Quick Book Review: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto …

This recent WSJ review tipped me of to this new book: Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley. Aptly subtitled: “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

I’m glad I picked it up. About 300 pages and tough to walk away from. It really does read like a novel. Crowley has dug up so much background info on the main and even peripheral characters that it’s as though he interviewed them today. At the end of the book the author mentions that it was thanks to the recent (as of 1571) explosion of printed material (pamphlets, diaries, journals, papers, etc.) that so much is known about the battle of Lepanto. As recently as the fall of Constantinople (1453) only a handful of accounts are available. Fortunately, Crowley had at his disposal many vivid accounts from both sides of the battles. And he goes back and forth explaining the interests, politics, objectives, and strategies of each side.

A few items of note:
1. The age was unbelievably brutal w/ little apparent respect for human life. Body counts in battles were massive.

2. I was surprised at how prevalent, accurate, and effective small arms/firearms were at the time. The arquebus was the firearm of the day and a precursor to the musket. Snipers were able to consistently hit their targets.

3. Artillery/cannon were the main weapon used in sieges and siege defense, as well as naval engagements. The Ottomans were the best in the world when it came to siege craft and tactics.

4. Navies depended on slave labor for rowing galleys. Slave labor was the limiting factor in most naval efforts. Both sides used slaves to run their galleys, the Ottomans in particular. Both the Christians and Ottomans would raid the other’s coastal towns and grab civilians as slaves by the hundreds, occasionally thousands. Christians in coastal Mediterranean towns lived in constant terror of being captured and never seen again. Galley slaves were considered disposable. When one became too weak to be useful he was just cut free and cast overboard. Both sides were guilty of brutality and use of slave labor. Galleys were so foul from human waste and more that they could be smelled as far as two miles away (slaves were expected to do their ‘business’ while chained to their rowing benches). On occasion, perhaps once/year they would be intentionally swamped then righted in an attempt to rinse them out.

It was these wretches [galley slaves], chained three or four to a foot-wide bench, who made the sea wars possible. Their sole function was to work themselves to death. Shackled hand and foot, excreting where they sat, fed on meagre quantities of black biscuits, and so thirsty they were somtimes driven to drink seawater, galley slaves led lives bitter and short.

5. The Christian side was far more disorganized than I would have ever imagined. A couple of their notable victories were from little more than dumb luck. Several factions were involved and most distrusted each other: the Papacy, the Venetian States, Spain and the Hapsburg empire, various groups of Catholic knights, and misc. local groups/militias. The popes had less political power than I realized.

6. The Ottoman side was realtively organized and generally presented a unified front. Their military might on land was awesome, with massive armies. The high-water mark of the Ottoman empire occupied Serbia, Belgrade, and deep into Hungary. Successive Ottoman rulers ultimately wanted to take Rome as their prize.

7. Several of the battles had detailed examples of individual acts of amazing bravery.

8. The end of the Venetian Bragadin was horrific. After he was captured his nose and ears were cut off. He was kept alive in agony for about two weeks, then skinned alive.

9. The impacts of the concurrent Spanish exploration (and return of gold and silver) into the New World affected the politics, economics, and fights in the Old.

If you enjoy history, grab the book, it’s a phenomenal read. The story leaves off not far from where this book picks-up.

Misc. Links:
Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World

When Worlds Collide – WSJ.com
‘Empires of the Sea’ Review – csmonitor.com
Fortress Explorer
Author’s web site