Who were the first Venetians? And who lived in the lagoons before Venice was built?
Environmental studies have revealed how the ancient coastline gradually shifted eastwards shaping out a lagoon, which in its current form didn’t exist in Roman times. Archaeological searches have widely demonstrated that these areas in the Imperial age were used (and inhabited) for fishing, salt production and farming. Studies have shown how the settlement of the coastal belt was not constant over time. There is evidence that there were various different stages and degrees of settlement due to specific environmental conditions.
By the 6th century, however, some sites tend to show a denser built fabric in well-defined areas, thus suggesting a growing concentration of the population. This is the case, for example, with Torcello, the new port area of Altino. But who invested in these port infrastructures? A crucial role in the economic development of these intermediate ports must have been played by the aristocratic elites associated with military circles. This working hypothesis can be evinced mainly from geographical-type observations. But let’s attempt to explain this further. The kind of land on which the new settlements began to grow, as we said, had wholly unusual features. It consisted of sandy mudflats and river islets with a potential for settlement only after the late Imperial age, for the simple reason that earlier, in the Republican age, they were almost non-existent. Although newly formed, this rapidly growing land was not “no man's land”.
The extensive new areas became part of Imperial public property, in keeping with Roman law. The lands could thus be assigned to be managed by army officers at the end of their careers, according to a customary practice in late Antiquity. And the properties had fields, lagoons and forests as well as some locally settled servants involved in managing the land (farming), the waters (fishing and salt production) and the forests (control and cutting down of woods). Archaeological research has shown that from the 3rd to the 5th century the landed and lagoon properties tended to be large estates. The nobles played a role that was combination of public duties and private initiative, along the lines of what happened during the rise of feudal power in the Po Valley interior. In the lagoon, however, there was a difference: it had no vast tracts of land on which to found the hierarchical management of power. Here the wealth lay in the capacity to manage the labour force, to obtain fish and salt or to make the lagoon become a place for logistic exchanges and trading.
Who inhabited the lagoons before Venice was formed? The servants and slaves employed in the construction of wharves, harbours and warehouses in the new ports or in loading and unloading goods, or in craft activities supporting shipbuilding. The lagoon was inhabited by many workers but few members of the elite of investors and administrators (involved in trade, ports, farms, salt production, etc).
There were, however, also slaves in the earliest Venetian economy. Trading captive men was a common practice. As we learn from written sources, slaves were one of the main "commodities” in 9th-century Venetian trade. They came from war booty in Carolingian Europe and were sold in the Islamic Mediterranean as precious goods. The ships that brought oil, wine and spices from Alexandria, left Venice also laden with slaves, which were in great demand in the Islamic area at a time when production was based on a slave-type economic and social system. This is one of the lesser-known chapters in the history of Venice.
Last update: 23/12/2022