Hellenistic Structures > Colossus of Rhodes

Colossus of Rhodes

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Background

The Colossus of Rhodes was a massive statue created at the Greek city-state of Rhodes. It is featured as one of the four Greek structures to be picked as one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. This list includes other structures such as the Statue of Zeus at Olympia, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus and the Mausoleum at Halicarnassus.

The Colossus of Rhodes was created during the late 4th century (early 300's) BCE when the city-state of Rhodes allied with the Macedonian general Ptolemy I during the Wars of the Diadochi in the aftermath of the death of Alexander III the Great. Ptolemy representing the Ptolemaic Kingdom used his Hellenistic Egyptian navy to defend Rhodes and prevented an invasion from Antigonus I Monophthalmus from neighboring Cyprus during the Siege of Rhodes. Victorious, they collected all the remnant weapons and gear and salvaged it to create the massive statue.

Ancient History - Colossus of Rhodes 16th Century

Colossus of Rhodes - Maerten van Heemskerck (1572)

The Colossus is one of the most magnificent and short lived of the ancient world wonders. Only standing intact for five decades, the statue was toppled early in its existence by earthquakes much like the Pharos Lighthouse. Its beauty and wonder have lived on long past its existence however, inspiring countless other sculptures and statues and living on in the imagination of scholars and artists the world over.

The Colossus of Rhodes was the tallest bronze statue in the ancient world and there are numerous mysterious that surround it. No one knows exactly what it looked like, where it was positioned or how it was constructed. Archaeologists have attempted to uncover these clues but have come up empty. Artists have widely different interpretations of the statue and until we recover the statue which is highly unlikely these questions may never be answered.

Origins

The origins of the Colossus of Rhodes go all the way back to Alexander the Great and his conquest of the known world. Upon his sudden and mysterious death, his kingdom was broken up and divided among 3 of his generals in a series of conflicts that became known as the Wars of the Diadochi. When Rhodes decided to back Ptolemy and his Ptolemaic Kingdom, Antigonus I Monophthalmus sent his son Demetrius I Poliorcetes to conquer and subdue the city with 40,000 men in 304 BCE.

During the Siege of Rhodes, Demetrius attacked the walls of the city with siege towers 150 feet tall but was unable to capture the city. Upon the arrival of Ptolemy I Soter and his navy the soldiers retreated, leaving behind all their equipment and weapons included the massive siege towers. Some suggest that the Colossus was built on the framework of these massive siege towers but that does not make sense given their wooden construction.

Structures - Colossus of Rhodes - Lassus (1880)

Colossus of Rhodes - Lassus (1880)

After the soldiers ran away, the people of Rhodes collected the enemies supplies and salvaged or sold them off to build a great statue in honor of their patron god Helios that they believe granted the victory. Called the Colossus of Rhodes, it was one of the largest statues ever created in history and the fate of which is generally unknown. The equipment and weapons were sold for around 300 talents which considering each talent is 928 ounces of silver, at a rate of $16.00 per ounce of silver the total value of these reported weapons was about $4.5 million. This would have been more than enough money to commission something of this nature and the process began.

Construction

Construction on the Colossus of Rhodes began in 292 BC, the methods of which vary slightly. What is known is that the statue was to be constructed in honor of the sun god Helios that was the patron god of the island of Rhodes. A Greek named Chares from Lindos of Rhodes was given the job of constructing the statue. Chares was already incredibly gifted at creating massive sculptures and had been trained by some of the best artisans in all of Greece. His teacher was sculptor Lysippos who had managed to create a 22 meter (72 foot) bronze statue of Zeus that was located at the city of Tarentum.

Ancient accounts suggest that the height of the Colossus was between 30m (98 ft) and 60 m (ft) and contained over 200 tons of bronze however, not much is actually known about this massive statue. No one knows where it was located, how it was positioned, what it looked like or how it was constructed. There are all kinds of differing accounts, but the general description of the statue can be gained from looking at contemporary works depicting Helios.

Structures - Colossus of Rhodes

Colossus of Rhodes -

The Colossus was built on a 15 m (49 ft) tall white marble pedestal near the entrance to the Mandraki Harbor. Preserved in the ancient Greek Anthology was the inscription that was on the base of the Colossus of Rhodes. It is an inspiring quote that shows the Rhodes peaceful nature and their desire to build something beautiful out of what their enemy left behind. It shows they championed freedom and independence and this statue was meant to be a beacon of those ideals, visible for all those who sailed near the harbor. The inscirption read:

To you, o Sun, the people of Dorian Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.

The records differ on the exact method of construction, with some saying it was built with iron tie bars and then the brass plates were affixed after. Next, stone blocks were filled in to add structure and support. It is believed that some of the iron and bronze weapons may have been reforged to make the tie rods and the plates, with the abandoned siege towers providing the perfect scaffolding materials.

