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Lepanto: The Battle that Saved Christendom?

Prepared for the Centre d'Études d'Histoire de la Défense Conference

Autour de Lépante: Guerre et Géostratégie en Méditerranée
au Tournant des XVIe et XVIIe Siecles

22-24 October 2001

1st Revision, 28 October 2001

John F. Guilmartin, Jr.
The Ohio State University
Columbus, Ohio


That the battle of Lepanto was a major milestone in world history there can be no  doubt.  Just how, why, and with what implications is another matter.  In the immediate aftermath of victory, there was no doubt within the bosom of Christendom: the fleet of the Holy League under the inspired leadership of Don Juan of Austria had delivered Christendom from an Ottoman menace that threatened to overrun Europe.  But the passage of time, the diminution of the Turkish menace, the movement of Europe's strategic center of gravity from the Mediterrnean to the Atlantic, and the emergence of new theories of warfare at sea eroded the perceptions of the moment.  Later, the rise of the Mahanian school of Anglo-American naval history and the tendency to disparage the political utility of war in the wake of the slaughter of 1914-1918 combined to reduce the perceived importance of Lepanto.  By the late 1960s when I began my research on Lepanto, historians—my reference is mostly to the Anglo-Americans rather than the French… and certainly not the Spanish!—saw the battle tactically as a brainless slugging match and strategically, at best, as a missed opportunity for Christendom.1  In the 1970s I argued that this tactical inerpretation was utterly wrong… indeed, aside from recognizing the hard-fought nature of the battle, the exact opposite of reality.2  Here I will argue that the strategic verdict is incorrect as well. 


I will begin with a brief overview of strategic objectives and resources with the intention of assessing just how high the stakes were in the autumn of 1571, both as seen at the time by the opposing powers and—to the extent that such a thing is possible—in objective reality.  Next, I will address the battle itself, considering the probability that things might have turned out differently.  Specifically, I will assess the Muslim chances of victory and try to envision just what that victory might have looked like.  Finally, I will address the short and long-term consequences of Lepanto, both actual and potential. 


The events surrounding Sultan Selim II's decision to commit his empire to war with Venice over Cyprus are uncontroversial and require no detailed recounting.  Frustrated in their attempt to take Malta in 1565, the Turks retained the initiative.  Nevertheless, they had sustained serious damage and needed several years to rebuild and make good their losses, particularly in oarsmen and 'azabs.3  The decision to strike at Cyprus rather than to drive westward, attacking Spain in isolation (by Spain, I mean the Spanish Habsburg Empire and its Italian clients, notably Genoa and the Papal States) requires explanation.  The usual hypothesis is that Selim and his advisors regarded Cyprus, rich in land and tax revenues and close to their logistical bases, as a particularly tempting target and reasoned that the numbers of galleys Venice would add to the fleet arrayed against them would be offset by the greater distance from Christian bases.  This logic was no doubt buttressed by confidence that the inter-allied frictions that had split the Christian alliance of 1537-40 would again work to the Turks' advantage.  Finally, Spain's effectiveness on the defensive in 1565 argued against a renewed strike at Malta, all the moreso in that the great siege's outcome demonstrated that Spain and her allies had begun to make good the damage to their fleet sustained at Djerba in 1560. 

All of this makes perfect sense and is surely more right than wrong, but there is another possibility to consider: might the Ottomans have hoped that by forcing an alliance between Spain and Venice they could precipitate a decisive fleet engagement in which they could eliminate both enemy fleets at once, clearing the board of opposition?  I am not arguing that this was the only objective envisioned, or one considered easily attained.  I am arguing, rather, that it might have been considered a possibility to be anticipated and exploited, and indeed probably was.  It is important to remember in this context that galley fights, once joined, tended to extreme outcomes unless the losing side could take refuge against a friendly shore.4  Djerba had demonstrated on a large scale what a host of lesser galley fights had already shown, that winners tended to come off with very light losses while losers were nearly obliterated. 


