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The Victory of the West:
The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto

by Niccolò Capponi
Perseus, 412 pages, $27.50

The Sermon on the Mount is a long way from the Qur’an, but the Christian soldiers of the sixteenth century knew well enough that weakness in the face of the Ottoman galleys sweeping the Italian coast meant death or conversion. Until the next world, violence alone ensured the survival of Christendom—and so, after their victory at the great Battle of Lepanto, Spanish and Italians butchered scores of defeated Turkish seamen thrashing in the bloody seas, determined that the sultan would lose all his skilled bowmen and rowers. In their way of thinking, any Jihadist left alive would mean only more Christian dead in the near future.

The clash on the Mediterranean between the West and Islam often turned even more horrific. In the months before the battle near Lepanto, the Venetian captain Marcantonio Bragadin surrendered the garrison at Famagusta to an overwhelming Turkish invasion force. Despite promises of safe passage out of Cyprus, mass slaughter and rape ensued, with the heads of the Venetian lords lined up for display in the town square. Bragadin first had his ears cut off, then was forced to carry earth as a captured slave. After having Bragadin hanged from a galley yard, the Ottoman commander Lala Mustafa ordered him flayed alive. He expired about halfway through the grisly torture, but his tormentors continued. His hide was stuffed with straw, clothed, and paraded as a trophy before being sent to Istanbul.

After the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, the landmark Christian-Muslim clashes of the past were continually evoked in popular dialogue, as if they were apparent precursors to the current Western struggle against radical Islam. So Poitiers, the Crusades, the Fall of Constantinople, Grenada, the Siege of Vienna, and Omdurman were all referenced—not just by Westerners but just as often by bin Laden and his associates, whose fatwas blared grievances about the lost “al-Andalus” and the infidel “Crusader kingdoms” in the Middle East.

Yet no East-West clash resonates more so than Lepanto, the great sea battle of October 7, 1571, that involved more than four hundred ships and eighty thousand seamen, and, along with Actium, Salamis, and Ecnomus, may well have been one of the most deadly single-day naval battles in history. Fought off the northwest coast of Greece near the Curzolaris Islands—not far south from Augustus’ great victory over Marc Antony and Cleopatra at Actium—Lepanto proved the last great clash of oared ships that resulted in an unforeseen victory of Christendom over the sultan’s feared Ottoman fleet.

But while Christian Europeans at the time saw their victory as a divine gift that saved their civilization, its geopolitical significance has always underwhelmed modern historians. The Christian League was an ad hoc alliance of convenience, riddled with internecine fighting and intrigue. It was never really much more than the galley fleets of Spain, the Papal States, and Venice. England and France kept clear. Both had long ago cut their own deals with the Ottomans. Indeed, during the winter of 1542 the French had even allowed the Ottoman corsair Barbarossa the use of their harbor at Toulon to refit, as he conducted raids along the Italian coast.

For most countries with ports on the Atlantic, it was far better to get rich trading with the Turk than to fight him. As Niccolò Capponi writes in his new book, The Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto:

By the beginning of the sixteenth century Christendom was in a very sorry state. Gone were the crusading ideals of old; people turned deaf ears to the alarmed utterances of preachers and popes about the necessity of stopping the Turkish advance. For most European governments the Ottoman threat was low on their list of concerns—they were more interested in maintaining their positions in the rich eastern markets—while a few states were quite ready to abet, or at least not hinder, the sultan’s expansionist policies for the sake of their own commercial interests. 

So the battle was hardly an epic struggle of a consolidated Europe against the Eastern threat. If the Ottomans had united most of the Muslims of the Middle East under the Grand Porte, Europe was trisected by Orthodoxy, Catholicism, and Protestantism. The best admirals in the Turkish fleet were often Italian renegades. Galley rowers were in no small part Christian slaves. The best Turkish galleys themselves were either copied from Italian designs or captured from the Spanish and Venetians and refitted.

On the voyage out to meet the Ottoman fleet, Don Juan of Austria—the bastard son of King Charles V of Spain, half-brother of King Philip II, and the nominal head of the allied Christian fleet—almost arrested some of his allied Venetian admirals. One, Sebastiano Venier, had hanged some murderous seamen employed by the Spanish, which nearly precipitated a war between the two allied fleets on the eve of the battle.

It was never quite clear how many Christian ships would actually show up to sail eastward toward Lepanto, the winter port of the Ottomans, much less how the galleys were to be provisioned and their crews paid. By October and the onset of rough seas, many admirals in the fleet thought the season to go chasing the huge Ottoman fleet was long over.

Even when the Christians won and nearly destroyed the Ottoman armada, Europe was too disunited to capitalize on the enemy’s setback. It never recaptured the lost Cyprus, much less sailed up the Dardanelles to retake Constantinople. In contrast, the Ottomans quickly replaced their galleys, hired new crews, and went on the offensive again in the eastern Mediterranean, recapturing most of their fortresses in North Africa within a year.

What is it then about Lepanto that, more than six hundred years later, still makes it a symbol of a supposedly indomitable Christian West? The heroic efforts of an aged, obsessed Pope Pius V to cobble together a makeshift fleet of last resort to put a stop to the continuous westward surge of Islam? The singular calm of the twenty-six-year-old Don Juan, who danced a jig on his flagship Real in the very seconds before the battle—after offering one of the tersest and most famous pre-battle harangues in military history: “Gentlemen, this is not the time to discuss but to fight.”

