What if Urban had built his super cannon for the Byzantines?

Jul 12 2010

Reader Patricia asks if the Byzantine defeat in 1453 can really be blamed on ‘modern weapons’ since the Byzantines also had access to them.  Was it really a matter of simply not having enough money to build them?

I think the Ottomans would have eventually been able to take the city in any case.  It was far too exposed, depopulated, completely cut off from friendly Christian powers, and vastly outnumbered.  But for all that, it still took 48 days of continuous bombardment.  Given the tensions within the Ottoman army and the loss of face associated with each unsuccessful day, would Mehmed have been able to maintain discipline and morale if he had to wait on traditional siege machines?  There were already serious challenges to his authority brewing by the time he broke in- and that was with the aid of ‘super’ weapons that could punch their way through walls. Constantine XI was fully capable of rallying his troops and did quite well with his limited forces.  It’s always dangerous to speculate but I think he could have held the city against one or two standard Ottoman attempts.

So firepower was clearly important, but as Patricia correctly pointed out, it wasn’t just a simple matter of technology.  The Byzantines actually did have a few guns- though they were smaller than the Ottoman’s and frequently damaged their own walls with the recoil.  What they really lacked was the infrastructure needed to sustain the technology.  Enough money couldn’t be scraped up to retain Urban much less pay for the powder, projectiles, and the specialists needed to fire and repair them.  The Ottomans could afford to fully integrate massive new cannons into their army; for the impoverished Byzantines- even if Urban had built his great gun for free- they had to remain a curiosity.

6 responses so far

  1. I’d also suggest that the Byzantines had less to shoot at. Even if they could reach across the Bosporus and hit the Ottoman fortress there, the Ottomans didn’t rely on that position and could easily move elsewhere. About the only thing the Byzantines would be able to do is secure some access to the sea by blasting enemy boats out of the water.

  2. True enough. Early cannons also had a disturbing tendency to explode and the Byzantines could less afford the casualties. The deck was stacked against them in almost every way.

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  4. I discuss this further in my article here:

    The Siege: One of History’s Most Important Recruitment Decisions


    I agree with Lars that the city would have fallen eventually, but Urban’s cannon clearly made a difference to the lengthand success of this seige. There was a Venetian relief fleet on its way, and a few hundred more men would have made a difference, but not to the ultimate fate of the city.

  5. i think you are wrong urban is just metalworker this great cannon’s ballistic calculations and design have made by sultan mehmet (II) and sultan have other than urban and sorry my english thanks…

  6. The sultan did have enormous resources that made his acquisition of cannons inevitable, but Urban played a significant part. Mehmet did have other, smaller cannons, but casting large ones was extremely hazardous and he needed Urban’s expertise- it’s not quite correct to call him ‘just a metalworker’. The real question is whether or not Urban’s monster cannon had a significant impact on the final outcome. I think probably not really that much, but it’s fun to play ‘what if’…

    And don’t worry about your English- its far superior to my 2nd language!

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