Today we're gonna talk about the strained relationship between Venice and the Byzantines, mention the Crusades and the never-ending search for legitimacy.
For those of you who want to catchup on the series so far, click here. Or if you want to just jump in, scroll on down!
A Long History: The Byzantine Pedigree
In 395 AD, the Roman Empire split in two. The eastern half became what we now call the Byzantine Empire.
As you can see, that's a lot of territory. The world changes quite a bit by the time we pick up the story of Venice--the Byzantines absorbed a lot of the East Roman empire on the Italian peninsula and then lost it piecemeal--but not before creating infrastructure that would last for centuries, timeless art and the fabled Roman Imperial infrastructure. But by 1000 AD--shortly after Venice completed breaking away from the Carolingians--the Byzantine empire looked like this:
Byzantium had lost North Africa and the Middle East, but held tight onto Greece and Anatolia--and would retain the grip on that last one until the Seljuks took it from them, leaving them only with Greece, parts of Dalmatia and Constantinople. Despite this downward trend, Byzantium was a major player in the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions, and part of the reason for this was their technological edge.
For example, in the wonderful book, RAVENNA, Judith Herrin draws the reader's attention to the harbor and docks of this city. The Byzantines used a similar technique that that Venetians used in the lagoon to build buildings in the center of the water (and the Mexica would use to great effect in building their capital, Tenochtitlan). That is to say, they would drive hundreds, thousands of stakes into the soft mud of the lagoon or bay. Once that's settled, platforms would be set atop them, and then building could begin. Basically imagine a bed of nails:
But instead of a person lying down on it, a foundation rests on the nails, and then the building is built on that. It has some parallels to the chinampa system used to create arable soil in Mesoamerica--and the systems that allowed the building of Tenochtitlan (to see my previous work on Mesoamerican history and infrastructure, click here).
This was an old technique for the Byzantines, who had kept a lot of the Roman-level infrastructure and organization in most critical fields--economics, social order, military, scale of production.
For a long time, the Byzantines enjoyed a significant technological upper hand over neighboring powers because of their age and institutional knowledge and willingness to use it to their advantage.
One of their most famous technological trump-cards over their neighbors--or at least, the most often cited in popular discourse--was the use of Greek fire--an incendiary that couldn't be quenched by water, making it devastating in naval warfare.
But there is a lot of evidence that the Byzantines had a mastery of hydraulics on an extremely high level--enough to make fantastical automata. To quote the German ambassador Liutprand, writing in 949 while visiting the Byzantines:
In front of the emperor’s throne was set up a tree of gilded bronze, its branches filled with birds, likewise made of bronze gilded over, and these emitted cries appropriate to their species. Now the emperor’s throne was made in such a cunning manner that at one moment it was down on the ground, while at another it rose higher and was to be seen up in the air. This throne was of immense size and was, as it were, guarded by lions, made either of bronze or wood covered with gold, which struck the ground with their tails and roared with open mouth and quivering tongue. Leaning on the shoulders of two eunuchs, I was brought into the emperor’s presence. As I came up the lions began to roar and the birds to twitter, each according to its kind, but I was moved neither by fear nor astonishment . . . After I had done obeisance to the Emperor by prostrating myself three times, I lifted my head, and behold! the man whom I had just seen sitting at a moderate height from the ground had now changed his vestments and was sitting as high as the ceiling of the hall.
To put it mildly, the Byzantines knew how to use their technological edges to provoke wonder as much as they did to inspire fear.
Byzantine Perspectives on Venice
Venice was a Johnny-come-lately from the Byzantine point of view. The Venetian government did their absolute best to ingratiate themselves with the Byzantines--having a dedicated presence in Constantinople (effectively, lobbyists) advocating for Venetian interests.
The Venetians adopted some Byzantine affectations (the Byzantines would say 'aped' them, doubtless) and generally did their best to advance their own interests while generally avoiding pissing off Byzantium too much. Venice might be out of the Carolingian sphere of influence, but that didn't mean that they could afford to thumb their nose at the (diminished) world power next door with impunity.
Byzantium, after all, could remember a world without Venice, but Venice had never known a world without Byzantium.
But the world was changing quite a bit around the Byzantines, and in ways they may not have anticipated.
To quote HG Wells in The Outline of History:
“The Pope of Rome was the only Western patriarch. He was the religious head of a vast region in which the ruling tongue was Latin; the other patriarchs of the Orthodox Chruch spoke Greek, and so were inaudible throughout his domains; and the two words filio que which had been added to the Latin creed, had split off the Byzantine Christians by one of those impalpable and elusive doctrinal points upon which there is no reconciliation. (The final rupture was in 1054).”
Just before the Crusades became a thing, Christendom split. While the Byzantines were involved in the First Crusade (in a manner not dissimilar to the Venetian's foot-dragging general approach which was, to put it nicely, more analogous to the approach of a disaster-capitalist than anything else), they generally stayed out of Papal decrees.
Venice's skills as a middleman were very much useful to the Byzantines--and to Catholic Europe from a trade perspective. Certainly, the Byzantine reluctance to commit to Catholic religious wars in the Middle East won them few friends in Rome.
Venice and the Crusades--Upping the Scales
Venice, true to form, used the first three Crusades to create more trade contacts--specifically with the Egyptian rulers and set up a profitable cotton route there. That is, the Venetians double-dipped: picked fights with fellow merchant republics Genoa and Pisa, helping to massacre Jews and Muslims in cities that had surrendered (like at Jerusalem and Haifa) and generally being insufferable. JJ Norwich in his History of Venice calls the Venetians "...merchants, not murderers..." which is small consolation to the victims of the Crusades.
But even by the extremely self-interested standards of the Venetian republic, the Crusades were excellent for business. The Crusades also pushed the rivalry between the merchant republics to a new pitch--which will have consequences down the line for Venice. But I digress.
By the Third Crusade ended, the concept of the Crusades was wearing a little thin, in terms of attracting popular European support. To quote HG Wells again:
“The idea of the crusades was cheapened by their too frequent and trivial use. Whenever the Pope quarreled with anyone now, or when he wished to weaken the dangerous power of the emperor by overseas exertions, he called for a crusade, until the word ceased to mean anything but an attempt to give flavour to an unpalatable war.”
The end result of this (more complicated than we have time to get into) state of affairs was that there were a lot of war-hungry Franks stomping about Europe after the Third Crusade as the year 1200 dawned, looking for a profitable foreign project. The problem was that the enthusiasm for such an endeavor was fading.
However, if these Franks could get their own fleet, they would be able to reach the Middle East no trouble. They'd be making money and conquering territory hand over fist in no time, the thinking went.
And the Byzantines had lost a lot of land--and recently--to the Seljuk Turks, ceding the majority of Anatolia to them. They were in a bad way, territory-wise. Here's what Byzantium looked like around that time:
To make matters worse for Byzantium, the war-mongering Franks enter into negotiations with the Venetians, who were even more mercenary than the average city state of that era. But more on that on the next post.
And that leaves us at the beginning of the Fourth Crusade, which takes all these things we've learned about the Byzantines--their sense of superiority, their variation of Christianity, and political--very Roman--infighting--and watch the Venetians exploit them in typically opportunistic, fiscally profitable, fashion.