Battle of Lepanto

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The Battle of Lepanto artist unknown.

The Battle of Lepanto took place on October 7, 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 the Habsburgs, decisively defeated the main fleet of Ottoman war galleys. The battle was a response to the Ottoman seizure of Cyprus from Venice a few months earlier. 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. Victory gave the Holy League temporary control over the Mediterranean, protected Rome from invasion, and prevented the Ottomans from advancing into Europe.

This last major naval battle fought solely between rowing vessels was one of history's most decisive, ending Ottoman sea-power as well assuring European ascendancy vis-a-vis the Ottoman Empire. One of many epochal clash between the two rivals, it was part of what has been described as a wave-like motion of European-Ottoman encounter, as territory changed hands to and fro following a victory or defeat by either side. That epochal battles such as Lepanto took place is a fact of history. Yet throughout this period, there were also incidents of more fruitful exchange, so in remembering the epochal battles, the fact that relations on the ground were sometimes more cordial must not be forgotten. One of many peace treaties marked the end of conflict over Cyprus on March 7, 1573. The two sides also engaged in trade and could use diplomacy to reach agreements, at least at times.

Did you know?
The Battle of Lepanto was the last major naval battle fought solely between rowing vessels


The Battle of Lepanto is situated within the broader context of the Ottoman-Habsburg wars, which it effectively ended as well as of wars between the Ottomans and the Republic of Venice. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, the Ottoman fleet had won supremacy at sea led by admiral Hayreddin Barbarossa who had defeated a combined Holy League fleet in 1538. Suleiman's less able son, Selim II succeeded in taking Cyprus from the Venetians in August 1571. The Ottomans retained Cyprus until 1878, when they ceded control to Great Britain but at Lepanto Selim's fleet was crushed. Selim's advisers had warned against attacking Cyprus because at the time a treaty was in place between Venice and the Empire. Selim ignored this on the basis that Cyprus was properly part of the empire; officially, Venice held the island as a tributary of the Sultan. Selim at first demanded that Venice return the island, then invaded. He also demanded that Venice deal with the pirates who operated in the surrounding seas.


The Holy League's fleet consisted of 206 galleys and 6 galleasses (large new galleys, invented by venetians, which carried substantial artillery) and was ably commanded by Don Juan de 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 the Republic of 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, both to the security of maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea and to the security of continental Europe itself. The various Christian contingents met the main force, that of Venice (under Venier), in July and August 1571 at Messina, Sicily. Don Juan de Austria arrived on August 23.

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 6000 Italian mercenary, and 5,000 Venetian soldiers of exceptional worth. Also, Venetian oarsmen were mainly free citizens and were able to bear arms adding to the fighting power of their ship, whereas slaves and convicts were used to row many of the galleys in other Holy League squadrons. Many of the galleys in the Turkish fleet were also rowed by slaves, often Christians that had been captured in previous conquests and engagements.[1] 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 sixteenth century by cheaper slaves, convicts and prisoners-of-war owing to rapidly rising costs.[2]

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.[3] The Christians also embarked arguably more advanced arquebusiers and musketeers, while the Ottomans trusted in their highly skilled but in the end inferior 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, with Marco Querini and Antonio da Canale in support. The Centre Division consisted of 62 galleys under Don Juan de Austria 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 57 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 Battle

The Battle of Lepanto by Paolo Veronese. Oil on canvas

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 outmaneuvered by Uluj Ali, who turned back and attacked the southern end of the Center Division, taking advantage of the big gap that Doria had left. When the battle started, the Turks mistook the Galleasses to be merchant supply vessels and set out to attack them. This proved to be disastrous, the galleasses, 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 at their Christian adversaries, leading to awkward scenes of laughter among the general misery of battle.[3]

The battle concluded around 4 P.M. 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 prize 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 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); Uluj thus became known as Kιlιç Ali Pasha.

The Holy League had suffered around 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Turkish casualties were around 25,000, and at least 3500 were captured.


Fresco of the battle in the Vatican Museum Hall of Maps
The Victors of Lepanto (from left: Don Juan de Austria, Marcantonio Colonna, Sebastiano Venier)

The engagement was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century: in Turkish accounts the Battle is described as a "rout or crushing defeat."[4] 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,[5] 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 B.C.E. O'Shea depicts it as the effective end of the Christina-Muslim rivalry that began at the Battle of Poitiers.[6]

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.[7] Within six months a new fleet of 250 ships (including 8 galleasses) was able to reassert Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean.[8] On March 7, 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." [9] In 1573, Venice signed a peace treaty with the Ottomans renouncing its "claim to Cyprus ," handing back other territories and paying an indemnity of 300,000 ducats.[10]

