• Henry Hopwood-Phillips

The Battle for the Venetian Soul: Byzantium vs. Francia


From the appearance of the Lombards in Venetia[1] in AD 568/9, Venice had to play a clever game to enforce any sort of autonomy in the face of Lombard, Frankish and Byzantine efforts to impose control. Yet, it is difficult to chart its reaction to many of these threats with confidence because (for reasons that are still not clear) the city developed almost no chronicle tradition before the thirteenth century. Thankfully, one does survive: the Istoria Veneticorum, written in the early eleventh century and probably the work of John the Deacon, an ambassador and chaplain to Doge Pietro II Orseolo (991-1008).

John, however, was exceptionally reluctant to admit the fact that Venetians were subjects of the Byzantine Empire so external sources are also necessary; texts such as the Annales regni Francorum, De administrando imperio and the letters of Pope Hadrian. The letters, for instance, suggest Charlemagne’s first moves against Venice involved the expulsion of its merchants from Ravenna, Pentapolis etc. and the sequestration of their goods. They also include references to Charlemagne’s donation of all the Italian territories that once belonged to the Byzantine Empire – the Venetian lagoon included – to the papacy.


Matters quickly escalated. Indeed, the ecclesiastical leader of the Venetian duchy, the patriarch of Grado, John, was murdered for becoming a Frankish partisan by the pro-Byzantine Mauritius, son of duke John (AD 797-805). This was no clandestine cloak and dagger affair, however, but a show of force. John the Deacon described how

“Mauritius with a fleet of ships went to the city of Grado in order to kill lord John, the very holy patriarch. He executed the paternal orders and cruelly killed that very holy man. A great grief descended on the city because an innocent man had been cut off from life.”[2]



The execution formed part of a diplomatic tit-for-tat between the Eastern Roman Empire and the Frankish kingdom. Initially, the Romans had accommodated the latter’s wish to be elevated to the purple, the Empress Irene even going so far as to marry Charlemagne in a gesture of legitimisation. She was deposed in AD 802, however, and the Emperor Nikephoros, scathing of Frankish pretension, refused to suffer their usurpation of an imperial title.


Meanwhile, events see-sawed in the duchy. The patriarch’s successor, Fortunatus II, remained anti-Byzantine and departed for Francia, while his aristocratic supporters clustered around Treviso where one of their number, Obellierius, was appointed leader, forcing the duke John (and his son) to flee when they re-entered the city. No doubt they claimed only to be enforcing Charlemagne’s ordinatio regarding Venice and Dalmatia – a provision they had only been given after bestowing several “great gifts” upon the ruler in December, AD 805.


Patriarch Fortunatus II departed the city again, however, when he learned that a Byzantine fleet was approaching. Indeed, according to John the Deacon, he

“Greatly feared the arrived of [the Byzantine] Patrician Niketas, who had been sent by the Emperor, and was landing in several [Adriatic regions] with an army.”[3]



Faced by the prospect of war, the new duke Obellierius performed a swift volte face and returned Venice to Roman suzerainty. In return, the commander of the Byzantine fleet bestowed the honorific title of spatharios upon him and took Beatus (his brother) hostage with some others – including several troublemakers who were subsequently exiled.

Oddly, on another Byzantine patrol in AD 809, the fleet’s commander Paul was recorded as having pursued another peace treaty with the Franks (under Pippin) but only after he’d attacked them at Comacchio (Venice’s great rivals in the salt trade). Perhaps a sign he’d been sent an order from court to prevent his border skirmishes from escalating into an open war. Even more peculiarly, the accord only failed when the shifty, double-crossing duke, Obellierius, “set traps” for the Byzantine leader. Indeed, as soon as “Paul discovered their frauds [insidiae] he left.”

It was the Franks, however, who seemed to have had enough of Venice’s perfidious flip-flopping (incitatus perfidia ducum). The next year (810) they tried to conquer Venice. But beaten back at Albiola (an unknown location) they settled down to a siege while sacking parts of the Dalmatian coastline. The aggression apparently ended when the Byzantine fleet under Paul returned and the Franks scuttled back to their bases. Constantine VII (using unknown sources) claimed that, at this point:

“King Pippin, at a loss, said to the Venetians, ‘You are beneath my hand and my providence, since you are part of my country and domain.’ But the Venetians answered him, ‘We want to be the servant of the Emperor of the Romans, and not of you.’”[4]



Whatever the truth of such a report, Venice promptly made a peace treaty with the Franks. Whether it returned to Byzantine suzerainty or a woollier sphere of influence is moot. No matter the terminology, Constantinople had shown itself capable of taking direct action and followed up by sending a Byzantine ambassador, Ebersapius, who deposed and exiled the troublesome ex-duke Obellierius and his brother Beatus, ensuring Venice returned – once again – to being the most western part of the Byzantine koine (community).


[1] Venetia here summons the ghost of the Venetian duchy as opposed to the city of Venice. In the early Middle Ages, the central part of the modern city of Venice was called “Rivoalta,” where after AD 810, the duke established his HQ.

[2] John the Deacon, Istoria Veneticorum, ed. Berto, ii, 22: “predicti Iohannis, comperta occasione, suum filium Mauricium navali exercitu ad Gradensem urbem ut domnum Iohannem, sanctissimum patriarcham, interficeret, destinavit. Ubi illuc pervenit, paternis iussionibus optemperare studens, eundem sanctissimum virum crudeliter interfecit. Cuius mors maximum dolorem suis reliquit civibus, quoniam insons fuerat interemptus.”

[3] Ibid, ii, 25: “Et quia valde Nicetae patricii adventum prestolari formidabat, qui tunc missus ab imperatore cum exercitu in partes Dalmaciarum atque Veneciarum veniebat, relicta sede et propria urbe, iterum Franciam petiit.”

[4] Constantine Porphyrogenitus, De administrando imperio, ed. Moravcsik & Jenkins, c. 28, 119. More concerningly, Constantine VII doesn’t seem to have known that Italy was once the centre of the Roman Empire and that until the eighth century, large parts of northern Italy – including Venice – had been under the direct control of Constantinople. Instead, he thought of Venetians as Franks who had fled the Huns.

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