Khomeini’s Armed Forces 1980

Iran’s introduction to modern war came in a fashion startlingly similar to the collapse of the Iraqi military in May 1941. Two months after the British had destroyed the Iraqi Army, British forces from the west and south and Soviet forces from the north annihilated the Iranian Army and overthrew Reza Shah Pahlavi’s pro-German government. They placed his son, Mohammad Reza Shah Pahlavi, on the throne. Despite numerous internal challenges to Pahlavi rule by various political, ethnic, and religious movements, the young Shah managed, with significant assistance from the United States and United Kingdom, to retain power. Using the immense wealth conferred on his country by the oil boom of the 1970s, the Shah built the Iranian military into a formidable force, one equipped with the most modern American and Western weapons.

An Iraqi military assessment from July 1979 noted that in addition to reflecting “the American military ideology and tactics related to limited and modern wars, such as [the] Vietnam War, Indian/Pakistani War, and Arab/Israeli Wars,” the Iranian military reflected the Shah’s “aggressive, expansionist ambitions.” This assessment cited the development of new commands (airborne command in Shiraz, naval commands focused on the gulf and sea of Oman, three “field corps” in Tehran, Shiraz, and Khorramshahr), an increase in infantry formations, the addition of twenty-four infantry regiments during the preceding decade, contracting for modern naval and air force weapons, and the steady improvement of military-related infrastructure. Moreover, Iranian air, sea, and ground units consistently trained to higher standards than those of the Iraqis, at least before Khomeini’s revolution. Better equipped, better trained, and more numerous, the Iranian military had been a major reason why the Iraqis, to Saddam’s considerable shame, had buckled under direct and indirect Iranian pressure in 1975 and signed to the Algiers Agreement.

US policy toward Iran was changing throughout the 1970s, but in the end it was all about security. For the United States, Iran was a client state whose anti-Communist stance and willingness to support US interests in the region – notably Israel and the free flow of oil – represented an emerging pillar, along with Saudi Arabia, of stability in the Persian Gulf. The explosion of oil wealth along with the Nixon Administration’s policy to sell “Iran those weapons it requested” dominated the large and diverse economic and cultural relationships between Washington and Tehran.

By 1978, the year before Khomeini’s revolution, Iran counted 447 aircraft in its air force, fully a third more than those possessed by the Iraqis. Among those aircraft were F-14s, F-4s, and F-5s – all weapons systems superior to the Soviet equipment in the Iraqi arsenal. In addition to the aircraft, American air-to-air missiles and electronic warfare equipment gave the Shah’s Eagles a distinct technological advantage over Saddam’s Falcons. In the wake of the 1973 Arab–Israeli War, the Shah increasingly emphasized the quality of training and made full use of his relationship with the United States to train Iranian aircrews to a standard far exceeding Iraqi pilots. By 1977, despite the Shah’s penchant for “leadership by distrust,” whereby officers were played against each other and joint service planning was all but forbidden, Iran’s 100,000-man air force was the most powerful in the Gulf.

However, the arrival of the religious revolutionaries in Tehran led to defections and major purges primarily at the top ranks, but occasionally down to the pilot level. Once the war broke out, the regime brought back a number of pilots from prison or civilian life to serve in frontline squadrons against the Iraqis. Nevertheless, the aircraft and pilots proved wasting assets, because soured US–Iranian relations ensured that Khomeini’s air force received few American-made spare parts, supplies, and equipment, and no more Iranian pilots would be trained in the United States. Consequently, according to Iraqi intelligence, less than half of Iran’s aircraft were flyable, and in some squadrons the maintenance picture was even bleaker. An Iraqi intelligence report from July 1980 indicated that only five F-14s of Isfahan’s two squadrons of Tomcats (approximately forty aircraft) were serviceable. Moreover, there were fewer pilots to fly them, because many had been arrested on suspicion of plotting a coup.

The Iranian Navy fared better than the other services in the purges, and despite logistic problems, maintained its pre-1979 naval superiority over much of the Gulf in the early years of the conflict. The Shah had equipped it lavishly. In 1978, the navy possessed three guided missile destroyers, four frigates, and an assortment of lesser vessels to oppose Iraq’s nine fast missile boats. An Iraqi assessment from July 1980 described the navy in the post-Shah period this way: “The Iranian naval force [has] suffered the least from the political events for two reasons. It [has] stayed away from participating in attacking the forces opposing the Shah, and Ahmad Madani, who was appointed as its commander, persisted in protecting its capabilities.” Out of a force of more than 28,000 naval personnel, the Iraqis estimated only 3,000–4,000 desertions after the Shah’s fall. Overall, the report noted, “fighting qualification can be evaluated average/below average.”

The Shah had equipped his ground forces as generously as he had his navy and air force. In 1978, before Khomeini’s return, the Iranian Army numbered 285,000 soldiers against the 190,000 soldiers in the Iraqi Army. Relying on American and British suppliers, the Shah had amassed 1,800 tanks by 1978, which served as the backbone for three armored divisions, three infantry divisions, and four independent brigades (one armored, one infantry, one airborne, and one special forces).

Many of Iran’s tanks were older model American M-47s and M-60s, but the Iranians also possessed 760 of the newer British Chieftains. The army also deployed 600 of the most modern American and British helicopters. Moreover, at the time of the Shah’s fall, the Iranians had a further 1,450 Chieftains on order and were cooperating with funding in the development of the British Challenger tank and its Chobham composite armor. In addition to Western-style training by the British and Americans, the Iranian Army gained some operational and tactical experience during deployments to Oman in the early 1970s, where it helped suppress Communist rebels. Despite these qualitative advantages, the Shah’s army suffered the same fate as most others under totalitarian systems.

The Shah controlled every aspect of military life including promotions above the rank of major. As one study noted, the Shah’s ground forces, “although militarily proficient, were lacking any independent decision making capability, sense of identity, or ability to coordinate among themselves.” Moreover, the fact that the Iranians in comparison to the Iraqis had a far greater distance to deploy and sustain a fight from their cantonment areas in the central and northern portions of their country considerably made up for the difference in numbers. In terms of divisions and corps and major ground weapons systems, the two countries were nearly equal in the last years of the Shah’s rule.

All of that radically changed in the aftermath of Khomeini’s return to Tehran. The Islamic Revolution reversed the strategic balance, at least for the short term. The reversal was a result not just of the revolutionary chaos but part of a naïve and ill-timed plan by the revolutionaries to disarm large parts of an armed force which they felt possessed many “excessively and unnecessarily sophisticated weapons.” On 6 March 1979, the new government announced that from then forward, Iran would no longer serve as “policeman of the Persian Gulf”; it began converting naval facilities into fishing harbors, canceling military hardware contracts, and expelling Western trainers. An Iraqi military assessment of the Iranian Army shortly after the revolution noted that it was “generally inefficient” and operating at only 50 percent of its prior effectiveness. The report attributed the decline in “discipline and moral” to:

1) Units being “driven by committees” made up of clergy. This “had a bad effect” on the psychological state of commanders … 2) Army personnel feel they could be “retired or expelled” from the service at any time. 3) Deployments in the Kurdish region “under undesirable conditions.” 4) No training (with the exception of the 16th Armored Division). 5) Lack of maintenance and spare parts.

