Decissive Modern Battles: Lepanto (1571)

Figure 1.--

The Battle of Lepanto was one of the decisive naval battles of history (October 7, 1571). Pope Pius V organized the Holy League (Spain, Venice, Genoa, Savoy, the Knights of Malta and others) who opposed the Ottoman Empire. The two sides fought off the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras along the western coast of Greece in the Ioanian Sea. The Ottoman fleet proceeded westwards from their naval port at Lepanto where they engaged the Holy League fleet east from Messina at the southern tip of Italy. The Christian fleet decisively defeated the Ottoman fleet giving the Christians effect control of the Mediterranean and ending the Ottomon seaboirne thret to Western Europe. The battle is aloso notable as it was the last major battle fought by galleys and other rowed vessels. It was also the largest, most important naval engagement since the Battle of Actium which settled the fate of the Roman Empire (30 BC).

Ottoman Empire

The expanding Ottoman Empire begin to move into the Balkans (14th century). The Ottomans defeated Christian kingdoms and brought Balkan Christians under Muslim rule. After protracted seiges, the Ottomans finally took Constatinope ending the Byzantine Empire (1452). Under Süleyman the Magnificent (1520- ) the Ottomans pushed Ottoman armies even deeper into Eastern Europe. As the Ottomans moved north they increasing threatened Austria. While the Ottomans are best known for fieldng powerful land armies, the Ottomans also posed a naval threat to Western Christendom.

The Mediterranean

The Mediterranean was at the heart of western sociery for threel millenia. It had been in many ways the central stage around which Western civilization had developed. The Phenocians had been the first great Meditwrranean naval power. Developing naval power had been a major factor in the development of the ecomomies on which Greek civilization flowered. The Mediterranean was central to the Roman Empire. And the Byzantine naval power explained in large measure why their empire endured for over a milenia. Gradually Byzantine power wained, especially after the Ottomans conquered Anatolia. The Byzantines held out for over a century behind the massive walls of Constantinople. Their naval dominance was the principal factor in holding out against the Turks as long as they did. It was the Ottoman development of a navy that finally spelled doom for the Byzantines. Ottoman artillery then broken through the walls of a weakened Constantinople. With Constaninole finally in their hands, the Ottomans could begin to launch a naval offensive to seize control of the Mediterranean, The Ottimans began investing western strongholds. The Greek Peninsula was already in their hands. The seige of Rhodes (1522) met the expulsion of Kings of St. John. A majpr naval engagement was fought at Preveza (1538). The Ottomans moved west, but their seige of Malta (1565). This was followed by the Ottoman effort to seize Nicosia and Faramgusta on Cyprus (1568). This set up the climatic Battle of Leoanto which would determine who would control the Mediterranean. Ironically by the time Lepanto was fought to decide who would control the Mediterranean, the locus if European society had already shifted to the Atlantic.

50-year Struggle for the Mediterranean (1522-71)

The Ottoman Empire has for several years been driving into the hear of Christian Europe through the Balkan. The fall of Constantinople opened up a new front in that struggle--the Mediterranean. The Ottoman seige of Rhodes set up a 50-year struggle for the control of the Mediterranean. One historian summarizes that struggle, "Europe battle their eneny in the Balkans, on the plains of Hungary, in the Red Sea, at the gates of Vienna, but eventually ... would converge on the center of the map. It would bea 60-year struggle, directed by Mehmet's great-grandson Suleiman. War broke out in earnest in 1521 and reached its climax between 1565 and 1571, six years of unparalled bloodshed that saw the two heavyweights of the age--the Ottoman Turks and the Hapsburghs of Spain--hold up their battle standards of their faiths to the death. The outcome would shape the boundaries of the Muslim and Christian worlds and condition the future direction of empires." [Croley] The massive battle of Lepanto would finally settle the issue (1571).

