The Nature of Curtius
Book Four Chapters 3 – 4
For other posts in the series click here
The Young King and the Sea
In order to build the mole, the Macedonians cut down trees and took rocks from the surrounding countryside. On Mount Libanus they were attacked by Arab peasants. This led Alexander to lead ‘a detachment of light-armed troops’ into Arabia to kill them.
In the summer of 323 B.C. Alexander was planning an expedition into Arabia. His death in June, however, meant that it never happened. This punitive expedition would be his only excursion into that sandy region.
The Tyrians did their best to stop the building of the mole. To do so, they used some familiar materials and some that I hope were less familiar (at least, in a martial context).
The familiar came in the form of ‘rocks and sand’. The rocks were piled into a boat at its stern*, so that the prow ‘stood high out of the water’ – all the better to land the boat on the mole with. The boat was also ‘daubed… with bitumen and sulphur’ so that it would burn more easily.
The boat was then launched towards the mole and set alight. We saw yesterday how the weather set itself against the Macedonians. It now did so again, for as the burning ship drew near, ‘an especially high wind whipped up the sea from its very depths and smashed it against the mole’. The mole collapsed, and Alexander was forced to begin building it again.
Curtius takes this opportunity to give a little insight into how the mole was built. Trees were thrown into the sea first and rocks dropped over them. A second line of trees were then placed on top of the rocks. Earth was then placed over the rocks before another layer of rocks and trees were added ‘thus forming a structure virtually bonded’. Alexander tried to make the wind work for him by directing the mole into the head-wind. This ensured that the front of the mole (guarded by towers) protected the men working behind it.
Meanwhile, the Tyrians were not restricting their attacks to boats. Divers attached hooks to the trees at the base of the mole and pulled them away, again causing the structure to collapse.
It is at this point that Curtius says Alexander was ‘dejected, undecided whether to continue or leave’. Very opportunely, new soldiers from Greece and ships arrived from Cyprus. Encouraged by these reinforcements, Alexander decided to stay and see the job through.
The ships surrounded the city. Alexander intended to attack at midnight. At the appointed hour, though, the weather once more intervened. Thick clouds gathered and ‘a layer of fog’ fell. Then a strong wind whipped up the sea. The ships crashed against one another. Most if not all survived but the attack had to be aborted.
When Alexander renewed his attack the Tyrians employed their more unusual – and wholly unpleasant – weapon. We have seen how they used rocks. Now they poured boiling sand on the enemy soldiers. If only it was just that, for they also boiled excrement and poured that down as well. I suppose desperate times called for desperate measures.
* Stern – rear, prow – front (the starboard is the right hand side of the boat as you look forward, the port the left hand side)
The Walls Came Tumbling Down
Alexander had had enough. He decided to lift his siege and depart for Egypt. And yet, when push came to shove, he could not bear to leave. It would be a disgrace for him to leave Tyre behind for if he did it would be a ‘witness that he could be beaten’. The city would also be a thorn in his side with its ability to disrupt his supply lines.
So, ‘he ordered more ships to be brought up’. At the same time, ‘a sea-creature of extraordinary size’ – perhaps a whale? – gave nature’s verdict on what would happen next. It rose out of the sea and splashed down on the mole.
The Tyrians took this to be a sign that Poseidon (Neptune to Curtius, of course) was ‘exacting vengeance’ for Alexander’s ‘occupation of the sea’. The Macedonians, however, believed that they were being shown the way to point the mole.
In the end, the Macedonians were proved right. They reached Tyre’s walls, broke through them and stormed the city. Many Tyrians were killed, either in the fighting or by being executed afterwards. They had given the Macedonians their hardest fight since the start of the expedition and now had to suffer the consequences.