When the god Helios saw Rhodes being born in the midst of the sea he chose it for his dwelling. His three offspring, Kamiros, Lindos and Ialysos divided up the island and gave their names to its three famous cities. So Greek Mythology tells us. This large island, rich in natural beauty, was to play an outstanding role in Aegean nautical history. The Rhodians showed their nautical ability very early on and fared forth in their ships across the sea to bring back riches and knowledge. We learn from Homer that nine Rhodian ships under Tlepolemos took part in the Trojan War.
Able seamen and clever traders, the Rhodians competed with the Corinthians and extended their activities to distant lands. Ιn the West they founded colonies in Sicily (Gela); the Balearic Islands, and Spain. Ιn the East they founded Phaselis οn the coast of Pamphylίa. They sent their merchant ships to all the then-known harbours. They sold Rhodian amphora’s and the famous Rhodian wine. They bartered and transported various other products. At Naucrates in the Nile Delta Rhodian grain-ships took on cargoes of wheat to bring back to Rhodes, which lacked ιt.
During the Classical and Hellenistic periods Rhodes, helped by its favourable geographical position, witnessed a great phase of development and increase in wealth, and achieved great prosperity (δέκα Ροδιοι δέκα νήες, which means "ten Rhodians ten ships" was an ancient saying). In the troubled history of the Eastern Mediterranean Rhodes often found herself at the centre of a conflict between various rivals, but she nearly always managed to aνοίd becoming involved in wars by joining strong coalitions, which gave her protection.
Her goal was always the maintenance of her commercial strength, which was indeed to be envied. Such was the reputation Rhodes steadily acquired on the sea that at one time she was called "Sovereιgn of the Seas". The growth in her shipbuilding reached a peak. The organization of her shipping was exemplary, and the acts of maritime Its that she promulgated influenced peoples who came after. Strabo and Cicero admired the wisdom of Rhodian law, the text of which has unfortunately not survived as a whole. Elements of it, however, existed in Roman law, because the Romans created a complete code of maritime law, the provisions of which were largely borrowed from Rhodian law. It is worth mentioning that among these provisions was also included the law of General Average, Lex Rhodia de jactu, which is still in international use today with various modifications. Elements of Rhodian maritime law are also to be found in Justinian's Digest, as well as in Leon Sophos's Vassilika.
Maritime trade brought Rhodes great wealth. The city was adorned with majestic buildings and noble works of art. Her brilliance radiated to the East and the West. Her political and administrative organization was excellent. It was said that when Alexander the Great built Alexandria, it was planned according to the model of Rhodes, and a small island off Alexandria was named Antirhodes in her honour. Meanwhile the city was fortified, and impregnable walls were built which on many occasions protected it from assaults. The Macedonian Demetrius Poliorcetes (the Besieger) failed to live up to his name when in 305/4 BC he tried in vain to capture Rhodes. After besieging it for a whole year he was forced to abandon his efforts and depart, leaving behind his famous siege engines. These Rhodians sold and with the 300 talents they received for them erected the Colossus of Rhodes, a statue of the god Helios, which was considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world. The sculptor Chares from Lindos took 12 whole years to construct the gigantic bronze statue, which stood 31 metres high. The legs straddled the entrance to the harbour of Rhodes and ships entering passed between them. The Colossus remained in place until 227 BC, when a fearful earthquake shook the whole region, causing much havoc to Rhodes and bringing down the Colossus, which suffered great damage. Pliny, who saw the fallen statue, relates that a man could barely put his arms around its thumb!.
There is much of Rhodian culture that speaks to us even today of the island's maritime greatness. Two examples are the Nike of Samothrace, the famous statue depicting Victory standing on the prow of a ship, and the relief of a ship's prow carved on the Acropolis of Lindos. Both these works have been the objects of special study by experts and are of great interest, particularly for the construction details they give us of ancient ships.
The decline of Rhodes began in 166 BC at the time of the so-called Delian Independence. The decision of the Romans to declare Delos a "free port" was a great blow to Rhodes and from then on she gradually lost her power. She slowly ceased being the great centre of the transit trade and lost two thirds of her revenue. The final collapse came with her capture in 42 BC by the Roman Cassius (one of Julius Caesar's assassins), who stripped the island of every economic resource and plundered it, carrying off to Rome the important works of art that had graced it. That was the end. Rhodes was never again able to recover its former glory.
Thus in the 1st c. BC the two important maritime commercial centres of the ancient world, Delos and Rhodes, which had brought such lustre to the nautical history of the Aegean, came to an end.
We would like to mention individually many other Aegean islands, each of which undoubtedly has its own contribution to make to the history of the region, like the islands of the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, the Sporades and others. That, however, might be the object of a wider, special study in a book on this subject. Our aim at this moment is to give a general picture of Aegean nautical history with emphasis on some of its more important landmarks. And it would not be exaggerating to say that Delos and Rhodes may rightly claim two of the first places among these landmarks, and we think that they deserved a separate mention.