St. Elmo’s Pay

When news of Lepanto arrived in Rome, the Pope exclaimed, “Now Lord, you can take your servant, for my eyes have seen your salvation.”  The battle’s outcome gratified the pontiff, but it may not have surprised him.  Legend holds that, at the moment the Turkish admiral was slain on his quarterdeck, Pius V had sensed, perhaps through divine inspiration, that his fleet was victorious.

The Pope deserved a share of the credit.  It was he who had cajoled the shortsighted Christian naval powers into a Holy League to check the Turkish threat.  The gigantic sea battle that resulted in 1571—the last great clash of galley fleets—turned the tables on the Ottomans, who’d had things their way in the Mediterranean for over a century.  The battle’s results were celebrated throughout Christian Europe, and its date—October 7—remains a feast on the Catholic calendar.

In Empires of the Sea, Roger Crowley narrates the 50-year struggle between the Ottoman Empire and the Christian powers dominated by Spain.  The book centers on two battles: the thrilling siege of Malta (1565) and the great clash at Lepanto.  Along the way, Crowley relates the many reverses for Christian arms during the period, including the losses of Rhodes and Cyprus to the sultan’s armies.  Crowley, an amateur historian, achieves his purpose of restoring these battles to their proper place...

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