While there are no historical records that deal directly with the origins of Venice, the available evidence has led several historians to agree that the original population of Venice comprised refugees from Roman cities such as Padua, Aquileia, Altino and Concordia (modern Portogruaro) who were fleeing successive waves of Germanic invasions and Huns. Some late Roman sources reveal the existence of fishermen on the islands in the original marshy lagoons. They were referred to as incolae lacunae (lagoon dwellers).
Beginning in 166-168, the Quadi and Marcomanni destroyed the main center in the area, the current Oderzo. The Roman defences were again overthrown in the early 5th century by the Visigoths and, some 50 years later, by the Huns led by Attila. The last and most enduring irruption was that of the Lombards in 568, leaving the Eastern Roman Empire a small strip of coast in the current Veneto, and the main administrative and religious entities were therefore transferred to this remaining dominion. New ports were built, including those at Malamocco and Torcello in the Venetian lagoon.
The Byzantine domination of central and northern Italy was subsequently largely eliminated by the conquest of the Exarchate of Ravenna in 751 by Aistulf. During this period, the seat of the local Byzantine governor (the "duke/dux", later "doge") was situated in Malamocco. Settlement on the islands in the lagoon probably increased in correspondence with the Lombard conquest of the Byzantine territories.
In 775-776, the bishopric seat of Olivolo (Helipolis) was created. During the reign of duke Agnello Particiaco (811-827) the ducal seat was moved from Malamocco to the highly protected Rialto (Rivoalto, "High Shore") island, the current location of Venice. The monastery of St. Zachary and the first ducal palace and basilica of St. Mark, as well as a walled defense (civitatis murus) between Olivolo and Rialto were subsequently built here. Winged lions which may be seen in Venice are a symbol for St. Mark
In 828, the new city's prestige was raised by the acquisition of the claimed relics of St. Mark the Evangelist from Alexandria, which were placed in the new basilica. The patriarchal seat was also moved to Rialto. As the community continued to develop and as Byzantine power waned, it led to the growth of autonomy and eventual independence.
From the ninth to the twelfth century Venice developed into a city state (an Italian thalassocracy or Repubblica Marinara, the other three being Genoa, Pisa, and Amalfi). Its strategic position at the head of the Adriatic made Venetian naval and commercial power almost invulnerable. The city became a flourishing trade center between Western Europe and the rest of the world (especially the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world).
In the 12th century the foundations of Venice's power were laid: the Venetian Arsenal was under construction in 1104; the last autocratic doge, Vitale Michiele, died in 1172.
The Republic of Venice seized a number of locations on the eastern shores of the Adriatic before 1200, mostly for commercial reasons, because pirates based there were a menace to trade. The Doge already carried the titles of Duke of Dalmatia and Duke of Istria. Later mainland possessions, which extended across Lake Garda as far west as the Adda River, were known as the "Terraferma", and were acquired partly as a buffer against belligerent neighbours, partly to guarantee Alpine trade routes, and partly to ensure the supply of mainland wheat, on which the city depended. In building its maritime commercial empire, the Republic dominated the trade in salt, acquired control of most of the islands in the Aegean, including Cyprus and Crete, and became a major power-broker in the Near East. By the standards of the time, Venice's stewardship of its mainland territories was relatively enlightened and the citizens of such towns as Bergamo, Brescia and Verona rallied to the defence of Venetian sovereignty when it was threatened by invaders.
Venice remained closely associated with Constantinople, being twice granted trading privileges in the Eastern Roman Empire, through the so-called Golden Bulls or 'chrysobulls' in return for aiding the Eastern Empire to resist Norman and Turkish incursions. In the first chrysobull Venice acknowledged its homage to the Empire but not in the second, reflecting the decline of Byzantium and the rise of Venice's power.
