The Battle of Lepanto - 1571


The Battle of Lepanto was fought on October 7th of 1571 between the Ottoman Empire and a Christian coalition named The Holy League. It is the last great clash of navies using oar powered vessels, before the arrival of the age of sail. It is important because it showed Europe that the Ottomans could be defeated, and that European civilization was a formidable force when it could unite.

The Ottoman Empire began as a small Turkish emirate in the late 13th century in modern day Turkey. They quickly expanded, and by 1453 the Byzantine Empire was put to rest when Ottoman Sultan Mehmed II conquered its capital city of Constantinople. Byzantine refugees flocked west, bringing many books along with them, including Greek texts, helping to spark The Renaissance in Europe.

Now sharing a border with Europe, the Ottomans routinely clash with Russians, Austrians, and Venetians. Repeated efforts were made to prevent a takeover of Europe. But nothing could slow the Sultan's expansion.

Venice had built a land empire to support its commercial shipping, gaining possession of Cyprus and Crete as well as outposts on mainland Greece. Her war galleys controlled the sea lanes of the eastern Mediterranean, until around 1500, when the Ottomans began building their own naval fleet.

The Ottoman Empire is united and has a clear vision of expansion. European civilization is more fragmented. This allows for new ideas to spread and necessitates the application of new defensive technologies to resist threats from larger and more organized militaries.

Europe 1570 Europe - 1570

Invasion of Cyprus

Salim II Salim II - Fifth Emperor of the Turks
Photo Credit: The Turkish History by Richard Knolles et al.

The Sultans of the Ottoman Empire saw the island of Cyprus as an unimportant province. Managing the island would be more trouble than it was worth, given the unruliness of local governors. A merchant named Joseph Nasi convinced the Ottomans to invade the island, with the hope of establishing a Jewish colony there.

Cyprus was a base for Venetian commercial operations. The island had been spared invasion thanks to a treaty between the Ottomans and Venice. A temporary peace in Hungary allowed Selim II to move his military resources into the Mediterranean. A letter is sent to the Doge of Venice on March 28th, 1570. Salim demands control of Cyprus be given to the Ottomans, on the grounds that the island has traditionally belonged to Egypt, and Egypt has been conquered by the Ottomans:

"That the Kingdom of Cyprus by ancient right belongeth unto the Kingdom of Egypt, you are not ignorant; which being conquered by the Turks, is together with it become of right a part also of the Ottoman Empire; that island we come to challenge, leading after us two hundred thousand valiant Souldiers, unto which power, and Wealth of the Ottoman Kingdoms all the united Forces of the Christian Kings are not comparable; much less the Venetians, so small a part of Europe ... Whereas if you shall before such wholesome Counsel, fondly prefer your vain hopes, you are to expect all the calamities of War."

The Sultan's demands are refused.

Famagusta (Ammochostos) fortress, Cyprus Famagusta (Ammochostos) fortress, Cyprus

The following Summer, 60,000 Ottoman troops land near Nicosia, Cyprus. All the local inhabitants are put to the sword, even ones who surrender. The coastal town of Famagusta (Gazimağusa) resists the invasion with a garrison of 8,500 soldiers with artillery, commanded by General Marco Antonio Bragadin. During a battle on September 17 of 1570, staggering losses are inflicted on the Ottoman troops with an estimated 52,000 casualties.

Realizing that no reinforcements are coming from Venice, Bragadin negotiates a peace treaty on August 2nd. The Ottomans agree to allow civilians to evacuate, but later accuse them of killing prisoners, a claim they denied. In response, the Ottoman military kills every man, woman, and child in Famagusta.

The brutal treatment of the civilian population of Cyprus shocks Europe. In response, the Vatican and Hapsburgs organize a coalition to resist the Ottoman Empire. Salim worries that this coalition may attempt to reclaim their lost territory on Cyprus, so he assembles a larger naval fleet to intercept any military response.

The Holy League

Lepanto Battle Formations Holy League Coats of Arms
Habsburg Spain, Pope Pius V, Republic of Venice, John of Austria
Photo Credit: Gallica - National Library of France

The Christian coalition named themselves The Holy League, and were commanded by John of Austria, otherwise known as Don Juan, son of Charles V. They organized a total of 212 ships carrying 28,500 troops. Venice supplied 500 soldiers, the Germans sent 500, Italy 500, Spain 8,000, The Papal States 1,500, along with 4,000 volunteers from other areas.

