Book Review: “Empires of the Sea” by Roger Crowley

Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World recounts the struggle between the Ottoman Empire and shifting coalitions of European countries for control of the Mediterranean Sea.  The first major event is the Ottoman assault on the island of Rhodes, controlled by the Knights of Saint John or the Hospitallers, a Crusading order that found its home on Rhodes (taking it from Greek Christians) after being driven from the Holy Land.  The knights, now known as the Knights of Malta, had conducted piracy against the Ottomans and were the target of one of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent’s opening campaigns.  Ottoman Sultans tended to begin their reigns with campaigns against non-Muslims to justify their rule.  In 1565, near the close of Suleiman’s reign, the Ottomans again attacked the stronghold of the Knights of Saint John, this time on Malta.  Five years later, the navy of the Holy League, a coalition of Spanish, papal, and Venetian galleys, defeated the Ottoman in a major battle at Lepanto that mostly ended the Mediterranean wars.  Crowley fills the accounts of these battles with great detail.  The religious rituals and symbols of the rivals – Muslims chanting the Qur’an, Christian sails depicting Christ crucified, Muslim banners with the 99 names of God, the church service that commissioned Don Juan as commander of the Holy League – accompany grinding descriptions of siege and naval warfare.

These battles, and the events between them, show the Mediterranean to be a brutal place.  The Venetians who ruled Cyprus made the Greek Christian inhabitants into near slaves.  Turkish victors took vengeance on captured enemies after hard-fought battles, sparking Christian retaliation in later battles.  The galleys provided some of the most systematic brutality.  Used by both Christians and Muslims, they were rowed by slaves, convicts, Balkan conscripts (for the Ottomans), and poor men who sold themselves into service (for the Europeans) in horrible conditions: chained, poorly fed, beaten, even forced to relieve themselves in the seats in which they rowed.  Piracy, hostage-taking, and enslavement were not conducted by rogues but by the Crusader knights and the Muslim corsairs commissioned by the sultan.  The latter were a great terror to Europeans in the sixteenth century.  Crowley recounts an incident in which four of the Knights’ ships were overturned at sea, resulting in the drowning of 300 Muslim slaves who rowed them.  Crowley writes:

Repair and replacement of the vessels was a manageable problem; it was securing new crews that was the real difficulty.  The pope threw open the episcopal prison in Naples to supply some of the number; the knights then had to take some of the ships to snatch more slaves to fill the empty spaces.  It was the same for both sides: much of the raiding was undertaken solely to make such raids possible.  The violence was self-perpetuating.  The galleys created their own need for war. (78)

Crowley reveals quite a cast of characters.  Emperor Charles V (before whom Luther appeared) and then his son Philip II (the famous enemy of both Dutch Protestants and Queen Elizabeth) controlled the Spanish navy in very different ways: Charles was bold and Philip hated to risk the fleet.  Charles’ illegitimate son (Philip’s half brother) Don Juan of Austria commanded the fleet at Lepanto at about 22 years old, and made himself a legend even as he was on the way to fight the battle.  Popes hoped to reignite the Crusading spirit against the Ottomans, trying in vain to unite the Catholic countries; it’s quite a vivid illustration of how the growth of royal authority since the High Middle Ages, and solidified in the Reformation period, allowed states to pursue their own course no matter what the pope said.  And the Venetians are a story in and of themselves.  As an independent city-state with an empire of trading posts on Mediterranean islands, they rarely joined their fellow Christian states against the Ottomans, remaining neutral in order to maintain their trade with the Ottomans and their security from them.  Yet when threatened, they could call for Christian solidarity as loudly as anyone.

Empires of the Sea was a fun read.  As I’ve tried to show, Crowley included exhaustive detail and crafted an exciting narrative.  Sometimes it was a bit overwritten to provide drama, and one wonders if he might have written what some of the characters with a bit more certainty than could be established by the historical record.  Also, it would have been quite interesting to see more how this era fit in with the Reformation, which was going on to the same time.  According to James Gelvin, the Ottomans thought of the Protestants as a “fifth column” that they could exploit in their contest with the Habsburgs.  Nevertheless, Crowley provides a context for the Reformation period that brings in the Turks that struck such fear into the hearts of Christian Europe in the 16th century.

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