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Helepolis: The Failed War Machine From Which Rose a Wonder of The Ancient World

At the entrance to the harbor of the city of Rhodes, on the Greek island of the same name, there once stood a colossal statue made of iron, brass and stone. Dedicated to the Greek sun-god Helios, the Colossus of Rhodes, stood more than a hundred feet tall and was a symbol of pride for the Rhodians who had successfully defended their city against an attempted siege by the Kingdom of Macedonia.

In the late 4th century BC, after the death of Alexander the Great, the Kingdom of Rhodes developed strong commercial and cultural ties with Ptolemy I of Egypt, and together formed an alliance that controlled trade throughout the Aegean Sea. The King of Macedonia, Antigonus I, felt threatened by this alliance. He feared that the Egyptian pharaoh might use the island of Rhodes as a base to attack Macedonia, and worse still, the Rhodians might actually provide ships and supplies to Ptolemy I to facilitate the attack.

Siege of Rhodes

Antigonus I decided to break this alliance, and in 305 BC, he sent his son and the future King of Macedonia, Demetrius, with a huge fleet of fighting vessels to siege the city of Rhodes.

The city of Rhodes and its harbor was strongly fortified and Demetrius was unable to prevent supply ships from running his blockade, so his first concern was capturing the harbor. He at once built his own harbor alongside the original and a mole to protect his seaborne siege operations from counter-attack by means of a floating spiked boom. At the same time, his army ravaged the island and built a huge camp on land adjacent to the city but out of missile range.

In the course of the siege, both sides employed many technical devices such as mines and counter mines and various siege engines. The most sensational feature of the siege was Demetrius’ mammoth siege tower, nicknamed the Helepolis, or “taker of cities”.

Helepolis siege engine

Model of the Helepolis siege engine, at Thessaloniki Technology Museum, Greece. Photo credit: Gts-tg/Wikimedia

Helepolis siege engine

Three dimensional model and cross-section of Helepolis by Evan Mason.

The Helepolis was a large tapering tower about 40 meters tall, built of timber and armored by iron plates. The interior was divided into several stories where hundreds of men lay waiting to attack the city walls with rock catapults and battering rams. In order to fire these missiles, the forward wall was provided with various artillery ports and shielded by mechanically adjustable shutters, lined with skins stuffed with wool and seaweed to render them fireproof. The entire tower, weighing 160 tons, rested on eight wheels, each 15 feet high. It took 3,400 men working in relays to push and position the tower in front of the walls.

Throughout the siege, the Helepolis was mercilessly attacked by the Rhodians, and they even managed to tear down some of the iron plating covering the tower, exposing the vulnerable timber structure. To protect the machine, Demetrius ordered it withdrawn. A year later, a relief force of ships sent by Ptolemy arrived, and Demetrius and his army abandoned the siege, leaving behind most of their siege equipment.

A decade later, the Rhodians melted down all the weapons left behind by Demetrius's army, including the iron plates from the Helepolis. They sold the rest of the equipment, and with the money and melted iron and bronze erected the Colossus of Rhodes to commemorate their heroic resistance. The statue was built of a skeleton of iron, over which brass plates were fixed to form the skin. This was then filled with stone blocks as construction progressed. The statue stood on a marble pedestal 15 meters high. After twelve years, in 280 BC, the statue was completed.

Colossus of Rhodes

A 1790 engraving of the Colossus of Rhodes depicting its typical straddling posture.

The Colossus of Rhodes stood for only 54 years, when an earthquake struck Rhode island in 226 BC, causing the statue to snap at the knees and fall over. Ptolemy III offered to pay for the reconstruction of the statue, but the oracle of Delphi made the Rhodians afraid that they had offended Helios, and they declined to rebuild it. The remains lay on the ground for over 800 years. The ruins were so impressive that many travelled to see them. Pliny the Elder, who is the principal ancient source for the Colossus’ dimensions, remarked that few people could wrap their arms around the fallen thumb and that each of its fingers was larger than most statues.

Surprisingly, no text from the period survive describing how the Colossus of Rhodes looked like while it stood. There is relief in a nearby temple that shows Helios standing with one hand shielding his eyes, similar to the way a person shields their eyes when looking toward the sun. It is quite possible that the colossus was constructed in the same pose. In many imaginative sketches of the Colossus of Rhodes, the gigantic figure of Helios is shown with its legs apart straddling the harbor mouth as a gateway for ships. Historians now regard that such a posture would have been physically impossible as it would have caused the statue to collapse under its own weight.

Colossus of Rhodes

A more realistic representation of the Colossus of Rhodes by Frantisek Kupka (1906 CE).

Pieces of the fallen statue was eventually collected and melted when Rhodes came under the Arabs in 653. The bronze salvaged was sold to a Jewish merchant, who needed more than 900 camels to carry it all away.

Neither the Heliopolis nor the Colossus of Rhodes survived, yet both has left a deep imprint on our modern culture. The design of the Statue of Liberty in New York was inspired by the Colossus of Rhodes—see the engraving from 1790. The Rhodes statue was also the inspiration for the giant bronze Titan statue that stands guard in the port of Braavos in George R. R. Martin’s best-selling novel A Song of Ice and Fire, which is the basis for the hugely popular TV series Game of Thrones.

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