World’s Most Ancient Republic

Venice has been a unique wonder of the world since its inception. It had no land, so it had no part in the feudal system which had played a major role in the development of most of the world’s civilizations. It had almost no agriculture, so trading became the only way of survival, and money was its only barter. Its nobles came from merchant princes who cared more about profit than land. With no lands, knights or serfs, the Venetian people had a mostly egalitarian society which, at the time, was certainly unique.

The difficulty of life in the lagoon bounded all of its inhabitants with solidarity and self-discipline. Venice lived between two worlds: the land and the sea, the East and the West.
Geopolitically speaking, Venice never really belonged to the church or to the emperor, just as it did not belong solely either to the land or to the sea. Trading and seafaring were the only Venetian expertise. They truly believed they could buy and sell anything to anyone as long as there was a profit. In other words, they had an amoral trading mentality, a peculiar mix of secular and religious modes of thinking. As such, they became the first state where church and state became separate.

The head of Venice was called the Doge, which came from the Latin word “dux”, (a military leader), which elsewhere later became the English word “Duke”. The Doge was elected for life and sometimes was called the “Serenissimo Principe” (Most Serene Prince). The Doge office was institutionalized around 700 CE. He was considered the civic, military and ecclesiastical leader of Venice. The Doge was a leader, not a lord. His position was an honored servant of Venice. The Doge’s power flowed from the office and not from the officeholder. His political power was carefully checked and balanced. None of the Doge’s family could be part of his office or work for the government during his lifelong term. The election process of the Doge was perfected and finalized after many iterations and modifications in the 13th century. He was essentially selected by a committee from The Great Council of Venice which was selected randomly through complex elective methods. The object was to minimize individual family influence as well as to avoid any possible factionalism from political maneuvering.

The families eligible for The Great Council of Venice were listed in the Golden Book. Members in this group were referred to as “patricians”. Together with the Doge, they were responsible for the policies of Venice. The government bureaucrats came from the “cittaidini” (citizens), who were recorded in the Silver Book. They were crucial to the day-to-day operation of the Venetian government.

After the Doge was elected, his life was constantly under strict surveillance and scrutiny. Aside from his immediate family, he could not meet with anyone without the presence of his six-man council, which was elected every year from each of the six sestieri of Venice. The council members and the Doge together formed the “Signoria”. The Doge had to furnish his own palace. Upon his death, a special commission would be established to audit his actions and his family’s wealth to make sure there were no wrongdoings during his tenure. It was clear that the Doge’s power came from the office, not from the office holders.

One of the Doge’s symbols was “the Corno Ducale”, a special hat worn by every Doge of the Venetian Republic. The first Corno Ducale was given by badessa Agostina Morosini from the convent of San Zazzaria to Doge Pietro Tradonico in 864 CE. It was a beautiful headdress, embroidered with gold thread and adorned with 24 pearls from the sea, a large ruby and a cross formed by 28 emeralds and 12 diamonds. It was nicknamed “La Zoia”, Joy or Jewel.

The design of the Doge’s hat came from the Phrygian cap worn by Persian soldiers and freed Roman slaves, the freemen. It became the symbol of freedom. The French woman waving the tricolored flag in Eugene Delacroix’s French Revolution painting, “Liberty Leading the People”, was wearing a similar hat which symbolized renewal, progress and liberty.

The Venetian Doge and Venetian social values were ahead of their time by almost one thousand years. In Venice, tradition was replaced by reason, merit displaced birth, liberty overcame serfdom, and all men were free. This may be the very reason the Venetian Republic and political system lasted over one thousand years and became the oldest republic in the world.

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