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Archived Online Discussion
Topic: Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, Battle of Lepanto, and Contest for the Center of the World
Date: 5-6 pm (ET)
on Friday, October 30, 2009
Carl A. Anderson
Supreme Knight
Roger Crowley
Former State Warden Robert B. Camilleri
Honolulu, Hawaii
What do you believe is the significance of the Battle of Lepanto for members of the Knights of Columbus in the 21st Century?
Carl A. Anderson:
I think the important lesson of this battle is that Catholics must work together to successfully deal with issues that face us collectively. Nearly 500 years ago, the threats were of a specific, martial nature. Today, the issues are often moral ones, in which we confront not hostility from the guns of an empire, but a secular assault on our values within our own countries. To deal effectively with these issues, we must be willing to lead by our example, and to work with our fellow Catholics and all those of good will to protect our right to practice our religion and follow the dictates a well formed conscience.

Bruce Goeser
Miami, Florida
What an excellent book!! Thanks for your detailed research and exciting explanation and telling of these battles. Your book inspired me to read G.K. Chesterton's poem "Lepanto". Did Chesterton's work influence you at all in writing your book?
Roger Crowley:
I knew of Chesterton's poem, but it didn't influence me in how I wrote about Lepanto. It highlighted the importance of the event. People had kind of forgotten how important the event was, and Chesterton's poem rather brought it back to people's attention.

Matt St. John
Middletown, CT
Mr. Crowley, have there been residual effects stemming from these battles that have effected political realities in the 21st Century? If so, what are they? If not, why not?
Roger Crowley:
I think there are some residual political affects that arise from what happened in the sixteenth century, and they are felt very much in Europe. We are in a situation now where Turkey is a nation-state trying to become a member of the EU, and it is defnitely clear that in some parts of Europe, the memory of the threat of the Ottoman invasion is still felt. We can see this in Cyprus, which is still divided as a result of what happened in the fall of Cyprus to the Ottomans, and this is also deeply felt in Austia, Southern Europe, Greece, which still remember the effects of the Ottoman situation.

Chris Kennedy
Highlands Ranch, CO, 80130
Two issues that are clear in the book are the challenges to the Christian world based on being divided (Spain vs France and the Protestant countries) and the value of technological improvement, the Venetian Galleasses. How are these lessons applicable today in our challenges with Radical Islam.
Roger Crowley:
I'm cautious about making too many connections between events then and events today. The world was a very different place then. But I think in relation to Christendom, there are some interesting parallels. The difficulty Christianity had facing the Ottomans was very much the result of the end of a unified sense of Christianity, and in a way, Lepanto was the last time that Christendom managed to unify itself against a common enemy. After that, it became clear that people were more interested in their national interests than in a unified Christian perspective on Islam. I think now, I have the same sense of many different perspectives on the Islamic world, but I don't think myself that that kind of unity of that kind of Christemdom is applicable any more because we live in very different times, and the way that we see the Islamic world is more complicated than it was then. It is difficult to make too many connections between the 16th century and today.

Chris Kennedy
Highlands Ranch, CO, 80130
Two issues that are clear in the book are the challenges to the Christian world based on being divided (Spain vs France and the Protestant countries) and the value of technological improvement, the Venetian Galleasses. How are these lessons applicable today in our challenges with Radical Islam.
Roger Crowley:
(part II) The other question, about technology, obviously in the 16th century, Christianity used new technologies in their warfare, but one key was information. The gathering of information on Islam was a result of the evolution of printing, and much information was spread about Islam, while the Islamic world didn’t have printing at all. And we can see, maybe with the new technologies we have today, especially with the internet in the role of information and propaganda, the opportunities to gather information on the Islamic world and perhaps to persuade possibly have some parallels as in the 16th century.

Saybrook, CT
What are some of the greatest myths about this time period and these battles that should be addressed for the sake of the accuracy of the historical record?
Roger Crowley:
I think there are a number of things here. The first one is that we shouldn't overplay the religious element of this contest. Obviously, religion played an important part in the way that the two forces saw each other, but these are very much imperial wars, wars about territory, economic power, and titles. So I think it is easy to overplay the religious element in this. It's true that Charles V spent more time fighting the French than he did fighting the Ottomans. So I think we have to be careful about overplaying this as a religious war; it was also very much a war about earthly power. Because almost all the information we have about these wars comes from Christian sources (the Ottomans didn't write a great deal about this), it is extremely difficult to give a very balanced view of what went on. Therefore, we have to be a bit cautious about the way that we see the events that happened; we're getting only one side of the story. In writing, I have tried to balance both sides, but it was very difficult.

Burbank, CA
It seems that the European alliance against the Ottoman empire was very shaky, with France particularly willing to negotiate a treaty. How surprised are you by the fact that the Europeans were able to unite enough to even fight at Lepanto?
Roger Crowley:
I am very surprised. I think it was almost a fluke. It was entirely the vision and the effort of Pope Pius V that it happened at all. He seems to me to be solely responsible for bringing the Spanish and Venetians together--he was certainly an extraordinary man, but nevertheless it was almost luck that they came together at all, since they were very close to coming to blows just before the battle. It was very much touch-and-go.

