• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Forging Venezianita: The Birth of Venice


Italian society had not contributed large amounts of manpower to the Roman military since the mid-third century, mostly because the profession lost its ability to promise social mobility after Diocletian’s reign. Instead, military service was associated with (foreign) ethne, or smaller regional identities.

After the Lombard invasion cum insurrection this attitude changed. The nomenclature of Italian units from the late sixth to early eighth centuries bore imperial titles often qualified by their civic identity. Groups of them eventually acquired elite status rooted in the land (Brown, Gentlemen and Officers, 85-93) but rubber-stamped by imperial structures.

Until the mid-seventh century, these units received a payment in cash on an irregular basis called rhoga or donativum and food rations (ibid, 86-87).[1] Legislation prohibited soldiers from working the land but not from possessing or buying it (see CJC, Vol. 2, Codex Justinianus, ed. P. Kruger [1970], 4.65, 35; 12.34, 15). Witnesses from the late eighth and ninth centuries, however, prove these laws/norms were disregarded. Instead, lands and castles morphed into the property of regiments in return for service. And these were eventually wrested from institutional control by figures who were senior or imposing enough to enforce a hereditary principle, resulting in their absorption into private patrimonies. VENETIANS WITHOUT A CITY (2.2)

Early Venice had no grand Roman monuments like Verona’s arena, no marble skeletons such as the centre of Brescia, and no remains of a classical portico such as that which adorns San Lorenzo Maggiore in Milan. Instead, the province of Venetia was famous for salt and swamps. Cassiodorus, praetorian prefect to Athalaric, visited the region (533-538) and framed it poetically in an epistle to the maritime tribunes. While exhorting them to perform the important public service of transporting wine and oil from Istria, he trilled that

“Your houses are like aquatic birds, now on sea and now on shore… not produced by nature but Man.” The “solid earth there is held together by woven willow boughs.” You “live together, rich and poor in equality.” All “your efforts centre on the salt works; instead of ploughs and scythes, you turn cylinders.” Your “ships, which you have tethered, like so many beasts of burden, be repaired with diligent care” (Variae XII.25). As late as the Justinian’s reign, the Venetian Church was not even a blip on the radar. Rome’s authority extended other central and southern Italy, Milan’s dominion covered much of modern Liguria, Alpes Cottiae (NW Italy), Lombardia, Piedmont and northern Tuscany, while Ravenna presided over Romagna and the Marche, and finally Aquileia was the metropolis of Venetia et Histria. NOMENCLATURE (2.3)

V. Prigent has done excellent work – mainly by scouring the letters of Gregory the Great – clarifying the terms and hierarchies at play in Byzantine Italy. In a recent chapter, she argued titles were linked to honorary functions: “In this system the duke was styled spectabilis and belonged to the middle rank of the Senate. Late sixth-century sources reveal that the title was fading away so the dukes benefitted from the higher dignity of gloriosus/gloriosissimus specific to the upper rank of the Senate. This happened through the bestowal of an honorary position of magister militum whose standard epithet was precisely gloriosus. Such an honorary office entitled a mere duke to style himself gloriosus or magister militum. This confusion was made all the easier as the military reforms of Justinian I had modified the nature of the troops commanded by dukes. They no longer commanded numerous troops of dubious quality but a handful of elite regiments, or even a single one... A unified office of magister militum per Italiam never existed: after Belisarius and Narses, such a centralised command went to the exarch [first attested in 584] and terminological innovation could result… in the multiplication of the magistri militum.”[2]


