Augustus and his imperial successors erected Egyptian obelisks in ancient Rome, and 13 of them are landmarks in the city today, though no one of them stands in its original location. Why were they so important for Augustus and his successors?

Show Notes

Rome is a vast subject, so I wish to emphasize what is most important and introduce details only as needed. When it comes the Ancient Roman Empire, Augustus is supremely important. He declared this himself in several ways, such as by taking grand titles like “the August One,” “the son of a divinity,” and “the father of his country” and by publishing a long list of accomplishments in his autobiography.

I would explain his importance somewhat differently than he did: he used his long career to guarantee that he and his family dynasty would exercise the sovereignty previously in the hands of the Roman Senate, Consuls, and Tribunes. He thus raises broad questions that are fascinating, current, and a bit edgy:

What are the best policies for a would-be despot to seal the death warrant of a republic that has lost the sources of its vigor?

Is there anything that could have been done, either by Augustus or by others, that would have reversed the slide of the Roman Republic into the rule of one man and one family?

These are the big questions worth mulling over as you walk, literally or figuratively, among the ruins of Augustan Rome. Regarding the second of these, it is widely assumed that Augustus had no choice but to bury the Republic: Rome’s long civil wars and the degradation of her citizenry required a turn to despotism as the price of peace and stability. This may be the whole truth of the matter, but Cicero, Brutus, and others did not share this view. With Augustus as First Citizen, Rome enjoyed increased peace and prosperity; but when he died, a series of four tyrants and another civil war succeeded him. Perhaps it had to be this way, but was there no better form of government for a Father of his Country to establish than the dynasty of his flawed family? As it turned out, he had almost a half century in which to build his legacy, a rare opportunity for a political leader.

With an eye on Augustus’s rise to power and consolidation of it, we have so far visited four sites and four different kinds of building projects: the Altar of Peace of Augustus, the Mausoleum he built for his family dynasty, the Forum of Augustus, and the Temple of Apollo next to his house on the Janiculum. Let’s today consider a fifth kind of architectural enhancement he added to Rome, his obelisks. These too had a political purpose. Since they caught the attention of later rulers, they also invite consideration of Rome’s subsequent history, for in their very different ways, both Pope Sixtus V and Mussolini followed Augustus in using obelisks as symbols and landmarks. So, in fact, did the United States.

The word “obelisk” was taken from the Greek for “spit” or “skewer,” for it captured the long tapering form and the point on the top of this kind of spire. But the obelisk was Egyptian, not Greek, and the word the Egyptians used for their obelisks also meant “sunbeam,” which implied that the spires were tributes to the god of the Sun. When Alexander the Great spread the Greek language throughout the east, an Egyptian city with lots of obelisks received a new Greek name, “Heliopolis” or “Sun City,” which was perhaps chosen because the city’s many obelisks called attention to sun’s rays and divinity.

The Obelisk now in Piazza San Pietro (Charlie photo)

There are 13 ancient obelisks that stand in Rome today, but except for one, all of them fell to the ground and broke into pieces in the centuries that followed the fall of Rome. The one obelisk that stayed upright was in its original position until the 16th century, when Pope Sixtus V had Domenico Fontana move it to the center of what was then taking shape as the Piazza of St. Peter’s Basilica, as discussed in Episode 12. If Sixtus and later popes had not chosen to re-erect the obelisks of Ancient Rome, these obelisks would not capture as much attention as they do today. But remember, not a single one of them stands in its original location. Today, ancient obelisks mark out the Rome of the Popes, not the Rome of the Caesars.

The Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo. Augustus had erected it in the Circus Maximus. (Photo by Blake.)

Augustus brought at least two large obelisks to Rome, and perhaps four. The uncertainly concerns the two obelisks that were positioned by the entrance to his Mausoleum, since it is not clear whether he brought them to Rome himself or whether they arrived later to honor him after his death. They lack hieroglyphics, which may mean that they were built for Roman rather than for Egyptian use. One now stands in front of the Quirinal Palace, the other on the back side of Saint Mary Major. The other two are a matched set, both seized from Heliopolis and brought to Rome by Augustus. All four are of red selenite, which is close enough to red granite to refer to them as such.  It is not a vigorous red, just a hint of it.

