Today in Mediterranean history: the Battle of Lepanto (1571)

The Battle of Lepanto is the mother lode of naval turning points. It broke the Ottoman Empire’s domination of the eastern Mediterranean and, indeed, marked a turning of the tide in the long-simmering conflict between the European powers (chiefly the Habsburgs) and the Ottomans. It signified the rise of Western Europe as a legitimate military force and gave European Christians the confidence that they could stand up to the feared Ottomans and actually come away with a victory.

Well, kind of. I mean, it did those things, more or less, but not suddenly and not even very apparently in the years immediately following the battle. Lepanto had far-reaching impacts that later Western historians have tended to approach with a notable lack of nuance or any sense that, on some fronts, the battle’s fallout actually took years to really become clear. And one of its most far-reaching impacts actually had much less to do with the European-Ottoman conflict than with the way naval warfare was conducted from then on.

In 1570 and early 1571, the Ottomans continued to make substantial gains in the eastern Mediterranean, a steady march that had continued since the Battle of Preveza in 1538 and Djerba (which we haven’t talked about) in 1560. Only the failed Siege of Malta (in 1565) had set Ottoman naval expansionism back, and that was really more about defining the empire’s geographic limits than about actually reversing their dominance. Specifically, Ottoman attentions were focused on Cyprus, which had previously been a Venetian possession but which was systematically, city by city, being brought under Ottoman control. When the Ottomans laid siege to the city of Famagusta, the last Venetian outpost on the island, Pope Pius V assembled another Holy League like the one that Paul III had assembled for Preveza. It hadn’t worked then, but if at first you don’t succeed, I guess.

This League looked a lot like the last one, with participation from Venice, the Habsburgs, the Papal States, Genoa, and Malta, plus new additions Tuscany, Savoy, and Urbino. It even counted as one of its leaders the Genoese admiral Gianandrea Doria, the great-nephew of the Christian commander at Preveza, Andrea Doria. Overall command was held by a Habsburg prince, John of Austria, the illegitimate half-brother of King Phillip II of Spain. It sailed from the Sicilian city of Messina in early October, well after news had arrived of the fall of Famagusta (on August 1) and the decision by the Ottoman commander, Lala Mustafa Pasha, to massacre the Venetian defenders.


The 16th century Mediterranean (look at Greece and you’ll find the marker for Lepanto)

In hindsight, the Ottoman fleet that met the Christians at Lepanto (modern Nafpaktos) was totally overmatched. The Christians had fewer ships and fewer men, but they had well over twice the number of cannons in their fleet (over 1800 compared to the Ottomans’ ~700), and the Christian soldiers on board its ships were carrying firearms, while the Ottomans were still reliant on what was traditionally their most devastating naval weapon, archers. It’s clear now that the Ottomans were equipped to fight a traditional naval battle, while the Christian fleet was equipped to fight the kind of naval battles that would be fought from Lepanto onward.

In particular, the Christian fleet included six galleasses, which were larger than the traditional galley and were packed with guns along both sides of the ship. Galleys only fired forward and were geared toward ramming and boarding an enemy vessel, the way Mediterranean naval warfare had been conducted since the days of the ancient Greeks. It’s an interesting historical fact that the advent of gunpowder weapons didn’t immediately change naval warfare tactics, but ships like the galleass, as true ships of the line (the term refers to the tactic of lining a fleet’s ships up with their sides facing the enemy), finally represented a real change. A galley captain was trained to maneuver his ship to come at an enemy from the side, where the enemy had no guns and was vulnerable to cannon fire and small arms fire/ramming. A galley captain who came at a galleass from the side, on the other hand, would be sailing right into a broadside cannon volley, and would be unlikely to live long enough to learn from his mistake.

The one problem with the galleass was that because it was bigger and much heavier than a galley, it depended on its sails much more than the galleys, which had sails but were still primarily rowed. In bad wind conditions it was possible that your fleet’s galleasses might not even get into the fight. John got around this problem by having his galleasses pulled to the front of his battle line and anchored there, with their broadside guns facing the Ottoman fleet.

