With a history going back thousands of years, to the very dawn of civilization, Tyre was one of the jewels of the Mediterranean, a Phoenician city of great renown, a trade port of vital importance for the Persian Empire, along with Damascus, Halicarnassus and Sidon. As such, it was a natural target for Alexander the Great during his campaign against the Persians. In the first installment of my series of the great sieges I talked about Syracuse and how it probably dramatically changed the course of ancient history. The siege of Tyre is somehow different in nature – there was a sense of inevitability about it, even the defenders knew their chances to withhold the Macedonian army were at best slim. The fighting dragged on for more than seven months though and this is another good proof of my thesis that a defiant defense had a very significant advantage over even the best attacking army during this period.
From a historical point of view we are very fortunate to have the siege described in some detail by most of the primary sources on Alexander’s life . This furthermore underlines its significance and the intensity of fighting and technological ingenuity the Macedonians had to employ to finally breach the walls. Tyre also proved one of the last military tests for the Macedonians before they left the Mediterranean coast and entered the mainland of the Persian Empire.
The Historical Context
As I already mentioned, there was a sense of inevitability in the fall of Tyre. Why was that? Why the mighty Persian Empire could do nothing for more than seven months to bring any relief to one of its most important coastal cities on the Mediterranean?
To answer these questions, we have to look back as far as 334 BC, when Alexander of Macedonia stormed into Asia Minor. When we look at the map of the ancient world at this time, his attack looks like a reckless gamble of a young general, greedy for glory. But this is superficial. The huge Persian Empire was a sick colossus, its central government – in disarray, surprised and not prepared at all for the war. The Persians had tried to avert the Macedonian attack by assassination – they succeeded in killing Philip II of Macedon, but his son proved altogether more difficult to deal with. Thus, when Alexander crossed the Hellespont (present day Dardanelles), the central government delegated the defense of Asia Minor to the local satraps (the Persian title for governors).
Darius III, the Persian King, also employed Memnon of Rhodes, a great mercenary captain, to command the Persian defense. It is worth noticing, though Memnon did not take part in the defense of Tyre, that Alexander the Great met very few generals close to his caliber while conquering the East. Memnon was possibly his most capable enemy. Against his advice the Persian satraps met the Macedonians at the river Granicus in 334 BC, and were soundly beaten, though Alexander’s recklessness might have caused him his life. With thunderous speed the conquering army subdued most of Asia Minor and the important cities of Halicarnassus and Miletus. When the Persian army finally assembled to meet the Macedonian challenge, the utterly incapable Darius fled the field when Alexander charged at the centre of the Persian line at Issus (almost the same thing happened at Gaugamela, where Darius lost his empire).
The battle of Issus in late 333 BC was a stunning success for the Macedonians in more than one regard. Alexander’s campaign might not have been a military gamble, given his personal military talent and the outstanding qualities of his army. But it was certainly a financial one. Ironically enough, the Macedonians keep going only true success – one defeat, even if not important for the overall strategy, would have been fatal financially. But at Issus Alexander captured the royal treasury – the amount of gold and silver was so great that it almost ended his money problems in a single day.
From a strategic point of view, the victory of Issus opened up endless opportunities for Alexander. He could continue the pursuit of Darius and enter Persia proper on the heels of the routed army. Or he could turn back and methodically conquer the Mediterranean Coast and Egypt. The choice was actually simple – his army, though victorious, was already tired, and Persia still possessed vast resources in the mainland. On top of that, Alexander could not afford to leave vast strips of organized enemy territory in his rear that could cut off his supply lines. Moreover, the Persian fleet was still a force to be reckoned with, and the Macedonian King wanted to deprive it of any significant ports it could use for rest and resources.
There was one more significant issue that the battle of Issus resolved. Until then Darius could speculate that the Macedonians had defeated only mere slaves of his, while an army with the Great King in command would be invincible. The idea was ludicrous enough before the battle, as Darius possessed no military talent at all, as opposed to possibly the greatest general of all time. After Issus, all pretences were shattered to pieces. An aura of invincibility already surrounded Alexander, and his men were ready to follow him in Hell if he asked them to. It was in these circumstances that he arrived at the gates of Tyre.
Why The Tyrians Resisted?
Having all this in mind one logically wonders why the citizens of Tyre decided to fight on, with little hope of success. Before hostilities began, Alexander – true to his nature – offered very generous terms if the inhabitants opened their gates. It is important to notice that the Macedonians were in general remarkably disciplined when conquering, especially if the cities on their way opened their gates with no fighting. Thus great cities like Damascus, Sidon, Sardis, Babylon and Susa were not plundered, not even disturbed at all. To go further, Alexander usually left small garrisons in the cities, as he could not spare many men to the task, and allowed to great extent self-governance, if possible. Bottom line – he was not a blood-thirsty conqueror, on the contrary.
