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The second Battle of Lepanto was a decisive naval battle between the Christian fleet and the Muslim Ottoman Empire occurring on October 7, 1571. It took place in the Gulf of Lepanto, which is an arm of the Ionian Sea.

The First Battle of Lepanto

This relatively minor battle took place on August 14, 1499 during the Venetian-Turkish War. Turkish Admiral Borrak Rais sailed through the Dardenelles to Lepanto and met a Venetian fleet under Admiral Antonio Grimaldi. Although the fleets were equivalent in size, the Venetian ships and their heavy artillery were outmatched by the Turks with their Palanderie - well armed light fast vessels. In two days the Venetians were defeated and they continued to decline as a naval power.

The Second Battle of Lepanto

The Players

  • Uluç Ali Pasha: the commander of the Ottoman Turks' navy.
  • Don Juan of Austria: the commander of the Christian navy as well as the bastard son of the Emperor Charles V. He was also a talented soldier who had proved himself in the wars against the Moors in Grenada. At 24, he was Spain's leading admiral.
  • Pope Pius V: elected Pope at the time of the battle; he created the Holy League in 1571 as an anti-Ottoman alliance. It consisted of the Papal States, Spain, Venice and Genoa.
  • Miguel de Cervantes: As a member of the Spanish infantry at Lepanto, he would suffer a disabling hand wound that would preclude his pursuance of a military career. He took up writing instead and the suffering of a soldier at war led directly to one of the greatest novels of all time - Don Quixote.

A Little Background Information

The Bay of Lepanto had been occupied by the Ottoman Turks since 1498. The new Pope, sensing that the Ottoman Empire was on its way to conquering the Christian world, called for an alliance between Christian powers to fight the Muslim armies. If the Turks won the battle, they would be able to take Venice, and possibly penetrate further into Italy.

Waiting for the Battle to Begin

Uluç Ali Pasha and his fleet waited in a protected area of the Bay for six weeks, sending out scouting ships to determine the location of the Christian fleet. Around midnight he received the news that his enemies were at Cephalonia, an Ionian island almost directly opposite and parallel to the mouth of the Gulf of Lepanto. At dawn on the morning of October 7, 1571, lookouts stationed high on a peak guarding the northern shore of the gulf's entrance signaled to the commander that the enemy was heading south along the coast and would soon round the headland into the gulf itself. The Turkish fleet weighed anchor and everyone scrambled to battle stations.

Meanwhile, Don Juan met his fleet off Messina. He had 300 ships under his command. The Pope had outfitted twelve galleys. The Venetians, however, provided the technological cutting edge that would win the battle. In the Venetian fleet were six galleasses. These were broader in the beam than regular galleys and had a deeper draught. Although they were difficult to manouver, and had to be towed into battle by speedier vessels, they were the most powerful ships in the Mediterranean. Because of their size, they had immense stability as a gun platform. On their prow was a walled platform mounted with swivel guns that presaged the armoured turrets of later battleships by almost 300 years. The sides and the stern of the galleass were also heavily armored and a wooden deck protected the rowers. On its bow there was a long point that could effectively crush any smaller vessel that was unfortunate enough to be in its path.

A total of 80,000 men manned the ships of the Holy League. Of these 50,000 toiled at the oars and the remaining 30,000 were soldiers. I'm unsure as to how many people and ships were on the Turkish side, but the numbers were fairly even.

The Battle

The time had come for the biggest naval engagement anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium in 30 B.C. and the tactics had changed little since then. Both commanders hoped to rapidly come to grips with their enemy, board them and let the soldiers fight it out to the end. The only major difference was that in 1571 the ships carried guns and those on the galleasses in particular would have a crucial effect.

The Turkish ships arrived in crescent formation, whereas the Christians' were split into three sections. The Turks attempted to charge and board the heavily armored Christian ships, and despite heavy losses, Uluç Ali Pasha's flagship managed to draw next to the Spanish contingent of ships. Don Juan immediately gave the order that the ship be boarded, and after three tries the Spaniards managed to capture the ship, and Uluç Ali Pasha, who was beheaded on the spot. His head was displayed on a pike, and the middle section of the Turkish fleet quickly retreated.

On the other two flanks, the Turkish commanders attempted to sail through the shallow waters at the edge of the bay to enclose the Christian ships. Because they were familiar with the Bay, they were able to do so without grounding too many of the ships, but they were still overtaken by the Christians. The admirals in charge of both flanks were both beheaded, and the fleet began to dissolve, either sinking, grounding, or fleeing.

In the end, the battle lasted more than four hours.



  • 8000 dead
  • 16000 wounded
  • 15 ships sunk
  • On the other hand, 12000 Christians who had been slaves in the galleys of the Turkish ships were saved

Ottoman Turks:

  • 25000 killed
  • 17 ships sunk
  • 55 ships captured


When Europe heard the news of the victory, church bells rang out. Venice declared October 7 to be a holiday for years to come. Poetry was composed (mainly bad) and ballads sung...

The Ottoman Turks were far from done, however. They would continue to dominate warfare in the area for some time. The victory was not so much strategic or even practical as psychological; the Christians realized that the Ottomans could, in fact, be defeated.

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