The outcomes of battles have often been assessed by historians in respect to their influence on the development of polities, states or cultures. This article provides an overview of those battles whose outcome has been judged by at least two modern historians to be of lasting cultural or political importance for European nation-states—or European polities recognized by historians as independent nation-states—and invading outside forces. It does not include the battles where both opposing factions were European, but may contain battles where both opposing forces belonged to a similar culture. The historians consulted on the subject considered European culture and civilization as a development from the Greco-Roman world to the modern civilizations of that area, which did and does not include all of Europe within its defined geographic borders.
The battle of Thermopylae took place on August 11, 480 BC. In the context of the Greco-Persian Wars, Xerxes I of Persia was preparing his assault on Athens, while the Greeks were forced to retreat. Having dismissed all but 2,300 of the 7,000 strong Greek army, king Leonidas I of Sparta prepared a last stand in order to give time to the rest of the Greek soldiers to retreat. Even though Leonidas and 4,000 of his men (possibly as little as 2,000) were eventually killed after three days of battle, they were able to inflict enormous losses of about 20,000 men upon the Persians. This was even more impressive because the Persian army, commanded by Xerxes, was about thirty times larger than Leonidas' army. Even though in the end the Persians annihilated the Greek combatants, it represented a morale boost in the Greco-Persian wars, which would continue with the Greek victories at Plataea and Mycale.
The resistance of the Spartan-led army offered Athens the invaluable opportunity to make battle preparations and decisively defeat the Persians at the battles of Salamis. Militarily, it was this vital purchase of time that the Spartans bought so bravely with their very lives that literally saved the Greek fleet. Modern Historian Michael Grant says, "so Leonidas, after dismissing most of his force, fought with his own men to the death, falling in defeat, but creating a saga of Spartan heroism; and he had delayed the Persians for at least a week, thus saving the Greek fleet at Artemisium." N.S. Gill hypothesizes that:
Their courage provided inspiration to the Greeks, many of whom otherwise might have willingly become part of the Persian Empire.
Historian Ernle Bradford says in his book Thermopylae: The Battle for the West that "the whole of the East was at move..."
The three-day battle for the pass at Thermopylae (the Hot Gates)--a critical contest in Xerxes's massive invasion of Greece. The bloody stand made there by Leonidas and his small Spartan army in 480 B.C. has been hailed ever since as an outstanding example of patriotism, courage, and sacrifice.
Historian Steven Pressfield says in Gates of Fire: "This is a story of heroism. But it is also a story of discipline, of loyalty between fighting men and to a state. For a book as violent as this, it is also a story of profound caring, among the characters of a timeless story." Because a great part of European civilisation is based on the heritage of Ancient Greece, a successful invasion of Greece by the Persians and their subsequent domination would have surely changed the history of Europe. Dr.Ellis L. Knox, Historian at Boise State University, says in The Persian Wars
Thermopylae was always hailed as a triumph for Greek arms because the Persian army was crucially delayed. Thermopylae allowed the Greeks time to organize. Themistocles did not lose heart and continued to drive the shipbuilders for all they were worth. He was still confident of victory at sea. Moreover, the Greeks were heartened by the example of Leonidas, the Spartans, and the others who fought at Thermopylae. This battle served as an example to officers and soldiers alike, not only through Greek history but Roman as well, of what can be accomplished through heroic self-sacrifice.
The battle of the Metaurus was fought in 207 BC by the Roman Republic and Carthage, who were then waging the Second Punic War. It took place near the Metaurus river in northern Italy, and it was fought between a Carthaginian army headed by Hasdrubal Barca, brother of Hannibal and a slightly larger Roman army headed by consuls Marcus Livius Salinator and Gaius Claudius Nero. When the latter found out that Hasdrubal was planning on joining Hannibal's armies in order to launch a final all-out attack on Rome, he hastily set out to join Salinator to intercept the Carthaginian armies. Hasdrubal, knowing that his forces were inferior in number and in fighting prowess, tried to avoid combat, but he was eventually caught at the banks of the Metaurus. There, the Roman legions were able to achieve an important victory, and Hasdrubal was killed at the end of the battle.
