The island of Rhodes had a long history behind it well before anyone thought to build the Colossus there. In the mid-fifth century BC, the poet Pindar wrote of how Rhodes came to be when the world was still new. The gods had divided the world among themselves, but had forgotten the sun god Helios, who was “otherwhere” at the time: “So they left him portionless of land, that holy god.” When Zeus learned of this oversight, his first thought was to throw out the agreement and divvy up the world anew. Surprisingly, though, Helios himself dissuaded him. He told Zeus of a piece of land he knew of that was currently hidden beneath the waves, but that held the potential to “bring forth food for many men, and rejoice in flocks.” He could raise this land above the sea, he said, and make it his own. Zeus agreed, and soon “there sprang from the watery main an island.”

That island, of course, was Rhodes. Pindar goes on to tell how Helios coupled with a nymph who came to live on the island and begat seven sons, the ancestors of all the Rhodians who followed. Three of Helios’s grandsons founded what would remain the three principal cities of Rhodes for many centuries, until the much later founding of the eponymous capital city: Camirus and Ialysus on the northwestern coast, and Lindus on the southeastern coast.

Another legend of how the three cities came to be, written of not only by Pindar but by Homer some 300 years before him, connects Rhodes with Heracles, that greatest of all the mythical Greek heroes. The story goes that Heracles’s son Tlepolemus killed his father’s uncle — by some accounts accidentally, when the old man stepped in the way of a staff with which his grandnephew was beating a servant, by other accounts deliberately. Either way, Homer tells us how Tlepolemus and a small group of companions “fled across the sea with threats of the sons and sons’ sons of Heracles breaking at his back. But he reached Rhodes at last, a wanderer rocked by storms, and there [he and his companions] settled in three divisions, all by tribes, loved by Zeus himself the king of gods and mortals showering wondrous gold on all their heads.”

Tlepolemus was still in his prime when the Trojan War began. “Tall and staunch,” he led nine ships to Troy, only to be killed in battle. Some said that after the war was finally over, Helen of Troy, the proximate cause of it all, fled to Rhodes, but the island proved not to be the refuge she sought: Tlepolemus’s vengeful wife hanged her from a tree.

The real story of how Rhodes came to be settled is slightly more prosaic but hardly less fascinating. It appears that the island was first colonized by the Minoans of Crete at some point between 2000 and 1500 BC. The most advanced Mediterranean society of its day with the exception only of Egypt, Minoan Crete is known today for its “palace” complexes, which the British archaeologist Arthur Evans uncovered at the turn of the twentieth century, as well as the Linear A script the Minoans used for writing in their own language. Linear A has been partially deciphered, but the Minoan tongue remains a mystery in many ways, as do many other aspects of the civilization that produced it. That said, archaeologists do believe today that Evans’s palaces are more properly understood to be warehouses, and that most of the extant Linear A texts are inventories, bills of trade, and the like — signs of a thriving, well-regulated commercial empire with many island colonies, Rhodes among them. The Minoans were almost certainly the first to settle the town of Ialysus on Rhodes, and very probably founded the other two principal cities as well.

But the Minoans were eventually displaced by the Greeks, on Rhodes as on Crete and across much of the rest of the Mediterranean. An ancient tradition connects Rhodes with the mainland Greek city-state of Argos, of which it quite likely was a colony back in those shadowy centuries before Homer and even before the historical Trojan War, an event now believed to have taken place around 1000 BC.

In time, Rhodes won its independence from Argos, and carved out a proud place for itself in the world. The Rhodians became fantastic seafarers and traders, as well as artisans famous for their skill at firing pottery and at casting bronze and later iron. They were also early masters of glass-working, as evidenced by the nearly 3000 glass artifacts dating from before the Trojan War that archeologists have unearthed on the island. The raw glass used in some of them has been shown to stem from as far away as Mesopotamia, providing a telling illustration of how well-connected a trading center Rhodes had become even by that early date.

The island grew still richer and prouder in the centuries after the Trojan War. The Rhodians called themselves the Heliades: the children of Helios. Every year in September, they held a grand international festival and athletic competition in their patron deity’s honor. Its climax came when a team of four magnificent horses was deliberately driven off a cliff into the sea; these horses would, it was said, ascend to the heavens to pull the god’s chariot across the sky every day as he illuminated the world.