Reports from Iraq’s military attaché in Tehran added to the assessment that the Iranian military was in a state of collapse. On the occasion of the Army Day parade in April 1979, he noted, “The morale [of] the Iranian soldiers is still low. Comparing uniforms, marching, and general structure of the former Iranian soldier and officer with that of the current ones, you will find a huge gap, whereby the paraded soldiers are marching with uniforms that resemble that of prisoners and most of them are antiques.” Moreover, “as for the march, it resembled that of a prisoners’ march after combat.” The attaché also reported that despite the announcement that ten regiments would pass in review, he counted only five. In conclusion, he noted that “we did not observe any high military ranks in the parade, but the rank was limited to major and lower.”



The Parthians were also masters of the art of war, as they would show in the next period of conflict, with Rome. Driven on to ever-wider conquests by the ambitions of mighty patricians like Pompeii, Lucullus, and Crassus, leaders who saw conquest and military glory as necessary adjuncts to a successful political career, the Roman republic by the first half of the first century BC had taken over the eastern Mediterranean from its previous Hellenistic overlords and had begun to press even farther eastward. The Romans’ main area of conflict with the Parthians was in Armenia, Syria, and northern Mesopotamia.

In 53 BC Marcus Licinius Crassus, a fabulously rich Roman politician who had destroyed the slave revolt of Spartacus in southern Italy in earlier years, became the new governor of Roman Syria. Hoping to make conquests in the east to rival those recently achieved by Caesar in Gaul, Crassus marched an army of some forty thousand men east to Carrhae (modern Harran)—arrogantly rejecting the advice of the king of Armenia to take advantage of his friendship and follow a less exposed northerly route. At Carrhae Crassus’s army was met in the open plain by a smaller but fast-moving force of about ten thousand Parthian horsemen, including large numbers of horse archers, supported by a much smaller force of heavily armored cavalrymen on armored horses, each man wielding a long, heavy lance. The Roman force was composed primarily of armored infantry equipped with swords and heavy throwing spears, along with some Gaulish cavalrymen who were either lightly armored or not armored at all.

The Parthians confronted Crassus with a kind of fighting that the Romans had not previously encountered, and against which they had no answer. The Roman infantry advanced, but the Parthian horse archers withdrew before them, circling around to shoot arrows into the flanks of their column. Hour after hour the arrows rained down on the Romans, and despite their heavy armor the powerful Parthian war bows frequently zinged an arrow past the edge of a shield, found a gap at the neck between body armor and helmet, punched through a weak link in chain mail, or wounded a soldier’s unprotected hands or feet. The Romans grew tired and thirsty in the heat, and their frustration at not being able to get to grips with the Parthians turned to defeatism, especially when they saw the Parthians resupply themselves with arrows from masses of heavily laden pack camels.

At one point Crassus’s son led a detachment, including the Gaulish cavalry, against the Parthians. The Parthians pulled back as if in disorder, but their real intention was to draw the detachment away beyond any possible assistance from the main body. When the Gauls rode ahead to chase off the archers, the Parthian heavy cavalry charged down on them, spearing the lightly armored Gauls and their horses with their long lances. In desperation, the Gauls tried to attack the Parthian horses by dismounting and rolling under them, trying to stab up at their unprotected bellies, but even this desperate tactic could not save them. Then the full strength of the Parthian horse archers turned on the Roman detachment. More and more of them were hit by arrows, while all were disoriented and confused by the clouds of dust thrown up by the Parthians’ horses. Crassus’s son pulled his men back to a small hill—where they were surrounded and eventually killed, with the exception of about five hundred, who were taken prisoner.

The defeat of the detachment and the jubilation of the Parthians further demoralized the main Roman force. Finally, Crassus attempted to negotiate with the Parthian general, Suren, only to be killed in a scuffle and beheaded. The survivors of the Roman army withdrew in disorder back into Roman Syria. Meanwhile, as many as ten thousand Roman prisoners were marched off by the Parthians to the remote northeast of the empire.

According to the Greek historian Plutarch the head of Crassus was sent to the Parthian king, Orodes, and it arrived while the king was listening to an actor delivering some lines from Euripedes’s play The Bacchae. To the applause of the court, the actor took the head and spoke the words of Queen Agave of Thebes, who in the play unwittingly killed her own son, King Pentheus, while in a Bacchic trance:

We’ve hunted down a lion’s whelp today,

And from the mountains bring a noble prey

Some have suggested that the Parthian general, recorded in the Western sources as Suren, was the warrior-hero later remembered as Rostam and immortalized in the revered tenth-century Persian poet Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh (Book of Kings). Like Rostam, Suren hailed from Sistan (originally Sakastan—the land of the Sakae), and like Rostam, he also had a troubled relationship with his king. Orodes was so resentful of Suren’s victory that he had him murdered.

The defeat at Carrhae was a great blow to Roman prestige in the east, and after it the Parthians were able to extend their control to include Armenia. But in the fiercely competitive environment of Rome toward the end of the republic, the defeat, humiliation, and death of Crassus were a challenge as much as a warning. To succeed where Crassus had failed—to win a Parthian triumph—became an inviting political prize. Another incentive was the wealth of the silk trade. While the hostile Parthians controlled the central part of the route to China, wealthy Romans were dismayed to see much of the gold they paid to have their wives and daughters clothed in expensive silks going to their most redoubtable enemies.

The next Roman to test the Parthians in a major way was Mark Antony. But between the expeditions of Crassus and Antony, the Parthians and the Romans fought several other campaigns, with mixed outcomes. In 51 BC some Roman survivors from Carrhae ambushed an invading Parthian force near Antioch and destroyed it. But in 40 BC another Parthian force, commanded by Orodes’s son Pacorus (with the help of a renegade Roman, Quintus Labienus), broke out of Syria and conquered both Palestine and most of the provinces of Asia Minor. Exploiting the chaos of the civil wars that followed the murder of Julius Caesar in 44 BC, the Parthian invaders received the submission of many towns without a siege. But a year or so later Publius Ventidius, one of Mark Antony’s subordinates, rescued the eastern provinces with some of the veteran legions of Caesar’s army. He defeated the Parthians in a series of battles in which all the main Parthian commanders were killed, including Pacorus and Labienus. Back in Rome, Ventidius’s triumph over the Parthians was considered a rare honor. Seeing his lieutenant so praised, Mark Antony wanted the glory of a victory against the Parthians for himself.

In 36 BC he took an army more than double the size of that of Crassus into the same area of upper Mesopotamia. Antony soon encountered many of the same difficulties that had frustrated Crassus. The Romans found that their best remedy against the Parthian arrows was to form the close formation called the testudo (tortoise), in which the soldiers closed up so that their shields made a wall in front, with the ranks behind holding their shields over their heads, overlapping, to make a roof. This made an effective defense but slowed the army’s advance to a crawl. The Roman infantry still could not hit back at the Parthian horse archers, whose mobility enabled them to range at will around the marching Romans and attack them at their most vulnerable. The Parthians were also able to attack Antony’s supply columns, and the difficulty of finding food and water made the large numbers of the invading force a liability rather than an asset. Having suffered in this way in the south, Antony attempted a more northerly attack on Parthian territory, penetrating into what is now Azerbaijan. But he achieved little, and was forced to retreat through Armenia in the winter cold, losing as many as twenty-four thousand men.

