By the end of the 13th century, the maritime empire created by the Italian city-state of Venice had arguably become the greatest Mediterranean power since Rome. Venice dominated trade between Europe and Asia. Its influence extended from the city proper, at the western edge of the old Byzantine Empire, to the eastern Mediterranean and the Black Sea. Roughly two centuries later, however, the Venetian Empire—the Stato da Màr—had started to decline. Although the city retained its independence for another 300 years, it became strategically irrelevant in the larger scheme of things.
The rise and fall of Venice has by and large escaped close study by students of strategy. Of all the possible contenders for empire at the beginning of the second millennium A.D., why did the Venetians enjoy this degree of success? Although the empire by historical standards had a great run, we are compelled to inquire about the reasons for its decline and extinction—was this the inevitable product of historical or material forces beyond human control, or the result of avoidable political and military missteps?
Roger Crowley’s recent popular account, City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, has brought the story to the general reading public. Crowley tells a colorful tale of blind doges (the chief magistrate of the republic), plagues, pirates, sea battles, and diplomatic intrigue. Crowley’s Venice is a state—really a fiscal machine—run by and for entrepreneurs, the scheming Venetians always on the look out for the main chance. The ultimate fate of the empire, Crowley suggests, was that of all exploitative colonial regimes. He warns about the vulnerabilities of far-flung possessions linked by sea power and of a business model become suddenly obsolete.
The debate over the reasons for the rise and fall of great powers is a hardy perennial for Americans, especially at times of national anxiety over our domestic health and our place in the world. (See Robert Kagan’s new book, The World America Made, and the widespread concern that it has triggered.) Today we wonder if we are in terminal decline, weighted down by our own far-flung vulnerable strategic infrastructure, which appears ripe to be supplanted by a reinvigorated Chinese civilization—just as we feared the economic juggernauts of Japan and Germany during the 1980s, OPEC during the 1970s, and the Soviet military-ideological threat throughout the Cold War. To state the problem this way is not to say that past threats were exaggerated (although some surely were) or that we are destined to triumph in the future. Nor is it to argue that American global primacy is forever a necessary or sufficient condition for the more perfect Union to which we ultimately aspire.
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Nevertheless, at least for the moment, “it is what it is,” as Tiger Woods likes to say. So we might usefully study cases like Venice to glean whatever insights we can about the nature of hegemonic or—to use the politically incorrect term—imperial rule. Here, we can turn with profit to Great Powers and Geopolitical Change (2006) by Professor Jakub Grygiel of the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies, at Johns Hopkins University. Grygiel looks at the histories of Venice, the Ottoman Empire, and Ming China in the global 15th century. These great powers both created and were confronted with dramatic changes in geopolitics, as new means of transportation and trade routes and continents were discovered. Grygiel concludes that, in each case, successful strategic adaptation to geographical features, particularly lines of communication, was the most critical factor in establishing and maintaining a dominant position in the international arena.
Experts on Medieval Europe and the Mediterranean might quarrel with particular aspects of Grygiel’s understanding of the Venetian history. Nevertheless, in much the same way as Edward Luttwak’s The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire(1976), Grygiel informs by posing the right questions. His conclusions about Venetian imperial overstretch differ from those of Crowley, particularly in regards to the character of the gap between resources and commitments.
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To make a long story short, Venice rose to great power status because its foreign policy made full use of the city’s advantageous location and resource base. Grygiel acknowledges that geography cannot explain completely the grand strategy of Venice:
The commercial and adventurous spirit of the small Venetian population, their capacity to increase their wealth rapidly, their renowned diplomatic genius, and the stability of their domestic institutions all help to explain the success of this empire. Similarly, the weakening Byzantium, coupled with the confusing political situation in Italy, provided the setting for Venice to develop and expand.
That said, Venice had a strategic choice—it could have focused its political attention on the nearer territories of Italy and Central Europe, as did many of its neighbors. Instead, it expanded definitively toward the eastern Mediterranean.
