• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

Forging Venezianita: Venice the Byzantine Naval Base


SLAVIC BRAKES (3.1) The first half of the ninth century saw Croats and other polities emerge. A group named Narentines were particularly prominent and their presence made it hard for the Byzantines and Venetians to keep Adriatic trade routes open.


Amalarius of Metz (c. 780-850) complained that it was dangerous to travel between Constantinople and Italy not only due to Saracens but also Slavs. Referring to an experience in 814, he (Versus marini, 60-5) recalled “running away from the Maurs, fearing the savage Slavs” and avoiding the “Slavic shores.” The Pactum Hlotharii (I. 7) also noted the need for a common effort to keep the Slavic tribes at bay with a “naval army.”

BYZANTINE INTERVENTIONS (3.2) Byzantine interventions were sporadic. The Saxon theologian Gottschalk of Orbais (800-868) witnessed rex Trpimir marching against the “Greeks and their patrician,” who probably led a combination of local militiamen and Byzantine forces.



Offensives remained a curious mix of local and imperial initiatives. Around 865, for instance, the dux Ursus sailed with Venetian forces to confront Domagoj the leader of the Slavs (IV, 3.2). Yet it was the Byzantines who ultimately wiped out the Narentines in the 870s. The dux Pietro I Candiano just mopped up the dregs seventeen years later. Arguably, Venice’s fleet – in this century the largest in Adriatic – was the real legacy of the Byzantines. Its development necessitated a quantum leap that neighbours (such as the Comaclenses [inhabitants of Commachio]) were not able to make. THE REMOVAL OF RIVAL COMMACHIO (3.3)


The fate of Commachio offers a critical lesson in why Venetian military strength was more important than its trading abilities. The former’s port facilities were abandoned in the ninth century after persistent raiding by both Saracens and Venetians. Commachio had been wealthier and more democratic than Venice (it had also not presumed to go independent and elect its own duke) yet because it could not defend its own shores, let alone pacify the Adriatic, it was ruined by its northerly rival. Rather astoundingly Peter II Candiano (a man John the Deacon noted was “bellicosus et audax”) impetuously destroyed the city – burning it to the ground and deporting its inhabitants to Venice – over little more than an insult. HIGH DIPLOMACY (3.4) Theodosius Baboutzikos, a high imperial official (patrikios) from Constantinople, spent a year in Venice working to strengthen the empire’s military position against the Arabs. The mission (839/840/841) also sought military from the Franks and was probably provoked by the fall of Amorion (838). However, the death of Theophilos prevented any further action. CLOSE SHAVE (3.5)

Perhaps the closest the Venetians came to mortal peril was the loss of a large joint Byzantine-Venetian fleet to the Arabs of Taranto in 841. The Muslims then sailed up to the lagoon capturing any Venetian vessel they encountered and sacked Caorle. Venice was almost certainly saved by the amount of booty taken from its northerly neighbour (40 miles to its north) and the decision to return home. OVERHAUL OF VENETIAN DEFENCES (3.6) The depredations of the Arabs forced a major overhaul. The Venetians equipped themselves with two Byzantine vessels known as chelandiae in 850. These were the dreadnoughts of their day and could take one hundred and fifty men (in a period when ships typically carried five to twenty men). The Venetians also copied Constantinople’s distinctive defensive appearance in the later ninth century when the doge Peter Tribuno (887-911) fortified the walls of the Rivoalto and ordered the mouth of the grand canal blocked with a chain.


Peter’s reign is the first in which John the Deacon felt able to refer to Venice as a civitas. This may be due to the technical construction of the wall (walls and bishop constituting the late Roman ideal of a city) but it’s also connected to the collective effort involved in the works, which stretched from the canal located near a place named as “the Castle” (Castello) – probably after the original castle there named Castrum Helibolis [exposed to the sun?] – close to the church of S. Maria di Zobenigo. In short, a corporate identity had clearly formed under the leadership of the palatium by this point. BYZANTIUM HONOURED (3.7)



Venetian state documents were dated according to Byzantine regnal years, dukes wore imperial dress, sported Byzantine court titles (such as spatharios and protospatharios), married into aristocratic Byzantine families (like the Argyropouli of the early eleventh century)[1] and the city regularly lent naval aid to the empire. In the early ninth century, the Byzantine soldier-martyr St Theodore was chosen as the city’s patron saint and honoured with a chapel (to house his relics) built next to the doge’s new residence.[2] The late chapel of S. Isidore (San Marco) probably occupies the St Theodore’s original site (O. Demus, Church of San Marco, 21, 73). In 819, the emperor Leo V presented the doge with relics that included San Zaccaria, father of John the Baptist, for which a shrine to the east of the ducal palace was built by Byzantine craftsmen (a palace chapel at Constantinople also shared the name).


