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The Battle of Lepanto took place on 7 October 1571 when a fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of southern European Catholic maritime states, decisively defeated the main fleet of the Ottoman Empire in five hours of fighting on the northern edge of the Gulf of Corinth, off western Greece. The Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the Holy League forces, which came from Messina, Sicily, where they had previously gathered. The victory of the Holy League prevented the Ottoman Empire expanding further along the European side of the Mediterranean. Lepanto was the last major naval battle in the Mediterranean fought entirely between galleys and has been assigned great symbolic importance by Catholic and other historians.


The Christian coalition had been promoted by Pope Pius V to rescue the Venetian colony of Famagusta, on the island of Cyprus, which was being besieged by the Turks in early 1571 subsequent to the fall of Nicosia and other Venetian possessions in Cyprus in the course of 1570. The banner for the fleet, blessed by the pope, reached the Kingdom of Naples (then ruled by the King of Spain) on 14 August 1571. There, in the Basilica of Santa Chiara, it was solemnly consigned to John of Austria, who had been named leader of the coalition after long discussions between the allies. The fleet moved to Sicily and leaving Messina reached (after several stops) the port of Viscardo in Cephalonia, where news arrived of the fall of Famagusta and of the torture inflicted by the Turks on the Venetian commander of the fortress, Marco Antonio Bragadin. On 1 August, the Venetians had surrendered after being reassured that they could leave Cyprus freely. However, the Ottoman commander, Lala Kara Mustafa Pasha, who had lost some 52,000 men in the siege (including his son), broke his word, imprisoning the Venetians. On 17 August, Bragadin was flayed alive and his corpse hung on Mustafa's galley together with the heads of the Venetian commanders, Astorre Baglioni, Alvise Martinengo and Gianantonio Querini. Despite bad weather, the Christian ships sailed south and, on 6 October, they reached the port of Sami, Cephalonia (then also called Val d'Alessandria), where they remained for a while. On 7 October, they sailed toward the Gulf of Patras, where they encountered the Ottoman fleet. While neither fleet had immediate strategic resources or objectives in the gulf, both chose to engage. The Ottoman fleet had an express order from the Sultan to fight, and John of Austria found it necessary to attack in order to maintain the integrity of the expedition in the face of personal and political disagreements within the Holy League.Glete, Jan: Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe. .


The members of the Holy League were Spain (including the Kingdom of Naples, the Kingdom of Sicily and the Kingdom of Sardinia as part of the Spanish possessions), the Republic of Venice, the Papal States, the Republic of Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy, the Duchy of Urbino, the Knights Hospitaller and others. Its fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (large new galleys, invented by the Venetians, which carried substantial artillery) and was commanded by Don John of Austria, the illegitimate son of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles I of Spain and V of the Holy Roman Empire, and half-brother of Philip II of Spain, supported by the Spanish commanders Don Luis de Requesens and Don Álvaro de Bazán, and Genoan commander Gianandrea Doria. Vessels had been contributed by the various Christian states: 109 galleys and 6 galleasses from the Republic of Venice, 81 galleys and 20 sailing ships from the Spanish Empire (30 galleys from the Kingdom of Naples, 14 galleys from Spain, 10 galleys from the Kingdom of Sicily and the remaining from private contractors,. which also provided 40 frigates and brigantines, Herrera, Fernando de: Relacion. Sevilla 27 galleys from the Republic of Genoa (partly financed by Spain), 7 galleys from the Pope, 5 galleys of the Order of Saint Stephen from the Grand Duchy of Tuscany, 3 galleys each from the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights of Malta, and some privately owned galleys in Spanish service. All members of the alliance viewed the Ottoman navy as a significant threat, both to the security of maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea and to the security of continental Europe itself. Spain was the largest financial contributor, though the Spaniards preferred to preserve most of their galleys for Spain's own wars against the nearby sultanates of the Barbary Coast rather than expend its naval strength for the benefit of Venice.  The various Christian contingents met the main force, that of Venice (under Venier), in July and August 1571 at Messina, Sicily. John of Austria arrived on 23 August. This fleet of the Christian alliance was manned by 40,000 sailors and oarsmen. In addition, it carried almost 28,000 fighting troops: 10,000 Spanish regular infantry of excellent quality, 7,000 Germans and Croatians and 5,000 Italian mercenaries in Spanish pay. and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Also, Venetian oarsmen were mainly free citizens and were able to bear arms adding to the fighting power of their ship, whereas convicts were used to row many of the galleys in other Holy League squadrons.

