The Battle of Lepanto

Perhaps a little biased, but this picture does show the opinion that the Europeans were ready for a final show down.

Perhaps a little biased, but this picture does show the opinion that the Europeans were ready for a final show down.

Anna – Anna Komemne here to introduce this week’s topic. The Battle of Lepanto. Zach won’t be joining us today because he’s off writing some…what did he call it?
Gaspar – A “science fiction novel,” whatever that is.
Anna – Yes, he’s writing a novel about some sort of science. I don’t get it. But today’s topic is rather thrilling. The climactic battle between Christian Europe and the Ottoman Empire over supremacy of the Mediterranean.
Olga – Where is the food?
Anna – no food yet. Gaspar just ordered the pizza so it might be a while.
(Olga gets up to leave.)
Olga – Tell me when food get here. Little Olga is hungry.
(Olga leaves.)
Anna – Well then. Let’s see who we have on our panel today. We have with us, Tamar of Georgia, queen of Georgia and led her country to a golden age. Then we have Tomoe Gozen, woman samurai a very deadly individual. Then we have Buffalo Calf Road, Cheyenne warrior woman and then we have Gaspar Correia, conquistador and “historian.”
Gaspar – I feel very outnumbered. I’m the only man on the panel.
Anna – Apparently. Stop whining. Now let us begin. On October 7th, 1571, the forces of the Ottoman Empire and the Holy League met for climactic sea battle that was the culmination of centuries of struggle between power and religion. As my beloved Roman…sorry, for those of you who insist upon it…As my beloved “Byzantine” empire shrank and died, the Ottoman’s expanded. They took over Greece, Bulgaria, Rhodes and soon they would lose Cyprus where the city of Famagusta was being besieged.
Tamar – I must pay my respects to the Venetians. They were aware of the Ottoman threat far more than any other European power. They had been fighting almost a non stop navel war with the Ottomans for decades and knew that if the Ottomans gained control of the Mediterranean they would be able to take Southern Europe including Italy and Spain. I know what its like to be isolated and surrounded by enemies. The Venetians brought the Ottomans to the peace table to buy time. While they waited they began planning. They began making weapons. In their Grand Arsenal they began making ships more powerful than anything else of the time.

This was the greatest assembly line for weapons in Europe.  It's where we get the English word "arsenal" from. They owned that!

This was the greatest assembly line for weapons in Europe. It’s where we get the English word “arsenal” from. They owned that!

Tomoe – It is honorable to fight alone despite odds, but sometimes it is good to have an ally. Pope Pius V recognized the threat the Ottomans were but in a different way than the Venetians. The Venetians saw a military and monetary threat and Pope Pius saw a religious threat. Pius V called on all Shoguns and emperors of Europe to come and join a military league against the Ottomans. This was no one-time-battle. This was to be a permanent alliance against the Ottomans that would meet every year and and set sail to fight the Turks wherever they may find them.
Anna – Noble, yes, but not as successful as Pope Pius might want. The problem was, England was too busy with fighting between protestants and Catholics and France had the same problem but also a weak alliance with the Ottomans. The Holy Roman Empire and Poland were too far away and didn’t care about what happened down in the sunny southern Europe.
Buffalo – Wait, so their religious leader calls for aid and he’s just ignored? Such devotion. Did anyone answer?
Anna – Spain did. Austria and Spain were both ruled by the same powerful family, the Hapsburgs. We don’t often think of Austria and Spain in the same sentence, but back then the two countries were just family held lands to one massively powerful and inbred family. Charles V of Spain was a very devout Catholic and wanted to help. However, he was too occupied with plundering gold in the New World to worry about the increasingly less profitable Mediterranean. So, he sent his half-brother, Don John of Austria to lead the fleet. He was young, attractive, charismatic and had recently returned from military success against the Moors. Also answering the Pope’s call were the Kingdom of Naples, the Duchy of Savoy, Republic of Genoa, Kingdom of Sicily and the Knights of Malta who are always up for a fight.
Tamar – Quite the fleet. It was the largest fleet seen by Europe since…perhaps Salamis almost 2,000 years prior. The Pope was the mover and shaker here. He organized and get everyone together, but Venice helped as much as they could. After all, they were the Ottoman’s next target. The Pope personally blessed the Holy League’s banner and sent it down to Sicily where the combined fleet would meet. Venice had the the most ships, 109 and Spain had 90. The rest were Knights of Malta and the other countries’.
Gaspar – But the Venetians had something else up their sleeve. While the others were assembling their fleets, the Venetians were busy making a secret weapon. (Anna groans.) Aside from their usual galley warships, unchanged since the Ancient Greeks…well, they did add cannons…the Venetians also made super sized ginormous warships called “Galleasses.” These were enormous warships with bigger cannons pointed in all directions. There were six of these super ships and they were to be up at the front of the battle.

