Lepanto in Consequence

At eleven A.M. on October 19 a single galley came rowing into the Venetian lagoon. A ripple of alarm spread among those standing on the water’s edge of the piazzetta of Saint Mark. The vessel appeared to be manned by Turks, yet it came confidently forward. Nearer, the swelling crowd could discern Ottoman banners trailing from its stern; then the bow guns fired a bursting victory salute. News of Lepanto swept through the city. No one had risked more, played for higher stakes, or experienced such extremes of emotion as the Venetians. They had seen Ottoman warships in their lagoon, watched the ransacking of their colonies, lost Cyprus, and endured the terrible fate of Bragadin. Venice exploded with pent-up emotion. There were bells and bonfires and church services. Strangers hugged in the street. The shopkeepers hung notices on their doors—CLOSED FOR THE DEATH OF THE TURK—and shut for a week. The authorities flung open the gates of the debtors’ jail and permitted the unseasonal wearing of carnival masks. People danced in the squares by torchlight to the squeal of fifes. Elaborate floats depicting Venice triumphant, accompanied by lines of prisoners in clanking chains, wound through Saint Mark’s square. Even the pickpockets were said to take a holiday. All the shops on the Rialto were decorated with Turkish rugs, flags, and scimitars, and from the seat of a gondola you could gaze up at the bridge where two lifelike turbaned heads stared at each other, looking as if they had been freshly severed from the living bodies. The Ottoman merchants barricaded themselves in their warehouse and waited for the city to calm down. Two months later, in an unaccustomed fit of religious zeal, the Venetians remembered the butcher who had taken his knife to Bragadin, and expelled all the Jews from their territories.

Each of the main protagonists reacted to the news in his own way. According to legend, the pope had already been apprised of the outcome by divine means. At the moment Ali Pasha fell to the deck, the pope was said to have opened his window, straining to catch a sound. Then turned to his companion and said, “God be with you; this is no time for business, but for giving thanks to God, for at this moment our fleet is victorious.” None had worked harder for this outcome. When word reached him by more conventional means, the old man threw himself to his knees, thanked God, and wept—then deplored the exorbitant waste of gunpowder in firing off celebratory shots. For Pius, it was the justification of his life. “Now, Lord,” he murmured, “you can take your servant, for my eyes have seen your salvation.” Philip was at church when the news reached him in Madrid. His reaction was as phlegmatic as Suleiman’s after Djerba: “He didn’t show any excitement, change his expression or show any trace of feeling; his expression was the same as it had been before, and it remained like that until they finished singing vespers.” Then he soberly ordered a Te Deum.

Lepanto was Europe’s Trafalgar, a signal event that gripped the whole Christian continent. They celebrated it as far away as Protestant London and Lutheran Sweden. Don Juan was instantly the hero of the age, the subject of countless poems, plays, and news sheets. The papacy declared October 7 henceforward to be dedicated to Our Lady of the Rosary. James VI of Scotland was moved to compose eleven hundred lines of Latin doggerel. The Turkish wars became the fit subject for English dramatists—Othello returns from fighting “the general enemy Ottoman” on Cyprus. In Italy, the great painters of the age set to on monumental canvases. Titian has Philip holding his newborn son up to winged victory while a bound captive kneels at his feet, his turban rolling on the floor, and Turkish galleys explode in the distance. Tintoretto portrays Sebastiano Venier, gruff and whiskery in black armor, gripping his staff of office before a similar scene. Vasari, Vicentino, and Veronese produce huge battle scenes of tangled fury, full of smoke, flame, and drowning men, all lit by shafts of light from the Christian heaven. And everywhere, from Spain to the Adriatic, church services, processions of victors and captive Turks, weeping crowds, and the dedication of Ottoman battle trophies. Ali Pasha’s great green banner hung in the palace in Madrid, another in the church at Pisa; in the red-tiled churches of the Dalmatian coast they displayed figureheads and Ottoman stern lanterns and lit candles in memory of the part their galleys played on the left wing.

