This week in history: The Battle of Lepanto illustrated differences between Islam and the West
On Oct. 7, 1571, the Christian navy of the Holy League battled against the might of the Muslim Ottoman Fleet at the Battle of Lepanto. Though outnumbered, the Christians were victorious largely because of Europe's developing capitalist system and willingness to innovate, which allowed for the swift creation of a powerful fleet.
Since the Islamic conquest of Constantinople in 1453, Ottoman armies had made increasing inroads into Europe and embraced a new Islamic triumphalism. After consolidating its hold over the Balkans, the Islamic force had attempted to take Vienna in 1529. After a protracted siege, the Ottomans were forced to fall back, though they viewed this episode as a minor setback that would soon be made right. For early 16th-century Ottomans, still flush with the victory over the Byzantine empire decades before, the eventual establishment of a worldwide caliphate was only a matter of time.
Halted on land, Ottoman forces increasingly sought to dominate the Eastern Mediterranean. Blessed by the pope, several Italian states joined together with Spain to confront Ottoman aggression and defend their holdings. The Christian fleet sailed to the Gulf of Patras, on the eastern coast of Greece, and there they located the forces of the Ottoman navy.
The Ottoman forces outnumbered the Holy League's, in both men and ships. The Ottomans boasted perhaps 250 vessels, while the Christians sailed perhaps 210. Additionally, the Holy League brought roughly 70,000 soldiers and sailors, while the Muslim force counted approximately 80,000. The Ottoman sailors, Jannisary shock troops and other forces, all the way up to their admiral, Ali Pasha, were slaves to the sultan, completely at his command. In contrast, most of the men who led the Christian force were free aristocrats, who were allowed to question their superiors and make suggestions freely.
In his book “Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power,” historian Victor Davis Hanson describes the battle:
“Many of the European galleys, particularly the Spanish vessels, were larger than their Ottoman counterparts. Their higher decks allowed boarding parties to jump down into the Turkish ships, while hundreds more of the Christian gunners remaining on board poured shot downward with impunity on the beleaguered enemy archers. The Christians — the Spanish especially — were also comfortable with mass charges, in which discipline, cohesion and sheer weight might overwhelm the individual bravery and martial skill of the Janissaries.”
Hanson notes that 150 Muslims and Christians had been killed every minute of the four-hour battle, making the total number of dead somewhere in the neighborhood of 40,000.
The Holy League did indeed win the day. In his seminal, 1920 work, “The Outline of History,” H.G. Wells wrote of the battle's legacy: “It was not until the Battle of Lepanto, in 1571 — the battle in which Cervantes, the author of 'Don Quixote,' lost his left arm — that Christendom, to use his words, 'broke the pride of the Osmans and undeceived the world which had regarded the Turkish fleet as invincible.'”
In his book “What Went Wrong?: The Clash Between Islam and Modernity in the Middle East,” historian Bernard Lewis wrote of the reaction from both sides to the battle: “In Europe, indeed, this was acclaimed as a major triumph. All Christendom exulted in this victory. ... The Turkish archives preserve the report of the Kapudan Pasha, the senior officer commanding the fleet, whose account of the battle of Lepanto is just two lines: 'The fleet of the divinely guided Empire encountered the fleet of the wretched infidels, and the will of Allah turned the other way.'”
So why did the outnumbered Spanish and Italian states prove victorious? According to Hanson, the primary reason was Europe's emerging capitalist system and willingness to innovate and the Ottomans' failure to develop similar institutions.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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