Battle of Lepanto

The Battle of Lepanto brought the forces of the Holy League and the Turkish fleet together in a major naval confrontation that marked the last great galley battle fought between Mediterranean Christendom and Islam.

Summary of Event

A key episode in the protracted conflict between Christians and Muslims for control of the Mediterranean, the Battle of Lepanto was one of the greatest sea engagements in fifteen centuries. In the years following the fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire;halted western expansion in 1453, Egypt, Mesopotamia, North Africa, much of the Balkans, and about two-thirds of the Mediterranean coast came under Turkish domination. Turkish sea power was virtually unchallenged, and it threatened a disunited Europe. Constantinople, fall of (1453)
Lepanto, Battle of (1571)
Philip II (1527-1598)
Selim II
Juan de Austria, Don
Ali Paşa
Barbarizo, Augustino
Doria (1540-1606), Andrea
Colonna, Marco Antonio
Uluch ՙAlī
Sirocco, Mahomet
Pius V
Philip II (king of Spain)
Selim II
Pius V
Juan de Austria, Don
Barbarizo, Augustino
Doria, Andrea
Colonna, Marco Antonio
Ali Paşa
Uluch ՙAlī
Mahomet Sirocco

An iron shield, inscribed with the words “Christ has won the victory; it is He who reigns and governs,” given to Don John of Austria, the commander of the fleet of the Holy League, after the Christian victory at the Battle of Lepanto.

(Frederick Ungar Publishing Co.)

An engraving of the Christian fleet’s defeat of the Muslim Ottomans at the Battle of Lepanto, one of the greatest sea engagements in fifteen hundred years.

(F. R. Niglutsch)

In the face of the dominant Ottoman navy, King Philip II of Spain was conscious of his exposed coastline and his vulnerable imperial holdings in North Africa, Naples, and Sicily. He sought an alliance with the Republic of Venice Venice, Republic of against the Ottoman Empire. Venice traditionally had sought an accommodation with the Turks to profit from the Levant trade. Sultan Selim II’s attack on Venetian Cyprus in 1570, however, persuaded the Venetians to join Spain and the crusading Counter-Reformation pope Pius V in a Holy League Holy League . Their goal was to destroy the Turkish fleet, protect Christian Europe, defeat Islam, and drive a wedge between the European and African parts of the Turkish empire.

Don Juan de Austria, Philip’s illegitimate half brother, was chosen for the delicate task of commanding the Christian fleet, which was united in name only. Don Juan had already distinguished himself in combat against the Moriscos (Moors, or Muslims) in Granada. Though only twenty-four years old, he was aggressive, capable, forceful, and well able to blend his makeshift fleet into an effective fighting force. He had to unify Augustino Barbarizo’s Venetians; their arch rivals, the Genoese, commanded by Andrea Doria; and Marco Antonio Colonna’s papal fleet.

All together, Don Juan commanded more than two hundred galleys (historical accounts vary as to precise numbers). The long shallow-draft galley was the basic Mediterranean warship, dependent upon human oarsmen for its mobility and maneuverability. The typical galley used at Lepanto had a displacement of about 170 tons. It was about 150 feet (46 meters) long and carried a crew of 225. While it was new and still clean, its oarsmen could move the ship at 7 knots for a few minutes before becoming totally exhausted. Galleys carried ten days’ provisions. Ship life was bleak for the warriors but miserable for the galley slaves; permanently imprisoned at their positions and living in constant filth, they generally died in chains.

The general tactics employed at sea were similar to those used in land battles: An attacking ship would ram an enemy and then hold the stricken vessel close with grappling lines while its infantry went aboard for hand-to-hand combat. The harquebus, an early type of musket, was the Western infantryman’s weapon of choice. Most ships mounted a large gun on their bows that fired a thirty-pound shot, the beginning of the use of artillery in naval warfare. Several smaller guns were mounted beside the big gun, and some galleys had a few side-firing guns as well.

The early sixteenth century experimented with naval gunships, and Don Juan had six galleasses at Lepanto. Each displaced seven hundred tons and carried a crew of seven hundred, half of whom were rowers. These oar-powered gunnery ships mounted heavy broadside batteries able to fire 326 pounds of shot compared with the 90 pounds discharged by a galley. The large ships were unwieldy and had to be towed into position, but they proved the feasibility of heavy broadside batteries for future naval warfare. Although there is some disagreement about their decisiveness at Lepanto, modern scholars believe the galleasses were effective at breaking the line of Turkish ships and caused considerable casualties.

The Christian fleet put to sea on September 16, 1571. It was a troubled and divided fleet, beset by disputes and bitter dissension. The various admirals, meeting in council, were still undecided about a plan. The Venetians advocated a bold attack on the Turkish supply base. Doria, head of the Genoese, feared to risk the entire Christian fleet in a single battle and urged caution. Don Juan was for searching out and engaging the Ottoman fleet. On October 6, a ship from Crete brought the news that the Turks had taken the fortress of Famagusta on Cyprus and killed its Venetian defenders. The allies were horror-stricken and a new unity, forged by the bad news, spurred them to sail at once and attack the Turkish fleet.

After an attack on Crete, Ali Paşa, the commander of the Turkish ships, had anchored near Lepanto, 80 miles (129 kilometers) up the Gulf of Corinth. With him was Uluch ՙAlī, a corsair from Algeria, and Mahomet Sirocco, an able sailor who knew the shallow waters nearby. Paşa’s combined fleet numbered nearly three hundred galleys, rowed by captured Christian galley slaves.

