The legend has it that the dying Alexander was asked who was his heir, and answered, ‘The strongest’. The wars among his generals, later called the Successors (Diadochot), resulted in three powerful military states clustered around Greece and other fragments of the empire on and within the Mediterranean. None of these ‘Hellenistic’ states ever entirely shook off the ghost of the vanished empire; all, at times, sought by various means to put their monarchs at the head of that reunited empire. Looking back over the ruins of Greek history was the Roman soldier-scholar Polybius, who left the bulk of the following account.

As haunted as anyone by that ghost of empire, and more capable and vicious than most, was Philip V of Macedonia, no descendant of Alexander or Philip, but in possession of some of their holdings and desiring more. King being cause, Philip’s efforts as a commander would follow his own will and whim.

In the way stood the two other great Successor kingdoms, Antiochid Syria and Ptolemaic Egypt, and a collection of smaller states that looked to be easier prey than either of the two larger rival powers. Particularly troublesome was the island democracy of Rhodes, with the most superlative navy in the ancient world, and the fortress-city of Pergamon, whose rulers had no intention of yielding their sceptres to anyone else while their powerful walls held. Philip’s threat drove Rhodes and King Attalus of Pergamon into alliance, while in the years before 201 BC the king of Macedon built a strong navy, to which he added by seizing Egyptian war vessels before that degenerate power could react. Philip captured several islands among the Cyclades and moved his army and navy down the coast of Asia Minor, poised to menace and destroy separately both in turn.

The Rhodians and Attalus had not been idly trembling before Philip’s advance. Philip’s bete noire in the campaign and the nemesis of his long-laid designs against Rhodes would prove to be the Rhodian admiral Theophiliscus. This man’s ability and skill would face Philip’s craft and superior resources, for the Rhodian had correctly anticipated Philip’s plans and taken every possible step to undo them.

Philip sought to divide the forces of Rhodes and Pergamon with a siege of the island of Chios, from which he would be well situated to prevent Attalus and the Rhodians from aiding each other. Attalus had quite correctly realized that Philip intended an eventual stroke against him and was feverishly steeling his fortress-city for the onslaught. Theophiliscus, however, equally correctly understood that Pergamon could resist any attack Philip could mount. He convinced Attalus to abandon his preparations and join his fleet with Rhodes’ while he was still able to do so.

Philip had been digging away beneath the Chians’ walls when the news came of the allied fleet’s arrival. From the first moment, Theophiliscus had seized the initiative from the Macedonian king, who suddenly found himself trapped on an island with a hostile fleet across his supply lines. Polybius portrays Philip as indecisive at first, before deciding to abandon his siege and make for Samos, possibly with the intention of outfitting still more Egyptian warships.

The allies were not disposed to let him go. Macedonian resources, which by that time featured a strong naval tradition, included some of the heaviest and most dangerous vessels in the ancient world, 53 of the heaviest class, an unknown number of medium vessels, and 150 of the lightest vessels that could carry rams.

Philip deployed this imposing force slowly enough for most of the allies to convert their own picket formation into a line of battle and move to engage. The battle was fought in the strait between Chios and the Erythraean promontory of the Asian coast. Initially, Philip’s line was parallel to the coast of Chios, preparatory to swinging south. As the allies bore down rapidly from the north, Philip was forced to reverse his line, which he drew up in the middle of the strait, facing north-east with his right on the Asian side, arranged in front of the strait’s two small islands. The king being the supreme commander, there was no resistance among Philip’s officers to his commands.

Our source gives the allies’ complete strength as 65 heavy warships, 9 medium cruisers and 3 other medium craft. At first, Attalus showed more confidence in the strength of his navy than his Macedonian opponent, for he took his own lavishly appointed flagship directly into the line, while Philip preferred to wait in the van with his own squadron of lighter ships. A flagship (nauarchis) was as visible as any standard in telling crews and officers where a commander thought it necessary to be. Theophiliscus’ Rhodians seem to have been more deliberate than the Pergamene contingent in committing to the action. They crossed the strait at speed to prevent Philip’s escape around the northern end of Chios. Some ships were slow to launch from where they had been drying their waterlogged hulls on the Asian shore, while those on station waited for some time in front of Philip’s advancing left. Theophiliscus appears to have been on his guard lest Philip’s light vessels spill out into the Aegean while the larger ships engaged, but committed his own forces once it was clear that the smaller ships were remaining in the line.

Philip seems to have been chary of exposing the flanks of his larger warships, which he finally placed on the right of his line, protected by the shore and each other. For his own part, Attalus successfully frustrated any effort by these monsters to get away from him by closing with his own heavy vessels. From the casualty reports, his own vessels consisted mostly of ‘fours’ and ‘fives’ (the number of rowers per bank of oars), probably built on the proven models of his Roman allies. Such vessels would not have been as suitable for manoeuvre as, apparently, were those favoured by the Rhodians, but were large enough to carry marines and other weaponry to match Philip’s, and sufficiently massive to block his advance.

The worst came first for Philip when his flagship perished along with his admiral immediately after Attalus himself accounted for one of Philip’s ‘eights’. In the confusion of the opening prow-to-prow rush of the Pergamene and Macedonian squadrons, an Attalid cruiser had turned her broadside to the Macedonian flagship. What might be thought to have been the perfect ramming attack proved fatal to the Macedonian ship. The lighter vessel stood high enough out of the water to trap her destroyer’s bow under the overhang of her topmost oar benches. Philip’s flagship was literally trapped like a dog with a bone in its throat while two of Attalus’ vessels rammed and sank her in her turn with her admiral and complement.

Brother saved brother as the melee on Philip’s right intensified. The bow of another of Philip’s large ships, and consequently its ram, was riding high out of the water when Attalus’ admiral Deinocrates hit her bow on and wedged his own ship’s beak into the enemy’s bow timbers. The Macedonian ship’s death grip was shaken loose by a heavy Pergamene vessel commanded by Deinocrates’ brother, Dionysodorus. The Pergamene vessel rammed the monster apparently again in its bow timbers, for Deinocrates’ ship was shaken loose and the Macedonian ship herself stayed afloat while she was boarded and captured by Pergamene marines and towed behind the line, apparently abandoned by her oarsmen during the battle on deck. Family ties were as strong as any in the battles of the ancient world in compelling cooperation and assistance, in the absence of any central, directed command numbers of heavier ships into two groups, with the heaviest vessels facing Attalus on the right, that would place around 27 heavy warships opposite the Pergamene ruler, less than the fleet of 35 ships known from earlier accounts to be in the Pergamene fleet. That would explain our source’s statement that Attalus had the advantage in numbers of such vessels, and the relatively even nature of the battle, with Philip’s larger vessels balanced by the quantity of the enemy as Attalus slowly forced the Macedonians behind the islets where their king waited. The Rhodians waited with most of their ships close to shore until the ongoing struggle with Attalus began to draw Macedonian ships from the left side of the line facing them.

