Lepanto, 1571: The Battle that Saved Europe

The clash of civilizations is as old as history, and equally as old is the blindness of those who wish such clashes away; but they are the hinges, the turning points of history. In the latter half of the 16th century, Muslim war drums sounded and the mufti of the Ottoman sultan proclaimed jihad, but only the pope fully appreciated the threat. As Brandon Rogers notes in the Ignatius Press edition of G. K. Chesterton’s poem “Lepanto”: Pope Pius V “understood the tremendous importance of resisting the aggressive expansion of the Turks better than any of his contemporaries appear to have. He understood that the real battle being fought was spiritual; a clash of creeds was at hand, and the stakes were the very existence of the Christian West.” But then, as now, the unity of Christendom was shattered; and in the aftermath of the Protestant revolt, Islam saw its opportunity.

The Ottoman Empire, the seat of Islamic power, looked to control the Mediterranean. Corsairs raided from North Africa; the Sultan’s massive fleet anchored the eastern Mediterranean; and Islamic armies ranged along the coasts of Africa, the Middle and Near East, and pressed against the Adriatic; Muslim armies threatened the Habsburg Empire through the Balkans.

The Ottoman Turks yearned to bring all Europe within the dar al-Islam, the “House of Submission”—submissive to the sharia law. Europe, as the land of the infidels, was the dar al-Harb, the “House of War.”

But the House of War was a house divided against itself. The Habsburg Empire was Europe’s bulwark against Islamic jihad, but its timbers were being eaten away by the Protestants who diverted Catholic armies and even cheered on the Mussulmen, whom they saw as fellow enemies of the pope in Rome.

In 1568, the emperor Maximilian, of the Austrian half of the Habsburg Empire, had agreed to a peace treaty with the Turk; and the Danube was reasonably, temporarily, quiet.

In Spain, the other great pillar of the Habsburg Empire was Philip II. And for him, things were not quiet at all. We think of Philip II as dark and brooding, and so he was—to the degree that it is surprising to remember that he was blue-eyed and fair-haired. But the lasting image, especially to those of English (even Catholic English) blood, is Chesterton’s sketch; as King Philip is in his “closet with the Fleece about his neck”:

The walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin,
And little dwarfs creep out of it and little dwarfs creep in . . . .
And his face is as a fungus of a leprous white and grey
Like plants in the high houses that are shuttered from the day . . . .

As a ruler, Philip was harsh, saturnine, and austere. He embodied a scrupulousness that went beyond a personal failing to become a public vice, where there was no room for charity and far too much room for plottings and calculations, which, though they always had the protection of the Faith as their goal, were too admixed with lesser, baser metals than the gold of the monstrance.

Philip’s knights had ranged into the New World and were carving out a vast empire, its extent virtually beyond imagining, whence came gold and other treasures. That, Philip knew, was the future. But to his immediate north was the menace.

Europe Divided

Philip was no friend of the Mohammedan, and the Mussulmen remained a persistent threat to Spain’s possession of Naples and Sicily. Spanish vessels clashed throughout the Mediterranean with Barbary corsairs. At that very moment, Spanish infantry were suppressing the Morisco revolt of apparently unconverted Moors. But Philip trusted that Spain was well equipped to defeat the Mussulmen. That was old hat.

But Protestantism was something relatively new. It was treason and heresy. And, though Philip would not have been so eloquent, it was worse:

The North is full of tangled things and texts and aching eyes,
And dead is all the innocence of anger and surprise,
And Christian killeth Christian in a narrow dusty room,
And Christian dreadeth Christ that hath a newer face of doom,
And Christian hateth Mary that God kissed in Galilee …

Where the Austrian Habsburgs hoped against hope for conciliation with their own violent, Teutonic Protestants, Philip II trusted to his renowned Spanish infantry. They had the answer that Protestantism deserved.

The pope had no sympathy for Protestants either, but for him, as for previous popes, Islam remained the real threat. The pope felt he had many urgent tasks to attend to, but the vital one was confronting the Islamic challenge.

