An uncomfortable position
Eastern Mediterranean in 1450
Well before the end of the 15th century, Venice’s power in the eastern Mediterranean had begun to wane. The Ottoman Turks had finally dispatched the Byzantine Empire and swallowed its former territory. (Well, in fact, most of the swallowing was done before the dispatching took place.) They were now ready to extend their power into Europe, a project that would be substantially aided by full control of the Mediterranean Sea. This map shows who was ruling what just before Constantinople fell in 1453. Much more of it would have been colored ‘Ottoman’ at the century’s end.

The Turks, coming from central Asia, had not originally been a seagoing people, but in the course of their long contention with the Byzantine empire, they had developed a competent naval force, which they now proceeded to expand. Naval battles in those days were still won by a combination of sailors and soldiers on shipboard. Turks might be relative newcomers to the first of these professions, but they had long been unexcelled at the second, and had never been backward in mastering any military art.

Two Turkish-Venetian wars were fought in the half-century after Constantinople fell in 1453. In the first (1463–1479), the Venetians lost their most important base in the northern Aegean, the island that they called Negroponte (Euboea is its classical Greek name), as well as the island of Lemnos and several ports in Greece, Albania, and Dalmatia. In the second war (1499–1503), they lost most of their strongholds in the Peloponnesus and were forced to concede that, at sea, the Turks were a match—and sometimes more than a match—for Venice.

During the same half-century, 1450–1500, Europe’s Atlantic states, notably Portugal and Spain, had discovered sea routes to the Orient, and made a start on taking over the lucrative spice and silk trades and cutting Venice out of its profitable position as Europe’s middleman. The Most Serene Republic was still a naval power, but that power was slipping away, weakened economically by Iberian navigators and militarily by surging Ottoman power.
Turkish map of Crete by Piri Reis (1520s)
The Ottomans were not without good navigators either. This map of Crete was made by Piri Reis, a Turkish admiral, geographer, and cartographer who compiled and published a large collection of maps and other nautical information, the Kitab-ı Bahriye (‘Book of Navigation’) in the 1520s. His maps include what was then known of the New World, for which he cites as a source Columbus’ maps, and since they include some of Columbus’ mistakes (such as believing that Cuba was a peninsula of the mainland) this is certainly true. Piri’s maps were especially accurate in their information about the Mediterranean world. Although the shape of the island isn’t perfectly captured, it’s truer than it may look from our conventional perspective: Crete is upside-down on the map, with the north side of the island at the bottom.
Hayreddin Pasha ('Barbarossa')
Turkish pirates began making coastal raids on Crete. Although the Venetians considered all such raids piratical, some were made by Ottoman naval units and others by “pirates” officially commissioned by the Sultan—an arrangement that shouldn’t astonish anyone who has heard of Sir Francis Drake’s exploits on the Spanish Main only a few years later. Hayreddin Pasha, a Turkish admiral whom the Italians called Barbarossa (‘Redbeard’) was the most renowned and feared of raiders. As you can see in this portrait, his beard was brown, and he lived until it was white—but his older brother, a sea raider whose beard was indeed red, had been given this nickname, and the Italians just transferred it to the younger brother after the first Barbarossa died in combat. (You may wonder how a Turkish admiral would come to have his picture painted by a western artist—presumably Italian, though apparently unidentified—but trade between East and West was carried on actively during times of peace, and art was as marketable as anything else. The admiral holds a trident, as often seen in pictures of Poseidon or Neptune, to symbolize his rule of the seas.)
La Fortezza at Réthymno
The Venetian administrators in Crete watched as Venice’s empire dwindled, one island or seaport after another falling to the Turks. Venice’s fleet could no longer keep raiders from their shores. Clearly, it was only a matter of time before Crete would have to deal with a full-scale invasion. During the mid-to-late 1500s, the Republic invested a good deal of money and energy into strengthening the fortifications that protected the island’s coasts and major cities, sending out military architects to design walls and fortresses and supervise their building. The picture shows a bastion of the Fortezza at Réthymno, said to be the largest Venetian castle ever built. The city (Retimo to the Venetians) was almost completely destroyed by a Turkish raid in 1571, and the military authorities decided to build a fortress on the high promontory above the city that would be large enough to enclose the whole population. But the construction took ten years, and by the time it was done, people had already rebuilt their houses on the original site. So the Fortezza protected within its walls only the administrative buildings, the rector's residence, and the Catholic cathedral. The military garrison was there, of course, but much space inside the walls remained empty.
Battle of Lepanto, 1571
The Turkish invasion, however, didn’t come as soon as it was expected. Throughout most of the 16th century the Ottoman Empire was concentrating its major military efforts on land. They didn’t retire their navy, which still dominated the eastern Mediterranean. One very large Turkish fleet was destroyed in the battle of Lepanto (1571) by a coalition of Catholic powers that included Venice. Lepanto is still celebrated in the West as a great victory, but it was one battle, not a war. Afterwards, the Ottoman Grand Vizier pointed out to a Venetian emissary that “In capturing Cyprus from you, we have cut off one of your arms; in defeating our fleet you have merely shaved off our beard.” It’s true that the loss of Cyprus (in that same war) damaged Venice far more than the loss of a fleet damaged the Turks, who soon built a new one. Nevertheless, the victory of Lepanto dealt an important symbolic blow to the Western fear of Ottoman invincibility at sea.
Suleiman the Magnificent, Sultan 1520–1566
For a century and a half, since the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ottoman advance into Europe had been unstoppable. Their armies conquered, in whole or in part, most of the nations of southeastern Europe: Greece, Albania, Serbia, Bosnia, Croatia (which lost Dalmatia, but kept the rest of the country), Wallachia and Transylvania (both now part of Romania), and even Hungary. The strongest power still standing in their path was the Habsburgs’ Holy Roman Empire. Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent besieged Vienna, the capital of that empire, in 1529, but his army arrived too late in the year for a long siege, and the besiegers were driven off by the winter. This contemporary Turkish miniature shows Suleiman as a young man.
Fall of Szigetvár—the defenders' last charge
Many years later, Suleiman mounted and personally led a second, huge military expedition aimed at Vienna. But this campaign was held up for a month (August 5–September 8, 1566) by the unexpectedly strong fight put up by the Hungarian and Croatian defenders of a fortress named Szigetvar. In the end the Turks took the fortress, with heavy casualties: virtually the entire defending force of 2,300 was wiped out, together with (it is related) no less than 20,000 of Suleiman’s troops. The picture, by a 19th-century Austrian painter, represents the hopeless final charge of the last 600 defenders, none of whom survived.

The Sultan, coming up on his 72nd birthday, was really too old for this sort of thing, and he died of natural causes a few days before the victory betokened in the painting. News of his demise was prudently kept from the army until the fighting was over, lest it affect morale. But the Grand Vizier, now in command, found it necessary to get everyone back to Istanbul to deal with the politics of succession, so Vienna was saved. Clearly, there were grounds for Europeans to hope that the Ottomans weren’t invincible on land, either.

Suleiman was the last of a series of strong and effective Ottoman rulers, and a string of weak and ineffective sultans followed him. Warfare continued along the border that separated Ottoman-controlled Europe from its Christian-controlled neighbors, but that border remained materially unchanged.

Crete was left to enjoy its Renaissance for another 80 years. During this time Venice did its best to maintain peaceful relations with the Ottomans, but was fearful that they were always on the lookout for an excuse to attack Crete, the Republic’s last and richest imperial holding, in its exposed position. Exposed it certainly was—all the nearest ports and islands, in every direction, were now Turkish territory.