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Alexander the Great and the Spanking of Tyre
In the winter of 332 B.C., Alexander the Great and his army approached the island city of Tyre. After decisively defeating the Persian king Darius III in the battle of Issus, it was imperative for Alexander to secure those coastal areas still under Persian dominion, as well as the territory of Egypt. After his loss, King Darius fled inland with the remnant of his army, hoping to raise a military force of sufficient strength to best Alexander in battle. The temptation to chase Darius into the heart of Persia was likely a compelling one, but the mind of Alexander was not prone to strategic mistakes. By effectively subduing the western edge of the Persian empire, his rear would be secure, and Alexander could confidently march into the center of Darius’s vast kingdom.
Alexander’s Phoenician tour began peacefully enough. Both Byblos and Sidon surrendered with no incident, with Sidon actually extending an invitation into their town. Soon after Alexander was met by envoys from the city of Tyre, who offered to acquiesce to whatever terms Alexander demanded. Being the most powerful of the Phoenician cities, this news was most certainly welcomed. In addition to their obvious surrender, Alexander’s request was a simple one: The privilege of offering a sacrifice in the temple of Tyrian Heracles. It was a request Tyre would not grant however, as neither Persians nor Macedonians were granted access beyond the walls of the island city of Tyre. The old city, they explained, which lay upon the coast, was more than willing to accept any of Alexander’s pious requests. But to enter new Tyre and offer sacrifice was simply out of the question.
Beyond his feelings of outrage, the strategic disadvantage of this outright declaration of neutrality was too serious for Alexander to ignore. The thought of leaving a city as powerful as Tyre behind him, with no certainty of her loyalty and intent, was unthinkable. Preparations were then begun for what would prove to be the costliest, lengthiest, and bloodiest siege of Alexander’s entire career. It would stretch out over a period of seven months, and would result in the deaths of thousands of men.
Tyre was in a practically impregnable position. As an island, the city had access to two harbors with which to ship in supplies for even the most prolonged of sieges. With thick, stone walls of one-hundred and fifty feet in height, a powerful and experienced navy, and a population boasting skilled seafarers and engineers, Tyre was confident of its ability to eventually wear Alexander out. And being approximately half a mile from the coast, the city of Tyre was exempt from the conventional land sieges which Alexander and the Macedonians were accustomed to. The brilliance of Alexander however, was particularly displayed in those moments in which conventional methods of warfare proved ineffective.
The siege of Tyre began with the building of a mole, two hundred feet wide, which would enable the army’s siege engines to approach the walls of Tyre. As it’s builders inched closer and closer to the city, a volley of arrows and other projectiles threatened their every move. With the constant harassment of Tyrian ships undermining the mole’s construction, it became imperative to build two movable artillery towers with which to counter the constant attacks. Tyre answered by loading two cattle transport ships with highly flammable materials, hanging fiery pitch-filled cauldrons from between its twin masts, and waiting for a strong headwind with which to propel the ships towards the wooden siege towers. The towers, along with a fair portion of the mole, were utterly destroyed.
Even at this early point, it was evident that Tyre was not going to succumb easily to the will of Alexander. Though a dream of Alexander’s, in which Heracles himself entered the city, had evidently portended the siege's success, the prophet Aristander had correctly predicted that, like the labors of Heracles, taking Tyre would be no easy task. Undaunted by his first setback, Alexander ordered that the width of his mole be increased and that the construction of more siege engines be undertook immediately.
It was clear to Alexander that without a strong presence at sea, Tyre would continue to wreak havoc on all attempts to subdue her. He then resolved to set out to Sidon and collect whatever galleys he could, hoping to procure a substantial navy with which to combat Tyre’s naval superiority. Restless as he was, Alexander invested ten days in subduing local mountain tribes while awaiting construction of his mole and siege equipment. After this small and successful campaign Alexander returned to Sidon, and as so often in Alexander’s life, fortune smiled upon him: The island of Cyprus had heard of his victory at Issus and had sent a fleet of 120 ships to further his cause. Additionally, 4000 Greek mercenaries arrived from the Peloponnese to reinforce his army. All in all, Alexander returned to the siege of Tyre with a substantial navy of around 200 ships, and a decisive advantage.
With the mole steadily approaching from the landward side, and with the appearance of Alexander’s substantial war fleet, Tyre blocked its two harbors and effectively denied entrance to the enemy ships. The construction of numerous new towers, catapults, and battering rams was now nearing completion, and Tyre found itself in a precarious position. Its northern harbor, facing Sidon and north of the mole, was blocked by a contingent of Cyprian ships, while its southern harbor, which faced Egypt and lay south of the mole, was blocked by a Phoenician contingent.
