Meaning and Symbolism of the Colossus of Rhodes, One of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World
The Colossus of Rhodes was a 3rd-century BC statue in ancient Greece. Built in the city of Rhodes, which is the largest island in the Dodecanese, Greece, the statue was in honor of the Greek sun-god Helios. Rhodians erected to commemorate their steadfast defense against a siege mounted by Macedonian king Demetrius of the Antigonid dynasty.
Considered one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the magnificent statue of Helios evoked a lot of fascination among ancient scholars, rulers and geographers. It also inspired a lot of literary works and artworks in the modern era, most famous among them the Rhodes Colossus caricature. Like many of its compatriots on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Colossus of Rhodes fell.
What happened to this statue of Helios? And are there any ruins of the statue that survive to this day?
In the article below, World History Edu provides answers to above question. The article also explores how the Colossus of Rhodes became one of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world.
How and why did the Colossus of Rhodes make it on to the list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World?
The items on the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World were general described as ancient authors and geographers as theamata – i.e. things worth seeing. The list was eventually compiled from different and fragmented textual sources that described the wonders Hellenistic scholars witnessed during their travels in the region.
The list of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World was compiled by various Greek authors, including Antipater of Sidon and Philo of Byzantium, in the 2nd century BC. The list was a way to celebrate the most impressive architectural and artistic achievements of the ancient world.
The Colossus of Rhodes met all the criteria to be included on the list. It was an enormous statue that stood at the entrance to one of the most important harbors in the ancient world, symbolizing the city’s power and wealth. It was also a remarkable engineering feat, as it was one of the largest bronze statues ever built at the time, and required advanced techniques to construct and assemble.
Additionally, the statue was designed and created by one of the most renowned sculptors of the time, Chares of Lindos, who was well-known for his artistic talent.
Why was Rhodes important in the ancient world?
Known as the largest Dodecanese island, Rhodes occupied a strategic location in southeast of the Aegean Sea; it was almost at the crossroads between Europe and the Near East. It’s said that the city was established around the mid-5th century BC, and over time, it incorporated smaller cities like Lindos and Ialyssos.
In the centuries that followed, Rhodes became a wealthy city and a major center for maritime trade, with a large fleet of ships that dominated the eastern Mediterranean.
Additionally, the city was a cultural and intellectual center in the ancient world. It was home to one of the most prestigious centers of learning in the ancient world, the Rhodian School of Rhetoric, which attracted students from all over the Greek-speaking world.
As a result of its geopolitical position, the city of Rhodes was periodically caught between Athenian and Spartan tussle for hegemony. Both of those powers tried to bring the island into their respective orbits of control.
The city remained largely autonomous until the rise of the Romans in the 3rd and 2nd centuries BC. For example, by 160 BC, the people of Rhodes had come under the control of the Romans.
Siege of Rhodes (305 BC – 304 BC)
Following Alexander the Great’s death in 323 BC, a fierce power struggle ensued among his generals, i.e. the diadochi. Those generals carved a slice of the deceased conqueror’s vast empire and went on to establish powerful, long-lasting dynasties.
Intermittently the various Hellenistic kingdoms would wage war against each other in order to claim the title of Alexander the Great’s true successor.
Over time, a few alliances were formed here and there. It was inevitable that situation would get worse as alliances changed.
As the 4th century BC drew to an end, one of Alexander the Great’s successors Demetrius Poliocretes placed the city of Rhodes under siege. Leaders of the city had incurred the wrath of Poliocretes simply because they struck an alliance with the Ptolemaic dynasty in Alexandria, Egypt. The Rhodian-Ptolemaic alliance hampered the Macedonian king’s attempt of a full scale invasion of Alexandria.
At the time, Rhodes – a city in the Aegean Sea – was known for the mighty naval strength. Demetrius therefore bolstered his alliances with the various pirates in the Mediterranean.
Demetrius besieged the city of Rhodes in 305 BC. With the help of their ally, the Alexandrians in Egypt, Rhodes was well-prepared for the siege. The city’s walls were reinforced with towers and other defenses, and the Rhodian navy was a formidable force that could defend the city from the sea.