The Romans made their own columns, which they copied from the Greeks, but when it came to Egyptian obelisks, they did not copy them so much as seize ones that Egyptian monarchs had had made in centuries long past. Moving them across land and sea, building bases for them, digging secure foundations, and raising them into a vertical position were tremendous feats of engineering, but it was the very, very ancient Egyptians who had made them in the first place.

Augustus was the first to bring obelisks to Rome, and later emperors and popes were impressed by his example of erecting obelisks in dramatic locations. So were those who built the Washington Monument, an obelisk which towers over the Capital City of the United States. It is far, far taller than Rome’s ancient obelisks, and it even has an elevator inside. Its larger dimensions are possible because it is made of thousands of marble blocks, like large Legos, but cemented together, whereas all of Ancient Rome’s obelisks are made of a single block of solid granite. Though the obelisks from Egypt are smaller than the Washington Monument, they posed two extra challenges. One is that granite is a very hard stone: you can actually begin to carve marble with a pen knife, but not granite. The other that it is easier to move 50,000 stones of 10 pounds each than one stone of 500,000 pounds, especially when you consider the risks and consequences of breaking a stone that is long and thinnish. Think of these two points when you see Rome’s obelisks or the columns on the front of the Pantheon, which are also granite monoliths.

Ancient Roman obelisks are distinguished not only by their size and material, but also by the way they were acquired and their purposes. They were acquired by conquest, and at least their main purpose was to pay tribute to Rome’s imperial power and honor the leader who claimed credit for the conquest. Everyone knew they had been seized from Egypt after Egypt had been added to the Roman Empire. They beautified the city and paid tribute to Roman engineering, but they were also highly visible reminders of what Augustus claimed to have done for Rome.

Obelisk in Central Park NY (Photo: King of Hearts, CC BY-SA 4.0)

I was surprised to learn that there is one ancient Egyptian obelisk in the United States, one very much like the two large obelisks Augustus is known to have transported to Rome. It is located in Central Park, behind the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the engineering feats required to move it from Egypt to New York in 1879 occasioned several detailed studies and many words of praise at the time, and these pay an indirect tribute to what the Romans had done 2,000 years earlier. More important are the different motives at work. Augustus sought to honor himself and Roman imperial power, whereas New York secured its monument, which was lying broken on the ground, by getting Egypt to give the obelisk as a gift, and then raising private and public funds for its expensive transfer. I would not be shocked if careful study would find that there was something shady about some part of the project, but New York City did not have an empire, and its mayor did not get his name carved in stone or claim a title like “the august one.”

We saw in our visit to the Foro Italico that Mussolini built a huge marble obelisk and had his name and title inscribed down its side; we will return to him in a future episode, since he also seized an obelisk from Ethiopia and displayed it as evidence of Fascist Italy’s imperial power, another way in which he was a poor imitation of the ancient Romans.

Augustus did not mention his removal of obelisks from Egypt to Rome in his autobiography, the Res Gestae, but he can’t mention everything important here, especially since he praises himself in it for not mentioning all of his achievements. Rome’s first emperor did not fail, however, to put his name on the two main obelisks he erected. They both bear the same inscription, and they both show it on two different sides of the base. It reads as follows:

Imperator, Caesar, son of a divinity,


Pontifex Maximus,

Imperator 12 times, Consul 11 times, with Tribunician power 14 times,

With Egypt having been brought into the power

of the Roman people,

[He] gave this gift to the Sun.

The grammar gives special prominence to the subject of the sentence, whose power and authority are identified in eight different ways; and the spacing of the words as written gives further emphasis to the honorific title, Augustus, and to his position as Pontifex Maximus, both of which get a full line. It mentions “Imperator” twice, which had meant “commander” under the republic, but Augustus helped it become a title taken by emperors. It is, in fact, the Latin word from which “Emperor” would later derive.

The inscription claims that Egypt was under the power of the Roman People, but by the time the obelisks arrived in 10 BC, everyone knew that the Roman People had no direct role to play in the exercise of political power and that they were overshadowed by the man referred to in five of the seven lines of the inscription. It was he, he claimed, who had defeated Cleopatra and added Egypt to the Roman Empire.

