The Hellenistic age is characterised by the shifting of the barycentre of the Greek world toward East. In continental Greece, distressed by poverty and social struggles, only a few πολεις – Athens and perhaps Corinth – maintain a rather formal independence by preserving some of their political and social institutions and even Sparta is waning as for the first time builds its defensive walls around the πολις. Pericles’ golden age political spirit, Athens’ “imperial” attitude and “attire” are just a fading memory: no more hoplites but mercenaries defend the πολις and Piraeus is to some extent away from the new mercantile routes. Only thanks to its intellectual prestige Athens is slowly drifting to the status of prime academic-city (although not exclusive as Alexandria, Kos and other learning centres are developing), where scholars, philosophers and students continue gathering and generating thought. Meanwhile the Aegean islands benefit of this new Mediterranean political and commercial layout as maritime commercial routes, including the entire middle East (from Ponto to Cilicia and Syria), Nile’s delta, Sicily, Cyrene, Crete, Cyprus need several stepping stones, ports and storage warehouses.
Rhodes has a prime role as a πολις in this age. Founded in 408 B.C. by συνοικισμóς (union) of three πολεις who positioned their main centre in Rhodes (northwest of the island), subjugated until the death of Alexander the Great it has expelled his successors’ army and has resisted to the assault of Demetrius I Poliorcetes (305 B.C.). Rhodes incarnates a very rare example of the survived spirit of πολις during the Hellenistic age – an epoch of large kingdoms and revered monarchs. Its remarkable, though not long-lasting, fortune is principally based on the practical-commercial attitude of its population, proud and clever, integrated with rich resident foreign merchants, as well as unsurprisingly on its geographic location: a stone’s throw from the Turkish coasts and not far away from Alexandria and the Niles’ delta.
Rhodes has three main ports: commercial, military and transit and two minor landings – guarded by the famous 110 feet Κολοσσος a bronze statue to the God Helios, one of the World’s Seven Wonders and legendary emblem of the πολις. Ιts warehouses are full of amphora where wheat, cereals, wine, olive oil and other commodities are stored to depart for markets/destinations all over the known world – numerous amphora with Rhodes seal have been unearthed all over the Middle-East, Italy, Maghreb, Spain, France and even in Central Europe. The unsurpassed banking system, born and developed in Athens/Piraeus is now concentrated in Rhodes, where are established various branches of ancient financial institutions and where loans, currency exchange and clearing operations take place. Even from the legal standpoint the celebrated Lex Rhodia are widely applied to transactions and several principles of are even taken by Marcus Aurelius as a basis for his maritime code, whose roots can be found also in Byzantine and Republic of Venice Codes.
Rhodes fleet is one the best equipped of the whole Mediterranean and its 50 ships considerably reduce the risks and dangers of pirates – always a problem to maritime trade in those days – struggling to maintain safety and guarantee mercantile traffics. Thanks to the war to pirates and its mercantile alliance with Ptolemaic Egypt, major producer of wheat, Rhodes fosters its importance in the Mediterranean and subsequently its revenues.
Rhodes is ruled by a mixed democratic-aristocratic government solution and enacts several particular social policies – like mandatory food contributions to assist the lower classes – which altogether acquired Rhodes the fame of best administered πολις of whole Greek world. Rhodes public education system is well developed and broadly accessible, moreover all the citizens must serve in the πολις navy: these and other public policies grant a robust spirit of comradeship that surpasses any social class and characterises the social texture of this πολις. Its splendour survives also a major earthquake in 227 B.C. when it is almost completely destroyed: Rhodes is rebuilt even more superb with the financial aid of the whole Greek world – fine arts develop thanks, among the others, to Apollonius who left Alexandria and choose Rhodes as his abode.
Nonetheless, its fortune will not last for too long. Being a loyal ally of Rome during the wars against Philip V of Macedonia and Antioch III the Great, in consequence of the peace of Apamea Rhodes obtains several additional territories on the main land, namely in Lycia and Caria. Later on Rhodes probably overestimates its political power and diplomatic shrewdness by playing a too much ambiguous role with Rome in occasion of the war against Perseus of Macedonia. Thus the Empire, by reaction creates in 166 B.C. a new Tax Haven in Delos (former subsidiary location of Rhodes) under the jurisdiction of Athens which consequently polarises almost the entire Aegean mercantile traffic: in only a couple of years Rhodes’ Customs revenues (2% on fair value) collapse from 1 million drachma to only 150 thousand. Moreover Rhodes resists the siege of Mithridates VI the Great, Eupator Dionysius of Ponto (Rome worst enemy), but in 43 B.C. is taken by Crassus and completely devastated.
Since then Rhodes, although obtains the status of independence during the Roman Empire, will never regain its pivotal role in the Eastern Mediterranean, nonetheless it will become an academic centre, attracting many young rich aristocratic Romans to learn rhetoric (Apollonius Molon of Alabanda, teacher of Cicero later in Rome) and philosophy – its major school was founded by the Stoic Posidionius, a former student of another distinguished Rhodes citizen Panaetius.