The colonization of the Venetian estuary is usually dated from the year 452, the period of the Hunnish invasion under Attila, when the Scourge of God, as he was named by his terror-stricken opponents, sacked the rich Roman cities of Aquileia, Concordia, Opitergium, and Padua. In one sense the date is correct. The Hunnish invasion certainly gave an enormous increase to the lagoon population, and called the attention of the mainlanders, to the admirable asylum which the estuary offered in times of danger.
When Alcuin, the great scholar from York-shire, was teaching Charlemagne’s son and heir, Pepin, he drew up for his pupil’s use a curious catechism of questions and answers. Among others this occurs : “What is the sea.” “A refuge in time of danger.” Surely a strange answer, and one which can hardly be reckoned as true except in the particular case of the Venetian lagoons. For the mainlanders were caught between the devil of Attila and the deep sea of the Adriatic, and had they not found the lagoons ready at hand to offer them an asylum and to prove a refuge in time of danger, it must have fared hard with them.
But this date of 452 is. not to be taken as the date of the very earliest occupation of the lagoon. Long before Attila and his Huns swept down upon Italy, we know that there was a sparse population occupying the estuary, en-gaged in fishing and in the salt trade. Cassia dorus, the secretary of the Gothic King Theodoric the Great, has left us a picture of this people, hardy; independent, toughened by their life on the salt water; their means of living; the fish of the lagoons; their source of wealth; the salt which they extracted from its waters; their houses, wattled cabins built upon piles driven into the mud; their means of locomotion light boats which were tied to the door posts like horses on mainland.
“Thus you ‘live in your sea-birds’ home,” he exclaims, “rich and poor under equal laws; a common food supports you; house is like unto house; and envy, that curse of all the world, hath no place there.” No doubt this early population of the lagoons, already intimately associated with its dwelling-place, modified by it and adapted to it, helped to form the basis upon which the latter strata of population, the result of the Hunnish invasion, could rest; and in all probability some of the characteristics of this early population, its independence and its hardihood, passed into the composition of the full-grown Venetian race. But beyond the brief words of Cassiodorus we know little about these early lagoon-dwellers. It is really with the Hunnish invasion that the history of Venice begins its first period of growth.
The population which flocked from the mainland to seek refuge in the estuary of Venice came from many different citiesfrom Aquileia, from Concordia, from Padua; and tho the in-habitants of all these, no doubt, bore the ex ternal stamp which Rome never failed to impose, yet, equally doubtless, they brought with them their own particular customs, their mutual hates and rivalries.
While living on the mainland these animosities had wider space in which to play, and were therefore less dangerous, less explosive. But in the lagoons, under stress of suffering, and owing to confinement and juxtaposition, they became intensified, exaggerated, and perilous. There was a double problem before the growing Venetian population which required to be solved before Venice and the Venetians could, with any justice, be considered a place and a people. First, the various and largely hostile populations who had taken refuge in the lagoon had to be reconciled to each other; and secondly, they had to be reconciled to their new home, to be identified with it and made one with it.
The lagoon achieved both reconciliations; the isolation of its waters, their strangeness, gradually created the feeling of unity, of family connection, among the diverse and hostile components of the population, till a fusion took place between the original and the immigrant inhabitants, and between the people and their home, and Venice and the Venetians emerge upon the history of the world as an individual and full-grown race. But this reconciliation and identification were not accomplished at once. They cost many years of struggle and of danger. The unification of Venice is the history of a series of compromises, an historical example of the great law of selection and survival.