The sea routes of the Venetian trade in the eastern Mediterranean, 13th – 14th c.

Charalambos Gasparis

After the Fall of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade, and mainly during the 13th century, Venice conquered and organized its colonial state. Simultaneously, it enhanced the network of its trade stations throughout various locations of the eastern Mediterranean. The already established and organized sea trade in this vast area, due to the old privileges acquired from the Byzantine Emperor, developed further during the 14th and mostly during the 15th century. Venice’s important trade activity resulted in both its financial prosperity and its position as an important European political power.

Venetian sea trade functioned on two axes: 1. Large-scale trade, controlled to some extent by the state, and organized in mude, i.e. caravans, beginning and ending always in Venice. It had firm lines, fixed stations, and designated movement time-frames. 2. Small and medium-scale trade, that was less controlled by the state and used regional or central routes. These routes departed from or arrived at various small or large ports owned or controlled by the Venetians. This trade was practiced by all kinds of merchants who were active in a multitude of places. The major role was played by the ports of the Venetian colonies, but also by certain commercial stations in areas that were not politically controlled by Venice.

The main goal of this taskwork is to depict on the map the sea routes of the second category of Venetian trade, namely the peripheral routes of small and medium-scale trade in the eastern Mediterranean, which was the main field of action for Venice. The taskwork also produces a database of primary documentation concerning these routes, with specific information on the sources used, the various people involved in the process, the types of ships, and the merchandise traded, wherever such data is available. It covers almost two centuries, from around the mid-13th century until the second decade of the 15th century, a period when Venetian trade was developed and established, immediately before its great peak. Furthermore, it covers the wider Greek area of the time that forms an important part of the eastern Mediterranean, which was then the heart of international trade. The mapping and relevant documentation reveal the dense network of sea routes that served many aims and needs of Venice, its colonies and other locations. Small and medium-scale trade, which developed upon these routes, formed a highly dynamic field of trade, in which both the Venetians and the other inhabitants of the Venetian colonies or other areas were involved in, reinforcing local economies.

The documentation and mapping concerns the sea routes of small and medium-scale Venetian trade, and not the caravan sea routes of large trade (mude). The latter, however, being the backbone of Venetian sea trade routes, are depicted on the map for comparison.

The sea routes of small and medium-scale Venetian trade can be distinguished into two categories based on qualitative and not geographical criteria: the main, and the peripheral. The first include the routes connecting the large and important harbors of the eastern Mediterranean, such as Constantinople, Alexandria, Beirut, including Venice, but with a parallel function to the routes of the caravans. The second category includes the routes connecting peripheral ports in Venetian colonies or elsewhere, such as Rethymno in the Venetian colony of Crete, or Theologos and Palatia in the Turkish Emirates of Asia Minor.

The main routes served medium-scale trade between large harbors and trade centers, the purpose of which was to amass important quantities of merchandise to be sold in large sea or land trade centers, and mostly to supply the market of Venice itself, or even the ships that were part of caravans. This type of trade was carried out mainly by the Venetians from the metropolis and its colonies, as well as by westerners and locals with medium- or large-capacity boats.

The peripheral routes served the small or medium-scale trade, the purpose of which was to supply small areas with the necessary products, or to carry out tradeable goods towards the large trading centers. This trade was carried out by a multitude of small- or medium-scale merchants, ship-owners and investors, who were mostly locals and sometimes Venetians, as well as small or medium-size boats.

Map demarcation does not distinguish these two types of routes, since many – definitely not all – could, depending on each case, belong to one type in one case, and to the other in another case.

The map depicts only the routes documented in the database, which during this phase does not aim at an exhaustive indexing of all available sources. This documentation, however, and its mapping, covers the largest part of sea trade routes, and highlights the trends of the phenomenon, offering a primary material for further analysis. The study of the routes, their mapping and documentation highlight mostly the peripheral ports of the eastern Mediterranean and not the large harbors of the entire Mediterranean, such as Alexandria, Constantinople, Venice, Genoa or Barcelona, irrelevantly if they are also marked usually as destination and not as place of departure.

Each itinerary is marked as one direction, including all the stations between departure point and destination, without focusing on the return trip, which for the same itinerary, sometimes included the exact same stations, and sometimes it avoided them, heading directly to the place of departure.

