So far in the Ancient Wonders series we have looked at The Hanging Gardens of Babylon, The Colosseum, Stonehenge and the Great Wall of China. We now return to the original list of the Seven Wonders of the World, compiled in the 2nd century BC, by investigating the Colossus of Rhodes.

The Colossus has captured popular imagination ever since its construction over 2200 years ago. A huge bronze statue located in the harbour of the Greek island city of Rhodes, it can be seen as an Ancient equivalent to the Statue of Liberty; in fact, it was approximately the same size. Despite its place in legend, the statue itself barely stood for fifty years. So how and why was it constructed?

An imagining of the ancient city of Rhodes, with the Colossus, by Frantisek Kupka, 1906.

The city of Rhodes was built around 408 BC as a joint project between three nearby city-states on the island. It was intended to be a joint capital and port, and it grew wealthy due to extensive trading. However, the island’s new-found wealth made it a target for those who wished to take the wealth for themselves. Around a hundred years after the creation of the city, war broke out between King Ptolemy I of Egypt and King Antigonus I of Macedonia. Forced to take a side in the conflict due to its location in the Mediterranean, Rhodes decided to keep their loyalty to the Egyptians. This infuriated King Antigonus, and in 305 BC he sent his son Demetrius to conquer the city.

Rhodes, however, was not to go down without a fight. In fact, they held out under siege from Demetrius for a year. In 304 BC, Ptolemy finally came to the aid of his allies and sent a fleet of ships to relieve the city. Demetrius abandoned the city in such a rush that his army left behind most of their siege equipment. The city rejoiced, and decided they needed to celebrate their victory in a more permanent fashion.

A bust of Ptolemy I, 3rd century BC, held at the Louvre.

The patron god of Rhodes was the Greek god of the Sun, Helios, who was a minor deity in Greek religion, but in Rhodes he was considered a major deity. He was worshipped through a ritual re-enactment of his journey pulling the sun across the sky, where a chariot drawn by four horses was driven across a precipice in the sea. The island also held annual gymnastic tournaments in his honour. The citizens therefore decided to celebrate their victory by honouring their patron God and building a statue of him.

The statue was to be made from the remnants of the siege weapons left behind by Demetrius. The weapons were either sold or melted down to provide materials. The construction of the statue was overseen by Chares of Lindos, a sculptor from the island, and construction began in 292 BC. It took 12 years to build the 70 cubit statue (33 metres or 108 feet high) and upon its completion it was the tallest statue in the ancient world. Scaffolding was probably used to build the lower layers, and as the statue rose to greater heights, mounds of earth were piled around the sides which were removed once construction was complete.

A relief of the Greek god Helios from the temple of Athena in Troy, 4th century BC.

Ancient sources are a little unclear as to the exact location and structure of the statue. It is thought that the statue was built on a marble pedestal and had an interior of iron bars. Bronze plates were then attached to the bars to create the exterior of the statue. The inside was also filled with rocks to give strength to the structure. It is not known exactly what pose the statue was built in. Much later stories and illustrations show the Colossus as standing feet apart, straddling the entrance to Rhodes harbour, and often holding a torch in the air. However, for the statue to stand astride the harbour it would have required the harbour to be closed for years – something which the trade-dependent city could not have survived with. Moreover, it would have been structurally impossible for the statue to hold like that as it would have collapsed under its own weight. The idea that the statue held a torch is not impossible, but it seems to have been borne from the dedication text which says that the people of Rhodes kindled “the lovely torch of freedom and independence”. Historians generally believe it would not have been holding a torch.

The location of the Colossus has been a hot source of debate for historians across the centuries. Some sources place it near the harbour entrance, whilst others claim it was on a breakwater in the harbour. There is a variety of archaeological and historical evidence that lend credence to several locations. The floor of the Fortress of St Nicholas which is near the entrance to the harbour has a circle of curved sandstone blocks which are intricately carved, and are unlikely to have been made for a fortification. It has been suggested that the stones are the foundations for the marble base of the Colossus. An Italian visitor to the city of Rhodes in 1395 wrote that local tradition stated that the right foot of the Colossus had stood where the Church of St John the Colossus was then located.

The Colossus as imagined in a 16th-century engraving by Martin Heemskerck, showing the Colossus straddling the entrance to the harbour. 

However, most historians consider it unlikely that the statue was in the port area as there wouldn’t have been enough space to build such a large construction there. Archaeologist Ursula Vedder has suggested that the statue was part of the Acropolis of Rhodes which stood in a hill overlooking the port. The ruins of a large temple have been found on the site which could have been dedicated to Helios, which would lead to its choice of location for the statue honouring the god. Moreover, the temple has a huge stone foundation which could have helped to support the statue.

Wherever it was located, and however it looked, the Colossus was finished in 280 BC. It stood for 54 years but in 226 BC an earthquake hit the city destroying large parts of the harbour and commercial buildings. The Colossus of Rhodes snapped at the knees and fell onto the land. King Ptolemy III of Egypt – the grandson of King Ptolemy I whom the city of Rhodes had supported prior to the statue’s creation – offered to pay to reconstruct the statue. However, the Oracle of Delphi, whose wisdom was greatly revered in Greek society, told the citizens that they had offended Helios and so they decided against rebuilding it.

The ruins of the temple in Rhodes, part of the Acropolis of Rhodes, which may have held the foundations for the Colossus.

Although the statue had stood for just five decades, its remains lay on the ground of the city for the next 800 years. Even in its broken state it continued to be considered one of the wonders of the world, and still brought tourists to the city. A sense of its size was recorded by Pliny the Elder, who lived from c. 23 AD – 79 AD. He wrote that the fallen thumb was so large that few people could wrap their arms all the way around it, and that each of the fingers alone were larger than most statues.

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The statue continued to lie in the city until the mid-seventh century when Rhodes was captured by an Arab force belonging to the Muslim caliph Muawiyah I. According to the Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, a monk who belonged to the Byzantine aristocracy, the statue was melted down by the invaders in 653 and sold to a Jewish merchant who carried away the bronze on 900 camels. However, the story needs to be taken with some scepticism. Theophanes’ chronicle is the only source for this story, and could be based in Anti-Semitism. It does seem, however, that the statue was removed by the conquering forces – a move that makes sense by an invader to make money from their new city – but whether all at once or over time is unclear, as is whether a single merchant purchased the remnants or it was sold to multiple buyers.

Colossus of Rhodes from The Book of Knowledge, The Grolier Society, 1911

Despite its removal, the Colossus lived on in legend. The idea that the statue stood with its legs straddling the harbour seems to have been created in the medieval period, and probably came from the text of the statue’s dedication which twice mentions dominion over land and sea. By the Tudor and Early Modern period the Colossus was found in various cultural representations, through pieces of art and literature. Shakespeare mentions the Colossus several times in his writing, including in Julius Caesar, Troilus and Cressida, and Henry IV.

Even today, the Colossus of Rhodes continues to fascinate people across the world. It holds so much power that in 2008 it was reported that a modern Colossus was to be built at the harbour entrance, and another project was suggested in 2015. So far, no concrete plans have been put into place to actually rebuild the Colossus. But these suggestions prove that over two millennia after the Colossus was built for the glory of Rhodes and Helios, it still finds a place amongst our great wonders.

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