The traditional Carnival of Venice has its roots in the classical Roman festivals and theatre performances.

We all know the floating city of Venice as the Most Serene Republic, one of the naval powers of the Mare Nostrum or Mediterranean Sea. How did Venice become this powerful? What are the origins of the city? The epic story of the Serenissima starts in the Late Roman Era. During Attila’s Hunnic invasion of Northern Italy in the 5th century AD, refugees from the conquered cities of Padua, Aquileia, Altino and Treviso took refuge in the marshy lagoons over which the city of Venetia or Venetia would later be built. These people became known as Incolae Lacunaeor lagoon dwellers. When the Italian Peninsula was reconquered by Emperor Giustinian’s armies in the 6th century AD, the region surrounding Venice was organized into the Exarchateof Ravenna, a province administered by a military governor, the Exarch, based in the previous imperial capital of Ravenna. Its distance from Constantinople as well as its strategic position made the city of Venice increasingly autonomous from the Eastern Romans. Early semi-independent forms of government like the Tribuni Maiores appeared in Venice during the 6th century AD. Governed by the Doge since the 8th century AD, the city soon became an empire capable of fielding entire transport fleets for the crusade movement.

Venetian galley, 13th century. The Granger Collection, New York.

The Doge was aided by the Great Council or Maggior Consiglio, a political organ and council of noble elders exclusive to those enrolled in the Libro d’Oro or Golden Book, the formal directory of nobles in the Republic of Venice. An example of a patrician Venetian family is the distinguished Contarini family, one of the twelve that elected the first doge in 697 and later gave Venice eight doges as well as many other eminent citizens. Another noted clan was the Dandolo family, of which the famous “immortal” Doge Enrico Dandolo was a member. The Doge of Venice is strictly related to late roman military hierarchy. In fact, the term Doge comes from Dux, which in Latin means “military commander” and in the late roman world indicated the officer in charge of the Limitanei or Riparienses, semi-professional troops who guarded the Roman limes or frontier. The city also had its own order of knights: the Cavalieri di San Marco, famous for their insignadepicting the San Marco lion and the Cavalieri della stuola D’Oro. As Venice developed into a powerful thalassocracy, from “θαλασσα”, meaning sea and “κρατεῖν”, to rule, trade with the eastern Roman Empire and its capital Constantinople flourished. Trade with Constantinople granted access to the Aegean islands and the Muslim world to the powerful fleets of the Republic of Venice. Eastern Mediterranean trade routes made Venice on the most sprawling cities of Western Europe. Employment of mercenary bodies and companies was extensive in the Republic of Venice as the city and its dominions offered only a small quantity of manpower. For example, the “στρατιώται” or stradioti in Italian, were a body of Greek, Albanian and Dalmatian mercenaries who fought as light cavalry and skirmishers. Also, the use of capitani di ventura or venture captains, captains of mercenary companies, was extremely popular in Venice and in northern Italian cities from the late medieval ages and throughout the Renaissance. Bartolomeo D’Alviano was a famous venture captain employed by the Republic of Venice during the Italian wars.

Map of the Venetian lagoon, 16th century.