Antony saved some face by a later campaign in Armenia, but the overall message of these Roman encounters with the Parthians was that the styles of warfare of the opponents, and the geography of the region, dictated a stalemate that would be difficult for either side to break. The Parthian cavalry was vulnerable to ambush by Roman infantry in the hilly, less open terrain of the Roman-controlled territories, and lacked the siege equipment necessary to take the Roman towns. At the same time, the Romans were vulnerable to the Parthians in the open Mesopotamian plain and would always find it difficult to protect their supply lines against the more mobile Parthian forces. These factors were more or less permanent.

Perhaps recognizing the intractability of this situation, after Augustus eventually achieved supremacy in the Roman Empire and ended the civil wars by defeating Mark Antony in 31/30 BC, Augustus followed a policy of diplomacy with the Parthians. In this way he was able to retrieve the eagle standards of the legions that had been lost at Carrhae. The Parthians seem to have used the period of peace in the west to create a new Indo-Parthian empire in the Punjab, under a line descended from the Suren family. But the wars in the west began again in the reign of Nero, after the Parthian king Vologases I (Valkash) had appointed a new king in Armenia, which the Romans regarded as a dependent state of the Roman Empire. The general Gnaeus Domitius Corbulo conquered Armenia in AD 58–60, but the Parthians counterattacked with some success thereafter, capturing a Roman force. It has been suggested that the Roman armor made of overlapping plates (lorica segmentata), familiar from films and children’s books, was developed as a counter to Parthian arrows around the time of the campaign of Corbulo. The outcome of the Armenian war was that the Romans and Parthians signed a treaty agreeing to the establishment of an independent Arsacid dynasty in Armenia as a buffer state, but with the succession subject to Roman approval.

Vologases I may also be significant in the history of Mazdaism and the beginnings of its transition into the modern religion of Zoroastrianism. Later Zoroastrian texts say that a king Valkash (they do not specify which one—several Arsacid kings took that name) was the first to tell the Magian priests to bring together all the oral and written traditions of their religion and record them systematically. This began the process that, several centuries later, led to the assembly of the texts of the Avesta and the other holy scriptures of Zoroastrianism. If indeed it was Vologases I who gave out those instructions (a conjecture supported by the fact that his brother Tiridates was known also for his Mazdaean piety8), it would perhaps fit with other decisions and policies during his reign, which seem consistently to have stressed a desire to reassert the Iranian character of the state. Vologases I is believed to have built a new capital named after himself near Seleuceia and Ctesiphon, with the aim of avoiding the Greek character of those places. Some of his coins were struck with lettering in Aramaic script (the script in which the Parthian language was usually written) rather than in Greek, as had been the case before. And there are suggestions also that he was hostile to the Jews, which was atypical in the Arsacid period.9 Although his immediate successors did not follow through with all of these novelties, they do prefigure the policies of the Sassanids. The gradual erosion of Greek influence and the strengthening of Iranian identity are features of the reigns after Vologases I.


The empire established by Seleucus Nicator in 312 BC looked to be the most powerful of the successor states that emerged out of the collection of territories conquered by Alexander. It controlled Syria, Mesopotamia, and the lands of the Iranian plateau—as well as (at least in theory) other territories further east. Initially the capital was established at Babylon, and later at a new site at Seleuceia on the Tigris River. Finally it moved to Antioch on the Mediterranean Sea.

The Seleucid kings pursued the easternizing policy of Alexander. They established Greek military and trading colonies in the east and used Iranian manpower in their armies, but their political attention was on the west—particularly on their rivalry with the other major eastern Macedonian/Greek dynasty, that of the Ptolemies in Egypt. In the east, outlying satrapies like Sogdiana and Bactria gradually became independent princedoms, the latter creating an enduring culture in what is now northern Afghanistan, fusing eastern and Greek cultures under Greek successor dynasties.

The horse-based cultures of the northeast had given Alexander problems, and the Achaemenids before him. Tribes like the Dahae and the Sakae, who spoke languages in the Iranian family group, would always be very difficult for any empire to dominate. With their military strength entirely on horseback, they were highly mobile and able, when threatened, to disappear into the great expanses of desert and semi-desert south of the Aral Sea. Within two generations of Seleucus Nicator’s death in 281 BC, one tribe or group of tribes among the Dahae—the Parni—established their supremacy in Parthia and other lands east of the Caspian. They supplanted the local Seleucid satrap, Andragoras—who around 250 BC had rebelled and tried to make himself an independent ruler in Parthia—and began to threaten the remaining territories of the Seleucids in the east. The Parni ruling family named themselves Arsacids after Arshak (Arsaces), the man who had led them to take control of Parthia. But as the Arsacids expanded their dominion, they were careful to preserve the wealth and culture of the Greek colonies in the towns. Parthian kings later used the title philhellenos (friend of the Greeks) on their coinage.

Several Seleucid kings carried out expeditions to the east to restore their authority in Parthia and Bactria, and the Parthian Arsacids occasionally chose to ally with them or even to submit, rather than to confront them. But the Seleucids were always drawn back to the west, and in the reign of the Arsacid Mithradates I (171–138 BC) the Parthians renewed their expansion, taking Sistan, Elam, and Media. Then they captured Babylon in 142 BC and, one year later, Seleuceia itself.

In the decades that followed, the Parthians were attacked by the Sakae in the east and by the Seleucids in the west. Fortunes swung either way. At one point in 128 BC the Parthians defeated a Seleucid army, captured it, and attempted to use the prisoners against the Sakae—only to find that the Seleucid troops had made common cause with the Sakae. Together, they defeated and killed the Parthian king, Phraates. But Mithradates II (Mithradates the Great) was able to consolidate and stabilize Parthian rule in a long reign from about 123 to 87 BC, subduing enemies in both east and west. He also took the title King of Kings, a deliberate reference back to the Achaemenid monarchy. This, along with other indicators, suggests a new Iranian self-confidence.

Concealed behind the long struggle between the Seleucids and the Parthians lie the origins of the silk trade, which was to be of central importance for many Iranian towns and cities for more than a millennium. The initial involvement of Greeks and Greek cities in the silk business may go some way toward explaining both the survival of Greek culture in the Parthian period, and the Parthian kings’ respect for it. They were friends to the Greeks not out of aesthetic sensibility or deference to a superior culture, but because they wanted to protect the goose that laid the golden egg.

Mithradates had diplomatic contacts with both the Chinese Han emperor Wu Ti and with the Roman republic under the dictator Sulla. In order to establish a lasting presence in Mesopotamia, either he or his successor Gotarzes founded a new city at Ctesiphon, near Seleuceia. Ctesiphon was to continue as the capital for more than seven hundred years, though Seleuceia, on the other side of the Tigris, was often used as the center of administration, and Ecbatana/Hamadan as the summer capital.

