A Spanish-Italian allied fleet defeated a numerically superior Ottoman Fleet at the Battle of Lepanto on October 7th, 1571.

The battle itself was not geopolitically consequential. Yet it represented a revolution in military affairs. It was the first naval battle that demonstrated the superiority of gunships over the classical galley. The Europeans learned this lesson and constructed a whole new line of naval warships, whereas the Ottoman Fleets consisted of antiquated galleys.

The battle was won because of the rise of European science, technology and markets which outperformed the Ottoman Empire.

I’m reading Victor David Hanson’s Carnage and Culture, which is worth a read. He moves past analysis of battlefields and combat, and instead views war as a reflection of the entire nation’s strength concentrated at one moment. The Battle of Lepanto was one of his examples.

Lepanto, as I said, was not a major strategic victory for the Europeans. Ottomans captured the island of Cypress and rebuilt their lost fleet within two years. The Ottomans remained the wealthiest empire in Europe and continued to pose a threat to the weaker Austrian Empire for another century. The Italians depended on trade with the East, so ceasefires and trade compromises followed any military victory. The Turks boasted of their overall strategic gains and ignored the lesson of the battle.

The Battle itself can be quickly described. It was fought near the Gulf of Corinth in Greece. The Ottoman Fleet moved to threaten the Italians in the Adriatic Sea. The Italians city states, led by Venice and the Papacy, allied with Spain and created an ad-hoc alliance called the Holy League. The League, raised a navy and challenged the Turks. The Holy League Commander Don Juan crafted a multi-national alliance which was shaky from the start.

The Ottoman Fleet was considerably larger than the allied fleet.

Holy League: 208 galleys, 6 Galleasses, and 76 lighter ships.
The Ottoman Empire: 230 galleys, 80 other gunships, and some 100 lighter ships.

When the battle ended, the Europeans lost 8,000 dead and the Turks lost 30,000 dead.

What happened?

The Ottoman strategy was traditional for Meditteranean combat. Galleys were designed to ram enemy ships. They closed rapidly and either rammed an enemy galley or boarded the ship with marines. The Turks used composite bows to rain arrows down onto the enemy deck and suppress the crew as marines threw grappling hooks and laid boards onto the enemy deck. The Turks had a few low-quality bronze cannons which were used to support the normal galley operations. Their strategy revolved around marines and rams.

The Europeans cut off their rams. Lepanto was the first major naval battle won by cannons.

Four Venetian Galleasses lead the Christian fleet. The four massive ships were an experimental kind of gunship. They were multi-deck super-galleys equipped with an unprecedented number of cannons. These four ships unleashed a hellish long-range volley onto the Ottoman ships forcing the Ottomans to begin the attack much earlier than expected. The remaining European galleys fired subsequent volleys with their cannons. The Europeans used high-quality bronze and iron cannons and experienced artillery crews, so their shots were accurate. About a third of the Ottoman Fleet was disabled or sunk before reaching the European Fleet.

Even after closing the distance, European guns continued to shred the Turks. At close range, the cannons switched to grapeshot. Instead of loading 5lb, 10lb, or 30lb cannonballs, they loaded the cannons with nets filled with hundreds of grape-sized miniballs and fired the cannons like shotguns. The cannons were mounted on swivels, and could easily retarget Ottoman ships at any angle. When the Ottomans finally made contact with the European galleys, European harquebusiers fired volleys with their early muskets. The Europeans raked the densely crowded Turkish galleys with shot.

The European galleys were built taller and used protective boarding nets. The nets prevented the Turkish Marines and Janissaries from boarding and it helped stop many of the Turkish arrows. The new type of Spanish steel armor, with sloped shapes, rendered many arrow hits harmless.

After devastating the Turks with gunpowder, armored heavy infantry boarded the Ottoman ships, fought in close ranks, and killed or pushed the Turks off the decks with pikes and steel long swords.

The Europeans destroyed or captured two thirds of the Turkish Fleet.

The Market Kills

Hanson describes the economic forces that caused this victory, which were far more significant than the geopolitics of the time. The manufacturing centers of Europe at the start of the Renaissance were fare superior than those of the Middle East. The Europeans technological edge in the battle was decisive and it continued to grow well after Lepanto.

The Ottomans had a significantly larger fleet, but the Europeans completely outgunned them. The Europeans mounted 1,815 cannons against the Ottoman’s 750. The European guns were usually of high-quality bronze and iron-cast, with better targeting ranges, swivels, and many were of higher caliber than their Ottoman counterparts.

In comparison, the Ottoman cannons were low-quality bronze junk. The Europeans displayed the captured Turkish cannons as trophies but found little other use for them.

