The Ottoman-Venetian Wars: 322 Years Of Battles Between East and West
While it started out full of ambition, the highly influential maritime power, the Republic of Venice, soon found itself surrounded by competitors and foes. One of their major enemies was the lofty Ottoman Empire. After crossing into Europe in 1354, the Ottomans became a major threat not only for the Venetians, but all other Christian states on the continent. As the Ottoman Empire grew in size it spread across the seas as well, seizing coastal territories and setting up a major naval presence. This directly challenged the most powerful entity of the Mediterranean: the Venetian Republic. What ensued was a series of vicious wars known as the Ottoman-Venetian Wars that lasted for several centuries. The centuries-long fight that defined the Ottoman-Venetian Wars show us just how important the control of Mediterranean waters was for both sides.
A painting from 1523 of The Battle of Nicopolis which occurred in 1396. (Topkapı Palace / Public domain )
The Early Sparks that Erupted into the Ottoman-Venetian Wars
The Ottomans swept through Europe like a storm. Rising in their homelands and swelling with power and population, they had to expand. And the only logical direction was towards Europe. In 1354 AD they crossed over and quickly swept through the Balkans. After they defeated the Christian Serbian army in the Battle of Kosovo in 1389, their path was open towards the continent’s interior. All of Europe’s major Christian powers were now threatened, and the Republic of Venice was amongst them. By that time, this maritime power was amongst the wealthiest and most influential in the Mediterranean. The Venetians began expanding from their bustling port capital in the Venetian Lagoon quite early on and were soon in possession of coastal territories all along the Adriatic and Greece. And their contact with the Ottomans was inevitable.
The first conflict began in 1396, as Venice participated in the infamous Battle of Nicopolis , where an alliance of Christian European states was utterly crushed by the Ottoman Empire forces. This was one of the worst defeats for many of the powers involved and served as a major shift in history. Following their major victory, the Ottomans were now established on the continent for good, and would remain there for centuries to follow, almost always involved in one conflict or another with the Venetian Republic and its Christian allies.
It was soon after this that a long string of conflicts began between Venice and the Ottomans, almost exclusively at sea. The two powers first came to blows in 1416, during the Battle of Gallipoli. The Venetians dispatched a modest fleet there in hope of negotiating with the Ottoman representatives. However, since they had doubts about the latter’s willingness to parlay, the Venetians were instructed to wage battle if all failed. They were right: there were no negotiations at all since the Ottomans at once opened fire on the Venetian ships. In the ensuing naval battle, the Venetian fleet managed to score a decisive victory on their numerically superior foe.
City wall from the time of the Ottoman-Venetian Wars in present-day Thessaoloniki, Greece. (Julian Nyča / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Struggle in the Aegean Sea
The Venetians sea victory was a fruitful one. The Venetians crushed their opponents, killing their admiral and seizing several ships alongside numerous captives. More importantly, however, the victory served to reaffirm their domination in the Aegean Sea , which would remain unchallenged in the following decades.
However, the victory also had negative results, according to some historians. They say that it served as a cause for the Venetians to get overly confident, and that would have major consequences in the following centuries, when they would realize that naval domination was not enough to confront the vast and powerful Ottoman Empire.
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The next harsh conflict and a bitter lesson for the Venetians was during the long siege of Thessalonica , which lasted from 1422 to 1430. The Venetian Republic entered into this conflict in 1423 when they were given control of the besieged city of Thessalonica by its ruler Andronikos Palailogos, but quickly proved to be unfit for its salvation.
Negotiations with the Ottoman sultan were fruitless, and naval blockades yielded few results. In a short time, the city’s inhabitants were beginning to starve. The Venetians reacted only when it was too late, declaring war in 1429. By that time, the starving citizens were eager to surrender, and the conservative aristocrats of Venice were unwilling to raise an army for their defense. In the end, the sultan captured the town by storm in 1430, devastating it in the process.
