Young Macedonian in the Army of Alexander the Great - Alfred J. Church


It was a formidable task that Alexander had undertaken. Tyre was built upon an island separated from the mainland by a channel half-a-mile broad. Half of this channel was, indeed, shallow, but the other half, that nearest to the city, was as much as twenty feet deep. The island was surrounded by walls of the most solid construction, rising on one side, that fronting the channel, to the enormous height of a hundred and fifty feet. How was a place so strong to be taken, especially when the besiegers had not the command of the sea?

Alexander's fertility of resource did not fail him. A century and a half before Xerxes had undertaken, or rather pretended to undertake, the construction of a mole from the mainland of Attica to the island of Salamis. It was curiously in keeping with Alexander's idea of retaliating upon Persia its own misdoings that he should take one of its cities by accomplishing in earnest what Xerxes had begun in pretence. Accordingly he made preparations for constructing a great mole or embankment, which was to be carried across from the mainland to the island. It was to be seventy yards wide, and so, when completed, would give plenty of space for carrying on against the walls.

Materials in abundance were at hand. The city of Old Tyre was on the mainland. The greater part had been in ruins for many years, in fact, ever since the siege by Nebuchadnezzar, and the rest was now deserted by its inhabitants. From this plenty of stone and brick and rubbish of all kinds could be obtained. Not far off were the forests of Lebanon, contracted, indeed, within narrower limits than they had once been, but still able to supply as much timber as was wanted. Of labour, forced and free, there was no lack. The soldiers worked with a will, and crowds of Syrian peasants were driven in from the neighbourhood to take their part in the labour.

At first the operations were easy enough. The ground was soft so that the piles could be driven in without any difficulty, and the water was so shallow that it did not require much labour to fill up the spaces between them. At the same time the Phœnician fleet did not venture, for fear of running aground, to come near enough to damage or annoy the workmen. It was when the embankment had been carried about half way across the channel, and had touched the deeper water, that the difficulties began. The men worked under showers of missiles, discharged from the ships and even from the walls. The soldiers themselves, accustomed though they were to risk their lives, did not ply their tools as promptly as usual; the unwarlike peasants were simply paralyzed with fear. Though the king himself was everywhere, encouraging, threatening, promising, sometimes even putting his own hand to the work, little progress was made. So far the advantage seemed to rest with the besieged. At the present rate of advance Alexander would be as long making his way into the city as Nebuchadnezzar had been.

The next move was won by the besiegers. Two huge moveable towers were constructed upon the finished portion of the mole. They were made of wood, but the wood was covered with hides, and so made fireproof. Catapults were placed on the top; from these such a fire of javelins, bullets, and stones were kept up that the enemy's ships could not approach. Again the mole began to advance, the towers being moved forwards from time to time so as to protect the newly finished portion.

It was now time for the Tyrians to bestir themselves, and they did so effectually. A huge transport, originally made for carrying horses, was filled with combustibles of every kind, caldrons of pitch and brimstone being attached even to the yardarms of the masts. The stern was heavily weighted with ballast, and the prow thus raised high above water. Taking advantage of a day when the wind blew strongly on to the mole, the Tyrians set light to the contents of this fire-ship, and after towing it part of the way by a small ship on either side, let it drive towards the embankment. It struck between the towers, the elevated prow reaching some way over the top of the mole. The sudden shock, too, broke the masts, and the burning contents of the caldrons were discharged. In a few moments the towers were in a blaze, and all the work of weeks was lost.

It was now clear that without a fleet nothing could be done, and again Alexander's good fortune became conspicuous. Just at the critical time when he most needed help, this help was supplied. The Persian fleet in the Ægean had been broken up. Tyre had summoned back her own ships to aid in her defence, and the other Phœnician cities had also recalled their squadrons. But as these cities had submitted to Alexander their ships were at his disposal. Other small contingents had come in, till he could muster about a hundred men-of-war. Still he was not a match for the Tyrians, the less so as these were by common consent the best of all the Phœnician seamen. It was then that a decisive weight was thrown into his side of the balance. The kings of Cyprus, a country which had no reason to love the Persians, joined him, adding one hundred and twenty more ships to his fleet. He could now meet his adversaries at sea on more than equal terms.

It was necessary indeed before a battle could be ventured on to give some time to discipline and practice. Many of the crews were raw and unskilful, and the various contingents of which the fleet was composed had never learnt to act together. Another great improvement, adding much to the fighting force of the ships, was to put on board each of them a small number of picked soldiers, who took the place of the marines in our own navy. Charidemus and Charondas both found employment in this way, the former being attached to the flag-ship, as it may be called, of the King of Sidon, the latter to that of Androcles, Prince of Amathus in Cyprus.

