• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Forging Venezianita: La Serenissima’s Tortured Relationship with its Byzantine DNA

St Theodore’s Column, Venice, Sydney Vacher (1919)

AIM: This paper is split into four parts and seeks to address the source scarcity that afflicts the origins of Venice. It’s a problem compounded by the city’s medieval meteoric rise because success ensured its history was enveloped and aggrandised by myths that rarely tally with other sources. SOURCES: The archival documents of Venice prior to AD 1000 form a slim body of charters. Their state of preservation is hardly ideal with only two original parchments. The rest are copies, many late (fifteen to sixteenth century) and often handed down by the Codex Trevisaneus. Perhaps most important are the early Venetian placiti and imperial pacta. They were originally housed in buildings that were destroyed during the 976 uprising.

“Empires can survive as identities long after they disappear as polities.” [1] Jonathan Conant “Almost another Byzantium” [Quasi alterum Byzantium] [2] Cardinal Bessarion on Venice “They all began suddenly speaking Greek amongst themselves.” [3] An observer from York at a council in Rome, 704

INTRODUCTION I: VENICE’S FOUR MYTHS Venice claimed to be a displaced Aquileia – shifted by the Lombards – a city which had itself been the New Troy (boasting a genealogy that could be traced back to Antenor, the Trojan hero who settled northern Italy while Aeneas busied himself settling further south).[4] The city was therefore the latest New Troy. Venice was also worthy of being a labelled New Jerusalem, by virtue of St. Mark's supposed visit to Aquileia and the eighth-century removal of his bones to Venice. Only Rome (the first sedes imperii) could claim another apostle in the West. Furthermore, the city formed a New Rome as three Paduan consuls are said to have founded Venice in 421 (on the day of the feast of the Annunciation), a legend first propagated in last quarter of the twelfth century. Finally, it was also the New Constantinople by virtue of its first basilica of St Mark, a cruciform church modelled on Constantinople's Apostoleion and adorned with precious stones and other spoils from that city. INTRODUTION II: EXPURGATING ANACHRONISMS Any visions of Venice that evoke simpler renditions of Canaletto’s frames must be set aside. It should be recalled that the first permanent wooden bridge was not built over the grand canal until 1264, a direct result of the Rialto market’s traffic. Moreover, there wasn’t a stone pavement at San Marco square until 1726. Before then it’d been brick. Furthermore, most inhabitants visited each other on rowing boats. Sails could be used on the Grand Canal but due to daily tides and strong currents, it was never easy to sail a large vessel.

Tabula Peutingeriana

Venice was not a city in the Roman period. The Tabula Peutingeriana depicts the great walls of Aquileia, flanked by the muncipii of Concordia and Altino (Venice’s ancestor), as well as the thermal complex of Fonte Timavi, as dominating the province of Venetia et Histria. An ad portam below Altino is the port of Padua.

Finally, it is easy to bring the future to bear on the past. It is one of the main tasks of the historian. Yet it is also important to note that contemporaries did not see the path later taken and so framing the Byzantine period of Italy (550-800) as an Indian Summer, a fragile, dismal twilight that could never last, helps nobody. The Romans had no reason to see the Lombards as anything more permanent than any other barbarians. Most expected the empire would either remove them or find some modus vivendi which imposed an appropriate level of fealty.


The Adriatic is only forty-three miles wide at its southern most end, the straits of Otranto, where it becomes the Ionian Sea. The settlement that gave the sea its name was Adria (roughly fifty miles south of Venice). The sea’s east and west coasts could not be more different. The Italian side is undulating with few islands. The eastern shore is rocky with scattered inlets and archipelagos. It was navigated counter clockwise. The rocky east coast granted shelter from the strong NW winds, while the skyline of the Dinaric Alps offered points necessary for orientation. HISTORY OF DIVISION (1.2) Only the Roman empire managed to claim the whole Adriatic and, even then, the empire’s bifurcation was the sea’s own when Diocletian took out his stylus and indicated the west began at Aquileia. Following unification under Constantine I, the final division in 395 assigned the sea to the western half of the empire, the eastern line being drawn near what is now modern Montenegro. EASTERN ROMAN REUNION (1.3) It took two military campaigns (535-554) by Justinian I to regain Italy and Dalmatia from the Goths. The Eastern Romans then had a vested interest in the Adriatic centred on the exarchate of Ravenna (584-751).

