The island of Rhodes had been settled by Dorian Greeks some time prior to the eighth century BC. It was engulfed by the Persian Empire in the mid-sixth century BC and, as a tributary maritime province, contributed to the contingent of 100 Ionian Greek warships that formed part of the Persian fleet accompanying their invasion of Greece, that was defeated by the Greeks at the battle of Salamis in 480 BC.2 With the Persian defeat at Plataea in 479 BC, the remnant of their fleet retired to Samos, where the Greek fleet caught up with them. The Ionians revolted and the Persians were driven out. Rhodes joined the Athenian-led Delian League, contributing a nominal two penteconters to the Athenian fleet for its ill-fated expedition against Syracuse in 415 BC. Rhodes seceded from the League in 411 BC, setting up a republic and unifying the island by 407 BC. It next sided with the Peloponnesians and contributed ships and men to their fleet. This led to the use by the Spartan fleet of Rhodes’ harbours between 398 and 396 BC, amounting to a virtual occupation and led to Rhodes defecting from Spartan hegemony, backed by a Persian fleet. All of this persuaded the island that it needed to be in a league with the other Aegean island and have a navy of its own. By 390 BC, it had a fleet of at least sixteen warships, enough to thwart an eight-ship Spartan attempt against them.
Alliance with Athens brought security but once again, had soured by 357 BC to the extent that an Athenian fleet of sixty ships was twice defeated by a Rhodian and allied fleet, before peace in 355 BC brought formal recognition of Rhodes’ independence. Unfortunately it then fell under Carian domination and had to send warships to aid Byzantium against Macedon in 340 BC. With Alexander the Great’s march into Asia, Persian hegemony was ended and in early 332 BC, Rhodes sent ten warships to offer submission to Alexander at Tyre. Rhodes received a Macedonian garrison but with the death of Alexander in 332 BC, it was ejected and true independence established. With the waning of Athenian power and influence, Rhodes was excellently placed to take advantage and become the leading trading centre of the eastern Mediterranean and Aegean. Its prominence as a seafaring nation had already been established as early as about 500 BC, when it promulgated the first law for maritime trade, which became widely accepted internationally and some principals of which have continued in use up to the present. The state expanded to include some nearby islands and a large tract of the adjacent mainland. As a trading nation with a large and growing merchant fleet, that trade had to be protected, especially against the ever-present threat of piracy, Rhodes being near to Crete and coasts on the mainland notorious for such activities, the establishment of a navy was a necessity.
Rhodian concern and attention to the maintenance and upkeep of their navy in first class condition was paramount, the success of the state depending upon it. The crews were recruited from the citizen body (the army depended on mercenaries to a large extent). The navy was of between thirty and forty warships, with a basic tactical unit of three ships, commanded by an archon. In wartime the fleet was commanded by a navarch. The fleet had a dedicated military harbour with shipbuilding yards, dockyard and facilities adjacent to Rhodes city. What they may have lacked in numbers, the Rhodian navy more than made up for in quality, as a review of its actions testifies.
The Rhodians eschewed the large Hellenistic ships and concentrated on smaller types, but which were modern, well maintained and manned by the finest, well trained crews; their skill at swift manoeuvre and ramming became famous. Lacking the numbers to be able to engage in the grappling and boarding tactics of other powers, the Rhodians relied on their superior seamanship and ship handling. They operated quadriremes as their largest type (although quinqueremes would be added later) augmented by triremes and a type of which they were particularly fond, the trihemiolia. The exact nature of this type is not clear but, meaning ‘three and a half’ perhaps it was a form of trireme with half of the thranite oars double-banked; perhaps a bireme with an added half reme at the thalamite level (would this however be a ‘two and a half’?). It has been interpreted as a trireme with the two topmost remes rowing through an oarbox and a half reme at the lowest, thalamite lavel, for a total of 120 oars, each single-manned. However, this would appear to produce an under-powered trireme with no obvious advantage. Whatever the form, the type was intended as a ramming vehicle, beamier and better protected than the trireme.
Enriched by its trade and industry, which boomed after Alexander’s demise and aided by their navy’s continuous and strenuous action in suppressing piracy, Rhodes built up the largest merchant fleet in the eastern Mediterranean. In 306 BC, the island concluded a treaty of friendship with Rome.10 This success made Rhodes a tempting target and Antigonus I (306–301 BC) who ruled much of Alexander’s Asian conquests and who sought maritime supremacy, sent his son, Demetrius Poliorcetes (‘the besieger’, 306–283 BC) to lay siege to the city. Faced by a fleet of 200 warships, joined by many pirate ships, the Rhodian fleet withdrew into its harbours but some ships slipped out to interdict Demetrius’ supply ships and take prizes.
Demetrius mounted an attack from the sea with ships roped together to provide armoured platforms for assault troops and other with four storey towers and artillery. The first assault at night secured part of the main harbour mole. The next day ships mounting catapults got into the harbour and did great damage; they were withdrawn at night, when the Rhodians came out in boats and set fire to most of them. Further attacks from seaward were eventually beaten off. In one such, fire ships were sent into the harbour; three Rhodian ships sallied out and broke through Demetrius’ boom and sank two of his artillery vessels. Unfortunately they ventured too far and were counterattacked and rammed, one being captured by the enemy. In bad weather, an attack overran the enemy troops on the mole. Reinforcements were received from Ptolemy of Egypt and the Rhodians sent three squadrons of three ships to attack Demetrius’ supply lines, which they did with great success, bringing captured supplies into the city. Demetrius’ fleet sailed as a diversion for massive land attacks, only to be beaten off with great difficulty and the help of more reinforcements from Ptolemy. Finally, in 304 BC, the siege was called off.
The third century BC, witnessed a rise in Rhodes’ prestige and power, with it intervening in Hellenistic affairs on occasion to protect or enhance its trade interests. Rhodes’ navy was kept in first class order and pursued a continuous campaign against pirates and freebooters; they were acknowledged as ‘the leaders in maritime affairs. In 228 BC, the island suffered a great earthquake and as part of the rebuilding, funds were applied to build ten quinqueremes.