Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

Venetian merchants came to control trade with the East, gaining commercial advantages as a result of the weakening and ultimate collapse of the Byzantine Empire.

Summary of Event

Venice, a city founded on a group of small islands in a lagoon at the northern end of the Adriatic, eventually became known as the Queen of the Adriatic as a result of its commercial and military control of this important body of water. From its earliest beginnings, Venice seemed destined to become an important maritime power. Geographically, Venice was located on the edge of both the Byzantine and Holy Roman Empires and became the gateway for trade for both empires. [kw]Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East (1150) [kw]Merchants Dominate Trade with the East, Venetian (1150) Trade;Venice Venice;trade Italy;1150: Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East[1930] Economics;1150: Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East[1930] Trade and commerce;1150: Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East[1930] Transportation;1150: Venetian Merchants Dominate Trade with the East[1930] Pietro II Orseolo Robert Guiscard Alexius I Comnenus Urban II John II Comnenus Manuel I Comnenus

Faced with very limited natural resources, the early Venetians earned their living fishing and participating in the fish and salt trade with the people on the Italian mainland. On rare occasions, Greek or Syrian merchants traveling to or from the nearby Byzantine cities of Ravenna and Aquilia might visit Venice, bringing with them trade goods from the East. When the Lombards, a Germanic tribe, took these cities in the eighth century, they quickly declined in importance. For a very brief time, the city of Comacchio rose to become the economic focus for the region before the Venetians took the city in 886.

Although being on the edge of the two greatest empires of the time had its advantages for Venice, it also had its perils. Pietro II Orseolo Pietro II Orseolo succeeded in balancing the Venetian interests with those of the Byzantine Byzantine Empire;Venice and and Holy Roman Empires Holy Roman Empire;Venice and without having Venice become subject to either power. The Venetians signed favorable trade treaties with both empires and were even able to sign commercial treaties with the Islamic states of North Africa. Building on their previous trade dominance in fish and salt with the mainland, the Venetians now became suppliers of incense, silks, spices, and other trade goods of the East.

Initially, Venetian trade with the Levant was in Slavic slaves and Italian lumber—two goods in ample supply. Although the slave Slavery;Europe trade would rise and fall in importance to Venice, the significance of lumber remained a mainstay of Venetian commerce. The Mediterranean-based powers all had a need for lumber, particularly for shipbuilding, and Venice was no exception. Because they possessed access to lumber, pitch, iron, and hemp, the Venetians were able to develop a very profitable shipbuilding industry and a powerful navy.

The Venetian Republic made it its business to police the Adriatic Sea to maintain its vital trade routes. By fighting Slavic pirates operating from the Dalmatian coast, the Venetians earned the respect and favor of the Byzantine emperor. It did not take many years before the Dalmatian coastal cities came to recognize Venice as their nominal lord.

Each success in the Adriatic provided the Venetians with expanded opportunities in the eastern Mediterranean. By the late eleventh century, the Byzantines were losing control of their ports in southern Italy to the Normans Normans;Venice and of Robert Guiscard Robert Guiscard while simultaneously losing territories in the East to the Seljuk Turks. The Byzantine emperor, Alexius I Comnenus Alexius I Comnenus , appealed to Venice for naval aid against the Normans. It was in the Venetian self-interest to render the requested aid because the Normans wanted to control both shores of the lower Adriatic so they could plunder Venetian shipping. The Venetians quickly saw that they could both help themselves and earn some reward from the Byzantines. Although the Venetians already had the right to trade in the Byzantine Empire as the result of a commercial treaty signed in 992, they now saw the possibility of trade with reduced tariffs. The Venetians were successful in defending Byzantine interests in the area and were not disappointed in their expectations. The emperor Alexius granted the Venetians expanded trading rights and exemption from tolls in the Golden Bull of 1082.