Venice’s insular geographic location in Italy, and its access to critical resources, made this possible. Rialto, the main island of the city of Venice, was separated from the mainland by a few miles of water, which served to protect the islands from assaults from the mainland. On the eastern side, long sand bars protected the lagoon from storms and from seaborne invasion from the Adriatic. The Venetians reinforced these natural defenses by planting trees and building forts.
Grygiel points out that its insular location allowed Venice to detach itself from the complicated and deadly politics of the Italian mainland. To be sure, it had to exert some control over adjacent terraferma in order to maintain access to the internal Italian markets, prevent the rise of naval threats in the Adriatic, and guarantee an uninterrupted supply of foodstuffs and fresh water to the city. Venice also exercised some control over cities like Ravenna and Cervia to prevent them from developing competing shipbuilding and salt industries. Venice skillfully played the balance of power game to keep Milan, Florence, the Pontifical State, and other Italian powers at a distance, without becoming involved in entangling alliances or fighting on the mainland. “This low ‘border pressure’ allowed Venice to concentrate its resources on distant regions,” Grygiel argues. “A grand strategy that transcended the lagoons, the Adriatic Sea, and even the Mediterranean would not have been possible without this fundamental geopolitical reality.”
Venice had two other distinct geopolitical advantages. First, it had easy access to two vital natural resources, salt (available locally) and timber (around the lagoons, on the slope of the Alps, and on the Dalmatian coast). Second, it found itself on the strategic frontier between Western Europe and the Byzantine Empire (later between Western Europe and the Ottoman Empire). Venice was situated at the terminus of the key trade route from the East (i.e. Asia), the northern Adriatic, which was the most viable point of access to the European markets for Eastern goods. By serving as an intermediary, Venice gained not only immense wealth but also political leverage over powers much larger than itself.
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Venice was by no means a passive intermediary, however. To protect its trade routes, Venice developed a system of bases and allies eastward, following clear geographic objectives that accorded with the naval technology of the time. An uninterrupted string of secure bases was necessary to make sea travel safe and regular for the commercial vessels of the day, which typically hugged the coastline. This entailed imperial expansion in four geostrategic steps, which took place between 1000 and 1204 A.D.: the establishment of control over the Gulf of Venice, the conquest of Dalmatia, the security of Corfu and the entrance to the Adriatic, and the extension of control over Constantinople and the eastern Mediterranean.
Thereafter, Venice had to manage the network of bases and ports that safeguarded its power. A few locations were particularly important—Zara and Ragusa on the Dalmatian coast, two ports in the Ionian Sea (Coron and Modon, known as the “two eyes of the Republic”), and the island of Crete. Beyond that, the network was constantly rearranged to reflect shifts in Asian trade routes and changes in political conditions in the eastern Mediterranean. Venice was able to adjust to the ebb and flow of trade through the three traditional outlets from the East (Constantinople and the Black Sea; Syria, Palestine, and the Persian Gulf; and Egypt and the Red Sea). As a result it could endure the attacks of other powers (Byzantium, Genoa, Ottomans) that sometimes deprived it of portions of the empire without threatening the empire as a whole.
Venice’s direct control of territory outside of these bases was limited, but this fact did not properly reflect the degree of its power. As Alfred Thayer Mahan appreciated, strategic advantage and great-power status could be obtained cost-effectively by controlling a few small but pivotal locations. Grygiel quotes historian John Godfrey on Venice’s strategic acumen: “The Venetians were to develop an unerring eye for good harbors, trade routes, and strategic islands. They always knew just how much of an area it was necessary to occupy, and they were not interested in conquest for its own sake.” The Venetians preferred wherever possible to use diplomacy, subsidies, and commercial sanctions rather than violence to expand and maintain the empire. The pope and the Western Empire otherwise might have responded to what seemed to be excessive Venetian military ambitions abroad by forming a counterbalancing coalition of mainland powers that would threaten Venice’s commercial position in Italy and even its security.
