The historical significance of the battle of Lepanto: Christianity, the West, and Islam

By Massimo de Leonardis

When we consider the significance of the battle of Lepanto in its key figures and events, we recall not just a military victory of a Christian fleet over the Turkish Muslim navy but a triumph which, above all, was a religious and political one.

In an exaggerated demythologisation of glorious pages in the military history of Christianity, strategic value and religious legitimacy have sometimes been denied to the battle of Lepanto.

True peace

It is forgotten that the Church is a peacemaker but rejects pacifism. Pius XII in fact stated in 1952:

“The Church must take into account the dark powers that have always operated in history (…) she distrusts any pacifist propaganda in which the word of peace is abused to conceal undisclosed purposes.”

The Catechism of the Catholic Church today reaffirms the validity of the “traditional elements enumerated in what is called the ‘just war’ doctrine” (no. 2309).

On 1 January 2006, in the message In truth, peace, Benedict XVI stated:

“Peace cannot be reduced to the simple absence of armed conflict, but needs to be understood as ‘the fruit of an order which has been planted in human society by its divine Founder’ (…) [only] acknowledgement of the full truth of God is the first, indispensable condition for consolidating the truth of peace.”

The immense importance of the Christian victory

Illustrious historians have noted the strategic value of the victory at Lepanto. Fernand Braudel writes:

“[If] instead of paying attention only to what happened at Lepanto, one were to think of the preceding situation, the victory would appear as the end of a form of misery, the end of a real inferiority complex of Christianity, the end of a likewise real supremacy of the Turkish fleet (…) Before making a mockery of Lepanto, following in the footsteps of Voltaire, it is perhaps reasonable to consider the immediate significance of the victory. It was enormous.”

The British historian John Keegan lists Lepanto among the 15 decisive naval battles in history, “of durable and more than local importance” because it marked the end of Ottoman naval power and “[the] Muslim advance in [the] western Mediterranean [was] checked”.

Angelo Tamborra states that “Lepanto decisively ended that spirit of resignation and almost of obsessive fear which had laid the West low, caught from the ‘myth’ of the invincible Turk”, and that the battle marked the “definitive decline of the Turkish thalassocracy in the Mediterranean”.

Clash between Cross and Crescent

The use of two different terms to define European civilisation should be noted: “Christendom” and “the West”. Lepanto was a naval battle, but it was above all a clash between the Cross and the crescent, between Christendom and Islam.

A divided Christendom, because Lepanto is located almost in the middle of that century and a half which, from the end of the 15th century to the Peace of Westphalia in 1648, saw the secularisation of international relations; the medieval Res publica Christiana was replaced with the balance of power in Europe.

Not only did the Protestant revolution break the religious unity of Europe, but national interests sometimes prevailed over religious motivations even for Catholic states. The thoroughly Christian kings of France made agreements with the Turk for the sake of opposing the Habsburgs, and their ships were not present at Lepanto. However, it should also be remembered that Queen Elizabeth I of England, a schismatic, had called a few years earlier for prayers of thanksgiving for the end of the Turkish siege of Malta.

The fundamental role of Saint Pius V

Saint Pius V, therefore, appears to deserve a great deal more credit for gathering so much of a divided Christendom for a battle of military, civil, and religious importance. The pope was the architect of the coalition that won in Lepanto. He sent nuncios to the Italian princes, to the Doge of Venice, to the kings of Poland and France.

To finance the war effort, in addition to the longstanding authorisation for the Grand Master of the Order of Malta to mortgage the benefices of France and Spain he imposed a tithe on the income of the monasteries, three tithes on the clergy of Naples, collected 40,000 gold scudi from the attendants of the papal court, and obtained another 13,000 from the sale of precious stones, granted the Venetians the right to withdraw 100,000 scudi from ecclesiastical revenues, and renewed the privilege of the Cruzada, or bull of the Crusade, in favour of the Spaniards.

A master of historiography, Nicolò Rodolico, writes:

“Above material interests, ambitions, possessions and riches, there was a Crusader who summoned Christendom: Pius V. It was not the Cyprus of the Venetians that was in danger, but the Cross of Christ in Europe was threatened. The moving words of the pope succeeded in reconciling Venetians and Spaniards.”

A League was established in Rome on 20 May 1571, enrolling the Pope, the King of Spain, the Republic of Venice, the Republic of Genoa, the Grand Duke of Tuscany, the Duke of Savoy, the Order of Malta, the Republic of Lucca, the Marquis of Mantua, the Duke of Ferrara, and the Duke of Urbino. “The differences that may arise among the contracting parties”, the treaty of alliance stipulated, “will be resolved by the pope”.

Saint Pius V ordered solemn prayers, in particular the recitation of the Rosary, and processions of penance, and the Sultan exclaimed: “I am more afraid of this pope’s prayers than of all the emperor’s forces”.

The epochal clash

The clash between the Christian and Muslim fleets off the coast of Lepanto (today Nafpaktos) began on the morning of 7 October 1571. The Christian fleet was under the supreme command of Don John of Austria, illegitimate son of the late Emperor Charles V, with the admirals Sebastiano Veniero and Agostino Barbarigo from Venice, Marcantonio Colonna from Rome, and Gian Andrea Doria from Genoa. It comprised roughly 208 galleys, 36 from Naples and Sicily (under Spanish rule), 22 from Genoa, 23 from the Papal States, 18 from other Italian states, 14 from Spain, and 3 from Malta. There were also lesser ships for a total of about 280, 1,800 pieces of artillery, 34,000 soldiers, 13,000 sailors, and 43,000 oarsmen.

The Turkish fleet had around 230 galleys and 60 smaller ships, 750 guns, 34,000 soldiers, 13,000 sailors, and 41,000 oarsmen (mostly Christian slaves). The Christian victory was clear: the League had roughly 7,500 dead and 20,000 wounded and lost 12 galleys, the Turks 30,000 dead and 10,000 prisoners, around 100 ships burned or sunk and 130 captured; 15,000 Christian slaves were freed.

At five o’clock in the evening, when the battle was over, the Pope was attending to the business of the curia with some prelates when he stopped, went to a window and stared to the East as if in an ecstasy, and then exclaimed:

“Let us not deal with business anymore, but go to thank God. The Christian fleet has obtained the victory.”

Saint Pius V attributed the triumph of Lepanto to the intercession of the Virgin: he wanted the invocation “Auxilium Christianorum, ora pro nobis” to be added to the Litany of Loreto and set 7 October as the feast in honour of our Lady of Victory.

Saint Pius V died seven months later, and without its architect, the Christian League was unable to fully exploit the victory. Not surprisingly, at the news of the pope’s death, the Sultan called for three days of festivities in Constantinople.

This article was first published in the magazine Radici Cristiane.