Venice – The First Doges

IH Season 1: Venice, episode 3: The First Doges

Last episode we explored the Venetian lagoon and the forces that helped give the people a shared cultural, economic, and political identity during the roughly 300 years after the historical founding of Venice. Now, let’s talk religion and politics.

Much like their geography, the religious power in the lagoon helped shape Venice into something separate from the powers in play in mainland Italy. The Patriarch of Aquilea was historically founded by St. Mark himself and was widely considered to be the second most powerful position in the early Catholic church, after the Bishop of Rome that was founded by St. Peter, and was soon known as the Pope. I’m not going to dig into Medieval Papal Power Politics here – we’ll get there when we go to Rome – but in this early period the pope was not yet THE POPE and there were not infrequent challenges to his claims to rule, and high ranking theological disagreements could cause serious divisions in the church. After the Patriarch fled from Attila’s sack of Aquilea and set up residence in Grado in 452, the Venetians found themselves with a quasi-independent source of religious power, and after a century, found themselves in schism for the first, and definitely not close to the last, time with the Roman church. You can look up the Schism of the Three Chapters if you want to dig into that more, but what matters for our story is that the schism shows that the lagoon had some serious diplomatic clout by the mid-500s, and the schism offered an opportunity for rival factions to claim a new Patriarchy in Aquilea while the old Patriarch of Aquilea, now in Grado, argued that the authority went with the office holder and not the location. The contentions between these competing Patriarchal claims will take centuries to be completely resolve and we’ll address them as they come up, but by the early 700s the schism had been settled for 100 years and the Roman church recognized both Patriarchal claims as legitimate, having created the new title Patriarch of Grado for the old Patriarch of Aquilea. 

Meanwhile, in Byzantium, religious worship had developed to such a degree that numerous areas used icons extensively, which included images and statues painted and carved from all types of materials, as objects of adoration and veneration.[1] This type of worship was not happening in Italy like in the Eastern reaches of the empire, so when the Iconoclast movement gained power in Byzantium and Emperor Leo III banned the use of icons in 726 and ordered the destruction of religious imagery, there was unprecedented pushback all over the Italian peninsula. Italy was already severely divided at this time. The Exarchate of Ravenna was the official office of the Byzantine Empire that ruled over Italy and had duchies organized along the Adriatic Sea and through Rome, Campania, Basilicata, and Calabria. The Lombards – the largest and most long lasting barbarian invasion force Italy ever saw – were conquering most of the inland territories from north of Venice down to the interior lands of modern Puglia. The constant tension was exploited by Pope Gregory now that the Byzantines were questionable temporal protectors and definite religious oppressors. In less than 25 years, the entire Exarch of Ravenna was gutted – Ravenna itself conquered by the Lombards and other holdings enervated by the Italians themselves – and Byzantium was forced to regroup and reorganize in Bari.

The Venetians, in true Venetian fashion, have two competing historical lines on this series of events. If you look at any Venetian list of Doges, the first will be Paolo Lucio Anafesto. Tradition holds that in 697, the Patriarch in Grado called the 12 tribunes of the lagoon together and told them that their factional interests were undermining the long term interests of the lagoon and that they must choose one leader. The Venetians, calm and rational people that they are, said yes, let’s do that. Paolo was selected by the people as Doge, and the tradition goes on from there. Paulo served until 717 and was succeeded by Marcello Tegalliano. Venice, always free, always popular, always serene. There are paintings. There are sculptures. There are records. Done and dusted, move along, nothing to see here.

However, as clean as the revisionist history on the list of Doges may seem, it doesn’t hold up. Norwich goes so far as to say that the first Doge, Paulo, was made up, and the second Doge, Marcello, was just a Byzantine appointee. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Paulo is made up, but I agree that neither men were the Doges the Venetian tradition makes them out to be, and there is a lot of scholarship trying to suss out the details.[2] Again, records from this time remain spotty, but what we do know is that while the Byzantines ruled over Italy, Venice was a duchy of the Exarchate of Ravenna.[3] Sometime during this period of the late 600s to 726, there were numerous border disputes between the Byzantines and the Lombards, and the Duke of Treviso, on the Lombard side was named Paulicio, while his counter part in border negotiations was Marcelius, in latin, or Marcello in Italian. A record referencing their names and negotiations survives today.[4] And the Exarch of Ravenna at the time of rebellions against Byzantine iconoclasm was Paul, and his magister militum, or ranking general who could have also had responsibilities of running ducal administration but has no record of bearing the title of dux, or duke in Latin, was Marcilius, and the last name Tegalliano does not appear in records for another couple hundred years. 

