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- Salve invicta Juditha formosa
Patriae splendor spes nostrae salutis
Summae norma tu vere virtutis
Eris semper in mundo gloriosa.
Debellato sic barbaro Trace,
Triumphatrix sit Maris Regina,
Et placata sic ira divina:
Adria vivat, et regnet in pace.
- — National anthem of Venice, "Salve invicta Juditha" by Antonio Vivaldi
- Salve invicta Juditha formosa
Venice's past stretches back well into classical history, but the modern city as we know it is far more recent. In Roman times, there were a group of Celtic tribes who settled the northern Adriatic coast of Italy, known to the Romans as the Venetii who would eventually be assimilated into mainstream Roman society as fully-fledged citizens, but it was not to be until the chaotic 6th century CE that the modern city and republic of Venice would fully emerge.
When the Lombards invaded Italy in 568CE, one of the first cities in their path was Aquileia — a Christian town of long-standing importance, traditionally held to have been founded by St Mark. Many of its inhabitants, fleeing southwards, crossed the sea and settled on the isle of Torcello — the nucleus of the city of Venice. Almost twenty years later, in about 584CE, those parts of the east Italian coast still in Byzantine hands were organised together as the exarchate of Ravenna — a defensive arrangement against the Lombards.
Despite this, Torcello was geographically separated from the Byzantine government at Ravenna, and so the survival of the community was by then largely in their own hands. They became increasingly independent, and in 726CE for the first time elected a doge (the equivalent of 'duke', from the Latin dux meaning 'leader'). Disillusion with Byzantine rule over the maritime community grew, yet Byzantine domination of the Venetian lagoon continued until the exarchate of Ravenna was exterminated in 751CE.
An opportunity arose for Venice with Pepin, the son of Charlemagne. The Doges skillfully not only played off the Franks and the Byzantines against one another, but even profited from it too, leading to a Franco-Byzantine treaty in 814CE that guaranteed autonomy for the city-state. As part of both worlds, east and west, perfectly placed between the Mediterranean and the mountain passes up through the Alps into northern Europe, Venice was now poised to make her fortune from trade.
Early in the 9th century, the doge transferred the seat of rule to two adjacent islands, where the land was a little higher above water level, though in Venice the distinction is a subtle one. To either side of the intervening waterway was a rivo alto ('high bank'), from the which the name Rialto derives, on which the famous market now stands. The growing town however needed prestige, and so Saint Mark, the patron saint of Aquileia (in effect the parent city), was adopted as its patron saint, and the saint's relics arrived in the city in 828, reputedly smuggled in from Egypt. Whatever the actual means (theft of relics was common in the Middle Ages, but purchase could be equally possible), the arrival of the bones of Saint Mark soon led to the building of the first San Marco cathedral in Venice. The church, rebuilt in the 11th century and subsequently enlarged and altered, has been ever since the proud centrepiece of the city.
By the 11th century, Venice was making itself felt in the Adriatic. Expeditions sent out to deter raids by Saracen and Croat pirates soon led to the city-state placing garrisons in ports throughout Istria and Dalmatia, under the communal leadership of merchants and shipping magnates, after the same having blocked all attempts by some families (such as the houses of Partecipazio, Candiano and Orseolo) to establish hereditary rule in Venice. To keep the Alpine passes and the Straits of Otranto free from foreign influence (as any power which could dominate both ends would then have a stranglehold on the Venetian mercantile economy) Venetian influence expanded over the Balkans and Epirus in order to keep the Straits of Otranto free, and also joined the Lombard League in order to preserve the independence of the Italians and limit the power of the Holy Roman Emperor in Italy.
The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) would boost Venetian fortunes further: the empire now included parts of Greece and the entire eastern Adriatic coast, but this soon attracted the eye of its rivals: among one of these was Genoa, a new maritime republic that had recently thrown off the Imperial yoke and was now feeling its way around the Mediterranean. Rivalry with Genoa and other maritime republics soon culminated in a series of skirmishes and battles at sea. The gravest of these threats was the Chioggia War (1379-81). Venice's maritime empire came under attack from a coalition headed by Genoa, Padua and Aquileia, with Austrian and Hungarian assistance. Eventually, Venice would win the war, and expanded into Lombardy itself, but this would put it at loggerheads with the Papal States, Milan, Tuscany and eventually France.
Three events would eventually destroy Venetian hegemony in Europe. The discovery of the New World and the new overseas empires in Asia and Africa would destroy Venice's economy, while the Italian Wars of the 16th century would eventually destroy its empire in Italy, while the eastern protectorates would be overrun by the Ottomans. The republic would nevertheless retain some semblance of its economic status during the Early Industrial Era, until it was annexed by Napoleon in 1796. Venice would then be passed over to the Austrians after Napoleon, before being annexed to the Kingdom of Italy in 1866.