Theophiliscus immediately engaged. His faster ships had apparently stayed on the beach until the last possible moment, and the reason for the tactic became clear as the dryer hulls of the Rhodian vessels made their speed advantage decisive. As Philip’s ships tried to withdraw around the Oenussae islets, they lost their line abreast formation and were at their most vulnerable to Rhodian ships launching from the Erythraean promontory. Several of Philip’s heavier vessels were rammed in their unprotected sterns, while others had their oarbanks shattered by the beaks and well- trained crews of the Rhodian galleys. The speed of a decision is as important at times as the decision itself.

The Battle Continues

When Philip’s lead ships turned again to assist their own rear, Theophiliscus committed the balance of his fleet, including those vessels that had just been launched and his personal tactical command of three older, heavier vessels that the Rhodians had received some time previously from a friendly power. As the two squadrons clashed, the Rhodians found that Philip V had apparently read his history. Their favoured tactic was the old Athenian dash between the ships of an enemy’s line to their rear. Just as the Rhodians were used to employing their smaller, faster ships to penetrate an enemy’s formation in order to get at the vulnerable sterns and oars, Philip unleashed his numerous small craft with precisely the same intention against the Rhodians themselves. The smaller vessels protected the flanks of Philip’s larger ships, once formation had been reestablished, and were able to interfere with the Rhodians’ movements as the battle was joined in the 4.8-km (3-mile) passage between the northernmost of the Oenussae and the mainland. Attalus and the Macedonian left were already well within the strait.

Philip had succeeded in frustrating an easy Rhodian victory, but his success was markedly limited. Our source refers to a particular tactic that seems to be partially responsible for the very large numbers of light vessels listed among Philip’s casualties. If the Rhodians were forced to meet an enemy ship bows on, they would transfer their crews forward to drop the bows and the rams of their vessels beneath the water-line. The enemy’s ram accordingly struck timbers that would be raised once normal trim had been restored, while the Rhodians’ own ram could penetrate bow or ‘cheek’ timbers beneath the protection of the foe’s ram’s bronze casing and, incidentally, the water-line.

Philip’s greatest advantage lay in his Macedonian marines, who were undoubtedly equipped with some form of missile weapon as they did their best to keep the Rhodians from closing. They were successful, once the lemboi (ships) had been dispersed, to the extent of forcing the Rhodians back to their previous tactics of ramming in the stern, oars or flank as opportunity offered, avoiding close contact. Theophiliscus and his quinqueremes, however, closed and engaged with the main Macedonian battle line.

Nicostratus’ Rhodian galley had shown her age when she left her ram in the hull of an enemy vessel, which sank with all hands. The Rhodian ship herself was also filling with water, disabled and quickly surrounded by the enemy’s vessels. Failure to relieve a distressed subordinate weakens overall resolve and morale, as Pausanias had known at Plataea, and Alexander at Gaugamela. Autolycus, the navigation officer, whose fault the accident possibly was, redeemed himself by resisting with the last of the Rhodian marines. The deck soldiers were dead and Autolycus had drowned, wounded in his armour, by the time Theophilisclls’ squadron was able to punch its way through to the stricken warship, saving her escaping oarsmen and surviving officers even as they forced two rammed enemy vessels’ marines to take to the water. Light and heavier ships immediately surrounded the admiral’s galley, but Theophiliscus’ three wounds, received before Philostratus’ galley could break the flagship free, would eventually kill him.

With most of his own marines dead, Theophilisclls continued to press the Macedonian left.

The Macedonians left’s reverse to engage their Rhodian attackers had created a gap in Philip’s line of battle, which Attalus moved very quickly to exploit. He had apparently got through the initial position of the enemy line and was now far into the strait, chasing after the ships of Philip’s right, which were making for the Asian shore in accordance with Philip’s earlier orders.

Philip here enjoyed his greatest success of the battle. Attalus’ flagship and the two lighter vessels of his escort were racing to the rescue of another Pergamene vessel. As Attalus chased the faster enemy fleeing toward the Asian shore, he passed the islands where Philip and his personal flotilla were waiting. The Macedonian king took his own royal escort of four medium cruisers, three light cruisers, and the available small craft, and successfully intercepted Attalus before he could return to the rest of his fleet.

King being cause, Attalus was himself an objective, one for which Philip had tried before and would try again. Attalus, however, had the presence of mind to beach his ships on the shore near the town of Erythrai, to which he fled while Philip’s crews looted the royal galley. Philip was able to take Attalus’ flagship in tow but, aside from an undoubtedly bad fright, Attalus had made good his escape.

Philip was cheered enough to rally his scattered vessels and to promulgate with the towed flagship the idea that Attalus was dead. At the sight, Attalus’ admiral Dionysodorus maintained presence of mind enough to signal the Pergamene vessels to regroup and make for an agreed-upon harbour on the mainland. The Macedonian left was only too happy to disengage from the Rhodians, and ran back down the strait under the pretext of rushing to the other ships’ aid before it, too, made for the mainland, leaving the Rhodians free to salvage pragmatically those remaining Macedonian vessels fit for towing back to Chios while they sank the rest with their rams.

Philip managed one last tactical error after the actual day’s combat had ceased. Apparently, the final stage of the fighting on his right had taken place off the Argennan promontory on the Asian shore, in the lee of which he now anchored. The idea was to claim the victory – as he did – by continuing to occupy the area of combat, in addition to the indisputable fact that he had captured Attalus’ flagship. However, prevailing winds and currents carried the day’s grisly harvest down among his ships; the corpses and other detritus from the fighting brought the message home to the king, and his crews, that Chios had been his costliest battle. Philip had lost his own flagship, 5 other heavy vessels sunk or captured, along with 25 of his lighter ships and their crews, 10 other heavy vessels, and 3 of his own cruisers against Attalus. The Rhodians demonstrated their virtuosity by destroying 40 of Philip’s light ships and capturing 7 with their crews. They also sank 10 of Philip’s heavier vessels and chose to salvage 2 of Philip’s medium units. Attalus had lost the hapless cruiser, Dionysodorus’ and one other medium vessel sunk, and again, his flagship and the two escorts captured. In human terms, 3000 Macedonian marines and 6000 sailors died in the strait, while our source, Polybius, admits to 70 Pergamene and 60 Rhodian casualties. A total of 2000 Macedonians and 700 Egyptian conscripts survived to become the allies’ prisoners.

