on July 3, 2008
Empires of the Sea rates a solid 4 stars. In a bit under 300 pages (plus footnotes and index) it covers a 50-year history of the struggle for control of the Mediterranean from 1521 to 1571. That's actually quite a lot of ground in 300 pages, considering what went on. So if you want a good general overview, the book is good. There are a few maps up front, a section with photographs--mostly of old paintings, plus a lot of woodcuts depicting mostly battle scenes and people. The woodcuts are fine, but at times you acutely feel the lack of some good modern-style maps of the action. Goodness knows, there are plenty of current maps showing the fleets at Lepanto and also the sieges on Malta.
I must admit to prejudice here. I still have my copy of Ernle Bradford's magnificent history The Great Siege--paperback, from 1966, cost 5 shillings, and getting quite threadbare from rereading every few years. When one great book like this can spawn a 40-year interest in the subject, you know that you have an outstanding work indeed. Bradford's book is almost entirely limited to the siege of Malta, whereas Crowley's book covers this in under 100 pages. You get much more detail with Bradford, and a dramatic sense of the struggle, much more so than with Crowley. The focus is narrower--so for breadth, turn to Crowley, for depth to Bradford. Both books will give you a look at the personalities involved, and both convey the aspects of warfare at the time. So this is a good addition to your history shelf.
My cultural blinders have long confined my view of 16th century history mainly to northern Europe and the Atlantic. Roger Crowley's "Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World" is a powerful corrective for that too-narrow point of view.
The story of the struggle between the Islamic Ottoman Empire and Catholic Hapsburg Spain for control of the Mediterranean (with important consequences for the lands bordering the Mediterranean) as told by Crowley makes for compelling reading, filled with dazzling characters and astounding events. The Pope fleeing Rome in advance of an army of invading Turks was a real historical possibility, averted by a chain of circumstances perhaps much less likely than normally seems evident from this distance of time. Malta, a geographic key to the central Mediterranean withstood a massive Muslim attack and siege only by the narrowest of margins. And Lepanto, the last great battle of oared ships, could very easily have been lost by the Hapsburgs, and Islamic domination of Italy and the south of France and of Spain might well have followed, greatly altering the future course of events in Europe.
Crowly has done a superlative job of narrating this slice of history and making it wonderfully vivid.
Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World by Roger Crowley provides the reader with a clear picture into the world of the 16th century Mediterranean and more importantly into warfare for the time.
Crowley wastes no time with preliminaries but gets quickly to work in the first chapter with Suleiman's attack on Rhodes. There's no beating around the bush here. Crowley does a terrific job looking at the art of war and how the two sides differed in their respective approaches to battle. On the one hand, the Knights of Saint John, who, like the Templar's, was an international organization with members pulled from the major European countries and provinces of the time. On the other was the Turkish army of Suleiman, large, mobile, well equipped and quick to mount an offensive; apparently lacking nothing needed for conquest. That the Christians were out-numbered is made clear. To the defenders of Malta the loss of any knight was a loss that was difficult if not impossible to replace. Suleiman had numbers on his side and spent freely suffering huge casualties for the time of both his soldiers and slaves. It was all out warfare. Rhodes was strategically important, in part, due to the loss of Constantinople in 1453. However, the loss of Rhodes could not compare to the loss of Malta fifty years later. Without Malta, Italy would become the "front lines" in the battle between Christendom and the door to Europe would be open.
Crowley also does a masterful job by incorporating primary sources where possible. Descriptions by eyewitnesses are scattered throughout the text and add an important element to the book. Also the Turkish side of things is presented pretty clearly as illustrated with the following:
"Selim, Ottoman Sultan, Emperor of the Turks, Lord of Lords, King of
Kings , Shadow of God, Lord of the Earthly Paradise and of Jerusalem, to the
Signory of Venice: We demand of you Cyprus, which you shall give Us
willingly or perforce; and do you not irritate our horrible sword, for We shall
wage most cruel war against you everywhere; nor let you trust in your
treasure, for We shall cause it suddenly to run away from you like a torrent;
beware to irritate Us." (page 207)
Empires also does a great job in examining the growing Turkish presence in the Med as a naval power. Sulieman's reach and projection of power was made possible in part by the wonderful naval commanders that were available to the Sultan and by the absolute naval incompetence of the Europeans. In the end Sulieman's navy couldn't help him however.