Having temporarily halted the Norman advance on Byzantine possessions in eastern Europe, Alexius called on Pope Urban II Urban II in 1095 for military aid against the Seljuk Turks in the East. The pope preached the First Crusade to enlist Christian support for a holy war against the Islamic Seljuk Turks. Although Venice gained some trading rights and commercial concessions from Godfrey de Bouillon, leader of the kingdom of Jerusalem, Jerusalem;Venice and most of the commercial activity in the area was in the hands of Venice’s archrivals Genoa and Pisa. In the summer of 1123, Venice was able to deepen its relationship with the kingdom of Jerusalem when a Venetian fleet defeated a Muslim fleet at the Battle of Ascalon Ascalon, Battle of (1123) . This naval engagement ensured Christian control of the seacoast for the kingdom of Jerusalem for another generation.

Although the Byzantines regularly enlisted the aid of Venice against their enemies, they were never entirely happy about their relative relationship. Despite the successful Venetian efforts on behalf of the Byzantines against the Normans of southern Italy, the emperor Alexius began to show favor to Pisa in an effort to undermine Venice in the Adriatic and to play off one Italian maritime power against the other. In 1118, Alexius died and the new emperor John II Comnenus John II Comnenus refused to renew the charter granting Venice commercial concessions. Although they hoped to sow the seeds of war among the competing Italian maritime states, the Byzantines overestimated their own importance to the Italians. Pisa and Genoa were more concerned at that time with their respective territorial claims to Corsica (which was certainly geographically more important to them) than with any Byzantine commercial prize in the East. To force the Byzantines to recognize their rights, the Venetians sacked a number of Greek islands and cities of the Aegean. Grudgingly, the Byzantines renewed their commercial ties with Venice.

Despite the Byzantine efforts to disrupt Venetian trade, the primary Venetian goal throughout this period was to maintain official trade relations with the Byzantine Empire rather than to resort to opportunistic plundering. The Venetians were more interested in maintaining the Byzantine Empire as a state than in seeing its collapse. There were, however, problems ahead for both peoples. The Greeks were increasingly irritated and unhappy because of Italian trade privileges in general and the Venetian concessions in particular. The Venetians were increasingly contemptuous of the Greeks because of their obvious political and military weaknesses.

In 1171, the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus Manuel I Comnenus ordered the arrest of all Venetians in the Byzantine Empire and the confiscation of their possessions and properties. The Venetians sent a fleet to the Aegean to plunder the Greek possessions to force the Byzantines to release their compatriots and restore their property. In this instance, the Venetians not only were unsuccessful but also returned to Venice carrying a plague that infected the city.


When the Byzantines finally allowed the Venetians to renew their commercial concession, it was on a new, nonexclusive basis. The Venetians became just one of a number of Italian states given trade rights in the Byzantine Empire. By the end of the twelfth century, piracy became the rule rather than the exception, and the Byzantine Empire was now preyed on by the Genoese, Pisans, Muslims, Greeks, Saracens, Sicilian Normans, and the Venetians. From the Venetian perspective, the collapse of the Byzantine Empire was inevitable and imminent. Within this context, Venetian involvement in the Fourth Crusade and the overthrow of the Byzantine government becomes understandable.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Cheetham, Nicolas. Mediaeval Greece. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1981. This history of Greece during the Middle Ages reflects contemporary scholarship and provides a clear account of the political, military, cultural, and religious turmoil in medieval Greece.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lane, Frederic C. Venice: A Maritime Republic. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973. Written by one of the world’s leading authorities, this is the classic reference work for a quick topical overview of the subject.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mango, Cyril, ed. The Oxford History of Byzantium. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Among the topics covered in the fragmentation experienced by the Byzantine Empire in the Middle Ages. Bibliography and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Norwich, John Julius. A History of Venice. 1982. Reprint. New York: Vintage Books, 1989. The author, a noted British scholar, takes a detailed and chronological approach to Venetian history that is both interesting and colorful.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Treadgold, Warren T. A History of the Byzantine State and Society. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1997. Describes the Byzantine Empire throughout its history, including the period during which it interacted with Venice. Bibliography and index.

Categories: History