When we last discussed Venice, it was transforming from a local sea power of separate island communities into a trading power that spread all over the Mediterranean. Officially it was an autonomous province of the Byzantine Empire but “Officially” in this case meant “Not really.” Venice could now do what it wanted to do and that was get rich.
To understand Venetian history you have to understand the Venetian mind set. Right now, we are set square in the dark ages, the tenth century. (that means the 900’s btw) While the rest of Europe is wallowing in filth, poverty, disease and ignorance, Venice was a Democratic Republic that was rich and quite happy. The rest of Europe had armed thugs they called “kings” but Venice had a “Doge.” A doge is similar to an American president. He’s elected and has very limited power. In fact, the Venetians were so anti-tryant that they mistrusted and disliked anyone that had a cult of personality, was too charismatic or thought too highly of himself. They thought a single strong leader was a great danger to their individual liberties. (they were right, you know.) As a result, most of the doge’s in Venetian history go down quite unremembered. That was how they liked it. If a doge tried to get around the law or their Senate, that doge was usually quickly (and violently) removed. The people didn’t have a impeaching power, but they did have swords, crossbows and a strong 2nd amendment type liberty. It was the duty of every male citizen to learn to use the crossbow in defense of Venice. Often civilian sailors had to go to war in times of great danger. That’s like if America called up all its truckers to go fight.
Okay, to show you all of this in action, I’ll start at the year 900. Venice had just defeated a whole invasion by Magyars (Hungarians) and had fortified the islands of the Rialto. They felt pretty good about themselves. They had a long period of peace with four doges of the same family all named Pietro. (sometimes Venetians could be unimaginative)
The only real problem they faced were a few Slavic barbarian pirates. If there was one thing Venice hated above all else, it was pirates. They detested pirates more than anything because pirates interfered with trade and that meant they messed with their bank accounts. Never mess with a Venetian’s bank account.
Now its the year 942 and the third Pietro is Doge. However, his son, Pietro, was a rich spoiled little brat that caused nothing but problems, riots, occupying St. Mark’s square, and throwing bottles at riot cops. Well, the people had had enough of this spoiled jerk and banished him. Instead of going off to live at the expense of some foriegn noble like most banished people do, he went off and became a “military contractor” and then stepped up his game and became a pirate. Needless to say that this didn’t make his dad very happy. Eventually papa died and due to vague promises and catchy slogans, Pietro IV was elected Doge! The former rebel/mercenary/pirate was now Doge.
Now, there were a few things the Venetians expected of their Doge’s. One: fiscal responsibility. They had to make the Republic rich. Two: they had to be morally straight like a boyscout. Three: they had to be patriots and respect the Republican form of government. Our young Pietro was none of these things.
Instead of making money, he spent it like a drunk sailor in Vegas. He ignored his responsibilities and lived the vida loca. He governed more like a Medieval king than an elected servant of the people. Then he went off and married a Lombard wife from the Italian mainland and got all her feudal lands as a wedding gift. Owning these lands technically made him a vassal of the German emperor. The Venetians really didn’t like their doge acting like a feudal lord, let alone one that was under the authority of the Germans. As if that wasn’t enough, he made his son the bishop of Torcello and gave him a bunch of Venetian land as his personal property and basically was as corrupt as anyone could be.
So, now he was the tyrant of both state and the church. He thought he was invincible and ignored the approval ratings in the poles.
Eventually some Italians began attacking his new lands in Italy and he said “Hey, you lazy Venetians, go fight for my land over there! Why? Because I said so!”
This was the last freaking straw. The people rioted and attacked the Doge’s palace. Back then it was more like a fort than the one that stands today so they didn’t quite get in, so they began to set fire to all the buildings around the palace and caused the flames to catch the palace on fire. When the Doge tried to escape, they caught him. He promised to do better but they were having none of it. They stabbed him a bunch of times and threw him in the canal. Then they dragged his body to a butchery and were about to put him in the shredder when one nice guy said, “Hey, that’s kinda…um…wrong. He’s dead already guys.” So they just threw him in the dirt instead. That’s a Venetian impeachment right there.
The next Doge was a saint. Literally. He was the only Doge and the only democratically elected official to ever become a saint. His name was Pietro. (that’s the 5th Pietro) He gave his own money to help rebuild Venice and restore their credit rating. However, he raised taxes so the Venetians threw him out. He was followed by several lame and deservedly forgettable Doge’s until the end of the century.
Well, eventually the Venetians looked around for one person that wasn’t corrupt and busy with inside trading. They found a 13 year old boy, named Pietro. (okay, I lost track of how many Pietros were here.) This looks like a pretty idiotic move, right? Electing a 13 year old as president? Well, it turns out they couldn’t have made a better choice because Pietro here was awesome at pretty much anything he tried. He sent a fleet after the pirates. Done. Pirates defeated and the seas were safe again. Byzantine Empire giving them the cold shoulder? Marry his son to the Byzantine princess. Now they were inviting each other over for Thanksgiving. Germans getting greedy and wanting everything south of the Alps? Promise them use of the Venetian Navy. Instant friends.
Then another problem arose. Saracens in Sicily were using the island as a navel base to launch attacks all over. Instead of launching a crusade, he opened trade with them and became friends. (much more money to be made than with a crusade.)
Then the pirates came back and he sent another fleet after them.
At the time the Pirates were attacking towns that technically belonged to Byzantium, but they were too far away and semi-independent and didn’t expect the Empire to come to their aid, so they sent out the bat signal for Venice. Venice came, swooping in with a big cape with the Lion of St. Mark on it and kicked the pirates out. The Doge himself sailed out to fight the pirates. As a result, Venice gained control of the Eastern part of the Adriatic. Not bad.
The tenth century could have ended really badly for the Republic thanks to a bunch of corrupt idiots that cared more about themselves than the Republic. But, thanks to one smart 13 year old kid, (he did grow quickly though) the Republic found itself more prosperous than ever.
Stay tuned for the next exciting chapter, same Venetian time, same Venetian channel.