From 336-323 BCE, Alexander the Great undertook a remarkable campaign of warfare and conquest, spanning from the Danube River in Europe, all the way to the Indus River on the edge of India. Interestingly, one of the most trying and frustrating conflicts that Alexander the Great endured during his travels took place relatively early on in his career. By the year 332 BCE, Alexander was advancing deep into Phoenicia, following the coastlines of the lands known now as Syria and Lebanon. Most of the cities in Phoenicia and Cyprus had surrendered to Alexander after news spread of his victories over the Persians at the Granicus River (334 BCE) and Issus (333 BCE). Despite this, the most powerful of the Phoenician cities, the island sea power of Tyre, staunchly kept its relationship with Alexander no warmer than neutral.
Diplomacy and negation were tools that Alexander the Great was just as willing to use as warfare. In fact, most of the cities that Alexander the Great encountered during his campaigns chose to surrender peacefully, albeit these defections were undoubtedly inspired by Alexander’s impressive victories against Persian armies. Therefore, when Alexander arrived on the shore beside the island city of Tyre, he initially tried to bring the Tyrians over to his side through peaceful means. First, he tried to use religion to form a relationship with Tyre. He sent a message to the city, expressing his wish to sacrifice in a local temple of Tyre’s patron god, Melcarth (or Melqart), a deity related to the more popular Syrian god, Baal. Alexander was genuinely interested in Melcarth because he had read the writings of Herodotus (5th century BCE), who compared the Tyrian god to the legendary Heracles, a supposed ancestor of Alexander’s lineage. Still, the request was also political, for Alexander insisted that only a temple inside the walls of Tyre would be proper for his sacrifice.
Tyre, however, remained staunch on their policy of neutrality and refused to allow Alexander to enter their city, although they did give him permission to visit a temple of Melcarth located elsewhere. When the Tyrians refused to let Alexander pass through the walls of Tyre, the conquering king decided to end his peaceful tactics and instead began to besiege the city.
Taking the city by force, however, would be no easy feat. About half a mile of water lay between Alexander’s army and the island-city of Tyre. This obstacle was all the more daunting because Alexander had disbanded his navy several years prior. In contrast, Tyre had a formidable navy based out of at least two harbors on their island. The rest of the island city, excluding the harbors, was encircled by defensive walls, which were built up against the water. Nevertheless, the Macedonian king had a plan. Since Alexander did not have any ships to haul his troops across the water, he instead had his soldiers turn the water into land.
The besieging army dismantled old Tyrian buildings and ruins on the mainland to use the rubble as building materials for a path across the water. This earthen bridge, which was supposedly designed to be 200 feet wide, was begun in January of 332 BCE. Using stakes, mud, stones and lumber, Alexander planned to make a large and relatively flat path spanning the half-mile distance from the shore to the island. With the path in place, Alexander would be able to deploy his siege weapons and his army against the city.
Although Alexander had a plan, the Tyrians would prove quite clever in finding ways to disrupt the besieging army’s progress. As Alexander had no naval support, the Tyrian ships had little problem sailing out of their harbors to harass the men dumping rubble into the water. To counter this problem, Alexander had movable towers constructed, and outfitted them with siege engines or archers, which could provide covering fire for the workers on the causeway. With this added protection, the besieging soldiers could continue with their project.
Even though Alexander found a way to keep the Tyrian navy at bay, progress was still frustratingly slow. Some places in the sea between the shore and the island were dauntingly deep, and where the water began to become shallow again near the walls of Tyre, the Tyrian people had preemptively placed obstructions, which would need to be removed before work on Alexander’s causeway could continue. Despite these difficulties, the earthen path steadily crept closer and closer to the walls of Tyre.
Eventually, Alexander’s approaching causeway became so threatening that the Tyrians decided they needed to do something more destructive than merely sending ships to shoot at laborers. To deal a more permanent blow, the defenders in Tyre began to build an interesting ship. The basic frame of that ship was that of a cattle barge, but it had two masts and extra tall bulwarks. The ship, itself, was filled with all of the best flammable materials that the Tyrians had on hand. In addition, hanging from the masts and rigging above the seaborne tinderbox were numerous cauldrons, filled with extra substances that would make a fire burn even hotter and more viciously.
A fearless crew from Tyre sailed this ship toward Alexander’s towers. When they neared the causeway, the crew set everything ablaze and abandoned ship. As the sailors swam to safety, the specially-made ship crashed into the path beside the towers. As the ship jolted to a stop, the suspended cauldrons fell to the ground, causing the ship to explode into an inferno, catching everything nearby on fire—including Alexander’s towers and other siege weapons. The causeway, too, was severely damaged, as much of it had been made of wood. Once the protective towers were destroyed, the rest of the Tyrian navy poured out of their harbors and eventually pushed the besieging army back to the shore.
