Military clash of the two Mediterranean Empires of the Modern Age


December 7th marked the 450th anniversary of the triumph of the Holy League (Spain, Venice and the civil Holy See and some minor minions) in the naval battle of Levanto against the Sublime Porte.

The Turks, since before Mehmet II (Mohamed, in Turkish) al-Fatih (the Conqueror) of Constantinople and the remnants of the Byzantine Empire, were advancing overland (the Balkans and Hungary) into the heart of Central and Eastern Europe, like a river of overwhelming lava, burning and unstoppable. The Germanic Roman Empire, up to its border with France, and Poland were threatened.


By sea, the Turks ruled North Africa, from Egypt to Ifrigia and the lands south of Gibraltar, through franchises and letters of marque to Arab and Barbary pirate colonies. They pillaged and harassed Christian trade and navigation in the north of the Mediterranean and plundered its islands (Balearic Islands, Sardinia and Sicily).


Seriously threatening, at the time of Selim II, to occupy Cyprus (see its insulting proximity to Anatolia on a map).


Only Pope St. Pius V had the correct and astute strategic sense to assess the Ottoman danger to Europe and Christianity. And he put all his efforts into achieving a firm alliance of European countries, to confront him decisively now.

Immediately, Pius V entrusted the realization and success of the mundane enterprise, intertwined like a nail to the flesh with the spiritual, to the Mediatrix of All Graces, the Blessed Virgin Mary.

Throughout Catholic Christianity, in all dioceses and monasteries, the recitation of the Rosary began to be promoted with that special and particular intention. Then, the hundreds of thousands of rosaries prayed and committed were reported to Rome. This is a fact that I knew as a child and that I think has been forgotten in public memory.

France did not want to participate in the Holy Alliance because of the envy and resentment she felt for Spain and her Empire.

To England everything seemed very distant. And Elizabeth I, the Virgin Queen, that is, was the daughter of Henry VIII, the recent founder of the schismatic Church of England.

Spain was very busy with its immense possessions in America and Western Europe. And the Muslim pirates were not much more to her than an annoying horsefly. Cyprus, the main Venetian colony, was at the other end of the Mediterranean.

FELIPE II of Spain

And the pope had to insist a lot to convince Felipe II of Spain where the main threat for everyone was.

Venice joined the Holy Alliance because of the imminent threat of the Turks on Cyprus, but also negotiated a solution with them. It only cared about their sovereignty and their trade, also threatened by the Portuguese route from the Indian Ocean to Europe, bordering Africa.

In that, then, only Spain, Venice and the Pontifical Civil State participated.

The means of intervention and fight.

The galleys, the Mediterranean ships, were long and narrow like a dragonfly. Those of commerce, which had to defend themselves, were not very different from those of war, also sailed by pirates. The height of the mainsail above the sea was about a meter and a half. It is clear that they were only usable in calm seas. And so they were first designed by the Phoenicians, Carthaginians and Romans.

At the bow and stern they had a combat tower, which was communicated by a long central platform. They could embark several pieces of light artillery, placed on the wings and bow. And they carried infantry armed with pikes, swords and harquebuses, which belonged to the Tercios, in the case of the Spanish.


With the bow spur they immobilized the opposing ship, causing serious damage in the crash. In general, locked and stopped as the galleys were, the main form of fighting was infantry. This was protected from enemy projectiles (bullets and arrows, sometimes poisoned) under the protection of the bands and the mastheads of the ships. The Spanish also used the «empavesadas» or «defenses made with canvas and thick nets.»

The development of military action.

The Holy League was established in 1571 for a period of three years.

The allied fleet began to concentrate on Messina. The warships were 208 galleys: 90 Spanish, 106 Venetian and 12 Pontifical. And they were supported by 8 Venetian galleasses, heavy and not very seaworthy, almost floating castles, endowed: each one with more than 30 cannons and also reinforced by several hundred (sic) Spanish arquebusiers! When they could not use their single sail, each had to be towed by several galleys, which took turns, so as not to quickly exhaust the galleass’ oarsmen.


Spanish naval engineering marked a category and distance with the Venetian galleys, some almost unserviceable, broken. And, although the artillery of the Lordship was very good, their crews were few and had to be completed by Spaniards.

The hard core of the combined Fleet were the Spanish (80% of the men). And the different flotillas or combat groups were made up of ships from the three origins, to avoid indecision and suspicion among the “allies”.

A papal legate arrived in Messina carrying relics of the True Cross. Delivering one to each flotilla or division of the allied Fleet.

The ship of Ali Pasha, the great admiral of the Turks, received a large sanyak or green silk banner made in Mecca, with the Crescent Moon and verses of the Noble Qur’an embroidered on it. Surely there would be the shasada or Muslim profession of faith, the recitation of which is equivalent to baptism, and some bellicose ayah like «Persecute the infidels until all worship on earth is given to Allah.»

