The battle of Lepanto was one of the greatest conflicts in pre-modern history, pitting Ottoman naval forces against the ships of the Christian Holy League in the Gulf of Patras off western Greece. The clash, involving an estimated 500 ships and 100,000 combatants, was the largest such battle since ancient times and the last great naval conflict dominated by armed rowing vessels.
The background to the battle was a region becoming increasingly dominated by the Ottomans. That empire was engaged in a relentless programme of expansion across the Mediterranean, in stark contrast to the disunity that characterised their papal, Spanish and Venetian adversaries. With the accession of Sultan Selim II in 1566, Ottoman designs on north Africa and Christian strongholds such as Malta and Cyprus threatened to transform the Mediterranean basin into one vast Turkish naval port.
When in the summer of 1570 the Ottomans declared war on Venice and invaded Cyprus, Pope Pius V, Philip II of Spain and the Venetians agreed to put aside their differences and combine forces in the form of a Holy League. They hastily assembled a vast Christian armada of more than 200 ships, 40,000 sailors and 20,000 troops led by Philip II’s half-brother Don John of Austria. In the summer of 1571, the fleet set sail to lift the siege of Cyprus. When Don John learned of the fall of Famagusta on that island he headed for Lepanto, where the Ottoman fleet of 300 ships lay at anchor.
On the morning of 7 October the two sides engaged each other in an epic battle that quickly descended into savage hand-to-hand combat as both sides boarded each other’s galleys. Around 4pm, as the smoke of war began to lift, it became clear that the Ottomans had been outgunned and defeated, losing by some estimates nearly 200 of their ships, along with 15,000 soldiers and sailors.
For a brief moment, Christendom forgot its divisions and united in celebration of its victory over the seemingly invincible Turks. Across Europe the news was greeted with an extraordinary outpouring of delight, relief and what one commentator, the Venetian Pietro Buccio, described as a “marvellous and glorious Christian victory against the infidels”. In contrast, Selim II quoted a verse from the Qur’an: “But it may happen that you hate a thing which is good for you,” and swore to avenge the defeat by rebuilding his fleet and intensifying his attacks on Christian forces across the Mediterranean basin.
For the Christians – and for subsequent western historians – defeating the Ottomans represented the first great victory over an apparently invincible navy, and marked the beginning of the decline of Muslim influence in the Mediterranean. The French historian Fernand Braudel described it as “the end of a genuine inferiority complex on the part of Christendom and a no less real Turkish supremacy”. For the Ottomans it was an act of God – a significant but not insurmountable defeat in a wider and largely successful geopolitical strategy of dominating the eastern Mediterranean and north Africa.
The Ottoman experience
In 1499 the Greek port of Nafpaktos, better known by its Venetian name of Lepanto, fell to the Ottomans. From that point they effectively controlled the eastern Mediterranean, part of a larger geopolitical strategy that saw them conquer most of the region as well as north Africa, including Egypt (1517), Algiers (1529) and Tripoli (1551). Lepanto became part of the multi-confessional, polyglot empire, a liva (district) in the Ottoman administrative system. Beys and kadis (chieftains and legal authorities) recruited local Greek sailors, oarsmen and soldiers conscripted into the timariot cavalry in return for tax exemptions.
In early 1571 Bosnian spies informed Sultan Selim II that a Christian fleet was being assembled to break the Ottoman siege of Famagusta in Cyprus. An imperial decree set the religious tone for Selim’s response: “When news about the infidels’ intention to attack became known by everybody, here the ulema (religious scholars) and all the Muslim community found it most proper and necessary to find and immediately attack the infidels’ fleet in order to save the honour of our religion and state, and to protect the land of the Caliphate, and when the Muslims submitted their petition to the feet of my throne I found it good and incontestable.”
The armada sets sail
Selim ordered his fleet to sail from Istanbul in April 1571, appointing Müezzinzade Ali Pasha, a former janissary (elite warrior) as its admiral. Ottoman chroniclers gave divergent estimates of the fleet’s size, ranging from 170 to 300 vessels, powered by up to 35,000 oarsmen – many of them captured Christians – and carrying more than 40,000 sailors and soldiers.
The fleet headed towards Crete, where they believed the Christian navy lay, and were joined by Uluç Ali Pasha, the beylerbey (duke-governor) of Algiers. But, as autumn drew in, provisions ran low, and many of the Albanian, Bosnian and Greek soldiers deserted the Ottoman fleet. One chronicler wrote that the “fleet cruised for a long time on the sea. No one appeared. The Ottomans believed that the Christians lacked the courage to meet them. The winter approached. The corsairs and beys of the coastal provinces asked the Porte [government] for permission to return home. Thus the army disintegrated.”
When the Christian navy was finally sighted off Lepanto in early October, the Ottoman force was not only unprepared but severely depleted in manpower and resources. That was crucial: the Ottomans relied for victory on vastly superior troop numbers and the accuracy of the composite bow fired from their galleys by experienced archers. They also had arquebuses and the heavier musket – but they discovered to their cost at Lepanto that their Christian enemies possessed more than twice as many guns.
Almost immediately dissension broke out among the Ottoman commanders. Uluç Ali Pasha advised an engagement in open sea away from the coast. Fearful for his life if he disobeyed the sultan’s command to engage the enemy, Müezzinzade Ali Pasha ignored the advice, believing that the Christian fleet was much smaller than it really was. Shortly after noon on 7 October, he ordered his fleet to attack. As the first Ottoman galleys crashed into the Christian ships, up to 40 others ran aground – perhaps accidentally, or in a deliberate act to escape fighting.
