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The Colossus of Rhodes

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On a small island in the harbour of New York stands an immense statue of a robed woman, holding a book and lifting a torch to the sky. At almost 36.5m from foot to crown, it is sometimes referred to as the 'Modern Colossus'. It is more often called the Statue of Liberty.

The Original

This awe-inspiring statue, built by the French sculptor Auguste Bartholdi, was a gift from France to America. What many visitors to this shrine to freedom don't know is that the Statue of Liberty is the echo of another statue, the original Colossus, which loomed over the entrance to another busy harbour on the island of Rhodes, 2,000 years ago.

Like the Statue of Liberty, the Colossus of Rhodes was also built as a celebration of freedom. This amazing statue, standing the same height1 from toe to head as the modern colossus, was one of the world's Seven Ancient Wonders.

The Island of Rhodes

The island of Rhodes, located off the southwestern tip of Asia Minor, where the Aegean Sea meets the Mediterranean, was an important economic centre in the ancient world. Fought over by several nations, including Turkey and Italy, it is now one of the islands of the modern state of Greece.

Throughout most of its history, ancient Greece consisted of city-states, which had limited power beyond their boundaries. On the small island of Rhodes were three of these: Ialysos, Kamiros, and Lindos. In 408 BC, the cities united to form one territory, with a unified capital, Rhodes. The city of Rhodes was designed to take advantage of the island's best natural harbour on the northern coast.


In 357 BC, the island was conquered by Mausolus of Halicarnassus, whose tomb is one of the other Seven Wonders of the Ancient World; it fell into Persian hands in 340 BC; and was finally captured by Alexander the Great in 332 BC.

When Alexander died of a fever at the age of 32 in 323 BC, his generals fought bitterly for control of the vast kingdom. Three of them, Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigous Monophthalmus ('One-Eyed'), succeeded in dividing the kingdom among themselves.

The Rhodians supported Ptolemy2 in this struggle. This angered Antigous, who sent his son, Demetrius, to capture and punish the city of Rhodes. The war was long and painful. Demetrius brought an army of 40,000 men, which was more than the entire population of Rhodes. He also augmented his force by using Aegean pirates.

City under Siege

The city of Rhodes was protected by a strong, tall wall; and the attackers were forced to use siege towers (moveable wooden structures, often armed with catapults) to attempt to climb over it. Demetrius used a giant tower mounted on top of six ships, lashed together, to make his attack. Unluckily for him, the tower was turned over and smashed by a sudden storm; and the battle was won by the Rhodians.

Demetrius, who was nothing if not obstinate, had a second supertower built. This one stood almost 46m high and some 23m square at the base. It was equipped with many catapults and sheathed with wood and leather to protect the troops inside from archers. It even carried water tanks, which could be used to fight fires started by the enemy's flaming arrows. This tower was mounted on iron wheels, and could be rolled up to the walls.

When Demetrius attacked the city, the defenders stopped the war machine by flooding a ditch outside the walls, miring the juggernaut in the mud. By then, almost a year had gone by and a fleet of ships from Egypt arrived to assist the city. Demetrius withdrew quickly, leaving the great siege tower where it was.

Building a God

To celebrate their victory and freedom, the Rhodians decided to build a giant statue of their patron deity, Helios, the Sun God. They melted down bronze from the many war machines Demetrius had left behind for the exterior of the figure; and the super siege tower became the scaffolding for the project. According to the Roman historian Pliny the Elder, construction took 12 years. Other historians place the start of the work in 304 BC.

The statue was 33.5m high and stood upon a 15m pedestal near the harbour mole3. Although the statue has been popularly depicted with its legs spanning the harbour entrance, so that ships could pass beneath, there is speculation that it was actually posed in a more traditional Greek manner: nude, wearing a spiked crown, shading its eyes from the rising sun with its right hand, while holding a cloak over its left.

No ancient account mentions the harbour-spanning pose; and it seems unlikely that the Greeks would have depicted one of their gods in such an awkward manner. In addition, such a pose would have meant shutting down the harbour during the construction, something not economically feasible.

The statue was constructed of bronze plates over an iron framework, very similar to the Statue of Liberty, which is copper over a steel frame. The Statue of Liberty, roughly of the same size, weighs 204,000kg. The Colossus, which relied on weaker materials, must have weighed at least as much and probably more. According to the book of Pilon of Byzantium, 13,600kg of bronze and 8160kg of iron were used, though these numbers seem low.

Ancient accounts tell us that inside the statue were several stone columns, which acted as the main support. Iron beams were driven into the stone and connected with the bronze outer skin. Each bronze plate had to be carefully cast, hammered into the right shape for its location in the figure, then hoisted into position and riveted to the surrounding plates and the iron frame.

The Architect

The architect of this great construction was Chares of Lindos, a Rhodian sculptor, a patriot who had fought in defense of the city. He had also been involved with large scale statues before. His teacher, Lysippus, had constructed a 18.5m high likeness of Zeus.

Chares probably started by making smaller versions of the statue, maybe 1m high, then used these as a guide to shaping each of the bronze plates of the skin.

It is believed that Chares did not live to see his project finished. There are several legends stating that he committed suicide. In one tale he has almost finished the statue when someone points out a small flaw in the construction. The sculptor is so ashamed of it he kills himself.

In another version the city fathers decide to double the height of the statue. Chares only doubles his fee, forgetting that doubling the height will mean an eightfold increase in the amount of materials needed. This drives him into bankruptcy and suicide.

There is no evidence that either of these tales are true.

Short-Time Wonder

The Colossus stood proudly at the harbour entrance for some 56 years. Each morning the sun must have caught its polished bronze surface and made the god's figure shine... at least until verdigris turned him green. Then an earthquake hit Rhodes and the statue collapsed. The Delphic Oracle warned the Rhodians not to restore the Colossus; and the crumpled bronze lay where it had fallen for 900 years.

Even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few men 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.
- Pliny the Elder

It is said that the Egyptian king, Ptolemy III Eurgetes (Ptolemy I Soter's Grandson) offered to pay for its reconstruction, but the Rhodians refused. They feared that somehow the statue had offended the god Helios, who used the earthquake to throw it down.

In the middle of the 7th Century, the Arabs conquered Rhodes and broke the remains of the Colossus up into smaller pieces. They sold it as scrap metal to a Jewish merchant from Syria. Legend says it took 900 camels to carry away the statue, a sad end for what must have been a majestic work of art.

1Though the bodies are said to be the same size, the Statue of Liberty stands higher than the ancient colossus because of the taller pedestal and the upraised torch.2Ptolemy I Soter wound up ruling Egypt.3A mole is, among many other things (including hairy pimples, small mammals, and spies), a wall used as a breakwater, such as may enclose a harbour.

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