Thursday, December 31, 2009

The compass

It is not known where or when it was discovered that the lodestone (a magnetized mineral composed of an iron oxide) aligns itself in a north-south direction, as does a piece of iron that has been magnetized by contact with a lodestone. Neither is it known where or when marine navigators first utilized these discoveries. Plausible records indicate that the Chinese were using the magnetic compass around 1100, western Europeans by 1187, Arabs by 1220, and Scandinavians by 1300. The device could have originated in each of these groups, or it could have been passed from one to the others. All of them had been making long voyages, relying on steady winds to guide them and sightings of the sun or a familiar star to inform them of any change. When the magnetic compass was introduced, it probably was used merely to check the direction of the wind when clouds obscured the sky.

The first mariner’s compass may have consisted of a magnetized needle attached to a wooden splinter or a reed floating on water in a bowl. In a later version the needle was pivoted near its centre on a pin fixed to the bottom of the bowl. By the 13th century a card bearing a painted wind rose was mounted on the needle; the navigator could then simply read his heading from the card. So familiar has this combination become that it is called the compass, although that word originally signified the division of the horizon. The suspension of the compass bowl in gimbals (originally used to keep lamps upright on tossing ships) was first mentioned in 1537.

On early compass cards the north point was emphasized by a broad spearhead and the letter T for “tramontana ,” the name given to the north wind. About 1490 a combination of these evolved into the fleur-de-lis, still almost universally used. The east point, pointing toward the Holy Land, was marked with a cross; the ornament into which this cross developed continued on British compass cards well into the 19th century. The use of 32 points by sailors of northern Europe, usually attributed to Flemish compass makers, is mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391). It also has been said that the navigators of Amalfi, Italy, first expanded the number of compass points to 32, and they may have been the first to attach the card to the needle.

During the 15th century it became apparent that the compass needle did not point true north from all locations but made an angle with the local meridian. This phenomenon was originally called by seamen the “northeasting” of the needle but is now called the “variation” or “declination.” For a time, compass makers in northern countries mounted the needle askew on the card so that the fleur-de-lis indicated true north when the needle pointed to magnetic north. This practice died out about 1700 because it succeeded only for short voyages near the place where the compass was made. It caused confusion and difficulty on longer trips, especially in crossing the Atlantic to the American coast, where the declination was west instead of east as in Europe. The declination in a given location varies over time. For example, in northern Europe in the 16th century the magnetic north pole was east of true geographic north; in subsequent centuries it has drifted to the west.

The Chinese junk

During the period that the sailing ship was developing in the Mediterranean world, China, with its vast land areas and poor road communications, was turning to water for transportation. Starting with a dugout canoe, the Chinese joined two canoes with planking, forming a square punt, or raft. Next, the side, bow, and stern were built up with planking to form a large, flat-bottomed wooden box. The bow was sharpened with a wedge-shaped addition below the waterline. At the stern, instead of merely hanging a steering oar over one side as did the Western ships, Chinese shipbuilders contrived a watertight box, extending through the deck and bottom, that allowed the steering oar or rudder to be placed on the centreline, thus giving better control. The stern was built to a high, small platform at the stern deck, later called a castle in the West, so that, in a following sea, the ship would remain dry. Thus, in spite of what to Western eyes seemed an ungainly figure, the “Chinese junk” was an excellent hull for seaworthiness as well as for beaching in shoal (shallow) water. The principal advantage, however, not apparent from an external view, was great structural rigidity. In order to support the side and the bow planking, the Chinese used solid planked walls (bulkheads), running both longitudinally and transversely and dividing the ship into 12 or more compartments. This produced not only strength but also protection against damage.

In rigging the Chinese junk was far ahead of Western ships, with sails made of narrow panels, each tied to a sheet (line) at each end so that the force of the wind could be taken in many lines rather than on the mast alone. Also, the sail could be hauled about to permit the ship to sail somewhat into the wind. By the 15th century junks had developed into the largest, strongest, and most seaworthy ships in the world. Not until about the 19th century did Western ships catch up in performance.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Baltic 1721–90

Russian Baltic Galley of 1720

When the Great Northern War ended in 1721, Russia had emerged as a major regional naval power. British and Danish naval forces cruised to counter the Russian sailing fleet, which was protected by new fortifications of Kronstadt on the island of Kotlin (1723). However, the general poverty of maritime resources, particularly seamen, made the development of Russian naval power very difficult and after the death of Peter I in 1725, the political support for the navy became extremely inconsistent. For the Baltic powers, moving armies and supplies through the shallow coastal waters was as important as defending the deep-water routes. Navies had to be balanced between the battleships, cruisers and inshore oared and sailing ships. Russian ships assisted in the siege of Danzig in 1734 and in the Russo-Swedish war which broke out in July 1741 their galley fleet was important. The Swedes underestimated Russian resistance in Finland and accepted a truce in the wake of the coup that brought the Tsarina Elizabeth to the throne. Hostilities resumed early in February 1742. A Russian galley fleet transported troops under General Keith westwards to attack Swedish positions at Åland. The Russian sailing fleet managed to lure the Swedes away from their position off Hango Head, which enabled more galleys to pass with reinforcements for Keith’s army. The Swedes were in disarray, but a peace was arranged before significant damage was done. Although active in the Seven Years War, the Russian sailing fleet really began to cause concern in the Baltic after 1780, when Catherine II began a major expansion of her fleet to assist her ambitions against Turkey.

Sweden faced a number of difficulties. There had been a growing divergence of priorities between the Swedish officer corps with its battleship base at Karlskrona aimed at Danish naval power and the government and army in Stockholm, who saw the amphibious Russian threat as the greater danger. Money was short and the navy had little interest in a coastal galley war. A 1722 plan by the College of Admiralty to build a galley fleet to counter the Russians was diluted by financial weakness. The battleships were high-quality vessels, but ageing and small. The lack of understanding between the navy and the army became apparent in the disastrous war against Russia of 1741–3. The galley fleet was reformed and in 1756 it was taken away from the navy and placed under army command. Its officer corps developed separately from the navy. In the same year a naval academy was established at Karlskrona. During the Seven Years War, the Swedes and Russians put pressure on the small Prussian flotilla in the Baltic. The main fear was the appearance of a British squadron in the Baltic to support the Prussians. While the Swedes and Russians operated together, their joint forces seldom exceeded 22 line against a non-existent Prussian battlefleet. The Swedish galley fleet performed well enough in 1759 against Prussian forces established at Stettin. A small action on 10 September ended in Swedish victory which consolidated Swedish communications between the homeland and the islands off the coast of Pomerania. In 1760 a Russian fleet of 21 line covered an attack on Kolberg that failed. Kolberg finally fell to the Russians in December 1761, but without much support from the fleet. Seapower against Prussia had not been particularly significant, but it remained critical to Sweden and Denmark in the defence of their homelands and interests in Pomerania and Holstein respectively. Despite cooperation against Prussia, suspicion of Russia remained a key part of Baltic diplomacy.
After the coup, which established Gustavus III with increased royal powers in 1772, the Swedish navy developed in line with Gustavus’ foreign policy ambitions. Gustavus’ direction was unclear–Russia or Denmark could be his target. The navy was important to either, but the officers of the galley fleet had been important supporters of Gustavus’ coup. New rules and organization were established in 1773. A royal inspection in 1775 led to the College of Admiralty moving from Karlskrona to Stockholm in 1776, to be closer to the court. The officer corps was reformed to make professional competence more significant in promotion. In 1781 the famous ship constructor, Fredric Henrick af Chapman (1721–1808), was appointed Director of Naval Construction at Karlskrona. Chapman had extensive theoretical knowledge of engineering sciences and since the 1760s had been designing and building vessels for inshore operations. In 1780 he was co-author of the plan approved by Gustavus for a new sailing fleet of battleships and frigates. Under his supervision, Karlskrona became one of the most extensive and modern yards in Europe.
The impact of Gustavus’ reforms are still a matter of debate, but by the summer of 1788 Gustavus was ready to attack Russia. While an army advanced through Finland and another, with the archipelago flotilla, was to move along the coast into the Gulf of Finland, a third army with the sailing fleet was to attack Kronstadt and land the army at Orainenbaum to advance on St Petersburg. The Russian fleet of 17 line under Admiral Greig met the Swedes, also with 17 line, off Suursaari island (Battle of Hogland) on 17 July. The battle was fought in line and after seven hours, the Swedes broke away in the darkness. Greig had done enough to avert the Swedish landing. Over the winter, Russian building of gunboats for its archipelago flotilla outstripped the Swedes. An action off Öland on 25 July 1789 between two evenly matched battlefleets was again indecisive, but the archipelago flotillas met in a decisive action just one month later on 24 August (Battle of Svensksund). Vice Admiral Nassau-Siegen decisively defeated the Swedish inshore flotilla. Swedish attempts to revive the plan of attack against Kronstadt in 1790 foundered in an indecisive attack on Tallinn in May, and a further attack on Russian battleships failed. Gustavus’ mistakes allowed the Russian sailing fleet to blockade his sailing and archipelago fleets in Vibourg Bay. On 3 July the Swedish sailing ships broke out and Gustavus was able to take the inshore fleet to Svenskrund. An impetuous attack on the Swedes on 8 July ended in disaster for the Russians. The peace treaty restored the boundaries to the status quo ante bellum. Both sides had shown that seapower–exercised by a combined force of battleships, cruisers and inshore craft–were critical to the projection of land power in the eastern Baltic, but both had also shown that their defensive capabilities far outweighed their offensive power. Russia remained a powerful force in the eastern Baltic, but not so powerful as to pose a vital threat to the interests of the other powers in the region. While the coasts of the Baltic remained open to traffic, and Russia remained prepared to trade its vital naval stores, it was in no one’s interest to become bogged down in a war that was so well suited to defence.