The dictates of military chivalry were all very well, and Philip had obeyed the old rules, even to the extent of recovering recognizably Macedonian bodies from among the drifting wreckage. The reality of his defeat Philip himself admitted on the next day when, by joint decision, the Rhodians and Pergamenes put off from Chios and again drew up in line of battle opposite. Philip refused the challenge and remained by the Asian shore while the allied fleets at least initially lay in front of him, preventing his retreat. The allies themselves each had their own reasons for not pressing the battle home. Attalus, besides his bad fright of the day before, now had Philip’s army on the Asian coast near his capital city, with nothing in between Philip and Pergamon but the city’s walls. Individual considerations began to assert themselves, and the Rhodians were in the process of losing their admiral, and with him, his strategic vision for Philip’s defeat.

After appointing his successor, and writing his report to his government, Theophiliscus died. His greatest monument was not as immediately enduring as those voted to him on Rhodes. He had convinced Attalus to join forces at the onset of Philip’s attack, but for a crucial period, Pergamene-Rhodian cooperation lay in the Rhodian admiral’s grave. Attalus correctly reasoned that Philip would continue his personal vendetta against him, and took his fleet and the soldiers on board back to his fortress-city, leaving the Rhodian fleet alone to mourn their dead and move in between Philip’s surviving navy and their home island. Eventually, the threat Philip continued to pose to them both prompted Attalus and the Rhodians to invite the Romans eastward, and in the years to come a different people would possess the whole of Alexander’s empire.


The Great Northern War (1700-21)

Poland-Lithuanian Commonwealth

The Great Northern War (1700-21), which marked Russia’s decisive bid for power against Sweden, was launched for reasons quite incidental to Polish-Lithuanian affairs. Augustus’s treaty with Russia, negotiated exclusively in his capacity as Elector of Saxony, did not involve the Republic (Commonwealth). His attack on Swedish Livonia in 1700 was largely motivated by considerations of personal gain. Yet the Republic was implicated in spite of itself, and became one of the principal victims. It is true, of course, that the presence of a victorious Saxon army in Riga would have done much towards restoring royal authority in Lithuania, which had virtually seceded from Poland by virtue of decades of magnatial feuding. For this reason, the predominant Sapieha faction in Lithuania hastened to support the Swedes against the Saxon-Russian combination. But Augustus never achieved a position where he could have enforced any consistent policy; and the potential threat of his Saxon guard was systematically exaggerated by his enemies in the Republic in order to justify their resistance. As events worked out, Augustus’s initial failure before Riga began an interminable game of cat-and-dog, in which the Elector-King was chased from pillar to post throughout the length and breadth of his Saxon and Polish dominions for nearly twenty years. In 1700, having saved Riga, Charles XII of Sweden occupied the Republic’s Duchy of Courland. In 1702, he marched right across the Republic from north to south, occupying Wilno, Warsaw, and Cracow. After breaking the Polish cavalry in the one set battle, fought at Kliszow on 19 June 1702, he found that Augustus had doubled back on a roundabout route to Pomerania. In 1703, the Sejm made provision for expanding the Republic’s forces; but their expectations were dashed by a second Swedish victory at Pultusk, and by the outbreak of Palej’s rebellion in Ukraine. In 1704, Augustus was faced in the Republic by the Swedish-sponsored Confederation of Warsaw which produced its own claimant to the throne in the person of a nobleman of Wielkopolska, Stanislaw Leszczynski (1677-1766). The pro-Saxon Confederation of Sandomierz relied heavily on Russian auxiliaries. Augustus took evasive action against the Swedes by retreating to Lwow, before advancing once more to Warsaw. In 1706, Charles XII determined to put an end to the comedy by marching into the heart of Saxony. At the Treaty of Altranstadt he obliged Augustus among other things to renounce the Polish throne in favour of Leszczyriski; but then learned that the Russians and the Confederates of Sandomierz had succeeded in redressing the balance by defeating a secondary Swedish army at Kalisz.

After seven campaigns, it was clear that no satisfactory verdict would be obtained without an invasion of Russia. After a year’s preparations, Charles XII set off eastwards from Grodno in January 1708, leaving Leszczynski with General Krassau to hold his bases in the Republic. In the campaign of 1708-9, which led to the epoch-making Russian triumph at Poltava, a conspicuous part was played both by Polish peasants who harassed the Swedish columns and by the Confederates of Sandomierz, who prevented any reinforcements reaching the beleaguered Swedes. Poltava put an end to the Swedish party in the Republic. Leszczyriski and Krassau were pursued to Stettin. The Confederation of Warsaw was disbanded. In 1710, Augustus returned in triumph. The Saxon monarchy was restored.

Yet the Republic’s troubles continued. The reintroduction of the Saxon Guard and their brutal impositions rekindled the animosity of a people who had been schooled to think of all foreign troops as the instruments of royal tyranny. In November 1715, the Polish nobility found common cause once more in the General Confederation of Tarnogrod which swore to expel the Saxons lock, stock, and barrel. For a time, it looked as though they would succeed. Augustus, having lost Poznari, was being pushed back towards Saxony, when a sense of cold reality was suddenly injected into the situation by the appearance of a Russian Army. The Tsar, irritated by the squabbles of his Saxon and Polish clients, was threatening in no uncertain terms to knock their heads together. By offering to arbitrate in their dispute, he stood to gain a permanent grip on Polish affairs. After seventeen years of punishing warfare, the battered Republic was exhausted, and divided against itself. Such was the setting of the notorious Silent Sejm of 1717.

Peter the Great’s policy to Poland-Lithuania had matured over the two decades of the Northern War. The first stage, of putting his Saxon client into a position of dependence, had been completed within five or six years of his original election. The second stage, of turning Russia’s military supremacy into a durable political system, took rather longer. In 1706-7, when Augustus had deserted his throne, Peter passed many months in Poland looking for a ‘head’ to put on the body of the decapitated Republic. Residing in Sobieski’s favourite castles of Zolkiew, Jaworow, and Wilanow, and selecting vast quantities of plundered treasures for removal to Russia, he conducted lengthy negotiations with the Confederates of Sandomierz. He was shocked by what he learned. The Polish ‘republicans’ expected to treat with the Tsar as with an equal. They were men who would take neither orders nor bribes. One magnate refused an offer of the Crown on the grounds that he was not going to be ‘any Tsar’s fool’. Others responded to the Tsar’s expensive gifts by sending still more expensive gifts in return. After that experience, Peter knew what he was dealing with. (The term ‘Polish Anarchy’ appeared in Russian documents for the first time in this period.) The Tsar had either to hold Poland-Lithuania by force, which was beyond even Russia’s capacity, or he had to chain the Wettins to their task in such a way that neither they, nor the Polish nobility, could challenge the arrangements. His opportunity came with the war of the Confederation of Tarnogrod. At negotiations held in Warsaw in 1716, his diplomats were able to persuade the King to a permanent withdrawal of the Saxon Army from the Republic’s territory. At the same time, the representatives of the Sejm undertook to place a permanent limit on the size of the Republic’s finances and armies. The Tsar undertook to guarantee the agreement in the form of a written constitution. In this way, both King, and nobility were deprived by the means of threatening each other. By no mere coincidence, they were also deprived of the means of resisting the encroachments of the Russian Tsar who henceforth could legally intervene in Polish affairs at will. The terms, agreed in advance, were to be put before a meeting of the Sejm sworn to accept them without debate or protest. The operation was completed on 30 January 1717, in less than one day. The Silent Sejm, surrounded by Russian soldiers, signed away Poland’s freedom for the duration; and no voice was raised against it.

