The list of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world has captured humanity’s imagination for more than two millennia. These seven structures and statues surpassed all others in beauty, size, and skill of construction, constituting seven testaments to the creativity and ingenuity of their builders. But what monuments made up the list, and why has the list maintained its popularity over the ages?
Throughout much of its history, the list was mutable. Although the number of monuments usually remained anchored at seven, various buildings and statues were added and removed over time. Between the second century BCE, when the list first appeared, and the Renaissance, some 25 diverse lists were created, among which 35 different monuments were cataloged as wonders. This flexibility allowed the list to be current, as it could accept new monuments as they were built. As we shall see, the adaptable nature of the list also made it the ideal platform for displaying political power, religious affiliation, and cultural identity.
The earliest list of the Seven Wonders appeared in the late second century BCE in a poem by the Greek author Antipater. Here he enumerated a collection of monuments that are commonly included in later Roman and medieval wonder lists. Let us briefly examine the poem and its wonders:
I have seen the Walls of rock-like Babylon that chariots can run upon, and the Zeus on the Alpheus, and the Hanging Gardens, and the great statue of the Sun, and the huge labour of the steep Pyramids, and the mighty Tomb of Mausolus; but when I looked at the house of Artemis soaring to the clouds, those others were dimmed, … apart from Olympus, the sun never yet looked upon its like.1
Antipater’s wonder list includes the Walls of Babylon, which, according to Greek legend, were built by Queen Semiramis and were so wide that two four-horse chariots could easily pass each other along its top. In reality, these walls were built by Nebuchadnezzar in the sixth century BCE and were an impressive 88 feet wide. The poet then obliquely cites the “Zeus on the Alpheus,” meaning the statue of Zeus at Olympia, created by Phidias around 430 BCE. The seated image of the god measured around 40 feet tall and was constructed of gold and ivory.
Antipater’s third wonder was the Hanging Gardens, which, according to some ancient Greek traditions, were also erected by Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon. Constructed on a series of sloping artificial terraces that had passageways beneath, and watered by mysterious means, the gardens were said to have been built for the king’s wife, who missed her native mountains.
Antipater’s “statue of the Sun” refers to the Colossus of Rhodes, a 110-foot bronze statue representing the god Sol. Constructed in the early third century BCE, it stood for some 75 years before it fell in an earthquake. The Pyramids at Giza were the poet’s fifth wonder: the Pyramid of Khufu, constructed in the 26th century BCE and originally measuring 481 feet tall, the neighboring tomb of his son Khafre, which was 10 feet lower in height, and the even smaller pyramid of his grandson Menkaure.
Antipater’s second-to-last wonder was another tomb, that of Mausolus, built in 350 BCE in Halicarnassus (modern Bodrum, in western Turkey). The fame of this grand tomb, standing 140 feet tall and richly adorned with sculpture, was such that the name Mausoleum (literally, the place of Mausolus) became a byword for a grand sepulcher. This monument and the five preceding, however, did not compare to the final wonder, the Temple of Artemis at Ephesus, which, in the opinion of Antipater, outshone them all. The temple was the largest ever built by the Greeks, measuring 236 by 410 feet (the length of 2.5 football fields).
Antipater describes his monuments in a neutral, albeit cursory fashion, only stressing his preference for the last on his list. Such a list could, however, be manipulated for propagandistic purposes. In 70 CE, the Roman court poet Martial composed an epigram about the Seven Wonders where he lists six monuments (nearly identical to those of Antipater) but denigrates them as having been built by soft foreigners. The greatest wonder, according to Martial, was the Flavian Amphitheater, known today as the Roman Colosseum. Its builders, the Flavians, had recently come into power, so the poem was specifically designed to celebrate the new rulers as well as proclaim Rome’s cultural dominance.
The Seven Wonders list was also used to promote religious supremacy. In the sixth century CE, St. Gregory of Tours created a list of seven monuments that numbered some traditional pagan monuments but also included Noah’s Ark and the Temple of Solomon. He concluded, however, that these man-made wonders were nothing compared to the natural miracles (seeds, moon, stars, etc.) wrought by God. In the tenth century, a Byzantine scholar jotted down in a notebook two competing lists of the Seven Wonders, only to insist that the greatest monument ever built was the church of Hagia Sophia in his native Constantinople.
During the Renaissance, etchings of the Seven Wonders by the Dutch artist Maarten van Heemskerck gained wide-spread popularity. This version comprised the monuments on Antipater’s list (with the two Babylonian wonders lumped together as one), as well as the Lighthouse of Alexandria. For centuries, this roster of wonders remained unchanged. In 2007, however, an organization called the New 7 Wonders Foundation invited nominations for a new list. Votes poured in from nations, resulting in a global list: the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, Machu Picchu, Chichen Itza, Petra, the Christ the Redeemer Statue in Brazil, and the Colosseum. Missing were the Pyramids of Giza, but when the Egyptian government complained, the foundation awarded the tombs an honorary status as an eighth wonder.
Even today, nearly two and a half millennia since its first appearance, the list of the Seven Wonders remains flexible, and inclusion on it continues to bring prestige and authority.
The list of the Seven Wonders of the ancient world has captured humanity’s imagination for more than two millennia. These seven structures and statues surpassed all others in beauty, size, and skill of construction, constituting seven testaments to the creativity and ingenuity of their builders. But what monuments made up the list, and why has the list maintained its popularity over the ages? Throughout much of its history, the list was mutable. Although the number of monuments usually remained anchored at seven, various buildings and statues were added and removed over time. Between the second century BCE, when the list […]