Despite their claims however, the Ottoman's losses proved of strategic importance. While the ships were relatively easily replaced,[5] it proved much harder to man them, since so many experienced sailors, oarsmen and soldiers had been lost. Especially critical was the loss of most of the Empire's composite bowmen, which, far beyond ship rams and early firearms, were the Ottoman's main embarked weapon. Historian John Keegan notes that the losses in this highly specialized class of warrior were irreplaceable in a generation, and in fact represented "the death of a living tradition" for the Ottomans.[5] In the end a large number of convicts also had to be 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 Greece (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. Historian Paul K. Davis said:

"This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey's expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten."[11]

Thus, this victory for the Holy League was historically important not only 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) while allied losses were only 7,500 men and 17 galleys - but because the victory heralded the end of Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean.

Yet in reconstructing the story of encounter and relations between the European and Ottoman spaces, battles such as Lepanto and the periods of sustained hostility and war are to easily characterized as a Clash of Civilizations. European writing habitually depicted the Turks as barbaric destroyers of culture who oppressed their non-Muslim populations for hundreds of years.

O'Shea suggests a somewhat different narrative. Between the epochal battles, he says, were moments, even eras, of convivencia. People passed over the border and back again as traders, "scholars, translators, merchants and clerics." Some "wandered about the world" contributing "to its halcyon moments of cultural exchange." "Convivencia," he says, as a "continuum of cooperation" was "audible as a kind of ground tone upon which the more martial music of narrative history must be played,." This "informed the entire medieval millennium," he says, "even those epochs that opened or closed with battle." "By combing the epochal battles with the eras of convivencia," says O'Shea, "a clearer picture of the complex encounter of Christianity and Islam emerges".[12]

Even when battles were being contested, some men were admired on both sides of the frontier. Hayreddin Barbarossa, for example, who had built up and trained the Ottoman fleet was invited by Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to cross sides. Although he refused, this incident shows that that attitudes towards the "Other" were more complex than accounts tend to suggest. Mulei Hassan, whom Barbarossa had deposed as sultan of Tunis, appealed to Charles for help in 1534 and was restored to his throne as a Christian vassal. He did not hesitate to seek Habsburg aid against Suleiman's chief Admiral. The two sides also entered many truces. In addition to the truce of 1573 following Lepanto, other truces include that between Charles V and Suleiman in 1544, a treaty of 1568, the peace of 1606 which ended the Thirteen Years' War and the peace of 1664.

Religious significance

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.

Depictions in art and culture

The Battle of Lepanto 1571, engraved by Martin Rota

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 American abstract painter Cy Twombly refers with 12 big pictures (2001) to the battle, one of his main works.[13]

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.[14]

The Italian author Emilio Salgari references the Battle of Lepanto in his novel Il Leone di Damasco published in 1910.[15]

The Battle of Lepanto also inspired the name of a common anti-Turkey opening used by Italian and Austrian players in the board game Diplomacy. A successful Lepanto opening leaves Turkey effectively crippled and with almost no options left in the game. At the same time, a failed Lepanto can result in a serious loss of momentum for the allied forces.


  1. John Francis Guilmartin, Gunpowder & galleys: changing technology & Mediterranean warfare at sea in the 16th century (Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003, ISBN 9781591143475), 222-225.
  2. The first regularly sanctioned use of convicts as oarsmen on Venetian galleys did not occur until 1549. Alberto Tenenti, Piracy and the decline of Venice, 1580-1615 (London, UK: Longmans, 1967), 83, 85. For Cristoforo da Canal's comments on the tactical effectiveness of free oarsmen c. 1587 though he was mainly concerned with their higher cost. Ismail Uzuncarsili cites a squadron of 41 Ottoman galleys in 1556 of which the flagship and two others were rowed by Arabs, salaried volunteer light infantrymen, three were rowed by slaves, and the remaining 36 were rowed by salaried mercenary Greek oarsmen. Tenenti, 124-125; İsmail Hakkı Uzunçarşılı, Osmanlı devletinin merkez ve bahriye teşkilâtı. (Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1948), 482.
  3. 3.0 3.1 Geoffrey Parker, The military revolution: military innovation and the rise of the west, 1500-1800 (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 88.
  4. Bernard Lewis, What went wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002, ISBN 9780585427652), 11.
  5. 5.0 5.1 5.2 John Keegan, A History of Warfare (Toronto: Vintage Books, 1994, ISBN 9780679730828), 337.
  6. Stephen O'Shea, Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (New York, NY: Walker, 2006), 308.
  7. John Julius Norwich, A History of Venice (New York, NY: Knopf, 1982), 490.
  8. Patrick Balfour Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries: The Tise and Fall of the Turkish Empire (New York, NY: Morrow, 1977), 272.
  9. William Stirling Maxwell and George W. Cox, Don John of Austria, or, Passages from the history of the sixteenth century, MDXLVII. MDLXXVII. (London, UK: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1883), 469.
  10. John Huxtable Elliott, Europe divided, 1559-1598 (Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2000), 129.
  11. Paul K. Davis, 100 Decisive Battles: From Ancient Times to the Present (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2001, ISBN 9780195143669), 194.
  12. O'Shea, 8-9.
  13. Cy Twombly, Lepanto: A Painting in Twelve Parts (New York, NY: Gagosian Gallery, 2002, ISBN 9781880154700).
  14. G.K. Chersterton, Lepanton South Hadley, MA: Mount Holyoke College, 1915. Retrieved March 15, 2021.
  15. Emilio Salgari, Il leone di Damasco. I grandi cicli di Salgari (Milano, IT: Garzanti, 1995).