The troubles of the Great Northern War thus mark the beginning of the modern political history of Poland. Russian supremacy, first instituted in 1717, has persisted in one form or another to the present day. The Russian protectorate has sometimes been exercised by manipulating the activities of an autonomous, but dependent Polish state – as was the case for most of the eighteenth century – and sometimes by incorporating large parts of the Polish lands into the Russian Empire. It has sometimes been exercised by Russia alone, and sometimes in conjunction with Russia’s German or Austrian associates. But in two hundred and sixty years, it has only been interrupted for brief periods, notably for the twenty-four years between 1915 and 1939.


Stunned by the humiliation at Narva, where a 40,000-strong Russian force was wrongfooted in a blizzard by only 11,000 Swedes, Peter the Great’s army had reversed the odds within a year and won a crucial victory at Poltava in Ukraine in June 1709. Peter’s reformed troops made the most of their almost twofold numerical advantage partly because they were now under the tsar’s personal command, but principally because the Swedes had been exhausted by their punishing drive through Ukraine. Swedish losses totalled approximately 10,000 dead and wounded from their initial force of 24,000, almost all the rest falling captive to the Russians, who lost only a tenth of their 45,000 men. Superior Russian fire power, including 102 mobile light cannon, permitted a switch from defensive tactics to the aggression that culminated in ruthless attacks on the fleeing Swedes. Captain Lars Tiesensten, who himself lost a leg, described the panic among the Upplander infantry, who clambered `in a heap and as if fallen upon each other or thrown up on the pile, wherein the enemy with pike, sword and bayonet eagerly slaughtered and massacred as much as he was able, despite not recognising what was living and what dead’. Poltava did not end the war, and it could not save an overconfident Peter from a setback in July 1711, when a bigger, more mobile Turkish force overcame his army on the River Pruth. Nevertheless, because it marked the defeat of the hitherto invincible Charles XII, Poltava proved to be not only the pivotal battle of the Great Northern War but a decisive moment in the rise of Russia’s international reputation.


One of the most destructive conflicts in Lithuania’s history, involving Sweden, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, Russia, and, at times, Denmark, Saxony, and Prussia. The war began when Augustus II of Poland-Lithuania-in alliance with Denmark and Russia, which sought to end Swedish hegemony in northern Europe-invaded Livonia in order to drive out the Swedes. However, Augustus failed in his campaign, while his Russian allies suffered a disastrous defeat at Narva. A military alliance between Tsar Peter I and Augustus was negotiated at Birzai in Lithuania, but the Swedes defeated both the Commonwealth and Russian forces. The armies of Sweden’s King Charles XII invaded Lithuania and occupied Vilnius in 1702. Lithuania suffered immensely as Swedish forces and the Commonwealth’s Russian allies swept through the country, ravaging the countryside. After the decisive defeat of Charles XII by Peter the Great at Poltava in 1709, the Russian army in effect occupied most of the Grand Duchy for several years. The Treaty of Nystadt in 1721, by which the Swedes ceded Estonia and northern Latvia to Russia, ended the war. The Great Northern War had disastrous demographic and political consequences both for the Lithuanian people and the Commonwealth as a whole. The plague of 1708-1711, which accompanied the war, killed as much as a third of the entire Lithuanian population, although in the west-Samogitia and East Prussia-the death rate was even higher. In political terms, the decline of Swedish influence in the Baltic and the assertion of Russia’s power increasingly transformed the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth into a Russian protectorate.

Charles XII, King of Sweden (1682-1718)

Swedish king. Known as the “Alexander of the North” or the “Madman of the North,” Charles was born in Stockholm on June 17, 1682, the eldest and only surviving son of King Charles XI and Ulrika Elenora. Charles became king, as Charles XII, three months shy of his 15th birthday on the death of his father in April 1697. Russia, Poland, and Denmark then formed the Northern Union, designed to take advantage of Charles’s youth and inexperience to wrest the southern Baltic from Swedish control.

Charles XII did not wait to be attacked. In 1700 he invaded Denmark, the weakest of the powers arrayed against him, thus beginning the struggle for Baltic supremacy known as the Great Northern War (1700-1721). The Danes quickly agreed to peace in August, and Charles then turned to Russia. Landing in Livonia with only 8,000 men, he intended to relieve the besieged city of Riga but instead marched on Narva, which was also besieged by a powerful Russian force. There Charles defeated Czar Peter I and a Russian army of 40,000 men (November 30, 1700).

Charles seemed well on his way to his goal of establishing a great northern empire, but fortunately for Peter, the Swedish king spent the next years campaigning in Poland. This delay allowed Peter time to bring in Western military experts and improve the training, discipline, and weaponry of his army.

In 1706 Charles succeeded in placing his own candidate on the throne of Poland and forced that country to break its alliance with Russia. Rejecting peace overtures from Peter, Charles then gathered forces to invade Russia. On January 1, 1708, Charles invaded Russia with a well-equipped 45,000- man force, intending to drive on Moscow. He captured Grodno and then halted near Minsk to await the spring thaw. The Swedish army crossed the Berezina River at Borlsov at the end of June, then defeated a larger Russian army at Holowczyn (Golovchin, July 14). Charles’s army reached the Dnieper River on July 18.

Charles now found himself severely hampered by Peter’s scorched-earth tactics and Russian harassment of the increasingly long Swedish supply lines. Therefore, Charles decided to turn south and ally himself with the Cossacks of Ukraine under Hetman Ivan Mazepa and the Ottoman Empire, driving on Moscow from that direction. This plan collapsed when Mazepa was ousted from power in October and a Swedish relief column of 11,000 men under General Adam Loewenhaupt was defeated at Lesnaya (Lesna, October 9-10, 1708).