In 1571 the age of sail had not yet arrived. The galley is the main warship, and would ram an enemy's ship before boarding it with soldiers. The Holy League deployed six special naval units named Galleasses. At 200ft long and 20ft wide, they are wider than a galley, and had four castles with gunpowder cannons. They could barely be propelled on their own even with two masts and 290 oarsmen, so they were towed into position by other vessels. Venice used skilled citizen oarsmen instead of prisoners or slaves, and they were armed so as to help when close range fighting broke out.

The Spanish employed Terseos, elite pikeman who fought in groups of 30. They carried hand cannons, an awkward weapon, as well as muskets.

The Ottoman fleet was commanded by Müezzinzade Ali Pasha, and included 278 ships, most of which were galleys with a few light cannons. They carried a total of 31,500 soldiers and 10,000 janissaries. Janissaries were elite foot soldiers and the backbone of Ottoman army. These were permanent soldiers who were forbidden to marry. They occasionally used muskets, and their loyalty was always an issue.

Most of the Ottoman soldiers used bows and swords. They also recruited from the children of Christian families who were captured, made slaves, and raised in the Muslim faith.


Battle of Lepanto Map The Gulf of Patras, Greece

The Holy League embarks by early September of 1571. John of Austria arrives at Igoumenitsa Bay on the west coast of Greece, 100 miles north of Lepanto, on Sept 3. False intelligence sends the Ottoman navy toward the island of Crete. But they soon learn that the Christian fleet is in the Adriatic Sea, and begin moving towards Greece. The Christian fleet moors in the port of Viscardo on Kefalonea, the largest island controlled by Venice.

The Ottomans are now about 50 miles to the East, at Lepanto (Modern day Nafpaktos), and remain stationed here for about 1 month. This includes the same fleet that landed on Cyprus. Müezzinzade had been raiding Venetian outposts along the Adriatic coast while using the castle fort at Lepanto as a base of operations. Survivors told the Holy League their tails of raids, so they could estimate the Ottoman fleet's size.

The Battle

On October 5th the Ottomans sight the Holy League fleet off the island of Kefalonea. Müezzinzade assumes he has a much larger fleet than his opponent. He leaves Lepanto on October 6th, traversing 10 miles west to Gelata.

The following morning, October 7th 1571, at 6 AM, The Holy League fleet passes South through the straight between the island of Oxia and Mount Malkantone. Moving into the Gulf of Patras, they sight the Ottoman fleet before 7:30 AM.

There was no way for either fleet to catch the other by surprise, as they were both so large. Seeing each other in the distance, it took two hours to reach each other.

Admiral Agostino Barbarigo leads the left wing of the Christian fleet, and was the first to see Müezzinzade taking battle formations 3 miles south of Scroffa Point, the entrance to the bay. The Christians faced East, in a line 1 mile long. By 9 AM, the League was ready for contact.

The two fleets face each other in 3 sections. John of Austria and Müezzinzade were in the center, Barbarigo and Mahomet Sirocco were on the left (North), and Giovanni Andrea Doria and Uluch Ali on the right (South). Both had reserve ships behind them.

John of Austria ordered mass to be observed on all ships. He orders the Real (League Flagship) to fire one cannon shot, a gesture to identify the Christian flagship to the enemy.

The wind is initially against the Christians, but by noon it had reversed in their favor. At 10:20 AM the first shots are fired by a galleass. Fired from a range of 1 mile, they sink the first Ottoman galley.

Sirocco attempts to flank along the northern shore. Barbarigo moves to close the gap, and attempts to board his ships are repelled. A few Ottoman ships slip past the left flank and begin attacking the League's rear, but overall the flanking maneuver is prevented. Major fighting now breaks out on the left. Müezzinzade realizes that the flanking maneuver is failing, and orders more ships into the fighting.

Around noon, Barbarigo attempts to give an order but could not be heard, as the Ottomans were attempting to board the flagship. He lifts his armor visor and is almost immediately shot in the eye by an arrow. His wound is mortal. Captain Federico Renier takes command of the fleet.

The tide of the battle now turns in favor of the Christians. Many Ottoman ships run aground and their crews flee to the Greek mainland. They are immediately fired upon. Boarding parties pursue the survivors inland, and deserted Ottoman ships are captured.

