The island of Rhodes lies in the Mediterranean Sea eleven miles (18 kilometers) off the southwestern shore of modern-day Turkey. It’s shaped rather like a chubby, indolent bluefin tuna, measuring 49 miles (79 kilometers) from nose to tail and swelling to 21 miles (34 kilometers) at its thickest point. Its highest point is Mount Attayros near its center, at fully 3986 feet (1215 meters) above the sea; from here you can see not only the Asian mainland but even the island of Crete on a clear day. All of Rhodes can be said to be merely that part of Mount Attayros which is higher than the surrounding water, a fact which does much to explain the island’s precipitously rugged landscape. Were the sea to dry up, the mountain whose summit is Rhodes would reach almost 15,000 feet (4550 meters) above what is now the sea floor.
The nose of our tuna points northeast toward the mainland, where it is marked by Rhodes’s eponymous town and port, the nerve center of its life and commerce for thousands of years. The port of Rhodes actually consists of three harbors, which are to be found about where the fish’s mouth ought to be, on its eastern side about a mile (1.6 kilometers) from the very tip of its nose. In ancient times as today, the northernmost of these — the one currently known as Mandraki Harbor — was by far the busiest. For as long as it has been in use, a pair of artificial moles has served to enclose its northern and eastern sides, protecting the ships docked within from even the worst of storms.
I find that any attempt I make to describe Rhodes further tends to collapse into a sort of synesthesia of color and warmth. Then again, perhaps that’s only appropriate for a place that enjoys unbridled sunshine for six out of every seven days of the year; not for nothing has Rhodes always been associated with Helios, the Greek god of the sun. For me and most others, then, Rhodes is the bright yellow globe of the Mediterranean sun, beating down from a cloudless sky of eggshell blue; the deep azure of the ocean; the ocher sand of the beaches, looking delicious enough to eat; the blackened tree trunks and the piercing green leaves of the forests of the interior; the bone-white limestone and marble of the ancient ruins, which still gleam brilliantly in the sun even after thousands of years; the browner, squarer, blander structures of Medieval Rhodes; the imperial reds, yellows, and greens of the buildings left behind by Mussolini; the fluffy white lambs grazing malachite fields; the auburn shards of pottery poking out of the brown earth; the ripe yellows of figs, reds of pomegranates, greens of grapes, and oranges of the fruit that bears the same name. The warmth, meanwhile, rarely feels as scorching as the thermometer says it ought to, thanks to the gentle cooling breezes that blow inshore until noon and then offshore until dusk. Although Rhodes is far closer to Turkey than to Greece, its limpid sensuality is thoroughly Greek, more than justifying the latter country’s ownership of it.
For all of these reasons, Rhodes is visited by almost 2 million tourists each year, dwarfing its settled population of some 115,000 people, almost all of whom are employed in serving the visitors in one way or another. The road out of Rhodes Town is lined with sprawling, fenced-in resort complexes, hosts to the all-inclusive holidays of mostly Northern Europeans. Some feel no need to ever leave these hermetically sealed civilizations, with their buffets, pools, parks, tennis courts, and night clubs, but the majority do venture forth at some point in their stay to see what the rest of the island has to offer and to engage at some level with its history.
Said history is long, colorful, and absurdly variegated. Rhodes was a major military and economic force already in those shadowy times before the Trojan War; it was one of the leading loci of Greek art and culture during and after the time of Alexander the Great; it was an important commercial outpost of the Roman and then the Byzantine Empire; it was the realm of the Knights Hospitaller, a group of militant Christian Crusaders; it was a part of the Ottoman Empire for centuries; it was awarded to Italy after World War I, whereupon it became Mussolini’s second imperial home; after World War II, it was given back at last to the Greeks, to whom it had always belonged in its heart of hearts. Having catered to tourists in one way or another at least since the heyday of the Roman Empire, the Rhodians have gotten very, very good at packaging all of this history up in ways guaranteed to please the masses. For example, the “9D Cinema” attraction known as “The Throne of Helios” lets one “learn everything about Rhodes in twenty minutes of action” — getting rained on, snowed on, scalded by fire, and thrown about by earthquakes in the process. One can’t help but feel that the words written by Plutarch during Roman times still apply to some extent: “Abolish lies from Greece and the guides there would all die of starvation, since no tourist wants to hear the truth.”
