Sultan Selim II goes to war for his favorite wine
The very fact that Sultan Selim II, head of the Ottoman Empire from 1566 to 1574, is also known as “Selim the Drunkard”, is surely enough to give an impression of how he ruled: for the most part, under the influence. While his father, the appropriately-named Suleiman the Magnificent, had overseen the rise of the Ottoman Empire, his sozzled son promptly brought it to its knees, making major enemies and losing vast amounts of money and territory. And, according to the legend, he risked – and lost – it all due to his love of Cypriot wine.
Selim was not a natural leader, or a natural politician. He hadn’t been groomed for power. However, his elder brother died of smallpox, his own father ordered the murder of his step-brother and, finally, another brother died in another bout of palace intrigue. So, in September 1566, Selim II took control of the Ottoman Empire, with no relevant experience or even interest in the role. For a while, this didn’t matter. He left the running of the empire to trusted advisors. While they were busy with matters of state, he hosted wild parties. Soon, his playboy lifestyle had earned him the nickname Selim the Drunkard.
It’s commonly believed that Selim’s fondness for Cypriot wine is one of the main reasons – if not the leading reason – why, in 1571, he ordered his men to invade Cyprus. Given the military strength of the Ottoman Empire, the invasion went well at first. The Sultan was soon enjoying the many riches he could plunder from the island, including its famed alcohol. However, other European powers took a dim view of Selim’s actions. Pope Pius V lobbied for a year to for the so-called Holy League. Then, 12 months after Selim’s bold and boozy invasion, the allies hit back. Hundreds of ships clashed at the Battle of Lepanto. It was a disaster for Selim.
The Ottoman Empire lost almost all its navy in the battle. They also lost thousands of men – most taken as slaves by the victors. But it wasn’t all bad news for Selim: He managed to hold onto some parts of Cyprus, giving him a steady supply of the world’s finest wine. He would enjoy three more years of partying in Constantinople. And this is how he died – drunk, and happy, slipping and hitting his head on a fine marble floor.