This battle prevented a full-scale attack on Rome to which the city may well have fallen. Historian Paul K. Davis says:
For 11 years Hannibal had his own way in Italy, defeating every force the Romans could send against him. Still, the constant warfare and inability to recruit quality troops locally meant he had to have reinforcements if he was going to capture Rome itself and dictate terms. Hasdrubal's defeat near the Metaurus River meant that would not happen...had Hasdrubal joined with his brother, the resulting force could well have captured Rome and changed the fortunes of the Mediterranean Basin.
The success of Hannibal's military tactics, the defection of several allies of Rome and the political instability in Rome had brought it to the brink of defeat, but after the victory at the banks of the Metaurus, the current of the conflict shifted and the tide turned in favour of the Roman Republic. Robert F. Pennell wrote in Ancient Rome from the Earliest Times Down to 476AD in 1890:
The war in Italy was now virtually ended, for, although during four years more Hannibal stood at bay in a corner of Bruttium, he was powerless to prevent the restoration of Roman authority throughout Italy.
At the Battle of Ilipa, Carthaginian control of the Iberian peninsula would be broken forever, and Carthage would concede more and more ground until the final battle at Zama. If, on the other hand, Rome had fallen, the Roman Empire would never have exerted its influence on European history, an influence which shaped a great deal of European culture. The Achaean Greek historian Polybius wrote in book 6 of his history of Rome—in the aftermath of their defeat by Hannibal at the Battle of Cannae, the worst defeat the Republic would ever endure—of Rome's survival and onward march to Metaurus:
they not only reclaimed the sovereignty of Italy, and went on to conquer the Carthaginians, but in just a few years themselves became rulers of the entire world.
The battle of Chalons, sometimes called the Catalaunian Fields, took place on June 20, 451. The Hunnic king Attila had ravaged almost all Europe, and was vying for control of Gaul. After besieging the city of Orléans, Attila was confronted by a Roman army headed by Flavius Aëtius (who had been exiled with the Huns during his youth) and his foederatus, Theodoric I, king of the Visigoths. Both sides also had a number of other minor allies which fought at their side. The Hunnic forces tried to take a dominant position but were repelled by Roman troops, which subsequently launched a charge against the Huns. During this charge, in which Theodoric was killed and his son Thorismund almost trapped in the Hunnic camp, the Huns were nevertheless crippled. They were not annihilated, though; many historians, including Gibbon, believe that Aëtius convinced Thorismund that it was better not to destroy the Huns, on the grounds that total extermination of the Huns would inevitably lead to Rome finding a new enemy in the strengthened Visigoths. Indeed, J.F.C. Fuller, in A Military History of the Western World, claims that Attila survived only because Aetius allowed him to, in "a battle that saved Europe.
This battle, especially since Edward Gibbon addressed it in The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire and Sir Edward Creasy wrote his The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World, has been considered by many historians as one of the most important battles of late antiquity.
Creasy quoted Herbert's work "Attila" concerning this battle, i., line 13.
The discomfiture of the mighty attempt of Attila to found a new anti-Christian dynasty upon the wreck of the temporal power of Rome, at the end of the term of twelve hundred years, to which its duration had been limited by the forebodings of the heathen.
Creasy and Gibbon represent the traditional view, as Creasy himself stated:
Attila's attacks on the Western empire were soon renewed, but never with such peril to the civilized world as had menaced it before his defeat at Châlons; and on his death, two years after that battle, the vast empire which his genius had founded was soon dissevered by the successful revolts of the subject nations. The name of the Huns ceased for some centuries to inspire terror in Western Europe, and their ascendency passed away with the life of the great king by whom it had been so fearfully augmented.
Historian Paul K. Davis, in 100 Decisive Battles, argues for its importance: "Roman defeat of the Huns stopped the Asian spread westward, setting up the collapse of Attila's empire two years later". He says that "by halting hun expansion, the battle at Chalons kept Attila from dominating western Europe. Aetius force was thrown together at the last minute, if had not been defeated, there was really no other organized population that could have withstood the huns.
John J. Norwich, the historian known for his works on Vienna and on Byzantium, said of the battle of Chalons:
it should never be forgotten that in the summer of 451 and again in 452, the whole fate of western civilization hung in the balance. Had the Hunnish army not been halted in these two successive campaigns, had its leader toppled Valentinian from his throne and set up his own capital at Ravenna or Rome, there is little doubt that both Gaul and Italy would have been reduced to spiritual and cultural deserts.