Was the battle’s immortality due to its popularity in literature and art? The young Cervantes was wounded in the battle and later wrote that Lepanto was the “most noble and memorable event that past centuries have seen or future generations can ever hope to witness.” Massive canvasses by Titian and Tintoretto commemorated the victory. Or was Lepanto enshrined by the raw courage of the mortally wounded Antonio Barbarigo; the brilliant performance of the unshakeable Don Álvaro de Bazán, marquis of Santa Cruz; or the fire of seventy-five-year-old Sebastiano Venier, later doge of Venice?

Surprisingly, there has not been an accessible, scholarly one-volume history of the battle in English until the present work of the Italian Renaissance scholar Niccolò Capponi. Drawing on new archival work and reexamining contemporary letters and inventories, Capponi offers a fresh view of both the fighting (he eschews the traditional nomenclature of Lepanto for the battle and prefers the more geographically accurate Curzolis ) and its strategic significance, rejecting the common opinion that the victory had few lasting consequences. His title, Victory of the West, thus refers to Western triumph in both the fullest tactical and strategic sense.

Only about thirty of the book’s four hundred pages are devoted to a narrative of the fighting. Capponi instead has given an account of the rise of the Ottomans and of the divisiveness and the bickering rampant in Western Europe. He also provides meticulous information about the mechanics and horrendous expense of galley warfare on the Mediterranean.

Capponi is no triumphalist. Indeed, he announces at the outset, “I also admit to having something of a soft spot for the Turks as a fighter, my great-great-grandfather, a Crimean War veteran, describing them as the best soldiers in the world.” In the midst of describing serial Turkish atrocities, he quotes an Ottoman official that deplored such savagery and notes that sometimes Christians were as likely to execute prisoners as were Ottomans.

How then did the Christians win the battle? They were probably outnumbered, both in ships and men. Lepanto was fought in Turkish-controlled waters near the Ottoman winter port at the mouth of the Gulf of Corinth opposite Patras, the present-day Nafpaktos. The Venetians had lost Cyprus and were demoralized from increasingly bold attacks on the coast of Italy.

Capponi summarizes the usual reasons for the incredible victory, previously outlined by others. The use of six galleasses—huge artillery platforms towed to the front of the Christian fleet—devastated many of the first lines of the Ottoman armada before it even engaged. These monsters fired from between forty and fifty cannon of various calibers, often blowing apart the light Ottoman galleys that rarely had more than five or six guns, and sometimes even fewer.

Capponi draws on contemporary scientific accounts to emphasize the deadliness of these new contraptions. Overall, the Christian galleys had far more guns, composed of better cast bronze, and superior training and discipline in ballistics. Their marines were armed with harquebuses in far greater numbers, and armor plate made them almost invincible to Ottoman archery.

Spanish and Italian captains tried to avoid fighting hand-to-hand with the more numerous Turkish swordsmen and instead relied on small- and large-arms fire to thin out the enemy galleys before boarding them. These inherent advantages testify to the growing sixteenth-century technological gap between Western Europe and the Ottomans. The Turks’ lack of a sophisticated banking system and the unfettered intellectual pursuit of the Europeans, together with a changing maritime world outside the Mediterranean, made it ever more difficult to match the West in munitions and naval prowess. The Ottoman answer instead was usually more Janissaries and more galleys, at precisely the time that lucrative East-West overland trade was drying up and Europe was increasingly unconcerned with what the sultan had to offer.

The canard survives that Lepanto did not change a thing—a century later the Turks were still able to mount a great offensive against the West that would reach to the gates of Vienna, and the Ottoman Empire survived into the twentieth century. In the words of the Ottomans, they merely had their beard shaved at Lepanto rather than their arm lost like the Christians at Cyprus.

But Capponi emphasizes the battle’s more insidious psychological consequences. Before Lepanto, the Turks cruised with impunity along the southern coast of Europe; afterward, they were uncertain whether their galleys would be attacked and defeated anywhere in the Mediterranean.

More important still, galley warfare itself was coming to a end, as those European states with Atlantic ports—Britain, France, the Netherlands, Portugal, and Spain—found no need of either Mediterranean transit or Ottoman overland routes to tap the great natural wealth of the Orient and the newly opened Americas. In just a few years, a single galleon, crammed with cheaper iron cannon, could blast apart an entire Turkish fleet of galleys that were ill-equipped to venture out of the Mediterranean into the Atlantic, where the action increasingly was found.

As Capponi makes clear, galleys were ingeniously designed for the relative calm of the Mediterranean, where East and West were often only a few days—or hours—apart. So the problem was not so much with galleys but rather that the sea on which they traveled had lost its global centrality and proved a barrier rather than a bridge to the wealth of the ever more powerful West. In other words, Lepanto was the Ottomans’ last gasp. When the courage and numbers of the Turkish fleet at its zenith still failed to stop a divided southern Europe, then the future was set, as a parasitic Ottoman Empire increasingly lost its host.

It is to the credit of Capponi that he tells the riveting, human story of the battle while keeping in mind its larger historical and strategic implications. And while he is always sensitive to the often bizarre nature of the Ottoman Empire, with its devsirme , harem, imperial court fratricide, and Janissaries, he never falls into the politically correct fallacy that Istanbul’s religious and political values were just different rather than antithetical to the worldview of a freer and more vibrant West. Indeed, it is the divide that we still see today.

Victor Davis Hanson , a classicist and military historian, is the Martin and Illie Anderson fellow at the Hoover Institution and the author most recently of A War Like No Other: How the Athenians and Spartans Fought the Peloponnesian War.