On the face of it, the idea seems most un-Mediterranean.  As I have argued elsewhere, Mediterranean galley fleets rarely sought battle for its own sake, and with good reason.5  Unlike the fleets of ships-of-the-line basic to Mahanian interpretations, galley fleets, however victorious, could not blockade their enemies' ports and thus bring them to heel economically.  Ordinarily, the strategic utility of galley fleets lay in the seizure or defense of fortified ports and in the war of economic attrition waged against enemy coasts and commerce.  But the post-1565 Mediterranean was at least briefly different, or so I believe.  Consider that fleets of war galleys had grown steadily in size since the general adoption of powerful main centerline bow guns in the 1510s, a growth closely associated with the expansion of the Ottoman and Spanish empires.6  Consider, too, that galleys and galley fleets had grown exponentially in cost from the 1550s, particularly in the west.  The result was immensely powerful and horribly expensive galley fleets, inherently defensive for the Spanish and inherently offensive for the Turks.  Venice was a special case in that she could minimize expenses by keeping the bulk of her galleys laid up in time of peace, to be propelled by free oarsmen who cost nothing until mobilized. 

The operational characteristics of galleys and galley fleets during the period of our concern were not static, but were continually evolving.  A major area of change was the progressive increase in costs just mentioned, due partly to an increase in the numbers of galleys in commission and partly to growth in the size of galleys and their complements.  An important consequence of the increase in size of galley fleets, of individual galleys, and of their complements was a diminution in strategic radius of action.  Since complements increased more rapidly than hull size—the need for additional oarsmen to drive the larger hulls was the driving factor—the inevitable result was less stowage space per man for provisions, and above all water.  We can only speculate about the degree to which the actors in our drama were aware of these changes, but in light of their generally high levels of tactical, operational, and strategic competence they surely understood their long term strategic ramifications.  For the Turks, it would have been logical to conclude that their galley fleet was near the apex of its tactical power and strategic utility. 

The consequences of Khaireddin Barbarossa's victory at Prevesa in 1538 gave clear indications of what that utility might be.  Tactically, Prevesa was anything but a crushing victory; indeed, in terms of numbers of men and vessels lost, it was little more than a skirmish.  Strategically, it was decisive.  By forcing Venice from the Christian alliance, it gave the Turks a favorable balance of power, a balance made more favorable still by the Turks' on-again, off-again alliance with France.  Ottoman galley fleets and squadrons routinely cruised the western Mediterranean in the 1540s and '50s, raiding as far west as the Balerics and effectively linking the Ottomans' North African dependencies to Constantinople.  Still, Venice remained strong and a potential threat, if only defensively.  Of equal importance, the Spanish still possessed powerful galley squadrons and reserves of superb professional infantry.  If the Spanish could not prevent systemic raiding wherever the Turks chose to raid, they could—even in the aftermath of a crippling loss of skilled manpower at Djerba—frustrate attempts at territorial conquest… the very point of the siege of Malta.  It surely did not escape the notice of Muslim, or for that matter Christian, observers that the strategic balance would have been more favorable still to the Turks had either the Spanish or Venetian galley fleet been eliminated. 

At this point, a few words on the resources needed to create and sustain galley fleets are in order.  In comparative evaluations of naval forces, modern analysts and historians tend to focus on numbers of combatant vessels, their size and their firepower, followed by the adequacy of their logistical support.  Only then do they turn to human resources, and when they do the focus is generally on the abilities of senior commanders.  Occasionally, qualitative differences in the abilities of ordinary seamen, and of the way in which they were organized and led are invoked.7  This orientation is both logical and justified in dealing with fleets of gun-armed sailing warships and has served naval historians well in dealing with naval wars and campaigns from the Invincible Armada of 1588 on.  For sixteenth century Mediterranean galley fleets it fails. 