The good times were interrupted midway through the first millennium BC by the arrival of the Persian Empire, a seemingly irresistible force out of the Asian east that was more interested in conquest than trade. In 490 BC, the Persian king Darius assembled for the purpose of subduing the entirety of the Greek world a fleet that, so the ancient historians tell us, numbered no less than 600 ships and 100,000 soldiers. As one of the most easterly outposts of Greek civilization, Rhodes was naturally one of its first stops. The islanders, recognizing a hopeless cause when they saw one, surrendered without a fight. Even after Darius’s larger invasion was blunted by the city-state of Athens at the Battle of Marathon on the Greek mainland, Rhodes remained in Persian hands. It wasn’t until ten years later, when a second invasion of mainland Greece led by Darius’s son Xerxes had also been blunted, that an Athenian fleet arrived to free the island. In a reflection of the very real if relatively short-lived spirit of pan-Grecian goodwill that existed at that time, the Athenians restored to Rhodes its independence rather than claiming it for themselves.

Rhodes and Athens were kindred spirits in many ways. Both were more interested in commercial than military empires, while Rhodes was arguably second only to Athens as an intellectual center during the mid-fifth century BC, that most legendary of all the golden ages of Greek culture — the era of Socrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, and Euripides. The three principal Rhodian cities, which in the long tradition of Greece operated as a vague coalition without benefit of a central government, had all become partial or entire democracies by this point, run on similar lines to that of Athens.

In 431 BC, however, the Greek world was plunged into another crisis when democratic, commercial Athens went to war with the autocratic, militaristic Peloponnesian city-state of Sparta, and everyone else was forced to choose sides. In accordance with both their natural sympathies and a treaty of alliance they had signed with Athens, the Rhodians initially backed the latter. But as the war ground on and on and the tide of battle gradually turned against it, Athens grew ever more heavy-handed with its ostensible equals in its treaties of alliance, to the point of conscripting troops from Rhodes and elsewhere at sword point. The ancient historian Thucydides tells us that a cabal of leading Rhodian merchants, frustrated by the Athenians’ behavior and very concerned about being caught out on the wrong side of a war that Athens looked to be slowly losing, brokered a secret deal with the Spartans. And so a fleet of 94 Spartan ships sailed into Camirus unopposed in January of 411 BC, much to the alarm of the populace, who knew nothing of the negotiations that had led to this event. “They were afterwards, however, assembled by the Spartans together with the inhabitants of the two other cities of Lindus and Ialysus,” writes Thucydides, “and the Rhodians were persuaded to revolt from the Athenians and the island went over to the Peloponnesians.” Rhodes suffered a protracted blockade thereafter, and was even briefly invaded by its erstwhile ally, but the hard-pressed Athenians lacked the manpower to take and hold it permanently.

The Rhodians’ deft changing of horses midstream wasn’t perhaps an overly noble gambit, but it was thoroughly indicative of these islanders as other Greeks at least had come to see them: as deep-seated pragmatists who looked after their own interests first and foremost, and seldom let ideology or principles get in the way of profit. Rhodes became an important staging ground and shipbuilding center as Sparta prosecuted the final stages of the war against Athens, which ended in complete Spartan victory in 404 BC. Whatever else one could say about their actions, the Rhodians had indeed found a way to end up on the winning side.

Before the war was even over, they had embarked on another great project. In 408 BC, they founded their island’s eponymous city at its northeastern tip. We don’t know precisely why the Rhodians chose to take such a step at this juncture, but we can presume the new city to be a compromise solution for an island desperately in need of unity. All three of the old cities had remained independent to this point, which made it impossible to pursue a coherent foreign policy in a dangerous world. Now, this problem was to be addressed at last. Making the capital of the new central government a new city rather than one of the existing ones dodged all manner of arguments about status and primacy. The masterminds behind both the capital city and the central government it housed were probably the same conspirators who had arranged the alliance with Sparta. In keeping with the island’s mercantile reputation, Rhodes’s new government was to be a classic Greek oligarchy: a government in which only the very richest were given a voice.