Gaspar's photo comparing the relative size of a galley and galleasse.

Gaspar’s photo comparing the relative size of a galley and galleass.

Buffalo – Wait, did they really?
Anna – Actually, yes. They made super weapon battle ships that were so large they couldn’t be boarded and could fire all around them with bigger guns than any other ship.
Tamar – But the Sultan had spies and knew of the Holy League’s plans. He gathered his forces and appointed Ali Pasha as admiral. He sent his fleet out to meet this Holy League and destroy it.

Ali Pasha, head of Ottoman forces and snappy dresser.  Admit it, the guy had style.

Ali Pasha, head of Ottoman forces and snappy dresser. Admit it, the guy had style.

Tomoe – The two fleets met near Greece where the Turks had sailed out of the port of Lepanto. The Holy League had 212 ships including the 6 super star destroyers …I mean…galleasses and had 28,500 soldiers. They had heavy cannons that some of the ships had to modified to handle and the soldiers were armed with breastplates, helmets and the latest guns. The Ottomans had 251 ships with 31,500 soldiers armed with bows, crossbows and a few guns. No armor. This is a battle where both courage and technology would play a crucial role. Unlike true samurai, honor would play little in this battle. But rage would. On the way to find the Turks, they heard of the fall of Famagusta and how the after surrendering, the Turks slaughtered them without honor. This enraged the Christians.
Buffalo – The two sides faced off in groups of three. Wait…I think I have a map….

Here it is.  See how the two navies split into 3 major squadrons with a few ships in reserve.  The Super Star Destroyers were out front, not frightened at all.

Here it is. See how the two navies split into 3 major squadrons with a few ships in reserve. The Super Star Destroyers were out front, not frightened at all.

As the two sides lined up the Gallesses opened fired, firing their cannons much farther than thought possible. Don John took the center, Barbarigo of Venice took the left and Doria of Spain took the right. Now, here’s something I know a little about. Arrows and guns. The Christians wore steel armor that could, on good days, stop bullets from their modern matchlocks. They had better guns than the Ottomans and more of them. Also, the Ottomans trusted in their composite short bows for volume of fire. but the problem was, their arrows couldn’t hope to penetrate the Christians’ armor. Also, the Turks didn’t carry enough ammunition which would prove to be a problem in a little bit. Don John wore full plate armor and carried a giant sword. Usually the side with the bigger and more numerous guns wins.
Anna – As the battle commenced, Don John saw the flag of Ali Pasha which had the name of Allah written a thousand times in gold. He sailed his squadron right down the middle towards the confident Ali Pasha. Just like Alexander the Great, charging into the middle to take out the leader.
The Venetian admiral was set upon by five ships at once and was almost instantly killed. The second in command took over and was killed only a short time later. The Venetians were fighting a hard battle and somehow managed to turn the Ottomans and ran their ships into the shore where many Turks tried to run. They were picked off by gunfire from the Venetian ships. The gallesses were surrounded by enemy but they were inflicting terrible casualties among the Turks. Their big guns could smash apart the smaller Turkish ships with ease. The gallesses sunk over 70 Turkish ships by themselves and messed up their formations and caused chaos in their ranks.

Here's Don John (not to be confused with the famous lover) leading his ship into the middle of the battle.  Like a BOSS!