With great difficulty, Charles managed to hold his army together during the winter (November 1708-April 1709), but his force was reduced to only about 20,000 men and 34 guns with little gunpowder. With the spring thaw, Charles advanced on Voronezh but stopped to besiege Poltava, in Ukraine. The siege took longer than anticipated, and Peter came up with a large force of 80,000 men and more than 100 guns. Instead of attempting to withdraw west into Poland, Charles attacked the Russian camp just north of Poltava and was soundly defeated (June 28, 1709). Most of Charles’s men were killed or captured although he himself escaped with 1 500 cavalry. Most of Charles’s men were killed or captured, although he himself escaped with 1,500 cavalry to Bendery in Ottoman Moldavia. In November 1710 he induced the Ottoman Empire to enter the war against Russia. Until 1714 he governed Sweden from Bendery. Returning to Sweden, Charles made a last effort against his many enemies. He raised a new army and planned a preemptive campaign to bring about an advantageous negotiated peace. Unfortunately for Charles’s plans, he was killed by a musket ball (the source of the shot remains a matter of some speculation) during the Siege of Fredrikshald (present-day Halden, near Oslo) on November 30, 1718.

Charles XII was a bold and resourceful military leader, a capable administrator, and an effective strategist and logistician. His principal error was in strategic overreach, when he rejected Peter’s peace overtures in 1706 and decided to invade Russia. Under Charles, Sweden lost an average of 8,000 men a year for 18 years, an amount equal to 30 percent of its adult male population. With Charles’s death, Swedish power receded back to Sweden and Finland.

Siege Warfare 1500-1830

The Surrender of Breda by Diego Velázquez. Oil on canvas, 1635.

Map of the siege of Breda by Spinola. J.Blaeu.

If gunpowder revolutionized combat, its effect upon siege operations was equally well recognized by contemporaries. Beginning in the sixteenth century, much ink had already been spilled to analyze the competition between fortress and cannon, a subject which for a time became part of the normal education of a gentleman. Later during the eighteenth century, the scope of the debate was immensely broadened as it came to be realized that the effects of that competition were not limited to the military field but led to far-reaching social, economic, and political changes as well. It was argued, and has been ever since, that the castle was defeated by the gun and that feudalism came crashing down as one of the results. This interpretation is, however, open to question.

The introduction of firearms to Europe dates back to the first quarter of the fourteenth century. The earliest were apparently used against personnel rather than against fortifications, the effect being as much psychological as physical. While the first record of an association between cannon and a castle dates to within thirty years of artillery…s first appearance, it may be significant that this record tells us of a cannon that was used not to attack a fortress but to defend it. In 1356, an English garrison in Breteuil, Normandy, was being besieged by a French army under the command of King John II. Employing the usual techniques of the age, the French filled in the moat, crossed it, and then brought a fighting tower, or belfry, to the wall. The defenders at first engaged the assaulting party hand to hand, but then suddenly withdrew to allow some form of fire-engine to be used. The text of Froissart, who is our source for this episode, is not clear. While he seems to mention cannon that threw “heavy bolts,” in the same breath he also refers to “jets of fire” which were somehow produced and used to set the tower alight. Whatever his exact meaning, the first recorded use of what may have been artillery in connection with siege warfare ended with a temporary victory for the defense since the French tower caught fire and its remains had to be abandoned in the moat. A few days after this episode, the French king felt threatened from a different quarter and became impatient to end the siege. He offered terms, and Breteuil surrendered.

From this point onward, accounts of cannon being used both to attack fortresses and to defend them multiply rapidly. The Crònica di Pisa, written late in the fourteenth century, narrates that the Pisans in 1362 used a bombard weighing almost 1000 kg against the castle of Pietra Buona. However, there is no record of its effect on the wall. In 1357 the Duke of Burgundy employed guns—borrowed, interestingly, from the municipality of Chartres—to capture the castle of Camrolles near that town. Twelve years later the municipality of Arras made provision for protecting the town gates by allocating a cannon to each of them. During the siege warfare that took place between Venetians and Genoese in 1379-80—the war of Chiogga—there was much use of bombards by both sides. As in the case of ballistae and catapults in ancient times, artillery could be made to face both ways and this was actually done almost from the beginning.

The earliest cannon also resembled previous siege engines in another respect. Insufficiently powerful to bring down curtain walls, their main use was to clear the defenders from sections of the wall so as to permit mining, boring, or the approach of siege towers. As time went on, the size and power both of individual cannon and of siege trains gradually increased, however, and this made it possible to develop new tactics. Froissart narrates that, for the Siege of Odkruik in 1377, the Duke of Burgundy marshaled no fewer than 140 cannon. Some of them fired stone projectiles 100 kg in weight, corresponding to a 35-centimeter bore. This appears to be the first case on record when artillery succeeded in making a breach in the fortifications, whereupon the castle surrendered. As compared to earlier stone-throwing engines, the ability of cannon to bring about this result probably depended not so much on their power as in the flatter trajectory that they afforded. This made it possible to aim at specific points on the wall and hit them again and again, thus ultimately bringing about a collapse.

The curtain walls surrounding medieval castles were singularly ill-suited to resist artillery fire. Since they were made tall to withstand an escalade, they presented excellent targets. They were designed to withstand boring and ramming, so they were frequently much thinner on top than at the base. A besieger who knew his business might therefore use his artillery to bring the higher masonry crashing down upon the lower, thus simultaneously creating a graduated passage for an assault. Once an effective method for creating a breach was available, crossing the moat that protected most castles became much easier, since it would tend to be filled in by the ruins of the walls themselves. Finally, since curtain walls were high and narrow on top, guns could only be used in their defense with great difficulty, if at all.

In so warlike an age as the late European Middle Ages, these shortcomings were quickly realized. Attempts were accordingly made to modify existing structures, a process which involved several distinct steps. During the opening years of the fifteenth century, gates were already being protected from the rear by the cutting of broad passages known as boulevards (from bouleverser, literally, to bowl over) which offered a free field for the fire of cannon. Next, towers were cut down and filled in with earth so as to create a platform for other cannon which were trained outward. Since the towers of medieval castles were for the most part too cramped to serve this purpose, however, the attempt to provide platforms was soon transferred to the curtain walls themselves. Their height was reduced and they were backed up with massive earthen ramps, an operation sufficiently commonplace to acquire a technical term (“rampiring”) of its own. Though rampiring helped castles to withstand an artillery bombardment, it also carried the disadvantage of causing walls to collapse outward once the breach was made, thus facilitating assault and entry. The entire process was makeshift by nature, and is perhaps best understood as an attempt to save the huge social and economic investment represented by castles.