Venice became an imperial power following the Fourth Crusade, which seized Constantinople in 1204, and established the Latin Empire. In 1204 the Venetians sacked the city and brought great quantities of booty back to Venice. Following this, the former Roman Empire was partitioned among the Latin crusaders and the Venetians. Venice subsequently carved out a sphere of influence known as the Duchy of the Archipelago, and seized Crete. This seizure of Constantinople would ultimately prove as decisive a factor in ending the Byzantine Empire as the loss of the Anatolian themes after Manzikert. Though the Byzantines recovered control of the ravaged city a half century later, the Byzantine Empire was greatly weakened, and existed as a ghost of its old self, struggling on with the help, among other things, of loans from Venice (never repaid) until Sultan Mehmet The Conqueror took the city in 1453. Considerable Byzantine plunder was brought back to Venice, including the gilt bronze horses which were placed above the entrance to St Mark's cathedral.
Situated on the Adriatic Sea, Venice always traded with the Byzantine Empire and the Muslim world extensively. By the late thirteenth century, Venice was the most prosperous city in all of Europe. At the peak of its power and wealth, it had 36,000 sailors operating 3,300 ships, dominating Mediterranean commerce. During this time, Venice's leading families vied with each other to build the grandest palaces and support the work of the greatest and most talented artists. The city was governed by the Great Council, which was made up of members of the noble families of Venice. The Great Council appointed all public officials and elected a Senate of 200 to 300 individuals. Since this group was too large for efficient administration, a Council of Ten (also called the Ducal Council or the Signoria), controlled much of the administration of the city. One member of the great council was elected "Doge", or duke, the ceremonial head of the city, who normally held the title until his death.
The Venetian governmental structure was similar in some ways to the republican system of ancient Rome, with an elected chief executive (the Doge), a senate-like assembly of nobles, and a mass of citizens with limited political power, who originally had the power to grant or withhold their approval of each newly elected Doge. Church and various private properties were tied to military service, though there was no knight tenure within the city itself. The Cavalieri di San Marco was the only order of chivalry ever instituted in Venice, and no citizen could accept or join a foreign order without the government's consent. Venice remained a republic throughout its independent period and politics and the military were kept separate, except when on occasion the Doge personally headed the military. War was regarded as a continuation of commerce by other means (hence, the city's early production of large numbers of mercenaries for service elsewhere, and later its reliance on foreign mercenaries when the ruling class was preoccupied with commerce).
The chief executive was the Doge, who theoretically held his elective office for life. In practice, several Doges were forced by pressure from their oligarchical peers to resign the office and retire into monastic seclusion when they were felt to have been discredited by perceived political failure.
Though the people of Venice generally remained orthodox Roman Catholics, the state of Venice was notable for its freedom from religious fanaticism and it enacted not a single execution for religious heresy during the Counter-Reformation. This apparent lack of zeal contributed to Venice's frequent conflicts with the Papacy. Venice was threatened with the interdict on a number of occasions and twice suffered its imposition. The second, most famous, occasion was on April 27, 1509, by order of Pope Julius II (see League of Cambrai).
Venetian ambassadors sent home still-extant secret reports of the politics and rumours of European courts, providing fascinating information to modern historians.
The newly-invented German printing press spread rapidly throughout Europe in the fifteenth century, and Venice was quick to adopt it. By 1482 Venice was the printing capital of the world, and the leading printer was Aldus Manutius, who invented the concept of paperback books that could be carried in a saddlebag. His Aldine Editions included translations of nearly all the known Greek manuscripts of the era.
Venice’s long decline started in the 15th century, when it first made an unsuccessful attempt to hold Thessalonica against the Ottomans (1423-1430). She also sent ships to help defend Constantinople against the besieging Turks (1453). After the city fell to Sultan Mehmet II he declared war on Venice. The war lasted thirty years and cost Venice much of her eastern Mediterranean possessions. Next, Christopher Columbus discovered the New World. Then Portugal found a sea route to India, destroying Venice’s land route monopoly. France, England and Holland followed them. Venice’s oared galleys had no advantage when it came to traversing the great oceans. She was left behind in the race for colonies.
The Black Death devastated Venice in 1348 and once again between 1575 and 1577. In three years the plague killed some 50,000 people. In 1630, the plague killed a third of Venice's 150,000 citizens. Venice began to lose its position as a center of international trade during the later part of the Renaissance as Portugal became Europe's principal intermediary in the trade with the East, striking at the very foundation of Venice's great wealth, while France and Spain fought for hegemony over Italy in the Italian Wars, marginalising its political influence. However, the Venetian empire was a major exporter of agricultural products and, until the mid-18th century, a significant manufacturing center.