Many of the galleys in the Ottoman fleet were also rowed by slaves, often Christians who had been captured in previous conquests and engagements. Free oarsmen were generally acknowledged to be superior by all combatants, but were gradually replaced in all galley fleets (including those of Venice from 1549) during the 16th century by cheaper slaves, convicts and prisoners-of-war owing to rapidly rising costs.The first regularly sanctioned use of convicts as oarsmen on Venetian galleys did not occur until 1549.cites a squadron of 41 Ottoman galleys in 1556 of which the flagship and two others were rowed by Azabs, salaried volunteer light infantrymen, three were rowed by slaves, and the remaining 36 were rowed by salaried mercenary Greek oarsmen. The Ottoman galleys were manned by 13,000 experienced sailors—generally drawn from the maritime nations of the Ottoman Empire, namely Berbers, Greeks, Syrians, and Egyptians—and 34,000 soldiers.  Ali Pasha, the Ottoman admiral ( Kapudan-i Derya), supported by the corsairs Mehmed Siroco of Alexandria . 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 significantly deficient in their elite corps of Janissaries. The number of oarsmen was about 37,000, virtually all of them slaves. An advantage for the Christians was their numerical superiority in guns and cannon aboard their ships, as well as the superior quality of the Spanish infantry. It is estimated that the Christians had 1,815 guns, while the Turks had only 750 with insufficient ammunition. The Christians embarked with their much improved arquebusier and musketeer forces, while the Ottomans trusted in their greatly feared composite bowmen.


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 (admiral), with Marco Querini and Antonio da Canale in support. The Centre Division consisted of 62 galleys under John of Austria himself in his Real, along with Sebastiano Venier, later Doge of Venice, Mathurin Romegas and Marcantonio Colonna. The Right Division to the south consisted of another 53 galleys under the Genoese Giovanni Andrea Doria, great-nephew of admiral 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 galley 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 Ottoman fleet consisted of 57 galleys and 2 galliots on its Right under Mehmed Siroco, 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 Uluç 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." John of Austria, more laconically, warned his crew: "There is no paradise for cowards."

The battle

The left and centre galleasses had been towed half a mile ahead of the Christian line. When the battle started, the Turks mistook the galleasses for merchant supply vessels and set out to attack them. This proved to be disastrous; with their many guns, the galleasses alone were said to have sunk up to 70 Ottoman galleys before the Ottoman fleet left them behind. Their attacks also disrupted the Ottoman formations. As the battle started, Doria found that Uluç Ali's galleys extended further to the south than his own, and so headed south to avoid being outflanked, instead of holding the Christian line. After the battle Doria was accused of having maneuvered his fleet away from the bulk of the battle to avoid taking damage and casualties. Regardless, he ended up being outmaneuvered by Uluç Ali, who turned back and attacked the southern end of the Centre Division, taking advantage of the big gap that Doria had left. In the north, Mehmed Siroco 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. Commander 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 Uluç Ali's ships, taking the worse part. Meanwhile Uluç 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 to 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. Uluç 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 Ottoman Janissaries from seven galleys fought on the deck of the Sultana.A flag taken at Lepanto by the Knights of the Order of Saint Stephen, and traditionally said to be the standard of the Turkish commander, is still in display, together with other Turkish flags, in the Church of the seat of the Order in Pisa. link, link (in Italian) Twice the Spanish were repelled with heavy casualties, but at the third attempt, with reinforcements from Álvaro de Bazán's galley, they took the ship. Müezzinzade Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded, against the wishes of Don Juan. However, when his severed 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 at their Christian adversaries, leading to awkward scenes of laughter among the general misery of battle.Geoffrey Parker, The Military Revolution, pp. 87—88 The battle concluded around 4 pm. The Ottoman 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 prize kept by the Turks; all others were abandoned by them and recaptured. Uluç 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 Constantinople, gathering up other Ottoman ships along the way and finally arriving there with 87 vessels. He presented the huge Maltese flag to Sultan Selim II who thereupon bestowed upon him the honorary title of "kιlιç" (Sword); Uluç thus became known as Kılıç Ali Pasha. The Holy League had suffered around 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Ottoman casualties were around 15,000, and at least 3,500 were captured.