After eleven days given to practice in manœuvring and general preparation, Alexander sailed out from Sidon, where a rendezvous  had been given to the whole naval force. The ships advanced in a crescent formation, the king himself commanding on the right or sea-ward wing, one of the Cyprian princes on the left; the latter skirted the shore as closely as the depth of water permitted. The Tyrians, who now learnt for the first time how great a fleet their enemy had succeeded in getting together, did not venture to fight. They could do nothing more than fortify the entrance to their two harbours, the Sidonian harbour, looking to the north, and the Egyptian, looking to the south. Alexander, on the other hand, established a blockade. The ships from Cyprus were set to watch the northern harbour, those from the submitted Phœnician cities that which looked to the south.

The Tyrians, however, though for the time taken by surprise, were not going to give up without a struggle the command of the sea. They came to the resolution to attack one of the blockading squadrons, and knowing, perhaps, the skill and prowess of their fellow Phœnicians, they determined that this one should be the contingent from Cyprus. Each harbour had been screened from view by sails spread across its mouth. Under cover of these, preparations were actively carried on in that which looked towards the north. The swiftest and strongest of the Tyrian ships, to the number of thirteen, were selected, and manned with the best sailors and soldiers that could be found in the city. Midday, when the Cyprian crews would be taking their noonday meal, and Alexander himself, if he followed his usual practice, would be resting in his tent, was fixed as the time for the attack. At midday, accordingly, the thirteen galleys issued from the harbour mouth, moving in single file and in deep silence, the crews rowing with muffled oars, and the officers giving their orders by gesture. They had come close on the blockading ships without being noticed, when a common signal was given, the crews shouted, and the rowers plied their oars with all the strength that they could muster. Some of the Cyprian ships had been almost deserted by their crews, others lay broadside to; few were in a position to make a vigorous resistance. Just at this moment, and long before his usual time for returning, Alexander came back from his tent, and saw the critical position of affairs. Prompt as ever, he manned a number of the Cyprian ships that were lying at the mole, and sent for help to the other squadron. The mouth of the northern harbour was promptly blockaded, so that no more ships could get out to help the attacking galleys, and these were soon assailed in the rear by a contingent from the blockading squadron on the south side. The fortune of the day was effectually restored, but some loss had already been sustained. Several of the Cyprian ships had been sunk, and their crews either drowned or taken prisoners. This had been the fate of the vessel of Androcles of Amathus. The prince himself was drowned, and Charondas had very nearly shared his fate. Weighed down by his armour, he could only just keep himself afloat by the help of a spar which he had seized. A Tyrian sailor who saw him in this situation was about to finish him with the blow of an oar, when an officer, seeing that the swimmer must be a man of some rank, interfered. The Theban was dragged on board, and, with some thirty or forty others, three of whom were Macedonians or Greeks, carried back into the city.

When the losses of the day were reckoned up the first impression was that Charondas had shared the fate of his captain. Later in the evening the real truth was known. A Cypriote sailor, one of the crew of the lost ship, had seen what had happened. He was supporting himself in the water by holding on to a mass of broken timber, and, luckily for himself, had not been observed. Two or three hours later he had been picked up by a friendly vessel, but in such a state of exhaustion that he could give no account of himself. It was not till late in the night that he recovered his senses. Charidemus, who had refused to give up hope, was called to hear the man's story, and satisfied himself that it was true. But he could not be sure that his friend had not better have been drowned than been taken as a prisoner into Tyre.

His fears were greatly increased by the events of the next day. Alexander, who had a great liking for Charondas, and whose conscience was especially tender whenever anything Theban was concerned, sent a herald early in the morning to negotiate an exchange of prisoners. The man returned without succeeding in his mission. The Tyrians refused the proposal, vouchsafing no other reason for their refusal except that they had other uses for their prisoners.

Charidemus found himself that evening the next neighbour of a young Sidonian noble, at a banquet which the king was giving to some of his Phœnician allies. He asked him what he thought was the real meaning of the somewhat obscure answer which the herald had brought back that morning.

"I hope," said the young man, "that there is no friend of yours among the prisoners."

"Yes, but there is," was the answer. "The very dearest friend that I have is in the city."

The Sidonian—he was the son of the newly-appointed king of that city—looked very grave. "I know something of these Tyrians and of their ways, which indeed are not very different from ours. They mean to sacrifice these prisoners to the gods."

Charidemus uttered an exclamation of horror.

"Yes," said the Sidonian, "it is shocking, but it is not so very long, as I have read, since you Greeks did the same. But let that pass; you are thinking what is to be done. Stop," he went on, for Charidemus started up from his seat, "you can't take Tyre single-handed. And I think I might help you. Let me consider for a few moments."

After a pause he said, "You are ready, I take it, to risk a good deal for your friend."

"Yes," cried the Macedonian, "my life, anything."

"Well; we must get him out. Fortunately there are two or three days to think about it. At least I hope so. There is always a great sacrifice to Melkarth—your Hercules, as, I dare say, you know—on the new moon; and they will probably reserve the principal prisoner for that. The moon is, I know, four days short of being new. So we have time to think. Come with me to my quarters, when we can leave this place, and let us talk the matter over."