Russian Galleys

Early 18th century Russian Baltic Galley
Galleys, which were supposed to have been eclipsed by the sailing warship in the early seventeenth century, were an important component of the fleets of Sweden and Russia during the eighteenth century.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the main function of the Swedish navy was to protect the lines of communication to the army in Germany. For this it needed a battlefleet to defend the lighter vessels against Danish attack and smaller vessels for inshore work. In the 1680s the main Swedish battlefleet base was developed at Karlskrona to challenge the Danes in the southwest Baltic, away from the shallow waters off the ports of the southeastern Baltic coast. When Russia became a threat in the eastern Baltic after 1703, Sweden was initially unprepared for landing and supply operations within the shallow and convoluted archipelago of the Gulf of Finland and it took a while to expand the galley fleet. The galley and, much later, the gunboat became essential elements in the Russo-Swedish wars of 1741–3 and 1788–90. In both the Levant and Baltic, seapower was essential for the projection of military power to any distance and it rested on the effective combination of forces that could dominate deep water and shallow coastal areas.

The Mediterranean and the Baltic saw large fleets of warships attempting to blockade ports during the period, but the confined and shallow Baltic waters made the interception of coastal traffic very difficult. The first great Russian naval victory over the Swedish fleet, the Battle of Hangö Head on 6 August 1714, was won by a galley fleet making use of the coastal shallows to outmanoeuvre the Swedish sailing fleet.

Russia came from a very different political tradition. Peter the Great’s borrowings from the West are well known, and the great Petrine reorganization of the central administration of the state, 1717–20, owed a great deal to Swedish and German precedent. The central Admiralty College was based on the Swedish model. This might have created problems if Peter had tried to impose an alien culture further down the administrative ladder, but recent research suggests that the Muscovite state was able to create a significant maritime power using more traditional administrative and financial methods. Peter enthusiastically imported galley and shipbuilding technology from Venice, Holland and England, but was wise enough to recognize that the administration of his fleet relied upon traditional noble and merchant relationships. The main problem that Peter faced was that his commitment to the navy was hardly shared by any other interest in the state. Almost as soon as he died in 1725 the fleet began to atrophy.

Jean Meyer has suggested that a major reason for the survival of the galley in the Mediterranean was the absolute dearth of seamen. Soldiers, convicts, slaves or free landsmen could serve at the oars with little or no maritime experience. In the Baltic, Russia found that galleys were useful in the shallow and difficult waters off Finland, and they were also extremely sparing in the use of seamen. Russia only got experience for its seamen very slowly. Some trained under foreign officers in the Russian navy. A very few were sent abroad to serve in the ships of other powers, such as the 30 that Peter I sent to English ships in 1706, but these men were destined to become officers. As late as 1738, it was even suggested that thousands of Russian seamen might serve on British warships if war with Spain should break out in order to gain some experience. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Russia seemed able to train its own seamen for deep-water warfare.

Saturday, December 12, 2009


Venetian carrack

Bernard Doumerc

By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the reconciliation of economic policy with the constitution as well as with the defence of a colonial empire was no longer appropriate. Then, it was said, ‘the whole navy is devoured by the army’ and numerous voyages of merchant galleys cancelled at the last moment or diverted from their course put an end to the trust of the Venetian merchant partners.31 Henceforth, the fleet of the state, giving priority to the defence of empire, could no longer play a leading role in trade. Venice remained the maritime power that it had always been, but was no longer a first-rank naval power. One after another the sailing routes closed at the turn of the sixteenth century: the Barbary Coast, then Aigues Mortes, and finally Flanders.32 Only the Levant routes continued to be active but even those suffered long interruptions in their traffic. The disaster of 1484 was fresh in everyone’s mind; in that year, French pirates had attacked the muda of Flanders. The consequences were dreadful. The galleys had been captured after a hard fight. A hundred and thirty sailors were killed, three hundred wounded, and, of course, their cargos had been confiscated by King Charles VIII’s representative. A few months later, a major incident provoked a panic around the Rialto, the financial centre of the city. To save the last bit of the Languedoc spice import market, the Senate demanded that the Aigues Mortes convoy depart, knowing that another interruption in shipping would sound the death knell of any claim to trading in that region. It took six auctions before one was successful, and the patroni were able to extract important fiscal advantages from the government for the voyage including the payment of a 3500-ducat subsidy for each patrono and a 30 per cent increase in the charter rate. The voyage was an exceptionally long one because it included stops along the Barbary Coast. This course full of pitfalls made martyrs of the sailors and merchants. When they had returned, the accounts told the story. The cost of stopping for forty-five days to defend Zara, which was besieged by the Turks, was estimated at 10,000 ducats per galley, due to expenditures for the supplementary purchase of victuals for the crews and the payment of higher wages than had been foreseen. The patroni also asked for 8000 ducats for the lack of profit on lost charters and unsold merchandise. All this added up to an indemnity of 25,000 ducats for each patrono who had been forced to make this voyage against his better judgement.33 The government faltered because, in a backhanded way, the difference of opinion at the heart of the system of managing the galley fleet was expressed virulently in debates at the meetings about the accounts.

A census of the naval forces undertaken in 1496 by the Ministers of the Marine (Savii ai Ordini) demonstrated the naval inferiority of the Republic ‘because there are too few armed ships at sea’. This explanation given by the chronicler, Marino Sanudo, is astonishing because, he adds, ‘there are few ships because, until now, we had no fear of the Turks’.34 The result was that the obligations imposed upon the captains of the mude increased continually. In 1496, for example, the galleys of the Barbary Coast convoy participated in a massive counter-attack, launched to limit the audacious actions of the Barbary pirates.

Two dramatic episodes permit an evaluation of the interventionist role of the Venetian government in the management of the fleet. The first concerns the conflict involving the kingdom of Naples during the Italian Wars. In 1495, a league including Venice, the Duke of Milan, the Pope, and the king of Aragon, wanted to oppose the plan of the French king, Charles VIII, to annex a part of southern Italy. The Senate issued a general requisition order ‘to retain all ships and large merchant galleys’. The Captain General of the Sea, Marco Trevisan, could, with great effort, assemble a war fleet of only about twenty galleys. That is why the contribution of eleven merchant galleys was absolutely necessary, so he waited for the arrival of galleys from the Dalmatian cities. The second episode, with more tragic consequences, was that of the Battle of Zonchio in 1499. The animosity between Antonio Grimani, the Captain General and the patroni of the merchant galleys led to a catastrophe in which the disheartened crews’ weariness and the merchants’ rebellion caused a military disaster. Some months later, outside the port of Modon, which was besieged by the Turks, the patroni of the galere da mercato, by their unforgivable refusal to fight, caused the loss of the city. Despite sensational court proceedings and some sentences based on principle, the patroni were absolved since the state was willing to acknowledge its share of the blame because of the incompetence of its representatives in the battle.35 Naval battles in the following years offered further proof of the problem. During the spring of 1500 off the island of Cephalonia Captain General Marco Trevisan, warned by Grimani’s unhappy experience, considered sending back the merchant galleys that he had received as reinforcements because they seemed poorly equipped to fight, and the patroni were outspokenly critical of their mission.36 The weariness of the demoralised crews and the condemnation of the patroni of the merchant galleys, little involved as they were in safeguarding the stato da mar, heralded the end of an exemplary system. The redefinition of the specific role of the muda del mercato had not taken place because of the lack of a clearly expressed political will. Contrary to what had happened in the middle of the Trecento, this crisis of confidence in the Cinquecento quickly turned into open opposition.

