1. The creation of the Duchy of the Aegean
Venice acquired important gains out of the demolition of the Byzantine Empire in 1204 and, having played a major role in the conquest of Constantinople, received, at least nominally, according to the treaty for the distribution of the Byzantine lands with her Frank allies, the famous Partitio Terarrum Imperii Romanie, the right to annex three eights of the Byzantine state. The interest of the Most Serene Democracy of Saint Mark for Greece and more precisely for the wider area of the Aegean Archipelago was manifested much earlier (as early as the 10th century) and concerned Venice’s aims in acquiring naval bases for the development of her sea trade and the control of the great sea routes, on the one hand towards Constantinople and the Black Sea, on the other hand towards Cyprus and the Levant. The islands of the Archipelago were distributed according to the Partitio between the Latin emperor of Constantinople (Limnos, Skyros, Chios, Samos, Kos, Samothraki and Tinos), the crusaders (the Dodecanese except Rhodes, the greatest part of the Cyclades and the Sporades) and Venice (Andros, Aegina, Salamina) but their conquest was not yet over, since the whole operation would have a great cost. Furthermore, the Latin emperor, as well as Venice, was occupied with other military operations. Nevertheless, the demanding need for the islands’ conquest, since most of them were transformed into pirate lairs, forced Venice to authorize some of her subjects to try to conquer them by their own means, provided they would afterwards recognize the suzerainty of the Latin emperor and maintain friendly relations with him.
To this call from Venice the military man Marco Sanudo, nephew of the duke of Venice Enrico Dandolo, who had participated in the 4th Crusade, corresponded. Sanudo, promising fiefs to various, mainly of Venetian origin, nobles and adventurers, conquered between 1204 and 1207 Naxos and later the rest of the Cycladic islands. The second Latin emperor of Constantinople, Henry of Flanders (1206-1216) entrusted him with the administration of the islands he conquered, promoting them into a duchy. This way Marco Sanudo, acquiring the title of the duke of the Aegean or the Archipelago (duce dell’ Egeopalagi, duca dell’ Archipelago) took command of that duchy, which, apart the island of Naxos, included also the islands Paros, Antiparos, Milos, Ios, Kythnos, Amorgos, Kimolos, Sifnos, Sikinos, Syros and Folegandros.
The rest of the islands conquered by Sanudo were given to his Venetian comrades, as a payment for their participation in military actions, resulting into the subdivision of the insular group of the Cyclades into various small Latin hegemonies. More specifically, Marino Sanudo, nephew of the duke of Venice and Marco’s cousin, took Andros as a fief, the Ghisi brothers Tinos, Mykonos, Kea and Serifos (they also conquered the islands of the Northern Sporades, Skyros and a small part of Euboea), the Barozzi took Santorini and Leonarfo Foscolo Anafi. All the abovementioned local lords received authority over the islands of the Cyclades as Marco Sanudo’s vassals.
2. Power and suzerainty in the Duchy of the Aegean
Marco Sanudo, although he kept his strong links with Venice, was not willing to recognize any suzerainty of the Serenissima, but preferred to keep the islands of the Cyclades as his personal feud, by recognizing the authority of the Latin emperor of Constantinople only. The suzerainty of the Latin emperor lasted until 1248, when it was transferred to the Villehardouins, the Frank rulers of Peloponnesus, while in 1278 it passed in the hands of the Anjou of Sicily, who took control of the Frankish Peloponnesus and consequently the suzerainty on the Cyclades.
Venice, although never recognized as the real suzerain of the Duchy, never stopped her efforts to control the islands of the Cyclades by any mean. Furthermore, the Venetian origins of the rulers of the Duchy made the Serenissima a very important factor. Therefore, a peculiar regime was developed in the Cyclades, according to which the rulers of the islands maintained their autonomy as vassals of the Franks, while at the same time they were under the immediate influence and protection of Venice, who, in periods of severe crisis, did not hesitated in occupying temporarily some of these islands, resuming their administration herself.
The dynasty founded by Marco Sanudo lasted until 1383, when control of the Duchy was taken by the Crispo family until 1566, the year of the demolition of the Duchy by the Ottomans.
3. Constitutional frame and social relations inside the Duchy of the Aegean
Marco Sanudo set the capital of his insular little state in the nowadays capital of Naxos, Chora, which he rebuilt according to medieval models. For the city’s security he made sure to erect on its top, on the site of the ancient acropolis, a strong pentagonal castle with an equal number of round towers on its corners, which gradually became twelve. At the inside of the castle he built his palaces, as well as the catholic cathedral. Furthermore, he fortified the city harbour, while he also built shipsheds for the galleys of his fleet, as well as a pier to facilitate the ships’ anchoring.
The founder of the Duchy applied the feudal system in the islands of Cyclades, dividing his dominion into fiefs, which he distributed to western settlers as a compensation for their military or administration services or against a suzerainty tax. These local lords occupied large tracks of land and had important rights on it, as well as on the farmers. Marco Sanudo’s successors, applying a policy of reconciliation with the indigenous population, ceded fiefs not only to the Latin settlers of the islands, but also to some indigenous inhabitants, even to some belonging in lower social classes, thus incorporating them in the hierarchy of their feudal system. The institution of feudalism, although adapted to the specific conditions of the Cyclades, was hard to bear for the greater part of the rural population. Feudalism became deeply rooted in the islands of the Cyclades and continued influencing parts of social and financial life even after the conquest of the islands by the Ottomans in 1566.
