Book Review of “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World” by Roger Crowley

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

The Mediterranean was perceived by many people in the 16th century as the “Center of the World.” A monumental struggle for control of the sea took place between the two great empires of that era: the Ottoman Turks, and the Hapsburgs of Austria and Spain, the leaders of which often held the title of Holy Roman Emperor. The mutual enmity of the two empires was stoked by religious differences as much as by dynastic incompatibility. The wily traders of Venice did business with both contestants, often trading sides in order to protect their commercial interests. (As might be expected, interpreters, or “dragomen” held crucial roles in international relations.)


Roger Crowley has written a gripping tale of the ebb and flow of the interrelationships of the empires. In particular, he gives a vivid description of three parlous island sieges (Rhodes, Malta, and Cyprus) and several purely naval engagements, culminating in the hecatomb known as the Battle of Lepanto.

The Great Siege of Malta took place in 1565 when the Ottomans invaded the island of Malta, then held by the Knights Hospitaller (a medieval Catholic military order). The Knights, with approximately 2,000 soldiers and 400 Maltese men, women and children, withstood the siege and repelled the invaders. This victory helped contribute to the erosion of the European perception of Ottoman invincibility.


The Battle of Lepanto, which took place on October 7, 1571, pitted the Ottoman Empire against the “Holy League” – a coalition of nations (Spain, Venice, the Papal States,Genoa, and Malta) organized by Spanish King Philip II to stop Muslim encroachments upon the Italian and Spanish coasts.

This huge battle involved almost 400 vessels and more than 40,000 men, more than half of whom were killed in only a few hours. The ships employed cannons, arquebuses and other explosives such as “Granadoes,” small terra cotta pots filled with gunpowder or combustibles (pitch, turpentine, naphtha, or petroleum), that could be lit and thrown onto enemy ships. Savage hand-to-hand fighting also took place as enemy sailors boarded each others’ galleys.

Venetian galleas at the Battle of Lepanto, PX8356

Venetian galleas at the Battle of Lepanto, PX8356

At the battle’s conclusion, the Ottomans lost about 210 ships and some 25,000 men. The Holy League lost about 50 ships and 7,500 men.

The Ottoman’s losses proved pivotal; that many men were hard to replace.

Crowley’s descriptions are based on the accounts of the survivors of the battles. Occasionally, the participants showed some chivalry, as when the Ottomans allowed the few survivors of the siege of Rhodes to leave and take some of their possessions with them. Most of the time, however, no quarter was give by either side, and to lose usually meant that anyone who tried to surrender was likely to be tortured, beheaded, and/or skinned alive.

Battle of Lepanto, October 1571, unknown artist

Battle of Lepanto, October 1571, unknown artist

One might wonder who oared all those ships; it was not the soldiers. Galleys were more nimble than sailing ships, less dependent on the vagaries of the wind, and could change direction instantaneously at any time simply by rowing in a new direction. The problem was that not many men wanted the job of rower, and so the oarsmen were usually slaves, chained to their benches and incentivized more by whips than by salaries. Slavery was a common practice among both Christian and Muslim communities in the Mediterranean. The Ottomans and their co-religionists, the Barbary corsairs of the Maghreb, were more adept than the European Christians at finding large numbers of galley slaves. They routinely raided Mediterranean coastal towns, Sub-Saharan villages, and Balkan provinces, capturing and enslaving all the male infidels they didn’t kill. Miguel Cervantes, the author of Don Quixote, spent some time chained to an oar before his parents ransomed him.

Miguel De Cervantes

Miguel De Cervantes

Crowley’s work is not confined to the description of medieval warfare. He also deftly handles the geopolitical aspects of the contest and describes the key participants and their intramural scuffling. In particular, he shows how Christendom was riven by three sources of internal discord: (1) Northern European Protestants vs. Mediterranean Catholics; (2) Venice vs. the Papacy; and (3) Roman Catholicism vs. Greek Orthodoxy. The Ottomans, by contrast, were generally united. Moreover, the Ottoman unity of command and purpose was a chief source of their strength.

Evaluation: This is a very entertaining, informative, and perhaps lesser-known history about some earlier confrontations between Islam and Christianity, and thus very relevant to events of today. If you think Islam and the West don’t get along very well now, you should have seen the 16th century!

Rating: 4/5

Published in hardcover by Random House, 2008

A Few Notes on the Audio Production:

I listened to the audio version of this book, which was read competently by John Lee, who has a pleasant English accent. I am pretty familiar with the general geography of the area covered, but I would have benefitted from detailed maps of the particular siege sites.

Published unabridged on 9 CDs (11 listening hours) by Tantor Media, 2008

The Knights of Malta marked its 900th birthday in February 2013 in St. Peter's Square, and with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, himself a member of the onetime chivalrous order drawn from Europe's nobility.

The Knights of Malta marked its 900th birthday in February 2013 in St. Peter’s Square, and with an audience with Pope Benedict XVI, himself a member of the onetime chivalrous order drawn from Europe’s nobility.


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2 Responses to Book Review of “Empires of the Sea: The Siege of Malta, the Battle of Lepanto, and the Contest for the Center of the World” by Roger Crowley

  1. BermudaOnion says:

    I’m sure this is a great book but I suspect it’s too “academic” for me.

  2. I had listened to the audio version of “Empires of the Sea” a few years go. Although I’m a history buff, the only thing I had known about the Battle of Lepanto was that Cervantes was a participant, nothing about the siege of Malta. The book was amazing.

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