The Venetians came to the Aegean in their effort to expand their business activities. Their choice to travel east was determined by the reality of the era. Constantinople was the metropolis at the center of all the important business networks. Therefore, the initial involvement of the Venetians in the crusades, aiming to establish business monopolies in the East, turned to a campaign for the control of Constantinople.
2. Before 1204
The Venetians, some times acting as Byzantine subjects and sometimes as an independent force, were distinguished as the greatest naval force in the north and central Adriatic Sea. In 992, by trading in their services towards Byzantium, they gained the first business privileges. However, their presence in the South Adriatic Sea and the Ionian Sea was established when they joined forces with the Byzantine Empire and contributed significantly to the naval successes in Dirrachio and Corfu, against the Noraman Robert Guiscard. In exchange, the emperor Alexios I Komnenos, with a (1082) gave them the right to trade in the Aegean and the Ionian, also relieving them of taxes.
Around 1100, the Venetians started traveling in the Aegean and the Eastern Mediterranean, in general. Maintaining great flexibility in the means used to accomplish their goals, the Venetians were shifting between the roles of the ally or the opponent of Byzantium, as well as the roles of the merchant and the pirate. In 1118, when John II Komnenos refused to renew their trading privileges, they invaded the Aegean islands and looted them, until they convinced the emperor to change his mind. In 1148, they were allies to Byzantium, until the Normans tried to march to Constantinople for the second time. The Aegean was the required bridgehead for access to the Black Sea, Cyprus and the Middle East and the commerce of Constantinople. The collapse of the Byzantine navy facilitated their infiltration.
3. After 1204
The peculiar alliance between the Byzantines and the Venetians continued until 1203, when the crusaders and the Venetians camped outside the walls of Constantinople and occupied the city in the following year. With the treaty for the allocation of the empire’s territories which followed (Partitio terrarum imperii Romaniae), the Venetians owned 3/8 of the Byzantine Empire’s territory. Of course, one city of hardly more than 100,000 population could not conquer and control all these territories. The Venetians’ attention turned to the most commercially important ports and to Crete. During the period following the siege of Constantinople, the Venetians controlled Koroni, Methoni and Negreponte (Chalkida). In 1207, they occupied Handakas in Crete and banished the Genoeses in 1211, when the island finally started to be inhabited – a process that was completed in 1252. The land and the villages were given to the colonists in exchange to a feudal obligation towards the doge.
In Crete, the Venetians had to deal with a series of reactions, when the old landowners lost their land and their privileges. They compromised by allowing many of them to keep their property.
Venice remained focused in trying to gain ports-naval stations, which would facilitate its business activities and for that reason, it occupied Oreos, Karistos, Nafplio, Monemvasia, Thessaloniki, Tenedos, Aegina, Mykonos, Patras, Kos, Navarino, Nafpaktos. The greatest part of this mission was assigned to private citizens, most importantly Marco Sanudo, who in 1207 occupied Naxos and became Duke of the Aegean or of Naxos, having under his immediate control Paros, Naxos, Antiparos, Kimolos, Milos, Amorgos, Ios, Kithnos, Sikinos, Sifnos and Syros. Marino Dandolo occupied Andros and maintained it subordinate to Sanudo. With the same terms, Leonardo Foscolo occupied Anafi, Jacopo Barozzi occupied Santorini, and the Quirini family occupied Astypalaia. The brothers Andreas and Jeremiah Gyzis became lords of Tinos, Mykonos, Skiros, Skopelos, Skiathos, Serifos and Kea. Marco Venieri stayed in Kythira and the Viari family in Antikythira. The Kornaros family occupied Karpathos for some periods of time.
The dynasties that ruled the islands changed, in the passing of time, without altering the status of relations with Venice. The end date of their presence in the Aegean was 1566, when the islands finally passed into ottoman sovereignty, while a subordination period had passed (1537-1566). Crete (1211-1669), Tinos (1390-1715) and Kythira (1364-1797) remained under British administration. Since 1453, the main opponent of Venice in the East Mediterranean was the Ottoman Empire.