Pope Pius V, like Philip, was no exemplar of rubicund, jovial Christianity such as the Italians preferred. He thought the Church had seen too much of that, with the concomitant slackness in Renaissance morals and an excessive generosity to Protestant error. He had never known the high life. He was a former shepherd, an ascetic, a Dominican, and an inquisitor. Though much of a mind with Philip, he had a finer balanced spiritual core that kept him from Philip’s failings. As a pope, he was a reformer, and brought a monastic purity to the organization and administration of the Church, to a review of the religious orders, to educating the faithful, to evangelizing, and to caring for the poor (which he did personally).

If Christendom was split asunder—with even Philip disputing papal control of the Church in Spain—the pope nevertheless had the spiritual and temporal authority, the presence of a future saint, to assemble a Holy League, a fighting force that included Catholic knights not only from the papal states and the Knights of Malta, but from Italy, Germany, and Spain; and even from England, Scotland, and Scandinavia, Catholics and freebooters, gentleman adventurers and convicts condemned to row the galleys.

France, la belle France, would be present in the Knights, but not as a party itself. The great period of the fleur de lis had passed away with the end of the Crusader kingdoms. Now the king of France could support no venture in league with the Habsburgs, whose dominions surrounded him. Worse, he was quite willing to cut deals with the Mohammedans in order to turn Muslim corsairs against Genoese and Spaniards and away from Frenchmen (unless they were Knights of Malta, where Frenchmen of the old school continued to thrive). So the French king, from the line of Valois, Charles IX, pleaded exhaustion from having to fight the Huguenots. Even less willing to cooperate with the pope was Protestant England, whose Virgin Queen was establishing a cult around herself and a church subordinate to her will. The sad result of French realpolitik and English apostasy was that the sons of Richard Coeur-de-Lion sat this one out:

And the Pope has cast his arms abroad for agony and loss,
And called the kings of Christendom for swords about the Cross.
The cold queen of England is looking in the glass;
The shadow of the Valois is yawning at the Mass . . . .

A Rude Awakening for Venice

Others, who might also occasionally yawn at Mass, nevertheless were enthusiasts for a crusade against the Turk—this was most especially true of the merchant Republic of Venice. It is one of the many commonly accepted myths of history that Protestants invented capitalism, but Venice is proof that Catholic states were exercising their capitalist muscles centuries before Luther burped into his tankard or Calvin had his first glint of his predestined salvation and others’ predestined damnation.

The Venetians were prime exponents of the capitalist art. They were, in fact, something like the entrepreneurs of modern Hong Kong, to the extent that their city was built in a lagoon, the buildings actually resting on logs; and the Venetians enjoyed great economic success despite having no natural resources to speak of, save the sea.

No one knows exactly when Venice was founded, but it was during the Roman Empire, perhaps in the fifth century. By the early Middle Ages it was an established city-state and had carved out a commercial and territorial empire—the territory necessary to protect and extend Venetian commerce.

As with all men of commerce, the Venetians’ preferred mode of interaction was trade: They wanted to make money, not war. But they realized that, as the similarly minded Thomas Jefferson realized half a millennium later, “Our commerce on the ocean . . . must be paid for by frequent war.” Still, given the choice, just as Churchill thought “to jaw-jaw is always better than to war-war,” the Venetians thought ka-ching–ka-ching was better than war-war.

As such, crusades called by the pope merely for the sake of repelling the Mussulmen had no appeal to them. The Mohammedan was a customer, after all—and the customer is always (at least up to the point of heresy) publicly right, even if the merchant secretly despises him.

The Venetians, however, had been forced to come to some sober conclusions about Islamic aggression in the eastern Mediterranean. In 1565, the Ottomans had laid siege to the island of Malta, which was defended by the Knights Hospitallers (also known as the Knights of St. John; or, given their new home, the Knights of Malta). For four months the gallant Knights threw back the besieging Turks, inflicting massive losses on the enemy, who finally called it quits after the Knights were reinforced by Spain.

The Ottomans hated the Knights, but reckoned that Venetian-held Cyprus was easier pickings, and five years later it was Cyprus that was besieged. Now Venice, which had ignored previous papal calls to defend the Mediterranean against Mohammedan raiders, was itself in the firing line. As was good business practice, the Venetians were not caught unprepared. Their insurance policy was the Venetian Arsenal, which built and held the merchant republic’s mighty naval forces. The arsenal, however, had caught fire in late 1569; and in February 1570 the Ottoman mufti Ebn Said, on behalf of Sultan Selim II, declared a jihad against the Christians on Cyprus. Selim was known as “the Sot” for his rather un-Islamic drinking habits. He also had the distinction of having blond hair. Despite his heavy drinking, he, like Philip II, was not a blond who had more fun. With his harem, free-flowing alcohol, and access to all the pleasures that the devout expected only to find in paradise, he tramped his palace in depression and rage against the infidel and Western decadence. While no soldier or sailor himself, he lent his full support to every corsair who would attack Western shipping, to every expansion of the Ottoman navy, and to the siege of Cyprus.