He goes on to say that though the battle in 451 was
indecisive insofar as both sides sustained immense losses and neither was left master of the field, it had the effect of halting the Huns advance.
However, J.B. Bury expresses a quite different judgement:
The battle of Maurica was a battle of nations, but its significance has been enormously exaggerated in conventional history. It cannot in any reasonable sense be designated as one of the critical battles of the world. The Gallic campaign had really been decided by the strategic success of the allies in cutting off Attila from Orleans. The battle was fought when he was in full retreat, and its value lay in damaging his prestige as an invincible conqueror, in weakening his forces, and in hindering him from extending the range of his ravages.
Contributing to the Battle's fearsome reputation through the ages are the terrible losses suffered by both sides, as well as the notoriety of Attila himself—the self-called "scourge of God"—and the fact that the battle ended his reputation as undefeatable. Considering the extravagant totals for casualties, Gibbon remarked that they were "a real and effective loss, sufficient to justify the historian's remark that whole generations may be swept away by the madness of kings in a single hour".
After the First Arab siege of Constantinople (674-678) the Arabs attempted a second decisive attack on the city. An 80,000-strong army led by Maslama, the brother of Caliph Suleiman of Umayyad, crossed the Bosporus from Anatolia to besiege Constantinople by land, while a massive fleet of Arab war galleys commanded by another Suleiman, estimated to initially number 1,800 ships, sailed into the Sea of Marmara to the south of the city. Emperor Leo III was able to use the famed Walls of Constantinople to his advantage and the Arab army was unable to breach them, whilst the Arab galleys were unable to sail up the Bosporus as they were under constant attack and harassment by the Byzantine navy, who used Greek fire to great effect.
Norwich describes the 717/718 winter as "the cruelest winter that anyone could remember." Constantinople was supplied via the Black Sea and did not suffer much hardship, in contrast to the Arab besiegers on land, who suffered immense hardship and losses due to disease and starvation during the winter, as they were not able to supply adequate provisions and were forced to eat their camels, horses, donkeys and according to a Greek source even small rocks and the bodies of their dead. The ground was frozen and the Arabs were forced to throw hundreds of their dead into the sea of Marmara, including the Arab naval commander, Admiral Sulieman. An Egyptian fleet of 400 ships and an African fleet of 360 ships arrived in the spring with fresh reinforcements, but successive assaults on the city were unable to cause a breach in its defenses. Many of the sailors who manned the Arab fleets were recently enslaved or dhimmi Christians who also deserted en masse.
Caliph Suleiman had perished in 717 whilst fighting the Byzantines on the border, most likely trying to lead a relief force or a diversionary attack, and was replaced by Umar II, who continued the siege. No doubt the death and succession of the Caliph in 717 played a role in delaying reinforcements until spring.
The Bulgars, who had established friendlier relations with the Byzantines a year earlier under Khan Tervel, ostensibly because of the looming Arab threat, came to the aid of the besieged city in the fall of 717. Norwich states "The Bulgars had no love for the Byzantines, but they were determined that, if Constantinople were to be taken, it should fall into Bulgar rather than Arab hands." The Arabs were surprised by the new and unexpected enemy and his attack on their own camp, followed by a horrible massacre. Encouraged by this, the Byzantines opened the gates and attempted to break the siege, but were stopped at the Arab trenches and had to retreat back behind the city walls because of the following Arab counter-attack. This scene was repeated several times during the siege with the same ill success for both sides. The incessant Bulgar attacks in the rear of the Arabs forced them to build trenches also against the Bulgars. This way, however, the Arabs found themselves in a thin line between two fortifications, which were attacked both by Bulgars and Byzantines. After an unusually harsh winter, weary from the long attrition of siege warfare, thinned out by disease and hunger, and demoralized by the lack of success in assaulting the city, the Arabs attempted to retreat to their ships in July, but were devastated by a Bulgar attack against their land forces. Contemporary chroniclers report at least 12,000-15,000 Arabs died in the first Bulgar attack. Bulgarian aid to the city was one of the key factors for the defeat of the Arabs and many poets and musicians glorified Khan Tervelas "The saviour of Europe".