And even though Demetrius and his forces temporarily went past the defensive system of the city’s walls, Rhodians managed to fight back and repel the invaders, both from land and sea.
After more than a year of no progress, Demetrius completely abandoned the siege in 304 BC. Per the agreement struck with the Macedonians, the rulers of Rhodes agreed to stay neutral in the power struggle among the diadochi.
Rhodes emerged from the siege victorious, and the city continued to thrive as an important center of commerce and culture in the eastern Mediterranean.
Why was the Colossus of Rhodes built?
The Rhodians saw their successful defense against the powerful Macedonians as an event worth celebrating. They sold the siege equipment left behind by Demetrius’ forces. The proceeds from the sale was used to construct the giant statue – the Colossus of Rhodes – in honor of the Greek sun god Helios, who was also the patron god of the Rhodians. Basically, the Colossus of Rhodes a victory monument.
Who built the statue?
It is said that Rhodian architect Chares of Lindos was responsible for the project. Chares was said to be a former student of Lysippos, the famous artist whose works dazzled Alexander the Great himself.
Who was the Greek god Helios?
Helios was venerated in the ancient Greek world as a sun deity. As the personification of the sun, Helios has the ability to see and hear everything that occurred on earth. He once witnessed the kidnapping of the goddess Persephone by Hades, the lord of the underworld and older brother of Zeus.
Helios was believed to reside in a palace in the east, from where he emerged each day to begin his journey across the sky. In addition to his role as a bringer of light, Helios was also associated with knowledge and prophecy. According to some myths, he could reveal secrets and hidden truths.
He is often depicted wearing a crown with spikes, almost like the rays of the sun, symbolizing his association with the sun. Another very important depiction of Helios sees him riding his golden chariot, which is drawn by four powerful horses as he pulls the sun across the sky. The ancient Greeks believed that Helios ride across the sky caused the rise of the sun each day.
One time, his incorrigible mortal son Phaethon lost control of Helios’s chariot and almost crashed it into the earth. The crash came close to obliterating the earth. Zeus, the king of the gods, was quick to intervene and struck Phaeton with one of his lightning bolts. The young deity was killed on the spot.
- 24 Bright Facts About Apollo, the Greek god of the Sun
- The Myths and Facts About Ares- the Greek God of War
In another myth (from Homer’s Odyssey), Odysseus’s crew incurs the wrath of Helios after the crew eat the sacred cattle of Helios at Thinacia. Helios pleads with Zeus to exact a terrible punishment on the men. Zeus had to oblige as Helios had threatened to take the sun to the Underworld. The crew of Odysseus were struck down by Zeus’s lightning bolts.
He fathered a number of children with the nymph Rhodos. Some of those children became the founders of the city of Rhodes.
In honor of Helios, Rhodians had a festival called the Halieia. Leaders of the city organized a number of events during the festival, including chariot and horse racing. There were also gymnastics, music and dancing. According to Roman author Festus, Rhodians sometimes sacrificed a chariot of four horses into the sea during the festival.
How long did it take to build the Colossus of Rhodes?
According to ancient texts, construction of the giant statue took about 12 years to complete. It’s said that construction started around 292 BC. What this means is that the project started about 10 years after the Siege of Rhodes ended.
The major components of the statue were iron and bronze, materials that were taken from the siege equipment abandoned by Demetrius’s forces.
Height of the Colossus of Rhodes
Ancient texts claim that the statue stood at about 70 cubits, which is around 32 meters (105 ft.). At the time, it was the tallest statue in the ancient world. According to some ancient sources, the giant statue stood on a pedestal that was about 15 meters (49 ft.) tall.
The Roman historian and author Pliny the Elder once stated that statue was so huge that the fingers were even larger than most statues. It must be noted that Pliny only saw the broken down statue. According to Pliny, the builders of the statue used large rocks to ensure that the statue was stable.
Location of the statue
To this day, it remains where exactly on the island of Rhodes the statue was situated. Neither do we know the posture of the statue.
Some ancient writers posit that the statue bestride the entrance to the very popular harbor at Rhodes. That way, ships entering the harbor went underneath the giant statue’s legs.
