Gateway to the Classics: Alexander the Great by Jacob Abbott
Alexander the Great by  Jacob Abbott

The Siege of Tyre

T HE city of Tyre stood on a small island, three or four miles in diameter, on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It was, in those days, the greatest commercial city in the world, and it exercised a great maritime power by means of its fleets and ships, which traversed every part of the Mediterranean.

Tyre had been built originally on the mainland; but in some of the wars which it had to encounter with the kings of Babylon in the East, this old city had been abandoned by the inhabitants, and a new one built upon an island not far from the shore, which could be more easily defended from an enemy. The old city had gone to ruin, and its place was occupied by old walls, fallen towers, stones, columns, arches, and other remains of the ancient magnificence of the place.

The island on which the Tyre of Alexander's day had been built was about half a mile from the shore. The water between was about eighteen feet deep, and formed a harbor for the vessels. The great business of the Tyrians was commerce. They bought and sold merchandise in all the ports of the Mediterranean Sea, and transported it by their merchant vessels to and fro. They had also fleets of war galleys, which they used to protect their interests on the high seas, and in the various ports which their merchant vessels visited. They were thus wealthy and powerful, and yet they lived shut up upon their little island, and were almost entirely independent of the main-land.

The city itself, however, though contracted in extent on account of the small dimensions of the island, was very compactly built and strongly fortified, and it contained a vast number of stately and magnificent edifices, which were filled with stores of wealth that had been accumulated by the mercantile enterprise and thrift of many generations. Extravagant stories are told by the historians and geographers of those days, in respect to the scale on which the structures of Tyre were built. It was said, for instance, that the walls were one hundred and fifty feet high. It is true that the walls rose directly from the surface of the water, and of course a considerable part of their elevation was required to bring them up to the level of the surface of the land; and then, in addition to this, they had to be carried up the whole ordinary height of a city wall to afford the usual protection to the edifices and dwellings within. There might have been some places where the walls themselves, or structures connected with them, were carried up to the elevation above named, though it is scarcely to be supposed that such could have been their ordinary dimensions.

At any rate, Tyre was a very wealthy, magnificent, and powerful city, intent on its commercial operations, and well furnished with means of protecting them at sea, but feeling little interest, and taking little part, in the contentions continually arising among the rival powers which had possession of the land. Their policy was to retain their independence, and yet to keep on good terms with all other powers, so that their commercial intercourse with the ports of all nations might go on undisturbed.

It was, of course, a very serious question with Alexander, as his route lay now through Phœnicia and in the neighborhood of Tyre, what he should do in respect to such a port. He did not like to leave it behind him and proceed to the eastward; for, in case of any reverses happening to him, the Tyrians would be very likely to act decidedly against him, and their power on the Mediterranean would enable them to act very efficiently against him on all the coasts of Greece and Asia Minor. On the other hand, it seemed a desperate undertaking to attack the city. He had none but land forces, and the island was half a mile from the shore. Besides, its enormous walls, rising perpendicularly out of the water, it was defended by ships well armed and manned. It was not possible to surround the city and starve it into submission, as the inhabitants had wealth to buy, and ships to bring in, any quantity of provisions and stores by sea. Alexander, however, determined not to follow Darius toward the east, and leave such a stronghold as this behind him.

The Tyrians wished to avoid a quarrel if it were possible. They sent complimentary messages to Alexander, congratulating him on his conquests, and disavowing all feelings of hostility to him. They also sent him a golden crown, as many of the other states of Asia had done, in token of their yielding a general submission to his authority. Alexander returned very gracious replies, and expressed to them his intention of coming to Tyre for the purpose of offering sacrifices, as he said, to Hercules, a god whom the Tyrians worshiped.

The Tyrians knew that wherever Alexander went he went at the head of his army, and his coming into Tyre at all implied necessarily his taking military possession of it. They thought it might, perhaps, be somewhat difficult to dispossess such a visitor after he should once get installed in their castles and palaces. So they sent him word that it would not be in their power to receive him in the city itself, but that he could offer the sacrifice which he intended on the main-land, as there was a temple sacred to Hercules among the ruins there.

Alexander then called a council of his officers, and stated to them his views. He said that, on reflecting fully upon the subject, he had come to the conclusion that it was best to postpone pushing his expedition forward into the heart of Persia until he should have subdued Tyre completely, and made himself master of the Mediterranean Sea. He said, also, that he should take possession of Egypt before turning his arms toward the forces that Darius was gathering against him in the East. The generals of the army concurred in this opinion, and Alexander advanced toward Tyre. The Tyrians prepared for their defense.

