The climax of European military effort in the Mediterranean, and one of the most awe-inspiring naval engagements ever fought, was the Battle of Lepanto in 1571. A rickety, unlikely alliance of Christian states, cobbled together by Pope Pius V and held fast by the leadership of Don Juan of Austria, somehow managed to devastate the fleet, and humble the pride, of the invincible Ottoman Turks. Sadly, the story has faded into obscurity. It will be my purpose here to restore the tale to its proper rank in the annals of naval heroism and inspired genius. To place the battle in its proper perspective, we will first review the antecedent background.
The Ottoman Empire in the 16th century was a superpower in every sense of the word. The fall of Constantinople in 1453 had sent shock waves through the Christian West that made thrones and popes tremble. But Western Europe, relatively weak and disorganized, could mount little effective resistance. The Turks rolled right through the Balkans and North Africa, and began to wrest control of eastern Mediterranean shipping from the control of Venice, which had long enjoyed a monopoly on maritime trade in the region. The Ottoman sultans had made no secret of their desire to bring all of Christian Europe under the banner of Islam; and to see the crescent banner fly from the spires of the Vatican was not only hinted at, but announced as inevitable.
The extent of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth century
The Turks could back up such bellicose aspirations. Their military was powerful and organized: the feared Janissaries alone numbered over fifty thousand men, all of them disciplined professionals. To this number the sultans could draw on their vast empire for additional conscripts, slaves, and volunteers. By comparison, Europe after 1520 found itself ensnared in the turbulence and fratricide of the Protestant Reformation, too distracted and disunited to mount an effective challenge to Ottoman might.
The eastern Mediterranean, especially the island of Cyprus, harbored many trading and naval outposts of Venice, which had been an integral part of her maritime and commercial power since the Middle Ages. But Venice was tired and in decline; her ports on the Ottoman doorstep were weak and undefended; and the Turks were confident and strong. The sultans’ conclusions were obvious. In 1570 the Turks sent a force of over sixty thousand men to assault Cyprus. The Venetian colony of Nicosia fell in 1570 after a siege of forty five days; twenty thousand inhabitants were slain by the Turks in the aftermath. Famagusta was attacked in 1571. The city resisted heroically for over a year, but in the end it surrendered after receiving assurances from the Turks that the defenders would be given safe passage home.
The irate Turkish commander, Lala Mustafa, broke his word. He had the Venetian captives reduced to slavery or imprisonment. Marcantonio Bragadino, the city’s head defender, was flayed alive in a gruesome act of revenge for the city’s protracted resistance, which had cost the sultan about 50,000 men. Bragadino’s preserved skin, stuffed with straw, was sent to Constantinople for the amusement of the sultan. Venice, roused to fury by this and other atrocities, sent frantic appeals to Pope Pius V and to the other powerful states of Europe for help.
The Diplomatic Situation
We should take note here of the posture and intentions of the major powers. Philip II of Spain led the most powerful state in Latin Christendom. He was engaged in his own intermittent wars against the Moslems of North Africa, who had appealed to the Ottoman sultan for help. By general consent, the Spanish had the most disciplined, experienced, and best-led army in Europe. They were also zealous defenders of Catholicism, and their character—a passionate type, bearing much similarity to that of the Arabs, who had occupied Spain for six centuries and stamped their imprint on the Spanish bloodline and culture—was stoked with religious fervor and martial zeal. This was the era of Spanish glory and power. Having conquered the New World for the banner of Christ, and having expelled the last of the Moslem infidels from Spain in 1492, they had the ability and resources to confront the might of the Turks.
The French and English, fearful of Spanish influence, were wary of participating in any enterprise that might enhance Spanish prestige. France even sought the friendship of the Ottoman sultan as an insurance policy against Spain. Even Venice, although she desperately needed aid, was fearful of bringing Spanish power into the eastern Mediterranean. The diplomatic abilities and deep pockets of Pope Pius V overcame all these difficulties, however, and managed to keep a delicate balance of trust between the allies. In 1571, he formed what came to be called the “Holy League”, a coalition between Spain, the Papal States, Venice and Genoa, and the Knights of Malta.
