How the Island of Rhodes Overcame a Superpower | History Hit

How the Island of Rhodes Overcame a Superpower

1911 interpretation of the Colossus of Rhodes.
Image Credit: Public Domain

In 306 BC, 17 years after Alexander the Great‘s death, his empire had fragmented into various large domains. At that time, the most powerful of these realms was ruled by a man called Antigonus, who was based in Syria.

His son Demetrius had recently won a major naval battle off Cyprus against their major rival Ptolemy, the ruler of Egypt. Yet almost immediately, new obstacles would arise for this new-found dominance. Especially from a small island in the South Aegean: the island of Rhodes.

Stephen deCasien joined Tristan to talk about the famous Siege of Rhodes.
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King Antigonus

News of Demetrius’ victory off Cyprus soon reached Antigonus at his namesake capital Antigoneia, situated on the Orontes River in Syria. Upon hearing of the success, Antigonus realised his power in the Eastern Mediterranean was now unmatched. And in his delight, he made an audacious proclamation to his Macedonians. He assumed the title of king and named his son Demetrius both as joint-king and successor.

With the death of Alexander the Great’s last direct heir back in 309 BC, Antigonus was making a bold statement to his rivals: the Antigonids, he implied, were now the rightful heirs to his empire.

Yet very soon afterwards, Ptolemy, Cassander, Lysimachus and Seleucus all made similar proclamations, assuming their own regal status.

Scaraboid gem engraved of a ship with steersman, oarsmen and warriors. Greek, circa 525-500 BC.

Image Credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art / Public Domain

The invasion of Egypt (306 BC)

For Ptolemy however, his power following the Cyprus debacle was a shadow of its former-self. Antigonus sensed his opportunity. Gathering a grand army of almost 90,000 troops, Antigonus, now nearly 80, advanced towards Egypt. Adjacent to his father’s army, Demetrius commanded the Antigonid fleet along the coast.

Upon reaching Pelusium, Antigonus ordered Demetrius to attempt an amphibious landing on the nearby coast, thereby creating a bridgehead for his forces. First at Pseudostonum and then at Phatniticum, Demetrius attempted to breach Ptolemy’s defences, but to no avail. Ptolemy’s defenders resisted formidably, and Demetrius was forced to return to his father.

Antigonus’ attempt to divert Ptolemy’s defences had failed and he knew that any frontal crossing had no guarantee of victory – he only had to look back at the fate of Perdiccas to realise that. Hesitant to take the risk, Antigonus ordered a retreat. The invasion was abandoned; Ptolemy had survived once again.

A new campaign

At the beginning of 305 BC, Antigonus returned to Antigoneia. This was not supposed be the end of Antigonid expansion however. Under the command of Demetrius, Antigonus launched a new campaign, this time against a very different foe: the Island of Rhodes.

Before Demetrius’ campaign on Cyprus, the Rhodians had refused to aid the Antigonid cause, claiming neutrality. Their obstinacy persisted after the naval battle off Cyprus, with their friendly relations to Ptolemy in Egypt well-known.

Worried that the Rhodians could aid Ptolemy against his interests, and seeing their fleet as the last stumbling block before uncontested Antigonid naval supremacy in the Eastern Mediterranean, Antigonus ordered Demetrius to take the island for their kingdom.

The Siege of Rhodes (305 BC)

At Loryma, a town in the southwest of modern Turkey, a large Antigonid force was gathered for the expedition. Its navy would consist of 200 warships, many equipped with artillery. It also had 170 transport and supply ships which would carry his land force of almost 40,000 strong.

Among these troops Demetrius had enlisted the aid of a small group of pirates – skilled raiders and able sailors. He also brought with him a large amount of siege equipment and provisions; Demetrius was experienced and well-prepared for a siege.

1801 depiction of an ‘ancient warship’.

Image Credit: New York Public Library / Public Domain

With this armada, Demetrius set sail for Rhodes, landing his army near its capital. He placed his camp on a plain to the southwest of the city while his navy blockaded the Rhodian harbour.

To fortify his position, Demetrius dispatched his pirates to raid and pillage the island, much to the dismay of the trapped Rhodians. After realising that any attempts to negotiate were fruitless, the Rhodian defenders, some 7,000 in number, readied their defences. The siege had begun.

Early encounters

The first engagement soon followed, though it was not instigated by the besieging forces. Aiming to surprise the blockaders, three Rhodian vessels sailed from the harbour, catching Demetrius’ navy off-guard and sinking many of his supply ships before returning to Rhodes.

Undeterred, Demetrius began preparations to attack the harbour. To batter the Rhodian defences, he placed two large penthouses above two strapped-together cargo-ships, with ballistae and catapults stationed inside the raised platforms.

At the same time, Demetrius constructed two four-story siege towers, also superbly-mounted on cargo ships. He filled many of his smaller ships with specialised Cretan archers and artillery. The Rhodians, in response, placed artillery around the harbour, on their ships, wall, and on the mole that protruded from the harbour.