In the wake of all this euphoria there were small acts of chivalry. Don Juan was said to have been personally upset by Ali Pasha’s death; he recognized in the kapudan pasha a worthy opponent. It is an ironic note that these two most humane commanders, bound by a shared code of honor, had contrived such great slaughter. In May 1573, Don Juan received a letter from Selim’s niece—the sister of Ali’s two sons—to beg for their release. One had died in captivity; the other Don Juan returned, along with the gifts she had sent and a touching reply. “You may be assured,” he wrote, “that, if in any other battle he or any other of those belonging to you should become my prisoner, I will with equal cheerfulness as now give them their liberty, and do whatever may be agreeable to you.” This prompted a response from the sultan in person, still, as ever, “Conqueror of Provinces, Extinguisher of Armies, terrible over lands and seas,” to Don Juan, “captain of unique virtue [courage]…. Your virtue, most generous Juan, has been destined to be the sole cause, after a very long time, of greater harm than the sovereign and ever-felicitous House of Osman has previously received from Christians. Rather than offence, this gives me the opportunity to send you gifts.”

Others were harder-hearted. The Venetians understood that naval supremacy rested less in ships than in men. To the pope’s horror, they sent Venier urgent orders to kill all the skilled Ottoman mariners in his power “secretly, in the manner that seems to you most discreet,” and requested that Spain do the same. With such measures they hoped and believed that the maritime power of the Turk had been decisively broken: “It can now be said with reason that their power in naval matters is significantly diminished.”

In time the Venetians discovered that the tough-minded Ottomans were not shattered by this shattering defeat. The tone was set by Mehmet, Ali’s seventeen-year-old son, two days after the battle. In captivity, he met a Christian boy who was crying. It was the son of Bernardino de Cardenas, mortally wounded at the prow of the Real. “Why is he crying?” asked Mehmet. When he was told the reason, he replied, “Is that all? I have lost my father, and also my fortune, country, and liberty, yet I shed no tears.”

Selim was in Edirne when news of the disaster reached him. According to the chronicler Selaniki, he was initially so deeply affected that he did not sleep or eat for three days. Prayers were recited in the mosques and there was fear verging on panic in the streets of Istanbul that, with its fleet destroyed, the city could be attacked by sea. It was a moment of crisis for the sultanate, but its response, under the assured guidance of Sokollu, was prompt. Selim hurried back to Istanbul; his presence, as he rode through the streets with the vizier at his side, seems to have stabilized the situation.

The Ottomans came to use a euphemism for this heavy defeat: the battle of the dispersed fleet. Uluch Ali’s initial report had tried to soften the blow by suggesting that the navy had been scattered rather than annihilated. “The enemy’s loss has been no less than yours,” he wrote to the sultan. As the full scale of the catastrophe sank in, it was received with acceptance, as Charles had taken the shipwreck at Algiers. “A battle may be won or lost,” Selim declared. “It was destined to happen this way according to God’s will.” Sokollu wrote to Pertev Pasha, one of the few leaders to escape with his life (though not with his position), in a similar vein. “The will of God makes itself manifest in this way, as it has appeared in the mirror of destiny…. We trust that-all-powerful God will visit all kinds of humiliation on the enemies of the religion.” It was a setback, not a catastrophe. The Turks even tried to find positives in God’s scourge, quoting a sura of the Koran, “But it may happen that you hate a thing which is good for you.” Yet within the sultan’s domain there could be no clear analysis of the underlying causes. All blame was heaped on the dead Ali Pasha, the admiral who “had not commanded a single rowing boat in his life.” The true reasons for the defeat—the attempt to overmanage the campaign from Istanbul, the struggle for power between the court factions under a weak sultan, the motives for appointing Ali Pasha—these remained hidden. Sokollu himself was suspiciously implicated in these dealings but the subsequent crisis only served to demonstrate his ability and strengthen his grip on power. He moved swiftly and efficiently to manage the situation; orders and requests for information were fired off to the governors of Greek provinces; Uluch Ali was appointed de facto kapudan pasha—all other potential candidates were dead.

