Serenìsima Repùblica Vèneta – the Most Serene Republic of Venice – is perhaps one of the longest existing republics we have never heard of. From 697 CE to 1797 CE, this Mediterranean Republic was the master of the waves and had a feared navy that could be hired by anyone who paid the right price. This thalassocracy grew from humble and hungry origins and occupied a pre-eminent place in European and World cultural history. Yet, popular knowledge of Venice rarely extends beyond what we have seen in James Bond movies and the occasional travel journal.
Ask any Venetian, and they will tell you the story of how Venice was first formed by the people who had run away from repeated incursions of the Germanic tribes and the Huns and settled in the marshes, the land that nobody wanted or cared for. Simply by virtue of living on the margins of land and in the water, they became experts at navigating it and building on it – even today, the streets of Venice are waterways.
They became master traders as well as masters of naval warfare. They built cities on the edges of the water – their territory was the sea and they never wandered far from it. So much so that almost all Venetian holdings were by the sea, and the few inland holdings they had were collectively called terraferma, and were governed separately.
In the First Crusade in 1096 CE, a navy of 200 Venetian ships was instrumental in the capture of Syria. In 1110 CE, a 100-ship fleet captured Sidon, gaining virtual autonomy in the Kingdom of Jerusalem. In the 12th century, Venice also was the Official Naval Provider for the Byzantine Empire, gaining immense trading power in the bargain. This resulted in a lot of resentment by the locals in Constantinople, and in 1182 CE, they rioted against the Venetians. Subsequent political developments drove the Venetians out of the city. In 1202 CE, after supporting the Fourth Crusade, the Venetians exacted their revenge by capturing and sacking Constantinople. It was during this time that the famous four bronze horses that adorn St. Mark’s Basilica were captured.
The tales of the Venetian republic are numerous, and we would be here for a long time indeed even if we picked only the choicest of them to talk about!
One interesting thing about the Venetian republic was the way they ensured no single person could accumulate too much power. There were several governing bodies, each with varying command over the treasury, the navy, and commerce. The committees varied from 10 to 2000 strong, and between them, the power was always fragmented. But to outsiders, they presented a united front, ensuring the republic lasted for 1100 years. It took the might of Napoleon’s army to finally end the republic, after which it was given to Austria in a treaty. The Venetians were livid at this, rebelling several times and once actually proclaiming the short-lived Republic of San Marco. Finally, in the Italian unification, they became part of united Italy.
Whenever we think of the word republic, we cannot think of it but in modern terms. Yet, here was this state that was contemporary with the Early Cholas as well as the Later Cholas, and continuously existed till the rise and fall of the Great Mughals – and it was a republic that was run by merchants who were also skilled in the naval arts, and it was finally replaced by a monarchy!
Picture at the top: Sala Del Maggior Consiglio – Ducale Palazzo in Venice, where the second illustration is set.