After examining carefully all the circumstances of the case, Alexander conceived the very bold plan of building a broad causeway from the main-land to the island on which the city was founded, out of the ruins of old Tyre, and then marching his army over upon it to the walls of the city, where he could then plant his engines and make a breach. This would seem to be a very desperate undertaking. It is true the stones remaining on the site of the old city afforded sufficient materials for the construction of the pier, but then the work must go on against a tremendous opposition, both from the walls of the city itself and from the Tyrian ships in the harbor. It would seem to be almost impossible to protect the men from these attacks so as to allow the operations to proceed at all, and the difficulty and danger must increase very rapidly as the work should approach the walls of the city. But, notwithstanding these objections, Alexander determined to proceed. Tyre must be taken, and this was obviously the only possible mode of taking it.

The soldiers advanced to undertake the work with great readiness. Their strong personal attachment to Alexander; their confidence that whatever he should plan and attempt would succeed; the novelty and boldness of this design of reaching an island by building an isthmus to it from the main-land—these and other similar considerations excited the ardor and enthusiasm of the troops to the highest degree.

In constructing works of this kind in the water, the material used is sometimes stone and sometimes earth. So far as earth is employed, it is necessary to resort to some means to prevent its spreading under the water, or being washed away by the dash of the waves at its sides. This is usually effected by driving what are called piles,  which are long beams of wood, pointed at the end, and driven into the earth by means of powerful engines. Alexander sent parties of men into the mountains of Lebanon, where were vast forests of cedars, which were very celebrated in ancient times, and which are often alluded to in the sacred scriptures. They cut down these trees, and brought the stems of them to the shore, where they sharpened them at one end and drove them into the sand, in order to protect the sides of their embankment. Others brought stones from the ruins and tumbled them into the sea in the direction where the pier was to be built. It was some time before the work made such progress as to attract much attention from Tyre. At length, however, when the people of the city saw it gradually increasing in size and advancing toward them, they concluded that they must engage in earnest in the work of arresting its progress.

They accordingly constructed engines on the walls to throw heavy darts and stones over the water to the men upon the pier. They sent secretly to the tribes that inhabited the valleys and ravines among the mountains, to attack the parties at work there, and they landed forces from the city at some distance from the pier, and then marched along the shore, and attempted to drive away the men that were engaged in carrying stones from the ruins. They also fitted up and manned some galleys of large size, and brought them up near to the pier itself, and attacked the men who were at work upon it with stones, darts, arrows, and missiles of every description.

But all was of no avail. The work, though impeded, still went on. Alexander built large screens of wood upon the pier, covering them with hides, which protected his soldiers from the weapons of the enemy, so that they could carry on their operations safely behind them. By these means the work advanced for some distance further. As it advanced, various structures were erected upon it, especially along the sides and at the end toward the city. These structures consisted of great engines for driving piles, and machines for throwing stones and darts, and towers carried up to a great height, to enable the men to throw stones and heavy weapons down upon the galleys which might attempt to approach them.

At length the Tyrians determined on attempting to destroy all these wooden works by means of what is called in modern times a fire ship. They took a large galley, and filled it with combustibles of every kind. They loaded it first with light dry wood, and they poured pitch, and tar, and oil over all this wood to make it burn with fiercer flames. They saturated the sails and the cordage in the same manner, and laid trains of combustible materials through all parts of the vessel, so that when fire should be set in one part it would immediately spread every where, and set the whole mass in flames at once. They towed this ship, on a windy day, near to the enemy's works, and on the side from which the wind was blowing. They then put it in motion toward the pier at a point where there was the greatest collection of engines and machines, and when they had got as near as they dared to go themselves, the men who were on board set the trains on fire, and made their escape in boats. The flames ran all over the vessel with inconceivable rapidity. The vessel itself drifted down upon Alexander's works, notwithstanding the most strenuous exertions of his soldiers to keep it away. The frames and engines, and the enormous and complicated machines which had been erected, took fire, and the whole mass was soon enveloped in a general conflagration.


