Public Arguments: October 7, 1571 — The Battle of Lepanto

Strong gongs groaning as the guns boom far, 

Don John of Austria is going to the war,

Stiff flags straining in the night blasts cold 

In the gloom black-purple, in the glint old-gold, 

Torchlight crimson on the copper kettle-drums, 

Then the tuckets, then the trumpets, then the cannon and he comes.

In the summer of 1571, a great Turkish fleet was sailing westward, using the well-defended and comfortable port of Lepanto in the Greek Gulf of Patras. The rich and lush islands of the Venetian Republic were ripe for Turkish picking, and so were the cities of Naples and Livorno and Genoa, and so also the coasts of Spain. Cyprus had already almost fallen, and in 1570 the 20,000 citizens of Nicosia, trying vainly to surrender when its weary and wounded garrison was down to 500 men, were ruthlessly and barbarically massacred, 2000 of its prettiest boys and girls carted off for sexual slavery in Constantinople. Similarly, the island of Corfu had been pillaged in 1571; its chapels were hideously desecrated, and every painting of the human form, particularly of the crucifixion and of Mary, was slashed and defiled.

Dim drums throbbing, in the hills half heard.

As Don John approached, the Turkish fleet waited in safe harbor for the hastily formed Christian fleet to make a mistake. Then orders arrived from the Sultan to give battle. The young, ambitious, brave, and skillful Turkish Admiral Ali Pasha delighted in these orders. He envisaged the shattering of the Christian navy; open access for Turkish men-o-war to the entire Mediterranean; the fabulous enrichment of the Sultan; and his own future fame as the greatest Moslem conqueror of all time. As the 212 Christian galleys (with some 40 attendant ships) entered the Gulf of Patras, Ali thought he had them in a trap. With the wind at his back, victory was surely his. He formed 208 galleys (with 40 support ships) into the traditional crescent, flanks forward, ready to envelop and crush; he placed his capital ship Sultana front and center. His galleys, creaking in the water with every forward roll, were rowed by Christian slaves:

Christian captives sick and sunless, all a laboring race repines

Like a race in sunken cities, like a nation in the mines.

Throughout Christendom, at the Pope’s request, the rosary was being fervently prayed, for this battle would decide whether all of Europe would be ruled by Moslem civilization, as most of its southeast quadrant already was. Every warrior and oarsman in the Christian fleet was given a rosary. Young Don John of Spanish Austria led the uneasily united armada of Christian forces — mainly Venetian, Genoese and Spanish — into battle. It was a beautiful, clear Sunday afternoon, October 7, 1571.

Two technological suggestions by the Genoese Admiral Andrea Doria made a decisive difference. First, the rams on the bow of the Christian ships had been removed, and a cannon with a clear line of level fire placed there instead. Second, the six Venetian galliasses (large galleys with three masts and ample flat spaces) were outfitted with 500 arquebusiers each, in place of the traditional foot soldiers armed only with pikes and cutlasses; and three were posted on each flank a thousand yards in front of the main Christian forces, to sweep the Turkish galleys with massed firepower as they passed.

The Pope was in his chapel before day or battle broke,

(Don John of Austria is hidden in the smoke.)

Just before contact, the favorable wind the Turks enjoyed as they sped forward suddenly dropped; their line of advance slackened. Don John headed his capital vessel Real directly at the Sultana, firing his cannon when his men could see the eyes of the foe. He locked onto her for boarding, and nearly a thousand men flowed back and forth on the two decks for nearly two hours, one side, then the other, fiercely rushing forward and being driven back. Ali Pasha was shot through the forehead as he led the last rush. His ship, carrying his whole immense personal fortune (he didn’t trust leaving it behind) surrendered with 500 men. The famed pennants of Mohammed came down and a great Christian cry rent the air.

On the Christian left flank, in the midst of furious hand-to-hand combat, thousands of Christian galley slaves, white from their incarceration, succeeded in unloosing their chains, and raced to the decks swinging their chains about them from the rear of the Turkish defenders:

Scarlet running over on the silvers and the golds,

Breaking of the hatches up and bursting of the holds, 

Thronging of the thousands up that labour under sea 

White for bliss and blind for sun and stunned for liberty.

On the Christian right, Capitana, the chief ship of the Knights of Malta was captured and towed away as a priceless trophy (bearing the red Maltese cross on its sails) by the Barbary pirate Occhiali. It was a custom of the Knights to fight until death; only this ferocity enabled them to prevail when few in number, as usually they were. Thus, moments later, when another Maltese galley recaptured Capitana, only three of its wounded crew were still living, surrounded by over 300 Turkish dead.