In this way it is possible to discern the main lines of power that lead the Republic of Venice to dominate a large portion of the Mediterranean. The senatorial nobility, uniting the most important investors and committed merchants in the maritime economy, patiently forged a tool without equal among the rival nations and competitors: the system of regular navigation routes plied by convoys of merchant galleys. The modest ship-owners, nobles or not, were discouraged by the regulatory and fiscal obstacles that favoured the mude and by the permanent insecurity of sea-borne commerce, but were powerless to compete efficiently against the mixed private and public management of the naval potential. This was all the more true when raison d’État generated an indisputable argument for the use of these convoys, at times in the form of five galleys with 1200 men in each crew ready to intervene quickly in any zone on missions in the public interest. At the end of the fifteenth century and especially at the beginning of the following century, this senatorial nobility, united into the ‘Party of the Sea’, even after having gained considerable advantages, often in violation of the law, was no longer able, considering the circumstances, to protect their essential prerogatives. The nation, threatened by sea and by land, no longer gave priority to this system which for two hundred years had given glory and fortune to those who lived around the lagoon. This was the beginning of the downfall of the Venetian colonial empire in the Mediterranean and, at the same time, of this unique and long-effective system of operating the merchant marine.

31 Girolamo Priuli, Diarii (diario veneto), ed. A. Segre, in Rerum Italicarum Scriptores 24, 2nd edn (Citta di Castello, 1912–1941), 39.
32 Sanudo, Diarii., I, column 302.
33 Priuli, Diarii, 273.
34 Sanudo, Diarii, I, column 30.
35 Ibid., IV, columns 337, 360.
36 B. Doumerc, ‘De l’incompétence à la trahison: les commandants de galères vénitiens face aux Turcs (1499–1500)’, in Félonie, trahison, reniements au Moyen Âge, Les Cahiers du Crisima, 3 (Montpellier, 1997), 613–34, and F. C. Lane, ‘Naval Actions and Fleet Organization (1499–1502)’, in J. R. Hale, ed., Renaissance Venice (London, 1973), 146–73.


Bernard Doumerc

Henceforth, the state owned the merchant fleet, chartering galleys to merchants who operated them. The operator was the highest bidder in the auction for charters. Only nobles were allowed to participate in this auction, an exclusive privilege that gave them control of the financial and commercial operations of the fleet, in return for which they were expected to respect rigorously the specific terms and conditions of the charters. After 1420 all merchant galleys were constructed on the same model according to the plan of the ‘galley of Flanders’. This was a vessel of 250 tons burden, delivered as a bare hull (a ‘barebones charter’) for which the operator furnished all the necessary equipment – sails, cordage, oars, and maintenance materials. The Commune thus freed itself completely of the need to invest in those lesser items. On the other hand, the merchant, knowing that the necessary capital for naval construction was provided by the state, could keep most of his financial resources free for the commercial transactions that were the goal of the expedition. In addition, the winning bidder who took charge of the galley (called the patrono) got priority in loading the most precious goods and a monopoly in the transportation of these goods at fixed prices. These incentives earned the merchants’ approval because they no longer dreaded aggravated competition amongst themselves, the law was the same for everyone, the costs of transport were fixed and conditions on board were identical for all galleys.

There is often a feeling of modernity about a state when its economic functions predominate. This would make Venice of the Quattrocento a real laboratory of modernity.20 The economic stakes involved in these operations were very high. In 1409 a muda to Flanders carried in its holds merchandise worth 460,000 ducats, equivalent to a tonne and half of gold! In the 1430s, cargoes of spices and drugs loaded on galleys voyaging to Alexandria were often valued at more than 150,000 ducats. Figures like these justify the care taken by the authorities to supervise such transactions, which, after all, provided the bulk of the state’s tax revenues.21 This was remarkable for the time since surely a patrician merchant, following his own bankruptcy, would not have turned to the communal authorities expecting financial assistance. On the contrary, it was to improve competitiveness and to establish its supremacy that the government accepted a transfer of power to merchants even while introducing a measure of coercion into the process. The organisation of the maritime economy took on the characteristics of a mixed economy, promoting private interests while safeguarding the public interest. This was the strength of the Venetian system.

Consider two examples of constraints freely accepted by the operators of merchant galleys. The first concerns the financing of the expeditions. As was mentioned above, it was necessary to invest a considerable amount of capital. At the end of the fifteenth century, the cost to charter a merchant galley for one voyage was 9200 ducats (33 kg of fine gold). Not only was it necessary to pay for the charter of the galley but also the cost of operating the vessel during a voyage of five to eleven months – depending on the destination – including victualling and salaries for a crew of a hundred and fifty rowers and some twenty specialists and officers. The Commune required that a company be established to manage the operation of the galley so that a complete bankruptcy caused by insolvency of any of the partners might be avoided. A magistracy, the avogaria di Comun, supervised all financial commitments proposed by the patrono. The total amount of the estimated cost for the operation of the galley was divided into twenty-four equal shares (carati) as was the case for the purchase of a ship. The value of a share varied according to the actual length of the voyage, any unforeseen expenses, and risks at sea. An adjustment was made when the convoy returned to Venice allowing the distributed operating expenses to be deducted from the profits of the voyage. Merchant literature is full of descriptions of these temporary companies aimed at limiting each partner’s financial risk, because the cost of operating a galley exceeded the investment potential of a single entrepreneur. Such associations were indispensable, and since the objective was to verify financial investments and the quality of commercial transactions, the patrono’s family played an essential role. In these cases, the family enterprise was preferred above all other options, especially the fraterna , which created a core of investors around the brothers of the patrono.22 Little by little during the fifteenth century, the circle of the financial partners was limited to the members of a single family. This cut down considerably on the number of shareholders from an average of twelve in the 1450s to, in many cases, as few as two by the beginning of the sixteenth century. Under these conditions the prevailing commercial regulations benefited certain participants who were henceforth free to set sale prices as they wished because they had the advantage of a transportation monopoly. This perversion of the incanto system eventually caused its demise and its being denounced by Marino Sanudo in his Diarii.

The second constraint imposed on merchants engaged in the state-controlled sector concerns the presence of a capitanio, an agent of the government elected by the members of the Great Council and paid by the Commune. The capitanio of the galley convoy supervised the activities of the patroni of the individual galleys, enforcing adherence to the terms of the charter to maintain regularity, speed, and security during these long voyages.23 It was also the responsibility of this state representative to decide, in accordance with the merchants, to change course or to shorten a stay in port when circumstances warranted. As guarantor of the common interest, he had to limit the ambitions of entrepreneurs who would not hesitate to compromise the interests of their rivals if, by so doing, they could increase their personal gain. Disagreements were numerous and litigation frequent, but in the event of a serious breach of the rules of the incanto, a patrono could be banned from participation for a period of several years.24 The role of the capitanio was essential to the regulation of this complex mixed management system and crucial to the smooth operation of the voyages. The reports read in the Senate upon return of the muda were complicated because of the difficulties encountered by these agents of the government as they confronted the representatives of capitalist enterprise. Despite it all, and this was part of the miracle, the collusion of interests maximised profits for both individuals and for the enterprise as whole.

This system of managing the merchant galleys hid a little-known aspect, which was in fact the keystone of the success of the Venetian thalassocracy in the Mediterranean during the closing centuries of the Middle Ages. Until now, historians have placed the Venetian system of navigation only in a context of maritime transport and trade. In fact, the political decision by the Senate to manage maritime commercial expeditions of the merchant galleys directly by organising them in convoys was exemplary and innovative in more ways than one. First, the government avoided maintaining a naval patrol squadron outside of the Gulf. It would have been a vain hope to eradicate the plague of piracy in the waters extending from the Channel to the Aegean Sea. Instead, the captains of the mude were ordered to intercept and to neutralise any pirates that they met and sometimes to engage in hot pursuit, even if it meant diverting from their planned course. However, the Republic did not supply letters of marque or of reprisal to ships’ captains hoping to participate in the guerre de course. To maintain control of these high-risk activities that might put the vital interests of the state at risk, the Senate almost always preferred to entrust them to meticulously organised expeditions, avoiding any improvisation with the attendant possibility of dangerous and harmful consequences25 Often, the communal galleys of the cities of the stato da mar participated in these operations to police the seas but, on the whole, this tactic did not produce satisfactory results. Second, another lesser-known aspect of Venetian policy must also be taken into consideration: the requisition of merchant galleys. After having encouraged the development of regular convoy routes, which may have seen as many as fifty great galleys in service, the Venetian government in 1465, forced to react to an unfavorable military situation, found that its fleet, as a whole, did not contain enough warships.26 Social concerns regarding the employment of a large number of seamen on board the ‘man-eating’ galleys, and fiscal considerations resulting from the fixed pricing of the noli (charters) and the control of cargos which this facilitated, concerns which were as important as worries about the defence of merchant ships, led to the galley becoming a privileged instrument of Venetian maritime expansion. The choice of the Venetian authorities in favour of convoys of merchant galleys (mude), however, must have been somewhat detri mental to the profitability of the unarmed naves that remained in private operation.