With this unfortunate setback, Alexander realized that he could not complete his conquest of Tyre without naval support. The problem still existed, however, that he had no navy at that moment. Nevertheless, what he did have was an empire, so he sent out a call-to-arms, summoning the ships of Phoenicia and Cyprus to gather at the nearby loyal city of Sidon. When Alexander later arrived in Sidon to recruit more men for a new causeway, he watched with pleasure as over two hundred warships entered the city’s harbor to answer his call.
When Tyre saw a huge navy on the horizon, they pulled their ships back into the city, plugging the entrance of their harbors with ships and using their sails to obstruct the view into the city. With the waters clear of Tyrian ships, Alexander’s soldiers, assisted by a considerable band of workmen, began construction on another path, which was supposedly planned to be even more broad than the original. To ensure that the work would go on unobstructed, Alexander had the ships from Cyprus blockade the northern harbor, while his Phoenician ships guarded the harbor in the south. With this turn of events, Tyre’s only hope was the help of their formidable ally, Carthage, but, unfortunately for the Tyrian people, Carthage was preoccupied at the time with a war against Syracuse. Nonetheless, Tyre still had a few tricks they had yet to deploy.
When Alexander’s manmade path across the water began to near the city walls, the Tyrians were prompted into action. In the deeper water, much of the work on Alexander’s causeway, including the removal of obstacles placed there by the Tyrians, had to be done by workers on boats. To disrupt this, the engineers of Tyre ingeniously covered some of their ships with durable armor. Using these armored ships, the Tyrians harassed Alexander’s boats that were working near the walls. The armored ships were effective until Alexander’s own engineers were able to duplicate the Tyrian defenses and produce their own naval armor. The Tyrian navy in the northern harbor also tried a surprise attack against the ships from Cyprus. The sailors of Tyre caught the Cyprians off guard and sank several ships, but Alexander quickly sent reinforcements from the southern blockade and he disabled or captured most of the Tyrian ships from the northern harbor. After that, Tyre rarely sent out ships against the besieging forces, although they did still send out divers to sabotage Alexander’s fleet in several ways, including by cutting their anchor lines. Alexander remedied this, too, by using chain instead of rope.
Alexander finally completed his causeway in August, 332 BCE, after seven long and grueling months. Now, he not only set up his siege weapons on the pathway, but also placed siege weapons on his ships. He sailed these siege weapons around the city, testing different sections of the wall for weakness. During these tests, a spot in the southern wall developed a fissure. When Alexander realized this, he sent more ships to threaten the Tyrian harbors, but all the while kept his siege weapons at work on that weakening section of the wall.
When a scalable breech appeared in the southern wall, Alexander launched a multipronged assault on the city. In a simultaneous attack, the Cyprian fleet moved in on the north harbor, the Phoenician fleet advanced on the south harbor, and Alexander climbed the breach in the wall with his most elite soldiers. To add to the confusion, Alexander had more ships circling Tyre, firing randomly at the walls with archers and siege weapons. Apparently, all three major prongs of the attack were successful—the Cyprians took the north harbor, the Phoenicians forced there way in through the south, and Alexander and his troops captured their portion of the wall.
After months of pent-up frustration and anger, Alexander’s army unleashed a slaughter in the city of Tyre. Under pressure from the harbors and the fallen wall, the Tyrians were steadily pushed back deeper into the city. Seeking shelter from the massacre, King Azemilcus and others fled to the shelter of temples inside the city. Interestingly, Alexander supposedly pardoned the people who sought protection from the gods. Yet, for the rest of the Tyrians, fate was unkind. What Alexander did to the residents of Tyre varied from source to source, but all accounts are unpleasant. Each source claimed that thousands of Tyrians died during the assault on Tyre. The account proposed by Arrian (c. 90-173+ CE) also claimed that 30,000 people were enslaved in the aftermath of the siege. Diodorus Siculus (1st century BCE) wrote that besides enslaving thousands, Alexander also crucified 2,000 of the Tyrians. Only Quintus Curtius Rufus (possibly 1st century CE) gave a glimmer of hope for the people of Tyre, as he interestingly claimed that the Phoenicians smuggled thousands of the Tyrians to safety.
Written by C. Keith Hansley.
Picture Attribution: (Illustration of Alexander besieging Tyre, [Public Domain] via Creative Commons).
- The Campaigns of Alexander by Arrian, translated by Aubrey de Sélincourt. New York: Penguin Classics, 1971.
- Alexander the Great by Philip Freeman. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks, 2011.
- Alexander the Great: The Story of an Ancient Life by Thomas R. Martin and Christopher W. Blackwell. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012.