By the time Uluch Ali sailed back into Istanbul, he had managed to scrape together eighty-two galleys along the way to make some sort of show, and he flew the standard of the Maltese knights as a battle trophy. This display was pleasing enough to Selim for him not only to spare Uluch’s life but also to confirm the corsair as kapudan pasha—admiral of the imperial navy. And as if to signal a great triumph, the sultan also conferred an honorific name on his commander. Henceforth Uluch was to be known as Kilich (sword) Ali. The knight’s banner was hung in the Aya Sofya mosque as a token of victory. And the Ottoman administration, now under the undisputed control of Sokollu, swung into furious action. Over the winter of 1571–1572, the enlarged imperial dockyards completely rebuilt the fleet in an effort worthy of Hayrettin. When Kilich expressed concern that it might be impossible to fit the ships out properly, Sokollu gave a sweeping reply. “Pasha, the wealth and power of this empire will supply you, if needful, with anchors of silver, cordage of silk, and sails of satin; whatever you want for your ships you have only to come and ask for it.” In the spring of 1572, Kilich sailed out at the head of 134 ships; they had even produced eight galleasses of their own, though they never got the hang of managing them. So rapid was this reconstruction that Sokollu could taunt the Venetian ambassador about their relative losses at Cyprus and Lepanto: “In wrestling Cyprus from you we have cut off an arm. In defeating our fleet you have shaved our beard. An arm once cut off will not grow again, but a shorn beard grows back all the better for the razor.”

And almost immediately the Holy League started to falter. It had recognized the importance of consolidating its victory but proved unable to do so. There was bickering over booty. Then Pius died the following spring. He was spared the gradual collapse of his Christian enterprise. During the campaigning season of 1572, Philip kept his fleet at Messina and Don Juan cooling his heels, preferring a strike in North Africa to further war in the east. Colonna and the Venetians dispatched a substantial fleet anyway to confront the Ottomans off the west coast of Greece, but Kilich was too wily to be caught and did what Ali Pasha should have done: kept his ships in a secure anchorage and let his opponents waste their strength. The following year Don Juan did at least sail to the Maghreb and take back Tunis, but by this time Venice could no longer sustain the fight; in March 1573 they had signed a separate peace with Selim, ceding territory and cash to the sultan on highly unfavorable terms. Philip received the news with “a slight ironical twist of his lips.” Then he smiled to himself. He was blamelessly rid of the expense of the league and the troublesome Venetians; it was their ambassador who was forcibly ejected from the room by the furious Pope Gregory XIII. In 1574 even Don Juan’s triumph at Tunis turned to dust. Kilich Ali sailed to the Maghreb with a larger fleet than either side had mustered at Lepanto and took the city back. He returned to Istanbul with guns firing and captives on the deck; it was like the old days again. The Ottomans were as strong in North Africa as ever; Selim’s mastery of the White Sea seemed to have been fully restored.

Now that the explosive feelings that Lepanto released in Europe have been largely forgotten—the pope returned the Ottoman flags to Istanbul in 1965—some modern historians have tended to play down the significance of the battle. What seemed at the time to be Europe’s iconic sea battle that would determine the contest for the center of the world is no longer viewed as a pivotal event like the Battle of Actium fought in the same waters fifteen hundred years earlier to decide control of the Roman Empire, nor that of Salamis, which shattered the Persian advance into Greece. In modern times Lepanto has been labeled “the victory that led nowhere,” on the Christian side a fluke, on the Ottoman side an aberration soon mended. Like the battlefield itself, the Battle of Lepanto appears to have been swallowed by time and the devouring sea.

Yet this verdict underestimates the sheer terror in which Christendom lived in the middle years of the sixteenth century, and the material and psychological consequences of momentary success. No one standing on the banks of the Golden Horn in August 1573 watching Kilich Ali’s triumphant return from Tunis—the banners, the displayed captives, the cannon shot salutes to the sultan, the nighttime illuminations surrounding the shores of the great city with a ring of fire—could know that Lepanto had sounded the death knell for such Ottoman maritime victories, or that Kilich himself was the last of the great corsair descendants of Hayrettin. In 1580, Philip signed a peace with the sultan that ended the imperial contest for the Mediterranean at a stroke. It was couched in the familiar ringing terms of Ottoman imperial documents and conceded no majesty to anyone:

Your ambassador who is currently at our imperial court submitted a petition to our throne and royal home of justice. Our exalted threshold of the centre of greatness, our imperial court of omnipotent power is indeed the sanctuary of commanding sultans and the stronghold of the rulers of the age.

A petition of friendship and devotion came from your side. For the safety and security of state and the affluence and tranquility of subjects, you wished friendship with our home of majestic greatness. In order to arrange a structure for peace and to set up conditions for a treaty, our justice-laden imperial agreement was issued on these matters….

It is necessary…when it arrives, that is to say after petitioning to our abode of happiness on the basis of sincerity and frankness, that your irregulars and corsairs who are producing ugliness and wickedness on land and sea do not harm the subjects of our protected territories and that they be stopped and controlled….

