Venice: The Foundations of a New City

Italian Histories Season 1: Venice, episode 2

Last episode, we explored the origins of the people who populated the Veneto region and its lagoons, and found that a Venetian identity extended back hundreds of years before the fall of the Roman Empire. We also bumped into an important question I’d like to explore more fully in the next two episodes: what was happening during the roughly three hundred years of undocumented history between the fall of the Roman Empire and the first Doges of Venice.

In order to build a city, you need to start with raw material – dirt both in the sense of a physical location and soil for agriculture, and stone and or wood for construction. As we will see, the Venetians were real innovators in breaking these traditional rules of city building. Founding a city, however, takes something more, and here the Venetians faced the same demands as any other political body. You need people, and then you need to shape those people into a body politic. Laws are usually helpful with that process, but they are insufficient to accomplish the process on their own.[1] A defined place, shared customs, shared priorities, and external forces all help bring people together into a shared identity that the force of law alone cannot create. (There’s a footnote here, because this is a podcast with footnotes, but I’m not going to spoil the pleasure of enjoying those on your own – you can find those in the show notes and transcripts at Italianhistories.com. And like that, I’ll probably never mention them again. Because if you know the pleasure of footnotes, then you know, and you don’t, then I’m already tres pretentious)

Venice as we know it today, the defined city at the center of the lagoon with a grand canal bringing commerce past the Doge’s palace and San Marco to the mercantile heart of the Rialto bridge, was not the only, nor even the first choice of the people looking for a new home in response to the persistent barbarian invasions that began in the fourth century. The Venetian lagoons, broadly understood as they were then, stretched from beyond Aquileia where the Isonzo river met the sea, all the way beyond the south end of the Po river delta. Marshes and lagoons continued to be commonplace south of Ravenna. There were many islands and not infrequently dry spots to be found all along that coast line.[2] This vast body of water was called the septem maria, or the seven seas, by the ancient romans and was significantly different from the modern Venetian lagoon – 1,700 years of sediment from the rivers of Northern Italy draining into the Adriatic, and great projects of filling in marshes and lagoons beginning as early as the 600s have caused these significant geographic and topological changes.[3]

The first settlements that became lasting cities were spread all over the lagoon, and their population growth was fueled by refugees from larger cities near them in the latter half of the sixth century, but they were not new settlements: Chioggia in the south near Ravenna, Grado in the Northeast near Aquilea, and Malamocco, and Torcello more centrally, near Patavium and Tarvisium (modern Padua and Treviso). These centrally located settlements were closer to modern day Venice, but still, even with a modern vaporetto – the Venetian public transit boat system – the trip from Venice to Torcello takes almost an hour. They were an identifiable group of people, but they were very decentralized, and they remained groups of people, ethnically Venetian, politically Roman, but slowly becoming something new. I will call them Venetian throughout this project, but it is important to know that all these little cities were not initially united, and then once the island that we call modern Venice rose to prominence, these other islands did not cease to exist but became satellites and neighborhoods to the main island of the Doge.

The historical – that is to say mythical – founding of Venice is dated to 421. Even in this mythical telling though, the founding of Venice is not one of rebellion or flight from oppressors, but of three consuls sent from Padua to establish a trading post. Throughout their history, the Venetians will return to this moment as a source of inspiration and mold it, to show a founding built on independence – that from the beginning they were building something new, something that did not belong to anyone else, something unprecedented and unique in human history.

It’s helpful here to step back and get a little context for what is happening outside of Venice during this early period. Even though Rome was sacked by Alaric and his Gothic army in 410, the functional capital of the Western Roman Empire had already been in Ravenna by 402 and the Venetians maintained their identity as Roman citizens throughout the coming century of significant regime turmoil and change. Attila the Hun crushed Aquilea in 452, sending its patriarch fleeing to Grado. This relocation of divine authority will prove to have significant consequences for Venice’s relationship with the Catholic church, but here it is sufficient to note that with the patriarch in Grado following the sack of Aquilea, the various communities of the Venetian lagoon held the first gathering of representatives in 466 to elect annual tribunes. This first move toward self-government happened before the official fall of the Western Roman Empire in 476 – another brief aside for some more historical context – if you can’t tell by the footnotes, I love tangents. In 476, Odoacer deposed the Emperor and declared himself King of Italy. Odoacer was then defeated by Theodoric in 493 and ruled from Ravenna until 526. Throughout this whole period, though both Odoacer and Theodoric ruled with their own interests in mind, they maintained varying degrees of deference to the Eastern Roman Empire, ruling ostensibly as Viceroy’s for the Emperor in Constantinople, and maintained the existing Roman bureaucratic structure.