Side by side with these expedients, during the late fourteenth century attempts were already being made to construct new fortifications which would be impervious to cannon. First, it was necessary to build the walls in such a way as to enable them to withstand a bombardment. Second, room had to be provided for the use of artillery by the defenders themselves. In Italy, France, and England, the first response to this dual demand was to lower the walls and thicken them, in some cases to as much as 15-20 meters. Next came the abandonment of towers in favor of round, tublike structures known as roundels and described by Albrecht Duerer and others. The roundel…s walls differed from those of the tower in that they no longer stood vertical to the ground, but were inclined inward in order to present glancing surfaces for shot. Not only did their flat tops provide a platform for guns, but it did not take long before the walls came to be equipped with built-in embrasures and vaulted casemates. Pointing their cannon outward from these, gunners attempted to create interlocking fields of fire to avoid dead corners. These innovations notwithstanding, late fifteenth century fortresses resembled their predecessors in that they stood out high above the ground. The idea that tall is strong had entrenched itself from time immemorial, and it naturally took a while to be abandoned.

When Charles VIII invaded Italy in 1494 he brought along an unprecedentedly strong siege train that was the wonder of the age. The most modern fortresses he encountered were of the type described above. As Machiavelli derisively says in The Prince, they were brought down “chalk in hand,” by which he apparently meant that it was sufficient for a French officer to make a mark on a fortress gate for its garrison to surrender in short order. As so frequently happens in war, however, the success of one side—in this case, the attack—was short-lived. The reaction when it came was strong and effective. In the first decade of the sixteenth century, the Pisans and Venetians had already adopted the device of separating their interior ramparts from the outer walls by a ditch. As a result, when the outer wall collapsed it formed a barrier made of jagged stone unmixed with earth, and this barrier came directly under the muzzles of the cannon stationed on the overlooking ramparts behind. In 1504 it was this system which enabled Pisa, a small and weak town, to withstand a French siege employing the most advanced means then available. The potential of the new method was demonstrated even more dramatically in 1509 when the Empire, France, and the Papal State formed an unholy Alliance whose objective was to dismember Venice. The result was a siege at Padua, a siege which ended with the withdrawal of the attackers, partly because of the strength of the fortifications, and partly because the German nobility refused to dismount and fight on foot.

The so called “Pisan rampart,” however, proved to be only a foretaste of things to come. For a time, after 1510, there was much experimentation with fortifications made of earth and wood. In 1555, during the Spanish siege of Santhia in Piedmont, a fort of this kind absorbed several thousand roundshot and emerged intact. Meanwhile, Italian engineers such as Antonio da Sangallo and Michele di Sanmicheli were hard at work looking for a permanent solution. Sometime around 1520—although certain forerunners can be traced as early as the 1470s or 1480s—the so-called “Italian” type of fortification emerged, a revolutionary innovation which had the effect of enormously strengthening the defense.

The new system of fortification consisted of three simple elements. First, the entire structure was now built right into the immensely wide ditch, with the result that it no longer projected much above ground and consequently no longer presented a target to the attacker…s artillery. Second, a combination of long, straight walls with squat, wedge shaped towers (bastions) permitted the entire length of the ditch to be raked by the fire of cannon that were either trained through especially-constructed embrasures or else were mounted atop the low, flat walls. Third, it was realized almost from the beginning that the bastions could be made to protect not only the walls but also each other. This demanded that they be placed in symmetrical order, with blunt angles pointing outward in every direction. This created the characteristic star-like shape of fortifications, hundreds of which were to dot the European countryside. Naturally, the new arrangements did not emerge all at once. However, by 1560 every one of the essential elements was to be found in the work of a man like Francesco Paciotto da Urbino, who was responsible for the fortification of Turin.

Over the next three centuries, the new type of fortress spread from Italy into France, England, Germany and, above all, the Low Countries, where a triple line of these structures, situated on the Great Rivers and adapted to local conditions, enabled the Dutch Revolt to survive and triumph. Driven partly by the practical challenge presented by the ever growing power of the offense, but partly also by the natural ingenuity of engineers always on the lookout for new problems to solve, fortifications developed in two principal directions. First, the gradually increasing range of cannon caused fortifications to grow larger and more expensive. Second, they began to sprout outworks, which would make it more difficult for the attacker to bring his artillery within range. Initially these outworks consisted of isolated bastion-like structures so situated as to protect each of the star…s points. However, it was not long before attempts were made to incorporate outworks and fortress into a single structure, which then led to the construction of even further outworks. Over time, the process could repeat itself several times.

Thus, by the early seventeenth century, fortresses had become immensely complicated affairs made up of a bewildering array of elements. Bastions and outworks alike were provided with ravelins and redoubts, bonettes and lunettes, tenailles and tenaillons and counterguards, hornworks and crownworks. Approaching them from the outside, the traveler would be met by covered roads and cuvettes and fausse brayes and scarps, not to mention cordons and banquettes and counterscarps. Many of these elements were difficult to keep apart, not only for us but also for contemporaries who, like Uncle Toby in Tristram Shandy, sometimes covered the whole lot with ridicule. Though the basic principles were the same everywhere, a very large number of variations developed to suit national tastes as well as the peculiarities of the terrain. Naturally, most military architects were run-of-the-mill and content to follow the immense number of handbooks in circulation. However, here and there celebrated architects such as Paciotto, Coehorn, and Vauban developed their own distinctive styles, adding still further to the confusion while at the same time providing additional models for imitation.

The fact that fortresses developed in this way, of course, is itself an indication that offense, and the technological means on which it rested, did not stand still. Though neither cannon nor their ammunition changed much after 1550, artillery did tend to become more powerful. The greatest progress was made in the organization and systematization of siege warfare. The late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries saw the emergence of well-defined procedures for investing, besieging, and attacking a fortress. Over time, these procedures tended to harden and to assume something of the character of a ritual dance consisting of precisely regulated moves and countermoves.

Arriving on the location, the first task to be performed by the commander of an attacking army was to surround the town and cut off its approaches. This having been achieved, and attempts to obtain the garrison…s surrender having failed, the next step was to reconnoiter the terrain to discover the spot most suitable for the emplacement of siege artillery. The first line of parallel trenches would be opened and the guns, often protected by portable earth-filled wickerwork structures, stationed in place. A steady bombardment would drive the defenders off the section of the walls directly opposite, and so enable the attackers to advance towards the fortress by digging zigzag trenches. At a certain distance, a second parallel trench would be opened. The guns were then dragged forward, and the process repeated. Unless it was interrupted by the defenders, who sometimes dug their own trenches in order to reach the enemy and dislodge him, two or three forward bounds of this kind usually brought the guns within range and permitted the actual process of breaching the walls to begin. Once a breach was made, the place would be entered by assault. Allowing for varying local conditions, a skilled commander such as Vauban could calculate the duration of a siege almost to the day, and so of course could the defenders. Consequently the process of surrendering fortresses with honor developed into a fine art, surrounded by elaborate ceremonies and books of rules.

