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This week in history: The Battle of Lepanto illustrated differences between Islam and the West

By Cody Carlson

For the Deseret News

Published: Thursday, Oct. 10 2013 5:20 p.m. MDT

Figures from antiquity long realized the importance of money and economics when it came to warfare. Thucydides stated, “Accumulated capital, nor forced exactions, is what sustains wars.” Cicero said, “The sinews of war are infinite money.”

Hanson noted the relative economic power of the tiny Republic of Venice alone compared to the vast Ottoman Empire: “(Venice's) output of goods and services was far smaller than that of the French, Spanish or English economy. At the time of Lepanto the population of Venice itself was less than 200,000. … In contrast, the sultan ruled a population a hundredfold greater than Venice, with far more reserves of wood, ores, agricultural products and precious metals. … Yet in terms of military assets, trade, commerce and influence on the Mediterranean, Venice by itself throughout the 16th century was the near rival of the Ottomans.

“Ostensibly, Venetian power lay in its uncanny ability to craft weapons of war according to modern principles of specialization and capitalist production. …thousands of muskets, harquebuses and cannon, plus supplies of dry timber, were fabricated and then kept in constant strategic reserve.”

Hanson said Venice also boasted a public council that, in the event of war, oversaw the creation of a vast number of ships in a relatively short amount of time — this in addition to private firms engaged in shipbuilding.

“Venice's strength vis-à-vis the Turks lay not so much in geography, natural resources, religious zealotry or a commitment to continual warring and raiding as in its system of capitalism, consensual government and devotion to disinterested research,” Hanson wrote.

The application of these principles not only helped the Holy League prepare for and wage war; it was also the lack of these same cultural values that crippled the Ottomans. Ali Pasha, the Ottoman admiral, had nowhere to keep his vast wealth safe while he was away at sea. The Ottoman Empire had no banks or similar institutions, and Ottoman nobles would often, illegally, invest in the West. Pasha, however, took his great wealth with him into battle at Lepanto, in the holds of his flagship. When the battle was lost, the admiral's wealth was plundered by the Christians.

Hanson also noted that military technology and inventions like the printing press were generally more welcome in Europe than in the Ottoman Empire, where such new innovations often created important social ramifications. Consequently, when the Ottomans adopted firearms, each Janissary functioned little different than he had with a sword — as an individual seeking to earn his way into paradise. By contrast, Europeans brought the same discipline to firearms as they had to earlier infantry combat. They were trained to act together, as the Spartans had at Thermopylae and the Franks at Poitiers.

Upon the realization that war had arrived, Venice and her allies had infrastructure in place with which to create an impressive arsenal of the latest vessels. Six of their ships were the innovative and impressive galleasses, huge galleys which boasted an unprecedented level of firepower. Benefiting from their institutions, and with their free crews and soldiers working in concert, the Holy League's navy proved superior in every way but numbers at Lepanto.

By contrast, the bulk of the Ottoman navy (those ships not captured from the West), remained the lumbering galleys they had relied on for decades, the designs little improved over the centuries. Their crews were largely slaves, rowing at their masters' commands more out of fear of punishment than out of love of cause or country. The fleet's admiral was reduced to carrying his gold with him, lest tax collectors or thieves back home steal from him in secret, and he risked losing it should the battle not go his way — which is exactly what happened.

The 1571 Battle of Lepanto highlighted these important cultural differences between a developing and innovative West and the continuing seventh-century mindset of Islam. Lepanto would leave a mark upon the Ottoman Empire, however, and the next 400 years saw the Ottomans selectively modernizing, slowly and gradually acknowledging Western superiority in certain fields like money and warfare (something unheard of before the battle).

When the Ottomans and the Holy League signed the Treaty of Sitvatorok in 1606, thus formally ending the conflict, Western leaders were addressed with the same respect and equality as the Sultan — a first for a treaty in the Ottoman Empire.

Cody K. Carlson holds a master's degree in history from the University of Utah and currently teaches at SLCC. Cody has also appeared on many local stages including Hale Center Theater and Off Broadway Theater. Email: ckcarlson76@gmail.com

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