Left: East Parthian Cataphract; Middle: Parthian Horse-Archer; Right: Parthian Cataphract from Hatra

The Parthians established a powerful empire and ruled successfully for several centuries, but they did so with a relatively light touch, assimilating the practices of previous rulers and being content to tolerate the variety of religious, linguistic, and cultural patterns of their subject provinces. A system of devolved power (parakandeh shahi, also called muluk al-tawa‘if in later Arab sources) through satraps continued, often keeping in power families that had ruled under the Seleucids. Parthian scribes continued to use Aramaic, as in the time of the Achaemenids, and there appears to have been a continued diversity of religion. Names like Mithradates and Phraates (the latter a name thought to be related to the fravashi of the Avesta) show the Mazdaean allegiances of the Arsacids themselves, but Babylonians, Greeks, Jews, and others were allowed to follow their own religious traditions. As before, Mazdaism itself seems to have encompassed a variety of practices and beliefs. In Jewish tradition, the Parthians are recorded and remembered (with the important exception of the reign of one later king) as tolerant and friendly toward the Jews. This may reflect the fact that the rise of the Parthians in the east was helped by the prolonged struggle between the Maccabean Jews and the Seleucids in Palestine.

The Parthians were not just crude nomads assuming the culture of their subjects for lack of any of their own—or, at least, they did not remain so. Parthian sculpture, with its own particular style that included a strong emphasis on frontality, was different in kind from any predecessor. Parthian architecture—as excavated at Nisa, for example (in what is now Turkmenistan)—shows for the first time the emergence of the audience hall or ivan, a feature to be of great importance later, in Sassanid and Islamic architecture. The Parthians exemplified the best of Iranian genius—the recognition, acceptance, and tolerance of the complexity of the cultures and influences over which they ruled, while retaining a strong central principle of identity and integrity.

The Kingdom of Kush

Piye (formerly known as Piankhy)

The Kingdom of Kush was Egypt’s powerful southern neighbor, located south of the Third Cataract of the Nile River in upper Nubia (present-day Sudan). The history of Kush spans more than 1,000 years (from approximately 1000 BCE to 350 CE) and is divided into two periods, the Napatan period (ca. 1000-310 BCE) and the Meroitic period (ca. 275 BCE-350 CE). Each period is sometimes called a dynasty, a kingdom, or an empire.

After the withdrawal of the ancient Egyptian administration, which had controlled most of Nubia during the New Kingdom (ca. 1540-1075 BCE), a local Nubian chiefdom emerged at the turn of the millennium. This new political power was centered at Napata, the city at the foot of the so-called Pure Mountain at Gebel Barkal near the Fourth Cataract. Very little is known of the formative years of the Kingdom of Kush. Archaeological evidence is scant and written documents nonexistent, because at the time the Nubians did not have a writing system of their own.

Around 785 BCE a local chief known as Alara united upper Nubia. He is acknowledged by later kings as the founder of the Napatan dynasty of Kush and is believed to be the one who restored the cult of the god Amun in Nubia at the sacred site of Gebel Barkal. The Kushites also adopted ancient Egyptian and the hieroglyphic writing system as the administrative and religious language of their kingdom. Kashta, Alara’s successor, united upper and lower Nubia into a single political entity, and he called himself “King of Upper and Lower Egypt,” as mentioned on his small stele at Elephantine.

However, it was Piye (formerly known as Piankhy) who actually conquered and took control of Egypt and annexed it to the Kingdom of Kush (747-716 BCE) during the third year of his reign. Piye founded the Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty of Egypt, and his successor Shabaka

(Shabaqo) established the capital at Memphis. The Kushite kings held sway over all of Egypt for almost a century, following traditions established by earlier Egyptian kings. In honor of the god who granted them kingship, they added new monuments to the architectural complex of the Temple of Amun at Karnak (Thebes), the religious center of this god in Egypt. The Kushites remained active in their homeland, erecting new temples to the god Amun and refurbishing ruined ones built by the Egyptians during the New Kingdom. The Kushite Twenty-fifth Dynasty was expelled from Egypt by the Assyrians, who sacked Thebes in 663 BCE. King Tawetamani had already taken refuge at Napata.

Most of what is known of the remainder of the Napatan period comes from Kushite royal documents, which were still written in Egyptian using hieroglyphs despite the fact that the Kushites had lost control over Egypt. These documents-stelae and wall inscriptions-come mostly from temples and royal burials and concern mostly the north of the kingdom. Very little else is known of this period, especially regarding the local general populace. Few village settlements dating to this period have been discovered and excavated by archaeologists. As for Meroe and the south of the kingdom, practically nothing is known. From what can be gleaned from the archaeological record and literary documents, the Kushites kings continued managing affairs of the state, building and renovating temples, and mounting military expeditions. The Kushites were defeated by the Egyptian king Psammetichus II, possibly during the reign of Aspelta (ca. 593 BCE) at a battle near the Third Cataract. However, beliefs that Psammetichus II reached the Fourth Cataract and sacked Napata are unsubstantiated. This might have encouraged the Kushites to move farther south.

Although there is archaeological evidence that Meroe had been occupied since at least the eighth century (notably as the Napatan royal residence since the fifth century), the focus of the Kushite kingdom had been until then on Napata and the north. The Meroitic period begins shortly after 300 BCE with the relocation of the royal cemetery from Nuri to Meroe, the first pyramid there being that of King Arkamani I (ca. 275-250 BCE).

From that moment on, Meroe became the center of the Kingdom of Kush. Important cultural changes occurred during the Meroitic period as the Kushites gave their own traditions and customs prominence over many borrowed from Egypt. The most significant change is that of the language. For the first time in Kushite history, the native language, Meroitic, became the official language of the kingdom, and a hieroglyphic alphabet derived from Egyptian signs was created to write it.

Temples were built not only to the Egyptian god Amun but also to the indigenous lion-headed god Apedemak (the best known of the Kushite gods). The architecture favored for the lion temples is much simpler than Egyptian temples (although inspired by it) and generally consists of a single room with a large pylon (main gate). Even the relief decorations on temple and tomb chapel walls changed to suit the Meroitic idea of beauty, power, and fertility. The qore (Meroitic word designating the king as commander) and the kandake (ruling queen) wore a different royal costume, which was modified from that of Egyptian kings. The Kushites used centuries-old pharaonic influences and ideas from the Mediterranean world and incorporated them with their ancestral customs to create something different and truly their own: Meroitic culture.

At the time when Egypt had become a province of the Roman empire, the Meroitic Kingdom of Kush was a force to reckon with. The wrath of the Meroites was provoked when the Romans tried to take over Lower Nubia. Led by mighty leaders, the Kushites sacked Aswan, Elephantine, and Philae. The Romans retaliated by sacking Napata, but both parties eventually worked out an agreement. The great kandake who held strong against the Roman Army is believed to be Amanishakheto.

The Meroites still held power over lower and upper Nubia until the mid-fourth century CE. Military campaigns by Ethiopian rulers of the Kingdom of Aksum as well as the decline in wealth and political power of the royal family appear to have brought the Kingdom of Kush to an end.