If there was a grand Byzantine strategy outside Ravenna then it involved retrenching in Rome, Naples and Calabria, strongholds led by a ducatus/doukaton. Over time, however, Calabria shrunk to Bruttium, while Venice and Istria adopted the same administrative profile as the ducal cities. By the early ninth century each still paid lip-service to the empire in its coinage but cannot be considered properly Byzantine in the sense of direct government. Monetary production might take place in a city that was officially part of the empire but Constantinople had no control over their mints, for instance. In one of the oldest textual sources on Venice – a ninth-century treaty with the Carolingians – a magister militum named Marcel led the soldiers (Pactum Hlotharii, 26). The inhabitants at large were referred to as the Romani (Annales regni Francorum, a. 817). Roman nomenclature, however, is best seen as enduring a) Roman b) sub-Roman and c) ex-Roman stages. By the eighth century its nomenclature lent local interests the sheen of international credibility and heft rather than truly expressing imperial authority. In parallel with the evolution of Lombard Italy, the sub-Roman parts of the Italian peninsula had a free male population who shared in the title of miles and were associated in numeri and bandi – units of the Byzantine army. Lombard equivalents were the exercitalis or arimannus (a soldier in the public army). As Constantinople’s real/direct power ebbed these milites (soldiers) were left stranded with varying levels of autonomy. Direct authority only seems to have survived at Ravenna where the exarch confirmed papal elections. Initially, it’s hard to see how the nomination of military officials – or at least senior ones – would have escaped him. But the power of his office waned dramatically from the first half of the eighth century. The localisation or indigenisation of units should not be overplayed, however. Elite troops belonging to the exarch were often highly mobile units from the East such as the numeri Persameniorum or Armeniorium. The numerus Dacorum, for instance, quartered in Ravenna in the seventh century had been in Egypt a century earlier. Such was their versatility that pope Conon, born in Sicily, was the son of a soldier of the Thrakesianoi (LP, vol.1, 368).[3] However, the numbers of the professional numeri army remained small and its capacity to defend places at full strength leaned heavily on local levies.

The paradox of military weakness – or at least its relatively light footprint – was that it militarised society and localised bureaucracies. To focus on the latter, the diverse holders of civil office were reduced to the vague title iudex (the Latin equivalent of archon) in the seventh century, effectively stamping whatever local authority officials had with the imperial seal of approval. While a similar phenomenon in the financial sphere ensured the local sacellarius became an important player. To return our gaze to the former point, the militarisation of society, the reinsertion of some skin in the bureaucratic game was mirrored by sentiments in emperor Maurice’s book (Strategikon, 10.3) which informed Romans that the “fair-headed people” were incapable of sieges, so locals should presumably fend for themselves. The reality on the ground was that soldiers became accustomed to deploying civilians in fortresses, and even in peacetime locals took to replacing direct fiscal obligations with military tasks such as watch duty.

While localisation can be said to demonstrate imperial flexibility, the military provided a strong core for locals around which they were expected reconfigure. At the highest rungs there remained a military commander who also held civilian power, the magister militum. Below them sat the comites, which formed anelite within the tribunes. These tribuni were only present in some cities but played lieutenants to dukes.


While refugees may have fled the mainland for the lagoon in the bloodshed that engulfed the Lombard invasion/insurrection, the archipelago was only worthy of occupation thanks to the aegis of Byzantine sea power. Quickly amalgamated into the surviving exarchate of Ravenna c.584, the lagoon’s men probably formed part of the Byzantine operations c.625 that lured two Friulian dukes, Taso and Cacco, into a deadly trap. Shortly afterwards (639) an epigraph from the basilica of Santa Maria in Torcello recorded that the exarch Isacius had ordered its construction “through the merits of him and the army” and that Mauricius, commander of the army in the lagoon (magister militum provinciae Venetiarum) had led the works.[4] The military nature of the Byzantine colony is also obvious in its ecclesiastical makeup, which was entirely secondary to its martial blueprint. Indeed, evidence for early churches is absent with the exception of Torcello. The first diocese to be established near Rialto was the island of Olivolo (now known as San Pietro di Castello) in 775, perhaps because it boasted the longest settlement with archaeological reports showing settlements in the early fifth-century. It was placed under the jurisdiction of Grado (which had broken off from Aquileia after a schism in the seventh century). According to the Origo [Torcello], the Scucavalli (or Cavotorta) family built the first church on Olivolo soon after being forced to flee Aquileia in 568 and it was dedicated to the Byzantine military saints Sergius and Bacchus. Government was not always top-down. Whether the placitum was a Frankish import or an older Roman municipal practice, the local assemblies of Venetia were led by a middle layer of tribunes. The eighth-century epigraph of Jesolo, for example, references a tribune named Antoninus. This rank is also present in the will of the doge Giustiniano Particiaco (829). And other tribunes are detailed as landowners in Ravennate charters. In other words, tribunes formed the middling glue binding society to the militia and professional army. The lagoon-assembly’s relationship to the later ducal elections and its degree of autonomy is unknown but given its professional military force was, at the very least, nominally Byzantine it’s hard to imagine independence snowballing particularly rapidly.