Although some of the older techniques of siege warfare, such as boring and ramming or the use of towers, had entirely disappeared by the middle of the sixteenth century, others still remained in use. Chief among those was the ancient principle of throwing up a wall, or vallation, to prevent sorties and cut off the garrison from the surrounding countryside. This in turn was sometimes surrounded by a second wall, known as countervallation and aimed at frustrating any attempts at relief. While artillery eventually came to present the most important means for breaching fortifications, mining and countermining continued to be used, and their effectiveness was increased by the use of gunpowder as an explosive. Escalading a fortress was still sometimes possible, whereas at other times attempts were made to gain entry by all kinds of underhanded means. Above all, siege operations continued to be conducted at such close quarters that both sides were often able to exchange taunts, promises, and threats, using arrows (until 1600) to shoot messages, or simply shouting at one another. As has always been the case in war—and never more so than during the confused seventeenth century and the cosmopolitan eighteenth—attackers and defenders freely imitated each other…s methods. Partly as a result, the race between them was neck-and-neck and was never really decided in favor of one side or the other.

Seen from a wider point of view, not only the techniques of siege warfare but the concept of the siege itself remained essentially the same. Although the most powerful fortresses no longer stood out high above the surface but were partly hidden in the ground, they continued to consist of enceintes designed to repulse assault and keep the attackers out. Conversely, siege warfare still aimed at first cutting the defenders off from the surrounding country and then either breaking into the ring or starving them out. Particularly during the age of religious wars between 1550 and 1650, fortresses kept their traditional function as places of refuge. Since the effective range of cannon still did not exceed 1200 meters or so, each fortress represented a stronghold in its own right and there could be no question of building them close enough to each other to offer mutual support by fire. Here and there entire belts of fortresses were constructed to cover all possible approaches into a country; they did not, however, link up into continuous barriers of the kind that have become so familiar since World War I. Since fortresses were very numerous, the role that they played in strategy was if anything greater than it had been even in the Middle Ages. During the period from 1560 to 1700 in particular, warfare consisted less of battles in the open field than of an endless succession of sieges. One early eighteenth-century authority even calculated that there were three sieges for each battle, not counting cases in which fortresses were besieged unsuccessfully.

Thus, the common view that the advent of cannon changed the balance between the attackers and the fortified defense is simply not supported by the evidence. In truth, the two progressed very much together. Often, the very same engineers who built the most powerful fortresses were also responsible for devising the most sophisticated methods for attacking them, the great Vauban being an outstanding if by no means unusual example of this. Since the length of sieges varied enormously, it would be all but impossible to prove that fortresses were becoming easier or more difficult to capture. The supposed advantage of the attackers over the defense cannot have been very apparent to Charles the Bold of Burgundy, who besieged the town of Neuss for a whole year (1475-76) before finally being obliged to withdraw. Riga in 1700 held out for seven months, Milazzo in 1718-19 for just as long. At the other extreme, ruses and bribes sometimes enabled towns such as Mons (1691) and Huy (1705) to be taken within a matter of days. Most sieges probably fell into the 40-60 day category. To quote Vauban, a resistance lasting 48 days could be regarded as respectable.

In the absence of detailed statistics, the growth in the power of the offensive cannot be proved. Rather, the most important effect of artillery upon siege warfare seems to have lain in a different sphere, namely the greatly enhanced scale on which fortresses had to be built and siege operations conducted. Since cannon, by the middle of the fifteenth century, had outstripped the largest siege engines in point of both power and range, the enceintes built to withstand them had to be that much larger and possess far thicker walls. Such structures in turn called for garrisons numbering in the thousands, sometimes more, and also for much increased quantities of stores and ammunition of every kind. Conversely, attacking a first class fortress was by no means a simple operation logistically. To do so it was necessary to concentrate a large force at a single spot and keep it fed over a period of weeks, if not months. Taking the minimum figures of 1.5 kg per day per man and 15 kg per day per horse, and employing the estimate of a contemporary expert. Puysegur, of two horses for every three men, the daily requirement for feeding an army of 50,000 troops would amount to approximately 475 tons. Though the quantity of powder, ammunition, and engineering materials needed for a siege only amounted to a fraction of this, in absolute terms it too could be very large.

Thus, the principal effect of the advent of artillery and the concommitant advances in fortification was to make both the attack and the defense of fortresses very much more complicated and expensive. Gone were the days when every prince, baron, or monastery could surround themselves with thick walls which, if never altogether impregnable, were at least able to force a considerable delay on an attacker. Gone, too, were the days when the most important arms, or at least some fairly effective arms, could be made by the village blacksmith. Instead, military technological progress created a situation where warfare in general, and fortress warfare in particular, came to demand a combination of financial muscle, bureaucratic organization, and technical expertise. All of these were to be found less in the feudal countryside than in the bourgeois-capitalist town economy which, spreading from south to north and from west to east, played an ever-increasing role.

In their opposition to the nobility both of Church and State, the burghers of the towns found useful allies in the monarchies. The monarchs were the only ones who could afford to build and maintain cannon. Consequently, their power grew and grew until it became absolute. Ultimately the net effect of these developments was a great increase in the minimum size necessary to make political units militarily viable. Instead of being a pastime for individual lords who relied on their vassals, or else an expedient used by towns which called out the citizen-body, the conduct of warfare tended to become centralized in the hands of kings and later in those of national states.

While the trend towards larger political units capable of sustaining the new scale of war in all its forms was both marked and steady, it was by no means simple or linear. The period from about 1450 to 1650 was as unsteady politically and marked by as many wars as any during the Middle Ages. So many peasant uprisings and national revolts and religious conflicts and civil wars were taking place that very often even contemporaries were unable to discover who was fighting whom, let alone what for. Though sieges were frequent, small-scale guerrilla warfare was endemic in the countryside between the fortresses. Often it was all but indistinguishable from simple brigandry. In the hands of military contractors such as the seventeenth-century commander Wallenstein, war itself for a time was turned into a form of self-sustaining capitalist enterprise which promised riches and even principalities to the most successful practitioners. Whether this situation reflected the dominance of offense over defense, or the other way around, is difficult to say. In any case, military technology was but a single factor among the many that were involved. War is too complex a tapestry to be dominated by a single thread, however thick and however brilliant.

