Honors Program in Rome - Summer 2008
The thirteen obelisks of Rome can be found in front of some of the city’s most important buildings, such as the Pantheon and St. Peter’s in the Vatican. These ostensibly simple stone monuments link two of the greatest ancient civilizations in history to the legacies of the papacy in Rome. The use of the obelisk as a tool of propaganda by prominent historical leaders spans three important historical eras: the rule of the Egyptians, the peak of the Roman Empire, and the transformation of Rome into the center of Christianity. Although the general public probably did not understand the carved hieroglyphs and inscriptions, the strategic placement of these spoils of war around the city of Rome was not without political and social agenda. The buried history of the obelisk makes it all the more effective as a symbol of worship, conquest, and power simultaneously, especially in its most recent use as papal propaganda. Looking more closely at these monuments, we gain a more thorough understanding of the resurrection of power the great leaders of the past utilized within the chapters of Roman history.
II. Historical function in Egypt
The ancient Egyptians created obelisks as early as 2400 BC, often erecting them in pairs in front of funerary monuments or temples dedicated to different pagan gods. The obelisk can be seen as a petrified ray of sunshine that widens as it reaches out from the sky and towards the earth. In this way, it was considered a vessel for communication between the gods, the heavens, and the mortal world. As a physical representation of the sun, it was common to find obelisks in front of temples dedicated to the sun god Ra. The importance of the sun as the source of light and warmth made Ra one of the most prominent Egyptian gods, and he was seen as the ruler of the pantheon of Egyptian gods. Many of the obelisks in Rome were taken from the ancient Egyptian capital city of Heliopolis, known as the city of the sun, where the cult of Ra was based. Even though the hieroglyphs of an obelisk may have glorified another god, the fact that the obelisk was built to mimic the shape of a ray of sunlight pays tribute to the omnipresence of Ra in ancient Egypt.
The original hieroglyphs on some of the monuments also tell the story of the particular obelisk. Some of the columns of hieroglyphs on the obelisk that now stands in Piazza del Popolo translate to this message, written by the Pharaoh Seti I: “Rā, I give to thee all lands and foreign countries with rest of heart, O king of the north and south…” This passage exemplifies the use of obelisks in ancient Egypt as gifts to the gods by way of “dedication” of conquests. Found on the same obelisk in Piazza del Popolo are columns of hieroglyphs added by pharaoh Rameses II that exalt the reign of his father and compare him to various gods. These messages from the pharaohs to the gods decorated the sides of their obelisks that stretched towards the heavens to deliver their message. Usually commissioned by pharaohs to commemorate their accomplishments or those of the pharaohs before them, the obelisks stood as lasting monuments to celebrate the rule of these leaders. When the Roman emperor Augustus conquered Egypt in 30 B.C, he was well aware of the importance in function of the obelisk in the Egyptian civilization. As both a monument of gratitude for the gods and a physical representation of the divine power of Egypt’s pharaohs, the history of the obelisk only made it all the more valuable as a sign of the glory of his conquest.
III. Structure and Transport
An obelisk is a vertically erect, four sided structure that sits on a base and tapers to a pyramidal top. Parts of the Egyptian obelisks would have been plated in gold, most likely the pyramidal top that reached into the heavens. Spanning a variety of lengths, the shortest found in Rome today measures approximately 6 meters, and is found outside the Church of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. The tallest is about 33 meters high and stands in front of the Church of San Giovanni in Laterano. The bronze cross and pontificate’s coat of arms that caps the obelisks in Rome are not part of the original Egyptian structure, but were added by the Popes who re-erected the monuments during the Counter Reformation. The vertical rows of hieroglyphs on an obelisk span the length of the sides they are carved into, and document and praise a pharaoh’s bravery in a victorious battle or some other fortuitous event that had occurred for the leader or the empire. The hieroglyphs also expressed thanks to various pagan gods for the protection and goodwill they provided for the Egyptian people. However, some of the hieroglyphs found on the obelisks today are “fake,” ordered by the emperors of Rome. Roman workers carved nonsensical messages into the obelisks without proper knowledge of the complex symbols, some of which can still be seen today.
Typical Egyptian obelisks were carved from a single block of red granite. The stonemasonry of the Egyptians, as seen in any of their historical monuments like the pyramids, was undoubtedly a clever use of their resources and ancient tools. It has been hypothesized that the Egyptians must have cleverly employed the use of sand when creating the obelisks. Through the use of the sturdy properties of rocks, sand was used to carve rock with rock.
