Likewise the Battle of Sekigahara, Keichō 5 (October 21, 1600AD in Western style) was a crucially decisive battle; it effectively ended the Sengoku jidai, the "Warring States period" that had been Japan's War of the Roses, by establishing the Tokugawa Shogunate. During this time much of what we now think of as Japanese culture was riven into the national soul. In a sense, Sekigahara is the first step that leads to Pearl Harbor. BUT...that's a very long road, and for the most part the battle is decisive only to Japan and the Japanese.
The four are, in chronological order; the Syracuse campaign (autumn, 413BC), Hastings (1066), this battle, and Saratoga, 1777. Lepanto is a singularity by being both a purely naval engagement as well as the only "East-West" conflict of the four.
Lepanto Date: October 7, 1571Forces Engaged:
"Holy League" (Confederation of Christian polities including Spain, the Papal States, the Italian city-states Venice, Genoa, the Duchy of Savoy and the Knights Hospitaller of Malta) 212 vessels, 41,000 troops including 28,000 marines under Don John of Austria
Ottoman Empire: 270-285 vessels, 48,000 troops including 34,000 marines under Ottoman Kaptan-ı Derya Ali Paşa.
Lepanto bookends one side of the "Clash of Civilizations" period of European history that is marked on the earlier end by the 8th Century Battle of Tours. Over the intervening twelve hundred years the Christian and feudal West struggled against the Islamic and tribal (and later dynastic) forces out of the Middle East and North Africa. This period is entirely too complex to summarize in a couple of paragraphs; suffice to say that the Caliphate (and its successor states) contended on and off over this period with a hodgepodge of Christian entities, ranging from the immense and powerful Byzantine Empire through the various feudal kingdoms of Europe to the Crusader States and such strategic irritants as the religious orders of knighthood on Cyprus and Malta.
By the 16th Century the main combatants were, from the East, the Ottoman Empire. The largest and most successful inheritor of the Caliphate, the Ottomans were the product of a fusion of the Mamluk military skill we've seen before and Turkish hardheaded political cunning. They won the Long War against the Byzantines, destroying the last "Roman Emperor" when Constantinople became Istanbul. Their control of the land and sea in the eastern Med ended crusading as a hobby for idle and homicidal Westerners. Even when not actively campaigning against the Western powers the Ottomans remained a danger ever present to the east of the heart of Europe. The Ottoman military was, in 1571, a truly existential threat to all the European polities.In the West, the situation was much more chaotic. Polities ranged from the sublime Holy Roman Empire (three lies for the price of one, my father used to describe it) and the Hapsburg principalities of Austria and Spain, through the tough little city-states of Italy such as Savoy, Venice and Genoa, all the way down to anachronisms like the religious states such as Malta, Cyprus and the Papal dominions.The European weakness at the time was faction; the French, for example, at the time of Lepanto had an agreement with the Satanic Enemies of Christendom (i.e. the Ottomans) against Hapsburg Spain. Their hatred of the Near Enemy made a deal with the existential Islamic foe thinkable...
So the situation in 1571 was the same as it had been in the preceding century; the professional Ottoman military remained a sword pointed at Europe. The Europeans felt themselves to be on the defensive but were as often divided as united and unable to effectively employ their rising technical innovation.
Perhaps the single most significant change in the geopolitical situation between the East and West was the death of the great Sultan Suleiman (called "The Magnificent")
in 1566 and the accession of his son Selim II (called "The Sot"), the George W. Bush of his era only hornier and drunker.
Selim provided the Ottomans with bottom-of-the-barrel leadership at what couldn't have been a more critical time.
The Campaign: The goals of the Lepanto Campaign are unclear. What we can say with some authority is that the Ottoman Sultan (or his vizier, who was his Secretary of Defense - Selim had no taste for warfare) wanted an expedition to the western Mediterranean.
Pat Kinross says in his work "Ottoman Centuries" that Selim should have sent his fleet to aid the Morisco Revolt in Spain; this sounds fantastically optimistic to me, and the likely result would have been the envelopment and destruction of the Ottoman force. The actual course of the Ottoman fleet took it to Cyprus, where a successful invasion ensured the Turkish possession of the island into the 20th Century. The most likely course of action intended by the Ottomans was a grand tactical raid along the Ionian and the Italian coastline.
The Holy League force assembled at Messina in Sicily in July and August, moving east to encounter the Ottomans in the Gulf of Patras, a chokepoint in the east-west waterway through the Ionian peninsula
The Sources: Well documented in both Ottoman and western archives. By the 16th Century military professionalism had developed the "after action report" to provide tactical context to the logistical details of ships taken, sunk, damaged and men killed, wounded, captured or missing.