EASTERN ROMAN SOVEREIGNTY (1.4) After the Gothic wars, the Eastern Roman empire – with the exception of the exarch Romanus in the Po Valley c.590 – retrenched. The army of Illyricum, for instance, dwindled from roughly seventeen-thousand (Agathis of Myrina’s Historiae 5.13) in the mid-sixth century to nothing by the early eighth. Maybe it broke up in the face of the Avars. Its last commanders (Bonus and Theognis) are mentioned by Menander Protector in the late sixth century (Historia 27, 33, 65). Perhaps they were transferred to the Karabisianoi, a western navy raised in the region of Sicily and Hellas. Or perhaps they dissolved into the armies of competing polities (see 1.6). A magister militum was set up in Aquileia in 559. Other Byzantine units were quartered at Forum Iulii, Treviso and Verona. Many of these retreated to Ravenna but in 579 three imperial regiments were nevertheless available in Grado. Soldiers were clearly also still stationed in Dalmatian cities when Gregory the Great (Epistolae 4:46, 5:6; 9.177) mentioned those based in Zadar and Salona. And until the final years of the seventh century a praetorian prefect for Illyricum was still in charge, at least on paper. Finally, if the author of the Miracula S. Demetrii (2.128.33) can be believed, an eparch took his place. BYZANTINE BASELINE OF VENICE (1.5) Excavation results from Ca’ Vendramin Calergi (on the Grand Canal) imply settlement by the seventh century at the latest and show strong evidence of a Byzantine presence. This is indicated by ceramics of the vertrina pesante type, as well as Byzantine seals and coins. In fact, seals found in Castello reveal it as an area where Byzantine public power was displayed. In all likelihood, many other Venetian public buildings probably had roots – known or unknown – in places with Byzantine history. LOMBARD THREAT (1.6)

E. Fabbro, Warfare and the Making of Early Medieval Italy (2020) In 2020, Eduardo Fabbro wrote Warfare and the Making of Early Medieval Italy. Building on the work of scholars like Neil Christie, he dismantles the idea that the Lombards either invaded Italy as an independent power or by invitation in 568. Instead he concludes that an imperial army, which included large Lombard contingents, mutinied in 569 and flocked behind the banner of Alboin. The insurrectional nature of the conquest was why the Lombards faced curiously little resistance. Whatever the nature of the rebellion, sees were moved, abandoned or destroyed by the Lombard forces. From 569 to c.650 century Milan’s bishop lived in Genoa. It’s possible to glean from the letters of Gregory the Great that at least a dozen cities went without bishops. The see of Aquileia was transferred to Grado by bishop Elias between 568-72. After the death of bishop Severus, the bishopric was divided into two areas as a consequence of the Three Chapters schism (553-).