The only document from this early time period of various communities growing together across the lagoon is from one of these Roman bureaucrats, Magnus Aurelius Cassiodorus Senator. Bureaucrat is probably an offensive title to someone of Cassiodorus’s skill and accomplishments, and I’ve seen others call him a statesman…but when you’re working for a strongman, who deposed a strongman, while maintaining pretenses to serve under a distant emperor…you’re a bureaucrat in my book. But I digress. Cassiodorus’s letter to the Venetians in 523 is the first document we have describing the people and their lives, and as such, I’d like to read it in its entirety. Ravenna is under siege and in need of food, while Istria, the peninsula at the far eastern corner of Italy that continues into modern day Slovenia and Crotia, had a year of bumper crops and had been asked to pay all their taxes in food, and Ravenna needed Venice’s help to move the food past the siege:

“We have previously given orders that Istria should send wine and oil, of which there are abundant crops this year, to the Royal residence at Ravenna. Do you, who possess numerous ships on the borders of the Province, show the same devotion in forwarding the stores which they do in supplying them.

“Be therefore active in fulfilling this commission in your own neighbourhood, you who often cross boundless distances. It may be said that [in visiting Ravenna] you are going through your own guest-chambers, you who in your voyages traverse your own home. This is also added to your other advantages, that to you another route is open, marked by perpetual safety and tranquillity. For when by raging winds the sea is closed, a way is opened to you through the most charming river scenery. Your keels fear no rough blasts; they touch the earth with the greatest pleasure, and cannot perish however frequently they may come in contact with it. Beholders from a distance, not seeing the channel of the stream, might fancy them moving through the meadows. Cables have been used to keep them at rest: now drawn by ropes they move, and by a changed order of things men help their ships with their feet. They draw their drawers without labour, and instead of the capricious favour of sails they use the more satisfactory steps of the sailor.”

[I love the flowing language here to basically say – you get out of your boats and push them, haha]

“It is a pleasure to recall the situation of your dwellings as I myself have seen them. Venetia the praiseworthy, formerly full of the dwellings of the nobility, touches on the south Ravenna and the Po, while on the east it enjoys the delightsomeness of the Ionian shore, where the alternating tide now discovers and now conceals the face of the fields by the ebb and flow of its inundation. Here after the manner of water-fowl have you fixed your home. He who was just now on the mainland finds himself on an island, so that you might fancy yourself in the Cyclades[a group of islands in Southeast Greece], from the sudden alterations in the appearance of the shore.

“Like them there are seen amid the wide expanse of the waters your scattered homes, not the product of Nature, but cemented by the care of man into a firm foundation. For by a twisted and knotted osier-work the earth there collected is turned into a solid mass, and you oppose without fear to the waves of the sea so fragile a bulwark, since forsooth the mass of waters is unable to sweep away the shallow shore, the deficiency in depth depriving the waves of the necessary power.

“The inhabitants have one notion of plenty, that of gorging themselves with fish. Poverty therefore may associate itself with wealth on equal terms. One kind of food refreshes all; the same sort of dwelling shelters all; no one can envy his neighbour’s home; and living in this moderate style they escape that vice [of envy] to which all the rest of the world is liable.

“Your whole attention is concentrated on your salt-works. Instead of driving the plough or wielding the sickle, you roll your cylinders. Thence arises your whole crop, when you find in them that product which you have not manufactured. There it may be said is your subsistence-money coined. Of this art of yours every wave is a bondservant. In the quest for gold a man may be lukewarm: but salt every one desires to find; and deservedly so, since to it every kind of meat owes its savour.

“Therefore let your ships, which you have tethered, like so many beasts of burden, to your walls, be repaired with diligent care: so that when the most experienced Laurentius attempts to bring you his instructions, you may hasten forth to greet him. Do not by any hindrance on your part delay the necessary purchases which he has to make; since you, on account of the character of your winds, are able to choose the shortest sea-track.[4]

We see in this account how the Venetians have made their land, drawn it out of the lagoon through their own labor and ingenuity, much as they draw the salt out of the water and use it to purchase all the food which they cannot grow. From its very foundations, we can see a modern economic heart beating in Venice – a people who specialize in something, in this case salt, and use that economic power to transcend subsistence farming. We also see a people who isn’t actually subservient to these new Gothic rulers in Ravenna, which is why Cassiodorus lays the flattery on thick, praising ingenuity and work ethic, overstating the equality between rich and poor, and downplaying any risk involved in the transport of food to Ravenna. The Venetians were not enthusiastic supporters of the new political leaders and, without this hearty praise, indifference was far more likely than cooperation.

