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De Re Militari | Book Reviews

Roger Crowley

Empires of the Sea: the Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580

London: Faber and Faber, 2008. 368 pp. ISBN 978-0571-23230-7. £20.00.

This review is dedicated to the memory of Ken Wright

Much has been written about the medieval Mediterranean world recently. In The Barbary Corsairs: Warfare in the Mediterranean, 1480-1580 (2003), French author Jacques Heers concentrates on the basin's "Golden Age of Piracy” between the fall of Constantinople and the Spanish Armada. While journalist Stephen O'Shea, in Sea of Faith: Islam and Christianity in the Medieval Mediterranean World (2006), focuses on seven military battles'Yarmuk (A.D. 636), Poitiers (732), Manzikert (1071), Hattin (1187), Las Navas de Tolosa (1212), Constantinople (1453), and Malta (1565)'between (embattled) Christianity and (expanding) Islam over the inheritance of the Greco-Roman world. Yet it is the book published in between those two works, Robert C. Davis', Christian Slaves, Muslim Masters: White Slavery in the Mediterranean, The Barbary Coast, and Italy, 1500-1800 (2004), that most, if not all, medievalists will be familiar with given the academic fallout caused by the unorthodox methodology Davis used to calculate the "other” slavery.

It is knowledge of two other books, however, The Middle Sea: A History of the Mediterranean (2007) by John Julius Norwich and Pirates of Barbary: Corsairs, Conquests and Captivity in 17th-century Mediterranean (2010) by Adrian Tinniswood, that will enable readers to appreciate just how fine a book Empires of the Sea: The Final Battle for the Mediterranean, 1521-1580 is. I say this for the simple reason that, like Norwich, Roger Crowley acts as a tour guide on an unforgettable journey and, much like Tinniswood, pens what is an expertly-paced narrative. Unlike the latter, though, Crowley cannot be accused of producing an Anglocentric narrative'what Crowley kindly refers to as "an English perspective” in his review'of what is quintessentially a Mediterranean tale.

If anything, critics might point out that Crowley overlooks England (and they would certainly have a point). Notwithstanding the frequent but fleeting references (pp. 10, 18, 22, 24, 25, 50, 97, 110, 156, 165, 232, 271, 289, 294 & 297), there is no talk of English raids on Spanish outposts in the Caribbean or, more precisely, the effect on Madrid's Mediterranean campaigns that Drake's disrupting of Indies' galleon traffic caused. Such information would have been useful since not only did the English sense of empire grow significantly after the Reformation, but Crowley specifically says that the "New World altered the course of events in the old.” (p.62) This is more than sufficiently canceled out, however, with talk of Ptolemy's map: so-called new Ptolemaic maps created in the same style and books containing the navigational charts, such as the one written by "geographically curious Turkish navigator” Piri Reis and presented to Sultan Suleiman as a "blueprint for naval wars” (p.40), were intended for every day use.  

Empires of the Sea is a natural continuation of Crowley's previous book, Constantinople: The Last Great Siege (2005).  It picks up the story of the Ottoman adventure into the Mediterranean in 1520 when Mehmet II's great-grandson, Suleiman the Magnificent, driven by the dream of taking Rome and inheriting Caesar's mantle (p.52), attacked Rhodes and follows it through to the Battle of Lepanto in 1571, the end of this period of "full-blown sea warfare” (p.57). In the middle of both this period and this sea lies Malta, an island "simply too central, too strategic and too troublesome to be ignored indefinitely.” (p.98)

"Part II: Epicentre: The Battle for Malta” is the centerpiece and is easily the most gripping section of the equally-weighted book. (If Hollywood is looking for another epic, this battle certainly has all the required ingredients with 600 Knights of St. John against an Ottoman army of around of 30,000.) It is no exaggeration, either, to say that pages 91-195 are so riveting that they demand a second reading given the larger-than-life personalities of Jean de la Valette, Captain Miranda, and an Italian traitor. Yet it must also be said that Crowley illustrates the drama of those four scorching summer months most vividly, when all that stood between the Turks from taking St Elmo was a last-minute ravelin that protected the garrison's exposed outpost and prayers from Protestant England. Needless to say, though, many more prayers were required since, "a decisive clash for control of the centre of the world still awaited.” (p.207)

For some strange reason, Empires of the Seas was one of 37 tomes to have featured on a 2008 "Summer Reading List” circulated to all 195 British Conservative Members of Parliament in preparation for the new Cameron government. But despite its questionable relevance, the book remained a popular choice. The reason is a simple one: Crowley provides a popular history of the hostility between the Crescent and the Cross. To be sure, the author's tendency to compare historical events with more contemporary times'such as the moment Ottomans and Christians spoke during the Siege of Malta resembling "footballs kicked into no-man's-land” (p.182), Don Juan's crushing of the Morisco revolt prefiguring the "horror of Goya's firing squads” (p.210), and talk of Lepanto being "Europe's Trafalgar” (p.288)'will put general readers at ease (though perhaps enflame professional historians–ed.). What is more, the inclusion of black and white sketches (which adorn more than 40 pages) together with 16 illustrations and three maps make this a must-have for members of the public as well as MPs. You cannot fault the publisher, either, for not curtailing the author's overuse of semicolons given that I found but a single publishing error (p.217).

Crowley's use of original sources is admirable (you need only count the many first-person accounts of fighting featured in the bibliography). Thanks to the invention of the printing press at the time, the author is able to draw on (Italian if not Ottoman) eye-witness accounts which he brings to life wonderfully well. It is not only for his narrative prowess that the author deserves considerable praise, however, but also for his even-handed approach toward the nightmarish horrors suffered by Christians and Muslims alike. Rest assured, then, this is neither an anti-Muslim nor an anti-Christian book (and despite it being a tale of western disunity, it does not call for a united response to radical Islam today). If anything, it is an anti-war book.

At no time do you feel Empires of the Seas is in danger of being swamped by the wealth of material. Make no mistake about it, Crowley's thesis is a tight one. And this enables him to create such a mood of suspense that even readers who know the result of a particular skirmish, set piece, or siege will find that this is as edge-of-the-seat as it gets. To paraphrase the author, Crowley is a repository of knowledge about the Mediterranean basin (p.253). It may be "a short, general work” but Empires of the Seas remains a masterly account of the sixteenth-century struggle for mastery of the Mediterranean (p.325).

Lee P Ruddin

Roundup Editor, History News Network <leepruddin@yahoo.co.uk>

Page Added: August 2010