The security of trade relations was the source of all profits, so an argument was put forward that the companies of the wealthiest aristocrats should be favoured by making them the only ones authorised to organise the profitable mude. Over the years this point of view became a determining factor in the evolution of the place of the galere da mercato in the complex whole of the Venetian maritime economy, reviving the basic debate, which set in opposition the objectives of the private managers of the voyages and the objectives of the government. The great network of navigation routes favoured the noble entrepreneurs who collaborated with the authorities within the system of the incanto. Whenever an accident of circumstances threatened the regularity of the voyages, the state encouraged the mude, sometimes forcing independently equipped and operated ships to remain inactive in port. This transfer of activities worked to the profit of the galleys as demonstrated by the creation of the route to Aigues Mortes in 1415 and then to the Barbary Coast in 1436 in response to the problem of maritime insecurity. Indeed, the senate announced that it was preferable ‘in any case to fit out two galleys on the Aigues-Mortes route for one alone does not seem safe’.27 Here is the heart of the debate: the Venetian muda was a merchant unit but also a combat unit and it is necessary to consider that it made a permanent contribution to the naval forces placed at the disposal of the government’s military commanders. These galleys were armed ‘for war and for trade’ and the terms of their charter agreed to after the auction provided that the government could exercise its right of requisition at any time. During the fifteenth century this procedure was often used. This was the third element of Venetian maritime supremacy.

 It is necessary to see the activities of the mude in another context as well. The galleys provided the state with a very efficient naval potential for general tasks aimed at preserving the supremacy of the Empire. From the beginning, the Senate specified that the patroni of galleys had to accept some missions ‘in the service of the Signoria’ in return for the numerous advantages from which they benefited.28 What did this mean? A few examples make the Senate’s intention clear. The least coercive of these requirements concerned the transportation of officials designated by the government, baili and ambassadors, as well as colonial administrators. These voyages were always made aboard communal galleys protected by the flag of St Mark. Sometimes the captain of the merchant convoy played the role of government representative in dealings with local authorities in Tunis, Alexandria, or London. In 1438, the Senate asked the captain of the Aigues Mortes convoy to agree to the request of the Grand Master of the Order of St John of Jerusalem who wished to travel from the great Provençal port of Marseilles to Rhodes. The clamour of protest from the expedition’s investors had no effect on the Senate’s decision and for several weeks the galleys remained far off their planned course. Another kind of requisition for peaceful missions concerned the transportation of funds or strategic materials destined for the administrators of the cities of the overseas empire. At the beginning of the fifteenth century, the mude of the Levant carried a considerable quantity of oars, yards, and cordage, as well as timber and cut stone in order to renovate the arsenals of the Peloponnese and Crete. In the middle of the fifteenth century, these requisitioned services were frequent because it was then necessary to add the transportation of troops and the repatriation of refugees resulting from an expansion of the area of hostilities.29 In addition, the capitanio was often assigned to inspect the strongholds of the colonial domain to provide an objective report on the needs, genuine or not, put forward by the rectors ‘of our overseas possessions’. During the Venetian–Genoese war in the 1430s, and then again during the one against the Turks in the 1460s, the mude participated in naval actions under the orders of the Captain General of the Sea. The dramatic break in ranks at the defeat of Zonchio in 1499 revealed the reluctance of the crews and merchants to assume the task of national defence. Strikes broke out among crews ‘who refused to fight so often’ and demanded a salary increase of 30 per cent. The investor’s mistrust was often in evidence, putting the effectiveness of the government in peril.30

The only mission willingly accepted by the patroni of the galleys was to hunt for corsairs. This service of policing the seas was profitable to their private activities since they were all owners of cargo vessels operating in the unregulated shipping sector. Be that as it may, the government had succeeded in reducing unproductive investment in a permanent naval squadron. The evolution of international political conditions among the countries along the coasts of the Mediterranean requiring increasing participation by the merchant galleys ‘in the service of the state’ had grave consequences for the peace of mind of the entrepreneurs. Indeed, the threat of a requisition always hung over every departure and the meagre and consistently tardy indemnities from the government discouraged the sailors as much as the ship-owners.

20 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, 123.
21 J. Day, ‘Les Instruments de gestion du monde’, in Venise 1500, la puissance, la novation et la concorde: le triomphe du mythe (Paris, 1993), 142–56.
22 B. Doumerc, C. Judde de Larivière, ‘Le Rôle du patriciat dans la gestion des galères marchandes à Venise au début du seizième siècle’, Studi veneziani, 36 (1998), 57–84.
23 B. Doumerc, D. Stöckly, ‘L’Evolution du capitalisme marchand à Venise au XVe siècle, le financement des mude’, Annales H. S. C., 1 (1995), 133–57.
24 B. Doumerc, ‘La Crise structurelle de la marine vénitienne au XVe siècle: le problème du retard des mude’, Annales E.S.C., 40 (1985), 605–25.
25 A. Tenenti, ‘Venezia e la pirateria en Levante: 1300–1460’, in A. Pertusi, ed., Venezia e il Levante fino al secolo XV. Atti del i convegno internazionale di storia della civilta veneziana , 2 vols. (Florence, 1973–4), I, 705–71.
26 B. Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu de la muda vénitienne: convoi marchand ou unité de combat’, in Histoire maritime: thalassocratie et période révolutionnaire, Actes des 114e et 115e Congrès Nationaux des Sociétés Savantes (Paris, 1989; Avignon, 1990; Paris, 1991), 139–54 and R. Cessi, Storia della Repubblica di Venezia (1968), 191.
27 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, misti, reg. 53, fol. 29, and Antonio Morosini, Annali, extraits de la chronique de Morosini relatifs à l’histoire de France (Paris, 1898), I, 374.
28 B. Doumerc, ‘Les Flottes d’état, moyen de domination coloniale à Venise (XVe siècle)’, in M. Balard and A. Ducellier, eds., Coloniser au Moyen Âge (Paris, 1995), 115–29.
29 Doumerc, ‘Le Rôle ambigu’, 152. 30 Marino Sanudo, I diarii (Bologna, 1969), vol. I, chapter 30.


Venetian Galley

Bernard Doumerc

In 1302, the Venetian government implemented a revision of ‘the corrections and additions’ to the Arsenal regulations.8 This action was necessary to encourage the full development of the technological revolution that would maximise the Republic’s naval potential. A short time later, between 1304 and 1307, the Arsenale Novo was created.9 By 1325 every sector of maritime activity had been reformed. The speed with which the authorities decided, the promotion of utilitas favourable to the public good, and a real will to innovate gave expression to a powerful movement toward a goal of dominating the sea. In 1301, the Senate declared that it was necessary to arm a permanent squadron for the protection of ‘the Gulf’ (the Adriatic Sea). The cramped port facilities in the lagoon led to a natural expansion with new basins in the Arsenale Novo.10 This expansion of facilities was completed by the creation of naval bases at Pola and Pore? in Istria. Until the final phase of renovation at the end of the fifteenth century, this naval establishment was the pride of Venice’s oligarchy. In 1435, the Senate declared, ‘our Arsenal is the best in the world’ and encouraged visits by the famous and powerful as they journeyed toward Jerusalem. This evocation of the labour, ingenuity, and efficiency of the seamen of Venice resounded all across Europe and flattered the pride of the subjects of the Serenissima. The myth of Venice, forged by the political powers around the Arsenal, helped to elicit respect, fear, and effective administration.11

It is necessary to pause for a moment to consider this assertion of a clever political will that quickly adapted to circumstances. In looking at the overall situation in the Mediterranean basin it is clear that by the late thirteenth century the Venetian position had weakened. In 1261, a Byzantine–Genoese coalition took control of Constantinople and a part of Romania that, up until that time, had been controlled by the Franks and Venetians. Meanwhile, the Republic relentlessly defended Crete, the coastal bases of the Peloponnese, and the important islands of the Aegean Sea.12 In 1291 the fall of Acre marked the final defeat of the Crusaders in the Latin States of the Levant. It appears that the Venetians had already begun a withdrawal toward the west when, in 1274, Doge Lorenzo Tiepolo prohibited investment in agricultural estates on Terra Ferma ‘to oblige the Venetians to take an interest in naval affairs’. A little later, in 1298, their perpetual rivals, the Genoese, entered the Adriatic to support the Hungarians with an attack on Venetian possessions in Dalmatia.13 Naval war within the confined spaces of the Adriatic forced the government to undertake a major reform effort to confront this threat from the enemies of the Republic. This was more than a territorial conflict. It was also an economic war that engulfed the entire Mediterranean basin. The desire to capture commerce and to dominate distribution networks for goods placed great importance on the ability to keep fleets at sea. The last phase in the creation of Venice’s magnificent Arsenal took place between about 1473 and 1475. After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, fear seized the Venetians who dreaded a naval assault on their colonial possessions. The defence of the stato da mar was undertaken by reinforcing the defences of the system of naval bases. First, Negroponte and Nauplia, and then, the Arsenal of Candia, an important strong point on Crete, were completely renovated between 1467 and 1470. At home, in Venice, momentous changes in circumstances created a need to augment the Republic’s naval forces. Henceforth, fierce naval war against admirals in the pay of the Ottomans brought unaccustomed reverses. In this context, the senate asked Giacomo Morosini (called el zio, ‘Uncle’) to prepare plans for an extension of the Arsenal in 1473. With an additional eight hectares added to its area, it became the greatest shipyard in Europe and ‘the essential foundation of the state’.14