Grado’s bishop attracted the loyalty of the [Roman] Istrian bishops (Parentium, Trieste, Iustinopolis, Pola, Pedena) as well as Odero and Altino, while the Lombard cities (Zuglio, Belluno, Concordia, Trento, Asolo, Verona, Feltre, Treviso and Vincenza) followed Forum Iulii’s bishop. The coast, however, was left under direct Byzantine control. Paul the Deacon recorded that Venice was no longer a region but a few islands at the end of the eighth century, by which he meant the Roman Regio X, Venetia et Histria, had disappeared (H.L. 2.14). The future Venice therefore sat in a web that connected Byzantine coastal cities as replacements for mainland sites colonised or terrorised by Lombards. This transfer – as traditionally understood – has Grado replace Aquileia, Cittanova for Oderzo, Torcello/Venice for Altinum and Metamauco for Padua. Many of the older settlements didn’t survive, though Altinum was the only city to be completely abandoned during the early medieval ages. Oderzo (Opitergium) ceased to exist after the Byzantine era, its last buildings being wooden ones erected between the sixth to seventh centuries. SURGICAL STRIKES (1.7) Constantinople retrenched rather than retreated. Offensives often involved complex and deadly diplomatic manoeuvres. In 572, for instance, the Lombard king Alboin was killed in a plot that Marius of Aventicum’s Chronica insinuated was at the behest, or at least connivance, of Constantinople. According to the author, the queen’s lover Hilmegis murdered Alboin and escaped to (Byzantine) Ravenna taking with him parts of the army and the royal treasure. Later, in the Venetia, the patrician Gregory caught the dukes of Friuli – Taso and Cacco – in a trap at Oderzo, killing them (HL, IV, 38).

The Madrid Skylitzes showing a Byzantine fleet repelling a Rus assault in 941. Larger arsenals were also at the disposal of the Byzantines. The exarch of Ravenna had a fleet at his disposal when he lay siege to Pavia c. 590 with dromones (Epistolae Austrasicae, 40). Stationed at Ravenna (Origo gentis Langobardorum, 5), Constantine IV offered the pope Donus these ships under the leadership of the exarch in 678 (Sacra ad Donum). And the fleet can’t have been operating in isolation as after the death of Constans II the armies of Africa and Italy were said to have converged upon Mezizios’ rebellion in Sicily. A MYSTERY EVENT IN ADRIATIC (1.8) Something changed around 700. Slavic piracy, which began c.642, probably became endemic (Paul the Deacon recorded a large Dalmatian fleet in the Historia Langobardorum, 4.44). Whatever the cause, from the early eighth century the top brass of northern Italy preferred to travel to Constantinople down the Via Amerina to sailing spots on the Tyrhennian Sea rather than directly from the Adriatic.

Via Amerina near Nepi, Italy.

Agnellus, for instance, recounts the journey of John the abbot of St John ad Titum on the northern outskirts of Classe. Naval trips from Ravenna to Constantinople must have been fairly humdrum affairs for the exarchate and lobbying the emperor must have been – at least notionally – equally pedestrian. Yet c.700 John’s journey is mythologised. In the text, he sails to Constantinople to discuss a property dispute and feels compelled to sing Psalm 95/94: “Come! Come! Let us raise a joyful song to the Lord… Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving… the farthest places of the earth are in his hands.” Beneath the emperor’s window. He succeeds in getting the emperor to support his cause but fails to find a ship returning to the West. This forces him to rely on Ethiopian magicians or devils (it’s ambivalent) who subsequently dump him on the roof of his monastery. Admittedly, the exarch did not believe the abbot’s account of his return journey given it should have taken three months, yet something remains odd about the ease in which a mundane transfer could be exoticised so totally if Ravenna hadn’t been cut off for – at the very least – a decade.

Mosaics of the Amphitheatre church in Dyrrachium Otranto, Dyrrachium and others remained Byzantine citadels. In 731–32, Theohanes’ Chronographia reported that Leo III, furious with “the secession of Italy” (which, according to the Liber Pontificalis [vol. 1, 403] had rebelled after a new series of taxes – a capitation tax and seizures of ecclesiastical property in Sicily and Calabria formed the main bones of contention – was imposed after the imperial victory over the Arabs that besieged Constantinople) sent a fleet under the command of Manes, strategos of the Kibyrrhaiotai.[5] Though the reality may have been that Manes’ sortie was, in fact, directed against the Lombards who had just taken Ravenna. Whatever the destination, the fleet mysteriously sank in the Adriatic.