The Muslim Onslaught

The Turks came on with 70,000 men, including their shock troops, the praetorian guard of the sultan, the Janissaries—Christian youths taken as taxation from their families, trained up in the art of war, converted to Islam, and given the power of the sword and the possibility of advancement.

The Catholic defenders of Cyprus were frightfully outnumbered—by about 7 to 1—but then again, the Knights of Malta had faced even stiffer odds. The two key points in Cyprus were Nicosia and Famagusta. The city of Nicosia held out for nearly seven weeks. Finally, reduced to 500 soldiers, it surrendered, expecting the civilians to be spared, even as the Christian troops were enslaved. Instead, the Muslim attackers butchered every Christian they could find—20,000 victims, murdered regardless of rank, sex, or age, save perhaps for 1,000 women and children who would be sold as slaves. The Mussulmen knew something about commerce, too, and those with an eye for harem-flesh tried to spare the most valuable Europeans.

That left the former Crusader fortress of Famagusta as the only defensible point on the island. Inspired by the Turks’ display of severed Venetian heads from Nicosia, the Christian soldiers put up a stiff defense and were at one point resupplied by gallant Venetian sailors.

But the man most devoted to the relief of Famagusta was Pope Pius V. It was his incessant diplomacy that finally brought together the forces of the papal states, the Knights of Malta, Venice, its smaller rival Genoa, the Savoyards, and, most important, Spain and its possessions Naples and Sicily to form the Holy League. The pope did not punish Venice for its failure to support previous papal calls to combat. He was above such pettiness. He only wanted to restore Christendom. He knew, however, that there were national and personal rivalries and hatreds aplenty within his League, and it would take enormous tact to hold the League together and lead it to victory against the Turk and to the relief of Cyprus. {mospagebreak}

For the brave defenders of Famagusta, it was too late. In August 1571, after ten months of resistance, the Venetian commander Marco Antonio Bragadino gave in to civilian pressure and opened negotiations with the Turks. Terms were agreed: The garrison would be exiled, the people spared. The troops were disarmed and boarded transports—and then they and their commanders were slaughtered. But for Marco Antonio, the Mohammedans reserved a special torture. He was not killed immediately. Instead, his nose and ears were severed, and, as T. C. F. Hopkins has it in Confrontation at Lepanto:

He was pilloried in Famagusta and dragged around the Ottoman camp in nothing but a loincloth and a donkey’s saddle and made to kiss the ground in front of Lala Mustapha’s tent. The Ottoman soldiers were encouraged to throw garbage and excrement on him, and to mock his misery, and to pull hairs from his beard . . . . Lala Mustapha himself came out to spit on the Venetian and to empty his chamber pot over the old man’s head . . . .

And even that was not the end of it. Marco Antonio—still, for the moment, alive—was flayed, skinned like a trophy, and then his corpse was stuffed and sent to the sultan, who had the prize stored in a warehouse of other human trophies—a slave prison.

Don Juan Takes to the Sea

But for this outrage, the pope had an answer, and he had found the man to deliver it. Among all the courageous, experienced, jostling commanders in his unruly Holy League, he chose a handsome 24-year-old. The young man, raised on tales of chivalry, was a student of war and an experienced commander, with a track record of victory against the Moriscos. He was also the bastard son of the late, great Charles V, which gave him good bloodlines as bastards go. He was Don Juan of Austria.

Don Juan was also the half-brother of Philip II, who treated him with the cold, brooding calculation one might expect, and an apparent jealousy that one might not. Philip was pleased that Don Juan’s elevation affirmed Spain’s leading role in the Holy League. But he did everything he could to tie Don Juan’s authority to his other Spanish commanders and thus to himself. When the decks were readied for action, however, such constraints had of necessity fallen away, and Don Juan the swashbuckler took full command.