The overlap of the names is not a coincidence, and the lack of records allows for the revisionist history that Venice has embraced, basically since forever. But I don’t emphasize it here to undermine Venice, or sow distrust of her history. The Venetians, both at the time and for centuries afterwards, were trying to build a political identity and they recognized the essential nature of history to that identity, and as they develop through the centuries against the forces of Byzantium, Lombardy, Charlemagne, The Holy Roman Empire, the Pope, The Turks, and so many more, the story of their origins in freedom will be essential for them to maintain their freedom – politically, spiritually, and legally. That doesn’t change that Paul, the Exarch of Ravenna, was assassinated in 726 in rebellion against Byzantine iconoclasm, and then the people of the lagoon came together and elected Orso Ipato as Doge. But the Venetians didn’t see themselves as rebellious people, or one that needed to be set free. They saw themselves as free and massaged the history to support that claim to freedom. Its easy to judge that post facto, but history is lived in the movement of time and, I think, with the benefit of hindsight, their decisions make sense. 

And so, 300 years after their historical founding, the Venetians are Roman. But they’re not. They are Italian, but they’re not. They are Byzantine, but they’re not. And they are Catholic, but they’re not. And now, with their first proper Doge Orso Ipato, even though he’s third on any list you’ll find, the Venetians are ready to make their own way in the world.

The early years of the Venetian Dogeship, in this unpainted and unstatued but way more accurate version, were far from serene. Following his election to Doge during the uprising against Byzantine Iconoclasm throughout Italy, Doge Orso Ipato focused on strengthening the military character of the people and defending the lagoon from Lombard incursions. After Paul, the Exarch of Ravenna, was executed in those uprisings, Ravenna fell to the Lombard King Liutprand. The Pope, who had encouraged, and the Venetians, who found their political freedom, in the uprisings both realized that inviting Lombard conquest was going to end poorly for them, so when the new Exarch Eutchyius asked for help in retaking Ravenna, the Pope exited stage left and the lagoon and her Doge answered with 80 ships and helped repel the Lombards. Byzantium rewarded Doge Orso with the title Hypatos, an honorific which the family turned into their surname Ipato and also served to at once legitimate the Doge’s rebellion against Byzantine authority and bring the Doge back into the Byzantine sphere of power as a subordinate authority. Doge Orso kept the focal point of political power in the lagoon in his native city of Ereclea in the northeast of the lagoon for 13 years, until he died fighting in what appears to be one of the many instances of Ereclea and Equilium effectivly engaging in civil war. It is also entirely possible that his own people killed him in his residence, but the stories that use this death usually point to it as evidence of Venice’s long-standing commitment to republican rule and the fear of one man holding so much power. I am, personally, skeptical about that argument.

After Doge Orso’s death in 737, the Byzantine Exarch re-exerted authority over the lagoon and appointed a new magister militum each year. These officials had some ducal powers to administer the region on behalf of the Exarch, and this set up lasted for five years until the last appointee, Giovanni Fabriciaco also took sides in a civil conflict between Ereclea and Equilium and was overthrown, had his eyes gouged out, and was exiled.[5]

At this point, in 742, the office of the Doge returns. I can’t find an exact account of what happened – some say the Exarch let Venice re-institute the Doge, which is somewhat believable because Byzantine power was waning throughout the north of the Italian peninsula and was less than a decade away from permanent expulsion. Some say the Venetians again threw off their not-exactly-overbearing overlords to return to the Doge after a brief interregnum, which is somewhat believable because it is clear from the records we do have that the people of the lagoon really didn’t like being ruled by anyone at this point and they were definitely ready to fight about it. I think, as with most things, the truth is somewhere in the middle and the return of the Doge was forced and then diplomatically acknowledged. Again, wherever you come down on that historical debate, what we do know for sure is that Teodato, the son of Orso, was exiled when his father was killed, was likeable enough that he was invited back and soon appointed as magister militumfor a year during the interregnum, and then was elected Doge after Fabriciaco was dispatched.[6]

Teodato moved the center of political power in the lagoon from Ereclea to Malamocco. This had a number of positive effects for Venice in the long-term: first, it moved the center of government away from the long standing civil and religious conflicts of the north east corner of the lagoon; second, it moved the political power of the lagoon to the center of the lagoon; and third, Malamocco was known for its sympathies to the republican faction within the lagoon. 