Italian estrangement from Constantinople is tangible during the reign of Justinian II (685-95, 705-11). Its alienation resulted in fiscal indiscipline and perhaps even political insubordination. The protection of pope Sergius by northern Italian troops when Justinian II attempted to have him arrested (for failing to sign the canons of Trullo [692]) is most famous (LP I:160-1) but the same sentiment can be traced back further to the presence of Constans II (d. 668) on the peninsula, which almost certainly led to updates of the fiscal registers, meaning previously unregistered taxpayers were put on record.

It may be that Byzantine operations were rapacious but doubt can be cast on this accusation by the fact almost all (literary) condemnation hailed from Italy’s biggest landowner, the papacy. Whatever the truth, the last ditch attempt to get the West to provide an army loyal to the Eastern Roman empire was Leo III’s demand that a patrician named Paul address the archontas ton dytikon (western commanders) in Sicily.[6]


A slave makes a pact with the devil. St Basil intervenes in The Golden Legend, M. 672-5, fol. 103r. Created in Bruges, Belgium (1445-1565) As Byzantine power retreated to the uncontested waves, it failed to police its main zones of influence constantly. While it could still intimidate major players such as the papacy (letters in the Codex Carolinus [CC, 20] contain pope Paul’s moans to the Franks c. 760 that a three-hundred-strong fleet taunted him off the coast of Rome), a lack of direct control eventually had repercussions. Hence references to Commachio as an independent city as early as 715. The Lombards signed a pact with Cittanova shortly afterwards (Pactum Hlotharii, 26). Zadar gained power as the capital of Byzantine Dalmatia. And the anonymous biographer of Zacharias (741-52) notes that the Venetians traded on Tyrrhenian shores, selling “moltitudo mancipiorum” (great numbers of slaves) in the LP vol. 1, 433. They were even able to procure relics in Egypt for the Frankish count of Treviso.

[1] J. Conant, Staying Roman, p.1.

[2] Bessarion, Letter to Senate, 31 May 1468

[3] J. M. Sansterre, Moins Grecs et orientaux, vol. 1, p.20, n.118

[4] Aquileia’s importance was garnered – like Milan’s – from its position as a former tetrarchic residence. Its first major appearance on the Byzantine radar was its failure to adjust itself to Justinian’s Three Chapters condemnation. While the Ravennate church aligned itself with Rome, the cities of Milan, Aquileia and several central Italian bishoprics – as well as those of Venetia et Histria – refused to condemn the memory of Theodore of Mopsuestia, Theodoretus of Kyhrros, and Ibas of Edessa. In 608 two bishops were elected to the patriarchal seat of Aquileia: Marcianus in Grado (Byzantine territory) and John in Cividale (Forum Iulii) a town under the Lombards. The two disputed the title with one another, but while the former returns to communion with Rome, the latter persevered until the end of the seventh century.

[5] The language of secession seems to indicate something more serious occurred than grumblings about tax. Perhaps the last time such an accusation could have fairly been levelled at Italy was the mid-seventh century when pope Martin summoned a council at the Lateran palace (649) to reject Constans II’s Typos. They avoided implicating the emperor by accusing the patriarch of Constantinople, Paul, of having conceived the document. The rebellion of the exarch Olympius in Italy (650-652), however, seems to have struck a religious chord, linking both forms of dissent. Though the exarch died of plague in Sicily, his replacement Theodore had the pope arrested and transferred to Constantinople where he was charged with sedition (supporting Olympius) and exiled to Cherson where he died in 654 (Haldon, The Empire That Would Not Die, 201-6). Indeed, a great distance separates these intra-Byzantine conflicts and Gregory VII’s support of the Norman expedition against Dyrrhachium, Eastern Roman soil, in the mid-eleventh century.

[6] Constantine VII’s tenth-century Book of Ceremonies has protocols for issuing commands to figures in central and western Med. He lists the archontes of Amalfi and Gaeta, alongside the doukes of Venice and Naples (690.4–6).

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