A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Friday, October 7, 2016

The Last Great Battle of the War Galleys: Lepanto, 545 Years Ago Today

On October 7, 1571, 545 years ago today, one of the critical naval battles of history took place off the west coast of Greece: Lepanto. The confrontation between the Holy League, a Christian alliance led by Spain and  Austria and supported by the Pope and Venice, and the powerful Ottoman Navy was one of the bloodiest sea battles on record. The Christian victory was deemed a miracle, stopping the advance of the previously undefeated Ottoman fleet into the western Mediterranean.

16th Century Maltese War Galley
From Ancient Greece (even from the Catalog of Ships jn the Iliad) through Rome and the Byzantines,  Venice and Genoa and the rise of Spain, naval warfare in the Mediterranean meant the clash of war galleys, long, low to the water warships powered by oars (though usually with a sail as auxiliary) and manned by slaves or prisoners. The age of sail had already dawned but in the Mediterranean/the galley still ruled supreme. Though galleys would linger as coastal patrols and anti-pirate missions, the last great clash of war galleys in line of battle was Lepanto.

Don Juan (John) of Austria
Lepanto would become the great symbol of Catholic Europe blocking Islamic expansion; (in the Catholic calendar today is still marked as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, who was credited with the victory), and remains a more powerful symbol among Catholic countries than Protestant, since the Admiral in charge of the Christian fleet, Don Juan of Austria (who was Spanish, not Austrian, but the Hapsburgs got around). Don Juan was the illegitimate son of the Emperor Charles V of the Holy Roman Empire, defender of the Catholic faith against Protestantism; that made Don Juan a half brother of Phillip II of Spain, future creator of the Armada; Charles was a nephew of Catherine of Aragon, whose divorce from Henry VIII provoked the English Reformation, so the Hapsburg victory at Lepanto was never a big deal in Protestant countries. An exception was the English Catholic author G.K. Chesterton, whose "Battle of Lepanto" is an expression of Catholic triumphalism and contains insulting language about the Ottomans and even Islam itself, but has a catchy power:
Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard,
Where only on a nameless throne a crownless prince has stirred,
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.
Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far,
Don John of Austria is going to the war . . .
 Before I discuss the battle itself let me note two historical asides:
  1. Lepanto, in the Ionian Sea and the Gulf of Patras, is extremely close to another decisive naval battle fought in these waters on the western coast of Greece: Actium, in 31 BC between Octavian (soon to be Augustus) versus Antony and Cleopatra, was fought nearby.
  2. On one of the Spanish galleys, Marquesa, was a young, 20-something  Spanish naval infantry (Marine) infantryman who had been ill but insisted on remaining on deck through the battle. Of the nearly 70,000 soldiers and sailors on the Christian side, he may have been among the least known. His name was Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra. He would write a book known as Don Quixote.
The battle itself was enormous, probably the largest naval battle up to that time, and the bloodiest. The forces were roughly equivalent; for convenience I'll use Wikipedia: on the Holy League side 212 ships, 206 galleys and six galleasses with 28,500 soldiers and 40,000 sailors and oarsmen; the Ottomans with 251 ships, 206 galleys and 45 galliots, with 31,490 soldiers and 50,000 sailors and oarsmen.

The Catholic view of the battle uses the slightly larger Ottoman numbers as proof of a miracle, but the Holy League had 1,815 guns, versus 750 on the Ottoman side. The huge cannons the Ottomans had used in land battles were not on their naval vessels; the Western small arms, arquebuses and muskets, were superior to those of the Ottomans, though the latter had excellent bowmen.

The Holy League forces were commanded by Don John, and the Turks under Muezzinzade Ali Pasha, fought hard, but the battle results were one-sided. Again using Wikipedia, the Holy League lost 7,500 men and 17 ships, while the Ottomans lost 20,000 dead, wounded or captured, 137 ships captured, 50 ships sunk, and 12,000 Christian galley slaves freed.
Ali Pasha
Ali Pasha himself, and his two subordinate commanders were killed in the battle. Don Juan came to be seen as the savior of Europe.

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