Historians have postulated other factors which may have contributed to the decision to found a new city, such as an earthquake or volcanic eruption which shattered the three existing cities to such an extent that it made more sense to build afresh than to rebuild. Rhodian folklore hews to this explanation: “After the great plague of horseflies which bit everyone and died, there came a great earthquake on the feast day of St. Demetrius. In the earthquake the three cities fell down, so they built a new city in a better place where it would not be affected by such things.” It should be noted, however, that the St. Demetrius mentioned here was a Christian martyr of the early fourth century AD, which would seem to indicate a substantial degree of chronological confusion at the very least.

At any rate, the new city’s founding fathers spared no expense in building it; it immediately overshadowed the three older cities in terms of both size and grandeur. Its position was perfect for a center of seaborne trade, so much so that one wonders why nobody had thought to build here before. The exposure of its harbors to the temperamental sea may have been the reason. If so, it was not allowed to become an obstacle now: the Rhodians built two long moles to enclose and protect the northernmost harbor. The city was built to such a standard that the geographer Strabo would still be able to write 400 years later that “with regard to harbors, roads, walls, and other buildings, it so much surpasses other cities that we know of none equal, much less superior to it.” Strabo claims that the Rhodians hired as head of the initial building project the urban planner Hippodamus, who had laid out classical Athens many decades earlier, but this is doubtful, given that he would have been at least 90 years old by this point. Even if Hippodamus didn’t do it himself, however, the city of Rhodes was certainly designed in his spirit: a neat grid of streets layered upon a hillside, terraced like an amphitheater to create a profusion of breathtaking views. It was intended to be a showpiece for all the world to talk about, a living testament to the wealth and taste of the island’s inhabitants. This goal it undoubtedly met.

The new city’s literal crowning glory will have a special relevance to our story. Like most ancient and not-so-ancient peoples, the Greeks were in awe of the high places of the world; not for nothing did their gods make their homes on Mount Olympus, the highest peak known to the Greeks. It was thus commonplace for every Greek city to crown the highest point of its surrounding landscape with temples, memorials, and statues to the gods, so much so that a word existed for just such a complex: acropolis, which literally translates to “high city.”

Being built into the side of a hill sloping gently up from the sea, the city of Rhodes had a particularly dramatic acropolis. The place is known today as Monte Smith, after the British admiral William Sidney Smith, who built an observation post there during the Napoleonic Wars. It stands 270 feet (82 meters) above the sea, two miles (3.2 kilometers) southwest of the city center. Although most of the rest of the ancient city of Rhodes is inaccessible to archaeologists, being hidden beneath its Medieval and modern incarnations, this is not true of Monte Smith. There archaeologists have laid bare ancient temples, a gymnasium, two theaters, and a network of human-made grottoes. The picture painted is of a large public space used for worship, leisure, rest, and spectacle, a bucolic park of manicured gardens and babbling streams and fountains, fed by the same sophisticated system of aqueducts that provided the city below with water.

The proud Rhodian oligarchs soon began to chafe under their new alliance with Sparta just as they had under their old one with Athens, and for the same reason: they found themselves being treated as little more than vassals. In 396 BC, they implemented a typically Rhodian solution: they made a deal with a resurgent Persian Empire to help it drive the Spartans away from the Mediterranean coast of Asia.

But Rhodes itself was plunged into a civil war soon after, as the people rose up against the oligarchs in a bid to restore the democratic rule that had been the norm before the era of central government. The oligarchs asked the Persians for help, but their new allies proved not to care much about the issue either way. So, they fled to Sparta of all places — the very city-state they had so recently betrayed — to beg it to help them put down the rebellion. Afraid that a democratic Rhodes would make common cause with an Athens that was beginning to feel its oats again — defeat in the Greek world was seldom final — the Spartans halfheartedly agreed. Nevertheless, the civil war ended in a democratic victory in 386 BC. The Spartans’ fears were shown to have been well-founded thereafter: in 377 BC, Rhodes entered into a new alliance with Athens and a number of other commercially-minded islands and city-states. It was as if the calendar had been turned back 50 years; in the topsy-turvy politics of Greece, just about any given status quo was bound to be restored eventually.

To wit: by 357 BC, Athens was again asserting its primacy in the alliance of trading “partners” a bit too enthusiastically. Rhodes and several other islands declared war in order to free themselves of the entanglement, and over the course of the two-year conflict that followed succeeded in doing just that. But while the Rhodians were looking west, trouble was brewing on their northern doorstep. The Persian Empire had decided that it preferred a subservient oligarchical Rhodes to a feisty democratic one after all. Soon after the war with Athens ended, the Persians engineered a coup that toppled the island’s existing government and installed a puppet administration in its place. Now it was the democrats’ turn to rush to mainland Greece and beg for aid from a city-state they had just betrayed. But the Athenians, understandably enough, weren’t overly eager to go to war with a formidable power like Persia on behalf of an island that had treated them so rudely. As far as they were concerned, the Rhodians had made their own bed. Now, they could lie in it.