On the point of faithfulness and integrity let you be staunch and constant and let you respect the conditions of the truce. From this side also no situation will come into existence at all contrary to the truce. Whether it be our naval commanders on the sea, our volunteer captains [corsairs] or our commanders who are on the frontiers of the protected territories, our world-obeyed orders will be sent and damage and difficulties will not reach your country or states and the businessmen who come from that area….

In our imperial time and at our royal abode of happiness it is indeed decided that the prosperity of times come into being. In the same manner, if the building of peace and prosperity and the construction of a treaty and of security are your aims, without delay send your man to our fortunate throne and make known your position. According to it our imperial treaty will be commanded.

It reads like a statement of Ottoman victory; it was certainly no defeat. By this time Philip had defaulted on the crown’s payments to its creditors and his attention was being drawn west and north—to the conquest of Catholic Portugal and a proposed invasion of Protestant England. What the treaty recognized was the hardening of a fixed frontier in the Mediterranean between the Muslim and the Christian worlds. With the capture of Cyprus, the Ottomans had virtually cleared the eastern sea, though Venetian Crete still awaited; the failure of Malta and the disaster at Lepanto had scotched grandiose Ottoman schemes of proceeding to Rome. Conversely, with the strategic recapture of Tunis it was clear to Spain that North Africa was cemented into the Ottoman Empire. Charles’s hopes of Constantinople had also long gone. The year 1580 was the end of the Crusading dream; the end of great galley wars too. The empires of the sea had fought themselves to a standstill.

Yet if Christendom could not win the battle for the Mediterranean, it might certainly have lost it. The year after the battle, old Don Garcia de Toledo was still blanching at the sheer risk of Lepanto. Don Juan had hazarded everything on a single throw of the dice. Don Garcia knew that the consequences of failure would have been catastrophic for the shores of the Christian Mediterranean—and that the margin of victory had been far narrower than its spectacular outcome. With defeat, and the absence of any defending fleet, would have come the rapid loss of all the major islands of the sea—Malta, Crete, the Balearics—a last-ditch defense of Venice, and then, from these launch-pads, a push into the heart of Italy, to Rome itself, Suleiman’s ultimate goal. Southern Europe could have looked very different indeed if Shuluch Mehmet had turned the Venetian wing, if the heavily gunned galleasses had not disrupted Ali Pasha’s center, or Uluch Ali had punctured Doria’s line an hour earlier. As it was, the check at Malta and the victory at Lepanto stopped dead Ottoman expansion in the center of the sea. The events of 1565–1571 fixed the frontiers of the modern Mediterranean world.

And though the Ottomans shrugged off defeat, damage had been done. At Lepanto, the empire suffered its first military catastrophe since the Mongol warlord Tamerlane shattered the army at Ankara in 1402. These were huge psychological gains for Christian Europe. Christendom’s sense of military inferiority had become so deeply ingrained that resigned acceptance had become the normal reaction to each successive defeat. The explosion of fervor in the autumn of 1571 signaled a belief that the balance of power might be starting to tilt. Cervantes put into the mouth of Don Quixote an expression of just what difference the few hours at Lepanto had made: “That day…was so happy for Christendom, because all the world learned how mistaken it had been in believing that the Turks were invincible at sea.”

The battle between Islam and Christianity for the center of the world did not begin with the siege of Rhodes, nor did it entirely end with Lepanto, but between 1520 and 1580 the contest achieved a special definition when religious impulse and imperial power combined to produce a conflict of terrible intensity that was fought on the cusp of two distinct eras of human history. The styles of warfare were at once primitive and modern; they looked back to the visceral brutality of the Homeric bronze age, and forward to the clinical devastation of artillery weapons. At that moment, Charles and Suleiman believed that they were fighting for control of the earth. What Lepanto and its aftermath revealed was that even with shattering victories, the Mediterranean was no longer worth the fight. The middle sea, hemmed in by clustering landmasses, could now not be easily won by oared galleys, whatever the resources available. Both sides had participated in a hugely expensive arms race for an elusive prize. The conflict stressed the human and material reserves of both the protagonists more than they were prepared to admit. Cyprus and Lepanto cost the Ottomans upward of eighty thousand fighting men. Despite their huge population, the supply of skilled soldiers was not inexhaustible, and when the bishop of Dax saw the proudly rebuilt fleet, he was not impressed: “Having seen…an armada leave this port made up of new vessels, built of green timber, rowed by crews which never held an oar, provided with artillery which had been cast in haste, several pieces being compounded of acidic and rotten material, with apprentice guides and mariners, and armed with men still stunned by the last battle…” As the Spanish found after Djerba, the special conditions of naval warfare made specialist skills hard to replace. After 1580, there was a growing distaste for maritime ventures; the Ottoman fleet lay rotting in the still waters of the Horn. The glory days of Barbarossa would never return.