RELATIVE AUTONOMY (2.6) When Rome rebelled against Heraklios’ ekthesis (638) the aforementioned exarch Isaac attacked the city and the papacy. In 708, when Ravenna was perceived as having strayed from the imperial party line it was sacked too.[5] To say Italy rarely suffered direct rule is not to say it was not ruled. Relative autonomy was permitted under the understanding that nobody rocked the boat. Byzantine interests demanded respect. The more senior the player, the higher the likelihood they would find themselves meeting justice from or in Constantinople.


Later, a bigger crisis hit: iconoclasm. Three letters addressed to Germanus, patriarch of Constantinople (715-30), indicate that two bishops Constantine and Nakoleia (Phrygia) and Thomas of Claudiopolis (Bithynia) refused to prostrate before icons; the latter even removed them from his church. This position was endorsed by emperor Leo III and the news spread to Italy c.730.

Venice and the Pentapolis immediately revolted (LP, vol. 1, 404). Exhiliratus, the loyaltist (i.e. Byzantine) dux of Naples, was killed trying to enforce it. Pope Gregory III defiantly celebrated a council at the Vatican in which the cult of images was proclaimed “orthodox” (731). Later, pope Zachary even supported Artavasdus’ rebellion against Constantine V after the Armenian claimed to defend the iconodule position (741-3).

Leo III took the opportunity to punish the West for non-compliance by increasing taxation, appropriating papal lands and transferring the papal jurisdiction of Sicily, Calabria and eastern Illyricum to Constantinople (though the last event is only mentioned in a letter from pope Hadrian and so cannot be precisely dated). VENETIA HOSTS THE EXARCH OF RAVENNA (2.8) Taking advantage of both ecclesiastical politics and Constantine V’s war with the Bulgars, Liutprand occupied Ravenna in early 751. The exarch Eutychius escaped to Venetia, which promptly dispatched a fleet to reconquer the city, restoring him to office. PEOPLE OF VENETIA, NOT VENICE (2.9)

Two texts, Translatio S. Marci and Carmen de Aquilegia numquam restauranda (844-55), sit closest to the history described sans the agenda of John the Deacon. And it’s clear that the lodestar of identity in both sources is connected to the province of Venetia, not the city of Rialto/Venice. Indeed, Venetia and the civitas Rivoalti remained concepts that overlapped only in part. Giustiniano, the builder of San Marco, for example, still called himself “humilis dux provincie Veneciarum” in his will (828). He was the last duke to be defined as the “duke of the Venetian province,” however. His successors would assume the title duke of the Venetians (dux Veneticorum). EXARCHATE FALLS: VENICE GAINS INDEPENDENCE (2.10)

When Ravenna proved unable to deflect the Lombard threat, dux Orso took the reins as (in hindsight) the city’s first independent ruler c.726. Other sub-Roman officials known as comites and tribuni (see 2.4) were almost certainly involved in his appointment. We know from the Liber Pontificalis that in this year – 726 – the armies of the Byzantine duchies of Italy, among which is mentioned the exercitus Venetiarum, rebelled against the emperor and elected independent dukes (LP, I. 404). Rather telling is that up until this rebellion ships in the Adriatic had Byzantine labels, not local ones. The commercial convoys of ships, for instance, had been known as the naves militorum. Afterwards, however, there was a divergence in nomenclature. Given the fact the pope had utterly no legal right to these regions as ruler but only as a pastor, the biographer of pope Stephen II’s vita in LP (Vol. 1, p.444, 3-4) rather conveniently imagined the populations of the rebellious regions as “lost sheep” (perdites oves) assigned “by God to the Church of the Roman Republic” [NB not empire].[6] The Venetians seem to have wanted to avoid the Roman pontiff as much as the Roman emperor, however. Yet their institutions were hardly up to scratch. It’s unsurprising, therefore, that the manner in which the doge governed attracted controversy. The polity suffered two extremes. Repeated rebellions tried to push a system which rotated the magistri militum, each of whom would rule for a year. The doge’s preferences won, however, with the leader ruling for life. This had its own stereotypically “Byzantine” outcomes, which meant leaders tended to meet violent ends or blinded and deposed. Deusdedit, for instance, was blinded in 742 by Galla who met the same fate. Coregency was also a fitful experiment in 764 and later. But individual reigns and patchy attempts at creating dynasties tended to form the rule. The city’s independence or at least its unique position in the Byzantine-Papal axis was recognised in the Pippin’s Donation (756), which included Venetia et Histria (NB not the “city” of Venice) in papal territory. During the following century dukes would continue to visit Constantinople to receive honorary titles and essentially remain a member of the [Byzantine] “club.”


