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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.

During the Middle Ages and Renaissance, there was a constant naval war between the Christian States and the Muslim ones in the Mediterranean. When there was not a major campaign involved with this 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. 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 had been lost that the Turkish fleet would be incapable for a generation (the galleys themselves would be rebuilt quickly but fleets at the time depended so much on the skill of sailors that it was something of a bluff) by which time its preferred methods were so obsolete that recovery was impossible.


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 It was the last major galley battle before galleys were superseded by great sailing warships.

The historical accounts of the battle are controversial to this day, and may be colored by nationalism, pro-western bias, anti-western bias, or any number of historical frameworks. At the time, it was seen as an unambiguous victory, but revisionists often point that not only did the Turks rebuild their fleet, but they kept Cyprus as well. The post-revisionist view marks the battle as an even greater turning point, in that the Ottoman Empire was effectively excluded from competition over the world's oceans, due to the aforementioned lack of sailors and marines for their fleet. Indeed, the sheer cost of rebuilding the fleet was so great that the Ottomans had to let most of it rot not long after finishing it. While the Ottoman navy would continue to fight in the Mediterranean for a number of centuries, it would mostly lose against its Christian adversaries from now on. In a greater sense, this battle was the point where Christian navies took control of the world's oceans, as no country outside of Christendom had a fleet capable of meeting them in battle. Bottom line, it was important, an event on par with the Naval Battle of Actium fought not too far away many centuries earlier.


If taken to its logical end, this battle gave Christian empires control over most of the world's seas, as with it, the world itself. If that seems far-fetched, remember that naval power was critical in conquering and maintaining empires, and that control over sea lanes gave one control over trade, money, and everything that came with it. That's how imperialism worked in the centuries following Lepanto, at least. 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 the Indian Ocean.

A rare option in the Table Top Game Diplomacy, where Italy attacks Turkey, is named 'The Lepanto Gambit'.

This historical event provides examples of:

