Obelisks in Rome

image of an obelisk located in the Piazza del PopoloAnyone who has ever been to Rome will probably have noticed that there are many obelisks located around the city, and many of them were transported from Egypt.  Some even still have the hieroglyphics on them.  Rome has more obelisks than any other city in the world (Rome also has the most number of Caravaggio paintings of any other city in the world, too!), and these obelisks can be found all over the city.

The one pictured is known as the Flaminio and was brought to  Rome by the Emperor Augustus in 10 BC to commemorate his victory of the Egyptians.  Egypt then became a province of the Roman empire, with Egypt providing much of Rome’s grain and tax revenue.  The obelisk was found many centuries later in the Circus Maximum (1587), and Pope Sixtus V ordered it put back together and placed in the Piazza del Popolo where it stands today.  The lions that surround the obelisk were added in the early nineteenth century.

Special ships were constructed (known as “obelisk ships” to haul these heavy structures from Egypt to Rome, and obelisks continued to be fashioned in Egypt, even during Egypt’s Roman period, as well as in Italy.  Not much evidence remains of these ships, but there are writings which allude to them.  It is also believed that the Emperor Claudius sunk one of the large ships to create a man-made harbor at Ostia, Rome’s port city.  These large ships probably required huge amounts of manpower to push these immense stone structures from the banks of the Nile and across the sea to Rome!

In ancient Egypt, obelisks were dedications to the sun god and were of often located in pairs near temples to the sun god, Ra.  The ancient Romans probably used the obelisks with similar intentions, combining religious motives with political ones (Augustus used the obelisk to symbolize his dominion over Ancient Egypt — having defeated his rivals Antony and Cleopatr — while sending a message to the peoples of Ancient Egypt that he, too, was a descendant of the pharaohs and a god, too).  Pope Sixtus V most likely borrowed from Augustus the idea of using the obelisk for religious and political purposes as he sought to revitalize Rome’s urban landscape!