The island was inhabited in the Neolithic period although little remains of this culture.
In the 16th century BCE, the Minoans came to Rhodes. Later Greek mythology recalled a Rhodian race called the Telchines and associated the island of Rhodes with Danaus; it was sometimes nicknamed Telchinis.
In the 15th century BCE, Mycenaean Greeks invaded. After the Bronze Age collapse, the first renewed outside contacts were with Cyprus. Homer mentions that Rhodes participated in the Trojan War under the leadership of Tlepolemus.
In the 8th century BCE, the island’s settlements started to form, with the coming of the Dorians, who built the three important cities of Lindos, Ialyssos and Kameiros, which together with Kos, Cnidus and Halicarnassus (on the mainland) made up the so-called Dorian Hexapolis (Greek for six cities).
In Pindar’s ode, the island was said to be born of the union of Helios the sun god and the nymph Rhodos, and the cities were named for their three sons. The rhoda is a pink hibiscus, native to the island. Diodorus Siculus added that Actis, one of the sons of Helios and Rhode, travelled to Egypt. He built the city of Heliopolis and taught the Egyptians astrology.
In the second half of the 8th century, the sanctuary of Athena received votive gifts that are markers for cultural contacts: small ivories from the Near East and bronze objects from Syria. At Kameiros on the northwest coast, a former Bronze Age site, where the temple was founded in the 8th century, there is another notable contemporaneous sequence of carved ivory figurines. The cemeteries of Kameiros and Ialyssos yielded several exquisite exemplars of the Orientalizing Rhodian jewelry, dated in the 7th and early 6th centuries BC.Phoenician presence on the island at Ialyssos is attested in traditions recorded much later by Rhodian historians.
The Persians invaded and overran the island, but they were in turn defeated by forces from Athens in 478 BC. The Rhodian cities joined the Athenian League. When the Peloponnesian War broke out in 431 BC, Rhodes remained largely neutral, although it remained a member of the League. The war lasted until 404 BC, but by this time Rhodes had withdrawn entirely from the conflict and decided to go her own way.
In 408 BC, the cities united to form one territory. They built the city of Rhodes, a new capital on the northern end of the island. Its regular plan was, according to Strabo, superintended by the Athenian architect Hippodamus.
In 357 BC, the island was conquered by the king Mausolus of Caria, then it fell again to the Persians in 340 BC. Their rule was also short.
Rhodes then became a part of the growing empire of Alexander the Great in 332 BC, after he defeated the Persians. Following the death of Alexander, his generals vied for control of the kingdom. Three – Ptolemy, Seleucus, and Antigonus – succeeded in dividing the kingdom among themselves. Rhodes formed strong commercial and cultural ties] with the Ptolemies in Alexandria, and together formed the Rhodo-Egyptian alliance that controlled trade throughout the Aegean in the 3rd century BC.
The city developed into a maritime, commercial and cultural center; its coins circulated nearly everywhere in the Mediterranean. Its famous schools of philosophy, science, literature and rhetoric shared masters with Alexandria: the Athenian rhetorician Aeschines, who formed a school at Rhodes; Apollonius of Rhodes; the observations and works of the astronomers Hipparchus and Geminus, the rhetorician Dionysius Thrax. Its school of sculptors developed, under Pergamese influence, a rich, dramatic style that can be characterized as “Hellenistic Baroque”.
Agesander, with two other Rhodian sculptors, carved the famous Laocoon group, now in the Vatican Museum, and the large sculptures rediscovered at Sperlonga in the villa of Tiberius, probably in the early Imperial period.
In 305 BC, Antigonus directed his son, Demetrius, to besiege Rhodes in an attempt to break its alliance with Egypt. Demetrius created huge siege engines, including a 180 ft (55 m) battering ram and a siege tower called Helepolis that weighed 360,000 pounds (163,293 kg).
Despite this engagement, in 304 BC after only one year, he relented and signed a peace agreement, leaving behind a huge store of military equipment. The Rhodians sold the equipment and used the money to erect a statue of their sun god, Helios, the statue since called the Colossus of Rhodes.
Throughout the 3rd century BC, Rhodes attempted to secure her independence and her commerce, most especially her virtual control over the grain trade in the eastern Mediterranean. Both of these goals were dependent upon no one of the three great Hellenistic states achieving dominance, and consequently the Rhodians pursued a policy of maintaining a balance of power among the Antigonids, Seleucids and Ptolemies, even if that meant going to war with her traditional ally, Egypt. To this end they employed as leverage their economy and their excellent navy, which was manned by proverbially the finest sailors in the Mediterranean world: “If we have ten Rhodians, we have ten ships.”
The Rhodians also established their dominance on the shores of Caria across from their island, which became known as the “Rhodian Peraia”. It extended roughly from the modern city of Mugla (ancient Mobolla) in the north and Kaunos bordering Lycia in the south, near the present-day Dalyan, Turkey.