Here’s Don John (not to be confused with the famous lover) leading his ship into the middle of the battle. Like a BOSS!

Gaspar's depiction of the effectiveness of the gallesses.

Gaspar’s depiction of the effectiveness of the gallesses.

Tomoe – But then Admiral Dora of Spain did something that was perhaps dishonorable. He saw that Turkish fleet extended past his lines, so he moved his squadrons further south to avoid being surrounded, but this left a large hole in Christian line. The Turks saw this and immediately sailed into opening so they could come back around and attack Christians from the rear. The only ships that moved in to block the line were the handful of galleys from the Knights of Malta. (If you don’t know them, check out our three part epic of the siege of Malta.) The Knights stood their ground and prevented the Turks from breaking through though they died almost to the man in doing so. That is most honorable like true samurai.
Tamar – In the center however was where the fighting was fiercest. Don John’s and Ali Pasha’s ships sailed right at each other like a destined duel. The two ships came up beside each other as did all the ships around them. They were packed so close together that the water could hardly be seen. It was chaos. Ships smashing into ships, flights of arrows and muskets firing, drums and horns blaring and shouts from the wounded and dying filled the air. Ships rammed into ships and others were boarded. Eye witness accounts said the sea was red with blood for miles around. It was a hellish way to fight. It was as intense as it was lethal.

This painting in the Doge's palace gives an idea of the chaos and insanity that defined the battle.

This painting in the Doge’s palace gives an idea of the chaos and insanity that defined the battle.

Buffalo – Ali Paha’s elite janissaries boarded Don John’s flagship the “Real” twice but each time the Spaniards counter boarded and on the third time Ali Pasha was killed by a small cannon ball to his head. A low rank soldier quickly cut off Pasha’s head and put it on a pike to show everyone that the battle was in the Holy League’s favor. Such a barbaric way to fight. Horrible.
Anna – As the Turks saw that the admiral’s flagship (with his personal treasure) was captured, they quickly lost heart and began retreating. It was a route and the Holy League destroyed much of the Turkish fleet. The final score was:
Holy League: 17 ships lost. 1 ship captured, 8,000 dead.
Ottomans: 50 ships lost, 137 captured, 20,000 dead.
Also, 15,000 Christian galley slaves were set free and on man in particular was shot in the hand. His name was Miguel de Cervantes who wrote “Don Quixote.”
Buffalo – Okay, so the Holy League won the battle. So what? Was this important in the long run?
Anna – Depends on who you ask. Most historians mark this as a turning point in the wars between Europe and the Turks. After this, the Turks never really threaten the western Mediterranean again.
Tamar – But the Ottomans rebuilt their fleet the following year. No big loss.
Anna – Yes, big loss. They built ships, but they lost most of their experienced sailors. They had ships but not enough men to sail them. The following year they didn’t embark on any campaigns and by 1780 their once mighty fleet was rotting in the harbor of Constantinople.
Tomoe – Also, there was the loss of the bowmen. Bowmen are hard to train and the Ottomans lost almost all of them. In one battle the entire tradition of Turkish bowmen was wiped out.
Gaspar – Whatever, it doesn’t matter. What happened was that Europe now felt bold enough that they could take on the Ottomans and the Ottomans didn’t feel like they could take on Europe on the sea. Turning point, yes, but it was too late in a way. Europe turned away from the Mediterranean and faced west to the New World or East to India and China. The fate of the Mediterranean became a side show, a backwater. It was now small game compared to the big dogs. Both Venice and the Ottoman Empire slowly shrank into obscurity after this.
Anna – We’ll let the readers decide for themselves on the outcome of this battle.

But Europe rose and the Ottoman fell. Nuff said.


Gaspar – Hey, don’t forget to like us on Bookface.

Anna – He means Facebook.


3 comments on “The Battle of Lepanto

  1. Napoleon Bonaparte says:

    We French had better things to do that worry about this puny little sea that means nothing. I could have beaten the Ottomans with one hand tied behind my back. I spit on them!

  2. paulgenesse says:

    Great post. Thanks, Zach.

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