Annals and chronicles recall thousands of acts of heroism and chivalry that occurred that day. It was a day of warfare Miguel Cervantes described as the greatest day’s work seen for centuries — la mayor jornada que vieron los siglos. After nearly two thousand years of strenuous service, it was the last great naval battle fought by galleys.

The Turks lost nearly 30,000 dead and scores of ships burned or captured, many others badly damaged. Fifteen thousand Christians were freed from the Turkish oars. After generations of relentless Turkish advances, the dread of Turkish invincibility (and inevitable Christian doom) was decisively dissipated.

Jubilation and thanksgiving raced through the Christian world. Even the Protestant Queen of England ordered the Church of England to hold services of thanksgiving. Pope Pius V declared that a feast of Our Lady of Victory would be annually celebrated in October. Later, October became known as the month of the Holy Rosary.

Although the Knights of Malta might still be called the oldest continuous standing army in the world, their military exploits are long behind them. They have resumed the original function for which they were called into being, care for the sick and the poor. Often they do this by raising funds for and organizing hospital equipment and other forms of aid for needy regions; but many Dames and Knights also volunteer for hospital work and care for the sick. Elsewhere in this issue the history of the Knights Hospitallers of St. John is more fully told.

In future issues, Crisis hopes to describe to describe other institutions and movements that are undergoing renewal, “little platoons” in the renewal of the Church and our civilization. Tradition is the democracy of the dead, G.K. Chesterton once wrote, the same Chesterton whose long ballad Lepanto, as most readers will have recognized, echoes above. Tradition lives because young people come along who catch its romance and add new glories to it.

Muslim and Christian

In recent months Pope John Paul II has been cooperating with several Islamic nations in opposition to some of the views that the U.S. delegation was advancing in preparation for the Cairo Conference on Population and Development (Sept. 5-13). As the Second Vatican Council already foresaw, there are likely to be many issues in the future on which those who believe in God are driven together, in the face of attack on their basic convictions by purely secular forces. Moslems, in particular, share with Jews and Christians allegiance to the one God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We share, as well, the great heritage of the medieval and classical Greek philosophy.

That our forebears fought one another to the death, for reasons they thought just, is today no cause either for shame or for continued enmity. In those days, public ways of showing respect for those with whom one is in disagreement of conscience — institutions of religious liberty — had not been worked out. In practice, diverse peoples in ancient times often lived amicably together. Nonetheless, before such amity could be institutionalized, much reflection down the ages has had to be given to such basic concepts as person, moral community, the social as well as individual constituents of conscience, the distinction between civil society and the state, the subtle connections between truth and liberty, and the like. Many experiments in how to organize society so that peoples of divergent conscience can find ways of social cooperation are still in process.

One crucial missing link is how to preserve habits of truth in a pluralistic society. Without that, the acids of relativism reduce all questions to questions of naked power. That underlying all the buzzing confusion of life is solely the will-to-power was Nietzsche’s admonition. On just such grounds, Lenin, Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin showed disdain for the laws of nature and nature’s God.

We have not yet found an answer to this fundamental weakness in the existing theory and practice of religious liberty. Until we do, cooperation among religious peoples, as well as efforts to protect the tacit roots of civilized practices, will have to be strenuously encouraged.

Why is Abortion not a Right?

In the build-up to the Cairo conference, the U.S. delegation sent out word around the world that the U.S. wanted recognition of a woman’s right to reproductive services, including the termination of pregnancies. Later, the U.S. delegation said that while it was unalterably in support of a constitutional right for women in the U.S. to choose abortion, it by no means intended to press for an international right to do so. This would be left to the care of individual governments, who have the “right” to rule on such matters.

Well, what sort of right is the abortion right? Certainly, it is not a right endowed in women by their Creator. It could not possibly be a right given by the Giver of Life for the taking of life, and especially not the life of the helpless unborn child. But if abortion is not a right endowed in women by God, whence does it arise? From governments? What sort of right is that?

Many years ago, Crisis warned that the profligate use of the word “rights” would lead to this watering-down of the term. Now a “right” has come to be virtually synonymous with what anybody wants, just because it is rooted in their liberty and they want it. The U.S. Supreme Court canonized this meaning in Casey. The whirlwind cometh.


  • Michael Novak

    Michael Novak (1933-2017) founded Crisis Magazine with Ralph McInerny in 1982. He held the George Frederick Jewett Chair in Religion and Public Policy at the American Enterprise Institute and was a trustee and visiting professor at Ave Maria University. In 1994, he received the Templeton Prize for Progress in Religion. He was also an emissary to the United Nations Human Rights Commission and to the Conference on Security and Cooperation in Europe.

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