The Turkish Threat
The Battle of Lepanto on 7 October 1571 was one of the most
critical naval battles in history.
The Christian League forces were led by John of Austria, half brother of
King Philip II. The island of Cyprus had fallen to Turkish invasion.
The Turks had treacherously violated their agreement with the Greek
and Italian defenders. After all supplies were exhausted and guarantees
of safe conduct were offered, the Venetian garrison of Famagusta
The Turks then treacherously had all Venetian prisoners executed, the
rest enslaved and the courageous Christian General Marco Antonio
Bragadino, had his nose and ears cut off, his teeth broken and was
flayed with whips until dead.
As the Turks were planning further invasion of Europe, a coalition of
Christian forces under John of Austria included 206 galleys and 6
The Christian Coalition
The Christian fleet consisted of 109 galleys and 6 galleasses from the
Republic of Venice, 80 galleys from Spain, 12 Tuscan galleys of the order
of St. Stephen, 3 galleys each from the Republic of Genoa, the Knights of
Malta and the Duke of Suvoy, as well as some privately owned galleys.
The fleet was manned by almost 13,000 sailors, 43,000 rowers and
28,000 soldiers, including 10,000 Spanish, 7,000 German, 6,000 Italian
and 5,000 Venetian soldiers. Most of the 43,000 rowers were free
The Turkish Fleet
The Christian League was outnumbered by the larger Turkish fleet of
230 galleys and 60 galliots.
Under the command of Ali Pasha, the 13,000 experienced sailors were
drawn from all the maritime nations of the Ottoman Empire: Egyptians,
Syrians, Greeks and Berbers. The Turkish fleet included 34,000 soldiers.
Comparing the Opposing Forces
While the Christians were
outnumbered in every other way,
the Christian League had two
Their infantry were definitely superior, and the Christians had 1,815
cannons, compared to 750 among the Turkish vessels.
The Christians also had more advanced muskets, while the Ottomans
trusted in their greatly feared composite bowmen.
Unlike the Christian fleet, the Turkish fleet was
powered entirely by Christian slaves and
prisoners of war forced to row in chains.
The five hour battle was fought at the edge of the Gulf of Patras, off
Western Greece, near Corinth.
The Ottoman forces were sailing westwards from their naval base in
Lepanto, when they were confronted by the Christian League fleet
which had sailed from Messina.
The battle started when the Turks mistook the large galleasses to be
merchant supply vessels and set out to pirate them.
This proved to be disastrous because the galleasses were a new
Venetian innovation, carrying a tremendous battery of artillery.
The 6 Venetian galleasses sank up to 70 Turkish galleys before the rest of
the fleet could engage. The galleasses succeeded in breaking up the
Commander Barbarigo who led the left division, of mainly Venetian
galleys, was killed by a Turkish arrow, but the Venetians turned to face
the threat and held the line. Commander Pietro Giustiniani, of the
Knights of St. John was severely wounded by five arrows.
Clash of Flagships
The flagships of John of Austria and Ali Pasha directly engaged and
Austrian soldiers overwhelmed the Turkish janissaries seizing the
Ali Pasha was killed and beheaded. When his severed head was
displayed on a pike from the Austrian flagship, it had a devastating
effect on Turkish morale.
Hand to Hand Combat
Spanish and German infantry flowed onto the Turkish vessels and in
ferocious hand to hand combat, overwhelmed the Turks.
Over 210 Turkish
ships were lost. Of
these, 117 galleys
and 10 galliots
were captured in
condition to be
used by the
Christian forces in
The only prize captured by the Turks was one Venetian galley. On the
Christian side, 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 damaged so seriously
that they had to be scuttled.
The Turkish losses were estimated at 30,000 dead and wounded and
On the Christian side, 7,500 soldiers, sailors and rowers were dead, but
twice as many Christian prisoners were freed from Turkish galleys.
Turning the Turkish Tide
Lepanto was a crushing defeat for the Turks,
who lost all but 50 of their ships.
The Battle of Lepanto, following the Turkish defeat at the Great Siege of
Malta in 1565, restricted Ottoman expansionism in the Mediterranean.
It broke the threat of Muslim dominance at sea.
A Turning Point
Lepanto was one of the great
turning points in history.
It ended the fear of the Turks
that had threatened to
overwhelm all of Europe. It
stopped the Turkish advance.
Lepanto was the last major naval battle between rowing vessels.
Some Western historians have held Lepanto to be the most decisive
naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31BC.
It certainly was a turning point in history.
The Turkish Empire had lost so many experienced sailors, oarsmen, and
soldiers that the fighting effectiveness of the Ottoman Empire was never
able to recover.
It is a fact that the Ottoman navy avoided major confrontations with
Christian navies thereafter. The newly rebuilt Turkish navy rotted in their
Historian Paul Davis wrote: “This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey’s
expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining Western
dominance. Confidence grew in the West that the Turks, previously
unstoppable, could be beaten.” Lepanto heralded the end of Turkish
naval supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The Intervention of God
As historian Otto Scott observed: “Only God could have saved so divided
a Europe against so determined and savage, rich and heavily armed a
foe. After Lepanto the Turks remained a menace, but not an
Church bells tolled throughout Europe as many prayers of thanksgiving
were offered by millions of grateful Europeans.
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