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The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October 1571 when a galley fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of the Republic of Venice, the Papacy (under Pope Pius V), Spain (including Naples, Sicily and Sardinia), the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Knights Hospitaller and others, decisively defeated the main fleet of Ottoman war galleys.
The five-hour battle was fought at the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, where the Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the Holy League forces, which had come from Messina, on the morning of Sunday, 7 October. The battle gave the Holy League temporary control over the Mediterranean, protected Rome from invasion, and prevented the Ottomans from advancing into Europe. This was the last major naval battle to be fought solely between rowing vessels.

The Holy League's fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (large converted merchant galleys which carried substantial artillery), and was ably commanded by Don John (or Don Juan) of Austria, the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V and half brother of King Philip II of Spain. Vessels had been contributed by the various Christian states: 109 galleys and 6 galleasses from Venice, 80 galleys from Spain and Naples/Sicily, 12 Tuscan galleys hired by the Papal States, 3 galleys each from Genoa, Malta, and Savoy, and some privately owned galleys. All members of the alliance viewed the Turkish navy as a significant threat to their maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea. The various Christian contingents met the main force, that of Venice (under Veniero), in July and August 1571 at Messina, Sicily. Don John arrived on 23 August.

This fleet of the Christian alliance was manned by 12,920 sailors. In addition, it carried almost 28,000 fighting troops: 10,000 Spanish regular infantry of excellent quality, 7,000 German and 6,000 Italian mercenary, and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Also, Venetian oarsmen were free citizens unlike the slaves used by the Turkish navy and were therefore able to bear arms and fight for their city.

The Ottoman galleys were manned by 13,000 sailors and 34,000 soldiers. Ali Pasha (Turkish: "Kaptan-ı Derya Ali Paşa"), supported by the corsairs Chulouk Bey of Alexandria and Uluj Ali (Ulich Ali), commanded an Ottoman force of 222 war galleys, 56 galliots, and some smaller vessels. The Turks had skilled and experienced crews of sailors, but were somewhat deficient in their elite corps of Janissaries.

An important and arguably decisive advantage for the Christians was their numerical superiority in guns and cannons aboard their ships. It is estimated the Christians had 1,815 guns, while the Turks had only 750 with insufficient ammunition.

The Christian fleet formed up in four divisions in a North-South line. At the northern end, closest to the coast, was the Left Division of 53 galleys, mainly Venetian, led by Agostino Barbarigo, with Marco Querini and Antonio da Canale in support. The Centre Division consisted of 62 galleys under Don Juan himself in his Real, along with Sebastiano Venier, later Doge of Venice, and Marcantonio Colonna. The Right Division to the south consisted of another 53 galleys under the Genoese Giovanni Andrea Doria, great-nephew of the famous Andrea Doria. Two galleasses, which had side-mounted cannon, were positioned in front of each main division, for the purpose, according to Miguel de Cervantes (who served on the galleass Marquesa during the battle), of preventing the Turks from sneaking in small boats and sapping, sabotaging or boarding the Christian vessels. A Reserve Division was stationed behind (that is, to the west of) the main fleet, to lend support wherever it might be needed. This reserve division consisted of 38 galleys - 30 behind the Centre Division commanded by Álvaro de Bazán, and four behind each wing. A scouting group was formed, from two Right Wing and six Reserve Division galleys. As the Christian fleet was slowly turning around Point Scropha, Doria's Right Division, at the off-shore side, was delayed at the start of the battle and the Right's galleasses did not get into position.
The Turkish fleet consisted of 54 galleys and 2 galliots on its Right under Chulouk Bey, 61 galleys and 32 galliots in the Centre under Ali Pasha in the Sultana, and about 63 galleys and 30 galliots in the South off-shore under Uluj Ali. A small reserve existed of 8 galleys, 22 galliots and 64 fustas, behind the Centre body. Ali Pasha is supposed to have told his Christian galley-slaves: "If I win the battle, I promise you your liberty. If the day is yours, then God has given it to you."

The Left and Centre galleasses had been towed half a mile ahead of the Christian line, and were able to sink two Turkish galleys, and damage some more, before the Turkish fleet left them behind. Their attacks also disrupted the Ottoman formations. As the battle started, Doria found that Uluj Ali's galleys extended further to the south than his own, and so headed south to avoid being out-flanked. This meant he was even later coming into action. He ended up being outmanœuvered by Uluj Ali, who turned back and attacked the southern end of the Centre Division, taking advantage of the big gap that Doria had left. When the battle started, the Turks mistook the Galeasses to be merchant supply vessels and set out to attack them. This proved to be disastrous, the galeasses, with their many guns, alone were said to have sunk up to 70 Turkish galleys.

In the north, Chulouk Bey had managed to get between the shore and the Christian North Division, with six galleys in an outflanking move, and initially the Christian fleet suffered. Barbarigo was killed by an arrow, but the Venetians, turning to face the threat, held their line. The return of a galleass saved the Christian North Division. The Christian Centre also held the line with the help of the Reserve, after taking a great deal of damage, and caused great damage to the Muslim Centre. In the south, off-shore side, Doria was engaged in a melee with Uluj Ali's ships, taking the worse part. Meanwhile Uluj Ali himself commanded 16 galleys in a fast attack on the Christian Centre, taking six galleys - amongst them the Maltese Capitana, killing all but three men on board. Its commander, Pietro Giustiniani, Prior of the Order of St. John, was severely wounded by five arrows, but was found alive in his cabin. The intervention of the Spaniards Álvaro de Bazán and Juan de Cardona with the reserve turned the battle, both in the Centre and in Doria's South Wing.

