Empires Crossing the Mediterranean: 1130-1300

As a sea connecting continents and stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Asia in the east, the Mediterranean has for centuries been a centre of trade and exploration.

22 Oct 19 · 8 mins read

Empires Crossing the Mediterranean: 1130-1300

A thalassocracy–from the Attic Greek thalassocratia with thalassa meaning “sea”–is a nation that exhibits naval supremacy leading to its domination over the seas through exploration, trade, and invasion. Beginning in the Middle Ages, several thalassocratic city-states rose in Italy, their fleets crossing the Mediterranean Sea and attracting other kingdoms to challenge their power.

In this article, we will look at the rise of these Italian city-states in the 12th and 13th centuries, and how the Spanish House of Aragon jostled for a place in Mediterranean trade. This article is based on David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Penguin Books, 2014) and various texts linked throughout this piece.

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Mediterranean map
Map of the Mediterranean Sea with subdivisions, straits, islands and countries. Map by O H 237/Wikimedia Commons. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.

Mediterranean Trade

As a sea connecting continents and stretching from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to Asia in the east, the Mediterranean has for centuries been a centre of trade and exploration. The Phoenicians were among the ancient peoples who reigned supreme, occupying the coast of the Levant (eastern Mediterranean) and founding trading posts around the Mediterranean Sea (including the port of Acre in Israel, which would be important in our story later). The Phoenicians were later incorporated into the Roman Empire, which then traded overland and through some sea routes with China on the Silk Road, a vast trading network that connected the east to the west (read more in our article).

Crescent Lake
The Crescent Lake sits in an oasis in western China, a popular tourist destination for travellers interested in the Silk Road.

Maritime trade later proved to be safer and more profitable. Port cities in northern and central Italy, notably Venice, Genoa, and Pisa, quickly accumulated wealth from trade in the Middle Ages. Much like the Phoenicians who occupied land with limited resources, these cities did not have vast agricultural wealth; Venice, for example, was a city created on reclaimed land on the lagoon, and only had fish and salt. These cities therefore turned to the sea and the products of other cultures to stimulate their economy.

Map of Venice, from Civitates Orbis Terrarum by Georg Braun, 1541-1622 and Franz Hogenberg, 1540-1590, engraving

The trade routes carried luxury goods from the east, such as spices, dyes, and silks, and brought to the ports of Venice, Genoa, and Pisa to be resold (at a profit, of course) throughout the rest of the European continent. Florence was another city in the north of Italy that grew wealthy during this period; it would import wool from northern Europe, mix it with dyes from the east, and produce amazing textiles for sale.

Kingdom of Sicily

Southern Italy was agriculturally richer, and its desirable resources and location plunged it into war and foreign invasion in the Middle Ages. The Islamic caliphate took over Southern Italy in the 9th century and established the Emirate of Sicily with Palermo as its capital. The Arabs would rule this southern island for more than 200 years, until the Normans came.

The Normans, member of the Vikings who settled in northern France, started entering Sicily, first as mercenaries serving the warring Lombards and Byzantines, and later as independent conquerors hoping to build their own empires. Pope Nicholas II, at odds with the Holy Roman Empire, recognised the Normans as allies and with their help waged war against a rival Pope (Benedict X) to ascend the papacy. In 1059, Pope Nicholas II named Robert de Hauteville (also known as ‘Robert Guiscard’, guiscard being the Old French word for ‘cunning’) Duke of Apulia and Calabria, and “future lord of Sicily”. Guiscard, in return, swore an oath of fealty as a vassal of Rome.

Guiscard and his younger brother, Roger Bosso, fought with the Arabs in the siege of Palermo, a decisive battle which led to the Normans taking full control of Southern Italy by the 11th century.

Robert Guiscard And Roger
Robert Guiscard and his brother Roger (later Count Roger I of Sicily). Photo source.

Guiscard tried to take Venice, but was repelled (read more about Southern Italy and Guiscard in our article). Guiscard granted his brother Roger (later Roger I) a part of Sicily and the title of Count in 1071. By 1091, the whole of Sicily was his, along with Malta. These territories were merged with Robert’s duchy, giving birth to the Kingdom of Sicily which dominated Southern Italy. Roger II, Roger I’s son, was crowned by the Pope as King of Sicily on Christmas Day, 1130.

Sicilian Supremacy

According to David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Penguin Books, 2014), Roger II saw himself “as the successor to the Greek tyrants and…not a usurper but the reviver of an ancient kingdom” (p. 318). And so the 12th century saw Roger’s navy seizing Corfu, attacking Corinth and Athens, and stealing silk-weavers from Thebes. Abulafia quotes a Byzantine chronicler who remarked that Roger’s ships returning to Sicily did not look like “pirate ships but merchant ships carrying goods of every sort” (p. 319).

In order to curb Sicily’s growing power, the Venetians sent aid to the Byzantine emperor Manuel I Comnenus. Venice had been on the good side of the Byzantines for fighting the Normans; Manuel’s predecessor Alexius I Comnenus granted Venice unrestricted access, with no customs dues, to trade throughout the Byzantine Empire in the East. This planted the seed of Venice’s monopoly in Eastern trade. This goodwill turned sour with the Venetians’ aggressive behaviour (and mockery of Manuel) during the siege of Corfu. Venetian conflict with the Byzantines would later lead to Byzantine favour being granted to the Genoese, who would challenge the Venetian monopoly. (Venice would fight an intermittent war with Genoa until around the 14th century.)

