Empires of the Sea


Roger Crowley




Date Reviewed:

February 11, 2012

mpires of the Sea is a great example of an interesting work non-fiction. It describes two major battles in the mid-16th century - the Battle of Malta and the Battle of Lepanto. The two empires in the title were the Spanish Empire (recently grown powerful due to riches extracted from its New World possessions) vs the expanding Ottoman Empire (grown powerful since conquering Constaninople and the Balkans - these two powers fought over control of the Mediterranean Sea. Victory had major consequences for subsequent European history.The navies and armies of the Ottoman Empire were turned back, and thus Christendom survived in Western Europe. Without the victories at Malta and Lepanto, southern Europe might well have fallen under the rule of Suleiman the Magnificent (it was surprising to me to read in this book about the treacherous French, bitter rivals of the wealthy Spanish empire; the French were secretly negotiating with the Turks) .

I enjoyed this book because I found it to be thrilling reading. Although I already knew the outcome of the Battles of Malta and Lepanto, I still found Crowley's descriptions to be suspenseful. The Battle of Malta is described in tremendous detail (apparently Crowley had lots of source material, because the printing press had been invented just a few years before the Battle at Malta, and since it turned out to be a stunning victory for the Knights of St John, there was a lot of material published for the European populations eager to read about their heroic stand.)

The Knights of Saint John were outnumbered by the huge army of the Turks, but they had a well constructed fortress and an unshakeable faith in the righteousness of their cause. Crowley tells us of desperate battles and furious counter attacks. The book describes tunnels, subterfuge, ambushes, strategy, and inventive weapons - such as huge round bales of flammable material set alight and then tossed over the walls to bounce down upon the oncoming Turks. Quite a few unwary defenders perish when musketeer nailed them (I didn't think those ancient weapons had much accuracy, but perhaps the volume of musket fire was so intense that some of the bullets found the mark.) Wounded Knights would be propped up in chairs, sword in hand, so that they could die fighting.

The defenders of Malta held out despite incredible losses, confident that the Spain or the Papal powers would soon send a relief force. But King Charles V of Spain was a cautious man - he feared risking his fleet against the indomitable Turks. The first third of the book describes the ongoing battle for control of the Mediterranean Sea between the rival Spanish and Ottoman empires. Mostly there was a lot of piracy - how did anyone survive in those brutal years? It sounds as if raiders landed anywhere along the coasts of Mediterranean, burning villages and enslaving anyone they could capture. These endless raids gradually shifted balance of power to the Ottomans (and their ally, the Barbary Pirates) -threatening the powerful navy of Venice and Spain. Malta was a stepping stone, a push by the Ottomans into the Western half of the Mediterranean, it was meant to be the first step of a larger campaign.

Crowley describes the Battle of Lepanto with equally vivid details. Despite the reluctance of King Charles to risk his fleet, the Pope forged an alliance of Spanish, Venetian, and Papal ships to create a fleet that met the great Turkish navy outside the harbor of Lepanto. The flamboyant Don John of Austria (illegitimate son of King Charles V) is instructed to not risk the fleet, but circumstances conspire to force a full out clash between the two navies. It is a tremendous battle, with incredible loss of life on both side. But ultimately the Ottomans are defeated, and Don John becomes the toast of Europe.

Crowley's writing is historical writing at its best - I think I will seek out other books by him. I see he has written one about the fall of Constantinople...