Bibliography O’Connor, David. Ancient Nubia: Egypt’s Rival in Africa. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1993. Shinnie, P. L. Ancient Nubia. London and New York: Kegan Paul International, 1996. Welsby, Derek A. The Kingdom of Kush: The Napatan and Meroitic Empires. London: British Museum Press, 1996. Wildung, Dietrich, ed. Sudan Ancient Kingdoms of the Nile. Paris and New York: Flammarion, 1997

Ptolemy’s First Campaigns

Ptolemy first lived in Egypt’s traditional capital Memphis to give the impression of a continuity of rule to the people, but he intended to govern Egypt eventually from Alexandria, which Alexander had founded in 331. Construction of the city had been ongoing since that year, but it was Ptolemy who was instrumental in its completion and added greatly to it beyond what Alexander had likely envisaged. Alexandria was also going to be the base for his fleet, but its site presented a problem to his security. Natural frontiers protected his western, eastern, and southern borders, but Alexandria was on the coast to his north, so it was vulnerable to attack from the Mediterranean.

To help protect Alexandria and the northern coastline, Ptolemy made strategic alliances with several of the nine kings of neighboring Cyprus, who had been allies of Alexander. To one of them, Eunostus of Soli, he married Eirene, his daughter by Tais, the same woman who was believed to have encouraged Alexander to burn down the palace at Persepolis. Cyprus’ location and its natural resources (metals, timber, and grain), which were critical for Egypt and its economy, explain Ptolemy’s move; in fact, all the Ptolemies followed his lead, which is why the island was the longest held of all that dynasty’s possessions.

Ptolemy’s diplomatic intervention in Cyprus was soon followed by a military campaign to his west in independent Cyrenaica (northeast Libya). Some time ago, in the Greek colony of Cyrene (near Shahhat in eastern Libya), founded in 630 by settlers from Tera (Santorini), a civil war had broken out between oligarchs and democrats. In 324, during this strife, some exiled democrats from Cyrene gained help from a Spartan mercenary commander named Tibron, who had just killed Alexander’s disgraced imperial treasurer Harpalus on Crete. Tibron absorbed Harpalus’ 7,000 mercenaries into his own army and took them to Cyrene. Instead of supporting the exiled democrats’ cause, Tibron wrested power for himself, and besieged the city. He forced terms on the Cyrenaeans, including further military forces for his army and a payment of 500 silver talents, and allowed his men to plunder the surrounding areas. With no relief in sight, the desperate oligarchs appealed to Ptolemy for help. Recognizing the opportunity that had suddenly come his way, Ptolemy lost no time. In probably late summer 322, he ordered his general Ophellas (from Olynthus) to take a fleet and land army to Cyrene. Ophellas defeated Tibron and his men, later hanging Tibron in Cyrene. Aferward, Ophellas handed over the whole of Cyrenaica to Ptolemy.

Ptolemy imposed a moderate oligarchy on the Cyrenaeans, supported by garrisons in their cities, with himself as their general and the sole authority in selecting their officials. He also started to strike his own coinage in Cyrene, further evidence that he controlled the region. To be on the safe side, though, he kept Ophellas and a large contingent of troops there. Just like today, foreign campaigns are costly, and the maintenance of troops in Cyrenaica, as well as his other incursions well beyond his borders, explains his bureaucratic innovations to generate revenue. Cyrene now remained in Ptolemaic hands until 96 (when Ptolemy Apion left it in his will to the Romans, who promptly freed the cities), even though it was often a problem area for them. Ptolemy’s action in Cyrenaica can only have added to Perdiccas’ suspicion of him, and Perdiccas may even have been aggrieved that he had not been consulted about the campaign in the first place. But Ptolemy knew, as with his execution of Cleomenes, that there was nothing Perdiccas could do; if the later protested, then Ptolemy could simply say he was protecting Egypt’s borders, which, after all, was one of his tasks as satrap.

Perdiccas Invades Egypt

Perdiccas marched toward Egypt with a large army including war elephants, animals that the Macedonians had first encountered in India, and which became a staple of Hellenistic armies. He also had Philip III, Alexander IV, and Roxane in tow since technically, as regent, he was invading Egypt in the kings’ names.

In the meantime, there was a surprising turn of events in Cappadocia. Antipater and Craterus had earlier invaded Asia Minor, intent on preventing Perdiccas from attacking them in Macedonia. Antipater took up a position in Cilicia, while Craterus’ mission was to defeat Perdiccas’ ally Eumenes, who had been doing a sterling job in his territories, especially as the expected help from Antigonus and Leonnatus had never arrived (the former had not wanted anything to do with Cappadocia, and the later had died in Greece in 323 during the Lamian War). Afterward, Antipater and Craterus were to rendezvous and march south against Perdiccas, neatly trapping him between themselves and Ptolemy. However, Eumenes defeated and killed Craterus in battle. News of this shocking result does not seem to have reached Perdiccas or Ptolemy before the former closed in on Egypt in May or June of 320.

Perdiccas’ invasion of Egypt was a disaster. At Pelusium his soldiers began to desert him, perhaps because Ptolemy had spies or at least sympathizers among the enemy troops since he routinely resorted to bribery or offered higher pay to mercenaries to weaken an opponent’s forces. But “what harmed Perdiccas more than the strength of his enemy was the loathing he incurred by his arrogance; this won the hatred even of his allies.” Even though he was a battle-hardened soldier from his experiences with Alexander, he could never instill in his men the same sort of devotion they had shown their king.

From Pelusium, Perdiccas marched by night about 130 miles to the Fort of Camels, not far from Memphis, and a good crossing point on the Nile. There he made ready to cross the river and attack the capital. Unfortunately for him, the Fort of Camels was garrisoned. Ptolemy, who may have heard from the deserters of Perdiccas’ plan to take the fort, moved quickly to increase the garrison’s manpower, bringing the reinforcements himself. When Perdiccas attacked the fort at dawn, Ptolemy was clearly visible on the ramparts-“with utter contempt of the danger, striking and disabling those who were coming up the ladders, he sent them rolling down, in their armor, into the river,” and he even speared one of their elephants. Ptolemy’s Homeric fighting style, reminiscent of the way he had fought in India, bravery, and his emulation of Alexander’s leadership skills in always leading from the front, paid off:

his men rallied around him, and forced back Perdiccas’ troops, who may well have been battling fatigue after their night march. Perdiccas had no choice but to abandon the siege.

Perdiccas then decided on a surprise forced march to capture Memphis while Ptolemy was still at the fort. His idea was a good one, and his quick strategic thinking to capitalize on an enemy’s circumstances illustrates why Alexander had chosen him as his second-in-command. Again, he pushed his men hard after their forced march the night before and setback at the fort, and again fate was against him, this time in the guise of the Nile. He decided to cross in stages to an island in the river’s eastern branch opposite Memphis. The first batch of troops made the crossing successfully, despite facing strong currents and water that was chest high. In an effort to help the rest of his men, Perdiccas deployed some elephants upstream from the island on the left and cavalry downstream on the right to make smoother conditions-and catch any of his men that were swept away, as Macedonian soldiers were generally not good swimmers. Unfortunately, the animals moved so much to keep their balance that they added to the swell of the water, and many men in the next contingent drowned as they were in full armor.