The Colossus of Rhodes, that linchpin of the Rhodes of both the 9D film and the popular historical imagination — which are of course one and the same — is not among the authentic but comparatively prosaic buildings, monuments, and ruins that are still waiting to be explored by more intrepid visitors to the island. And in a way, that’s all for the better: an absence of physical evidence has allowed us to build the Colossus up to extraordinary heights in our imagination, so much so that, should the real thing ever be rediscovered intact by some improbable happenstance, we would doubtless feel a bit disappointed by the reality of this statue of the sun god Helios which used to greet visitors to the city of Rhodes. Like so many of the ancient Wonders of the World, the Colossus of Rhodes has become as much an idea as an object. Although there is much we don’t know about it and probably never will, we can say one thing definitively: the popular image of the Colossus as a staggeringly immense statue with one foot on each of the moles that protect Rhodes’s northernmost harbor, so that ships entering and leaving the harbor have to sail between its legs, is a false one. The Colossus was most assuredly big, but it couldn’t possibly have been that big.
This version of the statue stems from a visit to Rhodes by a Jerusalem-bound Italian pilgrim named Nicolas de Martoni in 1395, when the island belonged to the Knights Hospitaller.
At the end of the [vertical] mole there is a certain church named St. Nicolas. And a great wonder was told and confirmed to me: in olden times there was a great statue which was formed so admirably that it had one foot on the end of the above-mentioned mole where the church of St. Nicolas stood, while the other foot rested on the end of the other mole where the mills are. These moles are 1000 feet [305 meters] apart. It stood over them, wide and upright. And the body of the above-mentioned statue was so high that ships and other sea vehicles, however high they might have been, if they wanted to enter the harbor passed with masts and sails through the calves and shins of the above-mentioned statue. And everyone who climbed up to the head of the statue saw 100 miles [161 kilometers] away; it was that high. Later it was torn down.
The tales of the Colossus related by Martoni and subsequent visitors were transcriptions of the stories told to them by the Knights, who had in their turn picked them up either from natives whose ancestors had lived on Rhodes in ancient times or from confused readings of fragmentary ancient texts still lying about the place. Martoni’s own credulous acceptance of them was not unusual; it was commonplace for Europeans on the cusp of the Renaissance to attribute extraordinary achievements to their ancient forebears. A statue with feet set so far apart, rising to a height that was proportional to that stance, was well beyond the scope of ancient capability.
Yet the image was just too satisfying to question. In the mid-sixteenth-century, the French artist Jean Cousin the Younger created the earliest surviving illustration of the Colossus, as a woodcut engraving that was included in the pages of a travelogue by André Thevet. The fanciful if rather unartful picture shows Helios standing proudly with legs set wide apart, a sword in one upraised hand and a staff in the other, with a suspiciously contemporary-looking sailing ship passing beneath him, its topmast coming dangerously close to his pendulous penis.
This image of the Colossus was by then well and truly entrenched in the popular imagination, never to be entirely excised. Half a century after Cousin’s illustration, William Shakespeare could assume his audience of everyday Londoners knew what he was talking about when he placed a simile on the lips of Cassius in Julius Caesar:
Why, man, he [Julius Caesar] doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonorable graves.
In 1708, the French playwright, lexicographer, and geographer Thomas Corneille was still happy to write in his commentary on Rhodes of “the two spots where were placed the feet of the great bronze Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, between the legs of which vessels passed in full sail.” And as late as 1833, the British antiquarian John Lemprière’s posthumously published Classical Dictionary blithely stated that the Colossus’s “feet were on two moles which formed the entrance to the harbour, and ships passed full sail between its legs.” Then came a further embellishment: “A winding staircase ran to the top, from which could easily be discerned the shores of Syria and the ships that sailed on the coast of Egypt by the help of glasses which were hung on the neck of the statue.” To appreciate the full ridiculousness of this claim, one first has to realize that the coast of Egypt is 350 miles (560 kilometers) from Rhodes! Still more ridiculously, Lemprière’s Classical Dictionary remained in print, complete with all of this misinformation, until at least 1949.
Such depictions were ironic not only in that they so completely failed the test of common sense but in that they were given no support whatsoever by those ancient texts which described the Colossus — texts which had been available for a long, long time already by the period of John Lemprière. They had come to Europe once the Renaissance got going in earnest several centuries earlier, after having been preserved through the long cultural winter of the European Middle Ages in the libraries of Constantinople and Baghdad. The Colossus of Rhodes is mentioned in some sixteen separate ancient texts, but only three of them bother to describe its appearance or its history in any useful degree of detail. Because they will become such a touchstone of our investigations, I’d like to introduce them one by one now.
