Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

Europe has witnessed some bitter conflicts in its time, but for sheer savagery and blind religious fervour, few can match the 16th-century struggle for the mastery of the Mediterranean between the Ottoman Turks and the loose association of Christian states sheltering under the Hapsburg flag. For nearly 60 years, between 1521 and 1580, these two implacable enemies, fired by the certainty of their spiritual calling and driven by the absolute otherness of their foes, slugged it out for strategic supremacy of the sea, matching atrocity with atrocity as they searched for the blow that would floor their opponent.

It was a war of often chaotic cut-and-thrust, vicious raids, and the occasional set-piece battle whose reverberations, Roger Crowley points out in this engrossing history, reached halfway round the world. The Spanish funded their galleys with bullion plundered from the treasure houses of the New World, while the Ottomans filled their fleets with soldiers, sailors, and slaves plucked from every corner of Mediterranean Europe, North Africa and the Near East. It might be stretching a point to call this naval contest a “world war,” as Crowley does in his prologue, but the struggle was epic, and the outcome fixed many of the lines along which Christianity and Islam still divide today.

Crowley, a British publisher turned historian, proved with his first book, 1453: The Holy War for Constantinople and the Clash of Islam and the West, what a gifted narrative historian he is, and he demonstrates it again in this lively and dramatic tale. Sitting at opposite ends of the Mediterranean, both major participants in the war — the Ottomans under Suleiman the Magnificent and then Selim II, the Spanish Hapsburgs under Charles V and Philip II — saw themselves as imperial heirs to the Romans. “One empire, one faith, and one sovereignty in the world” was the rallying call of the sultans, but it might as well have been the battle cry of the Hapsburgs, who were happy to present themselves as the secular champions of Catholic Europe against all Muslims and heretics.

Charles and Philip’s bold conviction about their destiny didn’t help, however, when it came to actually prosecuting the war. For most of the 60-odd years of naval conflict, Christian Europe found itself hopelessly on the defensive, its ships outmaneuvered, its commanders outwitted, its fleets outmuscled. Year after year, Ottoman galleys rampaged up and down the Mediterranean coastline, sacking towns, slaughtering civilians, and taking thousands of Christians into slavery. Commanders such as the fearsome Hayrettin Barbarossa, whom the Spanish dubbed “the king of evil,” or the chillingly named Ayret the Devil Hunter, became figures of terror around Europe, monsters for mothers to threaten naughty children with, and they played up to their reputations with campaigns of deliberate and bloody intimidation. In 1544, in one of countless acts of barbarism during that season’s campaigning, Barbarossa had the body of the recently deceased leader of the Italian coastal town of Talamona “ripped from its tomb, ritually disemboweled, chopped into pieces and burned in the public square, along with the corpses of his officers and servants.” When the islanders of Lipari tried to buy their way out of trouble, Barbarossa took their money, enslaved them all anyway, then “out of spite” slaughtered several terrified old people who had been found sheltering in the cathedral . “The very mention of the Turks,” remarked a French priest called Jerome Maurand, who witnessed Babarossa’s bloodthirsty rampage that year, “is so horrifying and terrible to the Christians that it makes them lose not only their strength but also their wits.”

The Hapsburgs, when they got the opportunity, could be just as brutal and just as ruthless. When Charles V took Tunis in 1535, thousands of surrendering Muslims were simply cut down in the street, their houses razed, and their mosques sacked. Tens of thousands more were sold into slavery. In Majorca, the locals celebrating Charles’s victory dressed up a local criminal to look like Barbarossa, cut out his tongue, and burned him alive, all to vengeful whoops of joy.

Such opportunities for grisly festivities, though, were few and far between. Until the decisive Battle of Lepanto in 1571, which effectively brought a halt to Ottoman expansion in the Mediterranean (and which provides a suitably titanic climax to Crowley’s book), the Spanish and their allies had little to boast of by way of victories. Part of the problem was the West’s fatal lack of unity. Mutual distrust and divergent interests meant that Venice, Spain, and the Papacy, the Turks’ main opponents, seldom agreed on strategy and were rarely willing to sacrifice either men or ships for their supposed allies. At the catastrophic Battle of Preveza in 1538, which opened up much of the Mediterranean to the Ottomans for several decades, the Genoese galleys of Andrea Doria first held back when the Venetians plunged forward to attack, and then, with the battle going badly, turned tail, extinguished their stern lanterns, and slunk off quietly into the night. The Venetians took a long time to forgive, forget, and indeed recover militarily.

All this dissension in Christian ranks meant that, for much of the time, the main resistance to Ottoman expansion came from the Knights of St John, a small but zealously committed band of Hospitaler soldiers who were the last remnant of the old Latin crusading tradition. First at Rhodes in 1521, and then and most spectacularly at the desperate and viciously fought siege of Malta in 1565, these desperately outnumbered knights, confronted by vast swathes of Ottoman soldiery, sacrificed body and soul for the cause of Christianity. “I don’t know if the image of hell can describe the appalling battle,” wrote the chronicler Giacomo Bosio of one particularly frenzied battle during the siege of Malta; “the fire, the heat, the continuous flames from the flame throwers and fire hoops; the thick smoke, the stench, the disemboweled and mutilated corpses, the clash of arms, the groans, shouts and cries, the roar of the guns…men wounding, killing, scrabbling, throwing each other back, falling and firing.”

Crowley recounts these two remarkable clashes, a gift for any historian, with real ?lan. He is particularly skilful at following the thread of a battle and in illuminating events with deft and fragrant phrases. Nowhere does he pretend to open up scholarly new ground on the subject, but without ever drawing any heavy-handed, “Clash of Civilizations”–like parallels between then and now, he re-animates thrillingly, in the very best old-fashioned narrative tradition, these partially forgotten struggles, the consequences of which we are all still living with today.