If you had visited the Greek island of Rhodes in the year 600 AD, one of the first places on your itinerary would likely have been a cleared area beside the harbour of the city of the same name. There rested a toppled statue.
Only, this wasn’t just any statue. According to ancient historian Pliny the Elder, this behemoth was so large that few men could wrap their arms around its thumb. Its thumb.
This fallen giant was the Colossus of Rhodes, the tallest statue of Antiquity and one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
Due to its strategic location, Rhodes (both the city and the island) was a major trading hub during Antiquity, forming a commercial junction between the Greek world and the East.
During the early Hellenistic period (323 BC-31 BC), Rhodes remained neutral as the generals of the late Alexander the Great fought over his fractured empire. Businessmen at heart, the interest of the Rhodians lay only in protecting their trade in this time of widespread conflict. Having said this, the Rhodians did enjoy a particularly friendly relationship with Ptolemy I Soter, ruler of Egypt.
It was this friendship and the fear that the powerful Rhodian navy might come to Ptolemy’s aid that prompted Demetrius, son of Antigonus Monopthalmus (perhaps the most powerful of the Successors at the time), to attack Rhodes in 305 BC. The subsequent Siege of Rhodes is among the most famous of the ancient period.
Despite commanding a large army and the best efforts of his siege engineers, including the construction of a 40m tall, iron-plated, movable siege tower known as the Helepolis (literally ‘Taker of Cities’), Demetrius was unable to overcome Rhodes’ substantial fortifications and, after a year of fruitless efforts, he was forced to withdraw. When he departed from the island, he left behind a significant amount of siege equipment, including the Helepolis.
Due to the duration of the siege and the resources he dedicated to the failed enterprise, Demetrius became known as Poliorcretes (‘the Besieger’).
To celebrate their victory, the Rhodians melted down the plating of the now ironically named Helepolis and sold it, along with the rest of the siege equipment Demetrius left behind. The bronze and iron weapons were put aside for later use. According to Pliny, the resulting windfall amounted to a cool 300 talents (roughly 7.8 tons of silver).
In celebration of their victory, the silver was given to the Rhodian sculptor Chares of Lindos, who was instructed to build a monumental statue (‘Kolossos’ literally means ‘giant statue’) of Helios, God of the Sun and patron deity of Rhodes. The details of the statue were left up to Chares.
Construction on the Colossus began in 292 BC. The first stage was the construction of the 15 metre (49 feet) high white marble pedestal on which the Colossus would stand. From there, the framework was built using iron reforged from the weapons captured after the siege. The bronze ‘skin’ was then added to the frame, with the individually cast plates fixed to the frame using rivets.
According to ancient accounts, the upper portions of the Colossus were constructed by using large earthen ramps. Once the statue was complete, all of the earth was then removed and the Colossus stood on its own two feet.
It took twelve years to finish the project. Not including the pedestal, the Colossus stood (according to contemporary descriptions) 70 cubits tall, or 33 metres (108 feet). For comparison, this is roughly the same height as the Statue of Liberty, not including her upraised arm.
There is some debate as to the exact location of the statue. Some sources place the Colossus beside the entrance to the Mandraki harbour. Others describe the statue as standing on a breakwater in the harbour itself.
In addition, there is a misconception regarding the exact pose of the statue. The last line in the Colossus’ dedication text, which reads ‘For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over land and sea’, lead to a belief among medieval historians that the statue straddled the entrance to the Mandraki harbour itself. This misconception became pervasive, reinforced by references to the harbour-straddling Colossus in several of Shakespeare’s works. In 1883, American poet Emma Lazarus wrote the famous sonnet titled ‘The New Colossus’ as part of efforts to gather funding for the construction of the Statue of Liberty. The opening lines of the sonnet read ‘the brazen giant of Greek fame, with conquering limbs astride from land to land.’ The New Colossus is engraved on a bronze plaque mounted inside the Statue of Liberty’s pedestal.
It was not until the advent of modern engineering analysis of the Colossus that this myth was disproved. Since it was constructed out of bronze, if its legs had been spread wide enough to straddle the harbour entrance, it would have been unable to support its own weight.
In 226 BC, 54 years after the Colossus was completed, Rhodes was struck by a powerful earthquake. Large areas of the city were severely damaged.
The Colossus was unable to withstand the stress and snapped at the knees, falling on the landward side. There it would remain for the next 800 years. The fact that the fallen statue is known to have been visible on land for several centuries has led historians to dismiss the theory of the Colossus being located on a breakwater. It also adds further evidence against the myth of the harbour-straddling Colossus, which would have collapsed into the water rather than onto land.
Ptolemy III of Egypt offered to fund the reconstruction of the statue, but, fearing they had incurred the anger of Helios, the Rhodians decided against rebuilding it.
There is only one ancient source that describes the final destruction of the fallen Colossus. According to Theophanes the Confessor, upon capturing the island of Rhodes in 653 AD, the Muslim Caliph Muawiya I had the statue melted down and sold to a Jewish merchant from the city of Edessa. Supposedly, it took 900 fully laden camels to carry all of the reforged bronze. There are other sources that mention this event, but they can all be traced back to Theophanes.
In 2008, it was reported that a modern Colossus was to be built beside the harbour entrance. It was to be comprised, at least partially, of metal made from reforged weapons from around the world. The estimated cost was reported as €200 million.
In 2015, a second group announced their own plans to construct a modern Colossus that straddled the harbour entrance, despite the evidence that the original could not possibly have done so. This project was planned as being 151 metres (490 ft) tall, five times that height of the original. In addition, this Colossus would include a lighthouse, cultural centre, library and exhibition hall all powered, appropriately, by solar energy (the gift of Helios). The estimated cost for this project was €250 million, with almost all of that sum to come from donations and crowdfunding.
Neither of these projects have progressed beyond the initial planning stage.
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- Ashley, James. The Macedonian Empire: The Era Of Warfare Under Philip II And Alexander The Great, 359-323 BC. McFarland and Company, 2004.
- Pliny the Elder. Natural History.
- Jordan, Paul. Seven Wonders Of The Ancient World. Routledge, 2014.