Thessalonica remained in Ottoman hands until 1912, and its loss served to deepen the animosity between them and the Venetians.
The First Ottoman-Venetian War lasted from 1463 until 1479 and was the first major escalation of enmity between the two powers. Up to that point the Venetians were reluctant to face the Ottomans in a full-scale war, except for the minor clashes in the preceding decades. However, after a petty pretext by the Ottomans, and the urgings of the Papal legate, the authorities in Venice declared war in 1463. The Ottomans were the first to attack, however, and used a petty cause to enter into the war. This was soon after the fall of Constantinople, and the Ottomans likely sought to further expand their territories in the Mediterranean.
The First Ottoman-Venetian War was split into several campaigns and lasted for more than a decade. In the end, the Venetians were defeated, losing several important territorial possessions as a result. They lost their age-old holdings in Albania and Greece, and in particular the possession of the island of Negroponte, which was their protectorate for many centuries.
They also lost their hold on Morea, i.e., the Peloponnese Peninsula (Greece). For the Ottomans, the victory was a steppingstone toward establishing a powerful navy and more dominance at sea. The Venetian maritime power was seriously challenged!
The "Battle of Preveza" (1538) by Ohannes Umed Behzad, painted in 1866. In this battle, the Ottomans scored one of their biggest victories against the European powers. (Ohannes Umed Behzad / Public domain )
The Greek Islands Kept Changing Hands Repeatedly
Just 20 years later, another war broke out, this time lasting from 1499 until 1503. The Ottomans once more secured a victory, conquering the Venetian strongholds in Morea, chiefly Coron and Modon. The Venetians however managed to seize Ithaca and Cephalonia but were nevertheless defeated in the end and forced to recognize major Ottoman gains.
Afterwards, there was a new war between the two sides every few decades. The Third Ottoman-Venetian War erupted in 1537 and lasted until 1540. The peace treaty from the previous war was soon made insignificant amid rising tensions in the Adriatic Sea. Following the Ottoman siege of Habsburg-occupied Klis, the Venetians feared that they would proceed and raid their possessions in Dalmatia. Tensions quickly rose, and the Ottomans unexpectedly laid siege to Venetian-held Corfu, breaking the treaty and starting a new war.
The Ottoman navy was significantly stronger now, and was headed by a ferocious sea-captain, Hayreddin Barbarossa Pasha, who began his exploits as a notorious corsair. In their summer campaign of 1538, the Ottomans managed to capture a string of islands in the Aegean, as well as the last remaining Venetian outposts on the Peloponnese.
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Immediately afterwards, bolstered by their recent victories, the Ottomans descended upon the Adriatic, the heartland of the Venetian Republic. After capturing several strongholds in Dalmatia, they secured a foothold there as well.
The turning point of this war was the naval Battle of Perveza, which was one of the largest victories the Ottomans ever secured against the Europeans. In the end, the war was a decisive Ottoman victory. As a result, the Venetians lost most of their foreign territories, and were now certain that they could not face the Ottomans at sea, especially not on their own.
The Battle of Lepanto from 7 October 1571, a naval engagement between allied Christian forces fighting for the Venetian Republic and the Ottoman Turks, which the Venetian forces won. ( Public domain )
A Ferocious Fight For Crete
Another three decades followed, and a new war began. The Fourth Ottoman-Venetian War lasted from 1570 to 1573. It was yet another Ottoman victory. Their Sultan, Selim II, began the war with the intention of reclaiming the island of Cyprus. This he managed almost at once.
However, the Ottoman navy was utterly crushed by the Venetians and their allies during the Battle of Lepanto, but the victors were unable to exploit their win. This allowed the Ottomans to rebuild their battered navy, forcing Venice into negotiations. The latter had to formally submit Cyprus, as well as pay a tribute of 300,000 ducats.