Marco Sanudo founded a Latin archbishopric in Naxos, comprising the dioceses of Melos, Santorini, Tenos and Syros. He himself seems to have followed a liberal church policy (although some scholars have expressed a different view). His successors, nevertheless, sought to impose the Latin dogma on the local population, putting aside the Orthodox clergy and thus resulting into disturbing the relations between the two religious communities. Religion was the main criterion dividing the Orthodox inhabitants of the Cycladic islands and the Catholics. This religious discretion became the basis for social hierarchy also, in a great extent. Under these conditions, many were the Orthodox who adhered to Catholicism. On the other hand, the great number of decorated temples of this period, scattered around the countryside of the Cyclades -mainly Naxos- following the Byzantine artistic tradition in their architecture and religious iconography, testimony, according to most of the researchers, the reaction of a part of the local population against the Latin conquest and the effort to preserve their Orthodox religion.
4. Borders of the Duchy of the Aegean
The borders of the Duchy of the Aegean would often change during its long historical life (1207-1566), either due to the loss of islands originally belonging to the dominion of Marco Sanudo, either with the annexation of other islands, inherited as fiefs by his comrades. Thus, for example, Sifnos remained a part of the Duchy until 1279, when it was occupied for a short period, until 1307, by the Byzantine Empire, whereas later it became a part of the Da Corogna until 1464 and then of the Gozzadini dynasties until 1617. Andros, the second larger island of the Cyclades, initially ceded as a fief to Marino Dandolo, collaborator of Marco Sanudo, came into the hands, after Dandolo’s death in 1233, of the Ghisi family (1233-1250), who already possessed Tinos, Mykonos, Kea and Serifos, while later it came under the jurisdiction of the Duchy of the Archipelago for a long period (1250-1384); in 1384 the Venetian Zeni family (1384-1437) took control of the island, while a bit later they were substituted by the Veronese Sommaripa family (1440-1566). Santorini, to mention another example, remained in the hands of the Barozzi family from 1207 until 1335 (with the exception of the years 1269-1296 when it was recaptured by Michael VIII Palaiologos), whereas in the middle of the 14th century, in 1355, it was retaken by the Duchy of the Aegean until 1566, except for a decade under the control of the Pisani family (1477-1487). Similar changes are noted in the regimes of the rest of the Cycladic islands.
5. The constant warfare
The Duchy of the Archipelago, given its important geographic and strategic position, was the target of the powers which had interests in the Aegean: the Byzantine Empire, Genoa, the Catalans and mainly the Ottoman Empire, being also the theatre of the conflicts between Venice and her opponents also.
In the late 13th century, Marco Sanudo II (1262-1303), grandson of the founder of the Duchy, faced the forces of the regenerated Byzantine Empire of Michael VIII Palaiologos. Michael managed to occupy some of the islands of the Cyclades mostly with the aid of the Lombardian knight Likarius, who, between 1276 and 1279, took from the Venetians almost the whole of Euboea and then a great number of the Aegean islands. The reaction of Venice, however, was immediate and the Byzantine control over the Cycladic islands was terminated for good with the treaty of 1310.
Since the early 14th century the presence of the Turks is becoming more and more imminent in the Aegean. The constant Turkish attacks, usually with the form of piratical raids, would often force the dukes to form alliances with the Knights Hospitallers of Rhodes, with the Palaiologoi and other Christian rulers to face the common enemy.
The situation in the islands of the Cyclades favored the development of piracy. Since the 14th century onwards, the Catalans would also launch raids in the Cyclades, gaining great profits, mostly thanks to the slave trade.
The Ottoman presence in the Cyclades will be more threatening during the 15th century, especially after the conquest of Constantinople by Mohamed II in 1453, when the Crispi family ruled the Duchy (1383-1566). After the fall of Mystras in 1460, Lesvos in 1462 and Euboea in 1470, the conquest of the Cyclades by the Ottomans was just a matter of time, notwithstanding Venice’s efforts to preserve its commerce interests in the area with continuous wars. The condition of the Duchy was severed due to the constant raids against the islands and the successive wars.
6. Ottoman conquest and demolition of the Duchy of the Aegean
The beginning of the 3rd war between Venice and Turkey (1537-1540) marked the demolition of all Latin feudal dominions in the Aegean. In 1537 corsair Hayreddin Barbarossa sacked and conquered most of the islands of the Cyclades on behalf of the Ottomans. The duke of Naxos Ioannes IV Crispo (1517-1564) was forced to capitulate but kept his position with the obligation of paying an annual vassalage tax to the sultan. The heavy taxes imposed by Ioannes’ successor, Jacobo IV Crispo (1564-1566) brought the discontent of the inhabitants of Naxos, who asked sultan Selim II to deliver them from him. Thus, in 1566, the Ottoman dignitary Piali Kapoudan pasa sailed to the Cyclades and occupied Naxos without any resistance, ending the long history of the Duchy.
In the same year sultan Salim II gave the administration of the islands comprising the Duchy of the Aegean to the Jew Josef Nasi. After Nasi’s death in 1579 the islands became a full part of the Ottoman administrative system. Meanwhile, the Ottomans offered to many of them a privilege regime, which favored the development of their community institutions.The Ottoman occupation of the area will be concluded a few years later, in 1617, with the conquest of the Latin-controlled islands of the western Cyclades, Sifnos, Sikinos, Kythnos and Folegandros, which belonged to the Gozzadini family from Bologna (the Gozzadinis had managed to regain these islands in 1571), as well as the conquest of Kimolos, the only island still in the hands of the Crispi family. Out of the Cyclades only Tenos was left out of the Ottoman control and remained in the hands of the Venetians until 1715.