The Siege of Tyre

The men made desperate attempts to defend their works, but all in vain. Some were killed by arrows and darts, some were burned to death, and others, in the confusion, fell into the sea. Finally, the army was obliged to draw back, and to abandon all that was combustible in the vast construction they had reared, to the devouring flames.

Not long after this the sea itself came to the aid of the Tyrians. There was a storm; and, as a consequence of it, a heavy swell rolled in from the offing, which soon undermined and washed away a large part of the pier. The effects of a heavy sea on the most massive and substantial structures, when they are fairly exposed to its impulse, are far greater than would be conceived possible by those who had not witnessed them. The most ponderous stones are removed, the strongest fastenings are torn asunder, and embankments the most compact and solid are undermined and washed away. The storm, in this case, destroyed in a few hours the work of many months, while the army of Alexander looked on from the shore witnessing its ravages in dismay.

When the storm was over, and the first shock of chagrin and disappointment had passed from the minds of the men, Alexander prepared to resume the work with fresh vigor and energy. The men commenced repairing the pier and widening it, so as to increase its strength and capacity. They dragged whole trees to the edges of it, and sunk them, branches and all, to the bottom, to form a sort of platform there, to prevent the stones from sinking into the slime. They built new towers and engines, covering them with green hides to make them fire-proof; and thus they were soon advancing again, and gradually drawing nearer to the city, and in a more threatening and formidable manner than ever.

Alexander, finding that his efforts were impeded very much by the ships of the Tyrians, determined on collecting and equipping a fleet of his own. This he did at Sidon, which was a town a short distance north of Tyre. He embarked on board this fleet himself, and came down with it into the Tyrian seas. With this fleet he had various success. He chained many of the ships together, two and two, at a little distance apart, covering the inclosed space with a platform, on which the soldiers could stand to fight. The men also erected engines on these platforms to attack the city. These engines were of various kinds. There was what they called the battering ram, which was a long and very heavy beam of wood, headed with iron or brass. This beam was suspended by a chain in the middle, so that it could be swung back and forth by the soldiers, its head striking against the wall each time, by which means the wall would sometimes be soon battered down. They had also machines for throwing great stones, or beams of wood, by means of the elastic force of strong bars of wood, or of steel, or that of twisted ropes. The part of the machine upon which the stone was placed would be drawn back by the united strength of many of the soldiers, and then, as it recovered itself when released, the stone would be thrown off into the air with prodigious velocity and force.

Alexander's double galleys answered very well as long as the water was smooth; but sometimes, when they were caught out in a swell, the rolling of the waves would rack and twist them so as to tear the platforms asunder, and sink the men in the sea. Thus difficulties unexpected and formidable were continually arising. Alexander, however, persevered through them all. The Tyrians, finding themselves pressed more and more, and seeing that the dangers impending became more and more formidable every day, at length concluded to send a great number of the women and children away to Carthage, which was a great commercial city in Africa. They were determined not to submit to Alexander, but to carry their resistance to the very last extremity. And as the closing scenes of a siege, especially if the place is at last taken by storm, are awful beyond description, they wished to save their wives, and daughters, and helpless babes from having to witness them.

In the mean time, as the siege advanced, the parties became more and more incensed against each other. They treated the captives which they took on either side with greater and greater cruelty, each thinking that they were only retaliating worse injuries from the other. The Macedonians approached nearer and nearer. The resources of the unhappy city were gradually cut off and its strength worn away. The engines approached nearer and nearer to the walls, until the battering rams bore directly upon them, and breaches began to be made. At length one great breach on the southern side was found to be "practicable," as they call it. Alexander began to prepare for the final assault, and the Tyrians saw before them the horrible prospect of being taken by storm.

Still they would not submit. Submission would now have done but little good, though it might have saved some of the final horrors of the scene. Alexander had become greatly exasperated by the long resistance which the Tyrians had made. They probably could not now have averted destruction, but they might, perhaps, have prevented its coming upon them in so terrible a shape as the irruption of thirty thousand frantic and infuriated soldiers through the breaches in their walls to take their city by storm.

The breach by which Alexander proposed to force his entrance was on the southern side. He prepared a number of ships, with platforms raised upon them in such a manner that, on getting near the walls, they could be let down, and form a sort of bridge, over which the men could pass to the broken fragments of the wall, and thence ascend through the breach above.