Modern engineers believe that have an idea of how the statue itself was constructed. They used the first hand accounts of Philo and Pliny who described the remains of the statue in their analysis. This method of construction assumes that the statue was constructed on the hill overlooking the harbor rather than the harbor itself. According to them the base was at least 18 m (60 ft) in diameter and was either circular or octagonal. The feet were carved out of stone and covered with bronze plates that were riveted together. There were eight iron forged bars that formed the ankles and the legs.

Ancient History - Colossus of Rhodes 1911

Colossus of Rhodes - Book of Knowledge (1911)

The frame was made out of wood and next individually cast bronze plates that were 1,500 mm (60 in) with turned in edges were riveted together to form a series of rings. The lower plates were about 25 mm (1 in) thick up until the knee and were about 3/4 an inch thick from the knee to the abdomen. The upper plates were between 1/4 and 1/2 inches thick on all pieces except for the joints which obviously had to be reinforced in order to maintain structural integrity. This statue was not constructed with earthquakes in mind and therefore contributed to its early demise.

As the statue was constructed the Greeks built a massive, 100 foot earthen mound around the statue which was then dug it out after when they were completed. If the statue was constructed at the harbor, this method would have been impossible to do. Regardless of method, after twelve years the Colossus of Rhodes was completed in 280 BCE.

Location

There is some debate among historians and archaeologists over the position of the Colossus and its representation. Many artists depictions and renditions show the Colossus towering over the harbor, with boats passing between its legs. However, this may be just fantasy as the statue would have to be absolutely enormous to allow the ancient Greek, Phoenicia and Egyptian boats to pass underneath.

The modern opening of the Rhodes harbor spans several hundred meters so if the Colossus really spanned this with just its legs, the actual statue itself would have been one of the largest structures ever built in all history.

Colossos of Rhodes - Colossus of Rhodes (Turris Babel)

Colossus of Rhodes - Turris Babel

Next, some believe that the statue was just that given the historical dimensions, a regular statue that was positioned near the harbor to help guide ships in, a sort of lighthouse necessary for the island city-state of Rhodes. Others believe it was not located at the harbor at all but more further inland. Still even further, people debate that the Colossus was situated on a breakwater in the harbor itself. So where was this magnificent structure located and where was it position?

Destruction

After its successful construction, the Colossus of Rhodes stood for 56 years before being toppled by a massive earthquake that did significant damage to Rhodes. During this earthquake the harbor and a lot of commercial buildings were destroyed and the statue which stood guard, snapped at the knees and fell onto land.

After hearing about this terrible tragedy, Ptolemy the III Euergetes offered to pay for the statue to be repaired however, the Oracle of Delphi warned against this. She said it would offend the god Helios so the people of Rhodes just elected to let it just lay where it fell. The remains of the statue lay that way for over 800 years as it continued to be a tourist attraction and draw people from all over the world. Even in its destroyed state the statue still remained one of the worlds wonders.

According to ancient Greek accounts, only a few people could wrap their arms around the thumb of the statue and that just the fingers were larger than most statues in existence at the time. That would make the Colossus of Rhodes one of the largest edifices ever created in history actually. The tremendous weight of the statue along with its height and lack of understanding in creating earthquake proof buildings resulted in the Colossus' early death. All of the weight was focused on the joints at the knees, much like any large person today. And all it took was a little of the ground shaking to end the Colossus for good.

One man is responsible for the final account of the Colossus. After existing broken for centuries, by 653 AD according to The Chronicle of Theophanes the Confessor, the statues materials were salvaged and sold to a Jewish merchant after Rhodes was taken over by the Muslim caliph Muawiyah I. The bronze was loaded on 900 camels and transported back to the Middle East where its final use remains unknown. The same story is retold by a man named Barhebraeus who wrote in the 13th century. He cites Theopanes as his source and writes:

"And a great number of men hauled on strong ropes which were tied round the brass Colossus which was in the city and pulled it down. And they weighed from it three thousand loads of Corinthian brass, and they sold it to a certain Jew from Emesa" (the Syrian city of Homs)."

However, this conflicts with other evidence that the Colossus of Rhodes was gone lone before the Arab's even arrived. Some researchers suggest that this story would have been compelling to Christian people in the Middle Ages as the story would have fulfilled a prophecy by Nebuchadnezzar II that the destruction of a great statue would bring about an apocalypse. Therefore it was made up in order to reconcile the pagan statue in the new Christian belief.

Modern Day

To this day we have no idea where the Colossus ended up or what really happened to it. Researchers believe they may have found the base of the statue located a little inland from the harbor, but this could be anything really. This is one of the cooler statues to have been built during the ancient period and it would be nice to get a little more information regarding its eventual fate. It is known to have been the inspiration behind many later statues such as the Colossus of Nero and the modern Statue of Liberty.

Seven Wonders of the Ancient World

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Ptolemaic Structures

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