Lost Masterpieces

How The Colossus of Rhodes Inspired ‘Game of Thrones’

In ‘GoT,’ the Titan of Braavos, the fierce statue that welcomes—and warns— visitors to that city echoes the 110-foot, bronze Colossus of Rhodes.

As King Stannis Baratheon and Ser Davos Seaworth sail into the port of Braavos in the opening scene of Season 4, Episode 6 of Game of Thrones, the camera pans back to reveal first two giant legs, then a towering body complete with a sword-wielding arm that straddles the entrance to the harbor.

Meet the Titan of Braavos, the fierce statue that dramatically welcomes—and warns—all visitors to the city.

The Titan of Braavos may be a fictional figure standing guard over a fictional harbor, but it’s what many have in mind when they picture a very real statue that once stood guard over a city in ancient Greece, a statue that, unlike its cinematic successor, still lives largely in our imaginations.

Over 2,000 years ago, the 110-foot, bronze Colossus of Rhodes once triumphantly towered over the city of Rhodes.

It was a spectacular sight—the sun god Helios standing tall with one arm holding high a torch—and it made such an impression that it continues to be regarded as one of Seven Wonders of the Ancient World even though, after only 56 years, it came tumbling down in an earthquake leaving nary a sketch behind.

“I think it’s just interesting that the statue looms so large in the imagination when it stood for a relatively short time and we really know so little about what it looked like, where it stood, or how it was made,” Dr. Kenneth Lapatin, Curator of Antiquities at the Getty Museum, told The Daily Beast.  

During Greek antiquity, Rhodes was known as a center of culture. While residents followed the tradition of the day and worshipped many different gods, they had a special place in their hearts for the sun god Helios. It didn’t hurt that the city was the namesake of Helios’s wife, a nymph named Rhodes who was also the daughter of Poseidon.

In the first century B.C., the Greek historian Diodorus Siculus wrote about the legends surrounding the founding of the island: “Helios (the Sun), the myth tells us, becoming enamored of Rhodos, named the island Rhodes after her and caused the water which had overflowed it to disappear.”  

Helios may not have been able to prevent the Macedonian siege of the city in the fourth century B.C., but he was given credit for its defeat. In 305 B.C., the Rhodians vanquished their attackers. The leader of the Macedonians, son of one of Alexander the Great’s best generals, was forever after saddled with a nickname mocking his loss—he is known to this day as Demetrius Poliorcetes, or Demetrius “the Besieger.”

The Rhodians, on the other hand, not only wrested back their freedom, but they also got a little booty to go along with it. When the Macedonian army fled, they left behind a trove of equipment and weapons.

According to the legends, the Rhodians took this loot and sold part of it off for money—the remainder was melted down for material—and those resources were used to construct a giant monument to their patron god.

The city commissioned the sculptor Chares of Lindos to lead this project. Chares was a good pick—he not only hailed from a town on the island of Rhodes, but he was also a student of Lysippus, one of Alexander the Great’s favorite sculptors.

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Chares would become known for making several large-scale sculptures over the course of his career, but none was as large as the statue of Helios that would take him 12 years to complete. When it was finally finished in 280 B.C., the result, by all accounts, was stunning.

We don’t have any fragments of the statue that once stood or even sketches or drawings of what it once looked like. But what we do have are two references to it in important ancient texts.

“[One is] Pliny the Elder’s Natural History, which is a massive book that was divided into 37 volumes treating the earth, the seas, minerals, pigments, and in the section on bronze, on metals, Pliny talks about this amazing statue, amazing just because it was so big,” Lapatin said. “And then Philo of Alexandria [writes] more of an engineering book, and he’s interested in it for how it was made.”

In addition to the accounts of the philosophers, the ancients were well ahead of our modern media trends, and they were very much into making lists “of memorabilia, of wonderful things,” Lapatin said.

Out of these lists was born the idea of the Seven Wonders of the World (the “ancient,” naturally, was added much later). The Colossus of Rhodes took pride of place on many of these lists.

But despite these varying—if limited—accounts, it’s difficult to determine with certainty much about the Colossus of Rhodes without drawings or fragments of the original sculpture.

“Unlike other lost works of art, we don’t have ancient representations or depictions of it,” Lapatin said. “We don’t have, or we haven’t recognized, the souvenir replicas or the copies or the other images [of it], probably because it stood for so little time.”

Because of this, scholars continue to debate exactly how Chares constructed such a gigantic piece of art. Based on the somewhat garbled account of Philo, some think that the sculptor parted from Greek tradition and used an innovative process that was not common in the area.

One possibility, according to this line of thinking, is that the sculpture was cast in situ, with Chares starting from the base and casting the sculpture from the ground up, one piece on top of the other.

But Lapatin puts his weight behind German scholar Ursula Vedder, who “argues this is really inconsistent with Greek practice… the statue would have been made in the way the Greek’s made smaller statues, in sections that were individually cast and then joined up and assembled.”

At the time, Lapatin explained, the Greeks generally used a lost wax process of casting bronze sculptures.

This was an arduous process that involved first making a model of the piece in wax, then wrapping it in clay with a few holes left in it. Once the clay was heated, the wax poured out and they were left with a hollow mold that the molten bronze could be poured into. Once that step had fully cooled, the clay was then broken and what was left was statue.

Scholars debate where, exactly, the Colossus stood.

“Usually the reconstructions put it in the harbor or straddling the harbor, and you see that in Game of Thrones… that’s really fanciful and that comes from early modern depictions of the Seven Wonders that are kind of made up,” Lapatin said. “Vedder thinks she’s found the base of the statue in casting pits on the Acropolis of Rhodes near a Temple of Apollo. Apollo was associated with the sun, and I think that’s plausible.”

Whether the Colossus of Rhodes watched over the harbor from its mouth or from high on a hill further inland, it was no match for the gods of nature. When an earthquake hit the city in 226 B.C., it came tumbling down.

For centuries the remains of the Colossus of Rhodes lay on the ground in a pile of rubble where it had fallen. Lapatin said that the statue was most likely considered divine property since it had been a gift to the gods, and therefore off limits.

Other sources, he said, suggest there was some talk of rebuilding the piece—Ptolemy of Egypt allegedly even offered to help—but “there was an oracle that said don’t do that.”

Whether the oracle said simply don’t rebuild it or whether the instruction was not to touch the pieces at all, the result was the same—the once great Colossus of Rhodes lay in shambles on the ground until hundreds of years later when the pieces are sold off to be melted down.

By the time that happened, Lapatin said, “we’re in late antiquity and it’s no longer the pious pagans who have oversight of the material, so you have different religious beliefs that are operative.”

The Colossus of Rhodes may have enjoyed only a short reign, but it’s impact was so profound that it continues to ripple today. In addition to enjoying a permanent spot on the Seven Wonders list, it was also the inspiration for the Statue of Liberty.

In early 2016, a group of architects who called themselves the Colossus of Rhodes Project developed a proposal to remake the great monument, but this time five times bigger.

They wanted to turn the new Colossus into a solar-powered sculpture-cum-building that would contain a public cultural center and a library, among other things, and that would serve as a beacon of hope as the refugee crisis continues to affect the country.

While their website is now defunct, their colossal-sized ambition was more than worthy of the lasting legacy of Chares’s original Colossus.

“The purpose of the project is to arouse the same emotions that visitors [originally] felt more than 2,200 years ago,” Ari A. Palla, one of the project’s architects, told Blueprint. “This new Colossus will be a lighthouse of inspiration and hope for future generations.”