Rhodes and the Colossus: the ancient Greek power

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Before the Statue of Liberty, another monument stood by a great harbour welcoming ships and arrivals to the safety of a democracy. Standing at around 100 metres, this ancient Colossus celebrated victory and was built in the mould of the powerful Helios the Sun God in 292 BCE, a relative of Apollo.

Where does one start with Rhodes which was famous for the Colossus? It is not an island, it is an industry. It is one of the wealthiest per capita of all the Greek islands in modern times. You will find Five Star hotel resorts, a Hilton, MacDonald’s, a modern airport and year-round tourism from international destinations. High tourism figures and local industry ensure that the economy remains vibrant and will continue that way for a long time to come. This is a large island and you need at least a week to fully digest.

Rhodes has a modern population of over 120,000 a large number compared to other nisia. This is indicative of how easily the island bounces back from adversary and maintains a strong economic and social base, especially since liberation from Italy by 1948. Rhodes has a very long history and has certainly provided some of history’s finest moments. Most people know of the Knights of St John (honoured the Rhodes Knights Rugby League team), however, there is much, much more. The Minoans arrived here in the sixteenth century BCE and in mythology there was a race called the Telchines. Mycenaeans arrived soon after and in the eighth century BCE, the Dorians. Pindar, the famous poet from Thebes said that Rhodes was a union of Helios the sun god and the nymph Rodo. During the Hellenistic Age which is the period that followed Alexander the Great, Rhodes city immediately became a significant commercial and cultural beacon. Immense wealth and art became a key part of the island. Philosophy, science, literature and rhetoric flourished.

The islanders supported Greek/Hellenistic king Ptolemy during the war of the Diadochi for control of the Alexandrian empire. Antigonis of Asia Minor in 305 sent his son Demetrius with forty thousand soldiers to bring Rhodes under his control. This was more than the entire population of Rhodes. The locals also had to deal with pirates who had joined Demetrius in the hope of bounty. The first offense was purportedly repulsed by Helios (possibly with help from ‘Apollo’) for inclement weather destroyed the siege machines. A second attack was repulsed when the islanders flooded the ditch outside the walls of the city, preventing a massive siege engine from gaining traction. This turn of events carried on for a year until ships from Ptolemaic Egypt arrived. Demetrius withdrew on the proviso that Rhodes was to remain neutral in the war of Alexandros’ successors. According to fellow historian and friend, Pliny the Elder, the islanders built the Colossus to mark their victory over Demetrius and the protection afforded by Helios. I recall the statue was semi nude with a cloak, a spiked crown and a pose similar to what you will see in New York. When the statue was finished it was dedicated with a poem:

To you, o Sun, the people of Dorian. Rhodes set up this bronze statue reaching to Olympus, when they had pacified the waves of war and crowned their city with the spoils taken from the enemy. Not only over the seas but also on land did they kindle the lovely torch of freedom and independence. For to the descendants of Herakles belongs dominion over sea and land.

With hundreds of inhabited islands in Greece, it is hard to verify how many were actually allowed to remain truly independent at any given period. Rhodes played a game of supporting whoever was the bigger power in the known world. In return Rhodes was allowed to remain independent though within the sphere of influence of any given great power. This policy seemed successful enough throughout the third century BCE. The earthquake of 226 which destroyed the Colossus notwithstanding, the Rhodesians enjoyed their style of democracy and economic prosperity. Trouble lay ahead in 201 when Philip V of Macedon was able to get the better of Rhodes and her island allies. Rhodes turned to Rome, the recent victors over Hannibal in Africa. This opportunity for the growing power of the west was welcomed and they soon went to war with Macedon, ending in 196 with the defeat of Philip. This unfortunate call for help sped up the intervention of Romans in Hellenic affairs and the decline of a Greek power (Macedonia) who could have kept them at bay for decades more. Rhodes was rewarded with additional territory in the Aegean and Peraea Rhodiorum in Asia Minor until 167 by Rome. When another Macedonian War broke out in 171 until 168 BCE, Rhodes stayed neutral. A rather costly mistake. Rome felt this was an insult; four years later she revoked the independence of the island. Despite the end of her power, the island remained a very important cultural area with writers, philosophers and others finding their way to the island. As did many a political exile from Rome and St Paul in the Third Century AD, who made his way here.

Take the time to visit the island as I have done on a number of occasions, and you can still feel the power and culture of a once powerful, independent entity.

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