Location and order of battle at Lepanto
The squabbling Italian city states were finally roused to unity to confront the Turkish threat. Aware that a Turkish fleet in 1566 had threatened the papal fortress of Ancona on the Adriatic Sea, a number of Italian principalities (Genoa, Savoy, Florence, Parma, Lucca, Ferrara, and Urbino) contributed to the effort of raising a fleet. The Spanish crown contributed the most men, money, and ships. A papal legate appointed Don Juan of Austria commander at a ceremony in Naples. Capuchin monks and Jesuit priests were also attached to the expedition. It was a different age from our own. In those days, even clerics took up the sword, and fought and died alongside soldiers in battle, with an ardor befitting their station.
Soldiers and sailors received the Eucharist on September 16, 1571, and the fleet sailed from Messina, heading for the island of Corfu in the Ionian Sea. The expedition was imbued with a passionate desire for revenge against the Turks for the deliberate cruelties that had accompanied the fall of Cyprus, and this militancy helped to overcome the national differences among the Holy League members.
As the Christian armada moved into the Gulf of Corinth, the Ottoman fleet was sighted, and Don Juan gave the order for his fleet to form in a battle line. The Turkish commander had received orders from the sultan to engage the enemy, and so prepared his forces for combat. The composition of the belligerents was as follows: on the Turkish side, there were 222 galleys, 60 smaller ships, about 750 cannon, 34,000 soldiers, 13,000 sailors, and 41,000 oarsmen (almost all of them Christian slaves or convicts). On the Holy League side, there were 207 galleys, 6 Venetian galleasses (a Venetian invention which was a heavily-armed merchant galley converted for military use), 30 smaller ships, 1,800 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 12,900 sailors, and 43,000 oarsmen. Besides their aggressive spirit, the Christian side possessed several advantages: (1) the Spanish infantrymen who composed the bulk of the Holy League forces were probably the best in Europe, and (2) the cannon and gunnery of Don Juan’s fleet was superior to what the Turks could bring to bear in the engagement.
All out combat at Lepanto
The two massive fleets, one bearing the standard of the crucified Christ, and the other bearing the name of Allah embroidered in gold, made initial contact. All along the line of battle, cries arose from the Holy League forces of “Vittoria! Vittoria! Viva Christo!” The left wing of the battle line, under the Venetians, advanced steadily, and the superior gunnery and ammunition of the Spanish and Italians made steady progress in reducing some of the sultan’s ships to charred splinters. And it was at this point that an act of singular courage and daring helped to tip the scales for a Christian victory.
Don Juan ordered his flagship to steer directly toward the Ottoman flagship, commanded by Muezzinzade Ali Pasha. His plan was to decapitate the Ottoman force by killing or capturing its leader. Naval combat in those days required opposing ships to throw out grappling hooks, and for one side to board the other, after which hand-to-hand combat would follow with cutlass, dagger, and pistol. And this is what happened when Don Juan’s flagship collided in the blood-churned sea with the Turkish admiral’s galleon.
An artist’s rendering of the fleets before the engagement
Amid the smoke, confusion, and fury of battle, Don Juan gave the order to board Ali Pasha’s vessel, named the Sultana. Three hundred Spanish veterans leapt aboard the enemy ship, their way led by a fearless Capuchin monk bearing nothing but a tunic and a crucifix; and the Sultana’s deck ran red with blood and gore as the steel of battle-axes and cutlasses bit into the flesh of the combatants. The crash of metal upon metal reached a crescendo as the fighting see-sawed from one end of the ship to the other; and all around, as the galleons in the battle-line rolled and rocked, the screams of the fallen mixed with the acrid stench of gunpowder to add fear and confusion to the desperate fight.
Ottoman Janissaries, the cream of the sultan’s army, fought hand-to-hand with the Spanish tercios. The Spanish were repulsed several times, but kept coming back. It was an incredible sight, transcendent in its awesome carnage and merciless fury. This was the spirit that won the New World for Spain. Miguel de Cervantes (who would later achieve immortality for his authorship of the novel Don Quixote) was a participant in the battle, and was wounded during it. He later described it as “the most memorable occasion that either past or present ages have beheld, and which perhaps the future will never parallel.”
