This Week in History: West Vs East in the Battle of Lepanto

This week saw arguably one of the greatest naval battles of the Renaissance period, as the Ottoman Empire’s fleet suffered their first major defeat at the hands of Christian forces.

It was 1570 and the Ottomans were making designs on Western Europe yet again. The Pope at the time, Pius V, heard about their recent invasion of Cyprus and, like a papal Nick Fury, knew he had to act. He wanted to gather together a powerful Catholic coalition of countries, empires and states and show the Ottomans that Europe was not for the taking. But right from the beginning things went wrong. France and the Holy Roman Empire would have been powerful allies, but they were busy dealing with the religious revolution of Reformation. That left Spain, facing money problems and revolutions of its own, and a collection of Italian states including Venice, Naples and Sicily, none of which really trusted Spain.

It took months of tactful diplomacy but eventually Pius V managed to gather them all together under the title of the ‘Holy League’. They sailed to southwestern Greece to meet the Ottomans, outnumbered in men but with the upper hand in naval artillery.

Battle_of_Lepanto_1571.jpgWhen the aquatic dust settled, the Turks had lost 20,000 men and three-quarters of their ships. The Holy League had suffered plenty of casualties too, but victory was decisively theirs. The Ottomans soon rebuilt the ships they had lost, but they couldn’t easily replace the skilled sailors and soldiers who had died in the battle. Like the Battle of Marathon, the victor’s increased morale was one of the most significant outcomes of the conflict – Turkish dominance in the Mediterranean fizzled out at Lepanto, and the Europeans knew it.

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