4. Life with the Venetians
In the areas under their immediate control, the Venetians established an administration system that was similar to the one in their own city. An official was the head of the administration (the titles differed per area), usually aided by two counselors. They were assisted by a secretariat (cancelleria), judicial and executive institutions and councils, in which members of the supreme social group participated. Land ownership determined whether one would be included in the dominant social group, as well as heredity and proven urban capacity. Social discrimination was common to all the areas under the control of Venice and Venetian families. The differences in the religious dogma and the cultural background resulted in the creation of social elites, which also survived during the ottoman occupation (e.g. in Naxos and Santorini).
An important part of the Venetian presence in the Aegean was the peculiar status of subordination that they imposed to the island population. In the essentially uncontrolled area of the Aegean, the Venetian fleet, when the Ottomans were dominant, was receiving a subordination tax from the local societies, a fact mentioned in the portolani and the island books of the 16th and 17th century, as information for each island.
The presence of the Venetians in the Aegean Sea brought about two new elements, which changed the people’s perspective. With the commerce and the consequent demand for commercial products (mostly wine and oil in the Aegean), the islands and the coastline were included in the international commerce network. The ottoman conquest did not put a stop to the international perspectives that were significantly enforced at the end of the 17th century.
The second great change, which was brought about by the presence of the Venetians in the Aegean, was the fact that the population of this geographical area was acquainted with the Italian renaissance. The Greek fraternity in Venice was the most important channel for the dissemination of the –then– printed Greek literature, ancient or modern.
5. Fights for domination in the Aegean
The presence and the activities of the Venetians in the Aegean endured for a long period of time, from the 11th to the 18th cent., which can be divided in four phases.
The first phase is dated up to 1204 and concerns the installation and the activation of Venetian merchants in Byzantium.
The second phase is closely related to the establishment of the Latin Empire of Constantinople 1204-1261, which was supported by the doges. They also took advantage of the Empire, in order to increase their influence in the wider region of the Aegean and the Black Sea. In this period the Republic of Venice imposed its domination in the Aegean, which was turned into a Venetian lagoon. It is worth mentioning that the Venetians referred to their possessions in the central and southern Aegean by calling it, rather ambitiously, “Archipelago”. The central Venetian administration gained the suzerainty on Crete while they obtained the commercial monopoly in Constantinople and the Black Sea. The Venetians controlled the Aegean administratively and commercially, based on a complex and well organised network of tributary local sovereigns.
The third phase is dated conventionally from the middle 13th cent. to the end of the 14th. The starting-point could be 1261, the year of recapturing Constantinople, and as an end 1381, when the fourth and last war between Venice and Genoa was terminated. It is characterised by the intense rivalry between the two Italian cities Venice and the Genoa for the control of the sea trade. Genoa, which had appeared after Venice in the markets of the East and had lost its privileges during the period of the Latin Empire of Constantinople, allied with the Empire of Nicaea with a common cause to recapture the Byzantine capital. Consequently, Genoa ensured an important role in the Byzantine markets to the Venetian disadvantage. The rivalry between the two cities led to an armed confrontation. In the years 1258-1381 four wars took place. Actually, some of the cruelest naval battles were fought in the Aegean, e.g. the naval battle at Spetsopoula in 1263 and at the Castle near Chalkis in 1350. In the final battle of Chioggia, fought near the lagoon of Venice, the Most Serene Republic of Venice was victorious.
The confrontation resulted not only in changes in the governing of the Republic, which became more oligarchic, but also Venice acquired the elements of a real naval hegemony, or as it may be called of an Empire. Regarding the Archipelago Genoa maintained its supremacy in the north-eastern Aegean with Chios as a base, while Venice, with Crete as a base dominated the Cyclades and the west coast. However, it is remarkable that as far as trade is concerned, certain coordinated actions and collaborations between the two competitive forces are evident. In military level, Venice and Genoa did not succeed in overpowering one another. Similar phenomena of confrontation between equivalent rivals occurred in mainland Greece between the various Frankish states.
