Genoese in the Aegean

1. The rivalry between Venice and Genoa

The activity of the Genoese in the Aegean Sea was long and was connected to the Italian seafaring power’s attempts to establish bases for the development of its sea trading and the control of important naval routes leading, on the one hand to Constantinople and the Euxinus Pontus and, on the other to Cyprus and Syria and Palestine.

The presence of Genoa in the Byzantine Empire’s territories was consolidated mainly after the 2nd half of the 12th century, when Emperor Emmanuel 1st Komnenos (1143-1180) offered her important commercial privileges, in an attempt to control the power of its rival, Venice.

A few years prior to the fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204, a large number of Genovese merchants devoted themselves to piracy and established several bases throughout the Aegean. When the Venetian general Markos Sanoudos, after an agreement between Venice and the Roman Emperor, rushed to take control of the Cyclades islands between the years 1204 and 1207, he landed on Naxos and attacked the Genoeese pirates who had fortified themselves at the castle of Apaliros. Crete was also possibly a Genovese pirate base before 1204, while a few years later, in 1206, a significant part of it was occupied by Enrico Pescatore, a Genovese count from Malta.

The fall of Constantinople to the Crusaders in 1204 directly resulted in the establishment of Venice throughout Greece. Genoa, which also had significant treading benefits in Greece did not accept Venice’s dominance and for several years the two powers were involved in military operations. In 1205 Genoa allied itself with another important Italian naval power, Pisa and declared war on Venice; the two powers finally signed a peace treaty in the summer of 1206. During the same period however Venice, in an attempt to impose its dominance over Crete, which had been yielded to her by the leader of the 4th Crusade Boniface of Montferrat, sent her fleet against the Genovese Pescatore, who had conquered a significant part of the island. The second asked Genoa for assistance so new military skirmishes broke out between the two cities, until Venice’s final victory in 1211.

Relations between Genoa and Venice remained animus until 1218, when the latter validated the privileges offered Genoa by the Byzantine Emperors during the 12th century and allowed her to conduct trade in the Roman Empire’s territories. During this period, the presence of Genovese merchants is notable in Thessaloniki and the Duchy of Athens.

Commercial rivalry however between the two Italian towns never truly ceased to exist and it gained a particularly acute form in 1256, at which time the first great real war of the 13th century broke out between Genoa and Venice, fought around the shore towns of Syria and Palestine. This was ended in 1270 and Genoa was defeated; this meant that Genoa had to retreat from the lucrative trading in Syria and Palestine and had to concentrate her interests in the areas of the Aegean and the Euxinus Pontus. Three further harsh confrontations between Venice and Genoa followed during the 13th and 14th centuries (1294-1299, 1350-1351 and 1375-1381), sealing the two rival Italian cities’ acute competitiveness.

2. Genovese dominions in the NE Aegean

The Genovese penetration into the Greek area continued at greater pace after the signing of the treaty of Nymphaion on the 10th July 1261 with the emperor of Nicaea Michail 8th Palaiologos (1259-1282), who offered Genoa significant commercial privileges in exchange for their assistance in his attempts to re-capture Constantinople. After the re-capture of the Byzantine capital on the 25th July of the same year, the Genovese settled at Galatas, on the eastern shore of the Gulf of Keratios, which because of its strategic position soon became Genoa’s most important trading centre in the East. Genoa also established commercial facilities on the Euxinus Pontus, most important of which was Kaffa (Theodosia) at Crimea, founded in 1266. Taking advantage of the treaty of Nymphaion, the Genovese appear, throughout the 13th century at many Aegean ports: Raidestos, Thessaloniki, Limnos, Chios, Fokaia, Smyrna, Adrammytion, Rhodes, and others.

In order to confront the enemies of the Byzantine Empire, Michael VIII did not hesitate to create alliances not only with powerful states but also with individuals who were capable of offering their military skills. The pirate Jovanni de lo Cavo was Genoese; he was offered the islands of Anafi and Rhodes in return for his military successes against the empire’s enemies. Later, Rhodes was also granted to the Genoese pirate Andrea Moresco, between the years 1306 and 1309.

