Wood, Water and Slaves: How Venice Came into the World

How did Venice come into being? For the Venetians themselves it’s a familiar story: try and ask the locals, and you will be regaled with anecdotes, the difficulties, and the heroism in the tales of the deeds of the Roman and Byzantine nobles who are said to have sought refuge in the lagoon. They had fled from the barbarian hordes who had occupied cities rich in monuments, fine squares and civil institutions in the neighboring plain. They escaped to an inhospitable lagoon environment with marshes, flooding and mosquitoes. The waters, however, would also keep the barbarians out, the men in the armies of Attila, Alboin and Charlemagne. The first act of these fugitive people on the newfound islands would be to celebrate their saints and give thanks for their narrow escape.  But this is only legend, and in all likelihood the explanation of the flight from the conquering barbarians as being at the origins of Venice is an historiographical invention.

So how then was Venice first formed? 

VoicesOfVenice tells a different and arguably more topical story of slow environmental changes and capital investments in fairly large port structures. The origins of the settlements in the lagoon are linked to a gradual series of movements of people due to climatic and economic phenomena. 

In late Antiquity and the early Middle Ages, the changes in the fluvial and lagoon landscape with a gradual shifting of the coastline out to sea created new conditions for widespread port structures. The low mudflats and tides offered the ideal environment for commercial growth based on being well connected to the principal long-distance transport highways of the time, that is the sea routes. The mudflats over the centuries would gradually became the sites of warehouses, ports and places for craft production. For all this to happen required the presence and (and therefore control and movement) of large masses of both generic and skilled workers. Those masses formed the vital nucleus that gave rise to one of the more enduring, prosperous urban and cultural phenomena in the post-Classical age: Venice.

Less romantic than the legend, this narrative is confirmed by many archaeological finds. To understand it fully, we must reflect on the late Roman fiscal system, the changes in the international Mediterranean markets and the logistics of maritime transport. Our narrative no longer explains the origin of the city using the term "escape into the lagoon" but an idea of a "slow shift". The ancient Venetians moved to the lagoon gradually. Their lives, however, then rapidly intermeshed with the unique nature of the lagoon environment as they developed wholly peculiar technical skills and practical knowledge.