Unable to continue the siege in the face of the Bulgarian onslaught and lack of successes, the Arabs were forced to abandon their ambitions on Constantinople in August. Part of the Arab army attempted to withdraw back through Anatolia while the rest attempted to withdraw by sea in the remaining Arab vessels. A devastating storm wracked the Arab fleet on its way back, destroying all but five galleys and drowning the men who had retreated by sea.
This battle was a severe blow to Caliph Umar II and the expansion of the Umayyad Caliphate was severely stunted during his reign. It has macrohistorical importance in that, had Constantinople fallen to this massive force of invaders, the Byzantine Empire most likely would have disintegrated and opened up new opportunities for Muslim expansion into Europe 700 years ahead of the Ottoman invasions.
Al-Samh's 721 march into Aquitaine was a full scale invasion, with the long term purpose of conquest, rather than a mere raid. Muslim histories say Al-Samh evidently intended to strike west, take the key Garonne River valley, and capture Toulouse — then the capital of Eudes, Duke of Aquitaine — and open up a vast territory stretching all the way to the Atlantic and back south through Andalusia to the Mediterranean and the Maghrib.
According to Muslim histories of the period, Al-Samh evidently felt confident that, with Toulouse in his grip, he could repeat what he had done in Narbonne: create by treaty a string of lslamo-Christian principalities, sealed in the usual way by marriage between the leading princes and families on both sides. But first he returned to al-Andalus to muster fresh troops. Reinforced, he crossed back into Occitania in early spring, 721, and immediately marched west toward Toulouse.
Al-Samh's army included siege engines, infantry, a few horsemen and numerous mercenaries, as well as the redoubtable Basque slingers. Toulouse was a big, well-defended city, whose walls had been consistently strengthened since Roman and Visigothic times, and Eudes wasted no time in leaving to gather help. The siege of Toulouse, with its near-impregnable walls, lasted until early summer. The defenders, short of provisions, were close to surrendering when, around June 9 721, Eudes of Aquitaine returned at the head of a large force, hurled himself at al-Samh's rear and launched a highly successful encircling movement. A major, decisive battle ensued; on this, three major Muslim historians of the period agree: Ibn Hayyan (d. 1067), Ibn al-Athir (d. 1234) and al-Maqqari (d. 1632).
These Muslim histories suggest that al-Samh fell into the classic trap of static warfare and had concentrated his entire potential against the walls of Toulouse. With too few horsemen—the extensive use of Arab and Berber cavalry in Europe came later in 732—he was unable to react fast enough to Eudes's charge, which completely engulfed him. Caught between the city's defenders and Eudes's men, al-Samh tried to break out, but was trapped with the bulk of his troops in a place called Balat (Plateau), where he made a determined last stand.
There are historians, such as the Toulouse historian Sydney Forado, who believe the Battle of Toulouse halted the Muslim conquest of Europe even more than the later— and more celebrated— Battle of Tours (October 10 732, between Tours and Poitiers). Historians such as Sir Charles Oman argue however that even had the Arabs won at Toulouse, they still would have had to conquer the Franks to have retained control of the region. Other historians such as Paul K. Davis agree that the Christian victory at Toulouse was important in a macrohistorical sense; it gave Charles Martel badly needed time to strengthen his grip on power and build the veteran army which stood him in such good stead eleven years later at Tours. Davis said in 100 Decisive Battles, "Having defeated Eudes, he turned to the Rhine to strengthen his northeastern borders - but in 725 was diverted south with the activity of the Muslims in Aquitaine." Martel then concentrated his attention to the east, virtually for the remainder of his life.
His controversial seizure of church property to buy supporters, secure power, settle his northern frontier by any means necessary, including bribes in some cases, allowed him to fund his army and prepare for the coming danger. This earned great enmity from the Church at the time, but after Tours, Rome swiftly saw the necessity of the Frankish Army. Without his veteran Frankish Army, Martel could not have prevailed at Tours, where his veterans accomplished what was thought impossible—infantry withstanding armoured cavalry without firearms or even longbows. The eleven years between Toulouse and Tours without question gave him time to fully secure power, inspire the loyalty of his troops, and most importantly, drill the core of veterans who stood so stoutly in 732.
