The Colossus of Rhodes is familiar to almost everyone. Its history begins with the siege of Demetrios Poliorketes, successor of Alexander the Great, in 305 BC. When Demetrios was defeated, he abandoned all his siege machinery on Rhodes. The Rhodians decided to express their pride by building a triumphal statue of their favorite god, Helios. The task was assigned to the sculptor Chares of Lindos, a pupil of Lysippos himself, and twelve years (from 304 to 292 BC) were needed to complete it.
From the building its destruction lies a time span of merely 56 years. Yet the Colossus of Rhodes earned a place in the famous list of Wonders. "But even lying on the ground, it is a marvel", said Pliny the Elder. The Colossus of Rhodes was not only a gigantic statue. It was a symbol of unity of the people who inhabited that beautiful Mediterranean island of Rhodes.
To build the Colossus of Rhodes, the workers cast the outer bronze skin parts. The base was made of white marble, and the feet and ankle of the statue were first fixed. The structure was gradually erected as the bronze form was fortified with an iron and stone framework. To reach the higher parts, an earth ramp was built around the statue and was later removed. When the Colossus was finished, it stood about 33 meters (110 ft) high. And when it fell, "few people can make their arms meet round the thumb", wrote Pliny.
226 BC The collapse
A strong earthquake hit Rhodes at around 226 BC. The city was badly damaged, and the Colossus was broken at its weakest point - the knee. The Rhodians received an immediate offer from Ptolemy III Eurgetes of Egypt to cover all restoration costs for the toppled monument. However, an oracle was consulted and forbade the re-erection. Ptolemy's offer was declined.
654 AD The plundering
For almost a millennium, the statue lay broken in ruins. In AD 654, the Arabs invaded Rhodes. They disassembled the remains of the broken Colossus and sold them to a Jew from Syria. It is said that the fragments had to be transported to Syria on the backs of 900 camels.
Let us clear a misconception about the appearance of the Colossus. It has long been believed that the Colossus stood in front of the Mandraki harbour, one of many in the city of Rhodes, straddling its entrance. Given the height of the statue and the width of the harbour mouth, this picture is rather impossible than improbable. Moreover, the fallen Colossus would have blocked the harbor entrance. Recent studies suggest that it was erected either on the eastern promontory of the Mandraki harbour, or even further inland. In any case, it never straddled the harbor entrance.
Although we do not know the true shape and appearance of the Colossus of Rhodes, modern reconstructions with the statue standing upright are more accurate than older drawings. Although it disappeared from existence, the ancient World Wonder inspired modern artists such as French sculptor, Auguste Bartholdi, best known by his famous work, the 'Statue of Liberty' in New York. Today, the Colossus is regarded as one of the Seven Wonders of the World and a masterpiece of art and engineering.
Helios was the god of the Sun, offspring of the Titans Hyperion and Theia. While it was not specifically the subject of a widespread cult across Greece, many people, including Socrates, would greet the Sun and offer prayers each day, as we are informed by Plato's Symposium and other works. Helios was particularly worshiped in Rhodes. Here he was the most important deity, patron god, and honoured by the "Halieia festival", which were the highlight of the island’s religious calendar and Pan-Hellenic games much like the ancient Olympic Games. In the Hellenistic period (the 4th to 1st century BCE), Helios and the god Apollo would become practically synonymous.
Choice of materials for the Colossus
The choice of bronze, an alloy between copper and iron was chosen with care to build the Colossus. Stronger than iron, it can resist extreme weather conditions. It is therefore well suited to manufacture statues to be exposed to the elements outside, and in particular to sea air laden with salt.
In order to build the Colossus, the military equipment abandoned on the ground by Demetrios Poliorketes, after he was defeated, was sold. Undoubtedly other funding had to be found as well, but it is not known in what proportion it was or who contributed it.
More facts about the Colossus of Rhodes
- There is a relation between the Colossus and the Statue of Liberty in New York. Both monuments were built as symbols of freedom. The Statue of Liberty has been referred to as the “Modern Colossus” and is 34 meters tall. American poet Emma Lazarus (1849–1887) wrote a sonnet named "The New Colossus" in 1883 to raise money for the construction of a pedestal for the Statue of Liberty. In 1903, the poem was cast onto a bronze plaque and mounted inside the pedestal's lower level.
- The statue was actually built with an iron frame, and over this the Rhodians used carved and sculptured brass plates to create the outer structure of Helios.
- The architect of the Colossus, Chares of Lindos was a student of the famous sculptor Lysippus, who had previously created a 19 meter tall statue of Zeus.
- Ptolemy III offered to pay for the reconstruction of the statue, but the oracle of Delphi made the Rhodians afraid that they had offended Helios, and they declined to rebuild it.