Where, risen from a doubtful seat and half-attainted stall,
The last knight of Europe takes weapons from the wall,
The last and lingering troubadour to whom the bird has sung,
That once went singing southward when all the world was young,
In that enormous silence, tiny and unafraid,
Comes up along a winding road the noise of the Crusade.

His first victory was keeping the Venetians, the Genoese, and the Spaniards from killing each other. His second was more important: Against urgings of caution from some of his commanders—most especially the Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria—Don Juan of Austria pressed his fleet forward to the attack.

Andrea Doria had reason to fear. If defeating the Turkish fleet required the united naval force of Christendom, what chance had this cobbled-together coalition of fractious rivals commanded by a 24-year-old who, though he had fought corsairs, had sought instruction in commanding so huge a fleet from Don Garcia de Toledo? Don Garcia had once been renowned as a tough old naval warrior, but having run afoul of Philip II, he had been forced into retirement, his reputation blackened. Don Juan, however, trusted him, and believed his advice would be unsullied by Spanish politicking. And Don Juan, fortunately, was right, for in the words of Jack Beeching in The Galleys at Lepanto, he “had the fate of the civilized world placed in his hands.”

The Battle Begins

The Turks had an estimated 328 ships, of which 208 were galleys, the rest being smaller supporting craft. Aboard them were nearly 77,000 men, including 10,000 Janissaries, but also 50,000 oarsmen, many of them Christian slaves. At Don Juan’s command were 206 galleys, along with 40,000 oarsmen and sailors, and more than 28,000 soldiers, knights, and gentleman adventurers. He also had the blessings of the pope and the papal banner; the ministrations of Jesuits, Dominicans, Franciscans, and Capuchins who accompanied the fleet; the prayers of the faithful; and the rosaries that were pressed into the hands of every Christian oarsman.

The Catholic armada had been spotted by Muslim spy ships (painted entirely black so that they cruised through the night unnoticed). They reported that the Christians would be no match for the Ottoman fleet. On October 7, 1571, Don Juan’s lookouts raised the alarm as the Christian ships entered the Gulf of Patras. The Ottomans, from their naval base at Lepanto in the adjacent Gulf of Corinth, had formed a battle line, its front arrayed in three “battles,” as were the Christians (though the battle had started before Andrea Doria, commanding the Catholic right flank, could bring his ships fully in line). Ahead of Don Juan’s three battles was a wedge of galleasses—slower, less maneuverable gunships that made up for their lack of mobility with their unrivaled firepower.

The battle was met, the galleasses drawing first blood, splintering Turkish decks and Turkish men. But the Ottomans sailed around them; the goal, to grapple with the Catholic ships and turn the battle into a floating melee of Muslim scimitars, bows, and muskets against Catholic swords, pikes, and arquebuses.

Cannons erupted, arrows rained on the Christians, and arquebuses spat back balls of lead. When the ships closed, grappling hooks threw them together; the Christians hurled nets to repel boarders and followed up with gunfire. Still, the fighting closed to hand-to-hand aboard decks. Catholics turned swivel guns on the enemy ships, and the Turkish bowmen fired dark volleys of arrows that claimed the life of Agostini Barbarigo, commander of the Catholic left wing, whose eye was pierced when he raised his visor to issue orders.

Ottoman ships tried to turn the left flank of the Christian line, and while they appeared to succeed, the Catholic ships responded—amid a blinding hail of cannon blasts, arrows, grenades, and gunfire—in pinning the Muslim ships against Scropha Point. There, against the shoals, the Muslim vessels were trapped—and, at first, the Mohammedans fought with the ferocity of trapped animals. But more Catholic ships joined the battle, and what had been the right of the Ottoman line began to splinter, the Christian slaves on the Ottoman ships revolted, and Ottoman captains and crews, sensing disaster, beached their ships, hoping to escape to shore. By early afternoon, the Catholic left had emerged victorious.

At the head of the Catholic center was Don Juan aboard the flagship Real. For him, and for the Muslim commander Ali Pasha, the battle was a joust. They fired shots to announce their presence one to the other, and then drove to the clash, using their galleys as steeds. The ships crashed together, Don Juan in the lead, and everywhere the line erupted with explosions of cannons, bombs, gunfire, and the clash of swords and battle axes, while silent-flying deadly arrows thudded into timber and men.