In the case of Tyre, what he asked was a formal surrender, not even a real one. He just wanted to be given free passage to the temple of Melkart, whom Greeks recognized as Heracles. He was not only bluntly refused – his messengers were decapitated and their bodies thrown off the city walls. It was a stark defiance, but the Tyrians have mistaken the man to insult. They were to pay a heavy price.
Still, why they decided to fight? First of all, they had slim hopes they would receive some help from outside. The Persian navy promised some support, as well as Carthage, the powerful Phoenician colony that felt obliged to answer the plea for help. None significant help arrived.
Second, the Tyrians had wisely evacuated most of the women and children to Carthage. Thus the thought of their families was not an important factor in determining the decision of the citizens.
Third, Tyre had unique tactical disposition. The Old City was located on the coast and was immediately occupied by the Macedonians. But the New City was built on an island, half a mile away from the coast. The powerful bastions and city walls were built on the seaside, meters away from the water. Besides, a strong fleet defended the city, so initially Alexander had no access to it at all. It would take a massive engineering feat to reach the city, let alone attack it successfully. This was in fact the main reason for the decision of the Tyrians. Behind their thick, tall walls and the waters of the Mediterranean Sea, they felt untouchable.
There is perhaps a fourth reason that affected their decision. Halicarnassus and Miletus were both Greek cities, so Alexander could actually take the role of a liberator, though vaguely and unsuccessfully. But Tyre was a Phoenician city, the oldest and most powerful on top of that, so the Macedonians were seen as nothing more than conquerors and upstarts. The city had to be taken by force.
Course Of The Siege
The siege of Tyre strangely resembles a game of chess on epic proportions. The attackers and the defenders continuously tried to outsmart each other. The Tyrian defense performed incredibly well for over sever months, and I strongly believe it would have been enough against most besieging armies. Unfortunately for the Phoenicians, they had the Macedonians under Alexander against them, and this significantly changed the odds. In the beginning, Tyre was simply another strategic goal to be achieved. But from a certain moment on, it was a matter of pride for Alexander – he could not retreat defeated, it would be against the core of his nature. It was either all or nothing.
The first task ahead of the Macedonians was to reach the New City. They built a causeway, almost a kilometer-long, utilizing on the fact that there was a natural bridge between the coast and the island, just two meters under water. As the causeway approached the New City though, the sea became much deeper and engineering works almost impossible. Alexander decided to change his means – he ordered his siege engineers to build two huge siege towers (according to the sources each was almost 50m high, although this sounds like overestimation). The Macedonians managed to move to move the siege towers to the edge of the causeway, near enough to the city walls for a frontal attack.
But the Tyrians did not despair. They still had their fleet and their courage at their disposal and they used them both to great effect. The fleet attacked the siege crews that were preparing the towers for the assault, destroyed every piece of machinery within their scope and lit the towers on fire. It was a total disaster for the Macedonians.
Again, I will allow myself to speculate that such a dreadful setback would force most besieging armies to retreat. It had an opposite effect on Alexander – it only steeled his resolve to take the city and avenge his losses. The disaster at the causeway had its positive effect – it convinced the Macedonian king that he could not take the city without a powerful fleet.
This is the best moment to notice an important feature of the Persian fleet. There was no such thing, technically speaking. The Persians were a land nation, they never got to know the sea or become a naval power. The cities they controlled though – Greek, Phoenician and Egypt itself – possessed vast navies. Once these cities were lost however, the political control over the navy became very questionable. Alexander entered in negotiation and managed to convince most of the Greek captains that they no longer had any duty to the Persians. He, as a ruler of Miletus and Halicarnassus, could claim their allegiance. And so he successfully did. By the summer of 332 BC some 80 ships joined the 120 galleys of Cyprus and other 20 of the Greek islands, to form a formidable armada of 223 galleys. The days of the Tyrian defense were numbered.
Conclusion Of The Siege And Its Aftermath
Alexander used his heaviest galleys as platforms for the siege machines that were battering the city walls. The Tyrian fleet did try to repeat its feet in destroying the Macedonian equipment, but this time it was outnumbered and soundly beaten. By July 332 BC the walls of the city were badly damaged and the Macedonians finally decided on a frontal attack. Alexander himself led the troops, in a bloody melee on the bastions. Once the Macedonians climbed the walls though, there was no hope for the defenders. They put a valiant stand, but it was all in vain. According to Rufus, 6000 of the defenders lost their lives, and some other 2000 were crucified on the beach. All the remaining population (probably over 30 000) was sold into slavery. It was a very harsh fate, but the Tyrians could not have expected any better, once they decide to resist.
It was a costly victory for Alexander, not because of the men he lost (Rufus claims there were no more than 500 casualties on the Macedonian side), but because of the seven months he spared under the walls of Tyre. It gave Darius the time he needed to assemble the army that fought at Gaugamela. Had Alexander lost there, it would have been largely because of the valour of Tyre. But Darius’s military inadequacy proved immeasurable, and Alexander strode into legend, becoming the greatest conqueror of Antiquity. As for the Macedonian causeway, it remains intact even today, a silent proof of one of the greatest sieges of all time.