The Carolingians flexed their muscles at the end of the eighth century. Their new line of attack was ecclesiastical in nature. Its first salvo was Charlemagne’s grant of immunity to the possessions of patriarch John of Grado.

John was impeccably pro-Frankish and had been in contact with Charlemagne as early as 775. So when the patriarch refused to ordain the doge’s candidate (Christopher) as the new bishop of Olivolo in 798, open conflict erupted. This came to a temporary halt in 802 when the young doge Maurice II, son of the ruling doge John, sailed to Grado and killed the patriarch (IV. II, 22). The patriarch’s successor was Fortunatus to whom pope Leo III granted the pallium in March 803. Leo’s appointment of a close relative of the murdered patriarch to lead Grado sent a clear message of defiance to the doges. The peace of Aachen (812) didn’t end Carolingian machinations, however. A legend arose in late antiquity that St Mark the Evangelist had been sent by St Peter to preach the gospel in Aquileia, going on to Alexandria afterwards. Nothing supported the tale but it gave the patriarchate of Aquileia the patina of an apostolic foundation and legitimised its claim of authority over the province of Venice and Istria, including Venice’s pocket patriarchate Grado, which the synod of Mantua rather cruelly demoted to a “parish.” According to tradition, only one year after Mantua, 827, (where Venice had been made subject to Carolingian Aquileia) by an eyebrow-raising event of “good fortune” the Venetian merchants Rusticus & Tribunus (Bonus & Rusticus in the Translatio S. Marci i.e. Good & Simple in a rather Bunyun-esque turn of phrase) discovered the body of Mark the Evangelist in Alexandria and hid it in a barrel of pork. Hesitating in the “Harbour of Umag” (the modern-day Croatian side of the Adriatic) the pair eventually sailed into the city and were congratulated by doge Giustiniano Partecipazio and the patriarch. The (Byzantine) patron saint St Theodore was given short shrift and replaced with St Mark as the city’s patron saint. The first incarnation of the thrice-built San Marco was a new ducal chapel (the apostle’s remains were transferred from the palace in 836). It was rebuilt in the tenth and again in the eleventh centuries, the final version used six hundred columns from the East and just fifteen from Italy. Carmen de Aquilegia numquam restauranda (844-55) – a short, pleading poem to the Carolingian rulers Louis and Lothar – reacted to Mantua in a manner that seems to document contemporary (Venetian) public opinion. It smirks at the fate of Aquileia (which deprived Grado of its patriarchal title and submitted the southern city to itself), which was destroyed by “Avars” (Huns), an opinion unsurprisingly first recorded in the Acts of the synod of Grado (579). Furthermore, it portrayed Aquileia as a den of vipers led by a heretical bishop. The patriciate had therefore been translated to the Venetians who had been blessed with the relics of St Mark. TURBULENT IDENTITIES IN THE ADRIATIC (2.12)

The Adriatic still lurked behind the iron curtain of Constantinople, though the lines between tributary, independent and imperial identities were (often opportunistically) blurred by Istrians. Typically elites wanted to perform service (douleia) on behalf of the empire to gain prestige at home if nothing else. That their “Byzantine” identity remained a powerful one is demonstrated by a letter from pope Hadrian I to Charlemagne in the late eighth century. Its contents bemoaned the fate of the bishop Mauritius of Novigad, whose violent end was blamed on the actions of the “Greeks [Romans] of Istria” (Epistolae Merowingici et Karonlini aevi 1, 590, no.63) after they blinded the unfortunate bishop, accusing him of wanting to deliver Istria to Charlemagne. Besides the “nefarious Greeks” (nefandissimi Greci) of the papal letter, another document from Istria, the Placitum of Rizana (804) provides evidence of the Istrian affection for the “time of the Greeks” (Graecorum tempus). Moreover, Amalarius – a Frankish traveller in Zadar – referred to a sense of belonging to the empire of the Greeks (ad imperium Graecorum pertinent). Furthermore, Gottshcalk of Orbais referred to Dalmatians as subjects of the empire of the Greeks (Graecorum imperio subiecti). URBAN DEVELOPMENT