It appeared that in this violent shipyard scrum, Don Juan’s ship and men were getting the worst of it—despite the handsome hero’s pet monkey hurling Ottoman grenades back at the enemy—until Marco Antonio Colonna, commander of the papal galleys, rammed his own flagship into Ali Pasha’s. The surging Catholic forces, in what had become an infantry battle fought across ships’ decks, swept the Muslims aside. Ali Pasha himself was killed and beheaded, and when Don Juan waved away the present of the severed head, it was tossed overboard. The Holy League’s banner was raised aloft the captured Ottoman flagship, and Ali Pasha’s banner—the sultan’s own undefeated standard made of green silk and with the prophet’s name threaded through it 28,900 times in gold—was Don Juan’s.

On the right flank, Andrea Doria was engaged in a battle of maneuver that was anti-climactic to the battles on the Catholic left and center, save for the fact that in being drawn away from guarding the center battle’s right flank, he allowed the Turks to pour through the gap. Some Catholic ships—without orders—pulled out of Andrea Doria’s battle to plug the gap. But they were too few, and were forced to such desperate heroics as firing their own powder magazines. The Muslim lunge was then directed at the flagship of the Knights of Malta, who, like so many of their brave fellows before, fought to the death against overwhelming odds. (There were, perhaps, six survivors. The sources vary; six is a high guess. The one certain survivor was the Knights’ commander, Pietro Giustiniani, though five times wounded by arrows and twice by scimitars.) Andrea Doria, having hardly distinguished himself thus far, wheeled around and chased away the remaining Ottoman raiders who were commanded by Uluch Ali Pasha, an Italian turned Barbary corsair. Uluch Ali had his prize—the Knights of Malta’s banner—and he knew how to skedaddle when necessary. A realist, he knew the bigger battle was lost.

Victory at Lepanto

Not only was the battle lost for the Turk, but so were 170 of his galleys and 33,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, as well as 12,000 liberated Christian slaves. Lost was a generation of experienced Ottoman bowmen and seamen; and though a mighty fleet could, and indeed was, rebuilt, and though the sultan was committed to renewing the jihad by sea—or if not by sea, then by land—the threat of the Ottoman Turks dominating the Mediterranean was finished.

Domino Gloria!
Don John of Austria
Has set his people free!

Catholic losses were 7,500 dead—though many of these were knights and noblemen—and another 22,000 wounded (including Miguel de Cervantes). Pope Pius V, who had commanded the faithful to pray the rosary for victory, was convinced that it was prayer that had turned the tide. The Battle of Lepanto became the feast day of Our Lady of Victory, later of Our Lady of the Rosary.

Don Juan, a hero to the last, gave his portion of the captured booty to the Catholic wounded who had not been able to pillage for themselves, and redoubled his generosity by adding to their treasure the 30,000 ducats awarded him by the city of Messina. He also made gifts of two captured banners: The imperial Ottoman banner went to the pope; the fabulous green silk banner went to Philip II, along with his after-action report. He gave credit to everyone else and little to himself, though he had been wounded in the hand-to-hand fighting. Don Juan was everything a parfait gentil knight should be—and, alas, as is often the case of the good and noble, died young, felled by fever; a romantic hero, a devoted and faithful Catholic and soldier (but one appalled at his half-brother’s brutality in the Netherlands), in love with the charming Marguerite de Valois, whose blood was royal but whose character was far less admirable than his own. Still, Don Juan showed that chivalry could indeed live and breathe, even in the thinner air of a Europe no longer unified by the Catholic ideals that gave birth to chivalry.

And so:

Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheath
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight forever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade . . . .
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)

Today, Christendom is even more divided, and certainly more deracinated and less confident, than it was in Don Juan’s time, but there are still fighting men, the valiant core of that civilization, who even now patrol the dusty villages of Afghanistan and the dirty streets of Mesopotamia. The enemy smiles as “suicide bombers” smile, but our fighting men—some holding rosaries (the very same as I have, made by a Marine Corps mom)—smile with thoughts of sweethearts, wives, and children; of football and cold beers by warm fires; and of Christmas. They are the inheritors of the men who saved Europe at Lepanto; and they are the men who will, with God’s grace, save the West again. So in honor of Don Juan, of Lepanto, of who we are as Catholics, let us pray for them, for their safety and for their victory. St. George, St. Michael, Our Lady, pray for them—and for us.

