The Price They Paid For Not Paying The Price – A Medieval Arms Mercenary & The Fall of Constantinople

We have a saying in the United States that “you get what you pay for.” Of course this is a cliche, but like all cliches there is truth in it. In 1453 this cliche proved especially true as an Ottoman Turkish army besieged the city of Constantinople. Prior to that date, the walls of Constantinople had protected the city – home of the Byzantine Empire – from some 20 plus would be conquerors  over a thousand year period (the Crusaders in 1204 being the notable exception). Besieging armies consisted mostly of barbarian tribes that did not have the technological wherewithal to effect a breach in the walls. Many did not even bother trying. The invention of gunpowder, along with artillery that could magnify this explosive new form of firepower, made the walls of Constantinople vulnerable. This firepower was rapidly developed and put up for sale to the highest bidder. In centuries past the Byzantines would have had the financial means to purchase the latest advancements in weaponry, even if they were unable to develop it themselves. By 1453 the empire had fallen into economic destitution and had been whittled down to a rump state consisting of the city and not much else.

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

Mural at the Turkish Military Museum of the scene outside the walls of Constantinople in 1453

The reasons behind the empires desultory state were many. The Crusader force that had breached the walls in 1204 not only plundered the city, but also proceeded to set up a Latin Kingdom in Constantinople. They then carried out an extensive and thorough pillaging lasting over half a century. By the time the Latins were forced out by the Byzantines in 1261 much of the city and its priceless treasures had been stolen or  lay in ruin. By 1344, the Byzantine Empress Anna had to pawn the crown jewels in order to finance the Byzantine military in a virtual civil war. In 1347, the black death raged throughout what was left of the empire, depopulating Constantinople while leading to the further destruction of its meager economy. It has been estimated that by the mid-14th century the Genoese trading colony in Galata opposite Constantinople had financial revenues six and a half times those of the Byzantine state. Incredibly, Byzantium held on for another hundred years.

The Byzantine ability to hold a vestige of their state together was a tribute to the defensive advantage of the city walls. Yet weaponry was in the works that would make them vulnerable. This technology was being developed all across central and eastern Europe. One notable innovator was a cannon founder and engineer now known to history as Orban. The majority of sources agree that Orban, was a Hungarian from Brasso in Transylvania (Brasov, Romania today). He designed a bronze super cannon. This weapon was the bazooka of the middle ages. It could blast thick land walls into submission. Whoever held this mighty weapon had a distinct advantage in a siege. And it was not just a military weapon, but also a psychological one. An enemy on the receiving end of its barrage, would also be susceptible to an earsplitting, thunderous boom as well as its earth shattering ammunition . There had been nothing like its size or scale in the world up to this time. That made it a weapon of terror as much as anything else. Most importantly, this weapon was for sale to the highest bidder.

Orban offered his cannon as well as his services first to the Byzantines in 1452. The man who would soon become the final Byzantine Emperor, Constantine XI, would loved to have had the super cannon. The Ottoman Turks were bound to besiege Constantinople in the very near future. The city, which was pretty much the empire at this point, was impoverished. It did not have the manpower to raise a large force that might properly defend it. Only western forces or technology could possibly save it. Constantine XI could not afford Orban the engineer or his bronze super cannon, all he could hope for was generosity. It was not forthcoming. Orban was open to the highest bidder. This happened to be the Ottoman Turks. He soon placed his innovative weaponry in the services of a man who could afford them, Mehmed II, the Sultan who would become Mehmed the Conqueror. What helped make Mehmed the conqueror and Constantine XI, the last Byzantine Emperor was Orban.

So many times in history, we want to believe that courage and honor, skill and cleverness led to military victory. To be sure, when it came to the siege of Constantinople all of these were present. Nonetheless, it also came down to what one side could afford and the other could not. Was this reason for the Ottman’s victory? It is probably not so simple. One weapon does not a military victory make, but absent that weapon perhaps the Turks do not break through the walls and the Byzantine Empire goes on a little while longer. In this case, all parties got what they paid for. Orban got money, Mehmed got the super cannon and Constantine XI paid for his poverty with an historic defeat.  Ironically, the first man to lose his life in this martial equation was Orban himself, who is said to have been killed along with his crew when one of his super cannons exploded. The cannon was one of several decisive factors that led to the Fall of Constantinople, even if only its benefactor Mehmed II lived to see its success.

The tale of Orban selling his services to the highest bidder, even to an empire that was quickly growing into an archenemy of the Christianised western world offers a compelling argument that the west was just as much a threat to Byzantium as the Ottoman Turks and Islam were. The Catholic Kingdoms in the west did not feel it was their duty to defend a depraved and faltering empire. It was a belief that in later centuries they would come to regret when the Ottomans appeared on their own doorsteps. There was no love lost between a Byzantine state firmly rooted in Eastern Orthodoxy and kingdoms across central and western Europe aligned with Catholicism.  The finest historical example of this was the sack of Constantinople by the Crusaders in 1204 fomented by western forces. The sack dealt the Byzantines a blow from which they never recovered. Then there was a man like Orban, he was a Crusader of another sort, for weapons innovation and arms trade. Orban was a mercenary selling his services to the highest bidder. He did not believe in the power of faith, but the power of the purse. That power finally brought Byzantium to its knees and the Ottoman Turks to their greatest glory.

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