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According to Grygiel, Venice declined for two main reasons, one of which was largely outside of its control (the change of trade routes), the other the result of a misguided geostrategy (becoming embroiled on the Italian mainland). “The strength of a geostrategy depends on its mirroring the geopolitical reality,” Grygiel writes. “When the strategy diverges from that reality or when the reality changes without a corresponding change in the strategy, the state loses its influence in international relations.”
The radical change in the underlying geopolitical reality was the emergence of an alternative trade route to the East, through the Atlantic around Africa, which bypassed the old Mediterranean paths dominated by Venice and threatened by the Ottoman Empire. There were also new trading opportunities for the Atlantic powers (Portugal, Spain, France, the Netherlands, and Britain) with the New World. As a result, Venice lost the role of Europe’s entrepôt. Venice was aware of the geopolitical shift once news arrived of Vasco de Gama’s voyage to India. To get around the problem, Venice encouraged efforts to build a Suez Canal to create a viable maritime alternative. Excavation work actually began in 1586 but nothing came of the project. The Mediterranean soon became a regional sea as the bulk of European trade moved to the oceans, where Venice could not compete. Her ships were not outfitted for long sea voyages, especially in rough oceanic waters. The Atlantic caravel was more seaworthy than the Mediterranean galley. Venice failed to modernize its naval force and continued to live in an earlier technological era.
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The second factor in Venice’s decline, according to Grygiel, was the republic’s decision in the 15th century to become much more involved in the politics of Italy, and to acquire territorial control of neighboring regions. Up to that point interventions by Venice in northern Italy had been sporadic. The Venetians had been averse to the acquisition of territory on the mainland and had no grand plan to conquer the region. They were content instead to dominate the sea and to control a few small but strategic possessions. The reasons for their change of heart are complicated and controversial. One reason was a loss of confidence in their natural defense structures. After Venice’s main Italian imperial rival, Genoa, nearly overcame these barriers in the “War of Chioggia” (1378-1381), Venetian leaders concluded that their power, based on access to the Adriatic and to Mediterranean sources of wealth and food, was more fragile than they thought. They decided to try to establish a solid base on the Italian mainland, to complement the well-developed maritime empire.
In addition, says Grygiel, the growing power of Milan under the Visconti family in the early 15th century threatened to alter the map of Italy. A unified regime in northern Italy presented a threat to all the other cities and states on the peninsula. In reaction, major Italian cities, notably Florence, felt compelled to embark on their own drive for hegemony. Venice responded by expanding its security perimeter through the conquest of a number of nearby cities, including Vicenza, Verona, and Padua. The ease of these conquests obscured the fact that Venetian power and prestige was increasingly committed directly to the mainland—especially because they removed a critical buffer zone between Venice and Milan, which had previously provided diplomatic options for compromise short of war between the two powers.
This account necessarily simplifies the complicated story of European and Italian politics in the 15th and 16th centuries. As Grygiel notes, Venice also found itself hard-pressed to compete with the increasingly well-organized West European powers, which were developing the administrative means to harness their internal and imperial resources through taxation, and to translate these resources into impressive military capabilities. Venice’s decision to expand its territory on the Italian mainland was driven in part by the need to increase its taxable territory and thereby field (or pay for) armies capable of standing up to those of France, the Habsburgs, and the Ottomans.
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Grygiel cites the critical internal debates over Venetian policy in 1421-1423, over whether or not to intervene directly on the side of Florence against Milan in their ongoing struggles for control of northern Italy. The reigning doge, Tommaso Mocenigo, argued that the strength of Venice rested in its maritime empire in the East. Neither Venice nor Milan could gain much from a war with each other. Mocenigo recommended that Venice remain neutral and that it avoid the temptation to expand its Italian territory further. He acknowledged that the lagoons were no longer a sufficient protection, but believed that the defensible, hilly region of Verona should be the farthest Venetian inland stronghold. Florence and other cities could balance Milan by themselves. Mocenigo essentially advocated the traditional Venetian policy of strategic detachment from Italian politics.