By demonstrating its undeniable concern for optimising the financial and technical resources devoted to naval construction, the government showed the way for the whole people. The authorities obtained indispensable support from all those social groups whose destiny was tied to the vigour of the city’s maritime activity. At the same time, the desires of those groups corresponded to the announced public policy of giving priority to the naval forces. It is not true that a permanent and effective naval force did not appear until the sixteenth century.15 A navy existed in Venice from the fourteenth century. As described above, the patrol squadron charged with policing the Adriatic was at the heart of that force, but there were other available units. First among them were the galleys armed by the port cities that had gradually come to be included in the stato da mar. In the event of conflict these Dalmatian, Albanian, Greek, and Cretan cities were required, by the terms of their submission to Venice, to provide one or more galleys for the naval draft due to the metropolis. There are many instances of these drafts. One example is sufficient to indicate their nature.16 During the conflict against the Turks during the 1470s, the Arsenal could not quickly provide the thirty galleys demanded by the Senate. All the subject cities of the Empire were required to contribute to the fleet. Crete provided eleven galleys, four came from the occupied ports of Puglia, two from Corfu, eleven from Dalmatia (three from Zara, two from Sebenico, one each from Cattaro, Lesina, Split, Pago, Arba, and Trau). Cadres of loyal ‘patriots’ known to Venetian administrators leavened the crews gathered from these various ports. Neither the ardour of these fighters from ‘overseas’ nor their fidelity to St Mark was taken for granted. The Senate did reward loyal commanders such as Alessandro de Gotti of Corfu, Francesco Chachuni of Brindisi, and Jacopo Barsi of Lesina.

The second Venetian trump card was the initiation of an unprecedented system for the administration of sea-borne trade. This system provided a formidable tool, designed to respond to the needs of la ventura, of commerce, laying a foundation for a dominating and expansionist people. These innovative procedures put in place by the ruling oligarchy were developed to take advantage of an exceptional organisation that would raise Venice into the first rank of Mediterranean naval powers. During the first twenty years of the Trecento, there was a period of maturation punctuated by different attempts to develop a system of navigation that eventually evolved into the galley convoys known as mude. Having achieved this objective with the consensus of all the participants in the financial and business world, it was then necessary to create an efficient system of management. Even if maritime trade was prosperous, it remained fragile and subject to unforeseeable risks. It was always possible that a major conflict with the Genoese or the Catalans, or even a brief outbreak of extreme violence due to piracy, might place the whole economic structure of the Republic at risk.17 Meanwhile, in the city of Venice as well as in the small island market towns of the lagoon, in the warehouses and in the tradesmen’s shops or the craftsmen’s booths, men pursued gain, but they did so without an overall plan and without looking for any really consistent method in their approach. Around the middle of the fourteenth century Venetian patricians came to realise the necessity of undertaking ambitious measures to surmount the major obstacles to a rational exploitation of the merchant fleets by making major changes in their organisation. Perhaps the terrifying War of Chioggia (1379–81) accelerated the rapid development of this concept. The patriciate instituted regulations providing for general communal equipping of merchant fleets to offset the disadvantages of the privately outfitted trading expeditions that had been paralysed during this long conflict. It is clear that the implementation of this new system affected all of the Republic’s economic and social structures. Progress toward fully implementing this model for the unique and exemplary management of Venetian maritime potential took place only slowly, but it was to dominate the Republic’s actions at sea up to the middle of the sixteenth century.18

The founding act of this state-controlled regulation was the Ordo galearum armatarum, decreed on 8 December 1321. It concerned both the galleys and sailing cargo ships. The experimental phase lasted until the end of the Venetian– Genoese war of 1379. The cooperation of several outfitters was needed for a merchant convoy so the galleys received collective financing. This innovative policy originated after the fall of Acre in 1291. The entrepreneurial merchants, far from pulling back from risky undertakings, soon became involved in the conquest of the Atlantic routes to Flanders and England. This rapid expansion encouraged new initiatives, sometimes hesitant and disorganised during the first half of the Trecento, then coordinated by the public authorities under the careful supervision of the city’s aristocratic patriciate. Opening navigation routes toward the west, along with intensification of maritime relations with the Levant, placed the keys to international trade in Venetian hands after 1350. They also profited from a remarkably favourable position in relation to the Alpine passes leading to northern Europe. By this time the system of auctioning the charters of galleys belonging to the Commune had been definitively established. To avoid a destructive confrontation between the authorities and the merchants (even though at Venice it is sometimes difficult to discern a difference between the two groups) the state asked that the Black Sea convoy be managed according to this new principle. After some years it was adopted for all navigation routes, to the general satisfaction of both groups. Besides the galley convoys, there was also a whole sector of maritime endeavour involving sailing round ships with high freeboard (naves). Sometimes their operation is described as free outfitting, because it was subject to fewer regulatory constraints. These naves transported necessary bulk products such as grain, all kinds of raw materials of high volume, construction materials, salt, ashes, and so forth. The primary purpose of the more strongly defended galleys was to transport costly cargoes of spices, silks and precious cloths, metals, and weapons. In the middle of the fourteenth century, when the Church lifted its prohibition of trade with the Muslims, the Venetians had a fleet ready to open trade once again with the Syrian and Egyptian ports of the Levant. In 1366, a sailing route involving both galleys and naves established connections from the lagoons to Alexandria and Beirut, beginning a promising trade. In the 1440s, nearly ninety naves and fifty-five galleys sailed for the Near East, and about thirty for Constantinople. The volume of the goods continued to increase, as did the pattern of massive investment and fiscal returns for the treasury. The reform of maritime statutes that had become obsolete, the creation of new work contracts that imposed a minimum wage, improvements in living conditions on board ships and a mariners’ residence in the city attracted a skilled labour force, mostly from Dalmatia, Albania, and Greece. These immigrants, originating from its overseas colonies, allowed the Republic to raise the banner of St Mark throughout the Mediterranean.19 The Senate, the real architect of this system, far from putting the system of private management in opposition to the one controlled by the Commune, took the best of each of the two systems and combined them. For that reason, some historians speak disparagingly about bureaucracy or state control to describe the Venetian system of trade.

8 F. Melis, I mercanti italiani nell’Europa medievale e rinascimentale , ed. L. Frangioni
(Florence, 1990), 9.
9 E. Concina, L’Arsenale della Repubblica di Venezia (Venice, 1984), 26 ff.
10 Ibid., 28, and E. Concina, ‘Dal tempio del mercante al piazzale dell’Impero: l’Arsenale di Venezia’, in Progetto Venezia (Venice, n.d.), 57–106. Originally the ‘gulf ’ or ‘Gulf of Venice’ referred to that part of the Adriatic north of a line between Pola and Ravenna. As Venetian control of the Adriatic expanded, so did their definition of ‘the Gulf’. See F. C. Lane, Venice: A Maritime Republic (Baltimore, 1973), 24.
11 E. Crouzet-Pavan, Venise triomphante, les horizons d’un mythe (Paris, 1999), 122.
12 B. Doumerc, La difesa dell’impero, in Storia di Venezia, dalle origini alla caduta della Serenissima, vol. II, La formazione dello stato patrizio , ed. G. Arnaldi, G. Cracco and A. Tenenti (Rome, 1997), 237–50.
13 B. Krekic, Venezia e l’Adriatico, in Storia di Venezia, III, 51–81 and P. Cabanes, Histoire de l’Adriatique (Paris, 2000), 191.
14 Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 14 for example, and S. Karpov, La navigazione veneziana nel mar Nero (XIII–XV sec.) (Ravenna, 2000), 12.
15 J. Meyer, ‘Des liens de causalité en histoire: politiques maritimes et société’, Revue historique, 614 (2000), 12.
16 A. Ducellier and B. Doumerc, ‘Les Chemins de l’exil, bouleversements de l’Est européen et migrations vers l’Ouest à la fin du Moyen Âge’ (Paris, 1992), 163; Archivio di Stato, Venice, senato, mar, reg. 15, fol. 161.
17 B. Doumerc, Il dominio del mare, in Storia di Venezia, IV, 11; A. Tenenti and U. Tucci, eds, Rinascimento (Rome, 1996), 113–80.
18 D. Stöckly, Le Système des galées du marché à Venise (fin XIIIe–milieu XVe) (Leiden and New York, 1995), 158; F. C. Lane, Navires et constructeurs à Venise pendant la Renaissance (Paris, 1965).
19 E. Ashtor, Levant Trade in the Later Middle Ages (Princeton, 1981), 381; J. C. Hocquet, Voiliers et commerce en Méditerranée, 1200–1650 (Lille, 1976), 442; B. Doumerc, Venise et l’émirat hafside de Tunis (Paris, 1999), 172.