Don Juan Real Don Juan commanding The Real

Sirocco, admiral of the Ottoman right, is taken prisoner. Seriously wounded, he asks to be executed. In the center, the Ottoman line is disrupted. Müezzinzade boards the League flagship briefly, but ultimately is forced back off of the ship. By 12:20 PM, fighting is taken to the Sultana, the Ottoman flagship. The green battlestandard of the Sultan is captured, prompting cheers from the surrounding Christian fleet. The fate of Müezzinzade is unclear, but he is almost certainly killed in the fighting at this point.

The Ottomans now begin to surrender in large numbers. Their center is destroyed, and the north flank is retreating inland and being destroyed as well.

On the South wing, the fighting had not even yet begun. Uluch Ali, commander of the Ottoman left southern wing, moved southwest in an attempt to flank. Commanding 16 ships in the League right wing's group, Juan de Cardona pursued south to intercept another Ottoman flank attempt, meaning both had detached from their respective fleets. They are both now well out of reach of reserves, and Cardona is outnumbered. John of Austria sends light ships to tell him to return, but by the time they reach him things have changed.

Uluch changes course to the north. If he can defeat the Christian south group, there is danger he may then head north and reverse the Ottoman's defeat. Uluch's 75 galleys attacked Cardona's 16.

Galleass Venetian Galleass
Photo Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich

Two galleasses give supporting fire to Cardona, but he is overwhelmed, most of his men surrendered, while Doria (the commander of the League's right) watches from the distance. The commander of the Venetian 'Resurrected Christ' detonates his ship's magazine and damages several Ottoman gallies. Around 1 PM, Doria arrives, pushing through Cardona's force and recapturing all League ships except for two.

Uluch retreats towards the center of the battle. But by the time he reaches the fighting, it is too late. Müezzinzade Ali Pasha was dead and the Ottoman center is collapsing. Nevertheless, he cuts through a squadron of Knights Hospitaller and recaptures three Ottoman vessels.

Now the majority of the Christian fleet sails towards Uluch. If Uluch had arrived 30 minutes earlier, he may have saved Müezzinzade. He now sees that further fighting is futile. He attempts to flee, but is forced North. Uluch manages to escape with about 30 vessels at around 2 PM. The rest are captured.

John of Austria declines to pursue Uluch, as a storm was expected by nightfall. The victorious fleet needed to find safe harbor. By 7 PM, the fleet and 170 captured Ottoman vessels anchor off the island of Petalas, 5 miles to the North.


The Ottomans had never suffered such a defeat as the Battle of Lepanto before 1571. Only 30 Ottoman vessels survived. 30,000 Ottomans were killed or wounded, and 3,000 were taken prisoner.

15,000 Christian galley slaves were freed. 8,000 Christians died, 21,000 were wounded, and 10 gallies had been lost.

The Battle of Lepanto is the last great galley battle in history. The League achieved their victory in part because they used gunpower more effectively. Understanding that they faced a monumental opponent, they employed the most advanced weaponry and tactics possible.

History Carries On

Doges Palace San Marco Doges Palace San Marco, Venice by Canaletto
Photo Credit: Uffizi Gallery, Florence

On Oct. 9th, 1571, the League leaves port, but are in no shape to retake Cyprus. A rivalry remains between Venice, Genoa, and Spain.

The Ottomans continue to raid Mediterranean shores for treasure and slaves until about 1830, with raiding parties going as far as Scotland and Ireland. The Ottoman Empire still had ample resources. 250 new galleys were built within 6 months. Overall, the capture of Cyprus was a much bigger defeat for the Christians than the Battle of Lepanto was for the Ottomans.

The significance of Lepanto is often described in psychological terms. It was the first time a significant Ottoman force had been defeated, and was accomplished with a rare alliance of European Christian forces. This left the myth of Ottoman invincibility broken.

In 1683, Western Civilization achieves another victory at Vienna, when an Ottoman invasion is thwarted. This victory is more decisive than Lepanto, and leads to the decline of the Ottoman Empire to a secondary power. Lepanto can be seen as a precursor to Vienna.

If the Ottomans had won the Battle of Lepanto, they might have attempted an invasion of Italy sometime in the future. Major victories on sea and land ensured that Western Civilization could decisively repel outside invasion, and continue pursuing the fruits of The Renaissance.

For God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power, love, and self-control.
2 Timothy 1:7

Originally published
Researched and Written by: Thomas Acreman

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