In 732, the Emir of Al-Andulas returned with a veteran army, which swept north to face the hero of the Battle of Toulouse first. Eleven years after that glorious victory, duke Eudes once more stood against the invading Muslims in the Battle of the River Garonne—nevertheless, this time his forces were literally exterminated by the Arab troops, and the Mozarabic Chronicle of 754 commented "solus Deus numerum morientium vel pereuntium recognoscat" (God alone knows the number of the slain). Whereas eleven years earlier, Eudes had not had to face the dreaded Arab heavy cavalry, this time he did—and the result was catastrophic. Eudes himself managed to escape and fled to Charles Martel, Mayor of the Palace, and de facto ruler of the Frankish realm, agreed to help him in return for an oath of fealty. When the Frankish ruler got wind that the Umayyads were planning to storm the city of Tours and loot the Abbey of Saint Martin of Tours, then the holiest and richest shrine of Europe, modern historians have estimated that he put together an army of about 20,000 veteran infantry and 1,000 cavalry and marched to meet Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi, whose forces numbered about 80,000 men, mostly cavalry. Duke Eudes, and what remained of his forces, joined Martel and fought on his left flank.
For six days, the two armies feinted, with the Muslim cavalry trying to draw the Franks out, and Martel sending his peasant levies to harass the invaders, while holding his infantry in a tight, defensive phalanx formation. On the seventh day, the season only growing colder, the Muslims attacked.
The two armies engaged at the point where the rivers Vienne and Clain join, between Tours and Poitiers, in October 10, 732. The Frankish army in their phalanx formation was able to withstand the numerous Islamic cavalry charges. Although the Muslim cavalry was able to pierce the Franks' defensive formation, the Franks never broke, and at the height of the fighting, scouts sent by Martel to raid the Muslim camp in hopes of drawing off part of their forces succeeded beyond their wildest dreams. Part of the Umayyad forces headed back to camp to secure their loot, and soon the remaining Umayyad troops began a full-scale retreat. Panic spread amongst the Umayyad lines and the Islamic retreat soon became chaotic. The Frankish cavalry was able to take advantage of this disorganisation and struck down a great number of invaders, amongst them the commander Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.
It was under one of their ablest and most renowned commanders, with a veteran army, and with every apparent advantage of time, place, and circumstance, that the Arabs made their great effort at the conquest of Europe north of the Pyrenees. |Edward Shepherd Creasy|The Fifteen Decisive Battles of the World
The German military historian Hans Delbruck said of this battle "there was no more important battle in the history of the world. Edward Gibbon, John B. Bury and Norman Cantor, among others, have named this as the most macrohistorically important battle of (Christian) Europe. Several historians have noted its significance:
In those historians' view, had the Frankish kingdom fallen, it is doubtful that the rest of Europe—divided into little, squabbling states—could have resisted the Muslim expansion.
H.G. Wells in his "A Short History of the World" lavishes praise on Martel in Chapter XLV, "The Development of Latin Christendom":
The Moslim when they crossed the Pyrenees in 720 found this Frankish kingdom under the practical rule of Charles Martel, the Mayor of the Palace of a degenerate descendant of Clovis, and experienced the decisive defeat of Poitiers (732) at his hands. This Charles Martel was practically overlord of Europe north of the Alps from the Pyrenees to Hungary. He ruled over a multitude of subordinate lords speaking French-Latin, and High and Low German languages."
Other historians, such as William Watson and Antonio Santosuosso agree that the Battle was of macrohistorical importance as it brought the powerful Frankish army into the conflict, but are more nuanced in their interpretation of the battle's place in history; Watson writes:
There is clearly some justification for ranking Tours-Poitiers among the most significant events in Frankish history when one considers the result of the battle in light of the remarkable record of the successful establishment by Muslims of Islamic political and cultural dominance along the entire eastern and southern rim of the former Christian, Roman world. The rapid Muslim conquest of Palestine, Syria, Egypt and the North African coast all the way to Morocco in the seventh century resulted in the permanent imposition by force of Islamic culture onto a previously Christian and largely non-Arab base. The Visigothic kingdom fell to Muslim conquerors in a single battle on the Rio Barbate in 711, and the Hispanic Christian population took seven long centuries to regain control of the Iberian peninsula. The Reconquista, of course, was completed in 1492, only months before Columbus received official backing for his fateful voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Had Charles Martel suffered at Tours-Poitiers the fate of King Roderick at the Rio Barbate, it is doubtful that a "do-nothing" sovereign of the Merovingian realm could have later succeeded where his talented major domus had failed. Indeed, as Charles was the progenitor of the Carolingian line of Frankish rulers and grandfather of Charlemagne, one can even say with a degree of certainty that the subsequent history of the West would have proceeded along vastly different currents had ‘Abd ar-Rahman been victorious at Tours-Poitiers in 732.