For the fact was that Athens and all the rest of mainland Greece had more than enough to worry about at this time. The northern kingdom of Macedonia — heretofore a little-remarked hardscrabble land, notable mostly for its intense envy of its more cultured, accomplished southern neighbors — was suddenly making waves. In 338 BC, King Philip of Macedonia trounced the combined armies of most of the Greek city-states at the Battle of Chaeronea. Just like that, a thousand years or more of wayward, fractious Greek independence passed into history, as Athens and all the rest of the city-states became the first components of a burgeoning Macedonian Empire. Only Sparta escaped total domination, first by refusing to join the Greek alliance against the Macedonians and then, after the war was over, humbly accepting the status of Macedonian vassal state.

The mainland Greeks’ humiliation would prove the Rhodians’ ironic deliverance. For King Philip’s son was that most famed of all ancient conquerors, the youthful force of nature who would go down in history as Alexander the Great. In April of 334 BC, the recently crowned 21-year-old king set out overland from Macedonia with a force of 30,000 foot soldiers and perhaps 5000 cavalry. His objective was to make the East his own — all of it. The Persians had no answer for his unconventional genius as a battlefield tactician; before the end of the year, it was Macedonian rather than Persian territory that lay just north of Rhodes. But because Alexander was more interested in conquering vast new swaths of land than consolidating the gains he had already made, the Macedonians on the Rhodians’ doorstep never bothered to send an army across to take the island. Rhodes itself was forced to take the initiative, sending a delegation to Alexander in the city of Tyre to formally surrender in the spring of 332 BC.

It isn’t clear what was happening on Rhodes itself before and immediately after this event, nor even what Rhodian government it was that surrendered to Alexander. One can easily imagine that the democrats of Rhodes carried out a revolution against a puppet government now cut off from its puppet master, and thus that it was them who went to Tyre. A comment by the ancient historian Arrian about Alexander’s handling of the Rhodian delegation adds some credence to this supposition: “Alexander granted all these men an amnesty for past offenses, on the assumption that they had joined the Persians more under duress than by choice.” It is clear, at any rate, that Rhodes became once more a democracy very shortly after surrendering to Alexander if not before, although it also became a part of his empire, with a Macedonian garrison permanently quartered there.

This latest Rhodian government would endure for some 350 years, an impressive achievement indeed in the volatile ancient world. It “displayed a domestic harmony uncharacteristic of important Greek states, especially those with democratic constitutions,” notes Richard M. Berthold, the author of the only serious, book-length history of ancient Rhodes to be published in English in many generations. He credits the island’s justifiably vaunted wealth for much of its stability: “When wisely managed, prosperity can ease the frictions among economic classes.” We might so far as to call Rhodes the world’s first welfare state, with well-funded programs to ensure that the needy had food, clothing, shelter, and opportunities for vocational training or retraining. Although our knowledge of the structure of the government is vague at best, it appears to have included a legislative body known simply as the Council, made up of an unknown number of citizens, along with an elected executive branch of five men, of whom one was elevated above the others to serve as the official head of state.

It does appear that money could buy one a great deal of power in the Rhodian government even after the oligarchy was supposedly ended once and for all; this led at least one ancient writer to label it “an aristocracy disguised as a democracy,” and is likewise probably the source of a blunt, jarring claim from Strabo that Rhodes was not a democracy at all by the first century BC. But, if not a maximalist direct democracy in the mold of classical Athens, it was every bit as much of one as, say, the Roman Republic, and would likely qualify for the label even by our modern standards. In short, Rhodes seems to have turned into a remarkably well-governed place on the whole following the century of chaos between the Peloponnesian Wars and the rise of Alexander the Great. It balanced personal and economic freedom with institutional stability in a way that no other Greek land quite managed.

This experiment in democracy was still in its infancy in 323 BC, when word reached Rhodes of Alexander’s death of a fever in distant Babylon. The government reacted by throwing out the Macedonian garrison and declaring the island’s independence.

