THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
The Battle of Lepanto was a naval clash that took place on October 7th 1571 in the Gulf of Patras, between the fleet of the so called “Holy League” and the fleet of the Ottoman Empire.
The Holy League was an alliance of Catholic European States organized by Pope Pius V and included the naval fleets of the Republic of Venice, the Spanish Empire, the Republic of Genoa, the Papal States, the Duchies of Savoy, Urbino and Tuscany, and the Knights Hospitaller.
The Ottoman Empire suffered a major defeat and their leader, Admiral Ali Pasha, was killed in combat.
This naval engagement that took place near Lepanto is considered to be the largest ever fought, up to that time, in the history of naval warfare.
Background of the battle of Lepanto
Western Governors were more and more worried by the increasing expansion of the Ottoman Empire that was threatening not only the Venetian eastern colonies but also the Spanish Empire and all Mediterranean maritime States. The Ottomans took Costantinople in 1453 and this was regarded as a major threat for the west and a huge catastrophe for the Church.
Pope Pius V was very worried about the Islamic expansion and since 1566 had been trying to form an alliance of Roman Catholic States.
He was fighting a spiritual battle for the unity of Christendom that was already being threatened by the Protestant revolt.
Venice possessions scattered through the East Mediterranean sea with Cyprus and Crete very dangerously exposed. As a matter of fact the Venetians had more investments in the Mediterranean than anyone else.
What actually was at stake, was the control of maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea and the safety of Continental Europe. Indeed, the Spanish Empire largely supported and financed the Holy League.
The siege of the Venetian town of Famagusta in Cyprus persuaded Pope Pius V that it was the right opportunity at the right time to unite the “Christian” forces under a “Holy League”.
The official purpose for the creation of the Holy League was to support the Venetians to resist the Turkish siege in Famagusta in 1571. The island of Cyprus had been possession of the Venetians since 1480, but Selim II was determined to acquire the island and in the course of 1570 he had managed to conquer Nicosia and other Venetian possessions in Cyprus. Venice then turned to Pope Pius for help and support.
The Holy League fleet in the battle of Lepanto
The Christian fleets decided to meet up off Messina (Sicily) in July 1571. The fleet was led by admiral Don John of Austria and was made up by more than 200 warships: 109 galleys + 6 galleasses from the Republic of Venice, 49 galleys from the Spanish Empire, 27 galleys from the Republic of Genoa, 7 galleys from the Papal States, 5 galleys from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, 3 galleys each from the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta. The fleet was manned by approximately 30.000 sailors and oarsmen and carried about 36.000 fighting troops. The fleet left Messina on September 16th 1571 and reunited off Cefalonia on October 4th. As the fleet arrived in Cefalonia, they came to know that Famagusta had fallen on August 1.
The Ottoman fleet in the battle of Lepanto
THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
Don John of Astria (Don Juan de Austria) decided to deploy in front of his fleet 6 Venetian Galleasses: these warships were considered to be “castles in the water” as they were very high and therefore difficult to board, and also because they were equipped with cannons along the sides, at the bow and stern. It has to be said that at the time Venetian firearms were definitely among the most advanced and powerful in the world.
Christian Left side - THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
The first contact took place between the Christian left side division, 53 galleys captained by the Venetian Admiral Agostino Barbarigo and the Turkish left flank led by Şuluk Mehmet Shoraq (nicknamed “Siroco”).
Siroco had a very good knowledge of the depth of the water in the proximity of the coast and therefore managed to surround Barbarigo’s fleet. The Turkish Janissaries boarded Barbarigo’s galley and man to man fight commenced. As combat was raging, Barbarigo lifted up his helmet sallet in order to give clear orders to his crew but was caught by an arrow in the eye and died instantly. A group of warship led by the Marquis of Santa Cruz came to the rescue and the Venetians troops managed to have the better of the Turks and kill their leader Siroco. During the fighting, many Christian slaves who were at the oars in the Turkish galleys were freed by the Venetians and easily persuaded to join the Holy League and fight on their side. It did not take long before the Turkish fleet was defeated.