Holy League

The Ottomans were united in a single imperial structure. And the Ottomn Sultan exercized with claims to the office of Caliph also had effective control over Islam as well. Thus the Ottomans were able to mount a united, concerted effort against Christian Europe, the Christians were thoroughly divided. Not only was the Christianity divided between the Westerm Roman Catholic and Eastern Byzantine churges, but beginning in 1519 with Martin Luther in Germany, Western Chrstendom itself became increasingly divided. And politically western Christendom was even more divided. Not only was it difficult to get Chritian forces to comine forces, but some like France even gave covert support to the Ottomans in an effort to weaken Hapsburg Austria and Spain. This division made it difficult for the Christian West to oppose the Ottomans. The most powerful Christian ruler was the Hapsburg monarch Charles V who as Holy Roman Empire combined the family's German holdings with the Low Countries and Spain with its fabulouly wealthy American colonies. Ottoman armies were moving steadily toward Charles' capital at Vienna. The Ottomans also had encroached on Venice's maritime empire. Both have been involved in separate and only partly successful conflicts with the Ottomans. Charles forces had recaptured Tunis and won an important naval victory over Barbarossa. Tunis was important because along with Malta it controlled the straits through which maritime commerce moved east and west in the Mediterranean. The Venetians were struggling maintain the trade routes on which their economy depended. Charles had great hopes when he came to the throne. Unfortunately for him, while he had great power, he also faced multiple threats, including France, the rise pf Protestantism, and the Ottoman. And although Venice and Austria were both threatened by the Ottomans, Venice also feared that Charles had designs on them. Austria possessed much of northeast Italy.

1538-40 Alliance

Charles, Venice, and the Papacy formed a Holy League (1538-40). The goal was to destroy the Ottoman Empire's growing naval power in the eastern Mediterranean. Pope Paul III using the idea of a revived crusade helped to bring Charles and Venice together in the Holly League. The allies gathered a combined fleet at Corfu (Spring 1538). Charles failed to commit the Imperial fleet fully, fearing that Venice would be the main beneficiary. The resulted was a crushing Ottoman victory at Prevesa (1538). The allies could not agree to a subsequent effort and a frustrated Venice finally withdrew (1540). Charles led an Imperial attack on Ottomn forces at Algiers, but weather largely destroyed the fleet (1541). This left the Ottomans largely dominant in the Mediteranean.

1571-73 Alliance

Pope Pius V helped revive the the Holy Alliance. The Pope managed to convince Hapsburg Spain and Venice as well as several smaller powers (Genoa, Savoy, the Knights of Malta and others) to opposed the Ottoman Empire (1571). The Christian states faced not only the Ottoman fleet in the Eastern Mediterranean but also preditory attacks by the Barbary Pirates located in North Afrcan ports in the western Mediterranean. The needed for united Christian action was brought to head when the Ottomans conquered Cyprus and attacked Tunis. Cyprus was a key Venetian possession and a largely Christian island. Spain was at the time a major naval power whose maritime interests were primarily focused on the Americas where its volonies (especially Peru and Mexico) were producing enormous amounts of gold and silver bullion. The combined fleet action at Lepanto (October 7, 1571) was the only major achievement of the Holy League. Pope Pius whose diplomacy had helped nut the League togrher died after Lepanto (1572). The allies disagreed overt strategy. Spain wanted to focus operations in the western Mediterranean and to supress the Barbary Pirates. Venice wanted to deploy the fleet in the eastern Mediterranean to rotects its trade routes and to retake Cyprus. Venice which was financially drained withdrew from the League (1573). Don John continued to command the Spanish fleet which was redeployed in the western Mediteranean. This division allowed the Ottomans time to rebuld a fleet.


Lepanto was an important Turkish naval base. The battle was fought in the Ioanian Sea off the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras. his was along the western coast of Greece near the mouth of the Gulf of Lepanto--the long narrow arm of the Ionian Sea running from east to west which separaties the Pelloponnesian peninsula from the Greek mainland. There are two sections of the Gulf of Lepanto, separated by rocky headlands. The inner section now called the the Gulf of Corinth if flanked bt the isthmus which connects Greece with the Pelloponnesian peninsula. The outer section hs an indented coast roughly shaped into a funnel. It is now called the Gulf of Patras.

Rival Fleets

Both sides at great cost ammassed very sizeable naval forces.

Christian fleet

Spain provided the bulk of the Christian fleet. The fleet's commander was the Spaniard Don Juan. He was a youthful admiral, but capable. The Spanish fleet itself was commanded by Santa Cruz, the Genoese by Andrea Doria, and the Venetians commanded by Agostin Barbarigo and Sebastian Veniero. The combined Christian fleet consisted of 300 ships. Spain's King Philip II alone provided over 100 ships, including some of the largr ones, and 30,000 men. Pope Pius V personally contributed 12 Papal galleys and funded many other vessels. The Venetians contributed about 100 ships, many of which carried Spanish soldiers. The Venetian fleet included six galleasses. These vessels were heavier ans wider than conventional galleys. As a result they were slower, but could carry more men and guns. They were massive gun platforms--the battleships of the period. They fleet had more than 50,000 oarsmen and 30,000 soldiers.