The oldest and lengthiest of them is traditionally attributed to a man named Philo of Byzantium, who left his hometown to live and work in the Egyptian capital of Alexandria during the middle years of the third century BC. I would, however, be remiss not to mention at this point that there is a longstanding scholarly debate about the dating and the real author of the text in question. It began with the German philologist Hermann von Rhoden, who in about 1875 made a somewhat technical argument from the text’s linguistic qualities that it couldn’t possibly predate the Roman Empire. In fact, he claimed, it was most likely authored in the fifth or sixth century AD by a different, much more obscure Philo, confusingly also stemming from Byzantium — or rather Constantinople, as it was usually known by that time. But cutting against his argument is the actual content of the text, which betrays none of the world-weariness typical of very late antiquity, and which praises the pagan gods in a way that would have been dangerous at best at that juncture in history, given that paganism had been outlawed all across the Mediterranean by that point in favor of Christianity. Further, it describes the Colossus as still standing intact and upright, which other credible sources tell us the statue had not done for 600 or 700 years by the dates von Rhoden proposed. One possible solution to this conundrum is that the text which has come down to us may have been updated for readability by some zealous transcriber centuries after its creation, in much the same way that modern editions of Shakespeare use updated spelling and punctuation. The linguist and historian D.E.L. Haynes concluded after making his own close study of the text in the 1990s that, at the very least, “it is hard to believe that it does not go back to a good Hellenistic [i.e., pre-Roman] source.” Going forward, then, I’ll take the liberty of treating it as the established work of Philo of Byzantium of the third century BC.
This Philo wrote a description of each of what he considered to be the Seven Wonders of the World. Five and a half of these descriptions, that of the Colossus of Rhodes among them, survived ancient times. This is in fact the only surviving text to describe an intact Colossus, and it is detailed enough that its author seems to have seen the statue himself. Philo was an engineer, part of a long Alexandrian tradition of same. Likely for this reason, he was very interested in explaining just how the Colossus was built. We have no way of knowing to what extent he was working from concrete knowledge — perhaps he talked to some of the people who had helped to build the Colossus at Rhodes? — and to what extent he was merely speculating as to how it might have been done. Still, a number of inconsistencies in his text, which we’ll return to in a future chapter, do indicate that what he writes of the process of construction should be taken with a grain of salt.
At this stage, though, it will suffice merely to present the text itself in its entirety, without further commentary. Note particularly that Philo is clearly describing a huge statue standing on a single pedestal — “a base of white marble” — rather than a harbor-straddling monstrosity.
Rhodes is an island in the sea. It had been hidden below the sea for a long time, but then Helios revealed it, and requested of the gods that the new island be his own. On this island stands a Colossus, 120 feet [36.5 meters] high and representing Helios. The statue is recognizable as being of Helios because of his distinct features. The artist used a quantity of bronze that might have exhausted the mines, for the molten image of the structure was the bronze-work of the world [i.e., the most ambitious bronze-work project anywhere to that point].
Perhaps Zeus poured down marvelous wealth on the Rhodians precisely so that they could honor Helios in spending it on the erection of the statue of the god, layer upon layer, from the ground up to the heavens. The artist secured it firmly from the inside with iron frames and squared blocks of stone, of which the horizontal bars exhibit hammer-work in the Cyclopean fashion. The hidden part of the work is bigger than the visible parts. Further questions strike the admiring spectator: what kind of fire tongs were used, what size were the bases of the anvils, with what workforce was such a weight of poles forged?
A base of white marble was laid down, and on this first set the feet of the Colossus up to the ankle bones. He [the artist] had already conceived in his mind the proportions in which the 120-foot god was going to be built. Since the soles of the feet on the base were already at a greater height than other statues, it was impossible to lift up the rest and set it on top. The ankles had to be cast on top and, just as happens in building houses, the whole work had to rise on top of itself.
And for this reason, in the case of other statues, artists first make a mold, then divide it into parts, cast them, and finally put them all together and erect the statue. But the artist of the Colossus cast the first part and then molded the second part on the first and, when the second part had been cast in bronze, built the third part on top of that. He used the same method of construction for the remaining parts. For it was not possible to move the metal parts.
When the casting had been done on the earlier worked parts, the intervals of the bars and the joints of the framework were taken care of, and the structure was held steady with stones that had been put inside. So that throughout the construction he might retain his conception unshaken, he continually poured an immense mound of earth round the finished parts of the Colossus, hiding what had already been worked on underground, and carried out the next stage of casting on the flat surface of what was underneath.
