City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
© 2012 Roger Crowley
In the north of the Adriatic grew a city built not on land, but upon the water — whose fortune was earned in transit, by running the ships that connected Europe with the Orient. Already a powerful commercial entity at the time of the Fourth Crusade, Venice’s actions there would catapult her to empire — empire based on the broken back of eastern Rome, but empire nonetheless, and she would survive near-defeat and triumph again and again until finally she met her match in the Turks. City of Fortune is a history of the Stato da Màr, the empire of the sea that existed wherever waters run. A highly narrative history that focuses on Venice’s peak and fighting decline, City of Fortune is a treat for students of European history as it tells the story of this most singular state.
This book was a particularly rare treat for me because I had no idea how it would end. I knew Venice was built from a swamp and maintained itself through trade, and that it was extensively involved in the crusades as the provider of transportation. I had no idea how powerful it was at its peak, however, and knew nothing of the circumstances of its decline. The story of Venice is one not of Europe, but of the Mediterranean: Venice, the Eastern Roman Empire, and the Turks are its primary actors. In the beginning Venice was technically a vassal of the eastern empire, commonly called the Byzantine, but as it made its living by trade the city rarely behaved like a subordinate, frequently engaging in commerce with the constantly-attacked empire’s enemies in the middle east. When the Church organized another crusade to redeem Jerusalem from the rising Turks, Venice would become the key agent in derailing the crusade, ultimately sending it to conquer Constantinople instead of Jerusalem, and solidifying Turkic rule in Judea instead of repelling it. Venice’s entire economy and much of its citizenry were consumed by the contract with the west to transport their men and material to Jerusalem: when the west balked at paying in full, Venice decided to use their armies to redeem its gold in other ways, by sacking some of its rival-neighbors. When some ambiguity over the Byzantine succession presented an opportunity for regime change and rewards in gold, naturally Venice took advantage and carried the crusade toward Constantinople. Things didn’t go as planned, and….well, long story short the west conquered the city, fractured the eastern Roman empire, and left it easy pickings for the Turks as they continued to march west.
For a time Venice would flourish in its ill-gotten gains: from the ruins it turned its commercial holdings into a genuine empire, and the wealth of the ancients and the east would pour into Venice. When like proud Athens it found itself in bitter wars with its neighbors, even being surrounded by a Genoese fleet, it somehow rebounded. But nations reap what they sow as well as individuals, and Venice’s empire of the sea was no match for the Turks’ increasingly vast holdings in the middle east, marching through Asia Minor and soon pushing around Venice for possession of islands and seaways. Venice would attempt to organized a general European defense of the Med, but her own prideful pushiness made her a pariah — and her attempts at lifting high the cross were laughed at, considering Venice’s long history trading with Christendom’s foes. Venice would lose her military might to the Turks in battle after battle, but ultimately it was Portugal who would see the city fall from commercial dominance. Faced with the Turkic domination of the west, the closing of access to India and China, the Portuguese would find new ways east — and as the Age of Discovery dawned, Venice’s brilliant star would dim. But that’s a story for Crowley’s other book, Conquerors: How Portugal Forged the First Global Empire.
Curiously, for a century or so there existed a lovely hotel in downtown Selma modeled after the Places of the Doges in Venice. The building was destroyed in the late sixties to make room for city hall. A pox on politicians!