7 October 1571: The Battle of Lepanto halts Ottoman expansion

On this day in 1571, the ‘Holy Fleet’ of Pope Pius V defeated the larger but less well armed Ottoman navy, precipitating the decline of the Ottoman empire.

In 1571, Famagusta was surrounded. One by one, the other Venetian colonies on the island of Cyprus had fallen to the conquering Turkish army. But Cyprus was just the latest in a long line of triumphs stretching back almost a century.

The Ottoman Empire had grown wealthy controlling the eastern trade routes. To the west, it had taken advantage of the squabbling kingdoms to overrun Greece and the Balkans. At the same time, its navy had swelled. Now, the empire looked all but unstoppable.

Pope Pius V decided something had to be done. With help from the Spanish, he assembled a large fleet with the Venetians and other Italian and Papal states. John of Austria, the half-brother of the king of Spain, was chosen to lead the Holy League fleet, which left Sicily and headed east.

On 7 October, the two navies clashed in the Gulf of Corinth. It was to be the last major battle fought between galleys rowing ships used since antiquity in the Mediterranean.

Although they were outnumbered, the Venetians had an ace up their sleeves: the galleass. This was a larger version of the galley; but what made it really stand out was its cannon. In addition to this, the Spanish troops were armed with arquebuses, a sort of musket.

Despite relying on their elite Janissaries and composite bowmen, the Ottoman soldiers still made for formidable foes.

After four hours of fighting, the Turkish fleet lay in tatters. But while the defeat came as a shock to the Ottomans, the setback was only temporary. The Ottomans took possession of Cyprus following negotiations with Venice in 1573.

But the psychological impact was longer lasting. The European kingdoms felt emboldened by the decisive victory at sea, and for many historians, the Battle of Lepanto marks the beginning of the long, slow decline of the Ottoman Empire.

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