By 1303, crossbow practice had become compulsory in the city, with citizens training in groups. As weapons became more expensive and complex to operate, professional soldiers were assigned to help work merchant sailing ships and as rowers in galleys. The company of "Noble Bowmen" was recruited in the later 14th century from among the younger aristocracy and served aboard both war-galleys and as armed merchantmen, with the privilege of sharing the captain's cabin.
Though Venice was famous for its navy, its army was equally effective. In the 13th century, most Italian city states already were hiring mercenaries, but Venetian troops were still recruited from the lagoon, plus feudal levies from Dalmatia (the very famous Schiavoni or Oltremarini) and Istria. In times of emergency, all males between seventeen and sixty years were registered and their weapons were surveyed, with those called to actually fight being organized into companies of twelve. The register of 1338 estimated that 30,000 Venetian men were capable of bearing arms; many of these were skilled crossbowmen. As in other Italian cities, aristocrats and other wealthy men were cavalrymen while the city's conscripts fought as infantry.
By 1450, more than 3,000 Venetian merchant ships were in operation. Most of these could be converted when necessary into either warships or transports. The government required each merchant ship to carry a specified number of weapons (mostly crossbows and javelins) and armour; merchant passengers were also expected to be armed and to fight when necessary. A reserve of some 25 (later 100) war-galleys was maintained in the Arsenal. Galley slaves did not exist in medieval Venice, the oarsmen coming from the city itself or from its possessions, especially Dalmatia. Those from the city were chosen by lot from each parish, their families being supported by the remainder of the parish while the rowers were away. Debtors generally worked off their obligations rowing the galleys. Rowing skills were encouraged through races and regattas.
Early in the 15th century, as new mainland territories were expanded, the first standing army was organized, consisting of condottieri on contract. In its alliance with Florence in 1426, Venice agreed to supply 8,000 cavalry and 3,000 infantry in time of war, and 3,000 and 1,000 in peacetime. Later in that century, uniforms were adopted that featured red-and-white stripes, and a system of honors and pensions developed. Throughout the 15th century, Venetian land forces were almost always on the offensive and were regarded as the most effective in Italy, largely because of the tradition of all classes carrying arms in defense of the city and official encouragement of general military training.
The command structure in the army was different from that of the fleet. By ancient law, no nobleman could command more than twenty-five men (to prevent the possibility of sedition by private armies), and while the position of Captain General was introduced in the mid-14th century, he still had to answer to a civilian panel of twenty Savi or "wise men". Not only was efficiency not degraded, this policy saved Venice from the military takeovers that other Italian city states so often experienced. A civilian commissioner (not unlike a commissar) accompanied each army to keep an eye on things, especially the mercenaries. The Venetian military tradition also was notably cautious; they were more interested in achieving success with a minimum expense of lives and money than in the pursuit of glory.
After 1,070 years, the Republic lost its independence when Napoleon Bonaparte on May 12, 1797, conquered Venice during the First Coalition. The French conqueror brought to an end the most fascinating century of its history: during the Settecento (18th century) Venice became perhaps the most elegant and refined city in Europe, greatly influencing art, architecture and literature. Napoleon was seen as something of a liberator by the city's Jewish population, although it can be argued they had lived with fewer restrictions in Venice. He removed the gates of the Ghetto and ended the restrictions on when and where Jews could live and travel in the city.
Venice became Austrian territory when Napoleon signed the Treaty of Campo Formio on October 12, 1797. The Austrians took control of the city on January 18, 1798. It was taken from Austria by the Treaty of Pressburg in 1805 and became part of Napoleon's Kingdom of Italy, but was returned to Austria following Napoleon's defeat in 1814, when it became part of the Austrian-held Kingdom of Lombardy-Venetia. In 1848-1849 a revolt briefly reestablished the Venetian Republic under Daniele Manin. In 1866, following the Third Italian War of Independence, Venice, along with the rest of the Veneto, became part of the newly created Kingdom of Italy.
During the Second World War, the city was largely free from attack, the only aggressive effort of note being Operation Bowler, a precision strike on the German naval operations there in 1945. Venice was finally liberated by New Zealand troops under Freyberg on 29 April, 1945