The Colossus at Rhodes

One of the Seven Ancient Wonders of the World

The Colossus of Rhodes, an Ancient Wonder of the World
The Colossus of Rhodes (from the series The Eighth Wonders of the World) after Maarten van Heemskerck, 1572. Found in the collection of the Museum Boijmans Van Beuningen, Rotterdam. (Photo by Fine Art Images/Heritage Images/Getty Images)

Located on the island of Rhodes (off the coast of modern Turkey), the Colossus at Rhodes was a giant statue, about 110 feet tall, of the Greek sun-god Helios. Although finished in 282 BCE, this Wonder of the Ancient World only stood for 56 years, when it was toppled by an earthquake. Huge chunks of the former statue stayed on the beaches of Rhodes for 900 years, drawing people around the world to marvel at how man could create something so enormous.

Why Was the Colossus of Rhodes Built?

The city of Rhodes, located on the island of Rhodes, had been under siege for a year. Caught up in the heated and bloody battle between the three successors of Alexander the Great (Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus), Rhodes was attacked by Antigonus’ son, Demetrius, for supporting Ptolemy.

Demetrius tried everything to get inside the high-walled city of Rhodes. He brought 40,000 troops (more than the entire population of Rhodes), catapults, and pirates. He also brought a special corps of engineers that could make siege weapons specially geared to break into this particular city.

The most spectacular thing these engineers built was a 150-foot tower, mounted on iron wheels, that hosted a powerful catapult. To protect its gunners, leather shutters were installed. To protect it from fireballs hurled from the city, each of its nine stories had its own water tank.

It took 3,400 of Demetrius’ soldiers to push this mighty weapon into place.

The citizens of Rhodes, however, flooded the area around their city, causing the mighty tower to wallow in mud. The people of Rhodes had fought back valiantly. When reinforcements came from Ptolemy in Egypt, Demetrius left the area in a hurry.

In such a hurry, that Demetrius left nearly all of this weapons behind.

To celebrate their victory, the people of Rhodes decided to build a giant statue in honor of their patron god, Helios.

How Did They Build Such a Colossal Statue?

Funding is usually a problem for such a large project as the people of Rhodes had in mind; however, that was easily solved by using the weapons that Demetrius had left behind. The people of Rhodes melted down many of the leftover weapons to get bronze, sold other siege weapons for money, and then used the super siege weapon as the scaffolding for the project.

Rhodian sculptor Chares of Lindos, the pupil of Alexander the Great’s sculptor Lysippus, was chosen to create this huge statue. Unfortunately, Chares of Lindos died before the sculpture could be completed. Some say he committed suicide, but that is probably a fable.

Exactly how Chares of Lindos constructed such a gigantic statue is still up for debate. Some have said that he built a huge, earthen ramp that got bigger as the statue got taller. Modern architects, however, have dismissed this idea as unpractical.

We do know that it took 12 years to build the Colossus of Rhodes, likely from 294 to 282 BCE, and cost 300 talents (at least $5 million in modern money).

We also know that the statue had an exterior that consisted of an iron framework covered with bronze plates. Inside were two or three columns of stone that were the main supports for the structure. Iron rods connected the stone columns with the exterior iron framework.

What Did the Colossus of Rhodes Look Like?

The statue was to stand about 110 feet high, on top of a 50-foot stone pedestal (the modern Statue of Liberty is 111 feet high from heel to head). Exactly where the Colossus of Rhodes was built is still not certain, although many believe it was near the Mandraki Harbor.

No one knows exactly what the statue looked like. We know that it was a man and that one of his arms was held aloft. He was likely naked, perhaps holding or wearing a cloth, and wearing a crown of rays (as Helios is often portrayed).

Some have guessed that Helios’ arm was holding a torch.

For four centuries, people have believed that the Colossus of Rhodes was posed with his legs spread apart, one on each side of the harbor. This image stems from a 16th century engraving by Maerten van Heemskerck, which depicts the Colossus in this pose, with ships passing under him. For many reasons, this is very likely not how the Colossus was posed. For one, legs open wide is not a very dignified stance for a god. And another is that to create that pose, the very important harbor would have had to have been closed for years. Thus, it is much more likely that the Colossus was posed with legs together.

The Collapse

For 56 years, the Colossus of Rhodes was a wonder to see. But then, in 226 BCE, an earthquake struck Rhodes and toppled the statue. It is said that the Egyptian King Ptolemy III offered to pay for the Colossus to be rebuilt. However, the people of Rhodes, after consulting an oracle, decided to not rebuild. They believed that somehow the statue had offended the real Helios.

For 900 years, huge pieces of the broken statue lay along the beaches of Rhodes. Interestingly, even these broken pieces were huge and worth seeing. People traveled far and wide to see the ruins of the Colossus. As one ancient writer, Pliny, described after seeing it in the 1st century CE,

Even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few people can clasp the thumb in their arms, and its fingers are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning in the interior. Within it, too, are to be seen large masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it.*

In 654 CE, Rhodes was conquered, this time by Arabs. As spoils of war, the Arabs cut apart the remains of the Colossus and shipped the bronze to Syria to sell. It is said that it took 900 camels to carry all that bronze.

* Robert Silverberg, The Seven Wonders of the Ancient World (New York: Macmillan Company, 1970) 99.