The Siege and Fall of Ancient Tyre to Alexander the Great in 332 BCE


Image by Frank Martini, Cartographer, Department of History, United States Military Academy / Wikimedia Commons

Alexander, unable to attack from the sea, built causeway stretching out to the island on a natural land bridge no more than two meters deep.


Edited by Matthew A. McIntosh
Journalist and Historian
Brewminate Editor-in-Chief


Introduction

The Siege of Tyre was orchestrated by Alexander the Great in 332 BC during his campaigns against the Persians. The Macedonian army was unable to capture the city, which was a strategic coastal base on the Mediterranean Sea, through conventional means because it was on an island and had walls right up to the sea. Alexander responded to this problem by first blockading and besieging Tyre for seven months, and then by building a causeway that allowed him to breach the fortifications.

It is said that Alexander was so enraged at the Tyrians’ defence of their city and the loss of his men that he destroyed half the city. According to Arrian, 8,000 Tyrian civilians were massacred after the city fell. Alexander granted pardon to all who had sought sanctuary in the temple, including Azemilcus and his family, as well as many nobles. 30,000 residents and foreigners, mainly women and children, were sold into slavery.

Location

Location of the Siege of Tyre / DEMIS Mapserver, Wikimedia Commons

Tyre, the largest and most important city-state of Phoenicia, was located both on the Mediterranean coast as well as a nearby island with two natural harbours on the landward side. The island lay about a kilometre from the coast in Alexander’s days, its high walls reaching 45.8 m (150 ft) above the sea on the eastern, landward facing, side of the island.

Background

Tyre view from an airplane, 1934 / Wikimedia Commons

At the time of the siege, the city held approximately 40,000 people, though the women and children had been evacuated to Carthage, the former Phoenician colony and then Mediterranean power. The Carthaginians also promised to send a fleet to their mother city’s aid. As Alexander did not have access to his own navy, he resolved to take the city and thus deny the Persians their last harbour in the region.

Alexander knew of a temple to Melqart, whom he identified with Heracles, within the new city walls and informed the inhabitants that they would be spared if he were allowed to make a sacrifice in the temple[1] (the old port had been abandoned and the Tyrians were now living on an offshore island a kilometre from the mainland). The defenders refused to allow this and suggested he use the temple on the mainland, saying that they would not let Persians or Macedonians within their new city. A second attempt at negotiation resulted in Alexander’s representatives being killed and then thrown from the walls into the sea. Alexander was enraged at the Tyrian defiance and ordered the siege to commence.[2]

The Siege

Alexander the Great at the Siege of Tyre / Wikimedia Commons

After this set back, Alexander was convinced that he would not be able to take Tyre without a navy. However, his previous victory at Issus and subsequent conquests of the Phoenician city states of Byblos, Arwad and Sidon had meant that the fleets of these cities, which had composed most of the Persian navy, came under his banner. This immediately gave him command of a fleet of 80 ships. This development coincided also with the arrival of 120 war galleys sent by the king of Cyprus, who had heard of his victories and wished to join him. With the arrival of another 23 ships from the Greek city states of Ionia, Alexander had 223 galleys under his command, giving him command of the sea.

A naval action during the siege. Drawing by André Castaigne, 1888-1889. / Wikimedia Commons

With his new fleet, Alexander’s forces sailed on Tyre and quickly blockaded both ports with its superior numbers. Alexander had several of the slower galleys and a few barges refitted with battering rams. Finding that large underwater blocks of stone kept the rams from reaching the walls, Alexander had them removed by crane ships. The rams were then anchored near the walls, but the Tyrians sent out ships and divers to cut the anchor cables. Alexander responded by replacing the cables with chains.

The Tyrians launched another counter-attack, but according to Arrian, were not so fortunate this time. They noticed that Alexander returned to the mainland at the same time every afternoon for a meal and a rest along with much of his navy. They therefore attacked at this time, but found Alexander had skipped his afternoon nap, and was able to quickly counter the sortie.[3]

Conclusion of the Siege

Alexander started testing the wall at various points with his rams, until the rams made a small breach in the south end of the island. He then coordinated an attack across the breach with a bombardment from all sides by his navy. Alexander is said to have personally taken part in the attack on the city, fighting from the top of a siege tower.[4] Once his troops forced their way into the city, they easily overtook the garrison, and quickly captured the city.

Those citizens who took shelter in the temple of Melqart were pardoned by Alexander, including the king of Tyre. According to Quintus Curtius Rufus 6,000 fighting men were killed within the city and 2,000 Tyrians were crucified on the beach.[4] The others, some 30,000 people, were sold into slavery. The severity of reprisals reflected the length of the siege and Alexander’s response to the Tyrians having executed some of his soldiers on the walls, in sight of the attackers.

Following the capture of Tyre, Alexander moved south to attack Gaza.

Alternative Conclusion

Polyaenus the Macedonian, in one of the two stratagems he gives about Alexander’s siege of Tyre, provides a different account of Alexander’s conquest of the city. According to him, Alexander had marched into Arabia having left Parmenion in charge of the besieging force. The Tyrians found the courage to exit their walls and engage the Greeks, often beating them in various skirmishes. Alexander was informed and hurried back, reaching the city exactly when the Tyrians were fighting against a retreating Parmenion. Instead of attacking the Tyrians, he chose to march directly to the city, which he immediately took by force surprising its remaining garrison. Another view is that Alexander was so incensed at having to build a bridge to take the city of Tyre that he decided to kill or enslave most of Tyre’s population.[5]

Endnotes

  1. O’Brien, John Maxwell Alexander the Great: the invisible enemy : a biography Routledge; 1 edition (15 September 1994), p.82
  2. Stafford, Ned (2007-05-14), “How geology came to help Alexander the Great”, Nature News, doi:10.1038/news070514-2, S2CID176968652, retrieved 2007-05-17
  3. “Alexander the Great – Siege of Tyre”. History of Alexander the Great of Macedonia, section 4.4.10-21
  4. Polyaenus, 4.3 Alexander, 4

Originally published by Wikipedia, 11.21.2004, under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

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