Evolution Of The Dogeship In Venice

Evolution Of The Dogeship In Venice

Author: Hazlitt, William Carew

The Lombards and Venice


The early authentic history of Venice is intimately connected with that

of the Lombards, of whom the first mention is made by Paterculus, the Roman

historian, who wrote during the first quarter of the first century of our

era. He speaks of the Langobardi ^1 (Lombards) as dwelling on the west bank

of the Elbe. Tacitus also mentions them in his Germany. From the Elbe they

wandered to the Danube, and there encountered the Gepidae, a branch of the

Goths. The Lombards subdued this tribe, after a contest of thirty years.

[Footnore 1: Some modern writers question the etymology which in the

name of the Langobardi finds a reference to the length of their beards.

Sheppard thinks that "long-spears," rather than "long-beards" was the

original signification. Since, on the banks of the Elbe, Borde or Bord still

means "a fertile plain beside a river," others derive their name from the

district they inhabited. Langobardi would thus signify "people of the long

bord of the river."]

By this victory Alboin, the young Lombard King, rose to great power and

fame. His beauty and renown were sung by German peasants even in the days of

Charlemagne. His name "crossed the Alps and fell, with a foreboding sound,

upon the startled ears of the Italians," and toward Italy he turned for

conquest. From Scythia and Germany adventurous youth flocked to his

standard. Many clans and various religions were represented in his ranks,

but these diversities were overshadowed by a common devotion to the


In 568 the Lombards marched from Pannonia into Italy, conquered the

northern part, still called Lombardy, and founded the kingdom of that name,

which was afterward greatly extended, and existed until overthrown by

Charlemagne in 774.

Before the invading hosts of Alboin, wealthy inhabitants of the larger

cities of the province of Venetia fled to the islands of Venice, where

earlier fugitives had sought shelter from King Attila and his Huns. A

thriving maritime community had been established, which about this time had

developed into a semi-independent protectorate of the Byzantine or Eastern

Empire, attached to the exarchate of Ravenna.

Afterward Venice underwent many political changes, among which one of

the most interesting to students of history is that of the institution of the

dogeship, as hereafter related. This step was taken for more than one reason

of internal organization and policy, and it was also made urgent by the

encroachments of the Lombards, which had become a menace to Venetian

territory and commerce.

The republic (Venetian) on her part contemplated with inquietude the

rise of one monarchy after another on the skirts of the Lagoon, for the

Venetians not unnaturally feared that as soon as these fresh usurpers had

established themselves, they might form the design of adding the islands of

the Adriatic to their dominion, and of acquiring possession of the commercial

advantages which belonged to the situation held by the settlers. For the

Lombards, though not ranking among maritime communities, were not absolutely

strangers to the laws of navigation, or to the use of ships, which might

place them in a position to reduce to their control a small, feeble, and

thinly peopled area, separated from their own territories only by a narrow

and terraqueous strait. Moreover, the predatory visits of Leupus, duke of

Friuli, whose followers traversed the canals at low tide on horseback, and

despoiled the churches of Heraclia, Equilo, and Grado, soon afforded

sufficient proof that the equestrian skill of the strangers was capable of

supplying to some extent any deficiency in nautical knowledge.

Venice at present formed a federative state, united by the memory of a

common origin and the sense of a common interest; the arrengo, which met at

Heraclia, the parent capital, at irregular intervals to deliberate on matters

of public concern, was too numerous and too schismatical to exercise

immediate control over the nation; and each island was consequently governed,

after the abolition of the primeval consulate, in the name of the people, by

a gastaldo or tribune, whose power, nominally limited, was virtually

absolute. This administration had lasted nearly two centuries and a half,

during which period the republic passed through a cruel ordeal of anarchy,

oppression, and bloodshed. The tribunes conspired against each other; the

people rebelled against the tribunes. Family rose against family, clan

against clan. Sanguinary affrays were of constant occurrence on the thinly

peopled lidi, and amid the pine-woods, with which much of the surface was

covered; and it is related that in one instance at least the bodies of the

dead were left to be devoured by beasts and birds of prey, which then haunted

the more thickly afforested parts.

Jealousy and intolerance of the pretensions of Heraclia to a paramount

voice in the policy of the community may be securely assigned as the

principal and permanent source of friction and disagreement; but the

predominance of that township seems to have resisted every effort of the

others to supplant its central authority and wide sphere of influence; and

during centuries it preserved its power, through its ostensible choice as the

residence of the most capable and influential citizens.

The scandalous and destructive outrages attendant on the rule of the

tribunes had become a vast constitutional evil. They sapped the general

prosperity; they obstructed trade and industries; they made havoc on public

and private property; they banished safety and repose, and they impoverished

and scandalized the Church.

The depredations of the Lombards, which grew in the course of time

bolder and more systematic in their character, certainly indicated great

weakness on the part of the government. Yet it was equally certain that the

weakness proceeded less from the want than from the division of strength.

