Fleet Operations in the First Genoese-Venetian War, 1264-1266

Fleet Operations in the First Genoese-Venetian War, 1264-1266

By John Dotson

Viator: Medieval and Renaissance Studies, Vol. 30 (1999)

Introduction: This brief article is not intended to review the history of the First Genoese-Venetian War over its whole length from 1257 to 1270. That war is much too complex and unruly a subject for that. Rather, the intent is to look at two selected fleet operations in the context of the war aims of the two rivals as a means of examining operational- or campaign-level planning and execution in thirteenth-century Mediterranean naval warfare. The conception of medieval warfare that scholars held until recently was of a kind of brawl. It was thought that generalship was present in only the simplest form and that individual prowess and bravery were prized above strategic vision and tactical acumen. In recent years military historians have done much to dispel the idea that “medieval generalship” is an oxymoron. This paper is an exploration of the possibility that in naval affairs also there was more, and higher quality, strategic and operational thought applied than has usually been credited.

From the time of the First Crusade the Italian maritime cities of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa had dominated the Mediterranean. Economic competition and civic pride led to disputes among them, but a kind of balance of power prevailed. Pisa was much smaller than either of the other two cities, but its power had been magnified by alliance with Frederick II. When he died in 1250, the Tuscan city found itself in a much weakened strategic position. This resulted in a complicated diplomatic and naval situation in the Mediterranean, which will be passed over here in the interests of brevity. It is sufficient for the purposes of this paper to remind the reader that during the first conflict with Venice, Genoa was involved in a parallel war with Pisa in the western Mediterranean.

The First Genoese-Venetian War grew out of the two cities’ commercial rivalry along the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. Of the three major entrepots for highly profitable oriental wares, Romania (the Latin Empire), Alexandria, and Oltremare – as the Italians called the lands occupied by the Crusaders – only the latter seemed to be contestable in the middle of the thirteenth century. Romania appeared to have been firmly in Venetian control since 1204. Alexandria, after the collapse of Louis IX’s first crusade, was even more firmly in Egyptian hands. If the Genoese were to gain dominance in one of the major areas of Eastern commerce, only in the lands of the Crusader States did that dominance seem attainable. Friction in Acre, the chief port of Oltremare, was almost inevitable.

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