Not all of Rome’s conquests brought equal wealth or honor. Egypt was a special prize: Alexander the Great had conquered it three centuries earlier, and he left it deeply influenced—I would say “enriched”—by the Greek or Hellenistic culture that followed him. He built a city there that bore his name, Alexandria, and it would become the home of his tomb, of over half a million residents, and of one of the most important libraries of classical antiquity. Its architectural works included the Lighthouse of Alexandria, which became one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Egypt was also a great source of tax revenue and producer of grain, which the emperors used to add bread to the circuses of their capital city, but I think its conquest was even more important than its cash value.

Plutarch wrote wonderful biographies of Caesar, Brutus, Antony, and twenty other Roman leaders, but I bear a little grudge against him for not having written a “Life of Augustus.” I imagine that such a life would have included an account of Octavian’s first visit to Egypt. It would not have been as eye-opening as Plutarch’s description of the arrival of the Roman general Marcellus in the first Greek city ever conquered by a Roman, for the Rome of Augustus had become much more sophisticated, and Octavian would have already heard from his Roman predecessors what to expect in Alexandria. Still, the conquest of Egypt and the Greek city of Alexandria was a special occasion for Augustus and Rome, and it not surprising that he brought reminders of Egypt back to Rome, even has he left Rome’s imprint on Egypt.

Obelisk of Piazza Montecitorio (Photo: Jona Lendering, CC0 via Wikimedia Commons)

The two obelisks we know that Augustus brought to Rome on special ships and with great fanfare were placed in positions from which they would be widely visible. The first was put in the center of the Circus Maximus, which was the regular venue for chariot races and other games. These games were accompanied by parades and pomp in other forms, so they were an important part of the public life of the city, with seats for about 15 or 20 percent of the city’s total population for each event. Pope Sixtus V re-erected this obelisk at the northern entrance to Rome, where it is now the main feature of Piazza del Popolo.

Augustus placed his second obelisk in the Campus Martius area of the city, which he and his associate Marcus Agrippa had been developing. The general neighborhood was that of the Ara Pacis of Augustus and the Mausoleum, and the Pantheon was not far away. But there were then relatively few structures in the area and the height of the obelisk would have made it an instant landmark.

This obelisk had another claim to fame: it was used as the gnomon of a huge sundial or meridian. There is in fact a hot scholarly debate as to whether it was a sundial, which tells the time of day, or a meridian, which follows changes in the sun’s location at noon from one day to the next. At least as I understand it, the sundial records the earth’s rotation, which gives you the time of day, while the meridian line records the changing tilt of the earth, which gives you the time of year. At the time of the summer solstice, the tilt is such that the sun is directly overhead at noon in Rome, so the obelisk would cast no shadow. The other extreme is the winter solstice, when—thanks to the tilt of the northern hemisphere away from the sun—the sun appears lowest in the sky, and the shadow at noon would be longest. Both a sun dial and a meridian require a horizontal surface on which the gnomon casts its

Meridian in Santa Maria degli Angeli (photo: Jean-Pol Grandmont, CC BY-SA 3.0)

shadow, and the surface must bear precise marks so that the movement of the shadow can be observed and accurately recorded. If all this seems simple, visit an example of a functioning meridian in Rome. There is one at the church that Michelangelo built in the Baths of Diocletian, Saint Mary of the Saints and Martyrs (or, Santa Maria degli Angeli e dei Martiri): a meridian was put there to confirm calendar reforms that were needed at least partly to establish the correct day for Easter.

Although this obelisk stands today in Piazza Montecitorio, it had fallen in the Middle Ages and little of the pavement has been recovered. It is the markings on the pavement that would make more clear the exact use of the obelisk, and their absence has allowed a scholarly to rage, with the participants including distinguished physicists and mathematicians as well as archeologists. I can’t resolve it, but it appears that the most current view is that it was a meridian, not a sundial. This still leaves it open for some to say that on Augustus’s birthday, the gnomon pointed to the nearby Ara Pacis Augustae, perhaps suggesting that even at the time of his birth, the stars had already determined that he would bring peace to Rome. One thing certain is this: the man who officially claimed to be only Rome’s first citizen was also willing to hint rather bluntly that he was of divine or cosmic importance.

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