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Useful Notes / Battle of Lepanto

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"... the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see..."
Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, Second Part, The Author's Preface.
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During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a constant naval war between the Christian and Muslim States in the Mediterranean. When there was no major campaign involved it was a handy excuse to be Pirates. Circa 1570, the Republic of Venice was entering a prolonged decline in Mediterranean dominance and the Ottoman Empire was extending its hegemony into the world's oceans.

By the reign of the Sultan Selim II (affectionately known as Selim the Sot), the Empire was recovering from its failed attempt to conquer Malta. The Ottomans turned their gaze toward Cyprus which was rich in sugar and an important base, under the authority of the Venetians at the time. The Ottomans invaded Cyprus, and the threat provoked an alliance among the Mediterranean Christian states, chief among whom were Venice and Spain. The Turks managed to conquer the island, but the Christian fleet arrived to defeat them in a battle of annihilation on 7 October 1571. The ironic result was that the Turks lost the main battle but ended up with the island. However, arguably this was a Pyrrhic Victory for the Turks as so many skilled sailors and warriors were lost that the Turkish fleet would be incapable of major effective operations for a generation — the galleys themselves were rebuilt quickly but fleets at the time depended so much on the skill of sailors that this was something of a bluff — by which time its preferred methods were so obsolete that recovery was impossible.

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This battle was a Crowning Moment of Awesome for the Christian powers and was celebrated as such. It was the last major galley battle before galleys were superseded by great sailing warships.

The historical significance of the battle is controversial to this day. First there was the glorification, then the backlash, then the backlash to the backlash, and so on. Evaluations are often colored by nationalism, pro-western bias, anti-western bias, or any number of historical frameworks. At the time in the West it was seen unambiguously as a historical turning-point and a great, even miraculous victory attributed to the intercession of the Virgin Mary. Revisionists portray the battle as an inconsequential side-show, pointing out that the Turks quickly rebuilt their fleet, kept Cyprus, and continued the war, while the Christians did not regain any significant territory. This was the official Ottoman position and how they chose to view the battle in the immediate aftermath. The post-revisionist view is that the battle was important in that the Ottoman Empire never again attempted to seriously compete with European naval power, with the gap between them only continuing to grow over the coming decades. The Ottomans quickly rebuilt their fleet, but mostly avoided engaging the Europeans in naval combat, as their naval technology and tactics continued to fall behind the Europeans. What battles the Ottomans did engage in, they mostly lost. In a greater sense therefore, this battle was the point where Christian navies took control of the world's oceans.

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If this position is taken to its logical conclusion, this battle gave Christian empires control not only over most of the world's seas, but the world itself. Ottoman control of eastern trade routes meant the Turks had easy access to the riches of the East, while European powers were forced to develop their naval technology in order to find alternate routes, either West (leading to the discovery of America) or South (around Africa). Europe would be more than compensated for the extra effort. Control over the seas gave them control over trade, money, and everything that goes with it. European naval supremacy would lead directly to European imperialism and colonialism, meaning it would be western Europe that would dominate the world for the next couple of centuries. Turkey having any influence outside of its immediate area was basically out of the question, while thanks to naval power Europe would eventually come to dominate as far away as China. Had the Turks won at Lepanto, it is possible that Western imperialism might have been seriously impeded, particularly in the areas bordering the Mediterranean, Black Sea, Red Sea, and Indian Ocean, and all of history would have been changed.

Bottom line: it was important, an event on par with the Naval Battle of Actium fought not too far away many centuries earlier.


Depictions in fiction

  • "Lepanto", a poem by G. K. Chesterton
  • Don Quixote:
    • The first part of the novel has the Captive Captain tale: A Spanish captain, Ruy Pérez de Viedma, narrates how he was charging against a Turkish galley when the wind changed and his men couldn’t follow him, and so the Turks made him a slave:
      I may say, in short, that I took part in that glorious expedition, promoted by this time to be a captain of infantry, to which honourable charge my good luck rather than my merits raised me; and that day—so fortunate for Christendom, because then all the nations of the earth were disabused of the error under which they lay in imagining the Turks to be invincible on sea-on that day, I say, on which the Ottoman pride and arrogance were broken, among all that were there made happy (for the Christians who died that day were happier than those who remained alive and victorious) I alone was miserable; for, instead of some naval crown that I might have expected had it been in Roman times, on the night that followed that famous day I found myself with fetters on my feet and manacles on my hands. It happened in this way: El Uchali, the king of Algiers, a daring and successful corsair, having attacked and taken the leading Maltese galley (only three knights being left alive in it, and they badly wounded), the chief galley of John Andrea, on board of which I and my company were placed, came to its relief, and doing as was bound to do in such a case, I leaped on board the enemy's galley, which, sheering off from that which had attacked it, prevented my men from following me, and so I found myself alone in the midst of my enemies, who were in such numbers that I was unable to resist; in short I was taken, covered with wounds; El Uchali, as you know, sirs, made his escape with his entire squadron, and I was left a prisoner in his power, the only sad being among so many filled with joy, and the only captive among so many free; for there were fifteen thousand Christians, all at the oar in the Turkish fleet, that regained their longed-for liberty that day.
    • The second part of the novel has a great Take That! against FanFiction author Avellaneda, who wrote a Continuation Fic to the first part and some words making fun of Miguel de Cervantes' wounds (which he got as a marine at Lepanto itself):
      What I cannot help taking amiss is that he charges me with being old and one-handed, as if it had been in my power to keep time from passing over me, or as if the loss of my hand had been brought about in some tavern, and not on the grandest occasion the past or present has seen, or the future can hope to see. If my wounds have no beauty to the beholder's eye, they are, at least, honourable in the estimation of those who know where they were received; for the soldier shows to greater advantage dead in battle than alive in flight; and so strongly is this my feeling, that if now it were proposed to perform an impossibility for me, I would rather have had my share in that mighty action, than be free from my wounds this minute without having been present at it.
  • The battle is featured at the end of Il Leone di Damasco by Emilio Salgari (the author of Sandokan), with the protagonists reinforcing La Real during the fight against the Sultana.
  • It is also featured as a scenario in Age of Empires II, where the player plays as a Spanish faction with an objective of building a Wonder and defending it from the Turkish navy invasion.
  • A rare option in the Table Top Game Diplomacy, where Italy attacks Turkey, is named 'The Lepanto Gambit'.
  • In addition to being able to recrate the causes of, the battle itself, and the aftermath, one of the songs in the soundtrack to Europa Universalis 4, is called Battle of Lepanto.

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