The engagement was a significant defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. The defeat was mourned by them as an act of Divine Will, contemporary chronicles recording that "the Imperial Fleet encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels and the will of God turned another way."  To half of Christendom, this event encouraged hope for the downfall of "the Turk", the Satan-like personification of the Ottoman Empire, who was regarded as the " 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 decisive defeat, the Ottoman Empire rebuilt its navy with a massive effort, by largely imitating the successful Venetian galeasses, in a very short time. By 1572, about six months after the defeat, more than 150 galleys and 8 galleasses, in total 250 ships had been built, including eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean.J. Norwich, A History of Venice, 490 With this new fleet the Ottoman Empire was able to reassert its supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean.L. Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries: The Rise and Fall of the Turkish Empire, 272 On 7 March 1573 the Venetians thus recognized by treaty the Ottoman possession of Cyprus, whose last Venetian possession, Famagosta, 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 attacked the geographically vulnerable coasts of Sicily and southern Italy. Sultan Selim II's Chief Minister, the Grand Vizier Mehmed Sokullu, argued to the Venetian emissary Marcantonio Barbaro that the Christian triumph at Lepanto caused no lasting harm to the Ottoman Empire, while the capture of Cyprus by the Ottomans in the same year was a significant blow, saying that: Numerous historians pointed out the historical importance of the battle and how it served as a turning point in history.

For instance, it is argued that while the ships were relatively easily replaced, A History of Warfare, Keegan, John, Vintage, 1993 it proved much harder to man them, since so many experienced sailors, oarsmen and soldiers had been lost. The loss of so many of its experienced sailors at Lepanto sapped the fighting effectiveness of the Ottoman navy, a fact emphasized by its avoidance of major confrontations with Christian navies in the years following the battle. Other historians have suggested that the reason for the Turks being contained at the time had less to do with the battle of Lepanto than the fact that they had to contend with a series of wars with Persia, a strong military power at the time. After 1580, the discouraged Ottomans left the fleet to rot in the waters of the Golden Horn.Roger Crowley, "Empires of the Sea: The siege of Malta, the battle of Lepanto and the contest for the center of the world", publisher Random House, 2008, p287 Especially critical was the loss of most of the caliphate's composite bowmen, which, far beyond ship rams and early firearms, were the Ottomans' main embarked weapon. US historian John F. Guilmartin noted that the losses in this highly specialized class of warrior were irreplaceable in a generation.Guilmartin (1974) Paul K. Davis has also stated that: The victory for the Holy League was historically important not only because the Turks lost over 200 ships and 30,000 men killed (not including 12,000 Christian galley slaves who were freed), but because the victory heralded the end of Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean. However, in 1574, the Ottomans retook the strategic city of Tunis from the Spanish-supported Hafsid dynasty, which had been re-installed after John of Austria's forces reconquered the city from the Ottomans the year before. Thanks to the long-standing Franco-Ottoman alliance, the Ottomans were able to resume naval activity in the western Mediterranean. In 1576, the Ottomans assisted in Abdul Malik's capture of Fez – this reinforced the Ottoman indirect conquests in Morocco that had begun under Süleyman the Magnificent. The establishment of Ottoman suzerainty over the area placed the entire southern coast of the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to Greece under Ottoman authority, with the exceptions of the Spanish-controlled trading city of Oran and strategic settlements such as Melilla and Ceuta.

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