H. W. Crocker III


H. W. Crocker III is the author of Triumph: The Power and the Glory of the Catholic Church: A 2,000-Year History. His prize-winning comic novel The Old Limey and his book Robert E. Lee on Leadership are available in paperback; his latest book is The Politically Incorrect Guide to the British Empire.

  • Austin

    The victory at Lepanto prevented the Turks from overrunning Italy via the sea. The Turks were however, still a threat in the Balkans, and twice besieged Vienna in the late 16th and then late 17th centuries. It took centuries to drive the Ottomans out of the Balkans, with the Greeks under the Ottoman tyranny until the 1820’s

    Curiously enough, as stated in the article, the Janissaries and Mamelukes, who were among the best Muslim warriors, were Christian boys converted to Islam, as a sort of tax by the Sultan of his Christian subjects.

    The Ottomans were barbarous, but not unusually so for the time. The Spaniards could more than hold their own in that area too.

    Good story, and nice to educate people about an important battle that influenced history.

  • Dale Price

    Naval battles don’t settle things in the same way land battles do. It’s the boots on the ground that make or break victory. I would argue that Lepanto is comparable in decisiveness with other naval battles like Salamis, Trafalgar or the Battle of the Capes. But they never settle things in the same way battles on land do. See, e.g., Harbor, Pearl. It’s not like Don Juan of Austria intercepted an invasion fleet bound for the Vatican. A great–indeed, deathless–victory, yes. Saving Europe–not so much.

    It was the battles on land that sent the Turks running: Vienna 1529 and 1683, Prince Eugene’s unbroken run of victories over the Turks (Zenta especially) and so forth, that were decisive.

  • Lynne of Austin

    What an incredible piece of writing! We must learn from history and we must follow our faith and our Church. Bravo!

  • Brian English

    “It’s not like Don Juan of Austria intercepted an invasion fleet bound for the Vatican. A great–indeed, deathless–victory, yes. Saving Europe–not so much.”

    The Fleet of the Holy League went to attack the Ottomans before they could sail for Italy (a pre-emptive strike).

    If nothing had been done, or if the Christian Fleet had been defeated at Lepanto, the Turks would have been landing in force in Italy the next sailing season.

    Niccolo Capponi came out with a great book a couple of years ago on Lepanto called “Victory of the West” that does a good job of describing the strategic situation at the time of Lepanto.

  • Austin

    You are correct. Naval Battles are important, they can prevent an enemy from expansion or attacking you further, such as Napoleon and Trafalger, but in order to defeat the enemy, you must take the battle to them on land, and grind them into the mud. Napoleon’s failed invasion of Russia, Hitler with Stalingrad and Kursk, etc, were the decisive engagements.
    Get the enemy into a meatgrinder battle or series of battles and bleed them white. Then you can have victory.

    The campaign against the Turks took a long time. a Series of wars over several centuries. Unfortunately, the Catholics and Protestants spent too much time fighting each other when they should have united and taken the fight to the Turks and ground them into the mud.

    Unfortunately, both Papes and Prots failed to understand who the real enemy was.

  • Dale Price

    The Fleet of the Holy League went to attack the Ottomans before they could sail for Italy (a pre-emptive strike).

    If nothing had been done, or if the Christian Fleet had been defeated at Lepanto, the Turks would have been landing in force in Italy the next sailing season.

    Niccolo Capponi came out with a great book a couple of years ago on Lepanto called “Victory of the West” that does a good job of describing the strategic situation at the time of Lepanto.

    Brian: I own and have read Capponi’s book, and agree that it’s the best survey of the subject. For the battles between Austria and the Ottomans (focusing on 1683, but ranging more widely than that), I recommend Wheatcroft’s “The Enemy at the Gate.” It has its flaws–Wheatcroft doesn’t understand the irreconcilable nature of the cultural and religious systems at stake–but it’s a solid work.

    I think it’s speculation at best that the Turks would have been landing in Italy in 1572. The League was trying to relieve the Venetians battling the Turks on Cyprus, which finally fell two months before Lepanto. Moreover, the Ottomans were able to rebuild their fleet (at least the number of ships–good crews were few and far between) and maintain their dominance over the eastern Mediterranean. They could have tried an invasion of Italy afterward, had that been their desire. The fact is, the Turks only tried an Italian invasion once–in 1481–despite the fact they controlled most of the Adriatic shore opposite the peninsula for centuries.