Given the setback at the Nile, and perhaps also worried that Ptolemy and his men might suddenly catch up to his troops in their disarray, Perdiccas decided to move his location and called the men on the island back to him. They had noticed that their comrades’ heavy armor had contributed to their drowning, so they shed their own armor before they began to swim back. Still, many of them drowned or were swept away and were eaten by “the animals in the river”-crocodiles and perhaps even hippopotami. Over 2,000 of Perdiccas’ men had died in the course of one to two days, and enough was enough: that night, after much mourning and criticism, two of his commanders, Pithon and Seleucus, stabbed Perdiccas to death in his tent.

Ptolemy was quick to capitalize on Perdiccas’ demise to win over his soldiers. He had already cremated the enemy dead and sent their ashes back to their families, a solemn task that fell to a commander. His action was not necessarily meant to win over Perdiccas’ men, for by nature Ptolemy seemed to have been a kind and caring person, traits that appealed to people. Ten the day after he rode into the Perdiccan camp, taking presents for the kings to show his loyalty, and to counter any criticisms that he was a traitor because Perdiccas had invaded Egypt in their name. It was a clever move, and it worked: Philip III accepted Ptolemy’s allegiance to both kings. As a further sign of his loyalty, Ptolemy seems to have been behind the building of a sanctuary to Philip in the temple of Karnak, which bears the king’s name in hieroglyphics (one of a very few instances of his name in Egypt); it is an interesting example of the priests’ willingness to recognize Philip as their king.

With the two kings on his side, Ptolemy addressed Perdiccas’ troops. He promised them food and a place in his own army if they surrendered to him, or a safe passage out of Egypt. This was obviously a pragmatic move, as his own army was not large, and he would have been on the lookout to increase his numbers wherever and whenever he could. We also wonder whether his experiences with Alexander had taught him the need to win over any enemy. He had been present when Alexander had treacherously killed Indian mercenaries at Massaga after promising to spare them, which had stiffened local resistance to him. Ptolemy was always careful to appeal to enemy troops.

Perdiccas’ men apparently pleaded with Ptolemy to take on their former commander’s position, including regency of the two kings. But Ptolemy said no, and instead put forward Pithon and Arrhidaeus (the man in charge of Alexander’s funeral cortege) as regents. Ptolemy’s refusal of the powerful regency has been taken as another sign that he wanted nothing to do with the empire and planned to separate Egypt from it, but that is too much of a stretch. Indeed, whether Ptolemy was even offered the regency is debatable, and the whole episode may have been invention on the part of the biased Diodorus to show Ptolemy’s “selflessness, moderation, and friendship.”


Cities in Collision I

View of Genoa and its fleet by Christoforo de Grassi (1597 copy, after a drawing of 1481); Galata Museo del Mare, Genoa.

Map of Italy in 1494.

There was one other significant competitor with which Venice had to deal. Genoa was known to the world as “la Superba,” Genoa the proud. Petrarch had described Venice and Genoa as “the two torches of Italy”; but fire can drive out fire. Both cities were known throughout Europe for their rapacity and acquisitiveness. The Genoese were more individualistic and inventive; the Venetians were more communal and conservative. The Genoese had a history of internecine warfare and rebellion; the Venetians were quiescent. Could they ever have lived at peace with one another?

For many centuries the merchants of Genoa competed with those of Venice in the eastern markets. But the success of the Venetians materially hindered the commerce of the rival city. It had been decreed, after the fall of Constantinople, that the Genoese were to be excluded from trade throughout the empire. But the Genoese fought back. They, too, were a seafaring people who had built up a great fleet that could challenge Venice on the seas of the known world. There were open clashes between the rival cities on the coasts of Crete and in Corfu, where the native inhabitants welcomed the arrival of the Genoese. A truce was agreed in 1218, but this was merely a prelude to further and more fatal struggles.

The tension between the two cities remained constant throughout the century, with skirmishing and assaults in all the markets where they competed; in 1258, after some particularly bloody fighting in Syria, the Venetians expelled the Genoese merchants from their quarter in Acre. There was then, for the Venetians, an unfortunate and unexpected development. In 1261 the Greeks, under the leadership of Michael Palaeologus, regained control of Constantinople. The Venetian fleet was at sea and the city was relatively unprotected. Under these auspicious circumstances the emperor’s forces mounted a rapid attack on the Latin contingent, and gained the defensive walls. Three weeks later Michael walked in glory to the basilica of Saint Sophia. He owed much of his success, however, to the Genoese who had supplied him with fifty ships; in return for their support they wished for unrestricted trade access in the markets of the city. They wanted revenge upon the Venetians for their forced departure from Acre. When the Venetians returned, they could do nothing except rescue their compatriots whose shops and dwellings had been destroyed by fire.

The Genoese were not faithful allies. Their merchants were, according to report, arrogant and avaricious. Their fleet proved unequal to a naval challenge from Venice. More importantly their representatives in Constantinople were accused of mounting a conspiracy against Paleologus himself. Ever ready to supplant a rival, Venetian envoys were sent in secret to the court of the emperor. A new trade pact was concluded. The Genoese were to be expelled from the empire, whereas Venice would be granted free privileges. In addition the Venetians were allowed to retain the former Byzantine possessions of Crete, of Negroponte, of Modon and Coron. These were sufficiently generous terms, and the emperor now understood that Venice itself was the greater power.

The Venetians were becoming accustomed to empire. At the beginning of the fourteenth century the doge, Pietro Gradenigo, made a speech to the great council of patricians in which he declared that “it is the duty of every good prince, and of every worthy citizen, to enlarge the State, to increase the Republic, and to seek its welfare by every means in his power.” It was the responsibility of the state, too, to seize every favourable opportunity for aggrandisement. Gradenigo had the mainland of Italy particularly in mind, where now the Venetians were actively promoting a policy of aggressive warfare. They had once sought neutrality in the battles between pope and holy Roman emperor over the cities of Italy. They had once wanted simply to preserve their trade routes. But now the experience of imperial expansion had hardened their sinews. They had become more belligerent. The mainland of Italy was in any case changing its nature. The principal cities no longer saw themselves as vassals of superior powers, such as the papacy, but as sovereign regions or city-states. There were some eighty of them throughout the land of Italy. Some were under the control of individual families, such as the Este of Ferrara, and others were in theory republican communities. Yet the central point was their independence. Independent cities want power and territory. They compete with each other for trade and influence. They even fight each other.

In 1308 Venice fought on the mainland in order to maintain its commercial rights within Ferrara and gain control over the Po. It allied itself with Florence and Bologna in order to fight back the expansive policies of Verona, and in the process captured much mainland territory. It fought against Padua and by its victory gained the provinces of Treviso and Bassano as well as the city of Padua itself. It won Verona and Vicenza. The Italian cities that came under Venetian domination were not subjugated. Venetian civil and military commanders were dispatched to the cities, but municipal government continued in the familiar fashion. The Venetian ruling class had a genius for administration and government. Its power was neither too lax nor too onerous. There are some indications of an imperial style but in the colonies overseas the rulers were blended within the native landscape. There was no ruling ideology of conquest. There was no attempt to impose new standards of value or new principles of belief. They came not as conquerors or as missionaries but, essentially, as traders. Their true belief was in the efficacy of commerce. They were a very practical people. They were unpopular enough, but they were resented rather than hated.

