The Battle That Saved the Christian West

440 years later.

What some call “the battle that saved the Christian West” took place 440 years ago October 7th. It is a historical event of such importance — and of such relevance to the struggles of today — that I would be remiss not to mention it. Sadly, a cursory look on-line indicates that few people — save military historians, some traditionalist Catholics and a few rarae aves — seem to know much about it.

At about 11:00 a.m. October 7th in 1571, 300 Ottoman ships from Turkey clashed with a scraggly alliance of European naval armies in the tranquil waters between the Albanian coast and the Peloponnesus. Under the command of the 25-year-old Don Juan of Austria, the illegitimate son of Charles V and half-brother of Philip II of Spain, some 212 Christian ships from Genoa, Venice and Spain — as well from the Papal States and the Sovereign Military Order of Malta — had formed the "Holy League" to stop the advance of the Ottoman Armada.

After it was over five hours later, 35,000 Moslem Turks were dead and about 15,000 Christian slaves had been freed from the bowels of their stinking galleons. Vastly outnumbered, the forces of Christendom had only lost 7,000 men.

The importance of this battle should not be overlooked. For years, fierce Ottoman forces had been raiding and terrorizing Christian communities around the Mediterranean, taking young men and women as slaves, and slaughtering those they had no use for. Under the red crescent of Allah’s armies, the Turks had terrorized the eastern outposts of European civilization. What happened that day in the Gulf of Lepanto (today known as the Gulf of Corinth) was nothing less than the defense of Europe against a 16th century Islamic jihad.

The parallels to today are obvious. The West — perhaps no longer publicly Christian but still built on the foundations and institutions that grew out of Christendom — now faces a similar threat. But, like before, when the rulers of England and France had refused to join the Holy League, many European powers today still refuse to take steps to protect their way of life. And, like before, some European states are even complicit in encouraging and financing Islamic states.

Lepanto’s importance arises not out of the simplistic “clash of civilizations” argument. Rather, the battle — and the atrocities and massacres carried out by the Ottomans, in the years preceding the battle — are solemn reminders that Islamic jihad does not respond to compromise or diplomatic efforts. Nor will it stop until the whole world is subjugated under the name of Allah.

On the 440th anniversary of such an important event in the history of the West, we should remember that the same forces that threatened us then, threaten us now. Unfortunately, today they not only exist as external threats, but are internal as well.

That is why the Battle of Lepanto may be worth remembering every year, especially in this time of modern Islamic terrorism. It is not an ancient and irrelevant skirmish between long-forgotten armies, but a decisive event that saved European Christendom — and, thus, the West — from alien forces bent on its destruction.

Various events have taken place around the world to commemorate the anniversary. In Rome, for example, the non-profit Lepanto Center — headed by the erudite Roberto de Mattei — organized an evening roundtable. With presentations by Italian Admiral Ezio Ferrante and Professor Massimo de Leonardis, among others, the event emphasized the importance of the battle — and perhaps raised awareness of the threat we face today. There were also special Masses celebrated in Europe, the US and Australia.

We can also still read great accounts of the battle. G. K. Chesterton famously memorialized the battle in his 1911 poem, “Lepanto.” But that has been forgotten, too. And the Jesuit priest Luis Coloma wrote a short 1912 account, viewable here with images of famous paintings of the battle. There is also an excellent 12-page conference booklet titled Lepanto: A Category of the Spirit that can be viewed on-line. And the command ship of Don Juan of Austria can still be viewed, fully-restored, at the Naval Museum of Barcelona (Spain).

But, generally, it is a pity to realize how little has been written about the famous battle. Of the few articles that have been written about it, for example, only those by Michael Novak (2006) and Christopher Check (2007) are worth reading. A cumbersome, over-written account of the battle was also written by Harry W. Crocker III; but it is a slog.

In 2006, Count Niccoló Capponi, a military historian in Florence (Italy) published the eminently readable, if detailed, Victory of the West: The Great Christian-Muslim Clash at the Battle of Lepanto (De Capo Press), which was favorably reviewed by Victor Davis Hanson in First Things and Daniel Johnson in The New Criterion.

Save for these, and a few awkward posts at different Catholic websites, there is lamentably very little out there.

Western elites continue to downplay the threat of radical Islam and continue to seek “peaceful coexistence,” suggesting approaches that will avoid military conflict. The suggestion is that dialogue, diplomacy and tolerance will somehow disarm radical Islamism.

Perhaps it might be worth recalling the words of the young Don Juan, who, in the final moments before the battle started on that fateful October 7th, was counseled that there was still time to avoid a full battle. As Christopher Check recounts:

“Gentlemen,” he said, looking around at his military commanders, “the time for counsel has passed. Now is the time for war.”