Both sides were soon afflicted by economic malaise. Philip defaulted on his debts in 1575; the years after 1585 saw fiscal crisis start to rack the Muslim world too. The slogging maritime war, and the particular cost of rebuilding the fleet after Lepanto, increased the steepening gradient of taxation in the sultan’s realms. At the same time, the influx of bullion from the Americas was beginning to hole the Ottoman economy below the waterline, in ways that were barely understood. The Ottomans had the resources to outstay any competitor in the business of war, but they were powerless to protect their stable, traditional, self-sufficient world against the more pernicious effects of modernity. There were no defensive bastions proof against rising European prices and the inflationary effects of gold. In 1566, the year after Malta, the gold mint at Cairo—the only one in the Ottoman world, producing coins from limited supplies of African gold—devalued its coinage by 30 percent. The Spanish real became the most appreciated currency in the Ottoman empire; it was impossible to strike money of matching value. The silver coins paid to the soldiers grew increasingly thin; they were “as light as the leaves of the almond tree and as worthless as drops of dew,” according to a contemporary Ottoman historian. With these forces came price rises, shortages, and the gradual erosion of the indigenous manufacturing base. Raw materials and bullion were being sucked out of the empire by Christian Europe’s higher prices and lower production costs. From the end of the sixteenth century globalizing forces started stealthily to undermine the old social fabric and bases of Ottoman power. It was a paradigm of Islam’s whole relationship with the West.

The Treaty of 1580 recognized a stalemate between two empires and two worlds. From this moment, the diagonal frontier that ran the length of the Mediterranean between Istanbul and the Gates of Gibraltar hardened. The competitors turned their backs on each other, the Ottomans to fight the Persians and confront the challenge of Hungary and the Danube once more, Philip to take up the contest in the Atlantic. After the annexation of Portugal he looked west and symbolically moved his court to Lisbon to face a greater sea. He had his own Lepanto still to come—the shipwreck of the Spanish armada off the coast of Britain, yet another consequence of the Spanish habit of sailing too late in the year. In the years after 1580, Islam and Christendom disengaged in the Mediterranean, one gradually to introvert, the other to explore.

Power started to swing away from the Mediterranean basin in ways that the Ottomans and the Hapsburgs with their overcentralized bureaucracies and their hidebound belief in God-given rights could hardly foresee. It was Protestant seamen from London and Amsterdam with their stout sailing ships financed by an entrepreneurial middle class who started to conjure wealth from new worlds. The Mediterranean of the oared galleys would become a backwater, bypassed by new forms of empire. The life—and death—of the cartographer Piri Reis symbolized the Ottomans’ lost opportunity to turn outward and explore the empirical world. An anonymous Ottoman mapmaker, writing in the 1580s, crystallized an awareness of the threat that new voyages to the Indies would bring. “It is indeed a strange fact and a sad affair that a group of unclean unbelievers have become strong to the point of voyaging from the west to the east, braving the violence of the winds and calamities of the sea, whereas the Ottoman empire, which is situated at half the distance in comparison with them, has not made any attempt to conquer [India]: this despite the fact that voyages there yield countless benefits, [bringing back] desirable objects, and articles of luxury whose description exceeds the bounds of the describable and explicable.” Ultimately Spain would be outflanked too.

After 1580 the corsairs also deserted the sultan’s cause and returned to man-taking on their own account along the barren shores of the Maghreb. The sea at the center of the world would face another two hundred miserable years of endemic piracy that would funnel millions of white captives into the slave markets of Algiers and Tripoli. As late as 1815, the year of Waterloo, 158 people were snatched from Sardinia; it took the New World Americans finally to scotch the menace of the Barbary pirates. Venice and the Ottomans, permanently locked into the tideless sea, would contest the shores of Greece until 1719, but the power had long gone elsewhere.