The changing pattern of Mediterranean warfare at sea



From the Greek antiquity to the end of the XVIth century, from Corcyra to Lepanto, that is for two thousands years, warfare at sea in the Mediterranean was dominated by the galley. Galley was a perfect instrument of war for coastal waters with inconstant winds and with very few great harbours able to receive great ships. It is not amazing if galleys survived longer in narrow seas (in Mediterranean, but also in the Baltic where the last galley fight occurred in 1810) than in the ocean : it's not sufficient to incriminate social or bureaucratic inertia. In landlocked sea and in coastal waters, galley was an effective tool which performed well and which gave way to a model of Mediterranean warfare characterised by the close integration of naval operations, amphibious warfare and siege with very few full scale battles. The XVIth century saw only three such battles (Prevesa 1538, Djerba 1560, Lepanto 1571)12. These battles were very spectacular (Lepanto was the greatest battle of the century at sea or on land with 150 000 men) but they were not really decisive : a galley fleet can be built in a few months and the logistical limitations of galleys prohibit the strategic exploitation of the victory : Piali Pasa is victorious at Djerba, but he is unable to attack the Venitian center of gravity ; two years after the disaster of Lepanto, the reconstituted turkish fleet under Uluch Ali makes a great demonstration against Apulian coasts. Sea control can't be obtained for a great area and for a long time, it is always temporary and local. We should say a tactical one, not a strategic one.

This technical base must be combined with a political fact. From the beginning of history until the XVIIth century, Mediterranean was a closed sea with a rivalry between riverine countries without intervention of outside intruders (with very few exceptions, Northmen in the Middle Age). Again in the XVIth century, the navies which compete in the Mediterranean are those of the Ottoman empire, of Venice, of the Habsburg's Spain.

This system collapses during the XVIIth century confronted with a double rupture.

        Technical rupture


From a technical point of view, the galley is supplanted progressively by the ship of the line. With her huge artillery and with her high free-board, the ship of the line outranks the galley : there is one example of a French ship of line, Le Bon, which resists to the attack of 30 Spanish galleys. This military revolution at sea occurs in the northern waters, particularly during the Anglo-Dutch wars13, the Mediterranean will but follow on the northern example. As already said, galleys will last in the Mediterranean until the middle of the XVIIIth century for a lot of social, political (prestige) and technical reasons when they disappear in the ocean as soon as the end of the XVIIIth century. But they are confined to a secundary role. Even the Ottoman fleet adopts the ship of the line in the XVIIIth century. The superiority of the later is so evident that the transformation is a necessity.

        Political rupture


From a political point of view, the XVIIth century sees the end of the crucial antagonism between Christiandom and the Muslim world, between Western and Eastern Mediterranean. The rivalry between the two "blocks" does not disappear : there is in the end of the XVIIth century the Morea War between Venice and Turkey (1684-1698), Venitian victory recognized by the Carlowitz treaty, and the Turkish revenge in the war of 1714-1718, where, after battles at Corfu, Lemnos and Cape Matapan, Venice loses the Morea at the peace of Passarowitz. But it is no longer the central piece in Mediterranean diplomacy and strategy. Eastern and Western Mediterranean will follow somewhat relatively independent developments.

The most important political innovation is the first serious intrusions of outside powers in Mediterranean. During the Franco Dutch War (1672-1679), the decayed Spain is obliged to call the Dutch fleet of Admiral De Ruyter. At the end of the century, England appears : during two decades (1664-1684), she controls Tangiers but withdraws from it due to budgetary constraints and doubtful strategic utility ; she comes back during the Nine Years' War (or Augsburg's League War, 1688-1697) and her presence will become permanent with the seizure of Gibraltar during the War of the Spanish Succession (1704). We may also add the growth of the French navy : France is, of course, a Mediterranean power but it is also an Atlantic power and the division of its navy between the Atlantic and the Mediterranean will be one of its major problems. Similarly, we must note, in the first years of the XVIIIth century, the appearance of Russian power on the Black Sea coast, which marks the beginning of a process which will dominate the Mediterranean system during the XIXth century14.

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With these technical and political transformations, the traditional pattern of Mediterranean warfare at sea is over. A new model emerge which will progressively become more and more similar to the Atlantic model.

The growth of Atlantic system does not mean that Mediterranean sea has become a secundary theater. Recent historical research suggest that the image of a sharp decline of the Mediterranean economy due to the great oceanic discoveries is wrong. Those discoveries favoured the take-off of northern countries, first Holland, and then England. But the economic base of Mediterranean countries remains strong. In the XVIIIth century, Venice is still as rich as Holland. The trade between England and the Mediterranean is an important one15. The decline of Spain, somewhat overestimated, was erroneously extended to the whole Mediterranean system but the Mediterranean area remains vital in the great powers system of the XVIIIth century.


12 Jan Glete, op. cit., vol. I, p. 115.

13 M.A.J. Palmer, "The Military Revolution Afloat : the Era of the Anglo-Dutch Wars and the Transition to Modern Warfare at Sea", War in History, 4/2, april 1997.

14 Hervé Coutau-Bégarie, "La Russie et la mer. Sur un " déterminisme géopolitique "", Hérodote, 47, 1987.

15 See, for France only, the numerous thesis listed in Hervé Coutau-Bégarie, L'histoire maritime en France, Paris, 2nd ed., ISC-Economica, 1997.


 Copyright - 2005 - Conception - Bertrand Degoy, Alain De Neve, Joseph Henrotin