The peace of Aachen (812) restored the Adriatic to the Byzantine sphere of influence, an allegiance Einhard clearly resented when he grumbled that Venice was “For love and because of an alliance made with the emperor in Constantinople, given up to him” (Vita Karoli magni, 15). This Byzantine victory, however, presaged a retreat from expensive hard power by Michael II (820-9) and set the scene for the development of the civitas Rivoalti, in other words Venice, c.810. Yet Venice was still little more than a nexus, a series of moving parts urbanising at different speeds around scattered churches. In the sixth to seventh centuries the northern portion of San Lorenzo di Ammiana was converted into a funerary area, while the emporium of Torcello seems to have resulted in a labour drain from the Altinum district. Much of the flexibility/fluidity of Venice’s original “centre” or “HQ” appears to derive from the fact power whirled and eddied around a series of ducal seats belonging to different families. Hence the movement from Cittanova (the first known ducal seat) to Metamauco (740), and from Olivolo to the Rialto. These political factors had a complex relationship with economics as the relocation of the ducal seat to the site of Metamacuo (in the southern lagoon) may have been related to the rising importance of the Po Valley’s economy, centred around the Po river, and the commercial system created by the Lombards. Paul the Deacon writing in the late eighth century is the first surviving historian to mention Venice constituting a town (H.L. 2.14). Even this was charitable as it possessed roughly a dozen dispersed churches. A lack of walls meant there was little incentive for the lagoon-folk to take more compact forms. This early settlement appears to have ignored the Grand Canal and spread itself over a different axis (cf. Ammerman, “Venice Before the Grand Canal,” Memoirs of the American Academy in Rome). Before the ninth century Olivolo with its position at eastern end of the axis was still the chief locus of authority in the archipelago, it was only the doge’s completion of the Rialto (Rivoalto) that adjusted the picture. Gradually the new ducal chapel usurped the cathedral of San Pietro’s role as the main religious node. Importantly, when St Mark’s relics arrived they did not go to the bishop but the doge. Moreover, since Venice retained a government outside the purview of the Kingdom of Italy, its bishops did not acquire the secular authority of their peers in Northern Italy who were endowed by the Germanic emperors with comital and regalian rights in their dioceses. These events would cumulatively shift the lagoon’s axis westward, away from the island of Olivolo and closer to the intersection of Santi Apostoli and San Pietro waterway with the deep channel that would eventually become the Grand Canal. Apart from occasional parties like the Festival of the Twelve Marys and Marriage of the Sea, the bishop and his cathedral were left to play second fiddle to the secular doge his pet basilica, San Marco. Even when patriarch of Aquileia relocated his seat to Venice in 1451, San Pietro di Castello continued to be an isolated church with a modest profile – a potential (papal) fifth column to be ignored at a polite distance.[7] V. West-Harling has also written on how Venetian monasteries were not associated with powerful families but rather the ruling doge. Monasteries were not allowed to become bit players in the contests of aristocratic families for the duchy. Instead, they formed the prizes of political domination. This meant that instead of acting as radical agents bringing a more direct eschatology to bear, monks and nuns were reduced to little more than salves who healed communities after political contests or violence, a good example being their conduct during the Morosini-Coloprini feud of the tenth century (Doges and the Church of Venice). Continuing onto churches, she observes “The most striking fact remains that most Venetian churches, including parochial ones, were founded and endowed by various Venetian aristocratic families.”

Meaning precious few churches were ecclesiastical foundations or even in ecclesiastical hands.

[1] The system was certainly still thriving c. 640 when the Byzantine army sacked the Lateran palace when they learned rumours that the pope had hidden the cash sent by the emperor Heraklios (LP, vol. 1, 328).

[2] V. Prigent, “Byzantine Administration and the Army,” A Companion to Byzantine Italy, ed. S. Cosentino (2021) 142.