    Lepanto certainly made an invasion of Italy a nonstarter, but I’m not so certain that was a main goal of the Turks at the time.

  • Brian English

    “Moreover, the Ottomans were able to rebuild their fleet (at least the number of ships–good crews were few and far between) and maintain their dominance over the eastern Mediterranean. They could have tried an invasion of Italy afterward, had that been their desire.”

    You can build new boats (with inferior materials like the Turks after Lepanto) but you cannot replace the experienced troops and naval officers who were killed at Lepanto.

    In addition, the Naval Party in the Ottoman leadership had gained the upper-hand, and that is why you saw the attacks on Venetian possessions (as well as a harrassing attack on Venice itself). After the debacle at Lepanto, the Naval Party was discredited and the Ottomans stuck to land.

    Finally, if the Christian Fleet had been destroyed at Lepanto, who would have stopped the Ottomans from landing in Italy?

    On Vienna, I have John Storey’s book but have not had time to read it yet (actually, I have Wheatcroft’s book as well, but have not had a chance to read it either).

  • Jamee Pawlak
  • O. O’Connell

    Thank you for this, a really great read and an education.

    And I’m sorry if this seems churlish, but I simply can’t agree with the inclusion of your last paragraph: sending American troops to fight and die in Iraq has little or nothing to do with defending or reestablishing a Christian Europe or West.

  • Dale Price

    Yes, the loss of the crews and trained naval Janissaries was a hammerblow, and belies the oft-quote comment by the Ottoman Pasha comparing Lepanto to a beard-shaving.

    Finally, if the Christian Fleet had been destroyed at Lepanto, who would have stopped the Ottomans from landing in Italy?

    (1) Relative disinterest and (2) the difficulty of amphibious invasions in the age of galleys. The same things that kept the Ottomans from making more than one serious campaign in Italy. Plus, there was the recent (1565) Ottoman disaster at Malta to keep in mind, and that was a much smaller target.

    The Ottomans were stretched to the logistical breaking point when they made runs at Vienna, and that was when they controlled most of the countryside leading up to Vienna. Trying to move and supply an army in hostile territory by sea during that era was orders of magnitude more difficult. And the Holy League wasn’t all-in: there were still ships in reserve for Spain, Venice and Genoa, all of which would have made an invasion of Italy distinctly unattractive. The latter two would have had their backs to the wall with an invasion of Italy, and would have fought accordingly.

    Let’s reverse it: why didn’t the Holy League make a run at Constantinople in the campaign season following Lepanto, as was proposed by Don Juan? Or even a shot at liberating Cyprus, which the Venetians would have backed wholeheartedly? Because the logistics of the thing were hard, even in relatively ideal naval circumstances, such as existed after Lepanto.

  • Brian English

    “Let’s reverse it: why didn’t the Holy League make a run at Constantinople in the campaign season following Lepanto, as was proposed by Don Juan? Or even a shot at liberating Cyprus, which the Venetians would have backed wholeheartedly? Because the logistics of the thing were hard, even in relatively ideal naval circumstances, such as existed after Lepanto.”

    The political circumstances would have never allowed that kind of counter-attack. Philip wanted his galleys back and the Venetians wanted to get back to business.

    Most importantly, the driving force behind the Holy League, Pius V, died a little over six months after Lepanto, so the only Christian leader who could have forged another alliance was gone.

  • JP

    Give me a break!

    War on terror-the battle for Christendom.

    I didn’t realise Christendom still existed.

    “all your base are belong to us.”

  • I am not Spartacus

    No one knows exactly when Venice was founded, but it was during the Roman Empire, perhaps in the fifth century…. They are the inheritors of the men who saved Europe at Lepanto; and they are the men who will, with God’s grace, save the West again

    American Christians helped to establish Constitutions in Iraq and Afghanistan that are anchored in Sharia Law.

    It turned the secular state, Iraq, into an Islamic Republic that, by Creed and Orthopraxis,has to be an enemy of America.

    As others have noted, American Christians are engaged in war in the ME on behalf of our enemies, Muslims.

