The Battle of Lepanto

Adjunct instructor Tim Furnish remembers the Battle of Lepanto, fought 450 years ago:

On this date, 450 years ago, the combined naval forces of Europe’s Catholic states, the “Holy League,” saved Western civilization. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled not just the Middle East but large chunks of eastern Europe, wanted more territory and to extinguish the annoying Christian opposition from central and western Europe. To do so, Sultan Selim II sent a huge naval force to conquer Rome and capture or kill the Pope. Nearly 300 Ottoman warships headed west, from Turkish-ruled Greece.

The Ottomans had been on the offensive for two centuries. But it had mostly been by land. Since taking Constantinople, and finally wiping out the Byzantine Empire, in 1453. Serbia. Hungary. Crete. All fell before the Islamic Empire and its feared janissaries. Although the threat of Islam in the west had been quelled by the Reconquista, it seemed that Muhammad’s followers might well win coming from the opposite compass point.

The Ottomans were never quite the equal of the Europeans as mariners, but they had fashioned a formidable navy to go along with their powerful infantry and cavalry.

Europe was wracked at this time by the Reformation, which no doubt contributed to the Ottoman sense that they could win over a religiously-divided Europe.

Despite that handicap, the main Catholic powers — Spain and Venice, as well as the Papal states and others — negotiated a response to this latest Ottoman thrust. They parried with a huge naval force of their own, of 200 ships. Both sides used types of galleys. These were ships with both sails and oars — very much like those employed in Roman and Greek times. However, the Catholic and Muslim navies had two major differences. The latter used slaves as oarsmen, not free men. And the former had developed a larger type of galley, a galleass. While these comprised only a few of the Western naval force, they were instrumental in victory. As converted merchant ships, they carried 28 naval artillery guns each. This firepower would prove devastating to the Ottomans’ numerous, but smaller, ships.

Both sides also had infantry on their ships. But whereas the Turks were armed with bows, the Spanish soldiers in particular had arquebuses. These were slower to fire, as gunpowder weapons. But they had much greater penetrating power….

When the battle ended, the Ottomans had lost over 100 ships, and tens of thousands of men. The Holy League suffered only 17 ships sunk, and less than half the Turkish casualties. One doesn’t have to be Catholic to see an element of divine intervention in the Battle of Lepanto. Although prayer always seems to work better when coupled with superior weapons, tactics, and leadership. It’s a pity that this crucial battle is so little-taught today. The Ottomans were not done attacking Europe on land — they would besiege Vienna twice in the 17th century — but their myth of invulnerability was long gone after Lepanto.

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