The Battle of Acre (June 1258)

Reconstruction of Acre mid-Thirteenth Century

The naval engagement which took place off Acre on or about 25 June 1258 clearly illustrates an indisputable maxim endemic to all warfare: battles are usually complicated affairs in which the outcome is often determined by factors other than numerical superiority. When the Genoese admiral Rosso della Turca arrived at Tyre in the spring of 1258 he had with him his original complement of twenty-five galleys and four navi, plus eight galleys that the commune had hastily added at the last moment when it learned that Venice had sent reinforcements of its own to Oltremare. Waiting for him in the harbour were enough remaining Genoese galleys to give him a total of fifty. In the meanwhile La Serenissima had sent Andrea Zeno with another thirteen galleys, followed by Lorenzo Barozzi with about ten more. Three additional Venetian galleys came into Acre from Crete, giving Admiral Lorenzo Tiepolo a fleet of about forty galleys, four large navi and perhaps ten smaller vessels. So when the Genoese flotilla showed up outside Acre’s breakwater in battle formation in late June, it appeared to enjoy a modest numerical advantage. But, of course, that was not the whole story.

First of all, it seems the Genoese crews were deficient in quality and perhaps even quantity. The Annales Ianuenses indicated that Rosso della Turca’s fleet was hurriedly scraped together only after the republic’s leaders had heard that Venice had already dispatched naval reinforcements to Oltremare. This forced them to enlist ‘Lombards as soldiers [sailors], men who knew nothing of the sea’. In fact, the last eight Genoese galleys were launched ‘sine munitione perfecta’ (‘without being fully armed’ – meaning without a complete crew complement), ‘since in Oltremare they lacked galleys more than men’. The obvious implication is that Della Turca was expected to flesh out his crews with inexperienced Genoese colonists upon his arrival in the Latin Kingdom with little or no time to train them. It was a recipe for disaster – fully preparing a green crew for battle would have taken several weeks, if not months.

Furthermore, the Venetians had a vastly superior manpower pool from which to draw. It turns out that the Genoese were singularly unpopular in the Latin Kingdom. The Pisans, the Provençals, the Templars, the Teutonic Knights, most of the inhabitants of Acre and the overwhelming majority of the kingdom’s nobility all lined up behind the Venetians, while the Genoese could comfortably count on the support of only the Hospitallers and Philip of Montfort, the lord of Tyre. This was, in part, because the Genoese navigated the convoluted currents of Palestine’s politics rather poorly. In February 1258 the very powerful prince of Antioch, Bohemond VI, brought with him to Acre his sister, Queen Plaisance of Cyprus, along with her young son Hugh II, so that they could bid the barony to pay homage to the child ‘as the heir and lord of the kingdom of Jerusalem’. Almost all, including the Venetians and Pisans, agreed, but the Genoese, backed by their Hospitaller allies, refused. As a result, ‘the queen [Plaisance], on the advice of her brother the prince [Bohemond VI],’ recounted the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘had all the men of the lordship move to the aid – and into the pay – of the Pisans and the Venetians, against the Genoese, strictly prohibiting them from taking pay with the Genoese’. Bohemond even went so far as to hire ‘800 French troops’ at his own expense ‘to harass’ the Hospitallers and Genoese.

More fundamentally, the Genoese in Oltremare had apparently acquired the reputation of ‘not working and playing well with others’, earning the enmity of almost everyone. Thus when the Venetians and Pisans attempted to recruit others to their cause at the handsome rate of ‘ten saracenate bezants for the day’, there was no shortage of takers. ‘As a result,’ reported the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘they had plenty of men, and they boarded their galleys (forty in number), and equipped other barques, parescalmes and panfiles [various smaller vessels] (of which there were more than seventy), each of which had crossbowmen on board who did the Genoese a great deal of damage and harm.’ In an era when missile exchanges and hand-to-hand combat on the decks of engaged vessels were decisive in maritime warfare, a surfeit of so-called supersalienti (marines) was a distinct advantage.