Indeed, lands such as Great Britain or the Teutonic territories were far weaker than the Franks, both in military and in political terms, and it is difficult to imagine what population in Europe could have resisted the Islamic conquest. Military Historian Victor Davis Hanson says:
What is clear is that Poitiers marked a general continuance of the successful western defense of Europe. Flush from his victory at Poitiers, Charles went on to clear southern France from Islamic invaders for decades, unify the warring kingdoms into the foundation of the Carolingian Empire, and ensure ready and available troops from local estates.
Sir Edward Creasy wrote "Martel's victory rescued Christendom from Islam, preserved the relics of ancient and the germs of modern civilization." Dexter Wakefield says "European schoolchildren learn about the Battle of Tours in much the same way that American students learn about Valley Forge and Gettysburg." It decided, as Creasy said, "the fate of nations."
However, there is a school of thought which disagrees with the view that this battle decided "the fate of nations." Tomaz Mastnak, in Crusading Peace: Christendom, the Muslim World, and Western Political Order presents a completely different view:
Modern historians have constructed a myth presenting this victory as having saved Christian Europe from the Muslims. Edward Gibbon, for example, called Charles Martel the savior of Christendom and the battle near Poitiers an encounter that changed the history of the world... This myth has survived well into our own times... Contemporaries of the battle, however, did not overstate its significance. The continuators of Fredegar's chronicle, who probably wrote in the mid-eighth century, pictured the battle as just one of many military encounters between Christians and Saracens—moreover, as only one in a series of wars fought by Frankish princes for booty and territory... One of Fredegar's continuators presented the battle of Poitiers as what it really was: an episode in the struggle between Christian princes as the Carolingians strove to bring Aquitaine under their rule.
The Battle of Lepanto (Ναύπακτος in Greek, İnebahtı in Turkish) took place on 7 October 1571 when a galley fleet of the Holy League, a coalition of Venice, the Papacy (under Pope Pius V), Spain, Republic of Genoa, Duchy of Savoy, the Knights of Malta and others, defeated a force of Ottoman galleys. The 5-hour battle was fought at the northern edge of the Gulf of Patras, off western Greece, where the Ottoman forces sailing westwards from their naval station in Lepanto met the Holy League forces, which had come from Messina, in the morning of Sunday 7 October. It was the final major naval battle in world history solely between rowing vessels, and it marked the beginning of the end of Ottoman supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The Holy League's fleet consisted of 206 galleys and six galleasses (large converted merchant galleys carrying substantial artillery), and was ably commanded by Don Juan de Austria (or Don John), the illegitimate son of Emperor Charles V and halfbrother of King Philip II of Spain. Vessels had been contributed by the various Christian states: 109 galleys and six galleasses from Venice, 80 galleys from Spain and Naples/Sicily, 12 Tuscan galleys hired by the Papal States, three galleys each from Genoa, Malta, and Savoy, and several privately owned galleys. All members of the alliance viewed the Turkish navy as a significant threat to their maritime trade in the Mediterranean Sea and were determined to put an end to it. The various Christian contingents met the main force, that of Venice (under Veniero), in July and August 1571 at Messina, Sicily. Don John arrived on 23 August.
This fleet of the Christian alliance was manned by 12,920 sailors and 43,000 rowers. In addition, it carried almost 28,000 fighting troops: 10,000 Spanish regular infantry of superior quality, 7,000 German and 6,000 Italian mercenary contingents from the various Habsburg dominions, and 5,000 others. There were also a large number of volunteers from all of Christian Europe.
Ali Pasha (Turkish: "Kaptan-ı Derya Ali Paşa"), supported by the corsairs Chulouk Bey of Alexandria and Uluj Ali (Uluch Ali), commanded an Ottoman force of 216 galleys, 56 galliots, and some smaller vessels. The Turks had skilled and experienced crews of sailors, but were somewhat deficient in soldiers, having only 25,000 of them, including only 2,500 Janissaries, who at that time were the only warriors equal to the Spanish Tercio in the world. Some naval historians argue that this shortage of first-rate infantry was one of the decisive factors in the Ottoman defeat at Lepanto, especially in that it led to the capture and execution of Ali Pasha. Others consider that the main difference between the two sides was primarily the presence of the larger, longer-ranged broadside cannon on the Venetian galleases. The thick armour of the Spanish infantry and the large number of Muslim archers are also considered to have been important. Certainly the few galleases had an influence out of proportion to their number and only a few prominent Christians were lost to arrows.
One of the better-known participants in the battle was Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes, who was wounded in the battle and effectively lost the use of his left hand. Several years later he was captured by the Turkish corsairs and spent five years in captivity as a slave in Algiers before being ransomed by the Trinitarian Order. This episode of his life is believed to be referenced in his masterpiece, Don Quixote.
The Turkish fleet suffered the loss of approximately 210 ships—of which 130 vessels, 117 galleys, 10 galliots and three fustas were captured, and in good enough condition for the Christians to keep. On the Christian side 20 galleys were destroyed and 30 were damaged so seriously that they had to be scuttled. One Venetian galley was the only one kept by the Turks. All others were abandoned by them and recaptured.
Uluj Ali, who had captured the flagship of the Maltese Knights, succeeded in extricating most of his ships from the battle when defeat was certain. Although he had cut the tow on the Maltese flagship in order to get away, he sailed to Istanbul, gathering up other Ottoman ships along the way and finally arriving there with 87 vessels. He presented the huge Maltese flag to Sultan Selim who thereupon bestowed upon him the honorary title of "kιlιç" (Sword); Uluj thus became known as Kιlιç Ali Pasha.
The Holy League had suffered around 13,000 soldiers, sailors and rowers dead, but freed about as many Christian prisoners. Turkish casualties were around 25,000, and at least 3,500 were captured. The Holy League credited the victory to the Virgin Mary, whose intercession with God they had implored for victory through the use of the Rosary. Pius V instituted a new Catholic feast day of Our Lady of Victory to commemorate the battle, which is now celebrated by the Catholic Church as the feast of Our Lady of the Rosary. Genoese admiral Andrea Doria had kept a copy of the miraculous image of our Our Lady of Guadalupe given to him by King Philip II of Spain in his ship's state room.
This battle was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, who had not lost a major naval battle since the fifteenth century. To most of Christendom, this event encouraged hope for the downfall of "the Turk", whom they regarded as the "Sempiternal Enemy of the Christian". Indeed, the Empire lost all but 30 of its ships and as many as 30,000 men, and some Western historians have held it to be the most decisive naval battle anywhere on the globe since the Battle of Actium of 31 BC. Historian Victor Davis Hanson said:
To sixteenth century Christians, the sudden muster and vast size of the Christian fleet at Lepanto were proof of Christ to resist the Muslim onslaught.
Despite the massive defeat, however, the Holy League's inability to stay united prevented the victors from capitalizing on their triumph. Bickering amongst the allies ruined plans to seize the Dardanelles as a step towards recovering Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) for Christendom. With a massive effort, the Ottoman Empire rebuilt its navy, adding eight of the largest capital ships ever seen in the Mediterranean. Within six months this new fleet was able to reassert Ottoman naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. On 7 March 1573 the Venetians thus recognized by treaty the Ottoman possession of Cyprus, which had fallen to the Turks under Piyale Pasha on 3 August 1571, just two months before Lepanto, and remained Turkish for the next three centuries, and that summer the Ottoman navy ravaged the geographically vulnerable coasts of Sicily and southern Italy.
In 1574, the Ottomans retook the strategic city of Tunis from the Spanish supported Hafsid dynasty, that had been re-installed when Don Juan's forces reconquered the city from the Ottomans the year before. With their long-standing alliance with the French coming into play they were able to resume naval activity in the western Mediterranean. In 1579 the capture of Fez completed Ottoman conquests in Morocco that had begun under Süleyman the Magnificent. The establishment of Ottoman suzerainty over the area placed the entire coast of the Mediterranean from the Straits of Gibraltar to Croatia and Slovenia (with the exceptions of the Spanish controlled trading city of Oran and strategic settlements such as Melilla and Ceuta)—under Ottoman authority. However the loss of so many of its experienced sailors at Lepanto sapped the fighting effectiveness of the Ottoman navy, a fact underlined by their minimizing confrontations with Christian navies in the years immediately after. Historian Paul K. Davis said:
This Turkish defeat stopped Turkey's expansion into the Mediterranean, thus maintaining western dominance, and confidence grew in the west that Turks, previously unstoppable, could be beaten.
