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Battlefield: Lepanto

The last major battle fought by oared galleys saw the ships of the Christian Holy League face the fleet of the Muslim Ottoman Empire at Lepanto. Julian Humphrys describes the bloody melee

Clash of oars

GREEK DRAMA The frenetic melee at Lepanto was captured magnificently by Andrea Vicentino in his epic painting, now in the Doge’s Palace in Venice

To many in 16th-century Christendom, the expansion of the Muslim Ottoman Empire must have seemed unstoppable.

For over 150 years the Ottomans had advanced westward, winning victory after victory over the forces of Christian Europe. By 1570, they had moved deep into Hungary and controlled three-quarters of the Mediterranean coast, ruling a wide sweep from Algiers to modern-day Croatia.

The Republic of Venice was coming under threat, as were the other Italian states. The great Byzantine capital, Constantinople, had fallen to the Ottomans in 1453. Could Rome be next?

In 1570, the Ottomans launched a major invasion of Venetian-controlled Cyprus. Soon they had overrun almost the whole island. The exception was Famagusta, which resolutely held out, its defence led energetically by the Venetian Captain-General, Marcantonio Bragadin.

Though most of the leaders of western Europe watched these events with growing apprehension, opposition to the Ottomans was severely hindered by divisions amongst the Christian states. But Pope Pius V was determined to unite Catholic Europe against its enemies. He formed a Holy League comprising many of Europe’s Catholic maritime states, its objectives being to fight the Ottomans, recapture Cyprus and even retake the Holy Land.

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The August 2015 issue of History Revealed