Bernard Doumerc

In Venice, ‘the sea was all that mattered’. Truly, this was the founding principle that marked the history of this celebrated city.1 For a very long time historians made the Serenissima a model of success, wealth, and opulence, sometimes asserting that the Venetians ‘had a monopoly of the transit trade in spices from the Orient’ and ‘that they were the masters of the Mediterranean’.2 Such accounts, flattering to the pride of the inhabitants of the lagoons, emphasised the prestige of Venetian navies and the patriotism of its noble lovers of liberty, united to defend the city against the adversities of nature and of men. All this is entirely misleading.

The Venetians were not the only ones who used the maritime routes of the Mediterranean Sea, an area that they were forced to share with great rivals.3 Beginning in the eleventh century, the Venetian government, determined to take a place in international affairs, intervened vigorously against the Normans who had recently installed themselves in southern Italy and Sicily. At that time all of the Christian West, not only the Venetians, was excited by the success of the crusaders, and tried to find advantage in these unsettled commercial conditions. So it was that the drive to establish a trading presence on the southern shores of the Mediterranean, from Ceuta in Morocco to Lajazzo in Cilicia, began with violence. The Middle Ages were a time of war in which periods of peace were extremely brief. Governments knew how to manage unpredictable economies that were continually buffeted by the repeated conflicts of the age. The Venetians were not the masters in the western basin of the Mediterranean. There the Genoese and the Catalans reigned. In the East they were forced to share the wealth of the Byzantine Empire, the Armenian kingdom and caliphates with their competitors, the Pisans, the Amalfitans, and the Genoese. Though faced with fierce opposition from the other Italian cities, little by little, the tenacity and the communal spirit of the Venetians succeeded in lifting the Serenissima to dominance. They knew how to build the foundations of their maritime power.

From the eleventh century onward, the successive governments of the city wanted above all to take control of navigation in the narrow Adriatic Sea, from the Po Valley with its populous and prosperous cities, and reaching out toward distant lands. It is the Adriatic problem that gave the first impetus to Venetian imperialism. Later, the peace that Venice concluded in 1177 with the emperor Frederick I established the Republic’s ‘Lordship of the Gulf’, which it alone would dominate until the middle of the sixteenth century.4 For some Italian maritime cities the first Crusades in the Near East provided an opportunity for conquest, but the Venetians would wait until the Fourth Crusade when, in 1204, they finally dismembered the Byzantine Empire for their own gain. Their naval power rested upon constantly growing trade, closely following a considerable growth in the demand for maritime transport between the two shores of the Mediterranean. These conditions allowed the creation of an overseas colonial empire, the stato da mar. Radiating outward from major islands such as Euboea and Crete, and from bases at strategic points along the coast, such as Coron and Modon in the Peloponnese or, in the Aegean Sea, from the many islets of the Duchy of Naxos, the enterprise of Venetian colonists and tradesmen grew unceasingly. Great successes, as much in battle as in the marketplace, are the mark of a powerful state. Without a doubt these successes rested on three critical and all-important determining elements. First was the creation of that unique institution, the Arsenal, by the communal authorities. Second was the implementation of vigorous oversight of the Republic’s naval potential as is clearly demonstrated in the establishment of convoys of merchant galleys. Finally, there was the continuing concern for associating the defence of economic interests with preoccupations of territorial expansion aimed at the founding of a colonial empire. These, it seems, were the reasons why Venice became a great maritime power.

There was a technological solution to the new equation that determined the relation between time and distance. This ‘world economy’, as defined by Fernand Braudel, saw new kinds of sailing craft brought into use. In Venice, even as the traditional role of sailors was called into question, the galley remained the preferred vessel. Venetians saw no reason to force cargo ships to evolve in a different way from warships when the galley could fill both these functions that were intimately bound together in medieval deep-sea navigation.5 If the numerous crew of a galley was expensive, it was much less so than the loss of the vessel and its cargo. The galley was the favourite weapon of the Venetians and all means were employed to optimise its capabilities within the parameters dictated by necessity. From a very early time Venice had several shipyards, the well-known squeri, within the city itself. Perhaps from the beginning of the twelfth century – some have suggested that it was as early as 1104 – the ruling elite decided to provide the city with a shipbuilding establishment controlled by the government.6 Archival documentation from 1206 confirms the existence of such a state-controlled naval shipyard and also attests that the construction of ships for the Commune was to be confined to this facility. In 1223, the first evidence appears for the existence of the patroni arsenatus, directors of the Arsenal, elected from among the nobles of the Great Council and salaried by the Commune. Their task was clearly defined: to provide necessary raw materials to the craftsmen, especially wood for ships’ frames, hemp for sails, and cordage, and to see to the timely delivery of sound and robust ships. The details of Doge Enrico Dandolo’s direct intervention in the preparation for the attack on the capital of the Byzantine Empire during the Fourth Crusade of 1204 are well known. This intrusion of the public authority into the management of naval construction would continue until the end of the Republic. In 1258, the capitulares illorum de arsena defined the role of the directors. From 1277, after some hesitation, the state attempted to retain its skilled labour force by forbidding craftsmen from emigrating. Within two years, between 1269 and 1271, the government decided to codify the regulations that governed the craft guilds in the Arsenal. The statutes of the caulkers’, shipwrights’, and rope-makers’ guilds also date from this period. By 1265, the districts that produced wood and hemp for the Arsenal were managed by public administrators. Then, in 1276, the government required that at least one squadron should always be prepared to put to sea at a moment’s notice, which required the continual presence of craftsmen at the Arsenal. Finally, in 1278, an arms manufactory completed the complement of activities sheltered within the protecting walls of the shipyard.7

1 F. C. Lane, Venise, une république maritime (Paris, 1985), 96, and in ‘Venetian Shipping during the Commercial Revolution’, in The Collected Papers of F. C. Lane (Baltimore, 1966), 3–24.
2 F. Braudel, La Méditerranée et le monde méditerranéen à l’époque de Philippe II , 2 vols(Paris, 1982), I, 493.
3 J. H. Pryor, ‘The Naval Battles of Roger of Lauria’, Journal of Medieval History, 9 (1983), 179–216, and also in his Geography, Technology, and War. Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean (649–1571) (Cambridge, 1988).
4 G. Cracco, Un altro mondo, Venezia nel medioevo dal secolo XI al secolo XIV (Turin, 1986), 52.
5 F. Melis, I trasporti e le comunicazioni nel medioevo, ed. L. Frangioni (Florence, 1984), 111.
6 E. Concina, La casa dell’Arsenale, in Storia di Venezia, Temi, Il Mare (Rome, 1991), 147–210.
7 G. Luzzato, Studi di storia economica veneziana (Padua, 1954), 6.

Monday, November 16, 2009


The Fall of Athens: 406–404
From 410, Athenian fortunes steadily rose. The Spartans now held only Abydos, Chios, and a few cities on the Ionian coast; the momentum of the war had clearly turned in favor of Athens. However, a number of events in 406 would doom the Athenian war effort. The first was the appointment of a new Spartan navarch, Lysander. Lysander would prove to be the best admiral Sparta produced in the war. The second blow was the Battle of Notium. Alcibiades was very popular with many Athenians, but there was still a bitter minority that for various reasons was looking for an opportunity to ruin him. Alcibiades was in command of the fleet at Notium, and one day he led some of his soldiers inland on a plundering expedition. He had left the navy under the command of Antiochus and had ordered that under no circumstances was he to lead the navy out. However, once Alcibiades was gone, Antiochus did exactly that, looking for his opportunity to win military glory. The Athenian fleet found the Spartans led by Lysander and suffered a minor defeat in which Antiochus was killed. Though this was not a major disaster, it was the opportunity that enemies of Alcibiades were looking for. In the assembly, the blame for the defeat was placed squarely on his shoulders, and he was ordered to return to stand trial for negligence. Fearing he would not get a fair trial, he fled into exile, where he died a few years later.

