Alternate history: what if the Ottomans had won at Lepanto?
Professor Marc David Baer talks to Jonny Wilkes about the infamous 1571 naval battle, and whether or not an Ottoman victory against the Catholic Holy League would have made a substantial difference to the empire’s ambitions anyway
When news that the Holy League had been victorious in the battle of Lepanto spread around Europe, it was followed by jubilant celebrations. The loose alliance of Catholic forces from Spain, the Venetian Republic and other Italian states had confronted and defeated a larger fleet from the Ottoman empire in the Gulf of Patras on 7 October 1571, not long after the latter had invaded Cyprus.
King Philip II of Spain’s chief minister hailed it as “the greatest naval victory since Pharaoh’s army drowned in the Red Sea”. The pope, Pius V, instituted a new feast day to Our Lady of Victory and numerous paintings and poems were created to honour the battle. European nations had long lived under the looming shadow of Ottoman militarism, but Lepanto demonstrated that the empire was not invincible.
The symbolism of the victory was writ large: in this clash of civilisations, Christian (specifically, Catholic) Europe had come out on top.
Europe under threat
The Ottomans, led by Sultan Selim II since 1566, had invaded Cyprus in 1570 as part of their ongoing attempts at expansion. If the growth of the empire continued to go unchecked, some people believed that it could pose a threat to the security of Europe, which faced deep religious divisions at a time that saw both Reformation and Counter-Reformation.
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“When the Ottomans captured Nicosia on Cyprus in 1570, and Famagusta the following year, a Christian alliance of Venice [which held the island], Spain, the Knights Hospitaller and the pope sent a navy to stop the advance,” explains Marc David Baer, professor of international history at the London School of Economics and Political Science, and author of The Ottomans: Khans, Caesars and Caliphs (Basic Books, 2021). “The Holy League wiped out the enemy fleet, sinking almost all of their ships and killing thousands of soldiers. It was one of the Mediterranean’s largest-ever naval battles.”
But while Lepanto is often remembered as the moment that Ottoman expansion stalled, the battle was more a “temporary morale booster for the Catholic west”, says Baer, and had limited impact in the short term. Indeed, within a year, the Ottomans had rebuilt their fleet – adding a number of floating fortresses or ‘galleasses’ that the Holy League used to great effect at Lepanto – and resumed their campaigning in the Mediterranean. To make matters worse for the Europeans, Pius V succumbed to illness, and the quarrelling that beset the Holy League from its formation continued.
As the empire’s grand vizier reportedly declared to a diplomat: “[You] shaved our beard, but it will grow again; we have cut off your arm, and you will never find another.”
In 1573, the Venetians surrendered Cyprus anyway, and the Ottomans conquered Tunis the following year. “By the end of the 16th century, most of north Africa’s coast was under nominal Ottoman control,” asserts Baer.
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If losing at Lepanto was only a temporary setback for the Ottoman empire, there is an argument that winning the battle would not have led to substantial differences. “Win or lose, the Ottomans reached stunning heights of global political power and prosperity due to their other naval exploits from the Mediterranean to the Indian Ocean,” says Baer.
The Ottomans had the larger fleet on 7 October, and only lost because of the destructive firepower of the Holy League, commanded by Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V and half-brother of Spain’s Philip II. To have won, claims Baer, the Ottomans would have needed “hundreds of armed warships and large galleys fitted out with enormous cannons, like the Holy League possessed”.
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But while a different result may not have drastically altered the trajectory of the Ottomans, it would have been disastrous for much of Europe nevertheless. The battle was never regarded at the time as ‘Christians v Muslims’; the Protestants – at war with their Catholic neighbours – would have been happy to see the Ottomans victorious. And if that were the case, it would have crushed Catholic morale.
“The Ottomans, allied with Morocco, England and the Protestant rebels in the Netherlands, could have made even more inroads into southern Europe,” explains Baer.
Did you know?A famous fighter present at the battle of Lepanto was Miguel de Cervantes, the Spanish author who would go on to write Don Quixote. He was wounded three times, including a bullet that crippled his left arm. Luckily, the injury did not stop him writing.
There is another clash, however, between Catholic European forces and the Ottomans that could have been far more significant than Lepanto had the result gone a different way: the great siege of Malta in 1565. Had the Ottomans succeeded in conquering the island, says Baer, they would have been able to seize control of the western Mediterranean, having already gained possession of Rhodes in 1522 and later gone on to take Cyprus.
“The Ottomans may have slowed down the Spanish and Portuguese conquest of the New World, and perhaps even defeated the Habsburgs. And if they used Malta as a springboard to gain more territories in southern Europe and conquer Italy, or at least Rome, they would have achieved their ultimate ideological goal: to unite east and west under one dynasty and one religion.”
In context: the battle of LepantoThe battle of Lepanto, on 7 October 1571, was the largest naval encounter in the west since antiquity. Looking to expand their influence and territories across the Mediterranean Sea, the mighty Ottoman empire came up against a coalition of Catholic European powers that had been brought together by the pope. This Holy League amassed a huge fleet to meet the Ottomans off southwestern Greece, near Nafpaktos (or Lepanto).
While the Ottomans had more ships, they were not as well equipped, and months at sea had left the fleet depleted of resources and men. Also, the Holy League had far superior cannons. After four hours of fighting, the Ottoman commander Ali Pasha was killed and his flagship, Sultana, captured. The victory was celebrated across Catholic Europe; a morale-boosting triumph that proved their enemy to be beatable. In truth, Lepanto had little strategic effect on Ottoman ambitions.
This content first appeared in the April 2022 issue of BBC History Revealed
Jonny Wilkes is a former staff writer for BBC History Revealed, and he continues to write for both the magazine and HistoryExtra. He has BA in History from the University of York.