Islamic fleet

Ali Pasha commanded the Ottoman fleet which he ammassed at Lepanto, the closest important Ottoman naval port to Italy. Ali Pasha's Ottoman fleet was strengthened by Uluch Ali, the Bey of Algiers. He headed the Barbary Pirates (Moslem corsairs) that preyed on Christian ships in the western Mediterranean. The combined Islamic fleet consisted of 330 ships--about 230 galleys and 100 smaller auxiliary vessels. When engaging gallies propelled by oarsmen, it was an advantage to operate from a port close to the enemy. The Ottoma fleet remained at Lepanto in the fortified harbor for 6 weeks awaiting news of the enemy fleet actions.

Fleet Movements

Don John moved the Christian fleet to engage the Islamic fleet at Corfu, the northern-most Ionian Island (September 1571). It proved to be to late. The Ottomans had already landed on Corfu, looted it and the Islamic fleet had moved on. Don Juan moved the fleet south to Cephalonia, the largest of the Ioanian Islands and close to Lepanto. Here news reached the Christians Famagusta which had been holding out on Cyprus had fallen to the Ottomans. The reports indivated that the defenders captured were tortured and then killed. Don John then weighed anchor intentbon engaging the Ottoman fleet he knew to be at Lepanto.

Ali Pasha when the winds turned favorable began moving his fleet out of Lepanto and into the outer area of te Gulf of Lepanto (October 5). He still had no definitive information on the where abouts of the Christian fleet. Ali Pasha anchored his fleet about 15 from the entrance to the inlet in a sheltered bay and remained tere the next day while the commander awaited reports on the Christian fleet. Kara Kosh about midnight delivered a report that the Christian fleet was at nearby Cephalonia. As dawn approached shore-based lookouts on a peak near the entrance to the gulf signaled Kara Kosh that the Christian fleet was moving from Cephalonia toward Lepanto. Ali Pasha ordered his fleet to weigh anchor to engage the Christians.

Don Juan formed his command into four divisions or squadrons deployed on a north-south axis. The Left Division was at the Christian fleet's northern end adjacent to the coast and consisted of 53 galleys. They were mostly Venetian ships commanded by Agustino Barbarigo supported by Marco Querini and Antonio da Canale. The Center Division consisting of mostly Spanish vessels was personally commanded by Don Juan on the Real. He was assisted by Sebastian Veniero and Marcantonio Colonna. As was common in such ebgagements, the Center Division was the strongest force with 62 galleys. The Right Division to deploy to the south, consisted of another 53 galleys commanded by the Genoese Admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria. Don Juan ordered two powerfu;l galleasses in front of each main division. These ships with their side-mounted cannons were reportedly ordered to prevent the Ottomans from attacking with some of their small, fast vessels and disrupting the Christian fleet deployment. The fourth Christian formation was the38 galleys of the Reserve Division. It was positioned in the rear of the fleet. Most of it or 30 galleys were behind the Center Division. There were also 4 galleys behind the the Left and Right Division. The Reserve Division was to support the ships that might come under the greatest Ottoman fire. It was commanded by Alvaro de Bazán.

Ali Pasha deployed his fleet similarly to that of the Christians. The Right Division deployed to the north along the coast was coomanded by Chulouk Bey. It was made up of 54 galleys and 2 galliots. The Center Division commanded by Ali Pasha from his flagship the Sultana himself was composed of 61 galleys and 32 galliots. The Left Division furthest from shore was commanded by Uluj Ali and consisted of about 63 galleys and 30 galliots. The Center and LKeft Divsions were of approximately equal strength. Ali Pasha formed a relatively weak Reserve Dision of only 8 galleys, 22 galliots and 64 fustas. It was deployed behind the Center Division.

As the Christian fleet rounded Point Scropha the two fleets came in sight of each other. The Christians began to turn into the Gulf of Lepanto. This left Admiral Doria's Right Division further off-shore than the other divisions. It thus took him longer to deploy his galleys. It also prevented him from deploying his galleasses. Ali Pasha commanded the Islamic fleet's center squadron, which engaged the squadron commanded by Don Juan of Austria. Battle in the 16th centuries even between Christains and Muslims could be quite ritualized. The fleets manuered to bring their vessels into line. Ali Pasha fired a cannon to indicate that he was ready for battle. Don Juan fired two rounds indicating tht he was ready to give battle. Ali Pasha hoisted a large green battle flag with the Moslem crescent and holy Arabic inscriptions on his flagship, the Sultana. Many of the Islamic galley slaves were Christian captives. Ali Pasha is reputed to have told them, "If I win the battle, I promise you your liberty. If the day is yours, then God has given it to you."


