Perhaps the most notorious siege of Alexander the Great was that of Tyre in 332 BC. The potential for siege machinery was perhaps first understood by Alexander’s father King Philip, but Alexander likewise saw the benefit for the equipment and better epitomized its use during his campaign against Persia. The use of machinery to besiege cities was made relatively shorter compared to the past where a city was circumscribed by an opposing attacker. (Potter 127).
Brief History and Account of the Siege of Tyre given by Arrian.
After Alexander the Great was denied permission to enter the city of Tyre and sacrifice to the god Herakles, he considered the consequences to his empire if Tyre was left to their own devices. Therefore, Alexander convinced the generals of the need to capture the threatening Tyre, despite the apparent naval and defensive advantages Tyre held. Tyre had a much larger navy (being a port city) and also was a great defensive stronghold (being an island surrounded by a large wall). (2.18.2-4). Arrian mentions the size of the wall to be “150 feet high and proportionately thick” (2.21.4).
Aerial view of Tyre taken in aprox. 1934
Despite these detriments, Alexander was not deterred and found it in his best interest to build a mole or causeway from the Phoenician inland shore to the Island (Arrian, 2.18.2-4). As the construction of the mole became closer to the city, it also drew deeper into the water and eventually the mole and its workers became vulnerable to the ranged ballistic attacks from the wall and the triremes in the Tyrian military. This temporarily halted the construction of the mole as Alexander then ordered his engineers and workers to build two siege towers on the edge of the mole, which would hold equipment designed to counter-fire against the Tyrians. Further, Alexander’s engineers draped the towers with skins as to better shield the workers and provide cover so they could resume their work on the mole (2.18.5-6).
In retaliation the Tyrians boarded vessels filled with flammable materials which they deployed against the towers and then set fire to them; thus, destroying the towers and much of the progress of the mole (2.19.1-5).
Alexander comprehended that the siege would be futile as long as the Tyrians held the upper hand, therefore, he instructed his engineers to widen the mole and to construct more siege equipment. Alexander then left for the surrounding Phoenician regions to procure reinforcements by claiming dues owed from kings and granting amnesty towards others (2.19.6-2.20.1-8).
Alexander amassed a large navy, infantry, and engineers and again returned to the siege of Tyre in approximately 11 days. In a defensive maneuver the Tyrian navy took position in their two harbors one facing Sidon and the other facing Egypt (2.20.7-8). While the Tyrian navy was held at bay, war engines were built and assembled on the mole, horse-transports, and slow sailing triremes. Alexander then had the war machines bought across the mole and started bombardment against the wall. Ships holding siege machinery was halted until large stones could be hauled from the water as they could not get in range for their weapons. (2.21-1-3).
Taking countermeasures, the Tyrians attempted to cut the anchors cords away from the triremes moving the stones but were thwarted by the Macedonians who used chains. In a last attempt, the Tyrian navy attacked some empty moored ship destroying a few. However, in return Alexander set up a blockade preventing other Tyrian vessels to make it out of the harbor and the set out to defeating the vessels which had attacked the moored ships (2.21.4-7-22.1-5).
The siege equipment at the site of the wall proved to be unsuccessful; therefore, Alexander took the ships holding siege equipment around the island bombarding various points along the wall eventually breaking through. Initially, Alexander attempted to enter the city but was fought back (2.22.6-7).
Alexander, waiting two days later, is determined to enter the city. He instructed the siege equipment to fire at the wall for a considerable length of time and then prepared and eventually landed on the island capturing Tyre (2.23.1-6).
The End – of the brief history lesson.
Some discussion and boasting in Alexander’s behalf…
As stated earlier the battle of Tyre is perhaps one of the most famous sieges of Alexander’s campaign. It is at this battle when we see siege machinery used to break down a wall which surrounds a city as well as the use of battering-rams at sea (Nossov, 40-41). Likewise, this example displays a diverse array of siege equipment including: torsion projectors which fired arrows (katapetai) and stones (litoboloi or petroboloi), as well as battering-rams, and towers in diverse offensive and defensive methods.
Diodorus (17.43.1 and 17.45.1-4) goes into more detail regarding the technological innovations introduced by both sides during this siege. Alexander’s engineers devised catapults large enough to hurl stones capable of smashing the Tyrian walls, apparently the first time artillery weapons had been used against fortifications rather than personnel. The Tyrians for their part made cushions out of hides stuffed with seaweed to absorb the impact of the stones, and further warded them off with some sort of wheel-like device that deflected missile fire as it spun around. Phoenicians were famous in antiquity and their engineering skill, so it is not surprising that Alexander recruited much of the local talent into his army or that both sides in the conflict made rapid advances in military technology over the course of the seven-month siege (qtd. in Arian by Mensch, 88).
During Alexander’s campaign he included engineers in his baggage train throughout his expedition, as Potter puts it: “Alexander brought experts in siege warfare, katapeltaphetai, with him, and their extraordinary accomplishment at places such as Tyre show that they could construct massive weapons on the spot and improve their technology as the years passed” (Potter, 127). Engles pointed out that in Areia it was clear that the use of carts would be used to transport siege machinery but also engineers would carry tools and supplies required to build equipment (15-17). The ability to build rather than transport siege equipment allowed the army to move swiftly and efficiently, while most likely allowing the equipment to be more reliable and adaptable depending on the situations Alexander and his army found themselves in. Stark examples of this can be obtained through recall of Arrian provides us.
* I found some good examples (in my opinion) of some of the siege equipment that would have been used during Alexander’s campaign at http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/1222743 and some nice images of the battle at http://www.ancientworlds.net/aw/Post/1225046. I have contacted them for permission to use some images but have yet to hear a reply. Professor Payne, maybe if you get a chance to look at these you could tell me if any of them are out of copyright if fall under fair-use. In the interim I hope the class enjoys!
Arian. The Landmark Arrian: the campaigns of Alexander a new translation. Trans. Pamela Mensch. Ed. James Romm and Robert B. Strassler. New York: Pantheon Books-Random House, 2010.
Engels, Donald W. Alexander the Great and the Logistics of the Macedonian Army. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1978.
Image GEOEYE , Google Earth, and ORIONN-ME. 2012 Map. “Harbor of Tyre, Lebanon.” Data Sio, NOAA, U.S. NAVY, NGA, GEBCO. 9 Feb. 2012.
Poidebard, A. UN GRAND PORT DISPARU T Y R RECHERCHES AÉRIENNES ET SOUS-ARINES 1934-1936. 1939. LIBRAIRIE ORIENTALISTE PAUL GEUTHNER 12, RUE VAVIN – PARIS (Vl). 9 Feb. 2012 http://almashriq.hiof.no/general/900/930/933/tyr-poidebard/tyr.html.
Potter, David. “Alexander the Great and Hellenistic Warfare.” The Ancient World at War. Ed. Philip de Souza. New York, NY: Thames & Hudson, 2008. 119-38.
Nossov, Konstanin. Ancient and Medieval Siege Weapons: A Fully Illustrated Guide to Siege Weapons and Tactics. Guilford: The Lyons Press-The Globe Pequot press, 2005.