[3] This was a two-way street. Justinian II’s iussio to the pope (687) was signed by army corps present in Constantinople, among which were numbered Italian troops (ACO, Concilium universal Constantinopolitum tertium, 886-887).

[4] Santa Maria di Torcello’s 639 epigraph notes that the church was constructed by Mauricius, gloriosus magister militum “who resides in this place” (A. Pertusi, “L’iscrizione torcellana dei tempi di Eraclio,” in saggi Veneto-bizantini ed. G. B. Parente [1990] 1-31). The foundation had been ordered by the exarch Isaac: IN NOMINE DOMI DEI NOSTRI IESU CHRISTI, IMPERANTE DOMNO NOSTRO HERACLIO PERPETUO AUGUSTO, ANNO XXVIIII INDICTIONE XII FACTA EST ECCLESIA SANCTE MARIE DEI GENETRICIS EX IUSSIONE PIO ET DEVOTO DOMNO NOSTRO ISAACIO EXCELLENTISSIMO EXARCHO PATRICIO ET DEO VOLENTE DEDICATA PRO EIVS MERITIS ET EIVS EXERCITU. HEC FABRICATA EST A FUNDAMENTIS PER BENE MERITUM MAURICUM GLORIOSUM MAGISTRO MILITUM PROVINCIE VENETIARUM RESEDENTUM IN HOC LOCUM SUUM, CONSECRANTE SANCTO ET REVERENDISSIMO MAURO EPISCOPO HVIVS ECCLEASIE FELICITER. It was this Isaac – an Armenian – who confronted Rothari during his offensive against Liguria, only to be defeated and killed in 643 at the battle of Scultenna (the most important battle in the conflict between Byzantines and Lombards).

[5] When Justinian II perceived Ravenna – a city only seventy miles south of Venice – to be acting too autonomously, he sent the patrician Teodoro from Sicily to drag the nobility to the ships in chains and torch half the city. In Constantinople, some were executed and the leader of the revolt, Giovannicio, was walled up alive. Meanwhile, the archbishop Felice was blinded and exiled to Pontus.

[6] An immense purpose lurked in the ambiguity. The traditional notion of the res publica Romanorum [the Roman state/thing] was its evolution into the Roman empire, which had later still pivoted to the Bosporus. This empire was centred on Constantinople and its Church pentarchic. In this formation the old Rome formed a single, if singular, node. By referring to the republic, there was clearly an attempt to indigenise or at least localise Romanitas so that the “Church” was that of the city of Rome, rather than that of the Roman (universal) state. From Hadrian I onward even this figleaf was cast aside in favour of nationalising Byzantine territories by reclassifying them as St Peter’s patrimony.

[7] Papal attempts to reduce Venice’s ecclesiastical freebooting were repeated even after the city’s surprising coup after the Council of Mantua (827). The highest ranking cleric residing in Venice – at least in the Middle Ages – was not its bishop but the Patriarch of Grado who’d been forced to abandon his cathedral city. According to tradition, in 568 the patriarchate in Aquileia had moved to Grado to avoid the Lombards. As Venice eclipsed Grado it became customary for its patriarch to be elected from among the Venetian patriciate by the Republic of Venice. When the pope declared that Grado was part of patriarchate in Aquieleia in 1027, its patriarch settled in Venice, though Grado remained his official seat. By 1131 the relocation became permanent. This solidified the parallelism of two rival sees throughout the Middle Ages: the re-established patriarchate of Aquielia (loyal to the Germanic imperium) and the patriarchate of Grado (under Byzantine and later Venetian authority). By 1451 half of Grado’s population of 20,000 actually resided in Venice. Grado was technically suppressed in 1451 papal bull Regis aeterni, but gave its patriarchal rank to Castello, which became the archdiocese of Venice. The pope ultimately merged the bishopric of Castello (technically the name that replaced Olivolo as the Venetian see’s official designation) and the patriachate of Grado into a single office. But before that, unlike the bishop of Olivolo (who was his suffragan), the patriarch of Grado lived close to the main nodes of power on the Rialto. His residence (the Ca’ del Papa) was called a palace as early as 1164, signally his claim to higher authority. His presence brought him into jurisdictional conflicts with the bishop which exacerbated San Pietro’s increasing marginalization.

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