Crowley writes for the layman and explains himself clearly. The information that is presented is done so in context and though I'm not an expert on the subject feel that I've read a complete treatment of the topic. The maps that are included in the book make sense and are easy to read and the inclusion of the illustrations and woodcuts add to the information in the text.
I recommend Empires of the Sea.
on July 22, 2008
AS the published author of several books about Islamic terrorism I find this book hypnotic in its content, but sadly I had read it in two sittings, I could have read on and on. The history crammed into 300 pages is truly rivetting, and a sad reflection of the struggles we see today in the same parts of the world. The description of the sheer power of Suleiman the Magnificent, Muslim ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the height of its power, can only give the reader the slightest glimpse of the power the Ottomans held, in an epic struggle between rival empires and faiths for control of the Mediterranean and the center of the world.
In Empires of the Sea, acclaimed historian Roger Crowley has written his most mesmerizing work to date - a thrilling account of this brutal decade - long battle between Christendom and Islam for the soul of Europe.
It is educational and an awe inspiring read, give it a go, you wont be let down.
on January 10, 2009
This is a splendid book for the general reader. In about 300 pages Crowley describes the 16th Century conflict in the Mediterranean. The end of that century also marks the end of the supremacy of the Mediterranean in the West, which until then had been the centre of Western Civilization. Crowley creates a picture in words as the reader is transported, Google-Earthlike, from Philip II sitting like a spider in the centre of a web directing the business of the Spanish Empire to Suleiman flamboyantly extending the Ottoman Empire. The description of the Battle of Lepanto in 1571 is so vivid that I felt I was an observer standing on the poop of Don John's flagship. It seems to have had a similar effect on Roger Crowley because he wrote that Lepanto was the biggest battle in the West until Loos in 1916 (sic). Loos was fought in 1915 and I believe the battle of Tannenburg between Russia and Germany in 1914 was considerably bigger. More relevant is the fact that in terms of men and ships Lepanto was not surpassed until the Battle of the Coral Sea in World War 2.
Today's technology enables the reader to use Google Earth to see the battle sights. Forts St Elmo and St Angelo in Malta can be viewed looking as I imagine they were 500 years ago. The reader can see the entrance to the Gulf of Corinth the same as Don John of Austria saw it before Lepanto.
The only material concern that Crowley did not discuss was the question of hygiene in the Siege of Malta. Until the Boer War, army losses due to sickness and wounds were greater than those killed in action. The Knights of St John as part of their hospitaller remit cared for the sick. I understand that they minimized sickness in their galleys by transferring the slaves to cells in Fort St Angelo when the boats returned from operational duty and temporarily lowering the boats to the bottom of the harbour so that they could be freed of the slaves' excrement and other accumulated filth. I understand that sickness among the besieging Ottoman forces was a major concern. I would be surprised if sickness was a similar problem in the Knight's forces.
Although the events happened up to 500 years ago the conflict is topical: players and locations are different, but the struggle between the West and militant Islam goes on. One could substitute George Bush and the United States for Charles V and Spain, for example. Although there are examples of chivalrous behavior between opposing commanders of the like of Don John of Austria and the Ottoman fleet's commander, Ali Pasha, the behaviour of Lala Mustapha, the Ottoman commander before Famagusta was of unspeakable brutality. His action of having the surrendering Venetian commander Marcantonio Bragadin, skinned alive whilst under the protection of a truce is so horrific that it continues to poison relations between Turkey and the West, to this day..
At US$30, less of course with Amazon, Empires of the Sea is well worth having. What splendid movies that include the Siege of Malta or the Battle of Lepanto could be made!
on May 25, 2012
If you are going to read this book, you'd better like slaughter. It features lots of blood. Mostly, this occurs during sieges of fortified towns, but sea battles claim their fair share of victims too. All of it is described with great gusto, skill and narrative flair by the author, who clearly loves a good battle and knows how to recount it. In this, the book is similar to his previous work, 1453, which was largely devoted to the conquest of Constantinople by Mehmet the Conqueror. Fast forward three-quarters of a century to Mehmet's great-grandson Suleiman the Magnificent (known as "the Lawgiver" to the Ottomans), and once again the story and the carnage resume with Empires of the Sea.