Unfortunately for the Holy League, the Christian right wing, commanded by Doria, didn’t get its galleasses into position. Doria was too busy being outmaneuvered by the commander of the Ottoman left wing, Uluç Ali, who feinted south to draw Doria away before turning and coming straight at the Christian center. Meanwhile, the commander of the Ottoman right, Mehmed Siroco, managed to outflank the Christian left, so things were not looking great from the Christian perspective. But those galleasses, at least the ones that did get into position, just tore the Ottoman fleet apart. At first, the Ottomans seem to have had no idea what they were, because they sailed their galleys directly at them only to lose dozens of ships in the process. Once the Ottomans smartened up, the galleasses pulled anchor and began to chase the Ottoman ships; one galleass was able to blunt the advance of the Ottoman right pretty much on its own (Siroco was killed in the fighting). In the center, the Christian fleet sent its reserve element in to fend off Uluç Ali, and a Christian counterattack was able to kill the overall commander of the Ottoman fleet, Grand Admiral Sufi Ali Pasha, whose death was a huge blow to Ottoman morale.

At the end of the day, the Ottomans lost over 200 ships, compared to about 50 for the Holy League. Uluç Ali was the only one of the Ottoman commanders to salvage his fleet and get it back to Constantinople, where, because history is written as much by the survivors as the winners, he was later appointed Grand Admiral and set about reforming the Ottoman fleet along the lines of what he’d seen at Lepanto–bigger ships, more cannons, troops armed with firearms rather than bows, etc.

Now, about Lepanto’s legacy. In the Western telling, the story of Lepanto eventually became a total Christian victory that completely destroyed the Ottoman Empire’s naval capabilities. This grossly oversimplifies things. In fact, the Ottomans had a brand new fleet on the water by the following year, including galleasses that were bigger than the ones sailed by the Holy League at Lepanto. This fleet was powerful enough that Ottoman naval expansion actually continued; Uluç Ali, for example, was able to capture Tunis from the Hafsids, who were a Muslim dynasty but were Habsburg vassals, in 1574, and the empire was able to conquer Crete in the middle of the next century. And lest we forget, the Holy League’s nominal goal, to save Famagusta, ended in failure before the fleet even set sail, and the Ottomans controlled Cyprus until the late 19th century. Shortly after the battle, the Ottoman Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, is said to have told a Venetian envoy:

In wresting Cyprus from you, we deprived you of an arm; in defeating our fleet, you have only shaved our beard. An arm when cut off cannot grow again; but a shorn beard will grow all the better for the razor.

However, Lepanto did really hurt the Ottomans and did really contribute to changing the balance of power in the Mediterranean in the long term. Yes, the Ottomans had very little trouble rebuilding their fleet, but they also lost thousands of trained soldiers and sailors at Lepanto, and their training and expertise was not so easy to get back. The Ottomans mostly avoided major naval engagements with Christian fleets for decades after Lepanto (partly because of the state of their fleet and party because they faced a new threat to the east in the form of a resurgent Safavid Empire), and they came off badly in the engagements that did occur. In general, Mediterranean naval warfare began to see fewer major massed fleet battles like Lepanto and more smaller engagements and corsair raids.

The Habsburgs, meanwhile, gained a real morale boost in their ongoing rivalry with the Ottomans, but the biggest thing to come out of Lepanto for them was that the Habsburgs had technologically and tactically moved ahead of the Ottomans when it came to naval warfare. Sure, the Ottomans were able to copy the galleasses that they’d encountered at Lepanto, but meanwhile Habsburg Spain, spurred on by the demands of the Age of Exploration and trans-Atlantic travel, was building bigger and more powerful seaworthy vessels, the massive galleons that most people think of when you talk about sail-powered warships. Ottoman galleys (and yes, they continued to build galleys, mostly because they had no real reason to invest in massive vessels built for sailing across entire oceans) were simply no match for these kinds of behemoths. Lepanto’s greatest impact on world history was that it was the last major naval engagement to rely primarily on galleys and galley-type ships, and from then on naval warfare would be dominated by ships of the line built by major seafaring powers.


Author: DWD

writer, blogger, lover, fighter

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