Keeping in mind the limited methods and technology available at the time of their creation, the construction of an obelisk from a single block of granite exemplifies a feat in engineering that further mystifies the symbolism of the monument. One idea is that the Egyptians carved the obelisk out of the quarry horizontally, first releasing three sides and then carving the last side to leave a narrow connecting strip. Wooden beams were then placed under the obelisk and the connecting strip was carved out so that the weight of the monolith lay on the beams. The obelisk was then pulled out of the quarry using a series of levers and transported down the Nile on barges.
Moving the obelisk is an even greater accomplishment than its creation. The ancient Romans under the rule of Augustus moved the first obelisks from Egypt, most likely down the Nile and across the Mediterranean Sea to its final location in Rome. To move these stone monuments that often weighed a few hundred tons was never considered impossible. The Romans engineered new ships specifically for the transportation of the obelisks. These ships moved with the work of multiple levels of rowers and were so admired that they were often put on display for the Roman citizens. One of the ships that the Emperor Caligula built to transport an obelisk to Rome in 37 A.D weighed about 1,550 tons. Once on land, it took hundreds of workers months to pull the obelisk to its next location. The sheer effort required in engineering and carrying out a method of transporting obelisks is yet another testament to the greatness of the Roman Empire.
IV. Symbolism in ancient Rome
The hieroglyphs on the obelisk, and even the obelisk itself, were known by both the literate and illiterate of Rome as symbols of Egypt. Thus, because of their mere presence in the city of Rome, the obelisk became a spectacle. Not only did they serve a decorative purpose, but also stood as a reminder to the people of Rome, and even visitors to Rome, of the defeat of the Egyptians led by Augustus.
Now known as one of Rome’s most revered emperors, Augustus conquered Egypt in 30 B.C after defeating Caesar and Cleopatra in Alexandria. Although Egypt’s reign had been in decline, the conquest of such an important civilization completed Rome’s conquest of the Mediterranean basin. Such a feat deserved not only widespread recognition but also an assured remembrance in history, which was commonly achieved through the possession of spoils. Emperor Augustus understood the importance of the obelisk in Egypt as a symbol of association between the gods and the pharaohs. He included the monuments in his spoils, but with the first two obelisks he brought to Rome in 10 B.C the symbolism of the monument changed with respect to its new location. While the Egyptians placed the obelisks outside temples and funerary monuments, Augustus had a different purpose in mind. One of the obelisks was placed in Circus Maximus, an ancient Roman stadium used for chariot races and gladiator fights that were guaranteed to attract a large and diverse crowd of people. The other was placed in the Field of Mars as the gnomon (pointer) of a sundial. The placement of this obelisk in particular was especially symbolic in that Augustus oriented it so that on his birthday its shadow would fall upon the Ara Pacis, the altar that commemorated the peace that Augustus brought to the empire after his conquests in 13 B.C. Additional obelisks were placed outside pagan temples in Rome as a symbolic gift to the gods from the emperor.
The mere presence of the obelisks in Rome was not their only testament to Augustus’ power. Augustus himself ordered Latin inscriptions to be carved into the base of the obelisks. For example, the obelisk that stood in the Field of Mars had an inscription that dedicated the obelisk to Rome’s defeat of Egypt and to the sun God as a gift from Augustus, “son of the divine Julius Caesar.” In creating a connection between himself and the great pharaohs of Egypt, his own power also increased in status.
Augustus had started a trend referred to by some academics as “megalithomania,” and emperors after him both built and erected obelisks around the city. Their intentions sometimes paralleled those of Augustus. In 357 A.D, Constantius relocated an obelisk from the temple of the Sun at Heliopolis to the Circus Maximus in Rome as a commemoration of the peace he brought to the Empire. Some emperors employed the obelisks in their original Egyptian use as funerary monuments. Between 117 and 138 A.D, Hadrian ordered an obelisk to be carved and brought over from Egypt to stand in front of the funerary temple he built for his lover Antinous. Inscriptions on the obelisk deified Antinous and compared him to the Egyptian gods, stating that his soul was like that of the “truth speaker” Ra
V. Symbolism in Christian Rome
Just as there were multiple emperors who utilized the importance of the obelisk in history to promote themselves and the Roman Empire, there were a total of six popes who physically and symbolically resurrected the obelisks between the 16th and 18th centuries. The obelisks had been forgotten after the decline of the Roman Empire and were usually found in pieces scattered throughout the city.