Uluj Ali was forced to flee with 16 galleys and 24 galliots, abandoning all but one of his captures. During the course of the battle, the Ottoman Commander's ship was boarded and the Spanish tercios from 3 galleys and the Turkish janissaries from seven galleys fought on the deck of the Sultana. Twice the Spanish were repelled with great loss, but at the third attempt, with reinforcements from Álvaro de Bazán's galley, they prevailed. Müezzenzade Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded, against the wishes of Don Juan. However, when his head was displayed on a pike from the Spanish flagship, it contributed greatly to the destruction of Turkish morale. Even after the battle had clearly turned against the Turks, groups of Janissaries still kept fighting with all they had. It is said that at some point the Janissaries ran out of weapons and started throwing oranges and lemons to their Christian adversaries, leading to awkward scenes of laughter among the general misery of battle.

The battle concluded around 4 pm. The Turkish fleet suffered the loss of about 210 ships -- of which 117 galleys, 10 galliots and three fustas were captured and in good enough condition for the Christians to keep. On the Christian side 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. One Venetian galley was the only one kept by the Turks. All others were abandoned by them and recaptured.

Uluj Ali, who had captured the flagship of the Maltese Knights, succeeded in extricating most of his ships from the battle when defeat was certain. Although he had cut the tow on the Maltese flagship in order to get away, he sailed to Istanbul, gathering up other Ottoman ships along the way and finally arriving there with 87 vessels. He presented the huge Maltese flag to Sultan Selim who thereupon bestowed upon him the honorary title of "kιlιç" (Sword); Uluj thus became known as Kιlιç Ali Pasha.

The Holy League had suffered around 13,000 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Turkish casualties were around 25,000, and at least 3,500 were captured. The Holy League credited the victory to the Virgin Mary, whose intercession with God they had implored for victory through the use of the Rosary. Andrea Doria had kept a copy of the miraculous image of our Our Lady of Guadalupe given to him by King Philip II of Spain in his ship's state room. Pius V instituted a new Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the battle, which is now celebrated by the Catholic Church as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary.

The engagement was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. To half of Christendom, this event encouraged hope for the downfall of "the Turk", whom they regarded as the "Sempiternal Enemy of the Christian". Indeed, the Empire lost all but 30 of its ships and as many as 30,000 men, and some Western historians have held it to be the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31 BC.

Despite the significant victory, however, the Holy League's disunity prevented the victors from capitalizing on their triumph. Plans to seize the Dardanelles as a step towards recovering Constantinople for Christendom, were ruined by bickering amongst the allies. With a massive effort, the Ottoman Empire rebuilt its navy and imitated the successful Venetian galleasses. By 1572, more than 150 galleys and 8 galleasses had been built, adding eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean. Within six months this new fleet was able to reassert Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.

On 7 March 1573 the Venetians thus recognized by treaty the Ottoman possession of Cyprus, which had fallen to the Turks under Piyale Pasha on 3 August 1571, just two months before Lepanto, and remained Turkish for the next three centuries, and that summer the Ottoman navy ravaged the geographically vulnerable coasts of Sicily and southern Italy. A Turkish Grand Vizier famously said "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, it proved much harder to man the ships than to build them, since so many experienced sailors and oarsmen had been lost. In the end a large number of convicts was used to replace the Christian slaves that had escaped.

In 1574 the Ottomans retook the strategic city of Tunis from the Spanish supported Hafsid dynasty, that had been re-installed when Don Juan's forces reconquered the city from the Ottomans the year before. With their long-standing alliance with the French coming into play they were able to resume naval activity in the western Mediterranean. In 1579 the capture of Fez completed Ottoman conquests in Morocco that had begun under Süleyman the Magnificent. The establishment of Ottoman suzerainty over the area placed the entire coast of the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to Croatia (with the exceptions of the Spanish controlled trading city of Oran and strategic settlements such as Melilla and Ceuta) – under Ottoman authority. However the loss of so many of its experienced sailors at Lepanto sapped the fighting effectiveness of the Ottoman navy, a fact underlined by their minimizing confrontations with Christian navies in the years immediately after.

Thus, this victory for the Holy League was primarily important not because the Turks lost 80 ships sunk and 130 captured by the Allies, and 30,000 men killed (not including 12,000 Christian galley slaves who were freed; allied losses were 7,500 men and 17 galleys), but because this was a victory which heralded the end of Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean.

The significance of Lepanto has inspired artists in various fields. There are many pictorial representations of the battle, including two in the Doge's Palace in Venice: by Paolo Veronese (above) in the Sala del Collegio and by Andrea Vicentino on the walls of the Sala dello Scrutinio, which replaced Tintoretto's Victory of Lepanto, destroyed by fire in 1577. Titian's Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto, using the battle as a background, hangs in the Prado in Madrid. The picture at the top of this article is the work of an unknown artist.

The English author G. K. Chesterton wrote a poem Lepanto, first published in 1911 and republished many times since. It provides a series of poetic visions of the major characters in the battle, particularly the leader of the Christian forces, Don Juan of Austria (John of Austria). It closes with verses linking Miguel de Cervantes, who fought in the battle, with the "lean and foolish knight" he would later immortalize in Don Quixote.


Korea Nord, 1984, Battle of Lepanto

Lesotho, 2001, Battle of Lepanto and Map of the World

Lesotho, 2001, Battle of Lepanto and Map of the World

Liberia, 2000, Battle of Lepanto

Monaco, 1972, Battle of Lepanto

Monaco, 1997, Honore I, Battle of Lepanto

S. M. O. M., 1971, The Battle of Lepanto

Spain, 1938, Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto

Spain, 1938, Allegory of the Battle of Lepanto

Spain, 1971, Battle of Lepanto

Spain, 2001, Battle of Lepanto

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