The reason is straightforward, though seldom commented upon: in galley warfare, hulls were cheap and men dear.  The critical node was the dependence of war galleys and galley fleets on a limited supply of skilled technicians.  Call them "experts" or use the Spanish term oficiales; they were the pilots, rowing masters, masters-at-arms, gunners, boatswains and their mates, coopers, caulkers, carpenters, surgeons, and skilled seamen needed to make a war galley work.  In the case of Venice, in 1570 still heavily dependent on triremes alla senzile which could only be rowed by skilled free oarsmen, oarsmen could be added to the list.  With that important exception, the other manpower requirements of galley warfare were more easily satisfied given the necessary money and political will.  Oarsmen could be conscripted, recruited or taken as slaves; men-at-arms and soldiers could be embarked in time of need; but without skilled experts their services would be of little avail. 

Why was this and what is our evidence?  The answer to the first part of this question revolves around the fact that the early modern Mediterranean War galley was an extreme design, intended to bring a large centerline gun, plus substantially smaller flanking pieces and a heavy complement of fighting men, into combat in the relatively benign seas and sailing conditions of the Mediterranean spring and summer.  It was supremely well designed for this purpose, but at the expense of seaworthiness and ease of operation.  Virtually everything involved in operating a Mediterranean war galley was manpower intensive, and—particularly when conditions were less than optimum—heavily dependent on skilled manpower.  A comparison with cannon-armed sailing warships is instructive.  The latter were designed first and foremost for seaworthiness and then, though not necessarily in this order, for carrying capacity, speed and maneuverability under sail, and effectivenss as a gun platform.  No one performance characteristic was dominant and gains in any one necessarily entailed sacrifices in the others.  By contrast, the war galley was designed to maximize dash speed under oars—essential to survival in combat—while carrying the requisite load of offensive ordnance and fighting manpower.  Everything else came in the margins: seaworthiness was problematic except under the most benign conditions; carrying capacity, both in absolute terms and relative to the number of men aboard, was minimal; speed and maneuverability under sail were constrained by the long, narrow hull needed for maximium speed under oars.  The operation of any vehicle built to an extreme design, be it a classical Greek trireme or a modern fighter aircraft, is demanding of operator skill, and that is only one side of the coin.  The other is that such designs are inherently unforgiving of operator error when pressed close to their limits, and almost by definition that occurs more frequently with extreme designs. 


The key point is that experts were in limited supply.  In contrast to the Atlantic, where rich fisheries bred a seemingly endless supply of skilled mariners who could be, and were, put to work aboard warships in time of need, the Mediterranean, with its greater salinity and lack of offshore banks had a much lower density of edible marine life and no long range fisheries at all, inedible sponges being the only exception.8  The question is one of scale. 

Fernand Braudel estimated that at the time of Lepanto a total of some 500-600 galleys was operating in the Mediterranean.9  Braudel's estimate—and I cannot imagine a better source—is, at least to me, thoroughly credible.  It carries with it two implications:  First, the scale of Mediterranean warfare at sea in the age of the galley was resource-limited in a way that the scale of Atlantic warfare in the age of the galleon and ship-of-the-line was not.  Whatever their fiscal resources and access to raw manpower—and here I go beyond Braudel—the Mediterranean powers could put only so many galleys in commission.  The ultimate limiting factor was not timber, money, or raw manpower, though all of those were important; rather, it was experts.  Second, the level of resources committed at Lepanto was prodigious.  Comparing Braudel's estimate with the number of galleys that engaged at Lepanto—some 206 ordinary Christian galleys on line before battle was joined plus as many as seventeen that arrived later against 230 Muslim ordinary galleys—makes the point emphatically.  Although the sources vary by a few galleys one way or the other, particularly on the Christian side, they are in general agreement.10  Applying the high and low figures to Braudel's estimate indicates that somewhere between 70% and 90% of all Mediterranean war galleys in existance met at Lepanto…and the totals do not include the big North African galiots that were nearly as large as a galley.11 

 Clearly, then, for both sides the stakes for 1571 were high indeed, as they were in fact for the war as a whole, for nearly the same number of galleys were mobilized in 1570 as in 1571. 