Palermo Sicily
Palermo, Sicily

These developments were good for Sicily. While the northern cities were fighting, Sicily had taken over Mahdia in North Africa, and controlled passageways in the Tyrrhenian Sea and the Adriatic and the East. Roger did not sail with his fleet himself, but the ships were commanded by George of Antioch, who began calling himself the “emir of emirs” (p. 321). This later became the source of amiratus or admiral (p. 322), which was used in Western Europe in the 13th century (p. 322), and which we still use as a title of one of the highest-ranking navy officers. One can just imagine Sicily’s maritime domination that it was able to create a lasting title for its naval commander.

North Italy took notice. In 1156, Genoa signed a treaty with Roger’s successor, William I, who granted reduced taxes to Genoese cargoes. This strengthened the trade relationships between Sicily and Northern Italy, stronger than that which Sicily had (forcefully) forged with North Africa.

William II was more ambitious than his predecessor. He took over Dubrovnik (then called Ragusa) in what is now Croatia, but wanted to capture territories beyond the Adriatic. His forces attacked Alexandria in Egypt and captured the Aegean port city of Thessalonica, but was ambushed by Byzantine forces in Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey).

The Port of Acre and the Trade Boom

Two years before William II died, Jerusalem was captured by the Sunni Muslim sultan Saladin in 1187, ending almost nine decades of Frankish control of the region. Saladin, who had united Muslim Egypt and Syria, also took over the coast of Palestine and the port of Acre. Acre was one of the settlements established by the Phoenicians and is located in what is now Israel.

Aerial view of Acre Old City (Akko, Israel).

William planned to join the Third Crusade in 1189 but died before he could do so. This crusade “relied heavily on sea power” (Abulafia, 2014, p. 325), transporting the Crusaders by way of Sicily. Acre was recovered, but not Jerusalem. The Franks were starved for naval power, and offered trade concessions to the merchants of Venice, Pisa, and Genoa. Acre became a city divided, but it (that is, the Franks) earned a lot from trade taxes.

And trade was booming, despite the upheavals. By the 13th century, both Florence and Genoa had enough gold to start minting their own coins (p. 327). Florence eventually became the centre of the financial industry during the Renaissance, its gold coin florin (fiorino d’oro) becoming the main currency of international trade.

The Last Norman King of Sicily

William II was succeeded by Tancred, the illegitimate son of Roger III. The childless Tancred in turn was succeeded by William III, who would be the last Norman king of Sicily.

William III had only been on the throne for 10 months in 1194 when he was usurped by his great-aunt, Constance (daughter of Roger II), who had married Henry VI of the German Hohenstaufens. Henry VI was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 1191. The emperor, on behalf of his wife, invaded Sicily with the support of Pisa and Genoa.

Through Constance and Henry’s son, Frederick II, the crown passed to the Hohenstaufen dynasty of Germany. The crusades helped the new Holy Roman Emperor expand his kingdom from Southern Italy to Germany and even Jerusalem.

Meanwhile, a new rival of the thalassocratic city-states and the Kingdom of Sicily was emerging in Spain.

House of Aragon

While the Italian city-states were growing wealthy, Barcelona in Catalonia was “sidelined” (p. 336) as it did not have a port and was not a free republic, unlike Genoa and Pisa whose merchants could move freely and make their own decisions (p. 337). This would change under the reign of James I, by-named “the Conqueror”.

James I of Aragon
James I of Aragon. Wikimedia Commons.

James I was recognised as sovereign of Aragon and Catalonia in 1214. The son of Peter II, king of Aragon, and Mary of Montpellier, a niece of Manuel I Comnenus, James had designs to conquer Mediterranean ports. He captured the Mediterranean islands of Majorca in 1229 and Ibiza in 1235. The islands became the base of his trade and political expansions. He invited merchants to settle in Majorca, one of them Solomon ben Ammar, who was fluent in Arabic and an active merchant who could connect Catalonia to the Islamic Mediterranean (p. 340). James I allowed people of various faiths to practise their religion in his kingdom, but also imposed taxes on them. In order to keep his tax base intact, he did not push too hard to convert them to Christianity (p. 341).

Port de Soller, Majorca, Spain
Panoramic view of Port de Soller, Majorca, Spain

Catalan ships now plied the Mediterranean passage-ways with the Italian ships, buying gold from North Africa and trading linen from France and their own textiles, as well as salt (p. 346). Catalan merchants also began trading slaves (p. 346).

Back in Sicily, Frederick II’s death extinguished the Hohenstaufens line, and in 1266, Charles of Anjou, brother of French King Louis IV, took control of the kingdom, moving the capital from Palermo to Naples.

Charles’s oppressive rule provoked a revolt known as the Sicilian Vespers, the name derived from a riot that took place in Palermo at the “hour of vespers”, or sunset evening prayer, on Easter Monday, 1282. Sicilian nobles appealed to Peter III of Aragon, who was married to the Sicilian Constance. Peter III took part in the rebellion, resulting in Sicily separating from the Italian mainland and now ruled by the Spanish House of Aragon. Peter III of Aragon also became Peter I of the Kingdom of Sicily, uniting two kingdoms and dominating the Mediterranean.

If this article piqued your interest, find out more in David Abulafia’s The Great Sea: A Human History of the Mediterranean (Penguin Books, 2014). Don’t forget to sign up on one of our Mediterranean tours!

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