For everyone it was a complete, total, military and civilizational confrontation.

On September 16, 1571, the allied fleet left Messina in search of the Turkish fleet. In his course or journey he made successive stops in Corfu, Gomeniza, Cephalonia and Famagusta.

The Turks found out from their spies the enemy concentration in Messina and concentrated their war fleet in the port of Lepanto, in the Gulf of Patras. Ali Pachá claimed for the fleet all the janissaries that the nearby garrisons could provide. It was an elite infantry, similar in capacity to the Tercios of Spain, proud of its status and privileges and fanatical of its religion and the favor of the Sultan.


In Ottoman battles, when a stage of indecision about the outcome or the dominance of the enemy appeared, it was time to employ the janissaries. They attacked accompanied by their fifes and loud drums, uttering their war cries and, generally, obtaining the decision.

At this stage of the confrontation, in the march to combat, the entire possible repertoire of espionage and counterintelligence on both sides was deployed. That it was necessarily done by lookouts on land and coastal fishermen, who would soon be only Turks, and, more effectively, by reconnaissance light and sailors ships. Capable of approaching and even, exceptionally, penetrating the enemy deployment.

While the fleet was in Famagusta, the Turkish privateer Kara Kodja infiltrated at night with two black-painted “fustas” or light ships into the bay, among the Christian warships and auxiliaries. And so, he returned to Lepanto with «reliable news» that the number of Christian galleys was considerably less than the real one. And mistaking the galleasses for potbellied support transport ships. Upon withdrawing from the bay, he captured some Christian soldiers who, duly interrogated, corroborated his idea that the number of enemy troops was half the real one.

On board the Royal galley, Don Juan de Austria held a council of war with his flotillas chiefs, to decide the next actions in view of the proximity of the Turk. Luis de Requesens and Juan Andrea Doria were in favor of avoiding combat at that time. Álvaro de Bazán and Alejandro Farnesio were of the opinion that they should go to meet the Turks. Finally, don Juan decided, saying: «Gentlemen, this is not the time for deliberations, but for fighting.»

In turn, the Turkish chiefs held their council of war. The allied fleet cut off their access to the open sea, located at the entrance to the gulf, and, on the other hand, they already knew their enemy actual strength. That distressed some secondary Turkish commanders. For his part, also Uluch Ali, the lieutenant general, and the commander of the embarked troops, Pertau Pacha, preferred to remain in Lepanto, protected by the land fortifications. However, Sultan Selim II demanded that they attack. Thus, Ali Pacha decided to attack.

At dawn on Sunday, October 7, 1571, the Christian fleet departed for combat. The Turkish lookouts on the coast immediately reported the maneuver to their light reconnaissance ships, which sailed to report to Lepanto. There the Turks weighed anchor and headed under full sail, downwind, with their oarsmen fresh for combat, to meet the enemy.

Around 7 in the morning, when the allies entered the Gulf of Patras, their horizon was filled with Turkish sails. However, the enemy was more than 15 nautical miles away and there was time to complete the deployment of the flotillas.

The rival fleets spent the rest of the morning spreading out and closing in on each other.

On each ship, each one attended to their last-minute business.

Christian carpenters strove to saw off the remains of the spurs. Don Juan had ordered them to be sawn only partially, so that his technique would not be detected by the enemy and copied. Thus, the forward drum was left free, at the end of the fore deck, so that its battery could gain more sector of fire.

The priests and friars (Augustinians, Franciscans and Jesuits) who were on board attended and gave absolution to the combatants, sailors and rowers.

How will they fight?

The Turkish commander entrusted everything to the «breakthrough clash» of his «group head» galleys with a Christian secondary captain. Leaving this broken and fixed. Then, the Turkish leading galley and its subordinate ships would attack her with their onboard infantry. Forming a large «floating combat platform«.

The Turkish artillery had a secondary supporting task to infantry combat. It will take a long time for the cannons of an age to be able to sink a warship.

Their decisive force in combat were the bow rams, the embarked infantry and the Janissaries.

He also counted on the maneuvers of his flanks flotillas and the reserve of the Sultan’s fleet, to position himself more favorably against a Christian flotilla and proceed to the final clash.

The operational strategy and tactics of the Christians were similar to those of the Turks. They couldn’t differentiate much when both were based on the direct clash in view of the rivals.

The Christians were ahead of the times than the Turks, since they did not trust so much in the sheer importance of the ram and the interlocking of the opposing galleys. Rather, they were already using artillery fire at short ranges to break the embarked Turks and break the alignment of their deployment.

This in preparation for the entry into combat of the rival embarked infantry, when the galleys touched.

(To be continued)