It would be wrong to assume, however, that there was no internal discontent. The immediate fact of conquest was, for the conquered, hard to bear. The example of Crete is representative. The lands of the local Byzantine magnates were expropriated, and given to Venetians. There were neither finances nor resources to maintain a standing army on the island, so a number of Venetian patricians were sent out as colonisers who retained their lands as fiefdoms on condition that they defended them. These Venetians tended to inhabit the towns and cities of the island. They were accustomed to cities. Cities were their natural habitat. In due course a predominantly agricultural economy was in part turned towards urban trade, trade directed almost exclusively to the mother-city. And of course the Venetian authorities imposed heavy taxation upon every transaction. They encouraged trade for the purpose of exploiting it. Yet merchants began to flourish on the island. There was also a growing market for the wares of Cretan icon-painters. It has been estimated that 95 per cent of the icon-painters, throughout the Venetian empire, originally came from the island.

The Venetian strategy was to remodel the governance of the island on the example of Venice herself. Crete was divided into sestieri. There was a duca in the principal role, modelled on the doge. The major decisions of security and trade, however, were still the prerogative of the Venetian senate. There were more visible changes. The principal square of Candia, the capital of Crete, was renamed Piazza S. Marco. It became the meeting place and market of the island, with its own basilica and ducal palace. It was remodelled and restored to lend dignity and seriousness to the new administration. It became the stage for festivals and public celebrations. A processional way was constructed between the entrance gate of the port and the basilica. Venice was re-creating its theatre of trade and of politics in a new environment. The Byzantine palaces and monuments were reused, their symbolic meaning subtly altered to reflect Venetian hegemony. Some of them were given new, “Venetian,” façades.

Venice saw itself as the natural heir to Byzantium. There was no sudden disruption but, instead, an orderly transition. The religious traditions and the public ceremonies of the old empire were appropriated and adapted. As always Venice lived by assimilation. The example of Crete is again instructive. The ecclesiastical rites of the Latin Church, in ceremonies and processions, were moulded with the rites of the Greek Church. The Venetians adopted the cult of the local saint of the island, Titus. So there were no religious wars. The Venetians were not like the Spanish. There were endless reconciliations and compromises, simply in order to maintain the momentum of what was essentially a vast trading regime. Cretans married Venetians. Venetian merchants migrated to Crete. Cretan scholars and painters migrated to Venice. A new culture emerged, of the West and of the East. After the fall of Byzantium Crete became the centre of Hellenism in the West. There were, naturally enough, influences of opposite tendency. There are still Venetian dialect words embedded in modern Greek, among them the words for steel, armada, velvet, the acacia tree and the wedding ring. Indeed there was a revival of Greek letters under Venetian rule. It was Venice, rather than Byzantium, that preserved native Greek culture in the early modern period. Its poetry was composed by men whose political, racial, spiritual and cultural allegiances were to Venice.

There were revolts and rebellions, as a result of local grievances and factions, but the island remained in Venetian hands for more than four centuries. It can be concluded, therefore, that the Venetians were effectively the first modern colonial power.

Yet in a world dominated by war and empire, there could be no end to rivalry and struggle. In the letters and chronicles of the late fourteenth century the optimism of the Venetians is in some part replaced by intimations of gloom and melancholy; the world seems more uncertain, and the role of providence ill-defined. The loss of confidence is accompanied by the search for greater security in the world. The acquisition of empire, then, brought its own burdens. In 1364 the native inhabitants of Candia rebelled against their Venetian overseers; several Venetian patricians also joined in the revolt. The insurrection was put down, its leaders executed, but it had been a troubling moment for Venice. Petrarch was in the city when the victorious force returned to the lagoon. “We augured good news,” he wrote, “for the masts were garlanded with flowers, and on the deck were lads, crowned with green wreaths and waving flags over their heads …” Relief, as well as triumph, was the emotion of the day. A high mass was celebrated in the basilica, and a great festival was organised in the square itself. Petrarch was present on this occasion, too, and remarked upon the magnificence of the ceremonies. As the empire of Venice became more assured, so the taste for spectacle and ceremonial grew more intense.

Cities in Collision II

Fleet Operations in the First Genoese-Venetian War, 1264-1266

Genoa was not quelled by its expulsion from Constantinople. Its traders were dominant in the Black Sea. It held the pre-eminent position in Syria and Palestine. There was never any chance of an enduring peace. In 1350 a Venetian admiral surprised a fleet of fourteen Genoese vessels at the port of Negroponte, and captured ten of them. The other four were allowed to flee simply because the Venetians were too occupied in plundering the cargo of the others. The Venetians and their Greek allies then confronted the Genoese fleet in the Bosphorus, but the battle proved inconclusive. In 1353 the Venetians defeated the Genoese off Sardinia, but a second Genoese fleet began a journey of destruction through the Adriatic and the Aegean. A year later a Venetian fleet was sabotaged and sunk by the Genoese in the port of Modon; the Venetian commanders and their men were taken into custody. It was a signal victory for the Genoese but, even in defeat, the Venetians proved to be expert negotiators. A truce was agreed by means of which each side promised not to attack the other.

The subsequent peace was not, for Venice, a peace at all. It was obliged to cede Dalmatia to the king of Hungary, because of that sovereign’s superior force of arms; it was impelled to withdraw its merchants from Famagusta in Cyprus when the Genoese took over that town. The Venetian fleet kept the Adriatic as its territory, but it was engaged in constant confrontation with the Genoese in the Black Sea. When Venice seized the vital island of Tenedos, controlling access to that sea, the Genoese once again declared war. The Fourth Genoese War was to prove the most terrible, and the most fatal, of all.

The hostilities began in 1378 when a Venetian admiral, Vettor Pisani, sailed west and won a great victory over the Genoese in Genoa’s own waters. But there were complications closer to home. The king of Hungary invited the Genoese to use the Dalmatian coast, opposite Venice, as their centre of operations. It was an opportunity not to be missed. Pisani was obliged to return to the Adriatic, in order to protect Venetian convoys in a gulf that the Venetians had always claimed as their own. His base was at Pola, in Istria, and at the turn of the year the vessels of the fleet were being fitted up and cleaned for future hostilities. But a battle was forced upon them before they could muster all of their ships. The Venetians first had the advantage, when the Genoese admiral was killed, but a reserve force of Genoese ships came forward unexpectedly and overwhelmed the Venetians. Hundreds were killed or captured.