Rhodes successfully carried on this policy through the course of the third century BC, an impressive achievement for what was essentially a democratic state. By the end of that period, however, the balance of power was crumbling, as declining Ptolemaic power made Egypt an attractive target for Seleucid ambitions.
In 203/2 BC the young and dynamic kings of Antigonid Macedon and Seleucid Asia, Philip V and Antiochus III, agreed to accept—at least temporarily—their respective military ambitions, Philip’s campaign in the Aegean and western Anatolia and Antiochus’ final solution of the Egyptian question. Heading a coalition of small states, the Rhodians checked Philip’s navy, but not his superior army. Without a third power to which to turn, the Rhodians appealed in 201 BC to the Roman Republic.
Despite being exhausted by the titanic struggle against Hannibal (218–201 BC) the Romans agreed to intervene, having already been stabbed in the back by Philip during the war against Carthage. The Senate saw the appeal from Rhodes and her allies as the opportunity to pressure Philip. The result was the Second Macedonia War (200–196 BC), which ended Macedon’s role as a major player and preserved Rhodian independence. Rhodian influence in the Aegean was cemented through the organization of the Cyclades into the Second Nesiotic League under Rhodian leadership.
The Romans actually withdrew from Greece after the end of the conflict, but the resulting power vacuum quickly drew in Antiochus and subsequently the Romans, who defeated (192–188 BC) the last Mediterranean power that might even vaguely threaten their predominance. Having provided Rome with valuable naval help in her first foray into Asia, the Rhodians were rewarded with territory and enhanced status. The Romans once again evacuated the east – the Senate preferred clients to provinces – but it was clear that Rome now ruled the world and Rhodian autonomy was ultimately dependent upon good relations with them.
And those good graces soon evaporated in the wake of the Third Macedonia War (171–168 BC). In 169 BC, during the war against Perseus, Rhodes sent Agepolis as ambassador to the consul Quintus Marcius Philippus, and then to Rome in the following year, hoping to turn the Senate against the war. Rhodes remained scrupulously neutral during the war, but in the view of hostile elements in the Senate she had been a bit too friendly with the defeated King Perseus.
Some actually proposed declaring war on the island republic, but this was averted. In 164, Rhodes became a permanent ally of Rome, ending an independence that no longer had any meaning. It was said that the Romans ultimately turned against the Rhodians because the islanders were the only people they had encountered who were more arrogant than themselves.
After surrendering its independence Rhodes became a cultural and educational center for Roman noble families and was especially noted for its teachers of rhetoric, such as Hermagoras and the unknown author of Rhetorica ad Herennium. At first, the state was an important ally of Rome and enjoyed numerous privileges, but these were later lost in various machinations of Roman politics. Cassius eventually invaded the island and sacked the city. In the early Imperial period Rhodes became a favorite place for political exiles.
In the 1st century AD, the Emperor Tiberius spent a brief term of exile on Rhodes. Saint Paul brought Christianity to people on the island. Rhodes reached her zenith in the 3rd century.
In ancient times there was a Roman saying: “hic Rhodus, hic salta!”—”Here is Rhodes, jump here”, an admonition to prove one’s idle boasts by deed rather than talk. It comes from an Aesop’s fable called “The Boastful Athlete” and was cited by Hegel, Marx, and Kierkgaard.
In 395 with the division of the Roman Empire, the long Byzantine period began for Rhodes. In Late Antiquity, the island was the capital of the Roman province of the Islands, headed by a praeses (hegemon in Greek), and encompassing most of the Aegean islands, with twenty cities. Correspondingly, the island was also the metropolis of the ecclesiastical province of Cyclades, with eleven sees.
Beginning from ca. 600 AD, its influence in maritime issues was manifested in the collection of maritime laws known as “Rhodian Sea Law” (Nomos Rhodion Nautikos), accepted throughout the Mediterranean and in use throughout Byzantine times (and influencing the development of admiralty law up to the present). In 622/3, during the climactic Byzantine – Sasanian War of 602 – 628, Rhodes was captured by the Sasanian navy.
Rhodes was occupied by the Islamic Umayyad forces of Caliph Muawiyah I in 654, who carried off the remains of the Colossus of Rhodes. The island was again captured by the Arabs in 673 as part of their first attack on Constatinople. When their fleet was destroyed by Greek fire before Constantinople and by storms on its return trip, however, the island was evacuated in 679/80 as part of the Byzantine–Umayyad peace treaty. In 715 the Byzantine fleet dispatched against the Arabs launched a rebellion at Rhodes, which led to the installation of Theodosios III on the Byzantine throne.
From the early 8th to the 12th centuries, Rhodes belonged to the Cibyrrhaeot Theme of the Byzantine Empire, and was a centre for shipbuilding and commerce. In c. 1090, it was occupied by the forces of the Seljuk Turks, after the long period of chaos resulting from the Battle of Manzikert. Rhodes was recaptured by the Emperor Alexios I Kommenos during the First Crusade.
