Many people can name the great Empires: the Roman Empire, the British Empire and even the Mongols roll quickly from the tongues of people with even rudimentary educations.
But there existed a powerful empire that many people don’t recall offhand, and that empire was the Venetian Empire. Yes, the tiny city of Venice, mired in a swampy lagoon once possessed the largest trade empire in the Mediterranean with colonies stretching to Greece, Cyprus and Turkey, many of which they held on to for centuries.
This empire was a major actor in the crusades and in the subsequent wars between Christianity and Islam. The Venetian Arsenal (map above) was the engine that produced most of the ships that sent crusaders on their way as well as the ships that fought–and won–the battle of Lepanto, possibly the most important naval engagement between the two warring monotheisms.
In light of its importance, it does come as a bit of a surprise that so few people know about this particular empire. I’m a bit of a history enthusiast, but though I knew it had existed, I only recently learned the details about it.
Why is that, I asked myself.
I think there are three major reasons for its lack of fame.
The first is geographic. This empire wasn’t a contiguous land empire in the tradition of Rome or the Mongols. People seem to have an easier time imagining this type of structure. For a far-flung sea empire to live in the imagination, it needs to have good marketing (the sun never sets on the British Empire).
The second and third reasons are psychological and, to the medieval / renaissance mind, possibly moral. For one thing, the Venetian Empire’s big break came because they betrayed one (possibly two) supposed allies. Having contracted to take a group of crusaders to the Holy Land, the Doge decided to have them sack Constantinople, an allied Christian city, instead. The riches from that expedition were the cornerstone of the empire.
For another thing, the “crusades” fought by the Venetians were more about trade routes and money than about religion, despite claims to the contrary on both sides. The Venetians had no problem with muslims. They traded with them when it suited them and went to war when it suited them. Everyone knew this, and for that reason, they never admired the Venetians in the same way as they admired the crusaders who spent time in the Holy Land (even though their own motives were also often suspect).
Anyhow, it’s a fascinating tale and, as you can probably imagine given my track record of buying Folio Society books, it’s one that I absorbed through reading one of their volumes. This particular tome, The Venetian Empire: A Sea Voyage by Jan Morris is up to their usual standards and was a great read, mainly because of the colloquial way in which Morris (whose own story is quite interesting in itself) treats the subject: an island-hopping tour of the empire, with the history thrown in in such a way that it hardly intrudes.
This book landed squarely in our Italian period, which also helped make it interesting… even though Venice was only recently grafted on to Italy, and then by force majeure (it took Napoleon himself to do it, in fact).
I would strongly recommend this one to anyone who wants to learn about this somewhat forgotten historical period… Or to any general reader looking for something a little bit different. A great read, and one that will teach you a bunch of stuff you didn’t know.
Gustavo Bondoni is an Argentine writer active in several genres whose most recent science fiction novel is Incursion. You can buy it here.