A new equilibrium was established during the second half of the seventeenth century. With armies becoming increasingly professional, the role of irregular warfare declined, though it never disappeared altogether. Fortresses and siege operations continued to be vital constituents of war. Though the scale of both had greatly increased and was still increasing, few if any new principles were added, so that even as late as 1832 the French army during the siege of Antwerp was found reading Vauban and employing the traditional methods. Long before this time, the borders of the most important states had come to be protected by double and sometimes triple belts of these structures. Partly as a result, the complete conquest and subjugation of one country by the other was generally regarded as no longer practicable. A new political order, based on an acknowledged, if dynamic, balance of power, was created and maintained itself. Entire countries were turned into quasi-fortresses, protected as they were by brick strongholds covering the best approaches, and held together by roads and later by railroads. Thus a clear separation between “front” and “rear” was created, acting as one of the factors behind the development of the modern distinction between combatants and noncombatants. This, in turn, lasted until the invention of aircraft. By enabling armed forces to overfly national borders and penetrate into the enemy…s soft interior, aircraft led to the breakdown of hitherto prevailing international law, a breakdown with which we are still trying to contend.

Within each state separately, artillery not only helped royal power assert itself against all competitors but actually turned into its symbol. Cannon fired salutes when princes were born, decorated their palaces while they reigned, and increasingly figured in their funerals when they died. Louis XIV even caused his guns to be emblazoned with the words ultima ratio regis, which was an accurate if cynical description of their function. While kings played with real cannon, lesser mortals often did the same with custom-made smaller versions or, failing this, had models placed on the mantelpiece. Such martial displays notwithstanding, warfare continued to be dominated as much by humdrum nonmilitary technology as by spectacular fortresses and cannon. Ultimately, it was developments in nonmilitary technology that accounted for the revolution in strategy usually associated with the name of Napoleon Bonaparte.


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.


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

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 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.




From earliest times the life of the Slavs has been connected with water. Like most ancient peoples, the Slavs built settlements near rivers and lakes. Fishing provided an important food source and waterways became main transportation arteries. Even in a rough-hewn boat it was easier and safer to travel long distances than it was to cut through a dense forest.

Boat building techniques gradually improved. The canoe-like vessels of the Slavs, which were originally pushed through the water with punt poles, became considerably faster with the introduction of oars and sails.

By the seventh century boat construction had sufficiently advanced to allow the Slavs not only to navigate rivers but also to venture into the open seas. They sailed to Thessalonica, Crete, the southern coast of Italy, and, at the very walls of Constantinople, engaged the Byzantines in naval battles.

Among the most famous of the ancient trade routes was the one called “from the Vikings to the Greeks.” To a large degree Kiev and Novgorod, the principal cities of Ancient Rus, flourished because they were located along the waterways of this important route.

For long voyages these early Russians built a light, open vessel called a lodya. The Byzantines called it in Greek monoxile because it was made from a single tree, usually the hollowed-out trunk of an oak or linden. Layers of planking were secured to the hull to increase its height and oars were affixed to the planking. A single mast with a square sail made the lodya seaworthy, and it was light enough, when the need arose, for portage. Although it seldom exceeded twenty metres in length, a lodya often held a crew of forty.

In the ninth century Kievan Grand Prince Oleg, with a fleet of lodyas, launched an attack against Constantinople, called Tsargrad by the Slavs. His victorious campaign proved the might and independence of Kievan Rus. According to the Chronicles, Prince Oleg “hung his shield upon the Gate of Tsargrad” and sailed back to Kiev with the treasures of his conquest.

In 941 Grand Prince Igor Rurikovich sailed against Tsargrad with a large force of lodyas. In a sea battle off the northeast coast of the Bosporus, the Byzantine galleys, called dromons, decimated the Kievan fleet by using a terrifying instrument of war known as “Greek fire.” (Developed during the Middle Ages, Greek fire consisted of catapulting fireballs at enemy ships.)

Igor Rurikovich retreated back to Kiev; however, in 943, having assembled an even more powerful force, he launched a successful assault against Constantinople and claimed for Kievan Rus the right to trade with the Byzantine Empire. Many of Russia’s earliest heroes-some true historical figures, others purely legendary, or often a combination of the two-emerged from Kievan Rus.

Along with his faithful warriors, Kievan Grand Prince Svyatoslav Igorevich became fabled for his acts of valour. Prince Svyatoslav’s most celebrated deed was his conquest of Khazaria in 966 following a great sea battle. Sixteen years later Grand Price Vladimir, son of Svyatoslav, attacked Byzantium and engaged the Byzantines in yet another naval battle.

The peace that resulted from friendlier relations with Byzantium permitted Kievan Rus to begin to develop craftsmanship, to engage in trade, and to learn how to construct in stone. Nevertheless, advancements in the art of shipbuilding proceeded very slowly. The early Russians continued to ply the lakes and seas in their dug-out boats and to transport their simple goods by river on crude, raft-like vessels.

In 1043 Kievan Rus began its ninth naval campaign against Constantinople. Prince Vladimir, son of Yaroslav the Wise, sailed into the Bosporus with his flotilla of lodyas and utterly routed the Byzantine naval force. This marked the last assault of a Kievan Rus fleet upon Tsargrad. After the death of Vladimir Monomakh in 1125, the struggle for power between the princes of Ancient Rus intensified. Disunited and weakened through internal strife, the princes could give little thought to warring against neighbouring states.

The princes of Rus began to use their fleets of lodyas to fight against one another. In 1151 Prince Izyaslav Mstislavich used a more advanced type of sailing vessel in a battle against the forces of Prince Yury Dolgoruky: Prince Isyaslav’s lodyas had decks and were constructed with rudders in both bow and stern. In the years that followed few other changes were made in the design of this yet primitive sailing craft.

By the end of the twelfth century Vladimir-Suzdal had become a significantly strong princedom. Prince Vsevolod (son of Yury Dolgoruky and nicknamed Bolshoye Gnezdo, meaning “Great Nest”) claimed for himself the title of Grand Prince of Kiev and proclaimed himself Grand Prince of Vladimir as well.

Both Vsevolod and his son, Prince Yury II, equipped flotillas of lodyas and sent them against the Volga Bulgars. During one of his military campaigns Yury II founded the eastern-most of the Russian princedoms, Nizhny-Novgorod, at the place where the Volga flows into the Oka River.

Yury II’s efforts to strengthen the eastern boundaries of fledgling Russia were doubtless inspired by a presentiment of things to come. For it was in the East that the might of the Golden Horde was gathering; it was from the East that the Tatar-Mongols would descend and impose upon Russia the “yoke” that was to last for nearly three centuries.