The plan succeeded. The ships advanced to the proposed place of landing. The bridges were let down. The men crowded over them to the foot of the wall. They clambered up through the breach to the battlements above, although the Tyrians thronged the passage and made the most desperate resistance. Hundreds were killed by darts, and arrows, and falling stones, and their bodies tumbled into the sea. The others, paying no attention to their falling comrades, and drowning the horrid screams of the crushed and the dying with their own frantic shouts of rage and fury, pressed on up the broken wall till they reached the battlements above. The vast throng then rolled along upon the top of the wall till they came to stairways and slopes by which they could descend into the city, and, pouring down through all these avenues, they spread over the streets, and satiated the hatred and rage, which had been gathering strength for seven long months, in bursting into houses, and killing and destroying all that came in their way. Thus the city was stormed.

After the soldiers were weary with the work of slaughtering the wretched inhabitants of the city, they found that many still remained alive, and Alexander tarnished the character for generosity and forbearance for which he had thus far been distinguished by the cruelty with which he treated them. Some were executed, some thrown into the sea; and it is even said that two thousand were crucified  along the sea-shore. This may mean that their bodies were placed upon crosses after life had been destroyed by some more humane method than crucifixion. At any rate, we find frequent indications from this time that prosperity and power were beginning to exert their usual unfavorable influence upon Alexander's character. He became haughty, imperious, and cruel. He lost the modesty and gentleness which seemed to characterize him in the earlier part of his life, and began to assume the moral character, as well as perform the exploits, of a military hero.

A good illustration of this is afforded by the answer that he sent to Darius, about the time of the storming of Tyre, in reply to a second communication which he had received from him proposing terms of peace. Darius offered him a very large sum of money for the ransom of his mother, wife, and child, and agreed to give up to him all the country he had conquered, including the whole territory west of the Euphrates. He also offered him his daughter Statira in marriage. He recommended to him to accept these terms, and be content with the possessions he had already acquired; that he could not expect to succeed, if he should try, in crossing the mighty rivers of the East, which were in the way of his march toward the Persian dominions.

Alexander replied, that if he wished to marry his daughter he could do it without his consent; as to the ransom, he was not in want of money; in respect to Darius's offering to give him up all west of the Euphrates, it was absurd for a man to speak of giving what was no longer his own; that he had crossed too many seas in his military expeditions, since he left Macedon, to feel any concern about the rivers  that he might find in his way; and that he should continue to pursue Darius wherever he might retreat in search of safety and protection, and he had no fear but that he should find and conquer him at last.

It was a harsh and cruel message to send to the unhappy monarch whom he had already so greatly injured. Parmenio advised him to accept Darius's offers. "I would," said he, "if I were Alexander." "Yes," said Alexander, "and so would I if I were Parmenio." What a reply from a youth of twenty-two to a venerable general of sixty, who had been so tried and faithful a friend, and so efficient a coadjutor both to his father and to himself, for so many years.

The siege and storming of Tyre has always been considered one of the greatest of Alexander's exploits. The boldness, the perseverance, the indomitable energy which he himself and all his army manifested, during the seven months of their Herculean toil, attracted the admiration of the world. And yet we find our feelings of sympathy for his character, and interest in his fate, somewhat alienated by the indications of pride, imperiousness, and cruelty which begin to appear. While he rises in our estimation as a military hero, he begins to sink somewhat as a man.

And yet the change was not sudden. He bore during the siege his part in the privations and difficulties which the soldiers had to endure; and the dangers to which they had to be exposed, he was always willing to share. One night he was out with a party upon the mountains. Among his few immediate attendants was Lysimachus, one of his former teachers, who always loved to accompany him at such times. Lysimachus was advanced in life, and somewhat infirm, and consequently could not keep up with the rest in the march. Alexander remained with Lysimachus, and ordered the rest to go on. The road at length became so rugged that they had to dismount from their horses and walk. Finally they lost their way, and found themselves obliged to stop for the night. They had no fire. They saw, however, at a distance, some camp fires blazing which belonged to the barbarian tribes against whom the expedition was directed. Alexander went to the nearest one. There were two men lying by it, who had been stationed to take care of it. He advanced stealthily to them and killed them both, probably while they were asleep. He then took a brand from their fire, carried it back to his own encampment, where he made a blazing fire for himself and Lysimachus, and they passed the night in comfort and safety. This is the story. How far we are to give credit to it, each reader must judge for himself. One thing is certain, however, that there are many military heroes of whom such stories would not be even fabricated.

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