The Engagement: Lepanto is both beginning and ending. It is the end of the long, long tradition of Mediterannean galley warfare. After Lepanto the heavy naval gun made ramming - especially the ramming technique typified by the long, light-timbered classical galley - nautical suicide. That naval artillery was just beginning in 1571, but the performance of the "galleasses" - upgunned galleys with a heavier spread of sail and fewer oars - pointed out that these intermediate forms were just a stop on the way to the true cannon-armed man-o-war.The two fleets formed up in the traditional line abreast of a galley fight, the Holy League vessels in four divisions (Left, Center, Right and Reserve) facing east, the Ottomans similarly arrayed (but with a much smaller reserve) to the west. A combination of tactical disjunction and technical mismatch separated the League Right and Center divisions, into which the Ottomans attacked with their usual skill. The Ottoman Right also turned the League Left. But all this maneuvering, so crucial on land, was a bagatelle at sea. The bottom line was:
1. The League's cannon armed galleasses devastated the Ottoman galleys, which had no reply - in fact, the accounts claim that the Turks thought the galleasses were merchant cogs and concentrated on them, performing the naval equivalent of throwing themselves on the grenade. League reports claim that galleass cannon fire sunk some dozens of the 50 to 70 Ottoman vessels sunk.
2. The Spanish tercios proved as lethal on water as they were on land. When Ottoman marines met Spanish marines, Ottomans died. Their Ottoman equals, the Jannissaries, were underrepresented at Lepanto and the Ottomans suffered for it.
3. The Ottoman commander, Ali Pasha, was criticized at the time and has been since for allowing his force to spread out and fight single ship duels rather than acting in concert for mutual support. I find this somewhat risible, since the League "formation" was fairly notional, with Andrea Doria haring off south with the League Right and exposing the League Center, and the reality that the Ottomans had run head-on (so to speak) with the gunpowder era of naval warfare which they were, simply, not prepared for.
In the end, the Ottoman fleet was smashed. Ali Pasha's head ended up on a pike, the League captured over 100 of the Ottoman vessels and sank another 50 or so. As many as 15,000 Ottomans were killed or drowned. League losses were notional.
The Outcome: Strategic Christian victory.
The Impact: At least one historian has said that "after Lepanto the pendulum swung back the other way and the wealth began to flow from East to West, a pattern that continues to this day" an called it "as a 'crucial turning point in the ongoing conflict between the Middle East and Europe...".
Curiously, although the Ottomans at the time and most historians since consider Lepanto one of the major turning points in the East-West struggle along with the failed Ottoman Siege of Vienna in 1529, the immediate consequences were less spectacular. The Ottomans rebuilt their fleet within one year! They also recognized the cause of their defeat: the rebuilt Navy included eight large galleasses. The Holy League fell apart after the peace treaty of 1573 was concluded on Ottoman terms, and the Turkish fleets continued to romp across the Med well into the 1580s. Indeed - the Ottoman pressure on Eastern Europe continued for more than a century, until the final defeat at the gates of Vienna in 1683.
The general conclusion seems to be that Lepanto a) helped impoverish the Ottoman treasury by forcing a complete reconstruction of the fleet, and b) killed too many Ottoman sailors that, in the long term, started the Ottoman naval forces on their long decline. What is worth considering here is the "political" context in which Lepanto occurred.
The Sublime Porte had been blessed with outstanding leadership under Suleiman. His only failing had been personal - his affection for his wife, Hürrem Sultan or "Roxana", blinded him to the damage she was doing to the Ottoman succession. She engineered his murder of his most promising son, Mustafa, and placed her own disappointing progeny in line for the sultanate. Selim we've mentioned; his successor, the atrocious Murad III, was outstanding only for the employment of his wedding tackle said to be responsible for 103 children by something like 1,200 harem houris.
The next 50 years were notable for sultans remarkable only for their mediocrity, while the European powers were unifying and taking advantage of an increasingly wide technical and tactical seperation between the Christian and the Islamic worlds that resonates to this day.
Touchline Tattles: Lepanto has proved a weirdly iconic date in Western history, inspiring poems and paintingsand religious devotion from the day the last galley foundered in the wine-dark Aegean Sea until today.
"Cervantes on his galley sets the sword back in the sheathG.K. Chesterton
(Don John of Austria rides homeward with a wreath.)
And he sees across a weary land a straggling road in Spain,
Up which a lean and foolish knight for ever rides in vain,
And he smiles, but not as Sultans smile, and settles back the blade....
(But Don John of Austria rides home from the Crusade.)"