With their fleet effectively out of action, it was the moment that the Venetians most feared. Their enemies closed in upon them from every side. The king of Hungary closed the routes of the northern Adriatic; the lord of Padua blocked the western trade routes on the mainland. The fleets of the Genoese were protected, and were being augmented all the time. They were even able to enter the lagoon, and burn towns along the Lido. This had never before happened in the history of the serene republic. When the Paduans and Genoese joined forces, and took the extensive port of Chioggia to the south of Venice, the armed circle around the city was complete. The Venetians were now effectively under siege. They might even be invaded. Business on the Rialto came to a halt. The salaries of public officials were suspended. The poor were told by the doge that they would find food in the homes of the rich. When threatened, the Venetians came together as a coherent body. The Venetians proposed negotiations but the Genoese replied that they would not talk to their enemies until the horses of Saint Mark’s had been bridled; by this time the bronze horses, taken from the spoliation of Constantinople, had become a symbol of Venetian pride and greed.

It was a moment of the utmost peril for the Venetian authorities, who knew that they would need the support and co-operation of all the people to avert a fatal outcome. At the insistence of the crowds they released from prison Vettor Pisani, who had been incarcerated for his defeat at Pola. He now became the popular champion and the principal defender of the city. The doge himself, Andrea Contarini, helped to train crews for the new galleys that were being built.

The plan, outlined by Pisani, was to sink barges and boats laden with stone in the deep channels around Chioggia; this was a way of cutting off the port, and its Genoese invaders, from the mainland and from the Genoese fleet still at sea. The scheme was a success. The Genoese found themselves blockaded, with dwindling supplies of food, water and gunpowder. The Venetians were also suffering from privation, but they had one advantage. They possessed hope. Even as Pisani harried and outmanoeuvred the Genoese, trying desperately to leave Chioggia, another Venetian admiral returned to port. Carlo Zeno had completed a military expedition that had captured the cargos and booty of many Genoese ships in the Mediterranean. Then he received instructions to return to the lagoon and assist his city in its trial of strength with Genoa.

It was he who helped to prevent the increasingly desperate attempts of the Genoese to fight their way out of Chioggia. There were great battles on the sands and the Genoese commander, Pietro Doria, was killed when a cannon ball struck the tower from which he was observing the proceedings. Then, in June 1380, the Genoese surrendered. There was still work to be done in the Adriatic and in the Mediterranean. But Genoa never challenged Venice again. Genoese vessels never returned to the Adriatic. In this year of defeat a Genoese friar delivered a homily to his congregation. The Genoese, he said, were like donkeys. “When many are together, and one of them is thrashed with a stick, all scatter, fleeing hither and thither.” The Venetians, on the other hand, resembled pigs. “When a multitude of pigs is confined together, and one of them is hit or beaten with a stick, all draw close and run unto him who hits it.”

The victory had enormous consequences for Venice. In the fourteenth century it became one of the principal cities of the known world. Where in previous centuries it had been aligned with the East, in cultural and mercantile terms, by the end of the fourteenth century it had emerged as a properly European power. After the war was over it went on to claim by right of conquest or dominion Durazzo and Scutari, Lepanto and Patras, Argos and Athens. These were the homes of wine and wheat. The Venetian empire of Italy also grew, or rather was accumulated, step by step. In the early years of the fifteenth century Verona and Padua despatched ambassadors to Venice to make the formal act of submission. They were followed by Ravenna and Friuli and a host of other towns and cities. From the Alps in the north to the Po in the south, from Bergamo and Crema in the west to the sea itself, Venice claimed dominion. It might even be claimed that the city had refashioned the ancient province of Venetia, from which its ancestors had come.

Governors were sent to the towns and cities under its control, and a “captain” was appointed to administer military affairs. High service on the mainland became a prelude to political authority at home. But each city was able to preserve its local privileges, as well as its customary assemblies and magistrates. Only gradually was there a movement towards more professional and bureaucratic structures, with the increasing significance of a small number of aristocratic families. The pattern of Venice was, ineluctably, beginning to repeat itself. The greater bears down upon the lesser. But the dominant city—the inclita dominante, or illustrious mistress, as it was known—did not seek to impose union on these territories. The Milanese and Florentines were far more ready to assert their authority over their subject cities. The Venetians were more cautious or, perhaps, more conservative. There was some confusion over the status of local law, as it related to Venetian law, but that was perhaps inevitable. The empire of the mainland was driven by pragmatism and expediency. There was no Venetian state. There was only a trade confederation, relying heavily upon the revenue accruing to Venice through the proceeds of indirect taxation.

The Venetians also discouraged any enterprise that might challenge the commercial supremacy of their own city, as, for example, the weaving of luxury textiles, so that according to an English observer in the 1760s “every other town in the territory of the Republick appears poor in the comparison of the mother-city.” The innate conservatism of the Venetian state, too, actively discouraged the modernisation of the general economy of the mainland territories. This led directly to Venice’s eventual financial decline. The Italians were not able to compete with the resurgent English and Dutch. The inability or unwillingness to create a state, and a modern state at that, may also have encouraged the fissiparous qualities of the Italian peninsula. In one sense the opportunity for unification and centralisation had been squandered. So Italy remained a prey to foreign powers.

Yet Venice was still secure. It was protected by the lagoon while the plains and hills of northern Italy gave it space against the rival city of Milan; the deep valleys and mountains of the Alpine region afforded it protection against northern rivals. The further the dominion spread, the more jealously it was protected. Issues of self-defence as well as commercial gain were used to justify the absorption of towns and regions. Inaction was no longer possible.

In the first quarter of the fifteenth century, therefore, Venice aligned itself with Florence in order to fight the Visconti family of Milan; this was its first departure from its policy of splendid isolation. There was much opposition to this alliance in Venice itself. Venetian merchants traded very successfully with the Milanese territories and any overreaching by Venice would require the presence of a standing army. Yet the leaders of Venice determined to form an alliance with the free republic of Florence against the tyrants of Milan. The strategy was successful and, with the removal of the Visconti family, Italy reached a state of broad equilibrium amenable to Venetian pressure. There were now no more than five territorial states with their claims and resources finely balanced—Venice, Naples, Florence, Milan and the papal state. Each ruling city and its dependent territories was given the name of lo stato or the estate. In time the word developed to mean the collective existence of a nation or people. In the beginning these stati depended upon the personality of the ruler or ruling family; eventually, of course, they would be politically and scientifically organised to merit the description of a “state.” The interests of the state then became paramount. Of these new Italian powers von Ranke, the German historian, wrote that “they were neither nations nor races; neither cities nor kingdoms; they were the first States in world.” And Venice was one of them, opening the way for the development of the modern world order.

Milan was still the dominant city of Lombardy, and Florence of Tuscany, but in the phrase of William Wordsworth only Venice did also “hold the gorgeous East in fee.” The eastern association was evident in the streets and houses of the city; even its national basilica was Oriental in inspiration. By the fifteenth century it was the richest city in Italy, with an annual budget equal to that of Spain or of England. There were many more palaces in Venice than in any other city. Its navy was arguably the finest in the world. It was also a much more stable city than any of its rivals on the mainland, with a strength and persistence that derived from its earliest instincts for survival in the battle against the sea. While the Genoese in particular were plagued by civil war and internecine rivalries, Venice remained a model of constancy despite periods of plague and of economic depression. The strength and security of its constitution rendered it powerful. The trade of the city revived, particularly in its intercourse with India and with China, and the revenues of the Rialto were never more strong. It was triumphant.