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The Colossus of Rhodes
An unrealistic artist's conception of the Colossus of Rhodes
In 305 BC Antigonus the One-Eyed, a powerful ruler of Macedonia and one of Alexander the Great's most successful generals, called upon the island of Rhodes to join him in a war against his rival, King Ptolemy I of Egypt. The Rhodians, however, could ill afford to go to war with Egypt, their largest trading partner, and so they refused Antigonus's offer.
To express his displeasure with this decision, Antigonus sent his son Demetrius Poliorcetes ("The Besieger") to attack Rhodes with an army of 40,000 soldiers. Demetrius was skilled in directing catapults and battering rams to crush city walls, and upon landing on the island he immediately began his efforts to break down its fortifications and defenses.
Demetrius's tortoise-like armored battering rams were 180 feet long and manned by one thousand men, and his giant catapults threw 180-pound stone balls a quarter of a mile. Probably his most fearsome device was an enormous wheeled fortified tower called Helepolis (the "Taker of Cities"). This tower was 50 feet square at its base, more than 100 feet tall, and was armed with its own banks of catapults and sling throwers. The outlook for the island of Rhodes was grim.
Rhodes Fights Back
Surprisingly, the people of Rhodes put up a daring resistance, and with some help from King Ptolemy their cities withstood the assault. When several of Demetrius 's siege towers were destroyed—mired down in mud created by the Rhodians, who flooded the enemy encampment—Antigonus realized that his son's forces could no longer prevail, and ordered Demetrius to make terms and abandon the island.
Demetrius reluctantly moved on to other conquests, but he left behind many of his expensive siege engines as a gift, reputedly because he was impressed with the spirit of the Rhodian's resistance (even their slaves had manned the city walls).
The Rhodians immediately set about erecting a suitable monument to their victory. They had been praying to their patron god Helios for deliverance throughout the ordeal, so they dismantled the abandoned siege engines, sold the wood and metal as scrap, and used the resulting money to pay for an enormous statue—the Colossus of Helios at Rhodes.
The Colossus took twelve years to complete, and was said to have caused a shortage of bronze throughout the ancient world during its construction. It stood about 110 feet from head to toe—about 2/3 the size of the Statue of Liberty—and consisted of a bronze outer skin supported by an internal frame of stone columns and iron bars. The burning rays of the Sun-god Helios were cast in bronze emanating from its head. Placed upon a 50-foot marble pedestal, the statue's great size ensured that it was visible to ships approaching Rhodes from many miles away. It must have seemed an indestructible monument to the growing power and prestige of Rhodes.
Another unrealistic conception of the Colossus
Fate of the Colossus
As fate would have it, however, an untimely end was destined for the Colossus. In 224 BC, only sixty-five years after its completion, the statue was toppled by a strong earthquake, crushing many houses as it fell. King Ptolemy III immediately offered to pay for it to be rebuilt, but the Rhodians had been warned by an oracle to let it lie and so declined his generous offer.
The statue lay where it fell for over 875 years until Arab invaders pillaged its remains and sent the scrap metal to Syria, where it was carried off on the backs of 900 camels to be melted down—probably into bronze lamps. Nothing of the Colossus remains today, and the site upon which it once stood has not been securely identified.
The fallen ruins of the Colossus inspired as much awe as had the standing monument. A Greek named Strabo, who wrote one of the first books on geography, wrote of its ruins: "The finest of all the votive gifts and statues in the city of Rhodes is the Colossus of Helios. Now it lies on the ground, overthrown by an earthquake, severed at the knees."
In Roman times the fallen Colossus was a popular tourist attraction; Pliny the Elder visited it and wrote that "...even lying on the ground it is a marvel. Few people can make their arms meet round its thumbs, and its fingers are larger than most statues." In the Middle Ages—several centuries after the remains of the statue had been scrapped—all sorts of exaggerated tales were circulated about the Colossus. Among other things it was said to have been 900 feet tall and to bestride the harbor of Rhodes so that ships could pass beneath its legs...
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