However, some historians have raised doubts about this particular posture, stating that in order for the Rhodians to pull of such feat, they would have had to close the harbor for the entirety or large periods during the construction. Considering how vital the harbor was to the city, it’s most likely that it was not closed.
How did the Colossus of Rhodes look like?
With regard to how the statue looked like, one simply can take inferences from the popular depictions of the Greek god Helios. One common depiction of Helios is his radiant crown and curled locks. Therefore, it’s likely that the Colossus of Rhodes also took a similar feature.
However, the exact appearance of the Colossus is not known for certain, as no images of the statue have survived to the present day. Based on descriptions from ancient sources, we know for a fact that the statue was a magnificent and imposing sight, with intricate detailing and a sense of motion and dynamism.
What caused the Colossus of Rhodes to fall?
In terms of longevity, the Colossus of Rhodes is said to have had the shortest lifespan. Unlike the Great Pyramid of Giza in Egypt, which remains largely intact to this day, the Colossus of Rhodes came crashing down about six decades into its life.
Contrary to popular belief, the Colossus of Rhodes did not actually fall. Instead, it was destroyed by an earthquake in 226 BC, just over 50 years after its construction. It’s very likely that the fallen debris of the statue took out many buildings in the surrounding area.
For those that claim that the statue was situated bestriding the harbor, then the ruins of the statue would undoubtedly have caused a blocked of the harbor. Were that to happen, the inhabitants of Rhodes would have been plunged into despair as the harbor was really important to the survival of the city.
It’s said that the remains of the giant statue simply laid on the ground for more than seven centuries. As a matter of fact, at the time Pliny the Elder wrote about the statue, the statue had already fallen. Thus, the Roman writer never had the chance to see the statue in its full glory.
Strabo, an ancient Greek geographer from the 1st century BC, stated that there some attempts, led by Ptolemaic ruler Ptolemy III, to re-erect the statue. According to Strabo, the statue had broken at the knees. The decision not to re-erect the statue was due to stark warnings from the oracle to inhabitants of Rhodians.
What happened to the ruins of the Colossus of Rhodes?
In 653, Arab general Muawiyah I raided the city of Rhodes. According to Byzantine chronicler Theophanes the Confessor, once the city had been brought under Muawiyah’s control, he ordered for the remains of the statue to be melted down and sold to a Jewish merchant.
The Colossus of Rhodes, which was birth from the spoils of war (i.e. the abandoned siege equipment of Demetrius’ forces, suffered a fate similar to its birth. In the mid-7th century, an Arab force, under the command of general Muawiyah, invaded the city of Rhodes. According to a Byzantine historian called Theophanes the Confessor, the Arab general ordered the ruins of the Colossus of Rhodes to be melted and the metal then sold.
The question that begs to be answered is: why did Rhodians leave the ruins of the Colossus of Rhodes intact for all that while – i.e. for over seven centuries? Surely they could have melted that ruins and repurposed into some industrial endeavor. It’s possible that no Rhodian wanted anything to do with the ruins due to warning issued by the oracle.
Legacy of the Colossus of Rhodes
Since it was erected in the 3rd century BC, the imagery and depictions of the Colossus of Rhodes have featured in many artworks. Its sheer size and association with the god Helios made it very fascinating to many ancient rulers, scholars and writers.
Take the instance of Roman emperor Vespasian, the Roman leader who began the construction of the Colosseum of Rome; it’s said that Vespasian repurposed a gargantuan statue of his predecessor, infamous Roman emperor Nero. Located on the emperor’s prestigious lake residence, the statue of Nero is said to have been even bigger than the Colossus of Rhodes.
After the death of Nero, Vespasian turned the statue into the statue of the Roman sun god Sol. Vespasian and his successors also drained the lake and began the construction of the Colosseum, also known as the Flavian Amphitheatre.
The Rhodes Colossus versus the Colossus of Rhodes
To communicate the vast nature of British possession on the African continent, an artwork of Cecil John Rhodes – a famous British imperialist and business mogul – was made in the 19th century.
