Victory of the West
The naval engagement fought near Lepanto (Návpaktos), Greece, in 1571 was a military rarity; it was a genuinely decisive battle. It marked a turning point in the long war between Islam and Christianity in the Mediterranean region. Up to this point, the triumphant jihad of the Ottoman Turkish sultans had carried all before them. After Lepanto, the tide would begin to turn. Though the Turks remained a formidable threat to Christian Europe, and as late as 1683 would be besieging Vienna, their empire slipped into a long decline. The power of the West grew rapidly as its fractious inhabitants embraced the Renaissance and Scientific Revolution. These intellectual revolutions laid the foundations of a global dominance that would last for four centuries. Indeed, it was the Europeans’ employment of new technologies that made possible the great victory of Lepanto.
Niccolò Capponi, a distinguished Italian historian of the Renaissance, is well aware of the modern resonance of a history of this famous clash between the West and Islam. He makes a gentle allusion to the multicultural orthodoxies of present times in his preface. His title, Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto, is a rebuke to such moral equivalence, but Capponi goes no farther than that. His work is a history, not a commentary on current events. What he gives his readers is an epic story of conflict and heroism. Capponi brings a novelistic flair for the dramatic to his work. This is a tale of men and their struggles, not a dry analysis of impersonal and hence inscrutable forces. Capponi reminds readers that the future of a civilization can hinge on the wisdom and courage of a very few people.
Context is all-important in history. Capponi devotes the first third of his book to describing the dangerous Mediterranean world of the sixteenth century. The great destabilizing power of the day was the aggressively militaristic Ottoman Turkish Empire. For centuries, the waning force of the ancient Byzantine Empire had held the Turks at bay, acting as a shield for medieval Europe. However, in 1453 the Turks breached the walls of Constantinople; the last Byzantine emperor died fighting. Soon the Turks were probing deep into the Balkans. Other Ottoman armies took control of Egypt and much of North Africa. Muslim corsairs harassed shipping and raided the exposed coastline of southern Europe for slaves. Under the great Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman Empire reached the pinnacle of its glory. Süleyman hammered the Christians. He captured Rhodes from the crusading Knights of Saint John in 1522. Four years later, he invaded Hungary and killed the Hungarian king and most of his army at the Battle of Mohács. Süleyman ruled an empire that stretched from Hungary to Algiers. Europe was being encircled. Ottoman armies were within marching distance of its heart. Fortunately for the Europeans, wars with the Persians and internal disturbances kept Süleyman from concentrating all his forces on the west.
Ottoman expansionism was driven by a combination of religious zeal and economic necessity. The Turkish sultans arrogated to themselves the role of commanders of the faithful, associated with the traditional Islamic caliphate. By waging jihad against the infidel, they legitimized their claims to be the champions of Islam. The sultans also had pressing practical reasons to take lands from the Christians. Although elite units like the janissaries garnered the most attention from European observers, the bulk of the Turkish army was made up of horsemen who served the sultan in exchange for land. The feudal foundation of Ottoman military force constrained sultans to acquire new land with which to reward and maintain their troops. Thus, in the empire’s heyday, ideological and financial imperatives kept the Ottoman military machine in perpetual motion.
In the face of the Ottoman juggernaut, Europe was divided politically and religiously. These differences kept the Europeans from uniting and effectively resisting the Ottomans. The kings of France battled first the Habsburgs of the Holy Roman Empire, then the Habsburgs of Spain. The French were even willing to ally with the Turks at the expense of their hereditary enemy. When the wars with France subsided, Philip II of Spain showed more interest in battling Protestant rebels in the Netherlands than Muslim enemies in the Mediterranean. Italy paid the price for being weak and became a prize in the rivalry between greater powers. Foreign armies beset the peninsula. In 1527, a Habsburg army sacked Rome itself. Religious hatreds born of the Reformation envenomed many of these wars. The history of the sixteenth century was darkened by the atrocities...
(The entire section is 1932 words.)