How many people know about the Battle of Lepanto?

In the 1970s, when Western education was still decent, I took a year of World History in high school. If we covered it, it must have been a footnote.

I read about it in depth only six years ago, when someone from the West Indies had a WordPress blog, since deleted. The writer was Catholic and explained the religious, historical and cultural significance of October 7, 1571, the date of the victory over the Ottoman Empire.

The victory was important to Mediterranean Europe. Inland, the Battle of Vienna took place just over a century later, on September 12, 1683, led by the indomitable King Jan (John) III Sobieski of Poland. Lepanto was to the Mediterranean what Vienna was to the rest of Europe.

On to the Battle of Lepanto and October 7, which Catholics venerate as the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. In 2017, Polish Catholics assembled nationwide to pray the Rosary on that day. The Daily Mail has more (emphases mine):

Hundreds of thousands of Polish Catholics are expected to descend Saturday on the country’s borders to recite the rosary “to save Poland and the world” from the dangers facing them, organisers say, but others claim the event is aimed at protecting Europe from what they term a Muslim onslaught.

The episcopate insists that the “Rosary to the Borders” is a purely religious initiative, but some Catholics view it as a weapon against “Islamisation.”

The date was not chosen at random. October 7 is when Catholics celebrate the Feast of Our Lady of the Rosary, marking the 1571 victory of Christianity over the Ottoman Turks at the Battle of Lepanto.

A victory attributed to the recital of the rosary “that saved Europe from Islamisation”, the Solo Dios Basta foundation said on the website of the event it is organising.

Many Poles see Islam as a threat. The conservative government, which enjoys the backing of a sizeable portion of the population, refuses to welcome migrants to Poland, which has very few Muslims of its own.

Twenty-two border dioceses will take part in the event, whose faithful will congregate in some 200 churches for a lecture and mass before travelling to the border to say the rosary.

The goal is to have as many prayer points as possible along the 3,511 kilometres (about 2,200 miles) that make up Poland’s borders with Belarus, the Czech Republic, Germany, Lithuania, Russia, Slovakia, Ukraine and the Baltic Sea.

Fishing boats will join in at sea, while kayaks and sailboats will form a chain along rivers and lakes. Prayers will also be said at the chapels of a few international airports …

The goal is to pray for world peace, according to Father Pawel Rytel-Andrianik, spokesman for the Polish Bishops’ Conference.

“The initiative obviously received the approval of Poland’s bishops,” he told AFP, emphasising that it would be wrong to view the event as a prayer against the arrival of Muslim refugees.

“It is not a matter of closing ourselves off to others. On the contrary, the point of bringing the rosary to the borders is to break down walls and open ourselves up to Russians, Belarussians, Slovaks, Ukrainians and Germans,” he said

In 2018, on October 7, Italy’s interior minister, Matteo Salvini, appeared on a talk show saying that the influx of immigrants arriving by boat are not true refugees. He estimates that only 10 per cent are. He recommends taking in only women and young children. He objects to turning Italy’s public housing over to immigrants arriving by boat and says that local and regional governments should continue to reserve these flats and houses for Italians. Currently, Angela Merkel is trying to transfer immigrants who had arrived in Germany via Italy back to Italy:

RMC (French talk radio) had a lengthy segment on immigration from Africa on the morning of Monday, October 8. Opinion was strongly divided as to whether and how many more immigrants France — especially Paris — should accommodate. It was a lively discussion with no conclusion. One point that did stand out was that French people were being pushed down the queue for social housing for recently-arrived immigrants. So, the French housing situation is like Italy’s, which is like Germany’s and Sweden’s.

Besides the religious and 21st century significance of the Battle of Lepanto, there is a historic one. It took place at a time when the invasion of hordes of groups of people — not just those from the Ottoman Empire — were invading not only Europe but also Asia.

I had always wondered how these groups had been stopped. A considered essay, ‘The Significance of Lepanto’, explains what happened from that point through to the 18th century.

First, we need to consider the main group of players in Europe’s Holy League. These nation-states also controlled various parts of the Mediterranean, including islands such as Corsica, Cyprus and Crete. Trade and strategic ports were important to the Spanish, the Venetians and to the Vatican, which also controlled territory in this part of the world:

The Battle of Lepanto has a major place in the symbolism of the Western-Islamic relationship, and Niccolò Capponi’s recently published Victory of the West: The Story of the Battle of Lepanto treats the battle as a major encounter between the Islamic Ottoman empire and the forces of Western Christendom.

Lepanto was the last great battle that could be described as a simple clash between Christendom and Islam. Fought on October 7, 1571, it saw the fleet of the Ottoman empire pitted against an alliance of Spain, Venice and various other minor players to form a Holy League under the leadership of Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate half-brother of Philip II of Spain.

The battle was the response of the Christian powers to the invasion of the Venetian possession of Cyprus. At stake was control of the Mediterranean. If the Ottomans had won then there was a real possibility that an invasion of Italy could have followed so that the Ottoman sultan, already claiming to be emperor of the Romans, would have been in possession of both New and Old Rome. The Pope could have become as much a tool of the Ottoman sultan as his Orthodox counterpart the Patriarch of Constantinople already was.