Crowley begins his story begins with the taking of Rhodes in 1522. Suleiman had been on the throne for only two years, and the tradition was that a sultan consolidated his authority early in his reign with a series of victories. He had already conquered the fortress of Belgrade, in what is today Serbia. Rhodes was next. Since it lay just off the coast of Turkey, and was a stronghold of the crusading Knights Hospitaller who had kept their toehold in the Eastern Mediterranean ever since being booted out of the Holy Land upon the failure of the Crusades, Rhodes was an obvious target. The Turks were very adept at siegecraft, and along with their massive advantage in manpower, took the Knights' key fortress after a prolonged siege and great loss of life. Suleiman generously allowed the defeated Knights to leave the island, thinking that would be the last of them. He was wrong.
The balance of power in the sixteenth century in Europe and around the shores of the Mediterranean was mainly contested by two great powers: the Ottoman Empire and the Hapsburg Empire. The Ottomans' territories stretched across much of North Africa, and then from the Middle East through Turkey and the Balkans, all the way to Hungary. Their expansion into Central Europe was largely checked by the Hapsburgs, whose territories were a patchwork quilt across Europe, and included parts of Central Europe, Austria, parts of Germany, parts of Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain.
Suleiman the Magnificent was to enjoy a long reign of almost half a century, from 1520 to 1566, the longest serving sultan of the Ottoman Empire. His main opponent, the Hapsburg King of Spain and Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, had a similarly long reign from 1516-1556. Both monarchs had other worries than just each other. Suleiman was regularly engaged in wars in the Balkans as well as against the Persians, fighting a war against the Safavid Persian Empire that lasted nearly a quarter century. Charles V had to deal with the very combative Kings of France and with rebellious subjects in the Netherlands. At various times, the French would even go so far as to ally themselves against the Ottomans to counter the power of Charles V.
In the Mediterranean, the Ottomans expanded across North Africa, absorbing the Barbary States of Tripoli, Tunis and Algiers. Autonomous provinces of the Empire, they were still an important part of the Ottoman military presence in the Western Mediterranean because of their fleets of corsairs. The corsairs functioned partly as free-lance pirates and partly as instruments of Ottoman naval power, seizing shipping and mounting coastal raids in Spain, the Balearic Islands and along the coast of Italy.
However, strategically situated in the middle of the Mediterranean was the island of Malta, off the coast of Sicily. The Knights Hospitaller, after their defeat in Malta, had roamed homeless for some years, before eventually being given lordship over under the island, under the leadership of the Grand-master La Valette. Here, they became the Knights of Malta, and carried on their war against Islam, mainly through imitating the tactics of the corsairs. The Knights seized shipping wherever they good, roaming throughout the eastern Mediterranean under the noses of the Turks. After they seized one ship too many -- to be precise, the galley of the Sultan's Chief Eunuch -- Suleiman decided to put an end to the Knights once and for all. A massive invasion fleet was dispatched in 1565, and the fortresses of Malta were besieged. Tens of thousands died, but just as the fall of Malta seemed imminent, a Spanish relief force was landed and put the Ottomans to flight. The capital of Malta, Valletta, is named in honor of the commander who successfully defended it against near-impossible odds.
Not long after, Suleiman died on campaign in Hungary -- though his death was kept secret, by using a double to conceal his death, until his retinue could return with his cold body to Istanbul. His successor and sole surviving son, Selim, was determined to follow in his father's conquering footsteps. He immediately set out to take the Venetian possession of Cyprus, with a much larger force than the one which had attempted to take Malta. After a couple of very bloody sieges -- of Nicosia and Famagusta -- the island was taken. These sieges are described in graphic, sometimes gruesome detail by Crowley.
The new and aggressive Sultan was the proximate cause for the Christian powers of the Mediterranean, principally Philip II of Spain, Pope Pius V, and the Venetians to form a new alliance. Assembling a massive fleet, they set out to hunt down the Ottoman fleet. Amazingly, in October of 1571, they did so. What followed was the bloodiest naval battle in history, at Lepanto just off the west coast of Greece, as two massive fleets of oared galleys collided with one another in a spectacular cataclysm. The superior firepower of the Christian fleet prevailed, mainly due to the Venetians whose heavily armed gun platforms, known as "galleasses", destroyed most of the Ottoman fleet and killed 40,000.
Through all of this, Roger Crowley's gift as a story-teller shine through. He focuses mainly on the military events and the personalities of the major military leaders, using his great narrative powers and his eye for interesting detail and anecdote to enliven the story. Yet he sketches in enough of the background grand strategy of the major powers involved to provide wider understanding. Even if you know nothing of this era of history or its war-making techniques, Crowley manages to make the story both clear and compelling.