One Colossal Scrap Deal
Colossus of Rhodes, artist’s impression, 1880.
Courtesy of Wikipedia.

If you paid attention in high-school World Civ class, you probably recall that the Colossus of Rhodes was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Few of us remember (or ever learned), though, what became of that massive statue – and fewer still would guess that the scrap trade had a role in its ultimate fate.

The Colossus was a 100-foot-tall bronze statue that stood near a major harbor of the Greek island state of Rhodes in the third century B.C. The statue, designed by sculpture Chares of Lindos, depicted the dun god Helios. While its precise appearance is unknowable, some accounts describe the statue as a nude male figure wearing a spiked crown with a cloak over his left arm and his right hand shielding his eyes from the rising sun. (Notably, French sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi is said to have used this ancient artwork as inspiration for the Statue of Liberty which is nicknamed “The New Colossus.”)

The Rhodians built the Colossus to commemorate their victory over Demetrius Poliocetes in 304 B.C. The statue, made of cast-bronze plates riveted over a steel and stone skeleton, took 12 years to build from 304 to 292 B.C. Apocryphal stories say that the bronze for the statue came from the melting and/or selling of Demetrius’s military equipment (which would mean, of course, that the Colossus was made from recycled metal).

Hand-coloured engraving by Martin Heemskerck. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

Though the Colossus looms large in ancient history, it stood for only 66 years. An earthquake around 226 B.C. broke the giant at the knees and toppled it. Though an Egyptian king (an ally of Rhodes) offered to pay to resurrect the work, an oracle advised against it, suggesting that Helios must have disliked the status and thus destroyed it. The superstitious Rhodians listened to the oracle, deciding not to rebuild the Colossus.

Viewing the statue’s remains some 300 years later, Roman historian Pliny the Younger wrote: “Even as it lies, it excites our wonder and admiration. Few men can clasp their arms around the thumb and its figures are larger than most statues. Where the limbs are broken asunder, vast caverns are seen yawning into the interior. Within are to be seen vast quantities of rock, by weight of which the artist steadied it during construction.”

The statue lay undisturbed for more than nine centuries. Then around A.D. 654, according to Greek historian Theophanes, the Arab governor of Syria, Muawiya, invaded the island and had the artwork’s bronze pieces broken up and sold to a scrap merchant from Edessa. The massive amount of metal – conservatively estimated at 200 tons – required 900 camels to card back to Syria.

In recycling terms, you would say that the Colossus of Rhodes – one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World – began life as a recycled product and came to an end as perhaps the largest nonferrous scrap deal of ancient civilization.

Tom Mele, Connecticut Metal Industries Inc. (Monroe, Conn.). Originally published in “Scrap,” July/August 2002.