The editorial cartoon, which was illustrated by English cartoonist Edward Linley Sambourne, shows Cecil Rhodes bestriding Cairo and Cape Town. Interconnecting those two areas are the telegraph line and the rail, symbolizing the British Empire’s strong ambition to build a “Cape to Cairo” network. The work, which was published by Punch magazine in 1892, has also alluded to Europe’s mad scramble for Africa, which began in the late 19th century.
Depicted in an open armed stance, the British diplomat and businessman Rhodes has in his right hand a pith helmet and a rifle slung around his right shoulder.
After more than four centuries of looting the continent Africa (through the transatlantic slave trade), as well as buoyed on by the Industrial Revolution, European nations, including Britain, were simply too powerful and influential at the time. The Rhodes Colossus captures this theme brilliantly in the powerful and open armed stance given to Cecil Rhodes in the caricature.
American author Adam Hochschild stated in his book “King Leopold’s Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism, in Colonial Africa” that Cecil Rhodes and the British Empire’s ambition was so great that if they had the chance to annex the planets, they would not hesitate.
The Colossus of the Pacific
Across the Atlantic, there was also a Colossus-of-Rhodes-inspired caricature. Published in 1898, the caricature was titled “Colossus of the Pacific” – which in many ways referenced Sambourne’s 1892 cartoon. It represented the United States’ imperialist (i.e. New Imperialism) drive in the Pacific. The caricature came almost the same time of U.S. victory in the Spanish-American War.
Did the Colossus of Rhodes straddle the harbor at the entrance?
Many scholars have debunked the theory that the Colossus of Rhodes straddled the harbor, with one foot on either side of the harbor and ships passing under it.
Some have called such views as something nothing short of a fragment of medieval imaginations. This is because to have such a stance, engineers would have had to dredge the harbor, which would mean completely closing the harbor for 12 years. Such a closure would undoubtedly have devastated the lives of Rhodians as the city relied heavily on the harbor.
And with Emma Lazarus’ poem for the Statue of Liberty drawing some bit of parallels to the Colossus of Rhodes, there has been a temptation by some modern artists to depict the Colossus of Rhodes holding a torch.
However, there is no evidence to support such depictions. The generally accepted posture of the Colossus of Rhodes is that the figure had his hand raised to his eyes, almost as if trying to shield his eyes from the sun’s bright rays.
Did you know…?
Although the Colossus of Rhodes was destroyed more than 2,000 years ago, it continues to be a symbol of ancient Greek art, engineering, and culture. Its legacy has endured through the ages, and the statue has had a lasting impact on art, literature, and popular culture.
Below are a few more interesting facts about the statue and its legacy:
- Due to sheer magnificence of the statue, the Rhodians came to be called Colessaeans, according the Suda, the 10th-century Byzantine encyclopedia.
- Contrary to popularly held view that the Colossus of Rhodes was located near the harbor entrance, German archeologist Ursula Vedder (1955-2018) stated that the statue was nowhere near the harbor entrance, instead it was situated at the Helios sanctuary, i.e. the Acropolis of Rhodes. That would mean that the statue stood in an area that overlooked the harbor.
- The Colossus of Rhodes has played an important role in shaping the identity and culture of the people of Rhodes. The statue was a source of pride for the people of the island, and its destruction was a significant loss for them. To this day, it continues to be celebrated in various ways, including through the annual Rhodes International Film Festival, which features an award named after the Colossus.
The Colossus of Rhodes and Emma Lazarus’s “The New Colossus”
Bronze plaque on the pedestal of the Statue of Liberty contains “The New Colossus”, the famous sonnet by Emma Lazarus. The American poet wrote the poem to raise support and donations for the construction of Lady Liberty’s pedestal. Lazarus’s poem evokes images of an ancient monument known as the Colossus of Rhodes.
Like the Colossus of Rhodes, which was said to stand at the entrance of the harbor in Rhodes, the Lazarus’s poem hoped to use the Statue of Liberty to symbolize America’s open immigration policy and portray America as the refuge for immigrants fleeing horrific conditions. Both works have a kind of universal symbolism, representing the idea of opportunity and freedom.
FACT CHECK: At worldhistoryedu.com, we strive for utmost accuracy and objectivity. But if you come across something that doesn’t look right, don’t hesitate to leave a comment below.