Meanwhile the rest of Alexander’s empire was also fragmenting, as his former “Bodyguards” — his name for his most trusted generals — squabbled among themselves for territory. Their Wars of the Successors split his formerly monolithic empire into four pieces: Seleucus took Mesopotamia and the other distant eastern lands, Antigonus took the Asian mainland closer to Rhodes and the region of Thrace in southeastern Europe, Ptolemy took Egypt and other scattered territories in the south and east, and Cassender, who was actually not a Bodyguard but the son of the regent Alexander had left behind in his homeland, took Macedonia itself and mainland Greece.

Antigonus’s empire was usually at war with Ptolemy’s Egypt, while Rhodes endeavored to remain studiously neutral and profit from both combatants. But in 305 BC, Antigonus decided he had had enough of that: he demanded that Rhodes join his side in the war. This the Rhodians flatly refused to do, not least because much of their current economy had come to revolve around the immense quantities of grain which reached them from Ptolemy’s new Egyptian capital of Alexandria; Rhodes had become the premier commodities clearinghouse of the Mediterranean world.

The Mediterranean world, circa 300 BC. (Luigi Chiesa)

To teach the Rhodians a lesson, Antigonus enlisted his cherished son Demetrius (no relation to the aforementioned Christian martyr with the same name), a man as famous for his good looks and charm — historian James S. Romm calls him “something in the manner of a modern-day Kennedy” — as he was for his ruthless prowess in battle. At age 32, Demetrius was a seasoned veteran of many campaigns, a military leader so bold and accomplished that some went so far as to compare him with Alexander himself. He had the mind of an engineer as well as a tactician. When not in the field, he occupied himself with the design of elaborate machines of war that were built on a scale unknown anywhere else in the world, as his ancient biographer Plutarch relates.

He always wished to construct larger ships and more powerful battering engines, in the workings of which he took an especial delight. He was intelligent and clever, and did not waste his mechanical ingenuity in mere pastime, like other princes. The mechanics of Demetrius were always built upon a royal scale and his engines were of enormous size, showing by their admirable and ingenious construction the grand ideas of their inventor; for they appeared worthy not only of the genius and wealth but of the hand of a king. Their size astonished his friends, while their beauty charmed even his enemies, and this praise is far from being as exaggerated as it sounds; for his enemies actually stood in crowds along the seashore to admire his ships of fifteen and sixteen banks of oars, while his Helepoli [“city-takers”] were regarded as wonders even by the towns against which they were employed.

Demetrius wasn’t known for indulging in half-measures in war, and his assault on Rhodes was no exception. His army of 40,000 foot soldiers and an unknown quantity of cavalry sailed up in 170 troop transports, supported by another 200 war galleys, with the whole lot shadowed by hundreds of small pirate craft looking for plunder. For their part, the Rhodians weren’t known for standing on principle in war when a cause was lost. Demetrius probably assumed that the first sight of his fleet on the horizon would be enough to cause them to surrender. But the Rhodians’ spirits on this occasion were buoyed by 1000 battle-hardened Egyptian soldiers which Ptolemy had lent them for their city’s defense, and perhaps by their new government of and by them the people as well. For once, they were determined to make a stand. To do so, they had some 6000 regular soldiers, reinforced by the 1000 Egyptians and presumably by every other able-bodied Rhodian male when push came to shove, all ensconced behind high, strong walls, with a small but skillful fleet sheltering in hidden harbors elsewhere on the island.

Unfazed by this unexpected show of defiance, Demetrius put his ingenious brand of mechanized warfare into action. His men assembled two “tortoises” — floating forts stuffed with archers and ballistae — and towed them into one of the city’s harbors. Under their covering fire, his soldiers occupied the city’s beautiful acropolis, but were unable to breach the walls below it. Day after day, week after week, and finally month after month, Demetrius’s artillery rained stones weighing up to 600 pounds (275 kilograms) upon the city from sea and from land; night after night, the Rhodian ships sallied forth from their hidden refuges to cause chaos in his fleet’s ranks and clear the way for Egyptian cargo vessels that arrived stuffed with urgently needed food for the city, courtesy of its benefactor Ptolemy. It was a complete stalemate. Even bribery — surely the fastest way to any Rhodian’s heart — availed Demetrius nothing. When a captain of the Rhodian guards was approached with an offer of staggering riches to quietly open the gates of the city to the invaders, he indignantly refused, and reported the attempt to his superiors, who rewarded him with their own measure of gold for his honesty. What had gotten into these Rhodians, wondered Demetrius yet again.

