Venice – War Comes to the Lagoon

IH Season 1: Venice, episode 4: War Comes to the Lagoon

We left off last episode with Maurizio, the son and co-Doge of Doge Giovanni Galbaio, looking down from the tower of the Patriarch of Grado’s residence, as said patriarch plummeted to his death in the piazza below. The overwhelming show of force in not just assassinating the patriarch, but sending a fleet and the second highest ranking leader of the government to remove one of the most prominent members of society opposed to the Doges’ pro-Byzantine policies put the fear of bloody tyranny into everyone throughout the lagoon. The patriarch’s nephew was quickly elected in his place and then fled to the mainland to gather support from the Franks, and other leading members of society who felt they could be targeted as opposition followed suit and left for Treviso. [1]

I don’t know what Doge Giovanni’s long game was here, because, spoiler alert, he didn’t get to play it, but the pressure he was feeling must have been immense. In addition to lacking his father’s political skills, the political landscape itself was shifting with remarkable speed. In less than 50 years the Franks had gone from foreign invaders here by invitation of the Pope to the kings of Italy, and on Christmas day 800, Charlemagne was gifted with a coronation and elevated, by the Pope, to Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. Venice was right at the pinch point of the rising tensions between the Byzantine and the Holy Roman Empire, and domination by the Franks was no longer a question for internal factions to argue about but a very real possibility. Whatever the right answer was to this political problem though, overt political assassination was the worst.

Among the elite who fled to Treviso to regroup was Obelerio Atenoreo, one of the tribunes elected annually to check the power of the Doge. In short order he was elected Doge and made preparations to depose the Galbaii.[2] In 804 an uprising was orchestrated and the Galbaii and their bishop fled Venice and disappeared. Obelerio was welcomed back to Venice as Doge, and then started returning life to the status quo, by circumventing election and embracing nepotism in the elevation his brother Beato to co-doge. The factional conflict continued too, to the point that the entire city of Ereclea was attacked by partisans from Malamocco and burned to the ground. 

There are tremendous downsides to coming to power via a coup  – you just legitimated all of your challengers’ claims to power, you diminished legal claims, you made force the operative power of your regime, etc, etc. – and all of these destabilize life and invite more bad decisions. Doge Obelerio ran face first into all of these and chose to double down by going to the court of Emperor Charlemagne in Aachen in December 805. Doge Obelerio brought gifts, recognized Frankish sovereignty, and even chose a member of Charlemagne’s court, Carola, as his new wife. In exchange for this legitimacy and protection, Charlemagne more or less received Venice and issued an ordinatio to the effect that Venice was operating under his authority. With this freshly secured legitimacy, Doge Obelerio went home and promptly started making overtures to the Byzantines and was given special honors and titles as a show of his importance and their special relationship. 

Between 803 and 814 the Holy Roman Empire and the Byzantines were negotiating a peace treaty, the Pax Nicephori, which would ultimately give Dalmatia to the Franks, minus a few coastal cities. Later Venetian chroniclers will cite this peace treaty as recognizing Venice’s independence, but the history doesn’t exactly bear that out, and in 809 those negotiations look a lot like war. You can tell two people they are your favorite person, and you might get away with it, right up until they are in the same room with you. It’s even worse with lovers and emperors. 

Word of the double-dealing invariably got out and the Byzantines were very displeased. A fleet was sent to the Northern Adriatic to reconquer Dalmatia, firm up the spines of the Doges, and continue negotiations with the Franks, but the Doges, afraid of being left to the Byzantines, did everything they could to make the negotiations fail. It is telling that the French chronicles of the time – their allies! – say the Dukes were insidious and were prepared to lay impediments wherever they could, and that once the commander of the Byzantine fleet figured this out, he left.[3] With this diplomatic failure, and the raising of their brother Valentino to be a second co-doge, and some high-ranking marital intrigue, the people finally started pushing back against – again in the words of the French – the perfidious Doges. With a disgruntled Byzantine fleet not far away and very disgruntled citizens at home, the Doges went back to their font of legitimacy and called on the Franks to honor their agreement from 805 and come take the lagoon and settle things down. King Pepin of Italy, Charlemagne’s son, hastily put together an army of Lombard troops and answered the call.

The Venetians, however, were having none of the ‘call in foreign help to insure domestic tranquility’ plan and they pulled up all the buoys, blocked the channels, and at Rivoalto they spiked up the shallows so that there was no way into the city. Pepin captured much of the lagoon’s periphery – Grado fell and Chioggia would be held for another 30 years – and marched down and took Malamocco as well. But he couldn’t crack Rivoalto. At one point during the six month siege, the Venetians taunted Pepin’s soldiers by launching bread at them as a symbol of the futility of trying to starve them out.[4]In the end, Pepin successfully extracted “a considerable tribute” from Venice, but they did not submit and he was soon dead from a disease contracted while on the siege. Doge Obelerio was taken to exile in to Constantinople, and one of the leaders of the Venetian defense, Agnello Participazio was elected Doge.