The Ottoman flagship was overwhelmed by the fury of the Spaniards. Admiral Pasha Ali was slain and decapitated by a Spanish soldier, and his head raised aloft on his own flagstaff. At this sight, the morale of the Turks cracked, and their ships began to fall back under the steady pounding by Don Juan’s gunners all along the line. When the smoke finally cleared hours later, over 10,000 Turks were taken prisoner and 8,000 slain; 117 ships were captured and 50 destroyed. On the Holy League side, 7,500 men were killed, 12 galleys were sunk, and about 12,000 Christian slaves (acting as Ottoman oarsmen) were freed.
It was a devastating victory, a supreme achievement of Italian and Spanish arms, never to be equaled since.
The Spanish in action: this was their moment of glory
As with many decisive military victories, the victors were too exhausted or shocked to follow up their triumph with a pursuit of the enemy. It seems likely that, with the bulk of the Turkish fleet destroyed, a punitive expedition to Constantinople might have met with some success. But it was not to be. The victorious powers divided up the spoils of battle in proportion to their contribution to the expedition, and sailed home to universal acclaim in Europe.
In Venice and the rest of Catholic Europe, the celebrations were ecstatic. Church bells rang all over Catholic Europe. Men embraced each other in the street; artists immortalized the battle by painting picture after picture; and the Venetian doge was hailed as a hero. Rome was convulsed in joy, and Pius V nearly canonized Don Juan for his feats as admiral. He implored European leaders to assemble a military force for further attacks on the Ottomans, and tried to goad Persian and Arab leaders to launch their own strikes on the Turks. Nothing came of these efforts. Philip II of Spain was embroiled in his own struggles in the New World and in the Netherlands, France was secretly allied with the Turks in order to check Spanish power, and Venice had few friends outside of Italy. Pius V was praised and respected, but ignored. When he died in 1572, the concept of a second Holy League coalition was shelved.
It can be argued that Lepanto changed little in the equations of power in Europe. The Ottoman grand vizier, Mehmed Sokullu, remarked to a Venetian diplomat that Lepanto had done no permanent damage to Turkish power. Within six months after its defeat, the Ottoman Empire, showing great determination and skill, had rebuilt its fleet along Venetian models, incorporating lessons in tactics and gunnery learned at Lepanto. Venice continued to decline. The Ottomans raided Sicily and southern Italy soon after. By 1683 the Turks were in the heart of Europe, laying siege to Vienna.
But these facts ignore the central importance of Lepanto in destroying the myth of Ottoman invincibility. It was a psychological triumph of the first order. Once and for all, it was proven that the Turks did not have a monopoly on bravery and military skill. Although Turkish power continued to expand (of its own inertia) for a time after Lepanto, it is now clear that the battle provided a critical morale boost to harassed European Christendom. As the Europeans continued to innovate in military tactics, technology, and artistry, the Turks grew complacent and torpid. After 1580, the Ottoman fleet was allowed to deteriorate through neglect and ineptitude; from that point, the Ottomans were a decisive force on land only.
Few feats in naval history can compare with Don Juan’s bold gamble in launching a direct assault on the Ottoman flagship and killing his rival commander. In war, as in the struggle of life itself, boldness and decision count for more than a hundred debates and discussions. This was an inspired move that took audacity and consummate skill, and it was the turning point in the Battle of Lepanto.
Pre-battle plans and stratagems are always easy to come by. Every commander has a plan; every historian has an explanation; and every losing general has an excuse. But in war, as in life, the plan goes out the window once the first shot is fired. In the end, discipline, brute strength, endurance, and tenacity matter more than delicate artistry. As the outcome of Lepanto hung in the balance, on the blood-stained deck of the Sultana, the Spanish infantry came face-to-face with the Janissaries. And the issue was decided—as all such military clashes are decided–only by brute force, courage, steel, and fury.
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