This brings us to the question of the Turks' strategy.  If, in fact, their primary goal was territorial conquest, history should have suggested to them that all they needed to do was to frustrate attempts to relieve Famagusta—by the autumn of 1570 the only remaining Venetian position on Cyprus—and avoid a major confrontation with the Christian fleet.  Denied the opportunity to inflict a sharp defeat on the Turks in order to secure a more favorable peace, the Venetians would surely, as in 1539, lose patience with their allies.  Under severe economic pressure with their access to the spice trade blocked, Venice would then conclude a separate peace.  Recall that Christian losses at Prevesa were minor; what split the alliance was Venetian realization that there was no further hope of bringing Barbarossa to battle. 


That, however, is not what the Turks did.  They sent their fleet west in full force the following spring.  Moreover, after touching briefly at Cyprus to drop off reinforcements for the siege of Famagusta, Müezzenzade Ali Pasha received unequivocal orders from Sultan Selim II to engage the Christian fleet in battle.12   The logical supposition is that Selim II's objectives encompassed more than Cyprus alone. 


The next question is twofold.  Did the Turks have a reasonable chance of defeating the fleet of the Holy League at Lepanto and what would that victory have looked like?  Analysis of the battle suggests that the answer to the former question is yes.  It was a close-run thing, and little imagination is required to identify turning points that might have turned the other way.  What if Barbarigo, the heroic Venetian commander of the Christian Left, had been less effective in holding his inshore flank—which he barely did, and at the cost of his life—and pivoting his line to pin the Turkish Right against the shore?  What if Álvaro de Bazán had overreacted to Barbarigo's predicament, sending to his aid the galleys that he would later need to counter Uluj Ali's attack on the Christian Center?  What if the Christian Left and Center had not held their formations with rock-like steadiness?  In those cases where the Chistian line abreast formation faltered or was broken, the more agile Muslim galleys and galiots wrought havoc.  As it turned out, they did so on a relatively small scale: on the extreme Christian Left at the beginning of the fight and in the seam between the Center and Right at the end.  In both cases the Christians contained the chaos, but only by remarkable competence and fortitude and, in the second case, by Bazán's foresight as well. 

The alternative scenarios listed above are dependent only upon human decisions made during the course of the battle.  Others, dependent on factors external to or predating the battle, are not hard to imagine.  The six Venetian galleasses made a major contribution to Christian victory and their presence in the line of battle was an improbable thing.  Galleasses and galleys performed very differently as sailing vessels and under oars and cooperation between the two was extraordinarily difficult to achieve; indeed, Lepanto is virtually the only significant example of close and successful tactical cooperation between galleasses and galleys.13  If, in the days before the battle, sea and wind conditions had differed appreciably from those that prevailed it is most unlikely that four of the six galleasses would have been at their assigned places before the opposing fleets met and the other two close enough to weigh in before battle's end.  Without the galleasses and their heavy ordnance, particularly on the inshore flank but in the center as well, Christian victory would have been highly problematical.  Don Juan's decision to spilt the various national contingents was a major contributor to victory, as was his weighting of the Left with Venetian galleys under a Venetian commander.  These bold and unprecedented decisions played a major role Christian victory. 

In sum, Christian victory depended not only upon extraordinary competence but on a healthy measure of luck as well and the outcome was anything but a sure thing, quite the contrary in fact.  I could list a host of other, less probably, alternative scenarios that would have worked to the Turks' advantage, but those laid out above are sufficient for the purpose at hand.  The question, then, is What would a Muslim victory have looked like? 


War is an uncertain business.  Anything can happen and often does, but the preponderance of the evidence suggests that a Muslim victory would almost certainly have been just as crushing as that which the Christians actually won.  If anything, it would likely have been worse, for the comparatively ponderous Western galleys would have found it very difficult to escape a lost battle, as in fact some thirty galleys under Uluj Ali did. 