Lastly there was the question of leadership. The supervision of the Genoese fleet was manifestly wanting. The commune had placed Rosso della Turca in overall command of the armada, but, according to the Genoese annals, had sent with him his son Mirialdo, ‘a staunch and upright man, so that in him, even more than in the father, faith was placed, on account of the old age of the parent’. Clearly, the commune had concerns about the elder Della Turca’s continued vigour. He had previously been Capitano del Popolo and had been mentioned in the Genoese annals as early as 1214 (forty-four years earlier), meaning he was probably in his late sixties or early seventies. Regrettably, Mirialdo died unexpectedly of unspecified natural causes a few days after the fleet reached Tyre. Thus when Rosso della Turca appeared before Acre with his armada that awful summer morning in June, he was not only still recovering from the rigours of the voyage from Genoa at an advanced age, but was also grieving over the loss of his son. He must have felt very old indeed.

The basic plan of the Genoese and their allies was sound. While the Genoese fleet sailed south from Tyre, Philip of Montfort marched overland with eighty horsemen and thirty archers to a place called La Vigne-Neuve, which must have been close enough to Acre to view the oncoming naval engagement. He was to be met there by Brother William of Châteauneuf, Master of the Hospitallers, with as many of his knights and Turcopoles as he could muster. Once Rosso della Turca had drawn out the Venetian fleet and destroyed it, Montfort and Châteauneuf were to penetrate the city through the Hospitaller compound and assist their comrades in the Genoese quarter ‘seize the two quarters of the Pisans and of the Venetians’.153 The two bands of confederates did, in fact, join up at La Vigne-Neuve, but what they saw happen out at sea was not what they had anticipated.

When the Genoese fleet first appeared offshore, the Venetians and Pisans hesitated ‘for fear that the Genoese on land would attack them, and that if they boarded their galleys and the Genoese who were at sea landed, they would lose everything’. They ultimately resolved the quandary by prevailing upon Brother Thomas Bérard, Master of the Templars, to guard their enclaves with his mounted brethren and Turcopoles. This accomplished, the Venetians and their allies boarded their vessels and rowed out to confront their Ligurian adversaries. It was then that the best opportunity for a Genoese victory occurred. A ‘contrary wind’ separated thirteen of the Venetian vessels from the rest as they emerged from the narrow mouth of the harbour.

If Rosso della Turca had positioned his fleet near the point of egress, he would have overwhelmed the divided enemy fleet as surely as his counterpart, Lorenzo Tiepolo, had done to Pasquetto Mallone’s flotilla at Tyre the year before. Instead of attacking, however, Della Turca absurdly proceeded to ‘prandere’ – that is, ‘to take the midday meal’. And, according to the Annales Ianuenses, he continued to do so ‘between Nones and Vespers’ – in other words, from about three in the afternoon to sunset. This gave the Venetian admiral Lorenzo Tiepolo plenty of time to safely egress his entire fleet and arrange it into battle formation with the wind at his back. The consequences for the Genoese fleet during the subsequent battle were nothing short of cataclysmic. Twenty-four of the fifty Genoese galleys were captured and 1,700 of their mariners were either killed or taken prisoner.

Exasperated, Philip of Montfort returned to Tyre. William Châteauneuf, the distraught Master of the Hospitallers, remained in Acre but perished of an un-disclosed illness within months afterwards. The consequences for the Genoese colonists of Acre were, perhaps, the most grievous. ‘When the Genoese, who were holding their quarter and who had defended it for so long and suffered so much and endured such shortages that an egg could hardly be found for a wounded man to eat, saw that their galleys had been defeated,’ wrote the ‘Templar of Tyre’, ‘they abandoned their quarter and took refuge in the Hospital.’ They eventually made their way up to Tyre, which then became the main Genoese entrepot in the Latin Levant. As for the Pisans and Venetians, they dismantled every edifice in the Genoese quarter, including the great fortified tower. Lorenzo Tiepolo personally transported the square pillars from the tower’s base back to Venice, where they stand to this day outside the baptistery of St Mark’s Basilica.

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