  • The Alliance
  • Badass Army : The Turks and Spaniards were Badass Armies that had adapted to seafaring. The Venetians were more used to fighting at sea then on land making them a Badass Navy. However, the Venetians had not fought seriously for a while and some wondered whether they still "had it". As it turned out, they did.
  • Battlecry: Vive San Marco for the Venetians.
  • Big Badass Battle Sequence
  • Boarding Party: How most of the battle was actually fought.
  • Church Militant
  • Combat Pragmatist: The Venetians. In an era where naval battles were mostly fought by boarding parties and warships carried only a couple guns fore and aft, they had the fleet preceeded by six galleasses: large merchant galleys converted to war, they carried 36 six heavy guns and many smaller ones each while still looking harmless cargo ships. The Ottomans lost 70 ships in the failed attempt to capture them.
  • Cool vs. Awesome: Three of the greatest fleets of the galley era meet that day.
  • Decapitated Army: When Ali Pasha's flagship was stormed, he and the rest of his crew were slain. When the banner of the Holy League was hoisted from their flagship, it broke the morale of the Turkish center.
  • Dirty Business: One of the first things done after the victory was to separate the most skillful sailors and warriors from among the prisoners and cut their throats to prevent them from serving the Sultan again. The rest were Made a Slave.
  • Dude, Where's My Reward?: In his joy at Don Juan's glorious victory, Phillip of Spain rewarded Don Juan by putting him in charge of the endless war against the Dutch rebels.
  • The Empire: The Ottoman Empire; because the story is almost always told from their enemies' perspective.
  • Enemy Mine: Venetians and Spaniards thought this of each other. Also, the battle's result was celebrated even by the Protestant enemies of the Spaniards.
  • A Father to His Men: The Turkish admiral, Ali Pasha, was a genuine rarity among Turkish (or for that matter European) high command in that he treated those under him decently, even the galley slaves. One account has him telling them before the battle that, "If we win, then I swear by God and His Prophet to free you all. If we lose, then God Himself has seen fit to free you."
  • Folktale : It was said that the Sultan ordered the campaign simply because he was a drunkard and Cyprus had a lot of wine. Of course being Sultan he could already have as much wine as he wanted anyway. He probably didn't mind the possibility of taxing the sale of wine to other drunkards though in Real Life.
  • The Federation: The Spaniards; because the story is told from Venice's and Spain's perspective. Quite literal in this case, as Spain at the time was not a unified state, being instead held together by the collected inheritances of its Habsburg ruler.
  • Godzilla Threshold: During the fight between Don Juan's La Real and Ali's Sultana both admirals freed their galley crews to fight. As Don Juan's galley crews were Spaniard convicts and Ali's were Christian slaves, it worked well for Don Juan and backfired horribly on Ali.
  • Hype Backlash: To the extent that some history books call it the most overrated battle of all time.
  • Land of One City: The Venetian Republic
  • Let's Get Dangerous! : Venice
  • Merchant City: Venice (duh)
  • More Dakka : One reason the Christian fleet won was its mastery of the proper tactics for gunpowder weapons. A number of Turkish galleys were sunk before battle was joined. Once the fighting was on the Spanish, who had caught on to the fact that muskets could be taught to anyone who was reasonably brave, and thus they could make peasants into reserves, whereas the Turks still thought of muskets as sort of a replacement for bows and used them individually rather than in volley fire.)
    • An inversion of Rock Beats Laser, in fact. Most Ottoman shipmen were still armed with crossbows while their opponents brought lots of arquebuses with them.
      • More a complication then an inversion. Bows had a lot of advantages over arquebusses but arquebusses had the big advantage that they were easily learned. Thus Europeans could actually manufacture soldiers, so to speak.
    • The largest part of the Christian gun superiority came from the Venetians repurposing six large merchant galleys as warships and loading them with three dozens heavy guns each (eighteen per sides), a large superiority over the one or two heavy guns and two or four smaller guns a galley would carry on the bow. Between that and their size making them impossible to board in combat from a galley, the galleasses (that's the name given to the repurposed merchant ships) did quite the number on the Ottoman ships. Do you remember us mentioning that a number of Turkish galleys were sunk before battle was joined? That was the galleasses: the Turks mistook them for the supply vessels they used to be and moved to capture them, and by the time they had realized their error those six ships had sunk about seventy Ottoman galleys (out of 206) and caused varying amount of damage to anything too slow to escape range.
  • The Mutiny: On noticing their chance, a number of galley slaves in the turkish fleet did this.
  • Nightmarish Factory: The Venetian Arsenal which could turn out scores of galleys in a few weeks and really did give nightmares to every prince around. Dante actually saw fit to compare it with Hell.
  • Panthera Awesome: The Lion of St Mark, the symbol of Venice.
  • Plunder: According to tales, there was lots of this. Apparently, Ottoman aristocrats sometimes took family treasures with them to battle; they feared taxmen more then their enemies.
  • The Republic: Venice, as a long-existing medieval example of a republican-like country.
  • Roaring Rampage of Revenge: The Christian fleet thought of it as this. Especially the Venetians, who had just heard tales of Ottoman atrocities on Cyprus.
  • Season Finale : The end of the galley era of Naval Gazing. Next season is Wooden Ships and Iron Men.
  • Shrouded in Myth: Lepanto became this almost immediately after it was fought.
  • Slave Galley: Most ships were crewed by convicts (Holy League) or slaves (Ottomans).
    • Averted with Venice, whose ships had a single per oar and this required skills and will that could be provided only by volunteers (either a freeman who joined the navy or debtors and convicts who choose to serve as rowers). While they did have some ships rowed exclusively by convicts, they were so small in numbers they weren't even counted in the official order of battle and made their own flotilla.
  • Stiff Upper Lip: It is said that Don Juan danced a jig on the deck while going into action to show his contempt for the danger.
  • Superweapon Surprise: The galleasses were at their combat debut. Six of them sunk seventy Ottoman ships (out of 206) and damaged lots of ships too slow to escape from their range.
  • Teeth-Clenched Teamwork: From the Venetians' point of view, the alliance with Spain and Genoa was this.
  • Warrior Prince: Don Juan of Austria, illegitimate son of Charles V and leader of the Christian fleet.
  • Won the War, Lost the Peace: Yes, the Holy League won the battle but the Ottoman Empire won the war, and Cyprus became a part of the empire.
    • And yet, the long term was won by the Holy League, as the Ottomans would never be able to regain the same level of naval power they had before the battle took place.
  • Worthy Opponent : Ali Pasha, the leader of the Ottoman fleet.

Depictions in fiction

  • "Lepanto", a poem from 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 turk 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.
    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.
  • 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.


Example of: