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There have been a number of pivotal moments throughout history from which the fates of men, kings, and nations hung in the balance, when even the most seemingly insignificant action was capable of deciding the fates of hundreds or thousands. The majority of such momentous events are only ever able to be identified centuries later by musty old historians leafing through the pages of dusty old tomes, debating what might have happened had this general turned his cavalry left instead of right, or if that general had remained upright atop his horse instead of falling from his saddle and being ignominiously trampled beneath the hooves of his steed. A rare and notable few, however, are so undeniably significant that they are widely recognized within the lifetimes of their participants, their impact so strong and immediate that it is felt the world over and echoed for many years to come. The Battle of Lepanto, which I, myself, have the privilege of calling myself both a participant in and a survivor of, undoubtedly belongs in this company.

Before we delve into the far-reaching consequences of that fateful October day, however, I think it important that we first understand the circumstances by which it came to be. The avaricious merchant princes of the Venetian republic had long sought dominion over the eastern Mediterranean, their naked greed and ambition most notoriously resulting in the invasion, plundering, and partition of the Empire of the Greeks in a vile act of treachery that saw an entire crusading army turned from its holy mission of reclaiming Jerusalem and lured into sin. Venetian duplicitousness would later rear its ugly head once more when they furthered their worldly ambitions by seizing control of the Kingdom of Cyprus by right of Catarina Cornaro, the Venetian widow of its last king, James II. The treacherous nature of the Venetian merchants cannot be overstated: it has often been whispered that it was their minions who had arranged the demise of the king, and later his infant son, in order to clear the way for the institution of Venetian rule over the island.

Despite its place in the shadows cast by the Venetian sun, however, Cyprus still remained in uncomfortably close proximity to the ascendant Turkish empire that called itself the Sublime Ottoman State. On 1 July 1570, more than fifty thousand Ottoman foot soldiers and six thousand elite janissaries under the command of Mustafa Pasha landed on the island's rocky shores and proceeded to lay siege to the city of Nicosia. Alarmed by this sudden and unprecedented invasion and their cries for help going unheard by the ears of such prominent Christian rulers as the kings of France and Portugal, the Venetians turned to the chief shepherd of Christendom for aid, petitioning the Pope to assemble an army to relieve their beleaguered Cypriot domain. Pius V consented, as did King Philip II of Spain, and a united fleet soon set sail to rendezvous with the Venetian navy. Alas, the Genoese commander of the Spanish contribution, Giovanni Andrea Doria, had been discretely bid to proceed with great lethargy, so as to avoid losing Spanish ships in Venetian wars, and their arrival came far too late for the good people of Nicosia. On 9 September, the city fell, and with the end of the siege so ended nearly fifteen thousand lives. Every adult male was put to death, only the women and children “spared” so that they might be taken as slaves.

Word of the savage massacre at Nicosia reached the Christian fleet only days later, prompting them to reverse course and abandon their plans to sail to the city's aid. The Ottomans were able to proceed to the island's capital of Famagusta virtually unhindered and demanded its surrender, sending along the severed head of the commander of Nicosia, Nicolo Dandolo, as a grim trophy of their victory and a promise of what was to come if their demands were refused. The city was not to go down without a fight, however. Famagusta was heavily fortified and its commander, Marco Antonio Bragadin, knew that it could hold out for some months even in the face of the overwhelming Ottoman invasion force – months that could buy precious time for another Christian coalition to be assembled to come to their aid. Thus rebuffed, the Turks spent the winter encamped around the city, and with the spring thaw began making preparations for the city's capture. In April 1571, the Ottomans retrieved their artillery from the ruined city of Nicosia and laid the foundation for a labyrinthine network of trenches around the city's walls to provide cover for their arquebusiers. On 19 May, the bombardment of Famagusta began.

In spite of the opposition they faced, the Venetian response was far from mild, and the Ottomans lost so many men in those first few days that their troops' confidence in their cause began to flag. Talk was soon heard in the Turkish camp that the siege should be abandoned before the Christians dispatched reinforcements to break it, though the pasha elected to press on in hopes that the enemy would soon yield. On 25 May, Mustafa Pasha once more dispatched an emissary bearing terms of surrender to Bragadin – terms which were again emphatically refused. On 23 July, Mustafa Pasha made yet another attempt at persuading the defenders to surrender, this time promising them their lives and freedom if they did so, claiming that he would permit their return to Christendom unmolested. Failure to comply would result in the city meeting the same dismal fate as Nicosia. After much debate and evaluation of their rapidly dwindling options, this offer was accepted and the city made its formal surrender on 4 August. Unfortunately, the pasha soon proved to lack the integrity that the Venetians had expected of him, and having already occupied the city, had the remaining soldiery and many citizens slaughtered, supposedly over a minor dispute regarding the terms of the surrender. Bragadin himself had his ears and nose removed and was publically flayed alive after refusing conversion to the Turkish faith, his skin stuffed with straw and his body quartered, the remains hung for repulsive display in various parts of the city.

The Pope had not remained idle while all this took place. An agreement to form a Holy League to combat the Turkish menace was pronounced on 20 May, its signatories including the Spanish monarch, the fabled Knights of Malta, the Duke of Savoy, the Venetians, as well as the Genoese, those great rivals of Venice in all things. That interests as dissimilar as these could be aligned, even temporarily, to unite against a common enemy stands as a testament to the enormity of the threat posed by the Ottomans. It was agreed that just over two hundred vessels would be contributed to this sacred endeavor, along with fifty thousand men to man them. The overall commander of this vast host was Don John of Austria, the illegitimate half-brother of King Philip II of Spain. Despite his base origins, he had proven himself several times over as a capable commander both on land and at sea, most recently in the revolt of the Moriscos in Granada, and was much loved by his troops. The Venetians dispatched Agostino Barbarigo at the head of their division, the recently-appointed captain-general of their navy. An even-tempered man, Barbarigo proved himself a wise choice several times over on the journey, as it frequently fell to him to mediate disputes between the fleet's many proud officers.

One of those august personages the astute reader might recall from a previous mention – Giovanni Andrea Doria, the Spanish monarch's representative from the previous attempt to break the blockade of Cyprus, and here the commander of the Genoese contribution. As we would soon discover, his appointment here would prove to be as unwise as his previous command. The great-nephew of that famed admiral, Andrea Doria, he fancied himself the heir to the family's renowned naval legacy and possessed the boundless confidence and pride one would expect from a member of such a distinguished lineage. Alas, this Doria was nothing more than a mere shadow of his great-uncle, a claimant to a reputation which he did not possess the skills to uphold. Lastly, but perhaps second in significance only to Don John himself, was Marcantonio Colonna, a descendant of a noble family which had seen one of its members elevated to hold the Throne of St. Peter in the previous century and the captain-general of the navy of the Papal States. On 15 September, the bulk of the fleet set out from Messina, bound for a fateful encounter with the Turk, the rest to follow the next day. The vessel upon which I served was the Marquesa de Juan Andrea, under the command of Francisco de Santo Pietro, and though journeys at sea are often harsh, our mood was jubilant. To take the fight to the Turk was a worthy endeavor, and to do on as a scale so grand had never before been attempted. We were not merely going to be witnesses to history, but participants.

As we entered the month of October, we approached the Gulf of Patras. Some had fared worse than others during the voyage, myself among them, and were confined belowdecks due to illness. As such, I did not have the privilege of witnessing the events of this time or even hearing of them secondhand, and thus must resort to the accounts of others who were present. Knowing the Ottoman fleet was approaching from their base at Lepanto, the fleet's officers set about making their preparations. As was his preference, Don John chose to lead from the front, commanding the heart of the Holy League's formation from aboard his flagship, the Real, by far the largest galley in the fleet, and still larger than any that had been seen before. A golden likeness of the sea god, Neptune, rode its prow, and the rest of the vessel was similarly gilded and ornate. Coupled with the massive banner representing the Holy League that billowed in the wind atop its mast, it was truly a sight to behold. Doria was placed in command of the right wing, facing the open sea, while Barbarigo would hold the left wing, which would terminate at the shoreline. The reserve was left in the capable hands of Álvaro de Bazán, an experienced Spanish admiral known for his thoroughness and steadfast attitude, if not boldness and daring. Towed ahead and left some distance in front of the center were six galleasses – Venetian vessels, virtually immobile but in possession of weapons so numerous and powerful as to approach demonic, a castle floating upon the sea capable of shredding anything that approached it. They were so rare that the Turk would have no idea of their true purpose until it was too late. A deadly surprise.

On the morning of 7 October, not long after sunrise, the battle began. The Ottomans had matched our formation, their center commanded by Müezzinzade Ali Pasha, the right and left wings each overseen by feared corsairs – Mehmed Sirocco and Uluç Ali Reis, respectively. Despite our hopes for an early advantage, human passions proved to be the undoing of the Don's clever plan. One of the galleasses had been placed under the dual command of Antonio and Ambrogio Bragadin, relatives of the flayed commander of Famagusta, hungry for revenge against the Turk that had brutally slaughtered one of their own. Don John's advisers had expressed some doubt about placing men for whom the fight was so personal in such an integral role, but the Don, being a man of strong passions himself, had seen fit to indulge their lust for revenge. Famagusta and Nicosia had become rallying cries for the Holy League, and as the most prominent casualty of the loss of Cyprus, Bragadin was well on his way to become a minor martyr in his own right. Depriving his blood of their desired retribution would have contributed little to morale and unity in a fleet as disharmonious as ours.

The brothers Bragadin achieved their wish of firing the first shot in the battle to avenge their kin, but alas, it was a shot fired at the expense of the element of surprise. Had they held they fire and waited, many more Ottoman galleys might have fallen to those first few volleys, but their wrath had blinded them to anything but the desire to see Turkish blood spilled. The trap sprung before it could fully enclose its prey, the Ottomans were quick to adjust their tactics, swiftly outmaneuvering the ponderous galleasses and focusing their fire on their unsheltered positions. Seeing a chance to solidify his inheritance of his great-uncle's heroic reputation and determined to erase the memory of the lingering debacle that was the last battle he had been sent to fight against the Turk, Doria plunged headlong toward the Ottoman center in a reckless charge intended to aid the exposed galleasses. It was a terrible mistake. Uluç Ali Reis was a wily and experienced corsair, renowned for the swiftness with which he could adjust to the rapidly-changing nature of the battlefield. Doria's charge had broken the wall formed by the Holy League, exposing both his own flank and the fleet's beating heart, and the corsair took full advantage of the opportunity. With Barbarigo's hands full near the coastline, the Christian center was being converged on from two angles.

Seeing what had happened, Álvaro de Bazán moved his reserve to reinforce the center, but soon found his attention diverted as Barbarigo's left began to crumble. With the shore so close giving us little room to maneuver, the clash of ships had turned into a clash of swords as the Turks boarded our vessels and pitted their blades against ours. Even ill as I was, when I heard the call to arms, I rose from my sickbed with sword in hand, and ascended to the deck to do my part. Meanwhile, the titanic Ottoman flagship, the Sultana, rapidly approached the Real. Doria's ill-planned rush had left him wrong-footed and unable to do anything to slow the Turkish advance. The elite Ottoman guardsmen, the janissaries, soon managed to make their way onto the deck of Don John's vessel. By this time, much of what was going on was obscured by smoke and flames, and so none have ever been able to truly piece together exactly where things went so catastrophically wrong. All that I can recall now is seeing the great gilded flagship buckle and heave, diving into the sea and carrying all aboard to a water grave. Its own distinctiveness proved to be our undoing, for there was no man in the fleet who would not recognize its loss if his vision was unobstructed. When the Real carried Don John to the bottom of the ocean, it took with him our hope for victory.

Seeing the center being to collapse, Doria did what Doria did best – he turned away to make his escape. Reports would later emerge that he had met a just punishment for his cowardice, for Ottoman pursuers hunted him down and killed him before he was able to regroup with the tattered remnants of our fleet. Seeing that the day was lost, Bazán gave the signal to retreat, his relatively unbloodied reserve providing the assistance necessary to extricate our left wing from its engagement with the Ottoman right, which had begun to ferocity of its onslaught diminish after Mehmed Sirocco took an arrow through the eye. Those vessels which were too damaged or inextricably entangled with the enemy fleet had to be left behind, their undoubtedly appalling fates a grim weight upon us as we retreated toward the setting sun. The months that followed for us felt as if they were stretched out into an eternity, for the defeat at Lepanto had reverberated throughout the Christian world, and there was nowhere one could go where it was not to the taste of local tongues. It is said that when word of the disaster finally reached Rome, Pope Pius V died instantly from shock, though most sources actually present at the time seem to agree that he died some months later, rendering this little more than a popular, if morbid, myth.

If the loss of Cyprus had been damaging to the fortunes of the Venetian republic, then Lepanto was crippling to the aspirations of the Holy League. A battle as significant and decisive as this the Mediterranean had not seen since Actium, more than a thousand years earlier, nor as great a loss. The destruction of much of the combined Christian fleet had given the Ottomans virtually unlimited access to the western Mediterranean, an unprecedented advantage which there was never any doubt that the Turk would not hesitate to take full and merciless advantage of. In May 1572, Turkish troops landed all but unopposed on the shores of the major Venetian outpost of Crete, which found itself left with no choice but to make an immediate and unconditional surrender in hopes of avoiding meeting the same fate as Nicosia and Famagusta, lacking even their slim hope that anyone might come to their assistance, no matter how long they held out. Other scattered Venetian holdings in the Aegean and Ionian Seas soon followed, their fates sealed as surely as Crete's by our failure.

Any hope that the new Pope might have held for the formation of another Holy League soon vanished with the outbreak of hostilities in the Netherlands, which had long been chafing beneath the Spanish thumb. King Philip had invested a great deal of time and energy in preserving his control over the region, and the pacification of the revolt soon commanded the full attention of his court and generals. Pleased by his recent successes, the Ottoman sultan, Selim II, commanded that his realm be expanded westward, seeking to make real the dream of his great-great-grandfather, Mehmed the Conqueror, of an Ottoman Rome. In July 1573, Turkish feet landed on Sicilian soil. A province of Spain, Sicily had often been deemed irrelevant by its overlords, providing little in terms of resources and offering a great deal of frustration in terms of governance in return. More often than not, effective control of the island devolved into the hands of the regional and local native nobility. As such, their ability to resist an Ottoman invasion force was extremely limited. Carlo d'Aragona Tagliavia, the viceroy of Sicily, made a valiant attempt at rallying what passed for troops under his command, but soon after found his head severed from his body and repositioned atop a pike for his troubles.

Though the loss of Sicily was not a particularly great loss to the Spanish crown, the establishment of an Ottoman foothold so close to the Italian boot, and most importantly the Spanish domain of Naples, was most certainly something worthy of concern. Ottoman expansionism they had expected, but nothing so soon and not on such a scale. A blow struck against the Venetian lagoon, perhaps, an incursion north into the Holy Roman Empire, maybe, or to reassert their dominance over the north African coastline, likely. But a strike so close to Rome itself? It made the loss of Cyprus appear inconsequential by comparison. Fernando Álvarez de Toledo, Duke of Alba and the finest battlefield commander in all of Spain, and perhaps even all of Christendom as well, was quickly recalled from his assigned duty of subduing the rebellious Dutch and granted viceregal authority over Naples, and along with it was appointed commander-in-chief of all Spanish military operations on the peninsula. Second in authority to the king himself and with as many troops as he might desire at his disposal, he had only a single simple task. Prepare for the Ottoman invasion and throw them back into the sea.

The Ottoman pashas would have preferred more time to prepare their next move, but none dared refuse the exhortations of the sultan, knowing they would likely find themselves absent their heads if they did so. Their troops in Sicily fully occupied with the solidifying their rule over the island, the bulk of the Ottoman invasion force crossed at the Strait of Otranto in July 1474, as Mehmed the Conqueror's legions had done a century earlier. Their army numbered forty thousand men in all, with the same Müezzinzade Ali Pasha who had triumph over us at Lepanto at their head – a small force, given the size of the realm they intended to conquer, but they were well aware that speed was of the utmost importance and time was not on their side. Disagreements among the western powers had allowed them enough time to conquer distant Cyprus, but they expected no such hesitation when they invaded the Italian peninsula itself. If they were to have any hope of succeeding, it would be due to a swift strike aimed at the head of the Christian serpent in Rome. Despite being unaccustomed to such tactics, the Ottomans made good time, and soon reached the great Apulian plain, the Tavoliere de Puglia.

It was here that the Duke of Alba had decided to make his stand. Having distinguished myself at Lepanto, I was here assigned to the staff of one of the duke's officers, and I can personally attest to the efficiency of his strategy. Upon arriving in Naples, he had set about determining the most likely path an Ottoman invasion force would take, and proceeded to stockpile the gunpowder that had been in critically short supply at Cyprus and reinforce fortifications along those routes. The town of Canosa di Puglia had been one such location fortified, and the duke had relocated the bulk of his army here upon hearing of the Ottoman landing at Otranto. Well aware of the Ottoman preference for constructing impressive defenses of their own in the midst of a siege, he had established his own network of artillery and trenches to provide cover for his arquebusiers. His force was numerically inferior to the Turks at only thirty thousand men, but his position was well-entrenched and the Ottomans did not have the luxury of simply passing him by or waiting him out, for every day they lingered more would come rushing to Rome's aid and they could hardly afford to expose their rear to the Spanish army.

The Battle of Canosa began with remarkably little ceremony. The Ottomans, in their haste, had performed little reconnaissance, and so sent forth their cavalry with little hesitation upon sighting the enemy force ahead. It was then that the Ottomans experienced an unprecedented reversal of fortune, and were for the first time subjected to their own tactics. The Spanish horsemen fell back toward Canosa and then, without warning, split. It was a common Ottoman tactic to lure the enemy into the range of their artillery this way, and it proved to be as effective against the Turk as it had been against their opponents. A significant portion of their cavalry was decimated almost before the battle could be said to have truly begun. Several further probing assaults were made to test the strength of the Spanish defenses, each meeting less resistance than the last. The Turks began to claim empty trenches for themselves, sensing the futile attempt of an enemy to defend against a vast host. It was only when they drew closer that the true extent of the duke's preparations revealed themselves. The trenches the Ottomans had encountered were never intended to be defended, only to slow their advance and funnel them where the duke desired they be positioned.

As the Ottoman army approached, the Spanish arquebusiers revealed themselves from the innermost circle of trenches and opened fire. This, too, was by design. Such attacks were rarely sufficient to break the onslaught of an attacking Ottoman force, and indeed here accomplished little more than to incite them to press forward and overwhelm the defenders. This was what the duke had been hoping for. The Ottomans believed they could simply crush Canosa's defenses and move on, and that there was no need to burden themselves with the time to set up a siege and expend their resources for such a small town. They could not have anticipated the duke's deception, that the earlier bombardment of their cavalry had been only a small fraction of the cannons prepared for them. The noise and intensity of the blasts were so great it gave the impression that God himself was reaching out to strike down our foes. One particularly well-placed cannonball flew well beyond the others and struck a piece of Ottoman artillery as they hurried to bring it to bear, inflicting much damage and sowing great chaos among the enemy ranks. Müezzinzade Ali Pasha gave the order to retreat, but the duke was not a man inclined to grant his enemy such mercy.

Several companies of elite soldiers, mixed units of cavalry and arquebusiers, had been granted to one of Alba's most daring and inventive commanders, Cristóbal de Mondragón, and tasked with circling around the Ottoman formation while the battle raging and striking them from behind at their most vulnerable moment. The Ottomans were accustomed to holding the superior position against a contained foe in any engagement – the thought of the enemy voluntarily splitting their own forces in such a way they simply had not prepared for. Taken by surprise and under attack from two directions at once, the Ottoman formation broke and crumbled. More than a quarter of the invading force had been killed at Canosa, and several thousand more died in the process of making their escape. Müezzinzade Ali Pasha beat a rapid retreat to Otranto, followed by the Duke of Alba at a more leisurely pace, intent on seeing the Ottoman intruder thoroughly extirpated from his land.

Given the sultan's character, one would expect further incursions to follow, but fate proved to favor us on this occasion. The invasion of Sicily had not been enthusiastically received in the Sublime Porte, and the attempt to seize Rome less so. More pragmatic minds among the pashas and viziers felt the empire was overextending itself, and that the sultan's ambitious course of action would be more costly than it was worth. The sultan, of course, would hear none of their complaints, and they undoubtedly knew that he would soon insist on making another attempt. The Grand Vizier, Sokollu Mehmed Pasha, was widely regarded as the power behind the incompetent figure holding the throne during this time, and it remains a testament to his power and influence that his explanation for the sultan's sudden and timely demise, that he had drunkenly slipped in the bathhouse and struck his head, was generally accepted. The sultan's more malleable son, Murad III, thus comfortably enthroned at the Grand Vizier's bidding, emissaries were dispatched to negotiate terms of peace with the Spanish and papal representatives.

The loss at Canosa had been damaging to the Turkish morale, but was still far from a critical military victory. The most important thing we won that day was time. Aware of the alarm them had caused in Christendom, a twenty-year truce was agreed upon, and in exchange we agreed to recognize Sicily as a province of the Ottoman Empire. As a token gesture of goodwill, it was further agreed that arrangements would be undertaken to permit the free and unmolested departure of its surviving Christian population, which contributed significantly to the Pope's willingness to accept such a conclusion, though his consent was certainly not given with joy. A outcome far from ideal, of course, but a full-scale war to root out the Turk from an entrenched position would not be something easily accomplished, especially given their dominance over the Mediterranean. If we hoped to take the island back by force, then we would need time to rebuild our fleets, strengthen our alliances, and put our internal affairs in order.

Nearly thirty years have passed since the signing of that treaty, and war looms on the horizon. Word spreads of an alliance between the Ottomans and the English, who fear the Spanish more than they do the Turk. The French, united behind a new king after their divise religious wars, seem to be of like mind, perhaps the only they they and the English have agreed upon in centuries. The Arsenal of Venice continues work on restoring their naval supremacy with each passing day, and our work on strengthening our holdings in Naples continues with equal vigor. The Turkish distraction proved sufficient for the Dutch to achieve their freedom from Spanish rule, and so now the Mediterranean is the subject of our undivided attention. The Duke of Alba passed away close to a decade after his famous victory, his funeral as grand as that of any prince or king, and I remain a welcome face in the Spanish court, my first-hand experience in two of the age's most significant battles against the Ottoman menace a fountain of information frequently drawn upon by the new viceroy in Naples.

In these intervening years, I have come to appreciate just how pivotal that day at Lepanto truly was. Had the winds of fate blown differently, where might we be now? The Turk stands on our doorstep and the English and French welcome him as friend, all of which might have been avoided if only we had emerged victorious. I take some small comfort in the fact that the Ottoman fortunes may one day reverse themselves with the same suddenness by which they ascended, as has occurred to more than one aspiring conqueror in the past. Should the time to reclaim Sicily come within my remaining years, I should like to be present there, as well. It would seem a fitting conclusion to this tale, to be present both at the battle that decided its fall and the one that saw it returned to the warm embrace of the Spanish crown.
 

greendevil

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Really nice. It was well written and enjoyable. +1
 

sadhukar

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So many AA stories like to spin wildly counterfactual: one wrong move which changed the course of one battle to a decisive victory suddenly means that the entire course of the war changed, regardless of any other statistic such as available manpower, military tradition and percentage of total forces which were actually lost. The AA short story PI published was just choke full of this, which is why I hated most of it. The most annoying examples: Jean Bureau losing at Castilion = England dominating France (groan), Wolfe losing at the Plains of Abraham = somehow France conquering the 13 colonies with it's 10:1 advantage to Quebec in inhabitants (DOUBLE GROAN).

I like how yours didn't follow the same vein.