For me, the most fascinating exchange in this whole conflict takes place near the end when Pepin makes the claim that the Venetians are Franks because they came from land that the Franks now control. This claim is repeated in a number of the Frank and Byzantine sources from the period. As we saw in earlier episodes, the Venetian people could draw their lineage all the way back to Troy, and even if you only start counting Venetian existence with the legendary founding of Venice in 421, that was still 350 years before the Franks began conquering Italy. Yet for Pepin, that chronology was not a problem – ownership of the land defined the people. The land is now ruled by the Franks, you came from that land, therefore you are now Frankish, therefore I now rule you. “You are beneath my hand and my providence, since you are of my country and domain,” he says, pleading with the Venetians to submit. To this appeal, the Venetian’s responded, “We want to be servants of the Emperor of the Romans, and not of you.” As noted before, the Byzantines were the Romans, and Venice saw itself connected with that heritage, and knew that its place was subservient to that Empire, even as they continued to strive for real independence. The contrast in the ethos here, Tocqueville would say mores, shows that the Venetians wanted no part of feudalism – they would serve but they would not be owned.

A complete history of feudalism is beyond our project for Venice. We are going to learn a lot about how feudalism shaped the rest of Italy’s history as we explore the rest of the peninsula in later seasons. Personally, I am most familiar with how feudalism continues to shape daily life in Sicily, which we’ll explore in season 2. But here, it is important to know the basics of what feudalism is to have an appreciation of what Venice escaped with this victory and the subsequent peace treaties. 

In any society, government is ordered to further the ends of the social order. James Madison, lead scribe at the Constitutional Convention of the United States, member of the first Congress under our Constitution, fifth president, and one of the authors of the Federalist Papers wrote, “Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been and ever will be pursued until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit.”[5] Justice and liberty are in tension, and you can lose one by prioritizing the other. You can lose the whole plot too if you don’t understand what justice is – which is a great reminder to read Plato’s Republic if you have not yet had the pleasure.[6] Here, with the establishment of the Carolingian dynasty and the birth of the Holy Roman Empire, feudalism begins and eventually covers the continent. Unable to rule the vast lands themselves, the early dynastic leaders traded limited claims to rule for loyalty and soldiers. I, Charlemagne, emperor, give you this duchy on the condition that you remain loyal to me and provide a certain number of men of arms when the need arises. And the need always arises. The subordinate kings and dukes in turn separate the land further into fiefdoms and holdings that can support knights. The knights in turn allow serfs to work the lands in order to provide the food necessary to keep ready for the call to battle. It is, in its grossest simplification, a pyramid scheme that would make any multi-level marketing enthusiast weep tears of joy.

I think the most important point for our comparison to Venice here is that in the feudal system, the focal point of society – the end of the social order – is the production of knights and security through force. If you can produce enough loyal knights then your claims to rule are secure, your titles and lands are secure. It is a militant order where justice is the rule of the strong, and centuries later the rule of the strong plus some claim to bloodlines, and the overwhelming majority of the population is perpetually subjugated into production for these ends. In contrast, Venice escaped the establishment not just of this method of managing lands, but of this ordering of society. Freedom from feudalism will allow Venice to choose a completely different way of ordering its society, one which makes it seem much more modern in our eyes than anything that was happing in the rest of Europe until at least the Rinasciamento.[7] These aren’t just different economic orders, they are entirely different ways of ordering society and understanding the purpose of human being. The existence of each one is a political threat to the other, which is one of the many reasons why Venice will find itself constantly beleaguered by the Holy Roman Empire and its progeny. Andrew Lambert, in Seapower States, captures this political aspect of the problem well in a comparison of Athens and Sparta. Sparta’s military order was similar in many important ways to the society of feudalism, and Athen’s conscious choice to choose a more open form of society presented a number of existential challenges to Sparta. War was inevitable and only one way of living could survive – I’ll let you read Lambert, or better yet Thucydides, to see how that turned out. But the connection is important to Venice because it was similar to Athens at this point in many ways as it searched for how to best order its society along with meeting the needs of its emerging identity as a seafaring state. Again with the spoilers, I don’t think Venice will get the answers right over the centuries. I think history is pretty clear that regimes are at their pinnacle when the family is the foundational unit of the social order, and not the military, or the individual, or the fictitious corporate being, or the State itself. And in terms of republican political theory, I think Machiavelli is right on Venice not being the model it claimed to be. 

But none of my judgements and reservations change that here, for Venice, this was a monumental victory that gained importance in each retelling as her strength as a city and then an empire grew, and they understood what they had escaped by being apart from the mainland. The people of the lagoon had been united under an existential threat, and they had withstood the challenge where the rest of Italy had fallen. They had found a common ground – literally and metaphorically – that they could defend and build on.

Next episode, Venice will pick up the pieces and rebuild, and we’ll meet the pirates of the Adriatic.

[1] This article has a great summary and discussion of the source material I used for this episode. All quotes in this episode are from this article unless otherwise noted.

[2] Just a language note – Galbaii is plural  (we’d say Galbaios if the name were English).

[3] “Wilhareno et Beato Venetiae ducibus omnes inchoatus eius impedientibus atque ipsi etiam insidias parantibus, cognita illorum fraude discessit” As quoted on page 7 

[4] There’s this painting of the event here:


[6] I recommend Allan Bloom’s translation.

[7] That’s the renaissance for all you Francophiles. I’ve yet to understand why exactly we call something that is universally acknowledged to have happened in Italy by a French name. I know that the king’s court in France spread the word, but I don’t have the exact story nailed down.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *