Review: Empires of the Sea

Four years ago, I reviewed the book Michaelangelo and the Pope’s Ceiling by Ross King. King’s look at life in and around Rome at the time the Sistine Chapel was painted was fascinating and insightful. It was often revolting to realize how bestial people were back then. King noted, for example, the running of the Jews in Rome during a Roman carnival, which meant that soldiers prodded Jews from behind on horseback with spears. In 2008, I reviewed Alison Weir’s also excellent book on the life of Queen Elizabeth I from the same time. It too was full of depressing stories of barbarity of man against man, including descriptions of various notables of the era being drawn and quartered.

Empires of the Sea by Roger Crowley chronicles the key periods of a now largely forgotten time when the Mediterranean Sea was fiercely contested between the Ottoman Empire, the Barbary States and various Christian states. Empires of the Sea is not for those easily grossed out. It takes a steady stomach to read the wrenching details of the various battles and campaigns, much of them waged by fleets of fast running galleys. At the same time, the book is fascinating and even riveting. It is the sort of book that is eminently readable and hard to put down, as well as meticulously researched. It is full of surprising detail and depth. It is easy to imagine yourself at the Siege of Malta or the Battle of Lepanto caught up in horrific events of human bloodshed that are hard to believe actually happened.

The late 15th and early 16th centuries were a time when, if your nation was not at war you were probably doing something wrong. A nation was lucky if they were fighting just one war at a time. Some nations, like the city-state of Venice, did their damnedest to buy peace from their oppressors, but it often came to naught. For back then, as is still unfortunately true today, religion and imperialism triumphed a lot of common sense.

The Ottoman Empire may be as close as the Muslim world ever got to a true Muslim empire. The remnants of the empire comprise what is now Turkey, but at the time, the Ottoman Empire was busy trying to expand both eastward and westward. Eastward meant frequent wars with Persia. Westward expansion typically meant campaigns in Hungary and Austria. There was also the battleground of the Mediterranean Sea. The Ottoman Empire controlled roughly the eastern half of the sea, although Venice controlled Cyprus and a little known religious organization called The Knights of Saint John occupied the island of Rhodes on Turkey’s coast. Greece at the time was part of the Ottoman Empire.

On the western side of the Mediterranean Sea was a country called The Holy Roman Empire that you may have read about in history class. Basically, it was an imperialist Spanish state which occupied parts of France and Italy, periodically parts of Portugal as well as vassal states to the north and east like The Netherlands, Austria and Hungary. The north coast of Africa was home to set of loosely aligned outlaw Arab states that today we think of as the Barbary States.

Roger Crowley takes us into these turbulent times in the Mediterranean. The book is anchored around four pivotal events. It begins with a successful siege of the island of Rhodes by the Turks. We learn that the Ottoman army was expert in the art of siege. Even so, they had their hands full trying to capture the well-fortified Rhodes from the Knights of Saint John, who had tenaciously clung to it for centuries. The details of the siege are horrific and bloody, as you might expect, but in some ways, they are a mere prequel to much bloodier sieges and battles to come.

Between major encounters, we learn of the horrific piracy in the western Mediterranean by The Barbary States, principally organized by bloodthirsty creatures straight from the id like Hayrettin. A typical raid would consist of a few dozen well-armed galleys overrunning a town or village. The men were quickly killed, and the women and children were sold into slavery. Crowley informs us that far more whites were sold into slavery during these times (largely by other whites) than were blacks centuries later. Of course, the place was also plundered for all its wealth. While most of the barbarity was inflicted by those aligned by the Muslim Barbary States, Spain and Venice were not beyond similar exploits. Both Christians and Muslims were supposed to represent higher values, but it is clear that cruelty was boundless on both sides back then. Gentlemen were few. Barbarians were aplenty, and many of the plunderers delighted in the most hideous acts of cruelty and terror. Crowley leaves nothing to our imagination.

The Siege of Rhodes leads up to another huge Ottoman siege of the island of Malta, which sits south of Sicily. The siege and the perseverance of the islanders against great odds is probably the highlight of the book. The descriptions of the siege are riveting. A loosely-aligned federation of Christian states that were supposed to come to the aid of Christian Malta largely turned their backs on their fellow Christians. Despite overwhelming Ottoman and Barbary forces, no relief and poor preparations, somehow the residents of Malta manage to survive the siege. The descriptions of both the siege and the destruction afterwards, which killed tens of thousands of people, should have your hair standing on edge.

The Siege of Malta at least had the effect of organizing the various Christian states against the common enemy. (It should be noted that Christians probably had much of what was inflicted on them coming, as these events can be seen as payback for the various crusades centuries earlier.) Pope Pius V, feeling the barbarians moving toward his gates, successfully convinced King Philip of the Holy Roman Empire along with the city-state of Venice to inflict coordinated revenge. However, they could not organize effectively enough to keep the Ottomans from laying siege to Cyprus. The Venetians endured a long and brutal siege on their fortress of Famagusta on Cyprus. A noble surrender ends tragically with the beheading of hundreds of Knights of Saint John.

The book moves toward a swift conclusion with a description of a massive naval battle off Greece that seems to have been swallowed up by history but which Crowley details with chilling realism. The Battle of Lepanto was a naval battle of a size that had never been seen before and has probably not been equaled since. It involved hundreds of galleys and turned into a rare Christian victory. The size of the battle is hard to comprehend as it occurred at close quarters, but was lead by the famous Don Juan. How big and bad was the battle? It would take nearly three hundred years before a bigger battle would occur on either land or sea. Even the fictional siege of Minas Tirith depicted in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings does not quite compare with this epic sea battle. Yet, the Battle of Lepanto is largely lost to history. Cervantes was present at the battle, and his character Don Quixote speaks of the horror of the battle in the book of the same name.

All these sieges and violence seem so pointless centuries later. Both the Ottoman Empire and the Holy Roman Empire are long gone. The Vatican remains but Venice is just a city in Italy. Ultimately, no side won. Short-term booty there was aplenty, but only at the cost of enormous suffering by multitudes of innocents. Centuries later it is clear these massively bloody events were just an epic waste of time, money and lives, as our modern events will likely be seen in a few centuries. All empires are doomed to contract at some point as they overstretch the land they try to govern. Still, as history this era is compelling. While ultimately pointless, the individual events of the period still fascinate when their detail can be exposed. The book’s focus on events at sea during this era, instead of the land wars that get most of the attention, is long overdue.

If you are in general not much into reading history, you should make an exception for Empires of the Sea. Actual history can often be far more compelling and fascinating than anything you can dream up. While barbarity still occurs on a massive scale, rarely does it reach these sorts of magnitudes today. Thankfully, we are generally more civilized today. While some crazy neoconservatives would be happy to emulate the cruelty of those days again in CIA torture chambers, hopefully they will remain a small minority. After reading Empires of the Sea, you realize that only fools or ignoramuses would want to revert to those crazy and barbaric days of yore.

2 responses to “Review: Empires of the Sea”

  1. I do not agree with the statement that:”Ultimately, no side won.” Lepanto was a victory of the superior western technology that halted for more than a century the barbarian Islamic tide in the Mediterranean Sea.


  2. The Christian fleet won the battle, but it is Crowley’s opinion that the quest to control the Mediterranean was ultimately a draw and neither side won. The Venetian fleet had some superior galleys which helped turn the tide in the Christian favor.


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