Sieges of Tyre and Gaza
Alexander the Great’s sieges of Tyre and Gaza in 332 BCE are two of the great military operations in history. In the summer of 334 Alexander (353–326), ruler of Macedon and master of all Greece, led some 35,000 men across the Hellespont in an invasion of Asia Minor. Alexander defeated the Persian army on the Granicus River and conquered much of Asia Minor. In 333 he defeated Persian king Darius III at Issus, then turned south to conquer Egypt. This secured his southern flank prior to resuming his eastward march to the extremities of the Persian Empire. Securing the Phoenician coastal city-states of Syria would also open those ports for his own triremes and deny them to the Persian fleet, preventing a Persian naval descent on Greece.
Tyre was the most important of the Phoenician coastal city-states. Ruled by King Azemilk and located in present-day Lebanon, Tyre was actually two cities. Old Tyre was located on an island about three miles in circumference, separated from the mainland city by a half mile of water. The channel between the island and mainland was more than 20 feet deep. The island citadel was protected by massive walls up to 150 feet high on the land side that were reputedly impregnable. Alexander wanted to bypass Tyre, but he had to reduce it before he could move against Egypt, lest it be used as a base for Darius’s fleet. Alexander predicted that once Tyre fell the Phoenician ships, deprived of their bases, would desert to the winning side.
Determined to hold out, the Tyrians rejected Alexander’s overtures. They were confident in their defenses and believed that a protracted siege would purchase time for Darius to mobilize a new army and campaign in Asia Minor. Alexander had second thoughts about the task ahead and sent heralds to the Tyrians to urge a peaceful resolution. The Tyrian leaders, however, saw this as a sign of weakness; they killed the heralds and threw their bodies over the walls. This foolish act cemented Alexander’s resolve and won him solid support from his generals.
Alexander took mainland Old Tyre without difficulty and initiated siege operations against the island in January 332. He ordered Dyadis the Thessalian, head of the Macedonian Army’s corps of engineers, to construct a great mole, about 200 feet wide, out from the land and to reach the island and bring up siege engines. The Macedonians secured wood from the forests of Lebanon for the piles of the mole, while the structures of mainland Tyre were demolished for the fill. Alexander reportedly worked alongside his men on the project.
The Tyrians sent ships from the island filled with archers to attack the Macedonians working on the mole. To counter such forays, Alexander ordered his men to construct two great siege towers, each 150 feet in height. As the mole advanced, the towers moved with it. One night with a favorable wind the Tyrians sent an old horse transport rigged as a fireship and laden with combustibles against the towers and causeway. The towers caught fire and were destroyed. At the same time, a flotilla of smaller Tyrian craft arrived; men from them attacked Alexander’s men on the mole and destroyed other siege equipment that had escaped destruction in the fire. They then withdrew.
Alexander responded by ordering construction of two more towers. Leaving operations at Tyre in the hands of trusted lieutenants, he then traveled to Sidon to secure ships to operate against the island and protect those working on the mole. Soon he had gathered 223 ships from Sidon, Cyprus, Rhodes, and other eastern Mediterranean city-states. Alexander placed in them some 4,000 hoplites recruited from the Peloponnese by Cleander. This flotilla then sailed for Tyre. Alexander commanded its right wing, and Pinitagoras commanded its left wing.
The Tyrians learned of Alexander’s activities and planned to give battle at sea, but noting the size of the approaching fleet, the Tyrian admiral changed his mind; he chose instead to protect the two narrow entrances to the island’s harbor. A number of ships sunk side by side were sufficient to block both. Alexander concentrated offensive actions against Sidonian Harbor, the smaller of these entrances and about 200 feet wide, but he was unsuccessful. Subsequently the Tyrians substituted heavy iron chains for their block ships.
Thanks to the presence of Alexander’s flotilla, it was no longer possible for the Tyrians to attack the mole with their ships. Instead, they employed catapults against both it and the Macedonian siege towers as the latter came within range. Alexander’s catapults replied. Although the Macedonians suffered setbacks, the mole gradually advanced and ultimately reached the island. Under the protection of the towers, the Macedonians employed battering rams against the citadel’s walls, but the Tyrian defenses stood firm.
Alexander had also ordered construction of naval battering rams. Each was mounted on a large platform lashed between two barges. Other barges carried
catapults. Finally, this naval assault opened a breach in the walls; unfortunately, a gale then arose. Some of Alexander’s vessels were sunk, and others were badly damaged.
During this respite, the Tyrians demolished a number of buildings and dropped the masonry over the walls to keep Alexander’s naval rams at a distance. They also devised drop beams, which could be swung out against the ships by derricks, and, at the end of lines, grappling irons or barbed hooks known as crows that could be dropped on the Macedonians, hooking and hoisting them up to a tortured death in front of their colleagues.
Alexander’s men now had to remove the debris in the water around the walls, allowing the assault craft to close on the island. The Tyrians replied by tipping onto the attackers bowls of red-hot sand. Finally, Alexander’s naval rams broke down a section of the wall. Infantry were sent into the breach on boarding ramps as the defenders continued their resistance in the city center.
Tyre fell at the end of July. Frustration over the length and ferocity of the siege gave way to rage, and the Macedonian troops extended no quarter to the inhabitants. Reportedly 8,000 Tyrians died during the siege; the Macedonians slew another 7,000 afterward as the city became one large abattoir. Another 30,000 inhabitants, including women and children, were sold into slavery.
With Tyre destroyed, the Macedonian Army set out on foot in July or early August for Egypt. Some 160 miles from Tyre, the army encountered the fortress city of Gaza, situated on a rocky hill on the sole route between Egypt and Syria. The city’s governor, Batis, rejected calls for surrender. Siege operations were quite difficult, as the siege engines sank in the sand. On occasion the defenders sallied to destroy the Macedonian siege equipment. On one such foray Alexander was badly wounded in the shoulder by an arrow.
Alexander again called on Dyadis, this time to build an earthen rampart around the city. In two months the Macedonians had built an earthen rampart topped by a wooden platform encircling Gaza, a mammoth undertaking. A breach was finally made in the walls, and Macedonian troops entered the city. The Macedonians had also carried out mining operations, and another group went in by a tunnel.
After heavy fighting, the city fell. Reportedly the Macedonians slew 10,000 defenders, and the women and children were all sold as slaves. Batis was among the captured. Alexander ordered him lashed by his ankles behind a chariot and dragged around the city walls until he was dead.
Although it was fortunate for Alexander that during these operations Darius III did not move against the Macedonian lines of communication, the successful sieges of both Tyre and Gaza thoroughly demonstrated Alexander’s mastery of this type of warfare and greatly added to his mystique of invincibility. In 1627 Cardinal Richelieu of France drew inspiration from Alexander’s tactics at Tyre for his own reduction of La Rochelle.
Green, Peter. Alexander of Macedon, 356–323 B.C.: A Historical Biography. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991.
Kern, Paul Bentley. Ancient Siege Warfare. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999.
Sekunda, Nick, and John Warry. Alexander the Great: His Armies and Campaigns, 332– 323 B.C. London: Osprey, 1988.