It was not long before the two contrived to slip away from their places at the table. When they found themselves alone, the prince began—

"We might get into Tyre, I think, unobserved."

"We,"  interrupted Charidemus in intense surprise. "Do you  think of going with me?"

"Why not?" returned his companion. "I am fond of adventure, and this really seems to promise very well. And I have other reasons, too; but they will do another day when I will tell you my story. Of course you must have some one with you who can speak the language; so that if you are willing to have me for a comrade, I am ready."

The Macedonian could only clasp the prince's hand. His heart was too full to allow him to speak.

"Well," the other went on, "as I said, we might get in unobserved. There is a way of clambering up the wall on the sea side—I lived, you must know, for a year in Tyre, working in one of the dockyards. Or we might swim into one of the harbours at night. But the chances are very much against us; and if we were to be caught, it would be all over with us, and your friend too. And besides, supposing that we did get in, I don't see what we could do. No; we must take a bolder line; we must go openly. We must make some plausible pretext; and then, having got in, we will see what can be done for your friend. Now as for myself, there is no difficulty. I have a good reason. You know we Sidonians took part with your king. It seemed to us that we had no other choice, and that it would have been downright folly to attempt to hold out against him. But these Tyrians, though we are fighting against them, are, after all, of our blood—you see I talk quite frankly to you—and, if things come to the worst with them, as they must come, sooner or later, then we shall do our best to save as many of them as we can. I have really a commission to tell them this, and to warn them that, if the city is stormed, they must make for our ships. But the question is—how are you to go?"

A thought struck Charidemus. He wondered indeed that it had not occurred before. He showed the Sidonian the ring which King Darius had given him. "Perhaps this may help me," he said. The prince was delighted. "It is the very thing," he said. "You need not fear anything, if you have that with you. The Tyrians will respect that, though the prisoners tell us that they are very sore at being left all these months without any help from the king. I should not profess to have any message from him. They have been looking for help, not messages. No; I should recommend you simply to show the ring. It will be a safe-conduct for you. Once in, we shall begin to see our way."

The next morning brought only too convincing a proof that the Sidonian prince was right in his conjecture about the fate destined for the prisoners. Three of these unhappy creatures were brought on to that part of the city wall which faced the mole, and sacrificed as a burnt-offering with all the formalities of Phœnician worship. The besiegers watched the performance of the hideous ceremony with unspeakable rage in their hearts. Their only comfort was to vow vengeance against the ruthless barbarians who perpetrated such atrocities. The three victims, as far as could be made out, were Cypriote sailors belonging to the ships that had been sunk. Charidemus was able to satisfy himself that his friend was not one of them.

It was arranged that the two adventurers should make their way that night to one of the ships of war that guarded the entrance to the Sidonian harbour. They were to put off after dark with every appearance of secrecy, were to be pursued, and as nearly as possible captured, by a Macedonian galley, and so were to present themselves to the besieged as genuine fugitives.

The little drama was acted to perfection. The prince and Charidemus stole out in a little boat from the land. A minute or so afterwards a hue and cry was raised upon the shore, and a galley started in pursuit. The boat was so nearly overtaken that its occupants jumped overboard, and swam to the nearest Tyrian galley. No one who saw the incident could doubt that it was a genuine escape.

The two companions were brought into the presence of Azemilcus, King of Tyre. The king had been in command of the Tyrian squadron in the Ægean fleet, and had seen Charidemus in Memnon's company. By great good fortune he had not happened to inquire in what character he was there. So friendly had Memnon's demeanour been to the young man that no one would have taken him for a prisoner, and Azemilcus had supposed that he was a Greek in the service of Persia, who was assisting Memnon in the capacity of secretary or aide-de-camp. This recollection and the sight of the ring perfectly satisfied him. Nor did he seem to doubt the real friendliness of the Sidonian's message. It seemed to him, as indeed it was, perfectly genuine, and he warmly thanked the two companions for the risk they had run. They frankly explained that they had not really meant to desert from the besieging army. Such a proceeding, indeed, would have seemed suspicious in the critical condition of the city. They had hoped, on the contrary, to come and return unobserved. As it was, having been seen and pursued, they must stay and take their chance with the besieged.

Azemilcus invited the two young men to be his guests at supper. He had lived a good deal with Greeks, and spoke their language fluently, besides having adopted some of their ways of thought. When the conversation happened to turn on the sacrifices to Melkarth, he explained that he had nothing to do with them, though without expressing any particular horror or disgust. "The priests insist upon them, and though I don't like such things, I am not strong enough to resist. You see," he went on to explain, for the benefit of the Greek guests, "we Phœnicians are much more religious than you, and if I were to set myself against an old custom of this kind, it would very likely cost me my throne and my life."

In the course of the conversation it came out that the victims intended for sacrifice were kept in a chamber adjoining the Temple of Melkarth, and that, as the Sidonian prince had supposed, the next great ceremony would take place on the approaching new moon.