Readers with a penchant for military history and a comfortable familiarity with the milieu of the sixteenth century Mediterranean world – often defined by the ongoing struggle for dominance between the Muslim Ottoman Turks and the (less-than-united) Christian European West – will likely relish The Great Siege of Malta: The Epic Battle between the Ottoman Empire and the Knights of St. John, by Bruce Ware Allen. It will nevertheless present a challenge for the uninitiated. I came to this book as part of an Early Reviewer’s program, and I found it an uphill climb from the start because I am less than intimately familiar with this historical period. A similar well-written, analytical volume centered upon events in the Peloponnesian War or the American Civil War would not have tasked me so, which thus has more to say about the shortcomings of this reviewer than that of the author.
As the title foretells, this work is focused upon the celebrated “Great Siege of Malta” by Ottoman Turks in 1565, which if successful could have served as a gateway into Sicily, Italy and southern Europe beyond. The heroes were the “Knights of St. John,” a multinational Roman Catholic military order dating back to the crusades which had been forcibly ejected by the Turks from their base on the isle of Rhodes some four decades previously. Allen devotes some time to setting the stage for the siege in an account that is unfortunately often dulled by passages pregnant with names, geographies and events that can be dizzying for the reader. For example, a single paragraph introducing the naval hero Don Garcia de Toledo contains the following:
“He was … made a colonel of Spanish foot in Naples, and . . . led twelve thousand imperial troops against Franco-Sienese forces at Siena. Among his fellow officers were the one-eyed condottiere from Pavia, Ascanio Della Corgna; the Tuscan nobleman Giovan Luigi “Chiappino” (the Bear) Vitelli (a favorite of Garcia’s brother-in-law Cosimo de Medici); and Don Alvaro de Sande, all of them respected veteran commanders. He also served in Flanders and Italy. In 1560 he was slated to replace Medinaceli as viceroy of Sicily if the latter did not return from Djerba. By February of 1564 Philip had named him Captain General of the Sea (Andrea Doria’s old title), and when others (including the Djerba veteran Sancho de Leyva) had failed, ordered him to take the Moroccan pirate stronghold, the Penon de Velez de la Gomera.” [p86]
Conspicuous in its absence is a biographical table of the immense cast of characters, a historical timeline, and much more detailed maps, all of which would have been very useful to interested readers who are not scholars of the era and its key players and places.
The narrative takes a dramatic turn for the better once military events occupy center stage. It is clear that Allen is an accomplished military historian who skillfully inserts the reader into the battlefield milieu. Much of the faults of the chapters leading up to the siege largely dissolve as the author adeptly explains weapons, tactics and events on the ground in the various military engagements for the extended duration of the siege and ultimate triumph of the Knights. The reader otherwise unfamiliar with this material at once finds a comfort zone as the experience of battle in the sixteenth century Mediterranean is expertly recreated by the author in careful but colorful prose.
The strength of Allen as a gifted writer and military historian clearly rescues this work from a dullness that seems to overshadow the first part of the book, although it should once again be underscored that those who are more comfortable with this era may not judge that portion of the narrative as harshly in this regard. Certainly those seeking a competent exploration of the events surrounding the Great Siege of Malta should take up this book, for Allen indeed deserves much credit for his superlative skills as a military historian.