To understand the importance of this move, it is helpful to know the main factions and their interests at the time. First, Ereclea, where Orso was from, was sympathetic to the pro-Byzantine faction that wanted to see Venice stay with the Byzantine Empire. Second, there was the republican faction which wanted to see Venice build toward its own independent state.[7] Third, there was a growing faction that was pro-Frankish and wanted to ally with the new Carolingian dynasty being built on the mainland with full support of the Pope. Lastly, there was a fourth faction, much smaller and short-lived than all the rest, that was pro-Lombard, and wanted to join with their Lombard neighbors against all outside and religious claims to rule. The records and treaties of the time already show Venice to be deeply integrated in the economic activities of unloading goods from the Adriatic and moving them across the lagoon and up the rivers, and perceived long-term economic interest had a significant influence on the strengths of the dominant factions.

In addition to factional interest and conflict, there were also consistent efforts to establish a hereditary dynasty over Venice, just as rulers were doing all over Europe during this early medieval period. Fortunately for Venice, both the distribution of faction throughout the lagoon – in contrast to the tighter quarters of a walled city – and her 3.25 factions served to make jealously of power a real check on dynastic aspirations.[8] After 13 years of rule, Teodato was deposed, blinded, and exiled by his pro-Frankish successor Galla Gaulo, who lasted about a year before he was deposed, blinded, and exiled and succeeded by the pro-Lombard Domenico Monegario. Domenico’s reign is notable because the Venetians started electing two annual tribunes to limit the Doge’s power – an interesting revision on Rome’s practice of electing two annual consuls to wield the executive power – but he chaffed under those limits and was deposed, blinded, and exiled after 8 years when he came into open conflict with the Pope, and thus the pro-Frankish faction.

The election of Maurizio Galbaio finally provided some stability to Venetian politics. Maurizio was pro-Byzantine, and as such resisted the republican faction, but his own personal ambitions required Venice to have some power for herself. Under his rule, development started on the central islands we now call Venice today and this also brought a new source of power from people who were, in Norwich’s summation, “tired of bloodshed, and longed for a system by which one ruler might quietly succeed another with the minimum disruption of everyday life – and of course, trade.”[9] This is an inescapable political truth that we can now find easily in Aristotle’s Politics, but was lost at the time and found its way into early modern republican political theory through Polybius’s (and Machiavelli’s reframing of Polybius’s) account of the regime cycle.[10] I’m not going to do a lecture on the regime cycle here, but here’s a quick and dirty summary: without strong institutions to balance against this natural tendency, people get tired of the work of self-government and the inescapable imperfections of any form of popular rule and they turn to a strong man to sort it out. They trade consent for stability and give submission for peace, until that one ruler invariably stops ruling with justice in mind and rules for his own interest and the whole cycle of regime change starts spinning again as the aristocrats chafe at the disrespect and the people fight against the oppression. It creates an endless cycle through the good and bad forms of rule by the one, the few, and the many, until, as modern republican theory shows, the powers of each group are balanced through strong institutions. At this point, the only institutions Venice has are the Doge, two tribunes, and a mess of foreign forces – and I include the clergy here –  exerting far too much force within the regime for it to be truly independent. Maurizio tried to use this institutional imbalance to his advantage by leaning into the relationship with Byzantium, who recognized the value of his position with the titles of Hypatos and Magister Militum, and supported the association of his son Giovanni with the duchal title as second Doge. This preparation allowed for a simple transition of power after Maurizio’s death, but it cut out any electoral power claimed by the Venetians and shifted the basis of rule from consent to hereditary monarchy.

Maurizio had prepared for and managed this transition well during his 22 years of rule and Venice’s growth and stability under his rule provided reasons for optimism. In addition to salt, fish, and wages from moving goods inland, the Venetians had found valuable export commodities in lumber and in slaves that, as Lane explains, would be the economic engine of not only the next century, but strengthen Venetian commercial strength and identity for centuries to come: 

Wood, like slaves, was the essential means of getting ‘foreign exchange,’ namely gold or silver, from the Moslems, with which to buy from Constantinople the luxury wares so much in demand in the West.