The year 406 did provide one last great moment for the Athenian navy at the Battle of Arginousae, in what was the largest naval battle between Greek fleets in history. Through a massive effort, which included melting the gold and silver from their statues, the Athenians outfitted a fleet of 155 triremes to face 120 Spartan ships. In a huge Athenian victory, the Spartans lost 77 triremes while the Athenians lost 25. Seemingly, in one stroke, the Athenians had regained complete naval mastery of the Aegean. However, the victory did come at a huge price. After the battle, there were maybe a thousand Athenians from the 25 wrecked ships in the water. Usually, when battles were fought close to shore, it was much easier to pick up the survivors. However, this battle was fought in the open sea over a large area, and, to make things worse, a storm hit, making it very difficult to find the survivors. Conditions became so bad that the sailors refused to continue the search. Many of the bodies were never given proper burial, and those men who might have still been alive were lost. In Athens, this created a huge political firestorm. The eight generals were put on trial; all were convicted, and six were executed (two had never returned to Athens, guessing their probable fate). Theramenes and Thrasybulus, who were not in command but who had been involved in the unsuccessful rescue operation, were not convicted but fell into disfavor and were not elected to serve as generals for 405. The Athenians had managed in less than a year to drive out, execute, or keep from office Alcibiades, the eight experienced admirals who had planned the great victory at Arginousae, and Thrasybulus and Theramenes, who had contributed so much to the Athenian recovery since 411. The various blows suffered by Athens in 406 served to negate their one great success at Arginousae and paved the way for defeat the next year. Even worse, when the Spartans offered to end the war in 406, their proposal was rejected by the Athenian assembly. After so many years of war and so much loss, and because of their series of victories since 411, they were now unwilling to contemplate anything less than total victory. An Athenian politician named Cleophon, supposedly drunk and wearing a breastplate, convinced the assembly in very threatening language to continue the war.

The decisive battle of the war took place at Aegospotomae, in the Hellespont, in 405. The Spartans, thanks to the seemingly limitless treasury of Persia, had been able to build a new fleet and had put it under the command of their best navarch, Lysander. After extensive training of his crews, Lysander wished to open the Hellespont as a theater of war to threaten the Athenian lifeline, something Sparta had been unable to do since the Athenian victories of 411–410. The Athenian fleet was based at Samos, blocking Lysander’s route into the Hellespont. He therefore moved west, making a run at Athens itself. This maneuver served its purpose: the Athenians raced to protect their home city, allowing Lysander to move quickly back to Rhodes and then north along the Ionian coast, since the Athenians were no longer at Samos. Lysander entered the Hellespont and moved to Abydos, which was still allied to Sparta, though there had been no navy based there since 410; from there the Spartans attacked and conquered Lampsacus. The Athenians, realizing what had happened, moved to their base at Sestos and then to the beach of Aegospotami, just across the Hellespont from the Spartans at Lampsacus. Unfortunately, overconfidence, stemming from six years of naval victories, and the absence of their best admirals led the Athenians to make a number of blunders. Aegospotomae was not a suitable base: it was only a beach, with no nearby city or sources of water and food. The men had to leave their ships repeatedly to move inland to pick up needed supplies. Plutarch describes an Athenian force unprepared for battle: “They would spend most of the day ashore, abandoning all discipline without even posting a lookout as though they despised the enemy.”

Alcibiades happened to be living in exile nearby, so he went down to the Athenian camp and tried to warn the Athenians admirals that their position was weak and that the fleet should be moved immediately. They responded by saying, “We are in command, not you.”

Each day, the Athenians would sail out and try to provoke Lysander into battle; when that failed, they would return to the beach and then go off in every direction seeking supplies. On the fifth day, the Athenians again tried to bait Lysander into battle, but again he seemingly refused. The Athenians returned to shore, only to find Lysander and the Spartan fleet suddenly bearing down on them. Only nine Athenian triremes escaped; the rest, almost 200 triremes, were captured on the beach along with their crews. Lysander then executed more than 3,000 Athenian prisoners. The Athenian general Philocles faced his fate bravely. When asked by Lysander what punishment he deserved for treating other Greeks so badly, Philocles brazenly replied:

“Lysander do not play the prosecutor in a case where there is no judge, deal out the exact same punishment you would have suffered had you been defeated.” Then Philocles bathed, put on a splendid cloak, and led his fellow Athenians to execution, offering himself as the first victim.

Without its navy, Athens had effectively lost the war. The news of the disaster was brought to Athens by the Paralus (which along with the Saliminia was one of two fast triremes used by the Athenian state to send messages). The news came at night to the Piraeus, and, according to the Athenian historian Xenophon (430–355), who may have been an eyewitness, a “wail” went up from the harbor, along the Long Walls and into the city as the news passed from one person to another. No one in Athens slept that night, so upset were they by the great defeat and also because of their fears of the immediate future as they saw a fate similar to that which they had meted out to Melos as a very real possibility.

Lysander, meanwhile, sailed around the Aegean overthrowing governments friendly to Athens and installing narrow oligarchies of 10 (native) men to rule on Sparta’s behalf. He then arrived outside the Piraeus at the same time the Spartan army, led by the two kings, Agis II (r. 427–400) and Pausanias (r. 408–395), encamped just outside the Long Walls. The Spartans had been unable throughout the war to break into Athens; now they would not have to, for they would wait outside the city until the food ran out and Athens was forced to surrender. By 404, with the population of Athens starving, Athens sued for peace. The Spartans held a congress of their allies to decide Athens’ fate. Some states, most notably Thebes and Corinth, wanted to impose andrapodismos (killing all the men and enslaving the women and children) as punishment for Melos and other atrocities. The Spartans refused, but they did impose harsh peace terms: the end of the Athenian Empire, the end of the Athenian navy except for 12 triremes, the destruction of the Long Walls, and the installation of a new narrow oligarchy of 30 men (which would last only until 403) to replace the democracy. The Spartans and their allies then celebrated their victory on the sixteenth day of the month of Munychion (September 20, 404), the anniversary of the great victory over the Persians at Salamis 76 years before. People came from all over Greece to watch as the Long Walls, the hated symbol of Athenian power, were pulled down. According to Plutarch:

Lysander sent for a great company of flute girls from the city and collected all those who were in his camp. Then to the sound of their music, he pulled down the Long Walls and burned the triremes while the allies garlanded themselves with flowers, rejoiced together, and hailed that day as the beginning of freedom for Greece.


The Rules of Naval Warfare in Action: The Battles of Cynosemma, Abydos, and Cyzicus, 411–410
In 411, with the naval war in Ionia not producing the proper results, the Spartans decided on a bold new strategy: a move against Athenian control of the Hellespont. As noted earlier, the Hellespont was literally the lifeline of Athens, as most of the food for its besieged population came down this waterway from the Black Sea. The Athenians already held many of the cities in the Hellespont and had established various lookouts and patrols to deny the Spartans entry. However, the Spartans had managed to establish a base at Abydos, on the southern shore of the Hellespont, by marching an army overland through Anatolia from Miletus; it now had 16 triremes stationed there. For the Spartans, acquiring the base at Abydos was a good start, but as yet they could not seriously threaten Athenian control of the Hellespont. Mindarus, the new navarch (admiral) of the Spartan fleet, was stationed with 73 triremes at Miletus far to the southwest along the coast of Ionia. He wanted to move these ships into the Hellespont to join with those at Abydos. He knew his arrival there would represent such a serious threat to Athenians’ survival that they would be forced to fight a battle in the confined waters of the Hellespont, which would negate their superior speed and tactical ability. If the fighting did not go well, the nearby beaches would also provide places of refuge on which the superior Spartan marines, possibly with help from the nearby Persians, would have an advantage.

The problem was getting his 73 ships past the 75 Athenian triremes stationed at Samos. The Athenian base was well positioned to see the movement of the Spartans, and Mindarus did not want to fight the superior Athenian fleet in the open sea. He devised a ruse: he carefully organized the preparation for the voyage in such a way as to not alert the Athenian lookouts. He then waited until the last possible minute before ordering his men to leave immediately without the overt preparations with which a long voyage usually commenced. Most likely, the move out of Miletus took place at night, since Athenians did not discover the Spartan departure for some time. Apparently, Mindarus intended to head west into the open sea, skirting the western end of the island of Samos rather than going along the coast of Ionia and the eastern end of the island, where there was only a very narrow channel visible to the Athenians. A storm, though, forced him further west, to the island of Icarus, where the fleet was delayed nearly a week. At some point, the Athenians realized that the Spartans had departed and correctly guessed they were making for the Hellespont; they, too, now raced north to bar the Spartans entry. Because of the delay, Mindarus did not make an immediate run to the Hellespont but set off north across the open sea to Chios, an ally of Sparta. The Athenians learned of this and therefore halted their dash toward the Hellespont and instead stopped at Lesbos, directly north of Chios. The Athenians now expected the Spartans to remain at Chios, since their way north was blocked. Unfortunately, during the second part of the war, the Athenians had two missions that often pulled them in different directions and served to divide their forces, something they could ill afford after the disaster in Sicily. The Athenians not only had to fight the new Spartan fleet and keep it out of the Hellespont but also had to prevent revolts by its subjects, which threatened its tribute. Now, in 411, Eresus, one of the subject cities on the southwest coast of Lesbos, revolted. The Athenians posted lookouts on the east coast of Lesbos and on the mainland opposite, believing they would be alerted if the Spartans attempted to sail past. Then, most of the Athenian ships and men moved to crush the revolt. This meant that the main Athenian fleet was out of position when the Spartans moved from Chios. The Spartans received from their allies on Chios supplies and pay for their men; this provisioning took two days. On the third day, far sooner than the Athenians had expected any type of move, they sailed out. Mindarus did not immediately sail north into the open sea as he had before because he wished to avoid the main Athenian fleet at Eresus. Instead, he sailed east, skirting the promontory of Mount Mimas, to the Ionian coast, far to the south of the Athenian lookouts. The sailors disembarked to eat in the neighborhood of Phocaea before spending the rest of the day moving north along the coast. They ate their dinner at the Arginousae Islands, just out of range of the Athenian lookouts, who were directly north along the coast and northwest on Lesbos. They then waited for darkness and sailed between Lesbos and the coast at night, thwarting the efforts of the Athenian lookouts to detect their passing. They halted again to eat at Harmatus, which was just across the straight from Methymna, a city allied to Athens. If it had been light, they surely would have been spotted, but, again through careful planning and a little bit of luck, they arrived at Harmatus before dawn. The next day, they moved quickly north along the coast until, a little before midnight, they came to Rhoeteum, just inside the Hellespont. It had taken a little less than two days to move 73 triremes from Chios to the Hellespont, and the Spartans had been successful in avoiding detection or confrontation with the Athenians trying to block their passage. For the first time in the war, the Spartans had arrived in strength in the Hellespont. They would remain a threat to it for the war’s duration. The nature of the Peloponnesian War and the focus of the naval battle had now switched theaters.