If a pope decided to re-erect an obelisk, he would do so with the noble intent of celebrating the triumph of Christianity over paganism. These symbols of power once stood in front of pagan temples but were now moved in front of churches. In their resurrection, obelisks not only glorified Christianity, but also stood as a symbol of the legacy of the current pontificate as a continuation of the greatness of the emperors and their Empire. The process of fixing these obelisks usually included and exorcism and purification process completed by the addition of the bronze cross and pontificate’s coat of arms on the pyramidal top. Rather than destroy the remaining hieroglyphs on the obelisks they were preserved, but the symbol of the cross that crowned the obelisk was a symbol of the defeat of paganism and the rise of Christianity. New inscriptions were also be carved into the base of the obelisk often to link the pope to the emperor who had brought it from Egypt, again harkening back to the glory of the Roman Empire. For example, Pope Pius VI, who re-erected 3 obelisks during his pontificate between 1775 and 1799, attempted to point out the similarities between his rule and the prosperity of the Roman Empire under Augustus with the following inscription found on one obelisk base: “[Augustus] after bringing Egypt under the power of the Roman people, dedicated the obelisk to the sun…[Pius] cleaned the obelisk of dirt and damage, carefully completed the missing parts, and gave it back to the city and the sky.” Thus, the obelisk was transformed not only into a reminder of what the city once was but also brought attention to the generosity and auspicious rule of the Pope.
Obelisks were also incorporated into statues and fountains around the city, such as the obelisk erected by Pope Innocent X in 1651 in Bernini’s Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona. However, the most important use of the obelisks is the role they played in the urban planning efforts of Pope Sixtus V in the late 16th century. Pope Sixtus V was head of the Church from 1585-1590, during the conclusion of the Counter Reformation. As the rising center of Christianity in the world at the time, Pope Sixtus’ vision was to create a city accessible for the many pilgrims that would visit Rome. Sixtus restored and relocated obelisks at three major churches, St. Peter’s, Santa Maria Maggiore, and St. John Lateran, and placed a fourth obelisk at Piazza del Popolo, the city’s Northern entrance. These obelisks sat at the ends of major roads that connected the sites, and served to orient pilgrims so they would be able to make their way from one obelisk to the next.
The strategic placement of these obelisks also highlighted the accomplishments of Sixtus during his pontificate. At St. Peter’s, Sixtus was building both a papal palace and Michelangelo’s dome. His family’s villa and his own personal burial chapel were at Santa Maria Maggiore, and he had built a new portico and pontifical palace at St. John Lateran. When pilgrims visited Rome, they would follow the path laid out by the obelisks, and end up at each site Sixtus had a hand in restoring or creating. With his efforts, Christianity spread and his own pontificate flourished.
It is no coincidence that with the restoration of these ancient monuments, a Pope’s legacy would be carved in stone next to the memory of the emperors of the ancient Roman Empire. The power of the obelisk is unique in its extensive historical use as propaganda, dating all the way back to the ancient Egyptians and maintaining its symbolism of power throughout its subtle transformations. The obelisks that remain today have been interwoven into the city’s ancient and modern infrastructure. They are found in front of important churches and in the middle of famous Piazzas, strategically placed there by their most recent caretakers, the popes. Over thousands of years, the physical structure of the obelisk has hardly been altered, save for damaged hieroglyphs and the addition of symbols of the papacy and Christianity. Yet in its initial move to ancient Rome and its resurrection during the 16th-18th centuries, the obelisk has found new meaning that was built upon historical greatness. From the feats of engineering required to create and transport these stone pillars, both during the Roman and over a thousand years later during the Counter Reformation, to the integral use of the monuments in organizing Rome into the center of Christianity, the 13 remaining obelisks of Rome contain the lasting marks of two of the greatest civilizations in history. Ultimately, they stand as a symbol of the dominance of Christianity in the world today.
VII. Author’s closing notes
What I found most interesting about obelisks is how little they changed over thousands of years yet they embody such extensive historical importance. The obelisk is the prime example of the ostensibly subliminal symbols of power placed around the city of Rome. By using inscriptions to describe the parallels between their own lives and the lives of emperors and gods, the leaders of Rome used the religious connotations of the obelisk to assert their own power. Obelisks are simple, so simple in their composition, yet serve as reminders of the ancient Roman Empire and its emperors, the accomplishments of the popes, the rebuilding of Christianity’s reputation and the rule of the great pharaohs of Egypt. They have been the ultimate trophy for many, and this layered history makes them so interesting to study.
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