The individuals involed in Lepabto are a fascinating group of 16th century characters. The three principal rulers , Charvles V, Philip II, and Suleiman the Magnificent are well know to those interested in history. Some may be aware of the legendary admirals Hayrettin Barbarossa and Andrea Doria are also fairly well know. There are also, however, many other fascinating figures involved. The grand masters of he Knights of St. John, Philippe Villiers de l'Isle and Jean de la La Valette played important preliminary roles. The Turkish corsairs Turgut, Kara Hodja, and Uluch were also important figures. A factor in the battle was the Turkish and Barbary raiding of coastal communities to seizeslaves needed to row the galleys that comprrised a key element of the Turkish fleet. Manning the glleys with slaves were an element in the Brbary raids of coastal settlements in Christian Europe.

The Battle

With the first salvos Turkish galleys were struck. Many were badly damages and some sank. After an hour of battle, the Christians took their first prize of the day. The battle was fought with the ferocity that religion can genearte. As the battle progressed, the Ottoman fleet's right wing completely collapsed. The Islamic galleys in the right wing were sunk, burned, or grounded. Many werecaptured by the Christians. At sunset as threatening weather apprpached, Don Juan ordered the Christian fleet to regroup and seek shelterin a nearby inlet. The fleet's coomsanders not seriously wounded gathered aboard Don Juan's flagship the Real to congratulate him on the brilliant victory.

Naval Warfare

Lepanto was a turning point in naval warfare. It was the last great battle involving galleys. Advances in naval technology meant that futures battles would be fought by sail vessels.


The Ottoman fleet was crushed at Lepanto. It was perhaps the first clear impact of the widebting technological gap between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian kingdoms of Europe.


Navies are expensive to build. Huge quantities of treasure was expended to build the navies that engaged at Lepanto. And large nummber of men died in the battle. Lepanto settled the question of who cntrolled the Mediterranean. It ended the OOtoman Navy's effort to control the Mediterranean. The Christiann kingdoms would control the Ironically, control of the Mediterranean was settled at the very time that the locus of commercial and military power was shifting west to the Atlantic coast Chrisrian kingdoms. Momentous events flowing from the European Voyages of Discovery had occured in the 15th cebtury. The Portuguese had circumnavigated Aftrica and opened trade routes to the east. Columbus had sailed west and encountered the Americas. This opened both the Atlantic and Pacific to western shipping. The sea trade routes with the East, circimventing the Ottomans and Arabs, which would signal a long decline in the Middle East. In addition both Spain and Portugal began building American empires. They would soon be joined by the English, Dutch and French, and others. The Ottoman woild continue to be an important military power, but a land power and after a final grwat offensive to take Vienna, a steadily declining land power. While the Christian kingdoms would retain control of the Mediterranean, they would be unable to end corsairs from the Muslim states of north Africa, under loose Ottoman control, from raiding coastal communities in Spain, France and Italy and seagoing commerce for slaves and booty. The ships of a newly minted United States would even become a target in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Protestant Reformation (1519)

Many readers will not doubt notice the conincidence with two dates. The struggle Hapsburg struggle with the Ottomans began with the seige of Rhodes (1522). This was only 3 years after Luther nailed his 95 thesis to the church door, launching the Protestant Reformation. This meant that the Hapsburgs had two major crisis to deal with. It seems likely that had Charles V not been forced to divert resources to confront Suleiman that he could have crushed the nascent Protestant forces within Germany. The Hapsburgs al had to contend with a rising naval power to the north--England. This of course was another aspect of the Reformation. Again the struggle in the Mediterranean forced Philip II to divert resources from the struggle with England which climaxed with the Spanish Armada (1588) fought only a decade after Lepanto.


Crowly, Roger. Empires of the Sea: The Seige of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World.

Hess, Andrew. The Battle of Lepanto and Its Place in Mediterranean History, Past and Present.


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Created: 3:02 AM 9/22/2006
Last updated: 4:59 PM 9/20/2008