The archival sources often mention a larger area as destination, which is sometimes difficult to specify as well as to mark on the map. In these cases, when the destination is a wider area, but evidently demarcated, (e.g. Cyprus), then the destination mark is placed on the most important port (e.g. Famagusta), which in most cases would describe reality. Such destinations are Cyprus, Armenia, the Aegean Sea (where the Cyclades are implied), Sicily, Apulia, Syria, and Turkey. These general destinations are represented respectively by the ports of Famagusta, Aiaccio (in Asia Minor), Naxos, Messene, Brindisi, Beirut and Theologos. In contrast, general destinations, such as Romania, the Orient (partes orientales, Oriente), “beyond Crete” (extra insulam) etc, could not be marked on the map, despite their appearance in the database.

In the cases where the final or the intermediate destination of an itinerary is a location which is not a port or on the sea (although it is always somewhere relatively near the coast and not in the actual hinterland), the destination mark is placed on this location, assuming that the ship would arrive at a nearby cove about which we have no information. It should be noted that our interest focuses on the connection between places by sea, and not on the exact representation of a ship’s itinerary, or the exact demarcation of a port or a cove, if this is not identical to the place of destination.

Documentation is offered through a database with fields that comprises the basic data from the document’s content. This data concerns: the identity of the source/document (date, type) and its general content, the ship’s itinerary, a series of individuals involved (merchant, investor, ship-owner, captain, guarantor, as well as place of domicile or origin). Furthermore, where such information is given, it comprises data such as the type and name of the ship, the products transported and their volume, as well as the amount of money invested or the value of the goods carried.

The largest part of the documentation includes sources from Crete, and involves its ports, and mostly Chandax, due to an abundance of relative sources. Besides, the island of Crete was a very important economic hub during this period, and a large number of other harbors and coves in the entire eastern Mediterranean were linked with its ports. Other equally important centers during this period, but without similar documentation, were Cyprus, Euboea, Rhodes, Chios, Methone and Korone.

The data given in the database originate from published and unpublished primary sources, which exclusively include public documents and contracts. Finally, the map and database user is given a basic bibliography on the topic of this particular taskwork, i.e. the Venetian sea-trade in the eastern Mediterranean during the 13th and 14th centuries.

The database includes 2020 entries, each of which is linked to a different document. The data taken from each document is analyzed within each entry into 21 different fields.

These fields are:

1. ITINERARY – MODERN PLACE: The ship’s itinerary is mentioned with the departure, the stations, where applicable, and the destination. The place names are given in today’s version.

2. ITINERARY – PLACE AS MENTIONED: The ship’s itinerary is mentioned with the departure, the stations, where applicable, and the destination. The place names are given as mentioned in the source.

3. YEAR: Year of document

4. DATE: Date of document

5. DOCUMENT TYPE: Type of document based on its content.

6. DOCUMENT SUMMARY: Short outline of document’s content.

7. MERCHANT/ MERCHANDISE PROPRIETOR: The name of the merchant or the proprietor of the merchandise transported. The name is given in its original version.

8. PLACE: Place of origin of merchant or proprietor. The place name is given in its original version.

9. SHAREHOLDER/ INVESTOR: The name of shareholder or investor. The name is given in its original version.

10. PLACE: Place of origin of shareholder or investor. The place name is given in its original version.

11. SHIP OWNER: The name of the ship’s owner. The name is given in its original version. As the ship owner is often the captain as well, the name is repeated in the field “captain”.

12. PLACE: Place of origin of ship owner. The place name is given in its original version.

13. CAPTAIN: The name of the ship’s captain. The name is given in its original version.

14. PLACE: Place of origin of ship’s captain. The place name is given in its original version.

15. GUARANTOR: The name of the act’s guarantor. The name is given in its original version. The special role of the guarantor is documented only in documents that concern Crete, because of the particular policy implemented on the island.

16. PLACE: Place of origin of act’s guarantor. The place name is given in its original version.

17. SHIP TYPE: The type of ship in its original version.

18. SHIP NAME: The ship’s name in its original version.

19. PRODUCT: The product’s name in its original version.

20. PRODUCT QUANTITY: The quantity of the product carried, according to the measurement standards of the time.

21. INVESTMENT: The amount invested, when it is a money investment, or the value of the merchandise carried, when relevant information is given. In most documented cases, value is measured by the Cretan yperpyrum and its subdivisions (grossi, soldi, denarii parvi). We occasionally come across other currencies, such as the Venetian gold ducat (ducatum auri), or the “white Byzantine” (bizantium album) of Cyprus, etc.


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Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Duca di Candia, b. 10 και 11.

Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Notai di Candia, b. 10 (notaio Angelo Bocontolo).

Archivio di Stato di Venezia, Notai di Candia, b. 11 (notaio Antonio Brixano).

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