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The War of Saint Sabas and the naval battle in Acre’s harbor

By Andrew Latham and Rand Lee Brown II

“The Queen [Plaisance of Cyprus], on the advice of her brother the prince [Bohemond VI of Antioch], had all the men of the lordship move to the aid – and into the pay – of the Pisans and Venetians against the Genoese, strictly prohibiting them from taking pay with the Genoese.” ~ excerpt from the Templar of Tyre.

As mentioned before in this series, actual engagements between fleets in the medieval period were quite infrequent – mostly due to the conventional wisdom at the time that pitched engagements (on both land and sea) were inherently risk-laden and prone to extremely unpredictable outcomes. The history of medieval warfare abounds with tales in which forces that seemed to possess every advantage were entirely undone by lesser forces either blessed with better skill and/or better luck. The naval engagement that took place off the Levantine Coast just outside the famed crusader city of Acre in 1258 was just such a battle – the outcome of which very much established the fortunes of the famed Italian mercantile republic of Venice in the Eastern Mediterranean.

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The War of Saint Sabas erupted when adventurer-merchants of the various city-states of medieval Italy began making their way east to the Holy Land in the aftermath of the First Crusade and the establishment of the various Crusader States. The crusades reopened the lucrative East-West trade routes that had been closed off for centuries by Islamic conquests and Byzantine isolationism. The trade in spices, gems, silks, and other exotic goods from Asia proved to be a powerful lure for the mercantile republics and city-states of Italy, who depended on maritime trade for their very livelihoods since they were too small and underpopulated to compete with the largely agricultural economies of the larger feudal states of Europe and would lay the foundations for the moneyed economies that would come to dominate the West in modern times. Of them all, two rapidly rose to prominence from the twelfth century onwards: “La Serenissima” (“the Most Serene”) Republic of Venice and “La Superba” (the Superb One”) Republic of Genoa. Inevitably, the rapidly growing maritime power of these two republics placed them on a collision course.

Both republics had been active in the Levant since the earliest days of Frankish presence there – supply fleets from Genoa proved vital to the climactic siege of Jerusalem in 1099 and the Venetians waged their own entire maritime crusade – culminating in the capture of the lucrative port city of Tyre in 1124. Capitalizing on the trade from Asia became a key strategic priority for both states. Despite the waxing and waning of Frankish fortunes in the Holy Land over the next century, Venetian and Genoese presence in the Eastern Mediterranean only increased, as did their competition with one another.

By 1255, distinct factions had coalesced within the remnants of Frankish Levant, both centered on support for either of the two Republics. As noted in chronicles from the time (like the one quoted above) the Venetians clearly had the majority of the support – enjoying that of the native Frankish nobility and commons, the Templar Order, and mercantile communities of lesser Italian republics like Pisa.  The Genoans, seemingly far less popular, could only count on the Hospitaller Order and Phillip de Montfort, Lord of Tyre. Events came to a head when a brawl between a Venetian and a Genoan in the Merchant Quarter of Acre turned deadly and, after a series of violent retaliatory riots, the War of Saint Sabas began in earnest.

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Initially, Genoa had the upper hand – successfully ejecting the Venetians from Acre and even confiscating many of their ships in the harbor, giving their fleet a distinct numerical advantage. However, the poor reputation of the Genoese within the Levant became painfully apparent as they found almost no support for their cause among the citizens and leadership of Acre. Additionally, their admiral in command, Rosso della Turca, was a borderline senile old man with leadership capabilities that were questionable at best.

14th century map of Acre – British Library Additional MS 27376 f. 190r

La Serenissima responded with a vengeance, dispatching the skilled admiral, Lorenzo Tiepolo, with a fleet of around forty famed Venetian galleys to retake Acre. Due to the dearth of local support, the Genoese were forced to crew their larger fleet with what chronicles from the time referred to as “men who knew nothing of the sea,” whereas the Venetians were renowned as some of the finest sailors in the Mediterranean. The Venetian fleet swiftly retook Acre harbor in a lightning strike while the Genoese were out to sea and prepared for the climactic showdown they knew would follow.

In June 1258, the Genoese fleet returned to Acre and deployed in a vital choke point just north of the harbor egress to pounce on the Venetians as they exited. Despite this sound strategy and clear advantage in numbers (50-plus ships to Venice’s 40), what happened next almost defies belief. As the Venetians began exiting the harbor, a contrary wind separated some of the ships from formation, leading to a period of vulnerable disorder.

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Instead of capitalizing on this, the questionable leadership skills of della Turca revealed themselves as he ordered his sailors to “prandere” (take the midday meal). For nearly three hours, the Genoan fleet did nothing while the Venetians regrouped and deployed in their trademark “crescent” formation with the weather gauge in their favor. When the Venetian galleys finally closed on their enemy, what followed was an utter rout of the supposedly superior Genoan fleet, with twenty-four ships captured and around 1,700 seamen killed or taken prisoner.

The fortunes of Genoa in the Near East would never recover after their engagement at Acre in 1258. The victorious Venetians, with assistance from their native supporters, would completely demolish the Genoese district within the city, even going so far as to dismantle the tower that stood guard over it – the pillars of which can be found to this day outside St. Mark’s Basilica in Venice. However, no less than three more wars would be fought between the two Republics for dominance over the eastern Mediterranean, ultimately resulting in Venice becoming the premier maritime power in the region until the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century.

In many ways, La Serenissima’s hegemony over Asian trade routes in the Mediterranean played a pivotal role in motivating a strange young navigator from fifteenth-century Genoa named Cristophoro Columbo to petition the various kingdoms of Christendom to sponsor his then-radical idea of sailing westward across the Atlantic to establish new trade routes with the East.

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Dr. Andrew Latham is a professor of political science at Macalester College in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of a monograph entitled Medieval Sovereignty, to be published in 2020 by ARC Humanities Press.  You can visit Andrew’s website at www.aalatham.com or follow Andrew on Twitter @aalatham

Capt Rand Lee Brown II is a commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps currently assigned to Marine Forces Reserve.  Holding a Master of Arts degree in Military History from Norwich University with a focus on medieval warfare, Capt Brown has written on military history for a variety of forums, including the Marine Corps Gazette and Medievalists.net.

Click here to read more from Andrew and Rand

Further Reading:

Stanton, Charles D., Medieval Maritime Warfare (Pen & Sword Books, 2015)

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