And even with the hearty praise, Ravenna fell just a few years later to Justinian’s armies and the Eastern Roman Empire when they defeated the Goths in a series of protracted conflicts to reclaim Imperial lands.[5] By this time, the Eastern Roman Empire was different enough from what the Western Empire had been before its fall that in modern history we call it the Byzantine Empire, but it is essential to understand that the Venetians still saw it as the legitimate holders of Roman Imperial authority, and when I said earlier that they still considered themselves Roman, I mean that they still considered themselves culturally, economically, and politically tied to that authority in Constantinople. Venice grew as a centrally located and Byzantine authorized trading post and its initial expansions into the Adriatic were in concert with, and not in opposition to, Byzantine authority.

This relationship, as much as its aquatic locale, and to a lesser degree the relocated patriarch, set Venice apart from the rest of Italy and provided it with a trajectory that would avoid the feudal system that was to soon sweep and stifle the terra firma of mainland Europe, and the factional conflict of the Guelfs and Ghibellines that would define so much of Italian history. But as important as this relationship is to the trajectory of Venetian culture, economics, and empire, it is also problematic for the Venetian myth of a free founding. During this period between the claimed founding of Venice and the first Doges, Venice remained an idea on a small collection of islands, and Torcello was the economic center while Grado held the ecclesiastical and local political power.  Yes, the citizens of the lagoon had their own councils and locally elected representatives, but any real political authority was still Byzantine until well into the Eighth century. Because of this conflict between history and the story Venetians want to tell over the centuries, there is some debate over who the first Doge was, but regardless of which account you want to believe, the forces that shaped Venice into a people apart from the Italian mainland and its political trajectory were well-established before the arrival of the Doges thanks to the substantial Byzantine influence that, with hindsight, we can easily see now, but to the Venetians then looked as close to Roman continuity as you could get in the Barbarian invasions and migrations the defined the transition from Antiquity to the Middle Ages for the rest of Europe.

Next episode, we’ll meet the first Doges and the Byzantine religious policy that ignited the hope of a new republic.


[1] There’s a lot of political philosophy packed into that idea, and if you’d like to explore it, I recommend Tocqueville’s Democracy in America – his treatment of the relationship between mores, social customs, and laws is excellent – and Plato’s Republic and the Laws, where in both dialogues, when he is faced with the problem of quickly shaping people into a people, we find that the easiest solution is to purge anyone with living memory beyond the founding. There’s more to it than that, so happy reading!

[2] Norwich notes that the first Latin name given to the area, “and the one invariably used by its inhabitants, was plural – Venetiae – and it still had no real nucleus” well into the seventh century (pg 12). This could be true, and it makes a nice story, but in addition to being an unnecessary plural, grammatically speaking, it is also the genitive case (how you express possession – the thing of the Veneti’s) and locative case (a case used specifically in Latin for place names – the place of the Veneti), both of which seem more likely. Latin grammar nerd arguments aside, what does matter is the second clause – the place of the Veneti was an area, a loose collection, and not yet a city proper.

[3] Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis chapter 16

[4] https://www.gutenberg.org/files/18590/18590-h/18590-h.htm#Page_515

[5] https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/judith-herrin-ravenna-capital-of-empire-crucible/id1458854458?i=1000547866212

Great podcast with some more background information on Ravenna. I’ve made a real effort to not get into Ravenna and the whole transition from Antiquity to the middle ages here. It’s really important in Venetian history and we will continue to bump into it, but trying to tackle that is a podcast on its own and I want to keep the focus on Venice even though there is so much to see beyond her waters.

1 comment on “Venice: The Foundations of a New City

  1. Scotty Kett says:

    You’re so interesting! I do not think I’ve read through anything like that before. So wonderful to find someone with some unique thoughts on this subject matter. Seriously.. many thanks for starting this up. This web site is something that is required on the web, someone with a little originality!

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