Forcing a breach through Tyre’s cemented walls of hewn, square rocks was Alexander’s next logical course of action. Tyre had concentrated a good portion of its artillery opposite the mole, rendering this location fairly improbable in being the most effective point of attack. In an unconventional move, Alexander had ships outfitted with rams, moving them into positions on either side of the mole. The importance of rams being placed upon a stable foundation made it imperative that the ships were anchored with exceeding stability, which in turn led to a veritable chess game between Alexander and the Tyrian defenders. Upon their first approach, it was discovered that Tyre had placed numerous blocks of stone in the water just before its walls, impeding the advance of the ram-ships. Alexander had these stones removed with cranes, no small task when under constant fire by flaming arrows and rocks. He then anchored his ram-ships, but Tyrian ships armored against artillery attacks cut the anchor cables. When Alexander had armored oar-galleys placed alongside the anchored ships to block these attacks, Tyrian divers cut the cables underwater. Alexander then replaced the cables with iron chains, and the ramming operation finally began.
Bust of Alexander
Tyre, now reaching desperation, devised a plan of aggression. It was noted that every day around noon, Alexander and his Cyprian fleet returned to shore for necessary preparations. Alexander, being accustomed to a siesta around this time as well, would normally have been asleep when the finest of Tyre’s ships poured from its northern harbor and attacked the Cypriots vigorously. However, on this particular day, he had shrugged off his daily nap for some more pressing need, and hence was alerted almost immediately to the impending attack. Sailing his Phoenician contingent around the western side of Tyre, Alexander thwarted the desperate naval effort, and took appropriate measures to ensure that such an oversight would not be repeated.
It is certain that at this stage, Tyre was doomed. Fully surrounded, outnumbered by both man and ship, and lacking any hope for reinforcements, it is probable that the Tyrians regretted not only their refusal to succumb to Alexander’s fairly reasonable demand, but their blatant attempts at outraging the invading army as well. Author Agnes Savill describes the reason for the Macedonian’s rage: “They had often witnessed their captured comrades being tortured, then slain, on the top of the ramparts, their bodies thrown into the sea, thus deprived of burial rites. Even the King’s heralds had been slaughtered, then pitched over into the water.” Given this fact, the Tyrians can not have expected a shred of mercy when Alexander’s army finally breached their mighty walls.
It was along a southern portion of Tyre’s wall in which Alexander first hammered an opening. A gangplank was quickly thrown upon the breach and soldiers poured forth, but the attack was easily repulsed by the city’s able defenders. Three days later, the full force of Alexander’s artillery was now unleashed, and as Tyre endured ceaseless battering by ship-borne and landlocked catapults, battering rams, and artillery towers, a considerable opening was forced. While outlying ships provided artillery cover, ships filled with infantry rushed forward, filling the breach with wave after wave of Macedonians. The Captain of the Alexander's bodyguard, Admetus, was the first to rush in, cheering on his men as a Tyrian spear found its mark and dropped Admetus in his moment of glory. Alexander himself, in usual fashion, was one of the first to pass through the breach, and while engaged in the thick of battle, was ever on the lookout for particularly impressive acts of bravery and prowess by his men; acts which would be considerably rewarded were the soldier to survive the day.
After Tyre, there was...The Battle of Gaugamela!
- Alexander the Great and the Battle of Gaugamela
334 years before Christ, Alexander of Macedon stormed into Asia Minor and began a series of conquests that would result in the defeat of the mighty Persian Empire, the integration of Greek thought and language...
Naval Action During the Siege of Tyre
While Macedonians soldiers forced their way through this breach, Alexander’s fleet was having similar success. The Phoenician contingent successfully rammed their way past the southern harbor's defenses while the Cypriot ships gained access to the Sidonian harbor. Once the invaders took control of these harbors, defending the walls was a useless endeavor, and the Tyrians atop these now retreated into the inner city, only to be met by the savage ferocity of Alexander’s troops.
The slaughter was egregious. Seven months of setbacks and severe toil coupled with Tyre’s utter disrespect towards Macedonian prisoners of war resulted in the deaths of thousands. Arrian describes the aftermath:
The Tyrian losses were about 8,000; the Macedonians, in the actual assault, lost Admetus…and twenty men of the guard who were with him. In the siege as a whole they lost about 400. Azemilcus, the King of Tyre, together with the dignitaries of the town and certain visitors from Carthage who had come to the mother city to pay honor to Heracles…had fled for refuge to Heracles’ temple: to all these Alexander granted a free pardon; everyone else was sold into slavery. In all, including native Tyrians and foreigners taken in the town, some 30,000 were sold.
Multiple sources agree that as a detriment to further resistance, 2000 Tyrians were crucified along the coast, in full display of passing ships. But it is uncertain if these crucifixions were done to those already slain or men who were yet living. Given the Macedonian custom of displaying executed criminals in this fashion, plus Alexander’s general disdain for torture, it is likely that they were deceased. But whatever the case, such a sight would surely have sent a strong warning to those wishing to imitate Tyre’s example.
Prior to Alexander’s siege, a Tyrian man had had a dream in which the god Apollo wished to leave Tyre in order to join Alexander. The Tyrians, pious and superstitious as they were, tied gold chains around their statue of the god, hoping to deny his flight. After the victory of Alexander and the cessation of the brutalities, Hellenic games and festivities were held, the siege engine which had breached the wall was dedicated in the temple, and the chains from Apollo were removed. Most importantly, after seven months of laborious warfare, Alexander got his wish, and offered sacrifice to Heracles, a more poignant and symbolic gift than could ever have been offered prior to the siege of Tyre.