At dawn on October 7, the two most powerful forces that had ever met at sea sighted each other and moved ponderously into attack formation. Don Juan put his galleasses to the front and deployed seventy galleys in crescent formation to form his center. Fifty more galleys were positioned on each side of the center to guard their respective flanks. Thirty ships were held in reserve half a mile away. The Turks also formed a crescent with one hundred ships at the center, fifty-five on the right, and an assault force of ninety-five on the left flank. Forty galleys were in reserve. Don Juan’s forces, with the wind to their backs, advanced.

Ponderously the centers of both forces closed, and thereafter, maneuver counted for little. A confusing and terrible melee erupted. Fierce hand-to-hand fighting surged from one deck to another. In three hours of desperate battle, galleys continually broke through the opposing line and attacked from the rear. Boarding assaults, ramming, and cannon fire raged continually in disorderly fashion. The two opposing flagships, the Real and the Sultana, closed in decisive combat and both commanders took part in the assault. Ali Paşa died in the battle. At least one woman, Maria la Bailadora, disguised as a man, fought aboard the Real.

A crisis was narrowly averted on the Christians’ left flank when a galleass held the Turks in check while the Venetian commander maneuvered boldly in dangerously shallow water to gain the advantage of position. Don Juan’s force slowly gained the upper hand, as his veteran infantry gained the advantage at close quarters. The Turkish center was routed, and the whole Turkish line collapsed.

The Turks were soundly beaten. Only forty of their ships returned to Constantinople. More than one hundred were captured; the remainder were burned and sunk. Twenty-five thousand Turks were killed and five thousand taken prisoner. Fifteen thousand Christians were freed from slavery at a cost of seventeen ships and eight thousand Christian dead.


According to tradition, Lepanto was a decisive battle that eliminated the threat of the Turks in the Mediterranean and marked the beginning of Ottoman decline. Yet, the Ottomans’ defeat did not prevent their conquest of Cyprus, and the Christian alliance crumbled after the battle. Sultan Selim II quickly rebuilt his fleet and used it to retake Tunis from the Spanish in 1574. Philip II of Spain remained on the offensive until a truce in 1580 allowed the two powers to disengage. Nevertheless, the battle was one of the greatest sea battles in history and one of the worst Ottoman defeats. A great psychological victory, destroying the myth of Turkish invincibility, it was celebrated throughout Europe.

Further Reading

  • Beeching, Jack. The Galleys of Lepanto. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1983. Vivid narrative providing the larger geopolitical background as well as an exciting history of the battle.
  • Bicheno, Hugh. Crescent and Cross: The Battle of Lepanto, 1571. London: Cassell, 2003. Voluminous study of both the battle itself and the long-term political and military history leading up to it. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Fregosi, Paul. Jihad in the West: Muslim Conquests from the Seventh to the Twenty-First Centuries. Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1998. The Battle of Lepanto is one of the conflicts discussed in this study of Islamic wars in the West. Includes photographic plates, map, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Guilmartin, John Francis, Jr. Gunpowder and Galleys: Changing Technology and Mediterranean Warfare at Sea in the Sixteenth Century. Rev. ed. Annapolis, Md.: Naval Institute Press, 2003. Sophisticated analysis of galleys and their place in naval warfare.
  • Hanson, Victor Davis. Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power. New York: Anchor, 2002. Discusses the link between the early development of global capitalism and the Battle of Lepanto. Includes illustrations, maps, bibliographic references, and index.
  • Hess, Andrew C. “The Battle of Lepanto and Its Place in Mediterranean History.” Past and Present 57 (November, 1972): 53-73. Scholarly revisionism that questions the battle’s traditional significance.
  • Paulson, Michael G., and Tamara Alvarez-Detrell. Lepanto: Fact, Fiction, and Fantasy. Lanham, Md.: University Press of America, 1986. First two chapters concisely summarize the battle and its place in literature, art, and popular culture.
  • Petrie, Charles. Don John of Austria. New York: W. W. Norton, 1967. Standard biography of the victor of Lepanto.
  • Rodgers, William L. Naval Warfare Under Oars, Fourth to Sixteenth Centuries. Annapolis, Md.: U.S. Naval Institute, 1939. Classic study of naval tactics with almost one hundred pages devoted to Cyprus and Lepanto.
  • Williams, Ann. “Mediterranean Conflict.” In Süleyman the Magnificent and His Age: The Ottoman Empire in the Early Modern World, edited by Metin Kunt and Christine Woodhead. New York: Longman, 1995. Good overview of the Ottoman struggle from 1453 to 1580 with Venice and Spain.

1463-1479: Ottoman-Venetian War

1478-1482: Albanian-Turkish Wars End

16th cent.: Evolution of the Galleon

June 28, 1522-Dec. 27, 1522: Siege and Fall of Rhodes

1552: Struggle for the Strait of Hormuz

1559-1561: Süleyman’s Sons Wage Civil War

Apr. 3, 1559: Treaty of Cateau-Cambrésis

May 18-Sept. 8, 1565: Siege of Malta

1566-1574: Reign of Selim II

July, 1570-Aug., 1571: Siege of Famagusta and Fall of Cyprus

July 31-Aug. 8, 1588: Defeat of the Spanish Armada

1593-1606: Ottoman-Austrian War