Rhodes was early influenced by the Minoan civilization of Crete and was colonized before 1000 BC by Dorians from Árgos. By the 7th cent. BC it was dominated by the three city-states of Camirus, Lindus, and Ialysus, all commercial centers. In the early 7th cent. Rhodes established Gela, in Sicily, as its principal colony; other colonies were founded on the eastern coast of Italy and in Spain. Rhodes retained its independence until the Persian conquest in the late 6th cent. BC and joined (c.500 BC) the Ionian revolt that led to the Persian Wars. Rhodes later joined the Delian League (led by Athens) but fell away from Athens in 411 BC during the Peloponnesian War. In 408 BC the three city-states of Rhodes united in a confederacy, whose capital was the newly founded city of Rhodes.

The island was occupied by Macedon in 332 BC, but it asserted its independence after the death of Alexander the Great (323 BC) and entered the period of its greatest prosperity, power, and cultural achievement. The arts and sciences flourished on the island; major figures included the painter Protogenes and the astronomer Hipparchus. However, in the 2d cent. BC its commerce—and hence its power—declined sharply, and Rhodes became a minor ally of Rome. The island became involved in Rome's civil wars of the 1st cent. BC, and in 43 BC it was seized and sacked by Caius Cassius, the Roman conspirator. At the same time, Rhodes was the seat of a famous school of rhetoric. Julius Caesar studied on the island.

Through the early Christian era Rhodes retained a reputation for the high quality of its literary output. Rhodes remained in the Byzantine Empire until the capture of Constantinople (1204) during the Fourth Crusade. It then passed under local lords, was held by Genoa (1248–50), was annexed (1256) by the emperor of Nicaea, and was conquered (c.1282) by the Knights Hospitalers. The knights defended the island against Ottoman attack until 1522–23, when it was captured by the forces of Sulayman I. The island had prospered under the knights, but it was neglected by the Ottoman Empire. Rhodes, along with the other Dodecanese, was taken by Italy from the Ottomans in 1912 and was ceded by Italy to Greece in 1947.

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