The rulers of the West, however, had to watch the guns, for Ottoman sultans had announced their intention of making all Europe Moslem. The manpower and the wealth of their sprawling realm gave them the largest and best-equipped army in Europe. The Janissaries alone numbered over fifty thousand. Perhaps the salvation of the West, and of Christianity, lay in the very vastness of the Ottoman Empire; distances were too great to bring the scattered resources to a point. And the sultans, though they constituted a more enduring dynasty (1288–1922) than any Christian ruling family, were deteriorating through the opportunities of the harem, and were delegating their government to transitory viziers whose insecurity tempted them to cushion their fall by feathering their nests.

So Selim II, who succeeded Suleiman the Magnificent in 1566, was a dissolute idler, whose one stroke of genius lay in entrusting both administration and policy to his able vizier, Mohammed Sokolli. The Turkish assaults upon the Holy Roman Empire were interrupted; Emperor Maximilian II bought peace with an annual tribute of thirty thousand ducats, and Sokolli turned to nearer game. Arabia had preserved its independence religiously, but now (1570) it was conquered for the Porte. The Aegean Sea was still dotted with Venetian possessions hampering Turkish fleets and trade; Lala Mustafa was sent against Cyprus with sixty thousand men. Venice appealed to the Christian powers for help; only the Pope and Spain responded. Pius V had not forgotten that in 1566 a Turkish fleet had threatened Ancona, the papal port and fortress on the Adriatic. Philip II knew that the Moors of Spain, suffering under his blows, had appealed to the Sultan for help (1569), and that their embassy had been favorably received. The diplomatic situation was illuminating. The Emperor would not join in war against Turkey, for he had just signed a treaty of peace and could not honorably or safely break it. France opposed any plan that would raise the power or prestige of Spain, and she cultivated the friendship of the Turks as an aid against the Emperor. England feared that a common enterprise with Philip would leave her at the mercy of Catholic Spain in case of victory. Venice worried lest victory bring Spanish power into the Adriatic and end Venetian monopoly of that sea. Pius labored for a year to overcome these hesitations; he had to consent to the use of ecclesiastical revenues by Venice and Spain; finally (May 20, 1571) the three powers joined in a Holy League and prepared for war.

During these negotiations the Turkish attack upon Cyprus had proceeded with great losses on both sides. Nicosia was taken after a siege of forty-five days; twenty thousand of its inhabitants were put to the sword. Famagusta resisted for almost a year; when it fell (August 6, 1571) its heroic defender, Marcantonio Bragadino, was flayed alive, and his skin, stuffed with straw, was sent to Constantinople as a trophy.

So prodded, the Holy League gathered its forces. Savoy, Florence, Parma, Lucca, Ferrara, Urbino, and Venice’s old enemy, Genoa, contributed vessels and men. At Naples Don Juan of Austria received the admiral’s flag in solemn ceremony from Cardinal de Granvelle. On September 16, after the sailors and soldiers had been given the Eucharist by the Jesuits and Capuchins who were attached to the expedition, the armada sailed from Messina past the toe and heel of Italy across the Strait of Otranto to the island of Corfu. Here the news came of the massacres and atrocities that had attended the fall of Cyprus. The thirst for revenge animated the crews, and shouts of “Vittoria! Vittoria! Viva Cristo!” rose from the fleet as Don Juan gave the order to advance to battle.

On October 7, 1571, the armada moved through the Gulf of Patras into the Gulf of Corinth. There, off the port of Lepanto, the Turkish navy was waiting, with 222 galleys, 60 smaller vessels, 750 cannon, 34,000 soldiers, 13,000 sailors, 41,000 rowers. The Christians had 207 galleys, 6 greater Venetian galleasses mounting heavy guns, 30 smaller vessels, 1,800 cannon, 30,000 soldiers, 12,900 sailors, 43,000 rowers.13 The Christian fleet carried a standard of Christ crucified; the Turkish carried the Sultan’s standard, bearing the name of Allah embroidered in gold. The right wing of the Christians gave way before the Turks, but the left wing, under the Venetians, turned sturdy resistance into disciplined attack, and the artillery of the galleasses killed thousands of Turks. Don Juan ordered his flagship to steer straight for that of the Ottoman admiral, Muesinade Ali. When they met, the Don’s 300 Spanish veterans boarded the Turkish galley; a Capuchin monk led them to the assault, waving a crucifix aloft; the battle was decided when the vessel was captured, and Ali’s severed head was hoisted upon his own flagstaff.14 The morale of the Turks collapsed. Forty of their ships escaped, but 117 were captured and 50 others were sunk or burned. Over 8,000 Turks died in the battle, 10,000 were taken prisoner, and most of these were distributed as slaves among the victors. Some 12,000 Christian slaves, rowing in the Turkish galleys, were freed. The Christians lost 12 galleys and 7,500 men killed, including members of the oldest and most prominent families in Italy. It was unquestionably the greatest naval battle of modern times. Cervantes, who was among the 7,500 wounded Christians, described it as “the most memorable occasion that either past or present ages have beheld, and which perhaps the future will never parallel.”I15

It should have been the most decisive battle in modern history, but the exhaustion of the rowers, the damaged condition of the victorious fleet, and the rise of a violent storm prevented pursuit of the Turks. Quarrels sprang up among the Christians over the distribution of the glory and the spoils. As Spain had contributed half the ships and expense, Venice a third, and the papacy a sixth, the booty was divided accordingly. The Turkish prisoners were allotted in like proportion; Philip II received 3,600 slaves in chains, and out of the Pope’s share Don Juan was granted 174 slaves as an honorarium.16 Some Christian leaders wished to keep as slaves the Christians freed from the Turkish galleys, but Pius V forbade it.17

All Catholic Europe rejoiced when news of the triumph arrived. Venice decked itself with garlands and art; men kissed each other when they met in the street; Titian, Tintoretto, and Veronese painted vast pictures of the battle, and the Venetian leader, Sebastiano Veniero, was feted for days and nights and at last was chosen doge. Rome, where, since the departure of the armada from Messina, clergy and laity had spent hours each day in anxious prayer, broke out in Te Deums of joy and relief; and Pius V, organizer of victory, almost canonized Don Juan by applying to him the words of the Gospel: “There was a man sent from God, whose name was John” (John i, 6). Masses were said, fireworks were set off, salvos of artillery were fired. The Pope begged the victors to assemble another fleet; he besought the rulers of Europe to seize the opportunity by uniting in a crusade to drive the Turks out of Europe and the Holy Land. He appealed to the Shah of Persia and Sheik Mutahat of Arabia Felix to join the Christians in the attack upon the Ottomans.18But France, jealous of Spain, proposed to the Sultan, soon after Lepanto, a direct alliance against Philip II.II19 Intelligence of this offer shared with other factors in dissuading Philip from further enterprise against the main Turkish power. He was involved in disputes with England and in the mess that Alva was making in the Netherlands; he resented Venetian insistence on monopolizing trade in the Adriatic, and he feared that another victory over the Turks would rehabilitate the crumbling empire of Venice and strengthen her as a rival to Spain. Pius V, worn out with victory and defeat, died on May 1, 1572, and the Holy League died with him.

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