The sacrilegious inroads were not without their beneficial result; for

they afforded those who might be disposed to institute reforms an admirable

ground not only for bringing the matter more closely and immediately under

the public observation, but they enlisted in the cause the foremost

ecclesiastics, who might recognize in this internal disunion a danger of

interminable attacks and depredations from without, if not an eventual loss

of political independence; and, accordingly, in the course of the spring of

697-698, the patriarch of Grado himself submitted to the arrengo at Heraclia

a scheme, which had been devised by him and his friends, for changing the

government. The proposal of the metropolitan was to divest the tribunes of

the sovereignty, and to have once more a magistrate (capo dei tribuni), in

whom all power might be concentrated. His title was to be duke. His office

was to be for life. With him was to rest the whole executive machinery. He

was to preside over the synod as well as the arrengo, either of which it was

competent for him to convoke or dissolve at pleasure; merely spiritual

matters of a minor nature were alone, in future, to be intrusted to the

clergy; and all acts of convocations, the ordination of a priest or deacon,

the election of a patriarch or bishop, were to be subject to the final

sanction of the ducal throne. In fact, the latter became virtually, and in

all material respects, autocrat of Venice, not merely the tribunes, but even

the hierarchy, which was so directly instrumental in creating the dignity,

having now no higher function than that of advisers and administrators under

his direction; and it was in matters of general or momentous concern only

that the republic expected her First Magistrate to seek the concurrence or

advice of the national convention.

In a newly formed society, placed in the difficult situation in which

the republic found herself at the close of the seventh century, and where

also a superstitious reverence for the pontiff might at present exist, apart

from considerations of interest, it ought to create no surprise that the

patriarch and his supporters should have formed a unanimous determination,

and have taken immediate steps to procure the adhesion of the Holy See,

before the resolutions of the popular assembly were definitively carried into


This measure simply indicates the character of the opinions which were

received at the time in Europe, as well as the strong consciousness on the

part of the patriarch, and those who acted with him, of the expediency of

throwing the voice and countenance of the Church into the scale alike against

the tribunitial oligarchy and against local jealousies and prejudices. There

was perhaps in this case the additional inducement that the proposal to

invest the doge with supreme power and jurisdiction over the Church, as well

as over the state, might seem to involve an indirect surrender, either now or

hereafter, on the part of the Holy See of some of its power, as a high-priest

or grand pontiff, who was also a secular prince, might prove less pliant than

an ordinary liegeman of the Church. But the men of 697 acted, as we must

allow, sagaciously enough, when they presented their young country to the

consideration of the papacy as possessing a party of order, into which the

Church entered, and from which it now stood conspicuously and courageously

out to take this very momentous initiative.

The creation of an ecclesiastical system had been one of the foremost

aims of the first founders, who discerned in the transplantation of the

churches of the terra firma, and their familiar pastors to the islands the

most persuasive reconcilement of the fugitives to a hard and precarious lot;

and after all the intervening years it was the elders of the Church who once

more stepped forward and delivered their views on the best plan for healing

discord, and making life in the lagoons tolerable for all. They sought some

system of rule, after trying several, which would enable them to live in

peace at home, and to gain strength to protect themselves from enemies. They

would have been the most far-seeing of human beings if they had formed a

suspicion of what kind of superstructure they were laying on the foundation.

The nearest model for their adoption or imitation was the Lombard type of

government almost under their very eyes; and so far as the difference of

local postulates suffered, it was that to which they had recourse, when they

vested in their new chieftain undivided jurisdiction, but primarily military

attributes and a title then recognized as having, above all, a military


On the receipt of the desired reply, the patriarch lost no time in

calling on the national assembly to follow up their late vote to its

legitimate consequences; and the choice of the people fell on Pauluccio

Anafesto, a native of Heraclia, whose name occurs here for the first time,

but who may be supposed to have had some prominent share in promoting the

late revolution. Anafesto was conducted to a chair which had been prepared

for him in his parish church, and solemnly invested by the metropolitan with

the insignia of authority, one of which is said to have been an ivory

sceptre - a symbol and a material borrowed from the Romans.

It is not an unusual misconception that this organic change in the

government involved the simultaneous extinction of the tribunitial office and

title. But the truth is that the tribunes continued to exercise municipal

and subordinate functions many generations after the revolution of 697; each

island of importance, such as Malamocco and Equilo, had its own tribune,

while of the smaller islands several contributed to form a tribunate or

governorship; and office, though neither strictly nor properly hereditary,

still preserved its tendency to perpetuate itself in a limited number of

families. It is only subsequently to the twelfth century that less is heard

of the tribunes; and the progress of administrative reform led to the gradual

disappearance of this old feudal element in the constitution.

In the time of Anafesto, the larger islands of the dogado formed the

seats of powerful factions; the disproportion in point of influence between

the Crown and the tribune of Malamocco or the tribune of Equilo was but

slightly marked; and the abolition of that magistracy was a much more

sweeping measure than the first makers of a doge would have dared to propose.

The military complexion of the ducal authority was not confined to the

personal character of the supreme officer of state, for under him, not as a

novel element in the constitution, but as one which preexisted side by side

with the tribunitial system, served a master of the soldiers, whom there is a

fairly solid ground for regarding as second to the doge or duke in

precedence, and above the civil tribunes of the respective townships.

