Thursday, March 24, 2016

Italy | Venice | Enrico Dandolo #6

By the 1070s both the Byzantine Empire and the Venetian Republic were threatened by the rapacious Normans from western Europe. The Normans were descendants of pirates, freebooters, and marauders from Iceland, Denmark, and the western Scandinavian Peninsula who by the tenth century had settled in the part of northern France that now bears their name—Normandy. Ambitious, foot-loose, and militaristic, they quickly moved east and by 1017 had established footholds in southern Italy. They soon controlled most of the southern half  of the Italian Peninsula and by 1072 had seized Sicily. Their leader Robert de Hauteville, known better known as Robert Guiscard (“the Crafty”) then set his sights on the Golden Apple, Constantinople, the ultimate prize of a long string of marauders dating back to Alaric the Goth and Attila the Hun. His plan was to proceed from the Norman strongholds on the boot heel of Italy across the Strait of Otranto to the coastline of the Balkans and seize the city of Durazzo, also known in ancient times as Dyrrachium. Durazzo is now Durrës, the second largest city in the current-day country of Albania. Durazzo was the western terminus of the Via Egnatia, the ancient road built by the Romans in the second century b.c. The eastern terminus was Constantinople, 696 miles to the east.  From Durazzo Robert and his army hoped to follow the road, twenty feet wide and paved with stone slabs or covered with a layer of packed sand, straight to the walls of the imperial city.
Map showing the location of Durazzo and the Strait of Otranto, connecting the Adriatic and Ionian seas.
The Via Egnatia 
In May of 1181 Robert and 16,000 to 30,000 men (accounts vary), including 1,300 Norman knights, crossed the Strait in 150 ships. As soon as he became aware of the Norman invasion the newly crowned Byzantine Emperor Alexius I Comnenus (r. (1081–1118) sent ambassadors to the Venetians with promises of various trade concessions and perks if they would throw their navy at the Normans in the Adriatic. The Venetians did not have to be coaxed. Durazzo was just seventy-five miles north of the narrowest point of the Strait of Otranto, which connects the Adriatic Sea with the Ionian Sea. Here the strait is only twenty-one miles wide. If the Normans were able to establish a stronghold in Durazzo they would control both sides of the Strait of Otranto and would be in a position to blockade the Adriatic Sea. The Venetians could not allow this to happen.  The Adriatic was their lake, and the strait was the gateway to the rest of the Mediterranean, including Constantinople, the Levant, Alexandria, and the rest of the north African coast. Doge Domenico Selvo himself led a squadron of sixty Venetian warships down the Adriatic Sea to Durazzo. The Norman army had already been offloaded, but the Norman ships remained anchored in the roadstead offshore from the city, where they were pounced on by the Venetian fleet. On the sea the Normans were no match for the Venetians. and much of the Norman fleet was destroyed. The Venetians, however, were not prepared to fight on land. Emperor Alexius himself led an army to confront the Normans at Durazzo, but in October of 1081 the Byzantines were routed and Emperor Alexius just barely managed to avoid being captured. The fortified city of Durazzo held out until February of 1082 when it was finally taken by Robert and the Normans. According to one account the gates of the city had been opened to the Normans by a Venetian merchant who had been promised one of Robert’s daughters in marriage in return for his treachery.

Within a few weeks Robert the Crafty and his army had proceeded hundreds of miles east on the Via Egnatia. It looked as if the road was clear the whole way to Constantinople. But Emperor Alexius still had a few cards to play. He sent ambassadors to German King Henry IV who in return for a handsome bribe of 360,000 gold pieces  agreed to attack the Normans on the Italian Peninsula. Robert had no choice but to return to Italy and organize resistance to this attack on his rear, figuratively speaking. The army in the Balkans was left in charge of his son Bohemund. Robert supposedly vowed that he would never take a bath or shave until he was able to return and to the Balkans and lead his army onto Constantinople. It was not to be. For the next three years the Normans fought the Germans in Italy, the Venetians on the seas, and the Byzantines in what is now Greece, with the tides of battle ebbing and flowing. Robert was able to eject the Germans from Rome and rescue Pope Gregory VII, who had been taken prisoner by Henry IV, but the march on Constantinople led by his son was halted at Larissa, in what is now Greece,  350 miles short of the Golden Apple. On July 17, 1085 Robert Guiscard died of fever, and with him the Norman threat to Venice and Byzantium also expired, at least for the time being.

The Venetians first came to the aid of Byzantines back in 1081 after being promised trade concessions and other perquisites. Emperor Alexius I was not slow in showing gratitude. In 1082 or thereabout—the exact date is a matter of rather heated scholarly debate—he issued a Chrysobull, or decree, spelling out what the Venetians would receive for their continuing support in the battle against the Normans. (A chrysobull, or “golden bull”, was originally a golden seal (bulla = seal) attached to decrees issued by Byzantine emperors. Eventually the term was applied to the document itself.) The magnanimity of the concessions of were some indication of danger the Byzantines thought themselves to be in and how in need they were of Venetian aide. First, Venetian merchants were granted the right to trade throughout the Byzantine Empire without the imposition of any taxes or customs duties. For a society based almost entirely on trade this was an incredible boon, and gave them immense advantages over trade competitors like the Genoans.  Also, the Venetians were granted a district in Constantinople on the southern shore of the Golden Horn complete with anchorages and docks and the right to establish warehouses, offices, stores, residences, and a Catholic Church. This was the basis of the Venetian Quarter, which in time would become an almost autonomous foreign community within the city of Constantinople. In addition to these two overriding benefits the honorary title of  Protosebastos (“First of the Venerable”) and a yearly stipend were bestowed on the Doge, yearly cash donations granted to Venetian churches, and a church was founded in Durazzo, where the Venetians had first come to the aid of the Byzantines in their struggle against the Normans, and other boons.

At first glance it looked like the Byzantines had given away the ranch. But we must remember the historical context. At the Battle of Durazzo in October of 1181 the Byzantine Army had been thoroughly routed and Emperor Alexius had himself fled the battlefield with blood streaming down his face from a wound on his forehead.  This was a well-nigh unbelievable insult and injury to the person of the Emperor. By May of 1182, the  usual date given for the Chrysobull, the Norman army had advanced along the Via Egnatia well into the Balkans and at the rate they were going could be expected to be pounding on the gates of the Theodosian Land Wall in a matter of months. Alexius was clearly desperate. He would do whatever to took to get the Venetians onboard for the battle against the rampaging Normans and sort out the details later. In the meantime the Venetians based in their Quarter in Constantinople began to accumulate huge fortunes as a result of the trade advantages granted to them in the Chrysobull of 1182. The Dandolos got their foot in the door early. Within a few years Domenico Dandolo, the grandson of the Domenico Dandolo who had brought the relics of St. Tarasius from Constantinople to Venice was appointed ambassador to the Byzantine capital. His grandson, Enrico Dandolo, would instigate the sack of the city in 1204.

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