Muslim losses at Lepanto were enormous, in vessels, guns and men.  But, as I have argued elsewhere, the most crippling loss was in experts.14  We know that these men were an essential and virtually irreplacable component of Mediterranean power at sea and were recognized as such.15  We know this for a fact, for the victorious allies took the extraordinary measure of identifying them and having them killed, even in the aftermath of victory.16  And in fact, although the Turks were able to put an enormous number of galleys to sea in the following years, they assiduously avoided combat with the Christian fleet—and with good reason, for the lack of experts rendered their galleys uncertain tactical instruments. 

And the damage was permanent.  To be sure, Uluj Ali wrought prodigies as Kapudan Pasha, facing off the allied fleet in 1572 and retaking Tunis from the Spanish in 1574.  But the recapture of Tunis was Ottoman seapower's last gasp; the Constantinople-based galley fleet fell into decay in the aftermath of Uluj Ali's triumphant return and never regenerated. 


What might such damage have meant for the Christians?  It is impossible to paint a rosy scenario.  Recall that Don Juan—with at least the implicit support of his superiors and no objections of note from his subordinates—had committed everything to a single throw of the dice.  On the day of battle, the total Venetian reserves comprised fourteen ordinary galleys and two galeasses in the upper Adriatic.  Had Venice lost almost the almost all of her experts at Lepanto, little would have stood between Venice and the victorious Turks the following year.  Venice was well fortified, to be sure, and would no doubt resisted capture, but what of her commercial and political future without a viable galley fleet?  The Turks benefited from Venetian trade, and would no doubt have allowed its continuance… on their terms, perhaps with Venice reduced to effective dependency in the manner of Ragusa. 

And with Venice neutralized, what might the Turks then have done?  They would have waited a year or two to build up their strength, but time was on their side.  It took more than five years to regenerate a corps of experts as the Spanish had learned after Djerba, and had Lepanto gone the other way the loss of Christian experts would have made the loss at Djerba seem insignificant.  Crete would have been an obvious target, a conquest that would have cut even more deeply into Venetian strength.  A renewed attempt at Malta would likely have been in the cards as well, a new siege mounted with far less concern for an aggressive Spanish relief than in 1565.  And with Malta in Turkish hands, the western Mediterranean would have been subjected to a contagion of Muslim raiders.  The Balerics would have been at risk and the prospect of rendering meaningful aid to the Spanish Moriscos entirely feasible. 


In fact, of course, no such things occurred.  Christian galleys cruised the Levant with impunity in the years that followed, and on into the 1640s, mirroring the Muslim advantage that accrued after Prevesa.  Spain's attention turned north, a shift in strategic priorities made possible by the neutralization of the Turkish menace at Lepanto, and Venice remained commercially and militarily viable for another two centuries. 


Did Lepanto save Christendom?  It depends, of course, on what you mean by "save!"  Venice would probably have preserved her independence, albeit on the Sultan's terms, and a reversal of the Spanish reconquista seems most unlikely.  Clearly, however—and I leave the details to your imagination—Turkish victory at Lepanto would have been a catastrophe of the first magnitude for Christendom and Europe would have followed a historical trajectory strikingly different from that which obtained.

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1  Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century (Princeton, New Jersey: umpublished Princeton University dissertation, 1971). 

2  Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1974). 

3  I am assuming that losses in timariot sipahis and Janissaries, although serious, could have been made good by the promotion of soldiers from lower positions in the Ottoman military hierarchy to fill the vacancies. 

4  Prevesa was a special case in that the numerically superior Christians were dispersed, mostly out of reach of Barbarossa's galleys.  One might argue, and I would, that Prevesa was not a battle at all, but a partial pursuit of a withdrawing force. 

5  See my arguments in Gunpowder and Galleys (Cambridge, 1974), Chapter 1, "The Mahanians' Fallacy."  Historians who have argued that the commanders of galley fleets should have sought decisive battle have generally done so based on the faulty premise that decisive galley fleet victories can produce command of the sea in the classic Mahanian sense. 

6  For the correlation between the growth of the Ottoman and Spanish empires and the ascendency of the main centerline bow gun armed galley see Jan Glete, Warfare at Sea, 1500-1650: Maritime Conflicts and the Transformation of Europe (London and New York: Routledge, 2000). 