No matter: he was already preparing his ultimate, foolproof gambit. Atop the acropolis, his troops were building a Helepolis, one of the most fearsome weapons of war anyone had yet conceived. It was a movable tower on wheels, 150 feet (45 meters) high and 75 feet (22.5 meters) wide by the account of the ancient Greek historian Diodorus, 125 tons in weight by the reckoning of the ancient Roman architect and engineer Vitruvius. A team of 200 men drove it from its ground floor by turning an enormous capstan attached to its wheels with leather belts, while hundreds more soldiers heaved at it from outside and behind. Its other eight floors were filled with human archers and mechanical dart throwers and catapults. The soldiers inside peered out at the world from behind an array of adjustable slits in its thick armor of metal and animal hide. The Swiss Army knife of siege warfare came complete with a built-in battering ram for breaking down walls and a drawbridge that could be lowered to span the distance between the tower and a protuberance under assault. It was awesome and kind of ridiculous at the same time, a perfect symbol of the glory and absurdity of war.

A model of a Helepolis, from the Thessaloniki Science Center and Technology Museum. (Gts-tg)

The Rhodians looked on with no small trepidation as the Helepolis was assembled layer by layer, but still they refused to countenance surrender. At last the pivotal moment came. The tower creaked and jerked down the slope from the acropolis, flinging arrows, darts, and stones indiscriminately in front of itself, until it reached the city’s walls. Here its battering ram succeeded in breaching a section of wall, and soldiers poured into the gap. But the Rhodians rallied, bottling up the attackers in and around their city’s largest public theater, preventing them from running rampant through the streets. Then they slowly pushed their enemies out again, damaging the Helepolis itself in some fashion in the process. Demetrius had no choice but to order his men to lug it back to safer ground for repairs. As he waited for these to be finished, he stared transfixed at the small hole the Helepolis had managed to punch in the wall; in the memorable words of Lawrence Durrell, he was “like some great cat hypnotised by a mousehole too small to admit more than a single paw.”

While Demetrius’s soldiers were prepping the Helepolis for the next assault, the Rhodians were doing some mechanical engineering of their own. A man named Diogentus had been in charge of the physical defenses of Rhodes to this point, and would seem to have done a pretty good job of it based on how well the city had withstood everything Demetrius could throw at it. But now a man named Callias arrived on the scene from the town of Arados on the Asian mainland. He could, he promised, build a crane that would lift the Helepolis bodily the next time it approached the walls and dash it to pieces on the ground like a capricious child smashing his toy. The idea was simply too delicious to resist. Poor Diogentus was summarily dismissed from his post despite his exemplary performance thus far and replaced by Callias, who set to work on his own grand construction project.

He worked quickly: the crane stood poised for action by the time the Rhodians saw the Helepolis start to trundle toward them once more amidst its swarm of Lilliputian soldiers. When it reached the wall, the defenders threw down a grappling hook that wedged itself in the roof of the tower. Then hundreds of Rhodian soldiers began to turn the capstan that would lift their bête noire into the air…

It all went horribly wrong, of course. Callias was undoubtedly clever in his way, but his grasp of the fundamentals of weights and loads proved shaky. Instead of lifting the Helepolis into the air, the crane pulled the section of wall to which it itself was affixed out of its foundation and sent it crashing to the ground. The Rhodians had done the job of the siege tower’s battering ram for it, opening up by far the widest gash yet seen in their city’s walls. The hapless Callias disappears from the story at this point; if he didn’t succeed in making a quick escape, one cannot imagine that his fate was a pretty one.

The situation was now truly desperate; the enemy was perilously close to the general breakout into the city behind the walls that would spell doom for Rhodes. A delegation rushed off to beg Diogentus to resume his duties. They found him sulking in his home like a boffinish Achilles. Let the city be razed and the populace massacred, he said. It would serve them right. His professional pride wouldn’t allow him to work again for people who had insulted him so. The frantic Rhodians organized a full-scale apology parade, complete with chanting priests and weeping maidens, all while Demetrius gathered his forces for the final charge through the gaping hole that the Rhodians themselves had so helpfully opened for him. In the nick of time, Diogentus grudgingly agreed to return to the job.

