed to rise up, but they besieged and took the city anyway after much ado. Byzantium had fallen, a Latin Empire had formed in its place and Venice was ready to take full advantage of this.

The book begins slightly shakily for me. I’ve never been to Venice (although I’d certainly like to) and my previous knowledge of the culture and history are patchy. As such, I felt it a little lacking on some background on the city itself, how the politics worked, who the Doge was and what power did he have – there is some scene setting but things quickly move on to the main story. I had felt this a little with his previous books, so I was confident that this would be filled in elsewhere and that the main plot would stand by itself. That was proved correct – the next part gives more than enough detail on the workings of Venice and once past the introduction, the coverage of the Fourth Crusade is particularly good.

Ascent: Prince of the Sea

This second section continues the narrative but also gives a lot more information on trading through the Mediterranean and how Venice and its territories were run. We get an exploration of the Empire as an almost accidental construct (as some of the most successful seem to have been), albeit one created through some very shrewd decisions along the way. The Byzantine Empire was divided and rather than seeking huge holdings in land, Venice took its share as strategic ports and trading towns around the Aegean. This brilliant move provided security for their shipping, while making them a less attractive target for the infighting of the new Byzantine powers. Unfortunately the power vacuum led to a rise in the amount of pirates and bandits (particularly Catalans and Burgundians) hidden in the myriad of coves and harbours around Greece, and more importantly for world history led to the expansion of the Ottomans into the power vacuum. Venice took began the slow process of eradicating these pirates from its new islands of Corfu, Crete, Negroponte, Modon and Coron. This was not an easy or a pleasant process.

MapAfter only a short time, in 1261, the Latin Empire collapsed to be replaced by the Byzantines but this time with Genoa in a leading role. Thus began a struggle for the trading rights of the Black Sea – very lucrative with the trade from China now passing through there. This was a stop start affair, affected by the westward moving Black Death and the whims of the Mogols, and Venice never really had the upper hand. Eventually these struggles led to all out war, or in fact a series of wars between the 1250s and the 1380s. Sometimes Venice won, sometimes Genoa won, but things were finally settled in 1380 when Venice won the battle of Chioggia following a long and hard fought siege of Venice. The Venetians had actually tried to agree a peace earlier but had been rebuffed by the Genoans who said they wanted to “bridle the horses of St Mark”. However, even with this victory there was a price to pay – they were still excluded from the Black Sea, they had lost the Dalmatian coast to Hungary and with all the infighting among the Christian states there was no one to check the Ottoman advance …

This section also has the detail on the trading that drove Venice to do all this. Despite the liveliness of the main plot, this is perhaps the high point of the book for me. How were their colonies administrated? What were these foreign ports and hazardous journeys like for the Italian sailors? What was the relationship between the private merchants and the state?** What did this wealth do to the city of Venice? I’m not going to go into these as I certainly couldn’t do them justice, but it’s really very fascinating.

Eclipse: The Rising Moon

Battle of LepantoFinally we reach the end of the tale. Venice’s success had been tied up with that of Byzantium, but with that destabilized and their allies tied up in their own wars the Ottomans took full advantage – although not everything went immediately to plan. In 1416 the Venetians wiped out an Ottoman navy largely composed of Christian corsairs***. This bred an overconfidence in the Venetians which would come back to bite them, the Ottomans would learn from their mistakes. In 1453, the Ottomans conquered the city of Constantinople with the help of a massive navy. Where once the Venetians had helped sack the city, the Venetian residents now made desperate attempts to defend it – there’s a tale about a group of sailors who slipped out of the city to search for a fleet of reinforcements; on failing to find it, they realized that the city was doomed but still voted to return to the city and face whatever was coming with their Greek neighbours.

Canaletto's Ascension DayIn the following years, the Venetian colonies were picked off and despite the victory at Lepanto in 1571 it was too late, the Ottomans rebuild and carried on prising away the Venetian Empire. The world moved on as well – products that were formerly part of the lucrative eastern trade like paper, glass or soap were now being made in the West – Venice even began to export them back to the East. New technologies and new lands changed the trade that the Empire had been built on. It had played a huge part in those changes, providing a model in both economy and naval force that would surely influence the British and Dutch empires, but it had perhaps run its course. Venice would continue on until it finally surrendered to Napoleon in 1797. Throughout that time, even with the empire in decline, it produced wonderful art and culture, and became known as a decadent tourist destination for young men (often British) on the Grand Tour of europe. That topic however is perhaps the focus of another book.

** I’ve just started reading Adrian Tinniswood’s Pirates of Barbary which runs off of a similar track – telling the story of English privateers and the Barbary coast.
*** The forerunners of Tinniswood’s pirates.

1. The book cover
2. Map of the 4th Crusade via
3. Map from ‘Cultural Association Aliusmodi’ via UNESCO
4. The Battle of Lepanto by an unknown artist.
5. Canaletto – Return of the Bucintoro to the Molo on Ascension Day, 1732. This is the traditional festival that marks the start of the Venetian Empire with their victory over the pirates in 1000. Canaletto is rather good too, the BBC had a rather good show recently on baroque art in which he featured quite heavily.

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