Early in 1570 Venice rejected an Ottoman demand that it surrender Cyprus. The Venetians decided to fight and appealed to Pope Pius V for aid. When the Ottomans invaded Cyprus, Pius persuaded King Philip II of Spain to join with him and Venice in a Holy League, ratified in May 1571.
The galley remained the principal ship type in the Mediterranean in the late 16th century. The galley of 1571 was little changed from that of the Battle of Salamis, in 480 BCE. Motive power was provided by lateen-rigged sails on two masts, when wind permitted, or by oars when the wind did not and in battle. The graceful, long, shallow-draft galley was well suited to the more sheltered Mediterranean waters. Its striking power remained the ram, although cannon were also mounted in the bow and trained by turning the vessel. Captains attempted to destroy their opponents with the ram and, should that not prove successful, by boarding and hand-to-hand combat.
A new ship type had also appeared in the galleass. Introduced by the Venetians, the galleass resembled the galley in appearance but was larger, more seaworthy, and carried more men. An attempt at compromise between the galley and the sailing ships of northern Europe, the galleass had three masts, with the fore and main square rigged. It combined the freedom of movement of the galley with the seaworthiness and fighting power of the sailing warship but, as with most compromises, it was not a successful type, being sluggish and slow. Another ship type, smaller than the galley, was the Ottoman gaillot. Based on an older Byzantine design, it had 18–24 oars and shipped only about 100 men.
In the summer of 1570, Philip II assembled squadrons of galleys from Naples and Sicily, in addition to contracted Genoese galleys under Genoese admiral Giovanni Andrea Doria. These joined with Venetian and papal ships to relieve Cyprus. Philip II hoped that Doria might also recover Tunis, where the Ottomans had ousted the ruler friendly to Spain. In mid-September the allied fleet, commanded by papal admiral Marcantonio Colonna, reached the Ottoman coast opposite Cyprus. Doria, however, believed the season too late to continue operations and withdrew his squadrons, over the protests of his allies, bringing the campaign to an end.
The next September the allies assembled at Messina an armada of 207 galleys, six galleasses, and two dozen great ships. In addition to their crews and rowers, the fleet shipped some 20,000 marine infantry. In early October the fleet learned of the surrender of Famagusta (August 1, 1571). This last Venetian stronghold on Cyprus had succumbed following a 10.5-month-long siege that cost the Ottomans perhaps 50,000 dead. Don Juan of Austria, Philip II's half-brother and supreme commander of the allied fleet, now decided to seek out and destroy the Ottoman fleet. At Corfu, Don Juan sent out reconnaissance vessels under Gil de Andrtade, who located the Ottoman fleet at Lepanto.
Ali Pasha commanded the Ottoman fleet of nearly 300 galleys and smaller galliots. Including the 16,000 soldiers, the fleet carried perhaps 88,000 men. His fleet had screened Ottoman operations on Cyprus all summer. Ali had ravaged Venetian possessions in the Aegean and Ionian seas in late August and September and then raided the Adriatic before returning to Lepanto (Navpaktos), where the Gulf of Corinth meets the Gulf of Patras.
Don Juan now brought his armada to the Gulf of Patras. The Ottomans decided to fight and on Sunday, October 7, 1571, they emerged from their anchorage and formed an extended crescent-shaped line of three squadrons. The 40 smaller galliots backed the center of the Ottoman line. Although Ali's 300 ships were more than the Holy League could muster, they were also lighter and not as well protected, and they had nothing that could match the Venetian galleasses.
The allied armada rowed to close with the Ottomans. There were sharp divisions of loyalties within the fleet and, before sailing, Don Juan had mixed his squadrons so that each ally had galleys. He also arrayed his armada into left, center and right squadrons, backed by a rear guard of 30 galleys under Álvaro de Bazán, 1st Marquis of Santa Cruz. The center included most of his bigger galleys. Don Juan assigned the heavier and more powerful galleasses a more aggressive role in the battle, positioning them in pairs well in advance of each squadron. Another innovation was to remove the beaks from the galleys to allow their bow guns greater traverse. In taking these steps, Don Juan assigned the primary role to the artillery, as opposed to muskets, pikes, slings, and swords. Don Juan also announced before the battle that all Christian slave oarsmen in the fleet would be pardoned and freed if the Ottomans were defeated.
The battle commenced near noon. The galleasses, which mounted more cannon (each had 10 heavy guns, 12 lighter guns, and small man-killers on the rail) used their heavier guns to engage the Ottoman ships and disrupt their advance. At first the Ottomans did not attempt to board, but unleashed volleys of arrows. Once these were exhausted the battle degenerated into the customary melee, with attempts to board and hand-to-hand combat.
The disorganized Ottoman right under Mehmet Sirocco failed to turn the League's in-shore wing, commanded by Venetian Agostino Barbarigo. The latter's line swung shoreward to trap the Ottomans against the beach. The bigger guns of Don Juan's center battered the Ottoman center as its ships closed to board. Don Juan personally led an attack on Ali Pasha's flagship, but before the two vessels could close, Ali Pasha was shot and killed. Later his head was cut off and raised to the masthead for all to see.
The 90 galleys of the Ottoman left under Uluj Ali did not close with the League right wing of 57 galleys under Doria but sailed wide in an effort to turn its flank. When Doria keep pace, Uluj Ali turned his wing abruptly and raced for the gap between Doria and the allied center under Don Juan. The two Venetian galleasses assigned to Doria were unable to reach their assigned station, but did bombard the rear of the Ottoman center. The Ottomans then overwhelmed three galleys belonging to the knights of Malta and savaged seven galleys of the League vanguard under Juan de Cardona, who trailed Doria. But the Marquis of Santa Cruz detected Uluj Ali's maneuver in time and checked the Ottoman rush with his rear guard, until Don Juan and Doria could close to complete the allies' triumph. The battle was over by 4 p.m. Although both sides had invoked God, the battle proved that God tends to favor the side with more and larger guns.
Uluj Ali escaped with only 35 galleys, mostly Algerian, and many of these were later destroyed as unseaworthy. The Ottomans lost more than 200 galleys (117 were captured intact) and 20,000 people dead. Some 15,000 Christian galley slaves on the Ottoman ships were freed; most were Greeks who returned to their own country. The allies lost 10–15 ships sunk and perhaps 7,500 dead. Among the 15,000 allied wounded was Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote.
The battle was psychologically crucial for the Holy League, whom the Ottomans had often defeated. Lepanto settled nothing in the short run though, as the Christian alliance soon broke up. The Ottomans kept Cyprus and Tunis, but their navy never regained the same quality or prestige. Unhappy with Philip II's desire to use the League against Tunis and Algiers, Venice made a separate peace with the Ottomans in 1573. Philip II found himself under pressure to do the same. With revolt in the Low Countries and trouble with France and England, in 1578 he concluded a truce with the Ottoman Sultan. Spencer C. Tucker
Beeching, Jack. The Galleys at Lepanto. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1983; Braudel, Fernand. The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II. 2 vols. New York: Harper & Row, 1972; Guilmartin, J. F. Gunpowder and Galleys. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1974; Rodgers, William Ledyard. Naval Warfare Under Oars: 4th to 16th Centuries: A Study of Strategy, Tactics and Ship Design. Annapolis, MD: Naval Institute Press, 1967.
Spencer C. Tucker