The last phase of the Venetian presence in the Aegean is connected with the conflicts with the Ottoman Empire. The beginning is considered to be the systematic effort for organising the defence in the Aegean region towards the end of the 14th cent. Since 1377 the castles of Nafplio and Argos were under Venetian control. The Venetians, in many instances undertook the maintenance of the castles and the organisation of the defence for the local sovereigns, thus altering those cities into protectorates, presuming that in this way they could also stop the efforts of certain Genoese adventurers for temporary conquests. The commercial bases of the Venetians in the Aegean constituted centres of intense trade activity and prosperity. The central Ottoman administration aimed at their annexation and the ensuring of political cohesion in order to carry out its expansive plans. The confrontation of the two Empires was judged in six critical wars (1463-79, 1499-1502, 1537-40, 1644-69, 1684-89, 1715-18). Venice in general participated and played a leading part in various political formations, for instance with the Hungarians and with the Knights of St. John, and led military initiatives similar to crusades, with the analogous ideological covering. Until the middle 16 cent., the doges had gradually lost control over the islands of the Aegean and focused on preserving their domination in Peloponnese and Crete. With the Treaty of Pasarovits in 1718 Venice lost all her possessions in the Greek area, with the exception of the Ionian Islands until 1797.
6. Commerce in the Aegean and the role of the Venetians
Commerce was of great importance to the West and the Byzantine Empire alike. Since the 13 century, mainly from the first quarter of the 14th cent., Byzantium and the Aegean in particular, were transformed into a hinterland of the Italian markets. The leading role was played by the Venetian merchants who had been installed in Constantinople. They managed to organise a network of agents and consuls, who were responsible for regular sea contacts. Every year, in the Spring and the Autumn, the ships began their journey from the East to the West and the reverse route, with basic intermediary ports Chalkis, Crete, Methoni and Koroni, “the watchful eyes of the Most Serene Rebuplic of Venice”. These journeys were called muda and lasted for about eight weeks. Trading luxurious merchandise from the East was particularly lucrative: spices and luxury articles. Commercial activities between the Aegean and the Italian countries were of equal importance. The exports generally concerned raw materials as well as agricultural products, while the imports were products manufactured in the industries of the West. The Venetians for instance, preferred the soap made with olive oil and had developed both its production and trade. The written sources mention the commercial relations maintained with the Turkish emirates in West Asia Minor, where they sold soap and bought slaves, cereals, horses, hides and alumen. Buying and selling slaves was another source of income for the Venetians and the Genoese.
Of course, the struggle for greater influence never ceased, but in the periods of peace the rivals made an effort to unify the weights and measures, the currencies and the practices of trade: credits, loads and contracts. It is worth mentioning that in the 14th century, despite the intense political partition in the Aegean, a well organised commercial collaboration among all the protagonists is evident.
The Aegean was of particular importance in the commercial activities of the Venetians, who minted special currency of small value, the tornesello, aiming at prevailing in the market of the Archipelago, while the gold ducats was the coin of reference, competing the Byzantine hyperpyra.
The most important “commodity” the Aegean offered to the Venetians and Genoese, was its role in transit trade, which was considerably upgraded in the commerce between East and West after the loss of Akras in 1291 and the Mongolian conquests in the early 13th cent. It was in this period when the trading posts of Kafa (Genoese) and Tana (Venetian) in the Black Sea acquired great importance. Many scholars underline the fact that the Black Sea was actually the extension of the Aegean for the international medieval trade.
Venice initially was not interested in the possession of wider territories, but mainly of islands or coastal cities which could be useful as posts for supply and key-locations for the transit trade with the East and the maintenance of domination on the sea routes. The cities and the harbours also functioned as centres of trade with the local market of the hinterland, exporting mainly raw materials to the West and importing luxury articles and artifacts. However, the position of the Venetian Republic in the international trade changed after the end of the 15th century with the geographical discoveries and was shaken due to the appearance of new naval forces (England, France, Holland) after the end of the 16th cent.. During the 17th century, Venetian commercial activity declined completely. At the same time, the Venetians turned to the exploitation of agricultural production to provide fro the basic products for their metropolis.
(Gentcho Banev - Eleni Petraka)