The first assault

With his preparations complete, Demetrius commenced the assault. At night he landed a small force of men at the farthest-end of the mole, capturing it and creating a beachhead some 500 feet from the city wall. 400 men were ordered to defend this bridgehead.

Early the next day, Demetrius had his amphibious siege-engines towed into the harbour. Heavy catapult, ballista and archer-fire was exchanged and great damage was inflicted on the defences. Eventually, however, Demetrius sounded the retreat. Seeing the engines withdrawing, the Rhodians attempted to destroy them with fire ships, but the pursuit failed.

The second assault

A second attack soon followed. Once again, Demetrius had his siege-engines towed inside and his artillery battered the Rhodian fortifications, with a portion of Demetrius’ troops managing to gain control of a section of the Rhodian defences.

1810 depictions of ancient siege warfare.

Image Credit: New York Public Library / Public Domain

Meanwhile Demetrius’ army on land scaled ladders along the city walls and heavy fighting ensued on multiple fronts. Casualties were high on either side, but eventually the Rhodians emerged victorious and Demetrius’ army withdrew.

Though Demetrius’ two assaults had failed, he remained determined. As soon as his ships were repaired, he ordered a third assault. And this time, Demetrius had a plan he believed could not fail.

The third assault

Demetrius ordered his lighter ships, manned with archers, to rain fire arrows on the Rhodian vessels to set them alight. In the meantime, three of his amphibious siege-engines bombarded the harbour defences – the ballistae targeting the wall itself and the catapults aiming at the defenders on the ramparts. It was a terrifying assault, and soon the Rhodian defences began to waiver.

Yet despite heavy arrow-fire, Rhodes’ sailors managed to extinguish the fires on their ships. Seeing the perilous situation, they proposed a desperate strategy. Three of their most agile ships were manned with the best Rhodian sailors. They rowed, through heavy fire, right towards Demetrius’ siege engines and rammed them. In such a daring, suicidal move, the Rhodian ships managed to destroy two of these formidable engines.

Soon the Rhodian ships were surrounded and destroyed while the third engine escaped. Yet in this daring act, Rhodes had saved its harbour from almost-certain capture. Demetrius once again was forced to retreat.


Not long afterwards, a great storm arrived off the Rhodian coastline. Attempts to launch a new attack were temporarily thwarted; the Rhodians sensed an opportunity.

The far-end of the mole was still in Demetrius’ hands but now it was out of reach of his fleet. Launching a wave of attacks, the Rhodians soon overwhelmed the small outpost. Moreover, as the storm subsided, reinforcements amounting to 650 troops sent from Ptolemy managed to sneak into the harbour, reinforcing the jubilant Rhodians.

1785 depiction of a movable siege tower used in the ancient world.

Image Credit: New York Public Library / Public Domain

The land assault

Demetrius’ attempts to take the harbour had backfired completely. In the beginning of 304 BC, he changed tactics, turning his attention to a land-assault. To aid him, Demetrius constructed another great siege tower, a helepolis.

He had learnt from his past mistakes employing siege towers, placing iron plates over the wooden frame to prevent it from catching fire. So large and heavily fortified was this tower that it apparently needed 3,400 men to move it. It was in this act that Demetrius earned the nickname Poliorcetes, meaning, ‘the besieger of cities.’

Alarmed at this great contraption, the Rhodians began constructing a secondary wall behind the target of the helepolis. With their harbour free from constant assault, Rhodian ships also made frequent sallies against Demetrius’ supply ships, aimed at disrupting their opponent’s supplies.

In the meantime, Demetrius ordered sappers to undermine the Rhodian walls. Yet the Rhodians, learning of this threat, constructed tunnels of their own and a desperate fight ensued underground.


Eventually, with aid from the helepolis, manned with numerous ballistae and catapults, and his other artillery, a breach formed in the Rhodian wall and the Rhodian forces retreated. To Demetrius’ dismay, his forces broke through only to see a hastily-completed second wall now standing in their way.

Demetrius was running out of patience; a daring assault was needed. Picking his best men and placing them under the command of his most-experienced general, Alcimus, Demetrius ordered a blitzkrieg night assault on the city.

Alcimus’ force quickly broke through the second wall’s defences, reaching as far as the theatre in the city with 1,500 soliders. There a vicious fight ensued between the attackers and the Rhodian defenders.

Many fell on either side but eventually the Rhodians, fighting zealously for their homeland, overcame Demetrius’ forces. Of the 1,500 men that had reached the theatre, all were either captured or killed, including Alcimus himself.

In this episode Tristan is joined by Professor Andrew Erskine to delve into this iconic monument and the legacy it left. What can we learn about the Colossus of Rhodes, and just how wonderful was it really?
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Rise of a colossus

The assault had failed and Demetrius returned half-heartedly to the siege. It was then that a directive reached him from his father ordering him to break-off the siege. Obeying, Demetrius reached an agreement with the city and sailed away; the year-long siege was lifted.

For the Rhodians, it was their finest hour, successfully defending against the superpower of the time. In honour of their achievement and in thanks for their divine protection they ordered the construction of a monument that would go down in history as one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World: the Colossus of Rhodes.

Tristan Hughes