The Athenians stationed at the base at Sestos, on the Hellespont’s northern shore, were alerted to the Spartan’s arrival by the signal fires from the lookouts and by the sudden and dramatic rise in the enemy campfires across the Hellespont on the southern shore. Now massively outnumbered, the 18 Athenian triremes at Sestos then tried to sneak out of Hellespont to rejoin the rest of the fleet. They left by night and so were hidden from the view of the Spartan base at Abydos as they moved along the northern shore of the Hellespont. However, they did not time their run well, for at daybreak they were still in the Hellespont and were spotted by the ships of Mindarus. The Spartans chased the tiny Athenian fleet, and four ships were sunk; the rest got away. The Spartans returned to Abydos, their combined fleet now numbering 86. Meanwhile, the Athenians at Eresus had finally been informed of the Spartans’ success in reaching the Hellespont despite their efforts. Realizing immediately the threat to Athens’ survival, they raced to the Hellespont, picking up the stragglers from Sestos along the way. The Athenians now had 76 triremes.

Both sides were now ready to fight a major naval battle. Mindarus wanted to fight a naval battle in the confined waters in the hope of negating the Athenian advantages in speed and experience. Also, since the battle would be fought close to land, Mindarus hoped to block the Athenians’ escape out to the open sea and instead to drive the Athenians onto shore and there use his superior marines; he could also use the beach or Abydos as a refuge in case the attack did not go well. The Athenians had to fight as well; they could not allow a Spartan fleet to exist in the Hellespont because it would threaten the shipments of grain on which Athens depended.

The battle was fought in October 411 off Point Cynossema. Both lines of triremes stretched from the north to the southwest toward the Hellespont entry. Syracusans manned the Spartan right, while Mindarus held the left. Thrasybulus, one of Athens’ great naval heroes, held the right wing of the Athenian line, while Thrasyllus, who was responsible for allowing the Spartans to sneak past him in the first place, commanded the left. When the battle began, Mindarus headed southwest to block the Athenians, but even in the narrow channel the Athenian ships were still faster, so Thrasybulus was able to avoid the encircling move and instead get around the Spartan left. He immediately turned back to the northwest, hitting the Spartan ships from the sides and from behind. He broke the Spartan left and then continued north to attack the Spartan center, which had pushed the Athenian center back to the beach. However, the Spartan ships had become disorganized during their pursuit of the Athenians, and they were easy prey for Thrasybulus and the Athenian right. The Spartan center scattered as it attempted to make it back to the southern shore or the base at Abydos. When the Syracusans on the right saw their line disintegrating, they too broke and fled, and Thrasyllus and the Athenian left, which had been hard pressed, now went over to the attack. The Athenians won the battle. Diodorus, a Greek historian from Sicily, described the causes of Athenian success:

The pilots of the Athenian fleet, being far superior in experience, contributed greatly to the victory. For although the Peloponnesians had more ships and the valor of their marines, the skill of the Athenian pilots rendered useless the superiority of their opponents. Whenever the Peloponnesians charged forward to ram, the Athenian pilots would maneuver their own ships so skillfully that their opponents were unable to strike them at any spot but could only meet them ram against ram. When Mindarus saw that the force of his rams was ineffective, he gave orders for his ships to come to grips in small groups or one at a time. . . . The Athenians though cleverly avoided the on-coming rams of the ships and struck them on the side and damaged many.

The Athenians set up a trophy, and the dead were collected under truce. The Athenians destroyed 21 enemy ships. Though the numbers were not great, they had avoided defeat in the battle and therefore had avoided defeat in the war. A trireme was sent to Athens with the good news, and after all the recent disasters Athens had suffered, the victory served to revive the Athenian population. According to Thucydides, “the good news . . . greatly heartened the Athenians and they came to believe that if they fought resolutely, final victory was still possible.”

 In the immediate aftermath of Cynossema, the Spartans were still in the Hellespont with a substantial fleet, significant bases, and Persian support. Both sides now called for reinforcements from home and from their allies and subjects. Triremes raced to the Hellespont from all over the Greek world. Both sides still desired battle for the same reasons as at Cynossema. In November of 411, a second major battle was fought at Abydos. Fourteen Spartan ships attempted to sneak into the Hellespont to join up with their comrades at Abydos. They were spotted by the Athenian lookouts, who warned the Athenian commanders at Sestos. The Athenian fleet sailed out to attack, while Mindaurs and the Spartans at Abydos raced in to protect their comrades. A tense battle ensued that lasted much of the day until 18 new ships appeared from the west heading toward the battle. The 18 ships were Athenian vessels commanded by Alcibiades; when he came into sight of the battle, he hoisted a red flag to alert his comrades that he was indeed Athenian. His sudden appearance at Abydos turned the battle in favor of the Athenians. The Spartans fled back to Abydos after losing 30 ships.

During the winter of 411–410, both sides prepared for the coming campaign season; the Spartans at Abydos, with Persian money, spent time repairing their ships and building new ones, while the Athenian commanders in the Hellespont Thrasybulus and Theramenes spent their time in the northern Aegean collecting money either through tribute or by plundering. In 410, both sides were again willing to give battle. The Spartans moved first, capturing Cyzicus with the help of the Persians. The Spartans now had a base further east in the Hellespont; Mindarus and 80 triremes were stationed there. The Athenians, again recognizing a threat to their very survival, devised a complicated strategy. Their fleet would be led by their most successful admirals of the war: Thrasybulus, Theramenes, and Alcibiades. They moved toward Cyzicus in heavy rain to conceal their approach, then divided up their forces: Alcibiades took 40 triremes and headed straight for Cyzicus, while Thrasybulus and Theramenes remained hidden to the north of the city. When Mindarus saw only 40 ships approaching, he believed he had a great numerical advantage, so he led out his 80 ships. Alcibiades and his ships pretended to flee to the west, dragging the Spartans further out to sea. Then Alcibiades suddenly turned to fight, and Theramenes and Thrasybulus appeared, seemingly out of nowhere. Theramenes moved south to cut off a Spartan retreat back to the city, and Thrasybulus moved southwest to prevent a Spartan escape out of the Hellespont. Mindarus realized he was trapped and immediately ordered his men to make for the beach at Cleri. Thrasybulus realized what was happening and devised a new strategy, somehow signaling the other two squadrons to attack the beach. The naval battle turned into a land battle as the Athenians followed in pursuit. There was a long, drawn-out struggle among the ships, but when Mindarus was killed, the Spartans and their Persian allies, now surrounded on all sides by the marines of Alcibiades, Theramenes to the east, and Thrasybulus to the west, suddenly broke and fled, giving Athens the victory. In one of the great laconic messages in the history of war reporting, the surviving Spartans sent a brief letter back to Sparta describing the situation: “Ships lost. Mindarus dead. Men starving. Don’t know what to do.”

The Athenians set up two trophies to commemorate their victories, one for the naval victory and one for the victory on land.

The Battle of Cyzicus, coming so soon after Cynossema and Abydos, was huge for the Athenians. The Spartan presence in the Hellespont was ended, and the trade routes that fed Athens were again safe. The Athenians captured Cyzicus and were able to collect tribute from the city and the surrounding areas. The Athenians also established a new fort at Chrysopolis to tax trade that flowed through the Bosporus, and this became an important source of revenue for the cash-strapped city. Despite the disasters in Sicily, the revolts in the empire, and the new challenge of a Spartan navy, seemingly the Athenians had now weathered the worst of the storm.