The Significance of Lepanto

Since September 11, 2001, there has been quite an outpouring of books dealing with the historical relationship between Islam and the Christian West. This has included a number of surveys of the history of that relationship, some emphasising conflict and bloodshed and others the sometimes harmonious association that at times existed between the two civilisations. New studies of the Crusades have emerged, including the first complete history of the movement since Runciman’s classic work, in the shape of Christopher Tyerman’s God’s War.

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.

The League’s victory, as one might expect, did not translate into Christian hegemony of the Mediterranean. The Ottomans soon repaired their losses and the Venetians, heavily dependent on trade with the Ottoman empire, soon sued for peace, including paying an indemnity. If anything the Battle of Lepanto confirmed the status quo in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans had reached the limit of their power with only a few small territorial gains, such as Crete conquered from the Venetians in the mid-seventeenth century, waiting to be made. 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, 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.

For the people of Western Europe the Battle of Lepanto was an enormous psychological boost because it demonstrated that the “Turk” could be beaten. The aura of invincibility surrounding the Ottoman empire was broken. Lepanto was very easy to interpret in terms of Christendom versus Islam because it was one of those rare occasions when the religious division of the combatants was so clear-cut. Of course, in the wider world of strategic alliances the situation was far more complex. The French often supported the Ottomans against the Spanish and Hapsburgs, while the Orthodox Christians of the Eastern Mediterranean generally preferred the tolerant rule of the Ottomans to attempts by the Venetians to impose Catholic bishops on them.

But there are other ways of considering Lepanto. One is to interpret it in terms of a dynamic innovative West pitted against the “stagnant” East. 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. Capponi has a very good grasp of the military dimensions of Lepanto, and although this is sometimes tedious for those with little interest in strictly military matters, a grasp of such matters is crucial if the battle is to be understood.

If the League had kept to the established “rules” of naval warfare of the time they would probably have lost the battle. In the sixteenth century the Ottoman empire was much more powerful than its rivals in Western Europe but its power was founded on the adaptation of the traditional institutions of Islamic civilisation. This meant in particular the janissaries, the use of slave soldiers and slave administrators as the core of the Sultan’s power. This gave the Sultan a loyal and efficient bureaucratic-military machine, although the cost was that this machine tended to behave like the praetorian guard of the Roman empire and to push the Sultan into war to satisfy its desire for plunder.

The state machinery of much of the West was much more ramshackle and less centralised. They relied heavily on Italian bankers and on the wealth of Italy. Nevertheless both the Emperor Charles V and his successor Philip II of Spain had to deal with the constant threat of bankruptcy.

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.

Even if the Ottomans had won it was unlikely that they would have established hegemony over Western Europe. True, they would have dominated the Mediterranean in the short term and it is likely that they would have been able to conquer Southern Italy and even take Rome. But the history of Byzantium from Justinian onwards suggests that this would have been the limit of their conquests. The Ottomans failed to take Vienna in both the 1520s and the 1680s partly because the supply lines into Central Europe were too long.

In any case it is clear that by the 1570s the dynamic that had driven the earlier Ottoman conquests had largely exhausted itself. Despite defeat at Lepanto they remained in control of Cyprus but that was the extent of Sultan Selim’s conquests. In the seventeenth century they were able to wrest Crete from the Venetians but that was the last of their European conquests.

This suggests that Lepanto is better understood in terms of the dynamics of imperial expansion than some desire by Islam to subdue and conquer the world. The Ottoman empire came into being because of the decaying state of the Byzantine empire in the Balkans and Anatolia, a decadence aggravated by the conquest of Constantinople in 1204 during the Fourth Crusade. The Ottomans succeeded because they defeated their possible rivals, such as the Serbs, in battle.

They did so because they possessed what Ibn Khaldun in his Muqaddimah called asabiya or a strong sense of social solidarity. According to Ibn Khaldun, barbarians are able to conquer an established settled civilisation because they have a strong sense of their social solidarity that is grounded in the harshness and necessity of nomadic life. However, having conquered a settled society the invaders in turn are conquered by the comfort and soft living of that society until, with their asabiya decaying they, in turn, are conquered by another group of uncorrupted barbarians.

