Colossus of Rhodes
The Colossus stood at the harbour entrance
Travellers to New York City harbour see a marvellous sight. Standing on a
small island in the harbour is an immense statue of a robed woman, holding
a book and lifting a torch to the sky. The statue measures almost
one-hundred and twenty feet from foot to crown. It is sometimes referred
to as the "Modern Colossus," but more often called the Statue of Liberty.
This awe-inspiring statue
was a gift from France to America and is easily recognized by people
around the world. What many visitors to this shrine to freedom don't know
is that the statue, the "Modern Colossus," is the echo of another statue,
the original colossus that stood over two thousand years ago at the
entrance to another busy harbour on the Island of Rhodes. Like the Statue
of Liberty, this colossus was also built as a celebration of freedom. This
amazing statue, standing the same height from toe to head as the modern
colossus, was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.
The island of Rhodes was
an important economic centre in the ancient world. It is located off the
South-western tip of Asia Minor where the Aegean Sea meets the
Mediterranean. The capitol city, also named Rhodes, was built in 408 B.C.
and was designed to take advantage of the island's best natural harbour on
the northern coast.
In 357 B.C. the island was
conquered by Mausolus of Halicarnassus (whose tomb is one of the other
Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), fell into Persian hands in 340 B.C.,
and was finally captured by Alexander the Great in 332 B.C.. When
Alexander died of a fever at an early age, his generals fought bitterly
among themselves for control of Alexander's vast kingdom. Three of them,
Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigous, succeeded in dividing the kingdom among
The Rhodians supported
Ptolemy (who wound up ruling Egypt) in this struggle. This angered
Antigous who sent his son Demetrius to capture and punish the city of
The war was long and
painful. Demetrius brought an army of 40,000 men. This was more than the
entire population of Rhodes. He also augmented his force by using Aegean
The city was protected by
a strong, tall, wall and the attackers were forced to use siege towers to
try and climb over it. Siege towers were wooden structures often armed
with catapults that could be moved up to a defender's walls to allow the
attackers to scale them. While some were designed to be rolled up on land,
Demetrius used a giant tower mounted on top of six ships lashed together
to make his attack. This tower, though, was turned over and smashed when a
storm suddenly approached. The battle was won by the Rhodians.
Demetrius had a second
super-tower built. This one stood almost 150 feet high and some 75 feet
square at the base. It was equipped with many catapults and skinned with
wood and leather to protect the troops inside from archers. It even
carried water tanks that could be used to fight fires started by flaming
arrows. This tower was mounted on iron wheels and could be rolled up to
When Demetrius attacked
the city, the defenders stopped the war machine by flooding a ditch
outside the walls and miring the heavy monster 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
To celebrate their victory
and freedom, the Rhodians decided to build a giant statue of their patron
god Helios. They melted down bronze from the many war machines Demetrius
left behind for the exterior of the figure and the super siege tower
became the scaffolding for the project. According to Pliny, a historian
who lived several centuries after the Colossus was built, construction
took 12 years. Other historians place the start of the work in 304 B.C..
The statue was one hundred
and ten feet high and stood upon a fifty-foot pedestal near the harbour
mole. Although the statue has been popularly depicted with its legs
spanning the harbour entrance so that ships could pass beneath, 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 the Greeks would
have depicted one of their gods in such an awkward manner. In addition,
such a pose would mean 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). According to the book of
Pilon of Byzantium, 15 tons of bronze were used and 9 tons of iron, though
these numbers seem low. The Statue of Liberty, roughly of the same size,
weighs 225 tons. The Colossus, which relied on weaker materials, must have
weighed at least as much and probably more.
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 then
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.
Comparing the Statue of Liberty with the Colossus:
Though the bodies are the same size the Statue stands higher because of
the taller pedestal and upraised torch.
The architect of this
great construction was Chares of Lindos, a Rhodian sculptor who was a
patriot and fought in defence of the city. Chares had been involved with
large scale statues before. His teacher, Lysippus, had constructed a
60-foot high likeness of Zeus. Chares probably started by making smaller
versions of the statue, maybe three feet high, then used these as a guide
to shaping each of the bronze plates of the skin.
It is believed Chares did
not live to see his project finished. There are several legends 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.
The Colossus stood proudly
at the harbour entrance for some fifty-six years. Each morning the sun
must have caught its polished bronze surface and made the god's figure
shine. Then an earthquake hit Rhodes and the statue collapsed. Huge pieces
of the figure lay along the harbour for centuries.
"Even as it lies," wrote
Pliny, "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."
It is said that an
Egyptian king 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 seventh century
A.D. the Arabs conquered Rhodes and broke the remains of the Colossus up
into smaller pieces and sold it as scrap metal. Legend says it took 900
camels to carry away the statue. A sad end for what must have been a
majestic work of art.