The superior Christian firepower prevailed. Ottoman accounts described how “men succumbed to a hail of bullets” and “the noble fleet was surrounded by a thick smoke which covered the sky”. After hours of hand-to-hand combat, Müezzinzade Ali Pasha was struck by a bullet and fell; his head was cut off (reputedly by a Spanish soldier) and displayed to the dismayed Ottoman troops. The Ottoman rout was complete, and of their high command only Uluç Ali Pasha escaped.
Unsurprisingly, Ottoman sources were muted in their reactions to the battle. Most blamed the unnecessarily long campaign, exhaustion and desertion, as well as the disastrous leadership of Müezzinzade Ali Pasha (which, as he was appointed by Selim, was the nearest anyone came to criticising the sultan). Selim’s response, a terse imperial decree dated 28 October 1571, attributed the defeat to God: “Now a battle can be won or lost. It was destined to happen this way according to God’s will.”
The defeat was a military setback, but by the summer of 1573 Turkish shipyards had rebuilt the fleet, and the following summer the Ottomans retook Tunis, which had been seized by Don Jon in 1573. When asked about the battle by the Venetian ambassador, Grand Vizier Sokullu Mehmed Pasha responded: “Our courage has not faded away after the battle of Lepanto; there is a discrepancy between your losses and ours. We ceded from you a land [Cyprus] … [and] thus cut off one of your arms. You defeated our fleet, which meant nothing more than shaving our beard. A missing arm cannot be replaced but a shaved beard grows thicker.”
The Holy League experience
On 20 May 1571 Pope Pius V met with representatives of Venice and Spain in Rome. The result was the formation of a Holy League – an alliance of Catholic states aiming to break Ottoman dominance in the eastern Mediterranean.
Agreeing the alliance had been a lengthy and tortuous process. Since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, Christian countries had failed to unite against their common enemy. Venice was keen to protect its commercial relations with the sultans, the Spanish were eager to protect their north African interests, and the papacy was preoccupied with the more immediate threat of Lutheranism. Though the Ottoman invasion of Cyprus proved the need for unity, squabbles continued: the Spanish insisted that the Habsburg Don John of Austria – “a young man who desired glory” – must command the league’s fleet, and that its main objective should be Tunis (held by Uluç Ali Pasha since 1569), not Cyprus.
But by cajoling and threatening, the pope’s “assertiveness overcame all difficulties”, and in July 1571 the papal fleet set sail for Sicily. There they were joined by the rest of the league, amassing “208 galleys, 6 galleases [large oared warships] and 23 ships besides the small vessels carrying a good many troops” estimated at 20,000, a remarkable and somewhat unlikely coalition of Italians, Spaniards and even Germans.
National rivalries threatened to scupper the league almost before the fleet sailed towards Corfu. Fights broke out between the Spanish and the Italians, while both looked down on the ‘barbaric’ Germans. Don John favoured an offensive campaign while his cautious lieutenants advised a more defensive approach, grumbling that they were operating “without any order, nay in utter confusion”. Intelligence was also conflicted. One of Don John’s advisers told him that his own soldiers were largely inexperienced, though “I do not think the enemy’s men can be very good, or better than ours”. However, “as for the number and quality of the ships in the Ottoman fleet, the reports are so various that I cannot judge very well if it is smaller or greater than ours”.
When the two fleets finally met on the morning of 7 October, the Holy League possessed two decisive advantages. It outgunned the Ottomans by more than two to one, and in its vanguard were six great Venetian galleases – floating fortresses too high to be boarded, bristling with artillery. As they rowed towards the Ottoman galleys and opened fire, “even the Turks began to fear”, reported Don John’s advisor. Their opening salvos sank several galleys and scattered the Ottoman formation. Priests evoked Christ and urged the Christian soldiers “to fight against the enemies of his most holy name, and inflamed and moved by these exhortations they all became one body, one will, one desire with no heed nor thought of death”.
Under fire from the galleases “the sea was wholly covered with men, yard-arms, oars, casks, barrels and various kinds of armaments, an incredible thing that only six galleases should have caused such great destruction, for they had not [previously] been tried in the forefront of a naval battle”. Both sides quickly became “constrained to do battle with short arms in hand-to-hand combat”, all “fighting in the cruellest fashion”, wrote the advisor.
Finally Don John’s galley rammed Müezzinzade Ali Pasha’s flagship and, after intense fighting, the admiral fell. When Uluç Ali Pasha’s squadron fled, the battle was at an end, “and with God’s own resolution”, wrote one Venetian, by mid-afternoon the enemy had been completely shattered, subdued and conquered, in “the greatest and most famous naval battle which has ever taken place from the time of Caesar Augustus until now”.
Aftermath of the battle
News of the victory quickly spread across Europe. Festivities, church masses, pamphlets, paintings and poems celebrated the event. While the Ottomans had ignored the rise of printing, European presses were able to circulate news of the victory at a hitherto unimaginable speed and scale.
Nevertheless, Christian reports of the Ottomans’ demise after their defeat at Lepanto were greatly exaggerated, and the Holy League rapidly disintegrated. First Pius died in May 1572, then Venice, eager to re-establish commercial relations with the Ottomans, signed a peace treaty in March 1573 acknowledging Selim’s sovereignty over Cyprus. Others also sought alliances with the Ottomans. In 1579 Elizabeth I established formal diplomatic relations with Selim’s successor, Sultan Murad III. Both English and Ottoman rulers were keen to exploit divisions among an increasingly fractured Christendom that found little unity in the aftermath of Lepanto.
Jerry Brotton is a professor of renaissance studies at Queen Mary University of London, and author of This Orient Isle: Elizabethan England and the Islamic World (Allen Lane, 2016)
This article was taken from issue 2 of BBC World Histories Magazine, first published in February 2017