Their ready access to supplies of timber stimulated Venetian shipbuilding. Iron and hemp were also to be had relatively cheaply, so that the Venetians built ships both for themselves and for sale for others. Then, having their own ships and having acquired, through the sale of slaves to the Moslems, precious metal to use as capital, the Venetians took into their own hands more and more of the trade between their lagoon and the imperial capital, Constantinople.[11]

Piracy was one of the biggest threats to this expanding economic system, but we’ll get to that in later episodes as the 9thcentury progresses. And the new Doge Giovanni Galbaio thought it could wait too – his biggest concern was reigning in the Patriarch of Grado. By this time, the Carolingian dynasty was well into its rise and Charlemagne was consolidating power throughout the Italian peninsula. These Frankish forces provided direct support to the Pope and were thus the preferred faction of the vast majority of the clergy. The Patriarch’s intransigence was first an economic threat. The Church still condoned the slave trade of pagans, heretics and infidels, but Charlemagne opposed the slave trade and developed a particular dislike over Venice’s unprincipled profiteering from the trade, and he leaned on the Pope to apply his ecclesiastical power to persuade the Venetians to stop. In his final year, Doge Maurizio had established a new bishop on one of the islands, Olivolo, that will eventually be connected to modern Venice as she grows, and Doge Giovanni sought to fill the position with anti-Frankish proclivities as the threat from the Patriach grew from an economic one to a regime level one, but the ruse was too transparent and the Patriarch of Grado would not give his authorization or blessing to the new cleric so he could not take the office. Doge Giovanni, not amused, decided the best solution was to send his son, another Maurizio, who he had already elevated to second Doge, to Grado to negotiate with the Patriarch. And by negotiate, I mean go medieval on him, and then drag him to the top of his palace tower and throw him into the square. The brutality of the murder reverberated throughout the lagoon and would soon ring in more changes for Venice.

Next Episode, there are coups, then there are coups, and then there are what the French call Les Incompetent. 

[1] Strickly speaking, the word from which icon is derived – eikon – means image or picture, but the Byzantine tradition was far more expansive in the use of the word and the materials used to make them, and even venerated “icons not made by human hands” – acheiropoieta. This should not be entirely surprising as people still do such things today, like putting pictures of Jesus on toast for sale on Ebay.

[2] See work by Roberto Cessi, Carlo Guido Mor, and Stefano Gasparri. You can also see Norwich’s argument in pgs 12-14. I’ve yet to find an instance of Lane taking up the controversy.

[3] I love the phrasing of the Italian by the Istituto Treccani, “Le notizie sono estremamente scarse e tarde.” The information we have is extremely scares and of a late date.


[5] I found this encyclopedia entry from 1843 that was written for the prim and proper community of upper class English society and I love the euphemism, “deprived of his sight.” Entry starts on page 229, see page 235 for first blinding. I can just hear Alan Rickman saying “I’ll carve his [eyes] out with a spoon. Why a spoon? Because you idiot, it’ll hurt more.” The Penny Cyclopaedia of the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge volume 26

[6] This form of political punishment is going to continue to show up in our story. I started researching it to see if it was a particularly Byzantine type of punishment and found that it had its origins in Assyria, but was pretty common throughout all of medieval Europe, and its usage there predates the Crusades, so it was not a tradition brought back from those wars. Here’s a great little article I found that details the Byzantine tradition of political mutilations and discusses the wider use in general.   

[7] That whole sentence is filled with modern terms which I don’t believe the Venetians would have used themselves at the time, but fits our modern political science frameworks, and are the terms used in the literature. One of the biggest difficulties in sorting out these early Venetian republicans is the vast amount of histrionics that early modern republicans and renaissance thinkers wrote back into the history to find models of republicanism upon which they could build their new states. If you really want to dig into this question in a larger philosophical and historical context, check out J.G.A. Pocock’s The Machiavellian Moment.

[8] In the words of Dr. Jim Nichols, “As a political scientist I am a lover of spurious precision.”

[9] Norwich, pg. 17

[10] See the Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire and Discourses on Livy

[11] Lane Venice a Maritime Republic page 8.

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