As Byzantine central power weakened under the Angeloi emperors (1185–1204), in the first half of the 13th century, Rhodes became the centre of an independent domain under Leo Gabalas and his brother John, until it was occupied by the Genoese in 1248–1250. The Genoese were evicted by the Empire of Nicaea, after which the island became a regular province of the Nicaean state (and after 1261 of the restored Byzantine Empire). In 1305, the island was given as a fief to Andrea Morisco, a Genoese adventurer who had entered Byzantine service. Between 1300 and 1314, however, Rhodes was controlled by Mentese, an Anatolian beylik.
Crusader and Ottoman Rule
In 1306–1310, the Byzantine era of the island’s history came to an end when the island was occupied by the Knights Hospitaller. Under the rule of the newly named “Knights of Rhodes”, the city was rebuilt into a model of the European medieval ideal. Many of the city’s famous monuments, including the Palace of the Grand Master, were built during this period.
The strong walls which the knights had built withstood the attacks of the Sultan og Egypt in 1444, and a siege by the Ottomans under Mehmed II in 1480. Eventually, however, Rhodes fell to the large army of Suleiman the Magnificent in December 1522. The Sultan deployed 400 ships delivering 100,000 men to the island (200,000 in other sources). Against this force the Knights, under Grand Master Philippe Villiers de L’Isle-Adam, had about 7,000 men-at-arms and their fortifications.
The siege lasted six months, at the end of which the surviving defeated Hospitallers were allowed to withdraw to the Kingdom of Sicily. Despite the defeat, both Christians and Muslims seem to have regarded the conduct of Villiers de L’Isle-Adam as extremely valiant, and the Grand Master was proclaimed a Defender of the Faith by Pope Adrian VI. The knights would later move their base of operations to Malta.
Rhodes was thereafter a possession of the Ottoman Empire for nearly four centuries.
In the XIX century the island was populated by ethnic groups from the surrounding nations, including Jews. Under Ottoman rule, they generally did fairly well, but discrimination and bigotry occasionally arose. In February 1840, the Jews of Rhodes were falsely accused by the Greek Orthodox community of ritually murdering a Christian boy. This became known as the Rhodes blood libel.
Austria opened a post-office at RHODUS (Venetian name) before 1864, as witnessed by stamps with Franz-Josef head.
In 1912, Italy seized Rhodes from the Ottomans during the Italo-Turkish War. The island’s population was spared the “exchange of the minorities” between Greece and Turkey. Rhodes and the rest of the Dodecanese Islands were assigned to Italy in the Treaty of Ouchy. Turkey ceded them officially to Italy with the 1923 Treaty of Lausanne. It then became the core of their possession of the Isole Italiane dell’Egeo. The island was greatly improved (mainly the capital called “Rodi” in Italian) under the more than thirty years of the Kingdom of Italy’s rule.
Thousands of Italian colonists settled in the island, mainly in the capital “Rodi”, while some of them founded farm villages (like “Peveragno Rodio” (1929), “Campochiaro” (1935), “San Marco” (1936) and “Savona” (1938): in the Dodecanese islands was officially proposed the creation in 1940 of the “Provincia italiana di Rodi”.
In the late 1930s, Mussolini embarked on a program of Italianization, hoping to make the island of Rhodes a modern transportation hub that would serve as a focal point for the spread of Italian culture in Greece and the Levant. The Fascist program did have some positive effects in its attempts to modernize the island, resulting in the eradication of malaria, the construction of hospitals, aqueducts, a power plant to provide Rhodes’ capital with electric lighting and the establishment of the Dodecanese Cadastre.
Following the Italian Armistice of 8 September 1943, the British attempted to get the Italian garrison on Rhodes to change sides. This was anticipated by the German Army, which succeeded in occupying the island with the Battle of Rhodes. In great measure, the German occupation caused the British failure in the subsequent Dodecanese Campaign.
After September 1943 the Jews -who had been protected by the Italian government- were persecuted by the nazi Germans and sent to concentration camps. However, the Turkish Consul Selahattin Ulkumen succeeded, at considerable risk to himself and his family, in saving 42 Jewish families, about 200 persons in total, who had Turkish citizenship or were members of Turkish citizens’ families.
On 8 May 1945 the Germans under Otto Wagener surrendered Rhodes as well as the Dodecanese as a whole to the British, who soon after then occupied the islands as a military protectorate.
In the WW2 Peace Treaty, Rhodes, together with the other islands of the Dodecanese, was united with Greece in February 1947. 6000 Italian colonists were forced to abandon the island and returned to Italy.
In 1949, Rhodes was the venue for negotiations between Israel and Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria, and, concluding with the 1949 Armistice Agreements.
In the 1960s the island started to enjoy a boom in tourism. Actually the island is one of the richest in southern Greece.