Battle of Lepanto

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The battle of Lepanto was a decisive naval engagement fought on 7 October 1571. A Turkish fleet of about 275 galleys and other ships under Ali Pasha clashed with a Christian force of about 230 galleys and galleasses (much larger than galleys). The Christian fleet was mostly Spanish and Venetian, and was commanded by Don John of Austria.

The battle was fought in the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, and the outcome was a massive victory for the Christian fleet. The Turks suffered about 15,000-20,000 killed, out of 88,000 engaged; Christians lost 7,650 dead and 8,000 injured from a force of 84,000. Out of 230 Ottoman galleys, 80 were sunk and 130 captured.[1]


For over a century the Ottoman Empire had tried to expand west and north into Christian areas.[2] Europe was increasingly fearful.[3] Suleiman I, the Magnificent (1520-66), captured Belgrade and Rhodes, but failed in his siege of Vienna (1529). His son, Selim II (1566-74), was under the sway of Don Joseph Nasi, who persuaded Selim to declare war on Venice for the purpose of taking Cyprus, which at the time was under Venetian control.

The delicate military balance of power in the eastern Mediterranean finally tipped when the Turks invaded Cyprus, massacred the people of Nicosia, and laid siege to Famagusta, which fell on August 4, 1571. Pope Pius V then unified most of the Christian forces into a "Holy League" against the Turks. Spain gave command to Don Juan of Austria (1547-1578), the half brother of King Philip II of Spain. The master engineers of Venice provided the fleet with the galleass, a ship able to carry numerous heavy guns.


Spanish novelist Miguel de Cervantes, hit three times at Lepanto by gunfire which ruined his left hand, called it "the most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future can ever hope to witness."[4]

Don John split his fleet into three squadrons and took personal command of the center with some sixty galleys. The right and left, under Gianandrea Doria and Admiral Barbarigo respectively, each had about sixty ships. Two reserve flotillas sailed behind them.

The Turkish admiral Ali Pasha split his fleet into three wings and commanded the center himself. His right wing, under Mehmed Suluk, faced against Barbarigo's squadron and Uluch Ali, with another Ottoman squadron, moved to the south with the intention of outflanking Gianandrea Doria's squadron and attacking them in the rear. The Turkish reserve, about ninety galleys in three lines, stood behind Ali's battle fleet. Both fleets presented a battle line of about three miles in length. The flagships of Don John and Ali Pasha headed straight for each other. Leading the Christian armada was a secret weapon provided by the Venetians: six very large galleasses carried immense batteries of heavy guns. The Turks had nothing like them, and nothing to answer their smashing cannonades. The Turkish formations broke apart.

As the galleys locked into close combat, the arquebus, arrow and sword became the basic weapons, for Lepanto now became a fight between soldiers using their ships as a base for small arms fire and hand-to-hand combat. Don John led the boarding party onto the Turkish flagship and soon overwhelmed it; Ali Pasha was killed by an arquebus shot. In the five-hour battle the Christians did as well on other wings; only Uluch Ali escaped, returning to Istanbul with most of his flotilla.

Turkish historians attribute the defeat to the inexperience of Uluç Ali Pasha, the admiral; the inefficiency of Pertev Pasha, commander of the marines; the misconceived orders from headquarters; and the fleet's undermanned complement.

The battle was the climax of a century-long advance in oar-propelled warships. In marked the first major use of naval artillery in the west. The galleasses used sails, not oars; their high sides suited the harsh ocean conditions and made an ideal gun platforms. The Turks relied too long on oar-driven manpower-intensive galleys, unfit for long voyages or heavy seas. The great European sailing ships with their big guns and huge cargo capacity gave the West a decisive advantage in the conquest and colonization of the globe. The Ottoman Empire, still by far the leading Muslim power, fell further and further behind.

Financially the Spanish imperial cost was approximately 1,225,000 escudos, of which the main Italian dependencies of Naples, Milan, and Sicily contributed over 440,000. These costs were partly offset by papal grants of income to the Spanish monarchy from religious taxes collected in Spain. With loot, sale of captured vessels, slaves, and the papal grants, the campaign showed a net profit to Spain. No estimates are available of the financial cost to Venice and the Ottoman Empire.[5]


To Europeans at the time the victory seemed to mark a turning point in the fortunes of Christendom. The impact was especially important in the first military triumph for decades in which Venice could take pride, and its effect on Venetian morale at all levels of society was incalculable. Venice had been at peace for a generation as Turkish pressure kept growing. Ever since the Turks had retreated from Malta in 1565, the Venetians had feared that Crete or Cyprus would be the next target for the unstoppable galleys of the Ottoman fleet. Victory was celebrated by drawing on the arts to create a popular iconography that reinforced civic unity by stressing the myth that Venetians lived in a perfect state. The Turks were portrayed as instruments of God's wrath at Venice and Christendom for their sins that could only be overcome with moral regeneration led by an angelic pope.[6]

Pope Pius V (r. 1566-72) in gratitude for the victory inaugurated the feast of the Holy Rosary. He interpreted the Christian victory as the beginning of fulfillment of messianic prophecies current in the popular culture of the day. He specifically believed that the allied Christian princes were destined to reconquer Jerusalem and the Holy Land in a new crusade, and that would unite all Christians, including Protestants and Eastern Orthodox. However the Spanish king Philip II was reluctant to pursue that particular messianic quest because he was much more concerned about the Muslims in North Africa.

Recent historians have emphasized that the symbolic and emotional importance outweighed the military or diplomatic results, which were mixed. The Turks rapidly rebuilt their navy in the winter of 1571-72, launching over 150 galleys in 1572; Venice subsequently reached a separate peace in return for the cession of Cyprus and the payment of a large sum in war indemnities.

Further reading

See the detailed guide at the Bibliography subpage

  • Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Vol. 2 (1977), pp 225-514; classic from the Annales School
  • Capponi, Niccolò. The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto (2007) excerpt and text search
  • Hopkins, T. C. F. Confrontation at Lepanto: Christendom vs. Islam (2007), 208pp excerpt and text search
  • Konstam, Angus. Lepanto 1571: The Greatest Naval Battle of the Renaissance (2005). 96pp; excerpt and text search


  1. The numbers vary widely among the sources. Most of the oarsmen in the Turkish fleet were enslaved Christians; those who were captured by Don Juan were freed.
  2. See Andrew C. Hess, "The Battle of Lepanto and its Place in Mediterranean History." Past and Present 1972 #57: 53-73
  3. See Niccolò Capponi, The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto (2007) ch. 1
  4. Cervantes also has Don Quixote cry out, "Blessed be those happy ages that were strangers to the dreadful fury of these devilish instruments of artillery, whose inventor I am satisfied is now in hell, receiving the reward of his cursed invention."
  5. Geoffrey Parker, and I. A. A. Thompson, "The Battle of Lepanto, 1571: the Costs of Victory." Mariner's Mirror 1978 64(1): 13-21. Issn: 0025-3359
  6. Iain Fenlon, "Lepanto and the Arts of Creation." History Today 45#9 (Sept. 1995) pp 24+.