Venice – The Founding of a People

Italian Histories Season 1: Venice, episode 1

Venetian history begins during the tumultuous end of the Western Roman Empire and I believe it will be helpful to go over the period with some broad strokes before circling back for a more detailed look. The splitting of the Roman empire was itself precipitated by the start of significant migrations around Europe as one group used force to consolidate territorial claims and marginalize or expel other factions and peoples. The Saxons, Angles, Franks, Goths, Ostrogoths, Visigoths, Vandals, and the Huns were all on the move and the fading Roman empire lacked the institutions and resources to face the waves of barbarian armies and refugees.

In the North-East corner of modern Italy, home to the provinces of Veneto and Friuli Venezia Giulia, the citizens of the crumbling Roman empire found themselves in particular danger for a number of reasons:

First, as the Roman Empire faced more and more pressure from the barbarians, the functional seat of imperial power moved first from Rome to Mediolanum (Milan), and then from Milan to Ravenna. Milan offered both fortified walls and proximity to the mountain passes that allowed for more effective military responses to the movements of barbarian forces. Once the Roman army had decayed to the point where even the fortified walls of Milan were untenable, Ravenna offered some of the same benefits of being in the North, while also being further south and protected by marshes and swamps that prevented large forces from attacking the city. A brave and noble retreat. In both cases, the proximity to conflict and the constant presence of armies – barbarian, roman, roman and barbarian, roman usurpers, and or roman pretenders – sometimes it was hard to tell who was on what side and when – made a peaceful, stable life all but impossible.

Second, a significant Roman trade route, the via postumia, ran through the region and contributed to the wealth of the prominent cities in the region of Aquileia, Patavium (modern Padova), and Tarvisium (modern Treviso). As the Goths began moving in 402, fleeing the Huns moving into their own lands, and other barbarian tribes pressed from the North, that wealth did not go unnoticed. The great names of the period – Alaric, Attila the Hun, Odoacer, Theodoric – and all their armies, swept through the region for over a century, and left it poorer with each pass.

Lastly, this was not just a problem of moving off an established road. The impressive mountains to the north – the Dolomites of the Alto Adige region, and for that matter, the Alps further west – are majestic and beautiful to the modern view, but they offered little impediment to the descent of barbarian armies on lands, people, and treasure the Romans were increasingly unable to protect. What little impediment these beautiful mountain ranges did provide only served to funnel invading armies toward the fertile plains that lay between the foothills and the Adriatic sea.

And in all this churn of receding empire and surging barbarians, the peoples of the Veneto looked for safety and faced the proposition of a rock and a soft place. They chose the soft place and fled to the lagoon and began building small encampments on the sand bars and whatever other small spots of land the tides did not wash away to wait out the more dangerous barbarian waves, until they finally realized that going back to the mainland was never going to be the safe, prosperous place it once was.

In this historical context, the traditional legend setting the founding date of noon on March 25th, 421 makes sense, though ceremoniously over-precise. Other, later sources, point to April 25th, 421 as the founding date, which, not coincidentally is the feast of San Marco, the patron saint of Venice. This date tells a pretty story, that connects Venice with Saint Mark at its foundations, and the Venetians love those kinds of stories, but it is not historically accurate in the way us moderns have come to expect of our history. 

“The myths of Venice have enduring vitality. ‘Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of fact,’ as Emerson boasted, but myths enthrall the imagination and defy trial by documentation. Some myths have even been makers of reality and moulded Venice’s history. The oldest powerful myth proclaimed Venice’s sovereign independent birth.”

There is another two-fold challenge that raises significant questions: First, the less precise date of 697, when the first duke of Venice was appointed – Dux was the common Latin title at the time, though the Venetian dialect Doge replaced it, as far as we can tell, almost immediately. Second, some historians claim this first Doge doesn’t count and that the first elected Doge, which properly connects with Venetian claims of being born as a free and sovereign state, was not until 726. Even if we set those two particular dates aside, why was there a more or less three hundred year gap between when the city of Venice was founded and when a more traditional, and documented, political history is verifiable? What was happening during that period, and why does it matter to the Venetians to push their history beyond what documents can support?

Popular historian John Julius Norwich, whose book A History of Venice was the first comprehensive history I read on Venice and I really enjoy it, readily points out the contradictory founding accounts: “One of the most infuriating aspects of early Venetian history is the regularity with which truth and legend pursue separate courses…It is the historians of Venice, just as much as her architects, who have sunk their foundations into shifting sands.”[1] I find myself,  however, more sympathetic to Venetian Scholar Frederic Lane’s analysis of the same problem – this is from Venice, A Maritime Republic: “The myths of Venice have enduring vitality. ‘Time dissipates to shining ether the solid angularity of fact,’ as Emerson boasted, but myths enthrall the imagination and defy trial by documentation. Some myths have even been makers of reality and moulded Venice’s history. The oldest powerful myth proclaimed Venice’s sovereign independent birth. A feeling for the integrity of the state, or its ultimate authority over all persons and groups, strikingly distinguishes Venice from such other Italian city-states as Genoa or Florence.”[2]

We can see two different types of Venetians coming from these circumstances if we follow the reasoning. I don’t want to be uncharitable to Norwich, because this isn’t his account of Venice, but most modern accounts of Venetian history start with some variation of it, so if we take the demands of modern history to their fullest extent, the picture of the Venetians we find is one of refugees, those unwilling or unable to fight for their lands, who spend their lives looking for sand banks that are more often dry than wet and carve out a living trading salt and fish for the real essentials of life. Here’s James Morris’s account from The World of Venice: “Venice was founded in misfortune, by refugees driven from their old ways and forced to learn new ones. Scattered colonies of city people, nurtured in all the ease of Rome, now struggled among the dank miasmas of the fenlands (their ‘malarious exhalations,’ as Baedeker was to call them, fussily adjusting his mosquito-net 1,400 years later). They learnt to build and sail small boats, to master the treacherous tides and shallows of the lagoon, to live on fish and rain-water.”[3] Morris goes on, but I think that’s enough to get the point. Over the course of three hundred years, these hard scrabble survivors turn out to have lucked in to a good location that both leaves them at the margins of great historical conflict and gives them the opportunity to profit from it. 

But if we ask what myths did the Venetians believe, what stories did they tell, and why, we learn so much more about what drove them to become so much more than refugees to a lagoon in a time of unprecedented political and ethnographic change.

The stories we tell about ourselves matter. They color how we see the world, how we assess the possibilities and challenges before us, and they provide the inspirational force to move us forward. In short, the stories we tell about ourselves make us who we are, and the Venetians, from the very beginning, loved connecting their plight with the great myths and stories of western history. They did not see themselves as refugees – history and tradition supported this, and where convenient, were built up and edited to reinforce it.

Venetians existed centuries before the city of Venice. Herodotus, an ancient Greek writing in the 5th century BC, and often considered the father of history, praises a long-standing marriage custom of the “Enetoi of Illyria.”[4] This requires a little context to decipher – there was no V in ancient Greek, and in modern language enetoi becomes veneti, and Illyria is a classical location which refers to the modern day Balkans along the Adriatic.

Livy, the great Roman historian, who was personally familiar with the stories of the region since he was from Patavium (modern Padova), traced the origins of the Venetian people all the way back to Homer’s Illiad and the fall of Troy around 1180 BC. I’m reading here from the Penguin Classics translation of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita, titled The Early History of Rome: “It is generally accepted that after the fall of Troy the Greeks kept up hostilities against all the Trojans except Aeneas and Antenor. These two men had worked consistently for peace and the restoration of Helen, and for that reason, added to certain personal connections of long standing, they were allowed to go unmolested. Each had various adventures: Antenor joined forces with the Eneti, who had been driven out of Paphlagonia and, having lost their king, Pylaemenes, at Troy, wanted someone to lead them as well as somewhere to settle. He penetrated to the head of the Adriatic and expelled the Euganei, a tribe living between the Alps and the sea, and occupied the territory with a mixed population of Trojans and Eneti. The spot where they landed is called Troy and the neighbouring country the Trojan district. The combined peoples came to be known as Venetians.”[5] I love the simplicity of the original Latin there: “gens universa Veneti appellati.”[6]

Livy goes on to focus on Aeneas, as did his contemporary, the Roman epic poet Virgil, who wrote the Aeneid and connected the greatness of Rome back to this expulsion from Troy. That’s a story for another day, but what remains relevant to us and our exploration of Venice’s founding, is that the Venetians trace their origins back to the same forces that shaped the origins of Rome. Those founders were refugees too, but they were also empire builders. 

This is who the Venetian people saw themselves as as they fled to the lagoons. They did not call themselves refugees. Displaced? Yes. But they had been that before and had become great. They did not despair about the collapse of the Roman empire. They considered themselves the continuation of the good parts of Rome, and they also saw themselves as older than Rome. They were not new to the lagoons – Livy, again Ab Urbe Condita, Book X this time (the Penguin Classics edition is titled Rome and Italy), notes that in 302 BC the Veneti beat a Spartan army using “river-craft, which were constructed with flat bottoms, designed for sailing on the shallow water of the lagoon,” and that the Spartans lost 80 percent of their fleet in the conflict.[7] The Venetians knew what they were doing on the lagoon 700 years before they had to give up the mainland, and Livy notes that the triumphant remains of those defeated Spartan vessels hung in the main public buildings to remind the people of the great victory centuries later. 

By the metrics we use today to assess political and cultural development – cities, and durable goods like documents, books, art, etc. – the move from the mainland to the lagoon lost them 300 years. But if we take their stories more seriously, we see that the whole time, they weren’t building from nothing, but tapping into the great power of their stories in their already long history, and future generations of Venetians, and their enemies, would revisit those stories and myths over and over again through the centuries. But here at the beginning, they were the inheritors of Troy, and all the greatness that had been built on that by the Romans. They were descendants of Hercules and, as such, knew that they had god-like powers but would have to work for everything to prove themselves. They would rise again – tides were only a small inconvenience.

Next Episode, we’ll look at the foundations of Venice as a political entity and see the region and powers that shaped those sparsely documented 300 years between the fall of Rome and the first Doges.


[1] Norwich, A History of Venice, pg 13-14

 [2] Lane, Venice A Maritime Republic, pg 87

[3] Morris, The World of Venice, pg 27-28

[4] Herodotus Histories 1.196 pg 105 landmark edition

[5] Livy, The Early History of Rome, 1.1 pg. 31

[6]I generally prefer to use the Loeb library when possible when looking at the original Latin to assess a translation, but I’m also a blue collar scholar, so the free resources at the Perseus project at Tufts University are excellent. http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.02.0151%3Abook%3D1%3Achapter%3D1

[7] Livy, Rome and Italy, X.2 pg. 291

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