7  The English advantage over the Spanish in this respect has frequently been commented upon, particularly in reference to the Armada of 1588.  The Spanish mariner occupied a much lower place in the social hierarchy than his English opposite, and was commanded by officers who were soldiers first and sailors second, if at all. 

8  The point is Fernand Braudel's, from The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, 2 vols., Siân Reynolds, tr. (New York: Harper and Row, 1973). 

9  Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World , Vol. II, 841. 

10 Rosell Cayetano, Historia del Combate Naval de Lepanto (Madrid, 1853), cited in Francisco Felipe Olesa Muñido, La Organización Naval de los Estados Mediterraneos y en Particular de España Durante los Siglos XVI y XVII (Madrid: Editorial Naval, 1968), Vol. I, 371; Michel Lesure, Lépante: la crise de l'empire ottoman (Paris: Julliard, 1972), 115.  Rosell Cayetano has only 216 of the 230 Muslim galleys and 64 of 70 galiots engaged.  My best estimate is in Gslleons and Galleys (London: Cassell & Company, in press), Table, p. 141. 

11  At issue is how Braudel defined galley in making his estimate.  I have assumed that he meant an ordinary galley or larger, that is a galley with at least 18 banks of oars and six oarsmen to the bank.  In fact, at the time of Lepanto, with the exception of the Venetians, the majority of whose galleys were triremes alla sensile with twenty-four banks of oars and six oarsmen to the bank, galleys generally had twenty-four banks or more, rowed a scaloccio, with four men to an oar and eight to a bank. 

12  Halil Inalcik, "Lepanto in the Ottoman Documents," Gino Bezoni, ed., Il Mediterraneo Nella Seconda Meta del '500 Alla Luce di Lepanto (Firenze: Leo S. Olschki Editore, 1974), Civilta Veneziana Studi 30, 186-87. 

13  The only others of which I am aware involve the standoffs of 1572 in which the Christians managed to get the galleasses on line, along with armed sailing vessels, and in which the Turks declined to engage.  This suggests that the galleasseass success at Lepanto was a product of tactical surprise and that had the Turks understood their capabilities they might have declined battle. 

14  The precise numbers of experts killed and captured is a matter of speculation.  The Christians captured in excess of 3,486 Turks; the number is that mentioned in communiques detailing the distribution of booty among the victors and thus surely understates the total, Lesure, Lepante, 145.  Of these, the vast majority would have been experts, timariots, janissaries and naval archers, the latter functionally falling in the same category as experts since their skills required a lifetime of experience.  The only other sizeable category of Turks subject to capture was conscript oarsmen, and these would surely have been enslaved and pressed into service on the spot, unrecorded; as simple villagers, they had no ramsom value. 

15  The benchmark for comparison is the Spanish loss of oficiales—experts—at Djerba where the Spanish and their allies lost 28-30 galleys and 600 oficiales and 2,400 sailor-arquebusiers.  This woks out to an average of some 20 experts and 80 sailor-arquebusiers per galley; Guilmartin, Gunpowder and Galleys, 123-34.  If we assume that the proportion of experts to others among the 3,486 Turkish captives was the same as that which prevailed for the Spanish at Djerba and consider that the Christians captured 117 galleys and 17 galiots at Lepanto, we get an average of only five to six experts per galley captured.  But in light of the ferocity of the battle, the ratio of killed to captured must have been high, surely at least thee or four to one, so the total loss would have been much higher.  Note, too, that an additonal eighty to ninety Turkish galleys were sunk or destroyed, their experts presumably with them.  If Djerba hurt Spain, Lepanto crippled the Turks.  ß

16  Lesure, Lepante, 151-52, for the Venetians; M. Brunetti and E. Vitale, eds., Corrispondenza da Madrid dell'ambascitore Leonardo Donà, 2 vols. (Rome and Venice, 1963), Vol. I, 409-11, for the Spanish and for Venetian and Spanish communication on the subject. 

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