Christian Center - THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
Meanwhile in the center, the 4 Venetian gallasses unleashed on the Turkish fleet a devastating rain of fire, that seriously damaged about 70 ships and broke the battle array of Ali Pascia’s fleet.
Indeed Ali did not attempt to board the big galleasses and preferred to try to sail past them and launch his central division onto a frontal clash. Ali’s intent was to attack Don Juan’s galley (called “The Real”) and manage to kill him in order to break the morale of the Holy League fleet.
In order to do so, he launched his galley directly towards “The Real” with such force that he managed to drive into it as far as the fourth rowing bench. The Turkish Janissaries boarded “the Real” and were having the better of the Spanish soldiers when Marcantonio Colonna (Don Juan’s deputy) came to the rescue and managed to reject the Janissaries. Soon the whole crew of the Turkish flagship was killed in hand-to-hand fighting and Ali Pasha himself was killed in combat. The Spanish crew hoisted the banner of the Holy League on Ali Pasha’s warship to inflict a crucial blow on the Turkish fleet morale. After only two hours the Turkish fleet was defeated both on the left side and the center.
Christian right side - THE BATTLE OF LEPANTO
The Christian right side was led by the Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria, but his fleet of 53 galleys and the 2 Venetian gallassess did not have enough time to join the Christian array before the battle began. Instead of taking his assigned position, Doria sailed towards the south, in an attempt, he explained later, to avoid a possible enveloping maneuver by the Turkish left that was led by Uluc Ali.
Doria’s fleet of about 53 galleys was facing a greater Turkish fleet of about 90 galleys; seeing himself outnumbered, Doria chose to adopt a different strategy and instead of going for a direct clash, preferred to try to control the enemy’s fleet and prevent a possible enveloping maneuver.
As soon as the gap between Doria’s fleet and the center of the Christian array was wide enough, Uluc Ali attacked a group of Christian galleys led by the Knights of Malta in the rear center of the Christian array. Their maneuver was quite successful and they even managed to snatch the flag of the Knights of Malta but they had to retreat as a reserve fleet led by the Marquis of Santa Cruz was coming to the rescue.
After only about three hours the naval battle had clearly turned in favor of the Christian coalition, but the fighting went on until the evening as groups of Turkish soldiers kept fighting to the last.
Holy League: lost 7500 men
Ottoman Empire: lost 30000 men
Holy League: sank 50 Ottoman galleys
Ottoman Empire: sank 12 Christian galleys
Holy League: 117
Ottoman Empire: 8000
The naval battle of Lepanto was one of the largest naval battles in history and certainly the greatest sea battle in the Mediterranean since ancient times. It was a decisive victory for the Holy league and the worst disaster at sea ever for the Ottomans. The Ottomans lost a lot of skilled manpower, they lost experienced sailors and very well trained soldiers, expert bowmen and military forces that were difficult to replace. On the other side there were triumphant processions in Rome and celebrations throughout Europe; while the Pope claimed divine aid for the victory, the Ottomans blamed the incompetence of their Admiral.
The significance of the battle of Lepanto is debated to this day: some historian say that the battle was significant if one thinks of what would have happened if it had gone the other way: if the Ottomans had won the battle of Lepanto and had inflicted equal damage on the Holy League, than they would have been in a very powerful position; the next target might have been Corfu that could have been the stepping stone for conquering Southern Italy. For sure the battle of Lepanto had a huge psychological effect: catholic spin doctors, the Pope included, presented this battle as THE victory and even created a new devotion "Our Lady of Victory". In the previous years the Ottomans had won all the main battles agains the Eastern Christians and this victory was seen as a turning point to stop the territorial expansion of the Ottoman Empire. However the significance of the battle of Lepanto remained mainly psychological as the Holy League actually failed to capitalize the victory and could not even regain any of the territories that had been taken by the Ottomans a few years before. After a few months the Ottomans managed to rebuild their navy and reassert their supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. Soon after they manage to take Cyprus and Crete from the Venetians. The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the XVII century was not caused by the consequences of their defeat at Lepanto but was the reflection of the general decline of most Mediterranean countries due to the new commercial routes towards the New World.