Linking social solidarity to imperial success was not limited to Islamic theorists. In his explanation of the worldly success of the Roman empire in book five of the City of God, Augustine, drawing on Sallust’s War with Catilene, argued that empire had shifted to the West and Rome because the Romans possessed a high level of virtue. By virtue he meant the capacity to place the common good above personal gain, a virtue that he saw was destroyed particularly by the sin of avarice.

Sallust emphasised the simple lives of the uncorrupted Romans, and attributed their success to the “eminent merit of a few citizens” before “the state had become demoralised by extravagance and sloth”. These ideas were to form the basis of the Western ideal of republicanism and republican virtue that still resonates in our contemporary world.

Now this analysis of history made enormous sense in both Asia and Europe for a long time. 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. 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.

The argument that it was a strong sense of social solidarity that grows out of what could be described as a lifestyle founded on poverty has, I believe, powerful explanatory power. 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.

In his recent study War & Peace & War, Peter Turchin has built on the idea of asabiya to emphasise the importance of social co-operation as means of building strong states. He quotes a number of examples of small determined bands being able to overthrow political entities that, on paper, looked far more powerful. Alexander the Great and his superbly drilled Macedonian phalanx is perhaps the best known of these examples.

For Turchin, co-operation rather than competition is the key to success for any state. Moreover, Turchin maintains, it is the replacement of co-operation by competition within a state that leads to the evisceration of the social energy provided by co-operation. Turchin points to the way in which population growth, particularly amongst social elites, leads to a savage competition for resources and a weakening of both social and state power. Such states become the potential victims of those who have maintained their asabiya.

By the 1570s the élan or social energy of the Ottoman empire had begun to dissipate. Over the next 250 years the empire slowly became the “sick man of Europe” as certain regions established their de facto autonomy. According to the sociology of Ibn Khaldun this should have resulted in the next group of socially solid barbarians conquering and replacing them, just as they had previously conquered the Byzantines.

And yet this did not happen. One reason for this was that 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 decadence, 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 was not the victory of Christianity over Islam, nor is its significance to be considered primarily in religious terms or as a clash of civilisations. Of course that does not mean that was not how it was viewed in a celebrating Europe, including Protestant England, and in the many paintings that have come down to us as representing the battle. Yet across the centuries Lepanto also looks like an exercise in futility, a scene of blood, gore and human misery that, at least on the surface, settled so little.

It was the last major naval battle that involved galleys rowed by banks of oarsmen. And it was won, somewhat against expectations, by the side that was willing to experiment with the use of overwhelming firepower in an attempt to blow the enemy ships out of the water rather than use the time-honoured practices of hand-to-hand combat.

In many ways Lepanto can be considered to be a clash of two different types of empire viewed as forms of polity and expressions of political culture and economic practices. On the one hand there was the traditional “plunder empire” as represented by the Ottomans that sought conquest for the sake of plunder in the shape of precious goods and slaves. Selim had sought to conquer Cyprus, as there was an expectation that a Sultan should keep his janissaries happy at the beginning of a reign by providing them with a prize to conquer. There was little difference between the motives that led the Romans to expand their empire and those of the Ottomans.

The new European empires, as represented by Spain and Venice, were not uninterested in conquest and plunder, especially when one considers the behaviour of Spain in the Americas. But they were also in many ways quite different from the older territorial empires of Eurasia of which the Ottoman was one of the last representatives. And the difference lay in their concern with commerce and trade. Venice did not really want war with the Ottomans because it ruined her trade with that empire, and as soon as possible after Lepanto sought to re-establish that trading relationship.

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.

Nevertheless it is appropriate that scholars such as Turchin direct our attention to the significance of asabiya and the importance of the idea of social co-operation as a foundation of a stable and powerful state. It is also important that the story of Lepanto should recover its place in the historical consciousness of the West. Capponi’s highly readable and scholarly account does help to achieve that goal. But it should not be read as yet another episode in the seemingly endless war between Christianity and Islam. Rather it should be seen as a battle in which an emerging form of state and empire was able to show its mettle against the last powerful traditionalist empire.

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