in Book Review

City of Fortune

How Venice Ruled the Seas

Venice, a city within a lagoon, came into being as a refuge for Romans fleeing the barbarians, a collection of islands with virtually no natural resources except salt. Yet the Venetians defied all odds, and rose to become a model republic and a powerful maritime empire.

Much of what made Venice into a formidable power that it was is due to the wars it fought, either for profit (the Fourth Crusade), or for survival (War of Chioggia, the Wars with Ottoman Empire). The Venetians also developed a kind of bureaucracy which, while absolutely convoluted, turned out to be a fairly efficient one. More importantly, Venice’s political model made it very difficult, if not completely impossible, to concentrate power into the hands of a very few elite.

The book City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas, by Roger Crowley is the story of how the measly lagoon settlement, in a span of almost one millennium, became the maritime empire that ruled Mediterranean and bridged the West and the East. It also discusses the inner workings of the Most Serene Republic of Venice- the government, the economic system (including the banking and financial innovations rooted in Venetian trade), and many other aspects of the Venetian life.

Additionally, the focus on Venice’s wars also shows much of how medieval warfare looked like, especially the sieges that were so common during the Middle Ages. The coming of the Black Death, and its effects on Venice and the rest of Europe, is also discussed here, as the Plague’s effects had a major role in the successive wars fought by Venice.

City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas is an excellent overview on Venice’s rise to power. It’s aimed primarily for the general readers, so even with scant historical knowledge, one can easily understand and appreciate the book.