Maureen L.
Clinton, CT
You mention that the significance of the Battle of Lepanto is downplayed by modern historians. Why do you suppose that is, and what evidence do you see pointing to its real significance?
Roger Crowley:
The significance of Lepanto has been played down because it seemed that, although it was a crushing defeat for the Ottomans, they seemed to recover very quickly in rebuilding their fleet within a year. So it seemed that the battle had very few consequences. But the reason that I think it has been down played is that, as we know more about the Ottoman Empire, we realize that Lepanto had perhaps a more damaging effect on it than historians have thought until very recently. One of the main consequences of Lepanto was that to build a new fleet, the Ottomans had to tax their people much more heavily, and this started to create social discontent in the Ottoman Empire. The other consequence of Lepanto which has been downplayed, and I don't understand why, is that it had a huge positive psychological affect on Christian Europe. It was really the first time the Ottomans had been significantly defeated in battle for two hundred years, and there began to be seen a balance of power shifting from the Ottomans towards Christian Europe. And this seems to have been not fully recognized by historians in recent times.

James K
New York
A popular priest once said that the Ottomans were stopped at the gates of Vienna on Sept. 10, and that 9/11/2001 was chosen to show that the war never ended in the Muslim mind. Any truth to this?
Roger Crowley:
There is some truth in it, in the sense that obviously there is a streak of radical Islam that believes in the idea of continuous holy war, and that was one of the sources that inspired the great ottoman sultans, like Suleiman the Magnificent. But you can say the same thing in reverse, from the Christian point of view, that Charles the 5th was equally keen to be the ruler of a Christian world and to conquer Islamic territory. Now, the Ottomans were stopped at the gates of Vienna; it was the furthest they ever got into Europe. But I remain cautious about carrying forward from five hundred years ago these parallels, because in many ways I see the Ottoman sultans as being concerned with empire as much as with religion. In some respects, I think the fear that the Christians had of the Ottomans was based on a racial fear as much as on a religious one, which goes back further in history perhaps to the Mongols, to the idea of the east invading Europe. And this seems to me a very deep psychological fear, speaking less about religion than the invasion of Europe from other peoples. Interestingly, even in the 20th century, you see this in J.R.R. Tokien's "Lord of the Rings," in which he based the orcs on the Ottomans, as some terrible evil force led by "Saruman" for which you can read "Suleiman." As a Catholic, he would have been familiar with Chesterton's poem, and he would have been influenced by these ideas of the Ottomans as a threat to Christian Europe.

Alphonso C.
New Mexico
Why were galleys used in these battles, but sailing vessels used to explore the New World? What spelled the end of the galley as a fighting vessel and when did that end come?
Roger Crowley:
Galleys were used in the Mediterranean, because of the nature of the sea. It's a landlocked sea that doesn't build up to such heights as in the Atlantic. Galleys are very useful in the landlocked sea, since they can be dragged up and beached. And they are very fast, and easy to maneuver, so they had some advantages in battle. Also, it is much more difficult to maneuver a sailing vessel in a landlocked sea because there is much less room. Galleys were basically oar-powered (although they did have sails) while sailing ships can only be moved by the wind. So if you are in a very narrow straight, like in the Adriatic with very little distance to land, when the wind picks up it is more difficult to avoid a shipwreck. Galleys began to be phased out toward the middle of the 17th century, when English and Dutch ships in particular, started to come into the Mediterranean. The advantage of a sailing ship is that is could be heavily gunned, carrying far more cannon than in a galley. But it was a gradual process, and the Venetians were still using galleys into the 18th century. The big sailing ships were really produced for the fierce weather and sailing conditions in the Atlantic, and it was these ships which would explore the new world.

Dallas, TX
How did what was going on in Europe, relate with the westward expansion and discovery of the New World?
Carl A. Anderson:
One thing that I believe it is important to remember is that as the world in Europe changed, and people began to leave the Church in great numbers during the Reformation, around this time, things were very different in the New World. Following the apparition of Our Lady of Guadalupe in 1531, there was a flood of conversions to the Catholic faith. So it was the Americas that became a continent of baptized Christians, and became majority Catholic while Europe had a much greater issue with its religious identity, and was much more fragmented. While the United States, and Canada were majority non-Catholic in the American hemisphere, the same was not true in most other countries of this hemisphere, and even in those countries, Catholics have long been a large segment of the population.

Jeff Lawrence
Morrisville, NJ
How would you compare these battles with other defining battles in world history, such as Marathon?
Roger Crowley:
I see this war, a period of 50 years of battles, taken together, to have the same importance as Marathon which stopped the Persians from conquering Greece. Because the 16th century Mediterranean war stopped an Islamic penetration into Southern Europe and fixed the frontiers of the Islamic and Christian worlds more or less permanently, so that the shores of North Africa are an Islamic frontier and, since the Ottomans failed to get a foothold in Europe, Europe is still today largely a Christian frontier. And it was only perhaps in Cyprus that we see a divided place, a place divided between two religions, with problems we can still see today. But otherwise, these naval wars fixed the shape of Europe in its division of Christianity and Islam.

Carl A. Anderson:
Thank you for joining us this evening in this most interesting conversation. Join us again next month for a discussion on Scott Hahn's new book, "Signs of Life: 40 Catholic Customs and the Difference They Make".

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