    And we Christians are sending single Moms into combat in Iraq and Afghanistan and we appoint a young Mother of three young children to head a CIA Station in Afghanistan to run cross-border raids into Pakistan and she ends-up being blown to teeny bits by a Muslim allowed to enter the CIA compound unchecked and unfrisked.

    I just returned from Venice where The Bride and I, among other things, toured the Palazzo Ducale.

    If after the Battle of Lepanto, I had gained an audience in The Palazzo Ducale with The Doge and advised him the battle would have been more successful if he had sent single Moms and young women into combat or that it would be a good idea for the Republic to launch an unjust and unnecessary war so as to succor our enemies,The Muslims, or that it would be a smashing idea to let 10s of thousands of Muslims immigrate into Venice, I would have,justly, been marched directly into Prison through Ponte dei Sospiri, The Bridge of Sighs.

    Up until your last paragraph, I was with you 100%

  • I am not Spartacus


    It ain’t a war against Islam. It is military action on behalf of Islam and it is insane and it is evil.

  • JoeyG

    I empathize with the many readers who have had a gut-reaction against the sentiment expressed in this essay’s last paragraph.

    I thought the same thing. And I understand why one might react that way: personally, I view the war in Iraq a scandalous injustice and a highly problematic situation.

    However, I want to give the author the benefit of the doubt. And, after consideration of the individual soldiers actually fighting the war (the people, most precisely, to whom the author refers), I do see something analogous to the men who sailed from Europe to meet the Turk on the waters of the Mediterranean.

    Some men fighting in Iraq may not be virtuous, they may even have malice of intent. But most of them are merely docile and obedient, do not see sufficient cause for reneging on their oath to serve, and are bravely standing in the fray of a dangerous fight. Is theirs a holy war? Certainly not. Can they be holy fighting this war? I dare say yes.

    So, some consideration of the precise claims of the analogy – whom it does and doesn’t intent to reference. Perhaps the author had other intentions, but there’s nothing necessarily implied in his paragraph that would lead us necessarily to infer an approbation of the cause of the war in general. But there is a call to see the heroic intentions of the good fighting men who are answering a call, and there is a definite similitude between them and all men everywhere who have gone in good faith to fight for a cause that they believed (at least at the time) was right. Maybe in some cases they were deceived (as I believe they lately were), and maybe other times the cause really did merit their action (as in Lepanto I believe it did), but we should follow Mark Twains advice and not subscribe to malice what can be explained by ignorance – and if there is ignorance here, I don’t think it’s a culpable sort in most cases. And, conversely, it is wise to remember that exceptions don’t disprove the rule: abuses in war by the combatants were as frequent in the just crusades (e.g. sack of Constantinople) as they are in the unjust wars being waged today. That does not and must not be made to impugn the honor of dutiful soldiers who go about their mission nobly and righteously.

  • I am not Spartacus

    I empathize with the many readers who have had a gut-reaction against the sentiment expressed in this essay’s last paragraph.

    What about those of who had a considered reaction?

    You focused on defending the soldiers sent to fight this insane war but I didn’t read one criticism of one soldier.

  • JoeyG

    I merely noted that the analogy between the conflicts was being decried by readers, and I was offering a means of alignment by which the analogy would serve. Whether that was the author’s intention or not, I can’t say. I meant to offend no one, only to ask, since the author’s last paragraph could easily be interpreted as referring to the soldiers, why take exception? That’s all. I wasn’t looking for a pretext to argument. I was merely defending the analogy by trying to cast it in the best possible light, since that interpretation is legitimate. If the best interpretation is reasonable, then we should always adopt it, right? I hope the same can be said of my reply, for that matter…

  • I am not Spartacus


    After I reread your post and though about it I can see what you are getting at.

    I think I was so focused on a different aspect that, at first, I didn’t get what you were driving at.

    I do now.


  • Marco Morin

    The most important act of Don Juan, who was to young and not enough experienced to be the real chief of the Christian fleet, was to disobey to his half brother who did not want the battle. The victory was mainly due to the heavy artillery of the six Venetian great galleys (galeazze ) placed in front of the Christian lines, artillery that destroyed almost 70 Islamic galleys.
    This it is known to have been acknowledged by Don Juan himself when, in the evening of October the 7th, told Francesco Duodo (commanding officer of the Great Galleys ) that