Even when St Mark was later chosen to replace St Theodore, both statues testified to strong Mediterranean links. The lion of St Mark – the emblem of an apocryphally western apostle – was made from the body of an eastern bronze chimera, a seventh-century BC hollow-cast bronze from Anatolia.[3] While Theodore, a Byzantine saint, was inserted into the armour of a western Roman general (imperial cuirass decorated with winged victories) and a head of Greek provenance. The whole was brought together with the odds and ends of medieval armour by a local sculptor during the early fourteenth century. Regarding their columns, Mark’s grey and Theodore’s red granite both shared Egyptian provenance and were brought from the East by Doge Vitale II Michiel in 1172 and set up on the piazzetta five years later. Equally, when Venice had ambitions it was eager to veil them in the language of empire, so that its dominion over Istria in the tenth century was carefully couched as constituting a “protectorate” on behalf of Constantinople. Such was the respect accorded the empire that when the emperor John I complained that the city had sold weapons and timber to Muslims in 971, the Venetians immediately recognised it as a sin to sell goods to pagans and swore to stop (Jacoby [2011], 105-11). Furthermore, they offered to intervene in support of Constantinople and protect Bari from the Arabs c.1000.


The state’s pro-Byzantine ideology was doubtless assisted by the empire’s burgeoning military glory in the second half of the ninth century. After Muslim attacks on Istria (841) and Ragusa (867) Constantinople reinforced its military positions in the theme of Cephalonia and Otranto. Troops from the latter, led by the imperial primicerius Gregory, relieved Bari when it was on the verge of succumbing to a Muslim attack. And in 891 the general Symbatichios took Benevento. The growth of Byzantine prestige is best measured by the destruction of the Islamic lair at the Garigliano, achieved by the strategos of Langobardia in 915, ensuring that all potentates in southern Italy – at least nominally – acknowledged Byzantine sovereignty. Such was Venice’s affinity for Constantinople that when an heir diverged from the mainstream view that the imperial city was the mother-city, a lodestar, the results were dire. The pro-Germanic views of Peter III Candiano’s son, Peter, were acquired during his exile at the courts of Berengar and Otto I. Accordingly, when he returned as Peter IV he sought a closer relationship with the Ottonians. But both the style of his rule and his pivot towards the West tried the patience of his subjects until they finally assassinated him in 976. VENICE AS A BYZANTINE BUNKER (3.8)


This odd sort of relationship between Venice and Constantinople suits Jonathan Shepard’s notion of the “free cities” or “bunkers” of Byzantium.[4] Neither truly outside the Byzantine ambit and yet rarely directly governed by it. Perhaps the closest approximation is tenth-century Naples, which – after being attacked by Islamic forces by land and sea – requested to be returned to the Roman fold i.e. direct rule. This ambivalence in the West between theory (i.e. a potentially menacing [because more legitimate] sovereign, Byzantium) and more immediate political actors plays out repeatedly. A good illustration is the crisis the magister militum Daniel provoked when he informed Louis II that the superitsa Gratian (during the papacy of Leo IV) had made a treaty with Constantinople that planned to oust the Franks from Rome. This was treated so seriously that a court – involving Louis and Leo – was convened to hear the charges in 855, eventually clearing Gratian.

Benedict of Soracte and the author of Libellus de imperialis potestate in urbe Roma confirm this mixed picture. Contemporaries upheld the notion that the Roman empire had vanished with the Lombards. The papacy had subtly converted ex-Byzantine territories into a marvellously inventive new category known as “St Peter’s patrimony,” while the Frankish empire recast the remainder as a Regnum Italicum. The “Frankish” emperor, for instance, was only allowed into Rome with the pope’s permission – hardly a prohibition the Roman emperors would have tolerated. It’s also notable that not a single ex-Byzantine or Lombard city assimilated a Frankish presence into its identity, despite some adopting the placitum and integrating Carolingian families.

[1] Though in this instance the family died of plague and the Ravennate reformer Peter Damian later used Maria’s story to illustrate the destruction that follows the decadence of using perfume and cutlery (Opusculum quinquagesimum, col. 744).

[2] This seems to have been part of a larger regional effort to keep the Adriatic aligned with Constantinople. St Anastasia and St Tryphon, for instance, were given Zadar and Kotor respectively at beginning of the ninth century. Though Ravenna fell (751) it didn’t mean other towns collapsed in tandem. The restoration of imperial authority is reflected in an inscription referencing Constantine VI (780-97) found at Trogir, Croatia. Large quantities of eighth century Byzantine coins were also found in Dalmatia, they belong to the reigns of Constantine V, Leo III and Leo IV. This indicates Byzantine structures were thriving. Furthermore, the reverberations from Bardanes’ Anatolian rebellion (fl. 795-803) were felt in northern Dalmatia (Ancic, 2018a, 29).

[3] However, the use of the winged lion as a political emblem doesn’t go back further than the late thirteenth century. The earliest known documentary reference is a resolution passed on May 14, 1293, which authorized the expenditure of money on the restoration of “quod Leo, qui est supra columpnum.” For a full treatment see The Lion of Venice, ed. B. M. Scarfi (1990).

[4] J. Shepard, “Bunkers, Open Cities and Boats,” Byzantium, its Neighbours and its Cultures, 11-44

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