The pro-Florentine and pro-intervention camp was led by the young Francesco Foscari. Foscari argued that the security of the two cities was indivisible: what harmed Florence harmed Venice. Foscari also defined Venetian interests on the basis of domestic similarities rather than geostrategic interests. Florence was a fellow republic fighting against the encroaching tyranny of Milan. The preservation of liberty at home required the preservation of liberty abroad. Foscari’s argument won, and he was elected doge. Shortly thereafter Venice entered an Italian war as a Florentine ally. Venice jettisoned the role of offshore balancer and became deeply engaged in mainland politics. As Grygiel concludes, “[t]he resulting struggle with Milan and the defense of its Italian territories absorbed much of Venice’s energy.”
According to Grygiel, “[t]he financial and military costs associated with this land expansion were large but paled in comparison with the political.” Venice increasingly inspired jealousy and fear throughout northern Italy and in the rest of Europe, as it seemed to aspire to become a dominant power on land as well as on the sea. Venice’s resources were inadequate to the larger task, however. The Venetians neglected the upkeep of their Mediterranean base infrastructure, even before the decline in trade set in. To make matters worse, in 1499 the Venetians allied with the new French king, Louis XII, to assist them in conquering Milan. The alliance was a disaster. Machiavelli argued that it brought ruin to Venice because Venice was the weaker power and because after the allied victory, ‘‘the weaker prince remain[ed] prisoner” of the stronger. Outside powers, particularly Spain and France, continued to descend upon Italy in a divide-and-conquer strategy.
Venice soon became a second-rank power contained and balanced on the Italian mainland and severely weakened in the Mediterranean. The choice to become entangled in Italian politics, rather than the rise of the Ottoman Empire, was the decisive factor in its decline. “Venice mangled its grand strategy in Italy,” Grygiel concludes. “It lacked strategic vision and became entangled in a ‘war of ambition’…. By becoming involved on the Italian mainland Venice lost its geostrategic detachment from the deadly balance-of-power politics. Its power was wasted in futile territorial conquests.”
From his study of the Venetian empire, Grygiel draws three conclusions:
First, the geopolitical reality, understood as a map that changes with new discoveries, displacements of trade routes owing to technological advances, and shifts in the locale of power, is a powerful variable that can influence the fate of a state…. Furthermore, the ability to formulate and implement a foreign policy that reflects the underlying geopolitical reality is the key to achieving and maintaining a position of power, if not supremacy. A state’s geostrategy must be flexible enough to respond to changes. The less flexible it is, the greater the dependence of the state on the immutability of the geopolitical situation…. Finally, in order to maintain an empire it is necessary to avoid premature geostrategic changes (e.g., through retrenchment or further expansion). A grand strategy advocating the abandonment of traditional allies or bases because of fatigue or lack of domestic interest, and not because of fundamental changes in the geopolitical map, undermines the strength of a state. Such a change can be damaging not only to the imperial framework but also to the very independence of the state in question.
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Great powers are more than their homeland, says Grygiel. They are global in nature, at least virtually so, because economic welfare and political power are often dependent on distant regions. Venice failed to pay adequate attention to its strategic bases and became excessively embroiled in land conflicts in Italy. By strengthening its presence in the “near abroad,” Venice actually weakened its overall power position and provoked, or enabled, the growing enmity of other Italian cities and the great powers of Europe.
As to this latter point, we might wonder whether Venice’s shift to the mainland might have been as inevitable as the loss of wealth and power caused by the shift in trade routes. In that sense, Venice found itself in the position of the British Empire at times during its history, notably 1914, when it faced major continental threats to the balance of power and felt that it could not remain aloof, even though the resources it would have to commit to a continental war might weaken its hold over the empire. More astute British diplomacy prior to 1914 might have staved off the dilemma, just as Grygiel argues that more astute Venetian diplomacy might have avoided the cycle of wars with Milan and eventually with other powers. But sometimes strategy has to be applied to minimize the damage of a tragic situation largely beyond one’s control, not to maximize the opportunities of a favorable status quo.