By Enrica Salvatori
Empires and States in European Perspective, edited by Steven Ellis (University of Pisa, 2002)
Introduction: To speak of “Empire” in the Middle Ages normally means referring to specific geopolitical formations having well defined borders: the Byzantine Empire in the East and the Holy Roman Empire in the West, both heirs of the ancient Roman Empire; the first directly, the second as a result of the mixing of Roman and Germanic elements, which came about with the mediation of the Church.
If however the notion of Empire is extended from the restricted area of institutional history toward the wider world of economy, trade and navigation, many other ‘Empires’ come to mind: first of all those built by the great sea powers of the Middle Ages, Venice, Pisa and Genoa. These cities succeeded, between the 11th and the 12th centuries, in dominating trade between the eastern and the western part of the Mediterranean and in putting into circulation both necessary products (grain, salt) and luxury products (metals, wood, spices, cloth, slaves). They reached this result following two parallel strategies, which at times interfered with each other.
a) armed expansion through autonomous military enterprises, piracy and participation in the Crusades;
b) peaceful mercantile activity linked to diplomatic efforts, including the request for customs privileges, rights, warehouses, trading quarters and consulates in both the Christian and the Islamic states of North Africa and the Levant.
In one way or another the three powers extended the borders of their dominions greatly, exercising a strong political, cultural and economic influence far beyond the circuit of their city walls or the borders of their countryside. They created bases, emporia and colonies in the entire Mediterranean; they undertook military enterprises against hostile powers; they obtained important privileges from kings and emperors, they stipulated diplomatic treaties and commercial agreements with the cities, emirates and lordships scattered along the coasts of the Mare Nostrum [literally, Our Sea, the ancient Romans’ way of referring to the Mediterranean].
Did they constitute true empires? From the strictly historical-institutional point of view, certainly not. However, many of the characteristics of these vast and articulated dominions, controlled by cities which were economically powerful and politically autonomous, make one think of formations which are similar to imperial constructions because of their breadth of action, their diplomatic strategies, and in some cases, for the political-cultural model to which they refer.