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Anderson, R.C. Naval Wars in the Levant 1559-1853. Mansfield Centre, CT: Martino Pub, 2006. ISBN 1578985382
  • Bicheno, Hugh. Crescent and Cross: The Battle of Lepanto 1571. London, UK: Phoenix, 2004. ISBN 1842127535
  • Capponi, Niccolò. Victory of the West: the great Christian-Muslim clash at the Battle of Lepanto. Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press, 2007. ISBN 978-0306815447
  • Chesterton, G.K., and Dale Ahlquist, ed. Lepanto with Explanatory Notes and Commentary. San Francisco, CA: Ignatius Press, 2003. ISBN 1586170309
  • Cook, M.A., ed. A History of the Ottoman Empire to 1730. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1976. ISBN 0521208912
  • Currey, E. Hamilton. Sea-Wolves of the Mediterranean. New York, NY: Dutton, 1910.
  • Elliott, John Huxtable. Europe divided, 1559-1598. Blackwell classic histories of Europe. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishers, 2000. ISBN 0006860613
  • Guilmartin, John Francis. Gunpowder & galleys: changing technology & Mediterranean warfare at sea in the 16th century. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 2003. ISBN 1591143470
  • Hanson, Victor D. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. Anchor Books. Published in the UK as Why the West has Won. Faber and Faber, 2001. ISBN 0571216404 Includes a chapter about the battle of Lepanto.
  • Harbottle, Thomas Benfield, and George Bruce. Harbottle's Dictionary of battles. New York, NY: Van Nostrand Reinhold, 1981. ISBN 978-0442223366
  • Hess, Andrew C. 1972. The Battle of Lepanto and Its Place in Mediterranean History. Past and Present 57:53–73.
  • Keegan, John. A history of warfare. Toronto: Vintage Books, 1994. ISBN 978-0679730828
  • Kinross, Patrick Balfour. The Ottoman centuries: the rise and fall of the Turkish empire. New York, NY: Morrow, 1977. ISBN 978-0688030933
  • Lewis, Bernard. What went wrong? Western impact and Middle Eastern response. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2002. ISBN 0195144201
  • Norwich, John Julius. A history of Venice. New York, NY: Knopf, 1982. ISBN 978-0394524108
  • O'Shea, Stephen. Sea of faith: Islam and Christianity in the medieval Mediterranean world. New York, NY: Walker, 2006. ISBN 978-0802714985
  • Parker, Geoffrey. The military revolution: military innovation and the rise of the west, 1500-1800. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988. ISBN 978-0521326070
  • Salgari, Emilio. Il leone di Damasco. I grandi cicli di Salgari. Milano, IT: Garzanti, 1995.
  • Stevens, William Oliver. A History of Sea Power. New York, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co, 1979.
  • Stirling Maxwell, William, and George W. Cox. Don John of Austria, or, Passages from the history of the sixteenth century, MDXLVII. MDLXXVII. London, UK: Longmans, Green, and Co, 1883.
  • Tenenti, Alberto. Piracy and the decline of Venice, 1580-1615. London, UK: Longmans, 1967.
  • Twombly, Cy. Lepanto: a painting in twelve parts. New York, NY: Gagosian Gallery, 2002. ISBN 978-1880154700
  • Uzunçarşılı, İsmail Hakkı. Osmanlı devletinin merkez ve bahriye teşkilâtı. Ankara: Türk Tarih Kurumu Basımevi, 1948.
  • Warner, Oliver. Great Sea Battles. New York, NY: Exeter Books, (1968) 1981. ISBN 0896731006. Has "Lepanto 1571" as its opening chapter.

External links

All links retrieved September 22, 2023.


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