Of the seven Wonders of the Ancient World, four of them were located in Greece. Considering the extent to which ancient Greek civilization influenced the world in various areas of life like education, philosophy, and government, this is not surprising.
One of these legendary ancient wonders was the Colossus of Rhodes on the island by the same name. Rhodes is the most southeastern of the Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. It is also one of the largest and its soil tells the story of its long and complex history. Myths depict the origins on life on Rhodes and how mystical creatures came forth to teach the local tribes how to be great sailors and builders. Since the beginning, the island has had an intimate connection with the sun and the god who represented it. Legends describe the god Helios and his exclusion from the rewards reaped by the rest of the gods after their defeat of the Titans. As consolation, Zeus promised Helios that the land which rose from the sea would be his, and so Rhodes was born.
The Colossus of Rhodes was a massive statue dedicated to the sun god Helios. Reportedly towering about 100 feet above the ground, the statue is close in size to our modern Statue of Liberty. For the year 280 BC when it was unveiled, this made it the most immense statue of its time. Its reign of wonder was short lived however, as a powerful earthquakes toppled it in 226 BC. It had an unfortunately short life span along with most of the other of the Seven Wonders that supposedly existed. The Hanging Gardens of Babylon for example, although incredible in description, are of questionable legitimacy. No attempts were made to restore the Colossus because of a prophecy by the Oracle of Delphi that warned against it.
The statue’s short time standing and the very ancient and minimal records of it have caused a lot of uncertainty about its history. One thing is certain, that the statue was sculpted of bronze and iron, situated on a marble base and designed by the artist Chares of Lindos. One ancient record speculates that about thirteen tons of bronze were used in its construction, but historians believe it may have been more than this. Bronze was widely popular in antiquity and was used to construct statues of all sizes, not just the ‘colossal’ Colossus of Rhodes. Mining practices were well known in the Mediterranean, used to extract metals like copper, which was a main component of the mixture required to achieve bronze. The statue was so large and heavy that strategically placed rocks were used to anchor the statue and balance the weight. Builders would mold and attach different parts of the body as they ascended the scaffolding. The legend is that it was built to honor the victory of the island’s tribes against a siege by the Macedonian ruler Demetrius Poliorcetes about twenty years prior. The statue took the shape of the sun god Helios because he was worshiped as the protector of Rhodes and was believed to have facilitated this victory. Some accounts say the statue was sculpted with one arm shielding its eyes from the sun, other accounts say it was built in a realistic style and had a face resembling Alexander the Great. Most renditions of the statue depict it standing as an arched entrance to Rhode’s main port, with one leg standing on either side of the gateway.
The Colossus of Rhodes was built at the furthest eastern tip of the island, where the modern capital city is now located. It was so large that ships passing through the legs seemed like toys. If these accounts are accurate, the statue would have been incredibly monumental and grand to visitors or potential enemy invaders. If one wanted to set foot on Rhodes, their ship inevitably had to pass under the statue. If they were not previously aware of the skill, resources, and spirit of the people of the island, the Colossus of Rhodes set the tone.
During the years preceding the construction of the Colossus, the island was subject to many sieges and invasions. The people of Rhodes succeeded at defending their home and used the sale of the abandoned supplies and weapons of their enemies to fund the building of the statue. The geographical location of Rhodes put it at the intersection of different nations and civilizations. Throughout antiquity, the merging and sometimes defiance of neighboring tribes would ultimately define the power and wealth of the island. Their currency was accepted far and wide, similarly with their renowned code of laws of the sea. During the height of its power Rhodes supported the campaign of Alexander the Great, and after his death the island continued to maintain an air of power that maintained its geographic and political importance. Its influence was so great that the Roman Empire sought to stifle it. Other empires had the same fears as the Romans and thus would invade and destroy what they found on Rhodes, but the island and it people persevered, forever rebuilding.
Rhodes marks the Greece’s border in the Mediterranean Sea and is the largest in the chain of the modern Dodecanese islands. It is also only a few kilometers from the coast of Turkey. Historically, the island and the nearby lands were populated by Greek tribes like Myceneans and the Dorians. Through time different civilizations and powers would rule or attempt to rule Rhodes. In its finest years of triumph over oppressors and with maritime skills that led to prosperity, the people of Rhodes constructed one of the most epic structures mankind has ever known. An homage to the great and powerful god of the sun, but also a glimpse into what people and a society could be capable of. The Colossus of Rhodes was only able to be mimicked in the 20th century, and even so, successors still do not compare to the original. Hovering sky-high over the Aegean Sea, the Colossus served as the gateway to Rhodes and also to a new era of human ingenuity and creation.