City of Fortune: How Venice Ruled the Seas
In the modern global economy, one can participate from a computer terminal or mobile electronic device. The Internet allows a resident of Springfield, Illinois, to purchase an item from a Hong Kong company, which can then be shipped from China to an excited young child in San Francisco. While the mechanics of the global economy in the 21st century are simplified by modern technology, the basics today are not that different from what was pioneered by the Republic of Venice centuries ago. Venice, then a floating nation, became a virtual city, an offshore warehouse sending goods to nations from Asia to India and ports in between.
"From the first discovery of far-away markets to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice had a major role in the conflicts of the time.... CITY OF FORTUNE places those events in their proper historical context through Roger Crowley’s engrossing narrative."
CITY OF FORTUNE by Roger Crowley is the saga of how refugees from the attacks of Attila the Hun built a city-state on the banks of the sea and became a global power without land, resources or agriculture. Even though Venice produced nothing, it was the economic heart of the world community for centuries.
For 500 years, Venice was a global superpower, and its currency was the international standard. CITY OF FORTUNE explains Venice’s success through a fairly simple formula. Venice was not a government in the true meaning of that concept. Instead, the city-state was a business. In the 20th century, American Secretary of Defense Charles Wilson once observed, “What’s good for General Motors is good for the nation.” Venice was the General Motors of the pre-industrial world. Venetians were stockholders, board members and employees of a world-wide enterprise. Ships roamed the world laden with goods based upon a simple business plan: trade anything with anybody. To the chagrin of Europeans, the Venetians even traded with Muslims.
CITY OF FORTUNE reminds readers that history does have a way of repeating itself. Through generations, wars have contributed to the economic success of nations. In 1201, Venice experienced financial success as a supplier of arms and men to the military campaign of the Fourth Crusade. The nation transported 25,000 soldiers and equipment to the Holy Land to recapture Jerusalem. The cost for this effort was 100,000 marks, an amount equivalent to the total income of the population of France. In order to pay this large sum of money, the expedition invaded and plundered Constantinople in 1204. Venice acquired treasure as well as ports and islands that would serve the future economic needs of the nation with refueling stops and trading partners.
Consider for a moment the breadth and scope of the effort to transport men and equipment from the Mediterranean to the Middle East. CITY OF FORTUNE is not just an account of ships moving material around the globe. There are descriptive details of the battles and campaigns associated with the Crusades. Crowley describes the effort in vivid detail, including how ships were dismantled to make military attacking machines.
Whether viewed as a nation-state or the first corporation of the military-industrial complex, Venice was intent upon developing and refining business practices and an efficient bureaucratic business machine. The archives of the business history cover 45 miles of shelves. There is an irresistible element to the story of Venice because reading the history reminds one that nearly a century later, while the technology is far superior, the goals and needs of massive military operations remain a business enterprise of huge proportions.
From the first discovery of far-away markets to the clash between Christianity and Islam, Venice had a major role in the conflicts of the time. In many respects, the impact of those conflicts are still felt today. CITY OF FORTUNE places those events in their proper historical context through Roger Crowley’s engrossing narrative.
Reviewed by Stuart Shiffman on February 2, 2012