Post-classical history

Lepanto, Battle of (1571)

Lepanto, located on the southern coast of central Greece opposite the Peloponnese, was the site of the last great galley battle between a united Christian fleet and the Ottoman navy on 7 October 1571.

The battle of Lepanto was the culmination of an ongoing naval war between the Ottoman Turks and the Habsburgs of Spain that began with the Ottoman conquest of Egypt from the Mamlûks in 1517. In succeeding years, Turkish and Christian ships vied for control of the sea lanes in the central Mediterranean. Some of the significant engagements prior to Lepanto were fought at Penon of Algiers (1529), Tunis (1534, 1535), Algiers (1541), Tripoli (1551), Bejaïa (1555), Jerba (1560), and Malta (1565).

The immediate cause of the Lepanto campaign was the Ottoman conquest of Cyprus from the Venetians in 1570-1571. In retaliation Pope Pius V and Venice organized the Holy League against Sultan Selim II’s fleet, and encouraged Philip II of Spain to join. In return for crusading tithes, Philip promised to pay half the total cost of the league, while Venice paid a third and Pius V a sixth. The duke of Savoy and the Knights of Malta also contributed galleys to the Christian fleet.

The fleet of the Holy League, led by Don Juan of Austria, Mark-Anthony Colonna, and Sebastian Venier, sailed in September after the Turks captured Famagusta on Cyprus. The Christians planned to retake Tunis (which the Ottomans had captured in 1569) while the Turks were fighting in Cyprus. They encountered a Turkish fleet, commanded by Pertev Pasha, general of the Ottoman land forces, and Muezzinzade Ali Pasha, commander of the fleet. The battle pitted 208 Christian ships against 275 Ottoman ships. Approximately 100,000 men fought in the battle. The Christians lost 15 or 20 ships and 8,000 men, and the Ottomans lost 210 ships and more than 30,000 men.

Contemporary Christians celebrated Lepanto as a major victory over the Muslim Turks, and the Ottomans considered it a major disaster. Modern scholars, however, question whether the battle decisively halted Ottoman expansion. The Ottoman Empire retained Cyprus, and its sea power recovered rapidly after Lepanto. The Holy League collapsed by 1573, and subsequent attempts to reconstitute it failed. The conflict between the Ottomans and the Spanish continued until both sides agreed to a truce in 1580.

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