Thus, this victory for the Holy League was primarily important not because the Turks lost 80 ships sunk and 130 captured by the allies, and 30,000 men killed (not including 12,000 Christian galley slaves, who were freed; allied losses were 7,500 men and 17 galleys), but because this was a victory which heralded the end of Turkish supremacy in the Mediterranean.
The battle of Vienna is chronologically the last of these battles. During the Great Turkish War, the Ottoman Empire had managed to capture most if not all of eastern Europe and Turkish forces fought their way to the gates of Vienna. Because of its strategic position in both fluvial (through the Danube) and land trade, the Ottoman commanders wanted to assume control of the city as soon as possible. Instead of opting for an all-out attack—with good prospects for success, since the Ottoman soldiers greatly outnumbered Austrian defenders—grand vizier Kara Mustafa Pasha decided to lay siege on the city, in order to capture it with the minimal possible amount of damage. What the Ottomans did not take into account however was that time was not on their side. Their lack of urgency at this point, combined with the delay in advancing their army after declaring war, eventually allowed a relief force to arrive. Historians have speculated that Kara Mustafa wanted to take the city intact for its riches, which by Ottoman tradition would go to him in the event of a surrender, and declined an all-out attack in order to prevent the right of plunder which would accompany such an assault.
The Ottoman siege cut virtually every means of food supply into Vienna, and the garrison and civilian volunteers suffered extreme casualties. Fatigue became such a problem that Ernst Rüdiger Graf von Starhemberg ordered any soldier found asleep on watch to be shot. Increasingly desperate, the forces holding Vienna were on their last legs when in August, Imperial forces under Charles V, Duke of Lorraine beat Imre Thököly of Hungary at Bisamberg, 5 km northeast of Vienna.
On 6 September, the Poles crossed the Danube 30 km north west of Vienna at Tulln, to unite with the Imperial forces and additional troops from Saxony, Bavaria, Baden, Franconia and Swabia who had answered the call for a Holy League that was supported by Pope Innocent XI. Only Louis XIV of France, Habsburg's rival, declined to help, even using the opportunity to attack cities in Alsace and other parts of southern Germany, as in the Thirty Years' War decades earlier.
On September 11, 1683, John Sobieski and his ally Charles V of Lorraine arrived and immediately attacked the Turkish troops, relieving the siege on Vienna, which at that point was on the verge of falling into Ottoman hands. A combined charge of four Holy League cavalry groups and 3,000 heavily armed winged Polish lancer hussars broke the Turkish lines. Less than three hours after this charge, the Ottoman troops were forced to retreat and the Christian forces saved Vienna from capture. The Catholic Encyclopedia says of this battle:
On 11 Sept., Sobieski was on the heights of Kahlenberg, near the city, and the next day he gave battle in the plain below, with an army of not more than 76,000 men, the German forming the left wing and the Pole under Hetmans Jablonowski and Sieniawski, with General Katski in command of the artillery, forming the right. The hussars charged with their usual impetuosity, but the dense masses of the foe were impenetrable. Their retreat was taken for flight by the Turks, who rushed forward in pursuit; the hussars turned upon them with reinforcements and charged again, when their shouts made known that the "Northern Lion" was on the field and the Turks fled, panic-stricken, with Sobieski's horsemen still in pursuit.
Although no one realized it at the time, the battle shaped the outcome of the entire war as well. The Ottomans fought on for another 16 years, losing control of Hungary and Transylvania in the process, before finally giving up. The end of the conflict was finalized by the Treaty of Karlowitz.
The battle of Vienna marked the historic end of Turkish expansion into southeastern Europe, therefore preventing Ottoman domination of the continent. The Holy League, created by several Christian states to fight the common Turkish enemy, is an example of how the European powers formed alliances when common traditions and values were at stake; some have commented that the situation was similar to the Crusades, but on this occasion, the "Crusade" was taking place in the very heart of Europe.
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