Demetrius intended to continue to use the Helepolis as a sort of land-borne battleship to press the attack through the breach in the walls and beyond. So, it started to lumber forward once more, still spewing its deadly projectiles from its upper floors. But then, when it had penetrated halfway through the breach, the canny Diogentus stopped it in its tracks. One account says that he dug deep trenches into which its front wheels plunged, leaving it stuck fast like a car in a ditch. Another, even more entertaining account says that he unleashed a tidal wave of raw sewage — there must have been a considerable quantity of it in Rhodes after a siege of so many months — that turned the space directly in front of the breach into the world’s most unappetizing bog, thereby accomplishing the same purpose. Mired half inside and half outside the walls, the Helepolis plugged the terrifying breach more effectively than Diogentus’s engineering teams could have in a week of uninterrupted labor. The Rhodians had little trouble rounding up the 1500 shell-shocked enemy soldiers who found themselves on the wrong side of the white elephant.

Running short of soldiers, provisions, and patience, Demetrius was finally ready to give up. He offered the Rhodians an end to hostilities that would allow him to preserve a modicum of dignity: if they would agree to become Antigonus’s ally in all other matters, they could remain neutral in the war with Egypt and continue their lucrative trade with both combatants. Knowing all too well how close they had come to disaster, the Rhodians didn’t need to be asked twice. The siege was lifted, and proud, fierce Demetrius went away meekly.

Rhodes thus found itself in an unfamiliar position. For once it had chosen the path of heroic resistance rather than sober pragmatism — and, miracle of miracles, heroism had won the day in the end. The occasion deserved to be commemorated. The people looked up at the Helepolis, still stuffed into its hole like a cork in the bottom of a bathtub. Helepolis… Helios. Were the similarities between the words a sign? The raw materials that had gone into the misbegotten Trojan horse were worth a lot of money, as the profit-minded Rhodians were well aware. Maybe they should do something special with all the gold they stood to raise by cutting it up and selling off the pieces…

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(A full listing of print and online sources used will follow the final article in this series.)

12 Comments for "Chapter 2: Before the Colossus"

  • mb

    “indigently refused” — interesting phrase, but probably not what you intended!

    • Jimmy Maher

      🙂 Thanks!

      • morg

        also a “Helio’s” and a “volitale” in there

        • Jimmy Maher


          • Aula

            This isn’t the first time you’ve misspelled “volatile” like that; at least three of your Digital Antiquarian articles have had the same problem according to comments.

            Anyway, there’s a duplicate word in “midway through through the first millennium BC”

          • Jimmy Maher

            We all have our blind spots. 😉 Thanks!

  • Andrew McCarthy

    ” the ancient Roman historian Vitruvius”

    Vitruvius wasn’t so much a historian as an architect and engineer. His Ten Books on Architecture are the only surviving treatise on architecture from the Greco-Roman world, and though they certainly do contain some (possibly spurious) description of architectural history, they’re as much an instruction manual as anything else. Of course, that included engineering projects, both civil and military, as well as the building of buildings. Along with things like aqueducts and mechanical devices used in constructing buildings, designing machinery for warfare and siegecraft was simply part of an architect’s job description back then: then as now, the military-industrial complex is where the money is.

    • Jimmy Maher

      Thanks! Hopefully simply calling him an engineer will be sufficient in this context…

      • Andrew McCarthy

        I would probably call him an “architect and engineer” rather than simply an “engineer”, since the architectural side of the Ten Books is what is generally remembered today. His descriptions of the Doric, Ionic, and Corinthian orders had an enormous influence on the Renaissance revival of classical Greek & Roman styles of architecture.

        • Jimmy Maher

          Fair enough. Thanks!

  • Tom Chambers

    ‘Its position was perfect for a center of seaborne trade, so much so that one wonders why nobody had thought to build here before.’ Based on your later mention of aqueducts, I will make a guess—no fresh water source. Just a guess. Thanks for the essay!

    • Jimmy Maher

      That’s an interesting possibility. If correct, it raises a question about the siege by Demetrius: it seems like blocking the aqueducts and depriving the city of freshwater would be an obvious strategy. But I’ve never seen this addressed, in the ancient sources or the modern ones.


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