Manufacturing extended beyond cannons. Firearms like the harquebusier and later muskets were cheaper to mass-manufacture than the Asian Composite Bow. The composite bow was an amazingly well-designed weapon, with long range accuracy and armor-piercing ability. But, significantly, the bow required years of training. The European muskets could be manufactured quickly and training took a few weeks. The Europeans focused on mass-production and raw efficiency which proved superior to the Asian weapons. Spanish Steel used for armor, swords, axes, and polearms was also of higher quality than Turkish iron weapons.

And what of those Galleasses? They were a sign of the future.

The Galley was the principle naval and commercial vessel of the Mediterranean. It was a rowed ship designed for commerce and naval patrolling in the calm Mediterranean waters. Hundreds of rowers powered each ship. They could achieve ramming speed, which was the traditional naval weapon since ancient times. The Ottomans relied on chained slaves to row the ships, while the Europeans used a mix of hired crews, prisoners, and slaves.

The Galley was versatile, but had some significant flaws. The wooden hull of galleys rotted in about 5 years, so they needed to be continually replaced. The large number of rowers and marines weighed down the ship and turned it into a sanitation nightmare. The forward ram obscured the range where cannons could fire.

The Europeans could never field as many galleys as the Ottoman Fleet. The Venetian Arsenal came up with an ingenious solution. The Arsenal could rapidly build a fleet galleys in a week of time. They produced navies on-demand to fight battles. The surviving ships would then be repurposed for civilian merchant use. This lowered the capital needed to maintain large standing fleets, as the Ottomans did. So a relatively poorer European city-state better managed its limited resources to compete with the vast and wealthy Empire.

The Europeans knew that cannons were of increasing military value. Cannons at the time weighed 5,000lbs or more depending on caliber. The more cannons they mounted on galleys, the fewer rowers and marines the galley could hold without sinking. The Galleasses were some of the first experimental gunships which disposed of unnecessary weight. Ultimately, the Europeans abandoned the galley design to eliminate the weight of rowers and switched to sailing gunships like the Galleon and later sailing warships like the Men-of-War and Frigate classes.

So why were the European cannons so accurate?

The Printing Press, recently invented, played a curious role in warfare. Uniquely, the European military science of artillery was joined with the science of gravity and physics and with the Printing Press. The Europeans broke with tradition and published military science for all to read. Information about artillery disseminated to allies and enemies. Scientists and artillery officers from across the continent read each other’s works and made their own contributions.

In earlier eras, men believed that cannon balls were fired in a straight horizontal line until the force that propelled them faded, then they would fall to the ground. Around the time of Lepanto, there was increasing knowledge of physics that showed cannons fired in an arc.

Galileo was one of the many scientists investigating gravity and cannon fire, although his most significant work occured after Lepanto. He used his knowledge of gravity and cannon-fire arcs to prove that cannons fired the farthest distance when positioned at a 45 degree angle. He also demonstrated how artillery crews could measure the range of every shot at lower degrees. And Galileo published this for the entire world to see. Throughout the 1600s and 1700s, Europeans explored gravity and physics and applied this knowledge to warfare. Cannons were no longer some magical toy.

The Ottomans kept all military knowledge as secrets of the state unlike those crazy Europeans. This, however, led to intellectual stagnation. Fewer minds were connected through publications, so knowledge spread slowly. The Ottoman Empire even banned the use of the printing press as it would disrupt the social, religious, and political structure of the Empire. They fell further and further behind in the sciences and did not develop a sophisticated manufacturing industry.

At the battle of Lepanto, Ottoman cannons did not inflict much damage. The Turkish crews did not understand the physics behind artillery. Most Ottoman shots were fired too high and many of the Ottoman shots harmlessly hit the rigging of the European galleys, not the deck and hull, if they didn’t miss entirely.

The Ottomans rebuilt their fleet soon after Lepanto, but their ships still had rams and their crews still used composite bows. The Empire did not learn the key lesson of the battle.

It was a costly mistake because the economic center of the world shifted away from the Middle East. Transoceanic commerce surpassed the Mediterranean Sea trade which led to a steady decrease in Ottoman – and Italian – wealth. The new Spanish Empire in South America expanded while the British and French rose to dominate Europe within a century. The Europeans found a new route around Africa to India and could bypass the Ottomans entirely. Without modern technology, the Ottomans could not compete scientifically, economically, or militarily.

Interestingly, the British were the real victors at Lepanto in the broad scheme of things. As Hanson noted, by 1590 – just 20 years after Lepanto – three British Galleons carried as many iron cannons as the entire Ottoman Fleet combined. The British Royal Navy devastated the Ottoman Navy in a series of small unnamed skirmishes in the Indian Ocean.

The Decline of the Ottoman Empire more or less begins at Lepanto. It was their steadfast refusal to adapt to new scientific and economic systems that caused them to lag behind the Europeans.

Warfare really does combine the entire power of a nation and places it on a field of battle. It tests each nation’s strength within a period of a few hours in a way that cannot be realized without war. Hanson is right – capitalism fuels a mighty war-machine.

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