To find in so small and imperfectly developed a state the two leading

functionaries or ingredients deriving their appellations from a command and

control over the rude feudal militia, might alone warrant the conclusion that

the most essential requirement of Venice, even when it had so far modified

the form of administration, was felt to be the possession, under responsible

direction, of a means of securing internal order and withstanding external

aggression, if it were not the case that from the Gothic era onward we hear

of scholae militiae cum patronis, manifestly the schools of instruction for

the body over which the magister militum presided. These seminaries existed

in the days of the exarch Narses, generations before a doge was given to

Venice. Yet, through all the time which has now elapsed since the first

erection of a separate political jurisdiction, not only the Church, on which

such stress was at the very outset laid, but a civil government, and

regulations for trade and shipping, must have been active forces, always

tending to grow in strength and coherence.

The Venetians, in constructing by degrees, and even somewhat at random,

a constitutional fabric, very naturally followed the precedents and models

which they found in the regions which bordered on them, and from which their

forefathers had emigrated. The Lombard system, which was of far longer

duration than its predecessors on the same soil, borrowed as much as possible

from that which the invaders saw in use and favor among the conquered; and

the earliest institutions of the only community not subjugated by their arms

were counterparts either of the Lombard, the Roman, or the Greek customary

law. The doge, in some respects, enjoyed an authority similar to that which

the Romans had vested in their ancient kings; but, while he was clothed with

full ecclesiastical jurisdiction, he did not personally discharge the

sacerdotal functions or assume a sacerdotal title. The Latins had had their

magistri populi; and in the Middle Ages they recognized at Naples and at

Amalfi a master of the soldiers; at Lucca, Verona, and elsewhere, a captain

of the people. But all these magistrates were in possession of the supreme

power, were kings in everything save the name; and the interesting suggestion

presents itself that in the case of Venice the master of the soldiers had

been part of the tribunitial organization, if not of the consular one, and

that one of the tribunes officiated by rotation, bearing to the republic the

same sort of relationship as the bretwalda bore to the other Anglo-Saxon

reguli. There can be no doubt that Venice kept in view the prototypes

transmitted by Rome, and learned at last to draw a comparison between the two

empires; and down to the fifteenth century the odor of the Conscript Fathers

lingered in the Venetian fancy.

Subsequently to the entrance of the dux, duke, or doge on the scene, and

the shrinkage of the tribunitial power to more departmental or municipal

proportions, the master of the soldiers, whatever he may have been before,

became a subordinate element in the administration. His duties must have

certainly embraced the management of the militia and the maintenance of the

doge's peace within the always widening pale of the ducal abode. He was next

in rank to the crown or throne.

Thus we perceive that, after a series of trials, the Venetians

eventually reverted to the form of government which appeared to be most

agreeable, on the whole, to their conditions and genius.

The consular triumviri, not perhaps quite independent of external

influences, were originally adopted as a temporary expedient. The tribunes,

who next succeeded, had a duration of two hundred and fifty years. Their

common fasti are scanty and obscure; and we gain only occasional glimpses of

a barbarous federal administration, which barely sufficed to fulfil the most

elementary wants of a rising society of traders. They were alike, more or

less, a machinery of primitive type, deficient in central force, and without

any safeguards against the abuse of authority, without any definite theory of

legislation and police. The century and a half which intervened between the

abrogation of monarchy in the person of a tribune, and its revival in the

person of a doge (574-697), beheld the republic laboring under the feeble and

enervating sway of rival aristocratic houses, on which the sole check was the

urban body subsequently to emerge into importance and value as the militia of

the six wards, and its commandant, the master of the soldiers.

But while the institution of the dogeship brought with it a certain

measure of equilibrium and security, it left the political framework in

almost every other respect untouched. The work of reform and consolidation

had merely commenced. The first stone only had been laid of a great and

enduring edifice. The first permanent step had been taken toward the

unification of a group of insular clanships into a homogeneous society, with

a sense of common interests.

The late tribunitial ministry has transmitted to us as its monument

little beyond the disclosure of a chronic disposition to tyranny and

periodical fluctuations of preponderance. The so-called chair of Attila at

Torcello is supposed to have been the seat where the officer presiding over

that district long held his court sub dio.

The doge Anafesto appears to have pacified, by his energy and tact, the

intestine discord by which his country had suffered so much and so long, and

the Equilese, especially - who had risen in open revolt, and had refused to

pay their proportion of tithes - were persuaded, after some fierce struggles

in the pineto or pine woods, which still covered much of the soil, to return

to obedience. The civil war which had lately broken out between Equilo and

Heraclia was terminated by the influential mediation of one of the tribunes,

and the Lombards now condescended to ratify a treaty assigning to the

Venetians the whole of the territory lying between the greater ad lesser

Piave, empowering the republic to erect boundary lines, and prohibiting

either of the contracting parties from building a stronghold within ten miles

of those lines. A settlement of confines between two such close neighbors

was of the highest importance and utility. But a still more momentous

principle was here involved.

The republic had exercised a clear act of sovereign independence. It

had made its first Italian treaty. This was a proud step and a quotable


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