Little by little he reached the goal of his dream and, at the expense of 12.5 tons of bronze and 7.5 tons of iron, he made his god equal to the god. He produced a work outstanding in its boldness, for on the world he set a second Helios facing the first.
Our other texts about the Colossus are much shorter and stem from much later. The next one comes from the Greek geographer Strabo, writing fully a quarter of a millennium after Philo, around the time of Jesus Christ. His Geographica endeavors to detail the entire world as the Greeks and Romans knew it at that time, including Rhodes.
The most remarkable [of the monuments of Rhodes] is the Colossus of the Sun, which, the author of the iambics [apparently a lost inscription, epigram, or laudatory poem about the statue] says, was “106 feet [32 meters] in height, the work of Chares of Lindus [Lindus was the second largest city on Rhodes after the city of Rhodes itself].” It now lies on the ground, having been thrown down by an earthquake, and is broken off at the knees. An oracle prohibited its being raised again. It is allowed to be one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
Perhaps 70 years later, the Roman scholar Pliny the Elder included a description of the Colossus of Rhodes in his remarkable Natural History, the closest thing the ancient world ever produced to a comprehensive encyclopedia of all human knowledge.
That [at Rhodes] which is by far the most worthy of our admiration is the colossal statue of the Sun, which stood formerly at Rhodes, and was the work of Chares the Lindian [and] no less than 106 feet [32 meters] in height. This statue 56 years after it was erected was thrown down by an earthquake, but even as it lies it excites our wonder and imagination. 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 larges masses of rock, by the weight of which the artist steadied it while erecting it. It is said that it was twelve years before this statue was completed, and that 300 talents were expended upon it, a sum raised from the engines of warfare which had been abandoned by King Demetrius, when [he] tired of the long-protracted siege of Rhodes.
And that is largely that as far as ancient texts that describe the Colossus of Rhodes in any detail go, except for one more tantalizing tidbit which has reached us through the Greek Anthology, a collection of ancient poems, epigrams, and textual fragments compiled in Constantinople during the European Middle Ages. One of its anonymous fragments has long been suspected to be the very epigram that was inscribed on the base of the Colossus:
To thy very self, O Sun, did the people of Rhodes raise high to heaven this Colossus. Then, when having laid to rest the brazen wave of war, they crowned their country with the spoils of their foes. Not only over the sea, but on the land too, did they establish the lovely light of unfettered freedom. For to those who spring from the race of Heracles dominion is a heritage both on land and sea.
These four texts are not voluminous by any means, but, when combined with a modicum of outside information, they do manage to tell us a surprising amount about the Colossus. It’s easiest to work backward from the point when the statue was “thrown down” by an earthquake, as both Strabo and Pliny phrase it. We know that Rhodes was struck by a major earthquake, with an estimated magnitude of 7.2 on the Richter scale, in approximately 226 BC; this must be the event that laid the Colossus low. Pliny tells us that the Colossus stood for 56 years before that happened, which places its date of completion in 282 BC. He also tells us that it took twelve years to construct. So, we can assume it was begun in or around 294 BC. Finally, Pliny tells us that it was erected to celebrate the end of a siege of Rhodes by Demetrius, the crown prince of a large Eurasian empire established by his father Antigonus I. This siege is another known historical event, spanning 305 to 304 BC. The gap of ten years between the ending of the siege and the beginning of construction is somewhat odd, but we otherwise have what seems a trustworthy chronology: the Colossus was begun in 294 BC, completed in 282 BC, and toppled by an earthquake in 226 BC, whereupon it lay where it had fallen for at least the next few centuries — if Strabo is to be believed, because of an oracle’s prophecy of doom for Rhodes if it should ever be lifted up again. We’ve learned other salient facts as well from these ancient texts: that the Colossus was made of bronze, for example, and that it probably stood somewhere between 100 and 125 feet (30 and 38 meters) high after we allow for the inexactitude of ancient measuring systems and techniques. (At risk of belaboring the point, I do ask you to note as well that such a height is woefully insufficient for a harbor-straddling Colossus.)
This, then, is the skeletal outline of the Colossus’s career. To add the flesh and sinew of history to these bones, and to begin to imagine with more accuracy than the likes of Nicolas de Martoni precisely where it might have stood and what it might have looked like, we need to approach our subject more obliquely. First and foremost, we need to find out more about these Rhodians who built it.
(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)