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How the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World Work

The Colossus of Rhodes

The Colossus of Rhodes in ancient Greece was said to be the only statue larger than the mighty Zeus at Olympia. But this statue didn't last as long as Zeus -- at least not vertically.

In the third century, the Greek island of Rhodes was confronted by angry Macedonians. They wanted the Rhodians' help waging war against Ptolemy I in ancient Egypt. But the Rhodians didn't want to get involved in the conflict. They resisted the Macedonians, and the warriors eventually relented. The Macedonians left behind all of their supplies and equipment.

The Rhodians were so thankful for their safety that they decided to honor their patron god -- Helios, the sun god -- with a statue. They sold the Macedonians' cast-off goods to earn money for it. Around 294 B.C, the sculptor Chares of Lindos began work on the colossus. Using bronze, iron and stones for building materials, it took him 12 years to complete the statue. It measured nearly 110 feet (33 meters) high when finished -- that's about the height of a 15-story building [source: Hillman].

An artist's rendering of the Colossus of Rhodes shows the statue straddling the island's harbor, circa 250 B.C.
An artist's rendering of the Colossus of Rhodes shows the statue straddling the island's harbor, circa 250 B.C.
Three Lions/Hulton Archives/Getty Images

No one knows for sure what the colossus looked like or where it was located on the island. Judging from written accounts, scholars have proposed that it was a standing figure holding a torch in one hand. And some accounts testify that its face was modeled after Alexander the Great's [source: Smithsonian]. Legends say that he stood over the harbor, one leg on either side forming a majestic tunnel.

While there are plenty of accounts and illustrations that support this theory (some suspiciously from the Middle Ages, centuries after the statue had been destroyed), it's unlikely that the colossus would have stood over the harbor. For one thing, Chares didn't have the knowledge, materials or skills to support the weight of a statue in this position. Even more telling, the bustling port city of Rhodes wouldn't have been able to support its people with the harbor out of commission during the statue's erection. Instead, the statue was probably sculpted in the classical Greek style with both legs planted solidly under his shoulders and some sort of base for support. Furthermore, the colossus was likely located inland near the center of town [source: Princeton].

The colossus stood strong for 53 years until an earthquake struck Rhodes in 225 B.C. The colossus broke at its knees, and when it toppled over, it crushed several houses and buildings in its wake. When the Rhodians considered rebuilding the colossus, an oracle, or message from the gods, advised them not to. For almost four centuries, the colossus lay prostrate on the ground. Pliny wrote that it was still a wonder to see in this condition. Tourists would try to wrap their arms around the colossus' thumb, but it was too big to grasp [source: Smithsonian].

In 653 A.D., invading Arabs sold the toppled Colossus for scrap metal. Its legacy lives on in the style of a famous statue created by Frederic Bartholdi: the Statue of Liberty.

For our last stop on the tour of ancient wonders, we island-hop back to where we started: Egypt. Last, we'll learn about the Lighthouse of Alexandria.