A bigger pause came following this conflict, before the famed Cretan War erupted. Formally, it was known as the Fifth Ottoman-Venetian War, which lasted from 1645 until 1669. Focused almost entirely on Candia, as Crete was called then, it was one of the bloodiest wars of the 17th century. Venice, with her allies, fought bitterly with the Ottomans over the possession of Crete. The war eventually spilled over elsewhere, with Dalmatia serving as a second theater of operations.
The Ottomans quickly secured most of Crete, but the capital city, Candia (nowadays Heraklion), managed to hold out in spite of all. Due to this, both opposing forces were intent on blockading their foe, starving them, and preventing the flow of reinforcements and supplies. And although the Venetians maintained their naval superiority in the numerous naval battles that occurred, they never had enough vessels to successfully cut off Ottoman supply routes.
The war dragged on for many years and was slowly exhausting the coffers of the Venetian Republic. On the other hand, the Ottomans were reinvigorated. Their domestic turmoil was finished, and a new, capable leadership appeared. Bolstered by all of this, they launched a final push on Candia, besieging it for two bitter and bloody years. In the end, they secured a victory in this bitter war. Crete remained Ottoman until 1897, and Venice was forced to sign a peace treaty.
Venetian grenadiers of the Müller Regiment attack an Ottoman fort, 1717. (A. von Escher / Public domain )
The Only Venetian Victory Was Followed By Their Final Defeat
However, being ever so proud, Venice was not content with the outcome. They sought a chance to adjust the scores. This ambition resulted in yet another new war: the Morean War . Known also as the Sixth Ottoman-Venetian War, it lasted from 1684 until 1699 and was another bloody affair. It gave the Venetians a chance to redeem themselves, a chance they seized eagerly. Once again, the conflict spread all around the Aegean and over Dalmatia. But the main focus was on Morea, aka the Peloponnese.
One thing went towards the Venetians’ favor: the inability of the Ottomans to focus their forces entirely on the sea. They were too heavily engaged in their northern campaigns, chiefly against the Hungarians. These were some of the leading factors that contributed to the Venetians winning the Morean War in the end. It was the only Ottoman-Venetian War that they won. However, the taste of victory was quickly replaced by another bitter taste of defeat.
The Seventh Ottoman-Venetian War, which was also the last such war, was once again a victory for the Ottomans. The seventh war raged from 1714 until 1718, and once again claimed many casualties. The cause of the war was, as you might have guessed, was the Ottoman desire to reverse the losses from the previous war. The loss of Morea did not sit well at the Ottoman court, and they wanted it back in their grasp. Even before 1714, tensions were spiking between the two sides. And when the time was right, the Ottomans once again found a simple pretext to formally declare war on the Venetian Republic.
Sculpture of a Venetian lion on the Fortress of Koules, Heraklion, Crete, Greece. (Bernard Gagnon / CC BY-SA 3.0 )
A Relic of Once-Glorious Times
From the onset, the Venetians were not ready to face their enemy. The Ottomans were simply too numerically superior, both on sea and on land. This resulted in a string of conquests: the Ottomans captured one island after another, with the largest win being the whole of the Peloponnese. Their conquests would have continued were it not for a series of defeats in the north against the Austrians. Following these, the Ottomans were forced to end the war and sign a peace treaty, but they managed to keep all their gains against Venice.
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By this time, the Republic of Venice was a mere shadow of what it once was. The great maritime power was unable to cope with the passing of the ages: it was important and powerful once, but no more. Due to the increasingly changing political situation, the shifting alliances and the rise of new powers, Venice was left as a mere vassal of Austria. And, with the rise of Napoleon Bonaparte, as the world was hurling into a new and vicious era, the Republic of Venice was formally abolished in 1797, after 1,100 years of existence. By that time, it was in many ways a relic.
Top image: The Battle of Nicopolis, took place during the earliest stages of the Ottoman-Venetian Wars, a miniature by Jean Colombe painted in circa 1475. Source: Sébastien Mamerot / Public domain
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