Being the most challenging of the 20 sieges Alexander’s forces faced, the Siege of Tyre demonstrated Macedonian military skill at its best. Alexander could only conquer Persia by having control over the sea but his naval forces were not large enough to take on the Persian fleet, so he wanted to eliminate the threat by capturing the Persian-controlled port cities on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea. After seven months of increasingly desperate resistance, Alexander captured Tyre. He slaughtered the lion’s share of the male population and enslaved the women and children there.
The Siege of Tyre: Securing Macedonian Interests
In 334 BCE, the king of the Macedonians, Alexander the Great, began his invasion of the mighty Persian Empire. In his first encounter with the Persians, he defeated one of their field armies at the Battle of the Granicus. But instead of continuing inland to attack central Persia, Alexander employed a bold strategy to secure his supply lines before embarking on his inland march.
Alexander’s naval forces needed to be more significant for him to challenge the Persian-controlled Phoenician fleet. Some of his Greek allies, including the Athenians, were naval powers, but Alexander doubted their loyalty. Thus he came up with a plan to conquer the Eastern Mediterranean from the Persians. He planned to capture the Phoenicians’ naval bases along the Mediterranean coast and make it impossible for their ships to oppose Macedonian interests.
After the Battle of the Granicus, Alexander headed south along the coast of Anatolia and Phoenicia. Phoenician cities had never been keen on their role as Persian subjects and willingly opened their gates to the Macedonian conqueror. Tyre, however, had a bitter enmity against Sidon, another Phoenician city that had sided with Alexander. So the citizens of Tyre decided to resist.
Tyre’s Confidence in its Strength
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The Tyrians certainly had good reason to trust their ability to defend against Alexander. They felt confident that the Persian king Darius III would soon aid them. However, it turned out that Darius never came, and his failure to respond to Alexander’s threat remains a mystery.
Even without the assistance of Darius, the citizens felt they had little to fear. Tyre was on an island about a kilometer (0.6 of a mile) off the mainland. It was well fortified, and the walls were almost 50 meters high (164 feet). They were built right at the sea’s edge so that potential attackers would have nowhere to gather for an attack. Catapults were also deployed all along the wall.
Attempts to starve the population did not seem like a plausible scenario either. The island had two good harbors, one in the north and one in the south. It made it easy to bring in supplies. A Tyrian fleet of about 80 ships was sufficient to secure the waters. The Tyrians also knew that the city had fared well in earlier periods when significant military powers had besieged them. The Assyrians had tried to capture Tyre in the seventh century BCE and the Babylonians had surrounded the fortified island for 13 years but eventually had to give up. Tyre could hold its own against Alexander’s army.
Ancient Siege Warfare
During ancient sieges, the advantage was on the defenders’ side. Artillery that could break down walls did not yet exist, and the defenders stood higher than the attackers and thus had gravity on their side. At the same time, the defenders were vulnerable to projectiles from the enemy bows and early catapults that could be used both from ground level and siege towers. To defend against such attacks, large shields or screens were deployed on the wall.
The torsion catapult was invented in the year 399 BCE. In sources from Greek antiquity, it is described as a machine in which an arrow or projectile was placed on a thick bowstring. This was attached to the end of two wooden arms with a stick, slide, and trigger mechanism. The Greek siege tower was another impressive piece of engineering that was used. They were fireproofed by being covered in animal skins or metal sheets. The buildings enabled the attacking forces to reach the same height as the city walls.
Alexander’s Setback: The First Round of the Siege of Tyre
Alexander launched his siege in January 332 BCE. The first and most crucial military problem he faced was how the forces were to reach the island’s walls. Alexander’s approach was to build a causeway from the mainland and slowly approach the city. The work was not technically challenging but required large amounts of human resources. Alexander took care of this challenge by forcing the local inhabitants from the mainland to work side by side with the soldiers.
Stone was available in the ruins of ancient Tyre, and wood could be obtained in the nearby Lebanese forests. The water was shallow, so the work went quickly. Tyrian soldiers fired using torsion catapults from the city walls. Others sailed close to the causeway, hurling arrows and missiles at the workers.
Alexander’s response to that threat was to build a palisade that protected the workers. He also had two siege towers erected at the far end of the causeway. They were almost 50 meters (164 feet) high and are perhaps the tallest siege towers ever built. The siege towers were covered with skins from freshly slaughtered animals and thus they could not be burned down easily.
The inventive Tyrians hatched a comprehensive plan to destroy the towers. They modified their ships, filled them with flammable substances, and sent them toward the causeway. The ships ignited the Macedonian towers, and Tyrian soldiers tore down the palisade Alexander had built. Not long after, the sea rose, submerging the rest of the causeway. The Tyrians had won the first round.
The Second Attempt: Building a New Causeway
The attack on the causeway exposed Alexander’s main weakness. He needed ships. Fortunately for the Macedonian king, other Phoenician naval bases had already surrendered. Aided by Sidon and the Cypriot fleet, Alexander soon had over 200 triremes, which was more than enough to stop the Tyrian fleet. Now Alexander and his engineers began the construction of a new causeway. This time somewhat further north and with a width of approximately 60 meters (197 feet) so that it would be more resistant to the weather. The remains of this causeway are visible to this day. They form the basis of what now connects Sur with the Lebanese mainland. New siege towers were built, and patrol ships ensured that workers could work in safer surroundings.
Throughout the summer, the Tyrians fought an increasingly desperate battle to defend the city. They captured some of Alexander’s men and displayed them on the walls before they were executed and thrown into the sea. They also killed some Macedonian messengers, which possibly explains Alexander’s brutal revenge. The Tyrians also developed very innovative defensive solutions as the Macedonians approached. According to the historian Diodorus Siculus, the Tyrians padded the walls to protect themselves from Alexander’s catapults. According to one of Siculus’s less credible claims, it is said that the Tyrians mounted mechanical wheels on the walls that spun so quickly that they stopped the bolts from the Macedonians’ arrow-throwing catapults.
Alexander’s Coordinated Attack
At the beginning of August, the Macedonians discovered a weak point on the city’s south side, and they managed to break through the wall between the southern harbor and the causeway. When everything was ready, Alexander launched an attack on all fronts.
The push was coordinated with attacks from ships around the island, and the powerful fleet attacked both ports. Another attempt was made to storm the city from the causeway. The Tyrians needed more defensive forces to withstand all the attacks simultaneously. Alexander’s crews broke through the wall, and the fleets entered the ports. From there, the soldiers fought their way from street to street, and the main Macedonian force was able to enter the city via the causeway.
Alexander was known to show mercy to his enemies, but he chose to set an example after the siege of Tyre. Alexander could have been more lenient, but the Tyrians had not “followed the game’s rules.” They had killed not only Macedonian prisoners but also messengers.
The Brutal Aftermath of the Siege of Tyre
Tyre was burned to the ground, and the attack is said to have cost approximately 8,000 Tyrians their lives. About 2,000 adult men survived the battle but were crucified on Alexander’s orders. Among the survivors was the king of Tyre. He was treated honorably. At one point during the siege, the Tyrians had decided to send the city’s women and children to their colony in Carthage but this decision came too late. Alexander completely controlled the waters, and the surviving non-combatants were sold into slavery.
The Macedonians had spent seven precious months besieging Tyre, but thanks to the Persian king, this delay had no dramatic consequences for Alexander. During these months, he lost only 400 men, which shows how concerned he was about protecting his troops whenever possible. The young Macedonian king was now in control of the Eastern Mediterranean and had thus gained a foothold in Phoenicia and Palestine.