In 1267 or 1275, Michael VIII granted two more Genoese, the brothers Benedict and Emmanuel Zaccaria, Fokaia in Asia Minor, under the condition that they served him as trusted representatives to western countries. Between 1286 and 1296, the Zaccaria brothers built New Fokaia to the north of the old town (henceforth called Old Fokaia), while at the beginning of the 14th century they tried to expand their dominion to the neighbouring island of Chios. In 1304, Benedict Zaccaria found the opportunity to conquer Chios under circumstances which are not clear, after recognizing the suzerainty of the Byzantine emperor Andonikos 2nd Palaiologos (1282-1328), who granted him the island with a treaty for a period of ten years. The Zaccaria brothers gained further dominions on the neighbouring Asia Minor coast for, apart from Fokaia, they appear to have also owned the port of Smyrna in 1326. At the same time they also owned, for a certain period of time, the islands Samos, Ikaria and Kos. The strengthening of their position in the northeastern Aegean resulted in the emperor’s suzerainty becoming entirely formal.

In 1329 the emperor Andonikos 3rd Palaiologos (1328-1341), after a brief naval expedition, expelled the Genovese Zaccaria brothers from Fokea and Chios and replaced them with byzantine domination, which was not, however, destined to last long. In 1346, the Genovese Simone Vignoso, taking advantage of the confused situation in the Aegean due to the crusade by the allied western forces for the saking of Smyrna in 1344, in which Genoa also participated for a short period of time, he took over Chios after a three-month-long siege, and a little later also took Fokea. In 1347 the administration of Chios and Fokaia was taken over by a Genovese financial organization headed by ship-owners called Maona (Mahona). Genoa made do with dominance over Chios and Fokea, which was expressed mainly through the appointment of the Potestatos, the highest governor. The Maona, whose members belonged to the Giustiniani family, exploited the income and commerce of these two areas as was responsible for their defense until 1566 when Chios fell to the Ottomans (Fokea had already been conquered in 1455).

During the period of Genovese domination (1347-1566), Chios evolved into a booming commercial centre, as its harbor was positioned on the crossroads of the sea routes between Genoa and Constantinople and the Euxinus Pontus, as well as other lesser routes connecting the harbours of the Northern Aegean with Asia Minor. Chios town, with its monumental architecture, similar to that of Genoa, magnificent castle, impressive palaces and splendid churches, caused the admiration of countless travelers to the island. Chios’ financial development was largely based on the exploitation of the local mastic which was in great demand in the West.

Apart from Chios and the neighbouring Asia Minor coast, the Genoese also had significant presence, since the middle of the 14th century, on another important island in the northeastern Aegean, Lesvos. The aristocratic merchant and pirate from Genoa Francesco Gattelusio (1355-1384), in exchange for the assistance he gave John V Palaiologos (1341-1391), in regaining control over the throne of Byzantium, married the emperor’s sister Maria Palaiologos and received the island of Lesbos as a dowry and reward for his services.

The Gattelusi family remained on Lesbos until the island’s final surrender to the Ottomans in 1462. During their presence on the island they managed to fight off the pirates who infested the Aegean and defeated repeated Ottoman attacks. At the same time, they also received from the byzantine emperors either as gifts or through outright purchase, the town of Ainos in Thrace, as well as the islands of Thasos, Samothrace, Imvros and Limnos. These dominions remained under Gattelusi rule until their final occupation by the Ottomans a few years after the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Genoese presence in the Aegean was mainly defined by two factors: her constant rivalry with Venice and the intense activities of Genovese individuals on islands of the northeastern Aegean and their neighbouring Asia Minor coast. Genoa’s attempt to keep control of the northeastern Aegean can be justified by the importance Galatas and the other dominions on the Euxinus Pontus held for the Italian naval power, as well as by the fact that a significant area of the central and southern Aegean was under the control of her rival naval power, Venice.