Yet, as Capponi points out, the Holy League was hardly a model of Christian solidarity. The Spanish and the Venetians had different strategic objectives—the Spanish were concerned primarily with Italy, North Africa and the Western Mediterranean, while Venice was anxious to recover Cyprus and protect its interests in the eastern Mediterranean. The Spanish were not keen for a battle that might lose them precious resources, particularly as Philip II, with interests as well in northern Europe, was usually on the verge of bankruptcy. The Spanish were also concerned that the Venetians were in the process of cutting a deal with the Ottomans. Just a few days before the battle there was a conflict between the Spanish and Venetians that almost tore the fleet apart. Nevertheless the alliance held and the League fleet scored a stunning success.

Lepanto reshaped the religious bent of the Mediterranean:

The cultural shape of the lands around the Mediterranean was confirmed with a largely Islamic East and South staring across the waters at a Christian North and West.

The Ottoman Empire gradually lost territory and influence from that point until it collapsed with the Great War (1914-1918). That said, we are still dealing with the aftermath a century later:

The Ottoman empire, like the ancient Roman empire and the Byzantine empire before it, was left with the task of defending its ever diminishing borders over the next three centuries. When it did finally “fall” after the First World War the ramifications were enormous, and we are still attempting to cope with them from Bosnia to Iraq.

The Europeans defeated the Ottomans because of advanced naval battle tactics and weaponry. They also had more advanced trade and inventions, such as the printing press, which the Ottomans were slow to adopt:

The League won because it used innovative tactics. The usual form that galley warfare took was to ram the enemy ships and then take them by storm. The Venetian ships attempted a new and different tactic. Using a larger and modified form of galley known as galleasses, they filled these ships with cannons and attempted to blow as many of the Ottoman galleys as possible out of the water. League ships carried many more cannon and its troops made much greater use of firearms. Many of the Ottoman troops preferred to use bows, although these were not necessarily inferior to the clumsy arquebus of that time …

In the longer term, however, the future belonged to the new commercial instruments of the West rather than to the bureaucratic machinery of the Ottomans. In her study of seventeenth-century Crete, A Shared World, Molly Green demonstrates that the commercial techniques and practices used by the Venetians were much more sophisticated and developed than those of the Ottoman regime that replaced them in mid-century. It was also the case that the Ottomans were slow to take to make use of printing, with the “printing revolution” that swept the West in the sixteenth century not really taking off in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century.

Europe and Asia had been beset by invaders for centuries, especially during the perilous Dark Ages.

In Europe, during the latter days of the Roman Empire:

Rome, and the Roman empire, had to face an almost continuous set of threats, beginning with the Celts, then moving through to the Germans, Huns, Avars, Arabs and Turks. The Ottoman Turks simply delivered the coup de grâce to what had become little more than a living corpse.

In Asia:

China built its “great wall” to protect itself from nomadic predators, while the damage inflicted by the Mongols on the settled Islamic world, including the sack of Baghdad, was staggering.

These invasions happened because invading tribes of people envied the civilisation of settled societies:

A settled civilisation, by creating a measure of comfort and a settled way of life, makes itself a target for those living outside their boundaries who are drawn by what it has to offer.

Large-scale invasions ended in the 18th century, probably thanks to the Chinese:

the Qing Chinese empire in the eighteenth century successfully conquered and subdued the last of the great nomadic empires of Eurasia. For the first time in millennia no barbarian horsemen, no Huns, no Avars, no Mongols, surged across the great plains of Eurasia to sack and pillage Europe, China and the great civilisations of the Islamic world and India.

When a new barbarian empire emerged powerful enough to threaten the Ottomans, and by this I mean the Russian empire, it was successfully checked by the jealousy of the other European powers. It was also into this world … of empires that were not revitalised by new sets of barbarians, in the Middle East, in India and in China, that the European empires were able to make such inroads from the eighteenth century onwards.

Lepanto, as with so many other advances of that era, helped to usher in modernity to Europe with an emphasis on trade rather than war:

Lepanto can be seen as symbolic of that transition, described by the nineteenth-century French liberal philosopher Benjamin Constant, from the age of war to the age of commerce. Or as others might say, it can be considered as the birth of modernity. Even the overwhelming use of firepower can be found in the pages of Constant as a feature of the utilitarian approach to warfare favoured by commercial nations. The irony was that the somewhat ramshackle empires of sixteenth-century Europe, with their disorganised finances and administrative apparatuses much inferior to those of the Ottomans, would within 300 years come to dominate the world not because of their superior asabiya or virtue but because of their capacity to create modern efficient institutions far superior to the slave bureaucracy of the Ottomans, and because of their ability to deliver superior firepower.

This new European and commercial form of empire supplanted an older, more traditional imperial form. What this meant was that the old rules of empire, of an imperial expansion dictated by the need to conquer to attain booty and slaves and a decline governed by the need to protect its settled possessions from new predators, would give way to a new set of rules. These are the rules of the export and import of capital, as described by Niall Ferguson in his recent studies of the English and American empires.

Looking at present day developments in Europe, there does seem to be an envy of others to have what we Europeans have without contributing to our respective nations. When well-intended private and state generosity is met with Marxist-driven violence and disregard for the host citizenry, it is no wonder that many think of Lepanto.

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