Obelisk of Constantius

The Obelisk of Constantius (Lateran Obelisk) is the largest obelisk in Rome. It is also the oldest obelisk in Rome and the last to be brought there. It was brought to Rome by Constantius II (337-361) and erected in 357 AD on the spina of the Circus Maximus just as Augustus had done in 10 BC. It is made of red granite and is 32.50 meters high. It dates to the 15th century BC and is covered with hieroglyphs. It was originally cut for Tuthmosis III in the fifteenth century B C and erected by his grandson Tuthmosis IV before the Temple of Amun in Thebes (Karnak).

Augustus is said to have contemplated bringing it to Rome, though it was not brought to Rome until 357 when Constantius had it erected in the Circus Maximus to commemorate his twentieth year as emperor. It was likely erected near the center of the spina, while Augustus’ obelisk was towards the western end. Its transportation to Rome by a special ship and its reerection in the circus are described in detail by Ammianus. Ammianus tells us that it was originally surmounted by a gilded bronze sphere, like many Roman obelisks, but, after this was early struck by lightning, it was replaced by a gilded bronze torch. Cassiodorus later records that the obelisk of Constantius was dedicated to the sun, while the obelisk of Augustus was dedicated to the moon.

Ammianus also claims that Constantine had this obelisk brought to Alexandria from Thebes with the aim of moving it to Rome. Its lost inscription, recorded when it was excavated in the 16th century, claims otherwise – stating that Constantine intended this obelisk to be sent to Constantinople, rather than Rome. Interestingly, this obelisk is the same size as the Masonry Obelisk, which was set up in the spina of the Hippodrome of Constantinople. It could be suggested that Constantine planned on having this obelisk erected in the Hippodrome of Constantinople, but since he was unable to ship it in time for the dedication ceremony of Constantinople in 330, he had one built instead. It could be argued, then, that the inscription’s claim is correct. While this could be dismissed as unwarranted speculation, it is clear that both obelisks relate to the rivalry between Constantinople and Rome at the time.

It was perhaps pulled down in the 6th century by the troups of Totila (reigned 541- 552). In 1587 it was discovered broken in three pieces and buried at a depth of about 7 meters. It was excavated by Pope Sixtus V and reerected in Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano. The ceremony of inauguration followed the same pattern as for the Esquiline and Vatican obelisks, with exorcism and praise of the victory of Christianity over paganism.

Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano by Giuseppe Vasi (1752)

Circus Maximus from the Atlas van Loon (1649)

Inscription from the Lateran Base (now lost)
Patris opus munusqu[e suum] tibi, Roma, dicavit
Augustus [toto Constan]tius orbe recepto,
et quod nulla tulit tellus nec viderat aetas
condidit, ut claris exa[equ]et dona triumfis.
Hoc decus ornatum genitor cognominis urbis
esse volens, caesa Thebis de rupe revellit.

Sed gravior divum tangebat cura vehendi,
quod nullo ingenio nisuque manuque moveri
Caucaseam molem discurrens fama monebat.
At dominus mundi Constantius, omnia fretus
cedere virtuti, terris incedere iussit
haut partem exiguam montis pontoq. Tumenti

credidit, et placido [vexerunt aequora flu]ctu
litus ad Hesperium, [Tiberi] mirante, carinam.
Interea, Romam ta[etr]o vastante tyranno,
Augusti iacuit donum, studiumque locandi
non fastu spreti, sed quod non crederet ullus,
tantae molis opus superas consurgere in auras.

Nunc veluti rursus ruf[is] avulsa metallis
emicuit pulsatque polos. haec gloria dudum
auctori servata suo cu[m] caede tyranni
redditur, atque aditu Ro[mae vi]rtute reperto
victor ovans urbiq[ue favens sublim]e tropaeum,
principis et munus cond[it decorat]que triumfis.

16th century Inscription

Describing Constantius Moving the Obelisk

And because sycophants, after their fashion, kept puffing up Constantius and endlessly dinning it into his ears that, whereas Octavius Augustus had brought over two obelisks from the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, one of which was set up in the Circus Maximus, the other in the Campus Martius, as for this one recently brought in, he neither ventured to meddle with it nor move it, overawed by the difficulties caused by its size — let me inform those who do not know it that that early emperor, after bringing over several obelisks, passed by this one and left it untouched because it was consecrated as a special gift to the Sun God, and because being placed in the sacred part of his sumptuous temple, which might not be profaned, there it towered aloft like the peak of the world. But Constantine, making little account of that, tore the huge mass from its foundations; and since he rightly thought he was committing no sacrilege if he took this marvel from one temple and consecrated it at Rome, that is to say, in the temple of the whole world, he let it lie for a long time, while the things necessary for its transfer were being provided. And when it had been conveyed down the channel of the Nile and landed at Alexandria, a ship of a size hitherto unknown was constructed, to be rowed by three hundred oarsmen.  After these provisions, the aforesaid emperor departed this life and the urgency of the enterprise waned, but at last the obelisk was loaded on the ship, after long delay, and brought over the sea and up the channel of the Tiber, which seemed to fear that it could hardly forward over the difficulties of its outward course to the walls of its foster-child the gift which the almost unknown Nile had sent. But it was brought to the vicus Alexandri distant three miles from the city. There it was put on cradles and carefully drawn through the Ostian Gate and by the Piscina Publica and brought into the Circus Maximus. After this there remained only the raising, which it was thought could be accomplished only with great difficulty, perhaps not at all. But it was done in the following manner: to tall beams which were brought and raised on end (so that you would see a very grove of derricks) were fastened long and heavy ropes in the likeness of a manifold web hiding the sky with their excessive numbers. To these was attached that veritable mountain engraved over with written characters, and it was gradually drawn up on high through the empty air, and after hanging for a long time, while many thousand men turned wheels resembling millstones, it was finally placed in the middle of the circus and capped by a bronze globe gleaming with gold leaf; this was immediately struck by a bolt of the divine fire and therefore removed and replaced by a bronze figure of a torch, likewise overlaid with gold foil and glowing like a mass of flame.

From Rerum Gestarum by Ammianus Marcellinus
 

Sources

A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by Platner
A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by Richardson
Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge
The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome by Anne Roullet

Roman Circuses Arenas for Chariot Racing by John H. Humphrey

“The Monuments and Decoration of the Hippodrome in Constantinople” by Jonathan Bardill

Inscriptiones Latinae Selectae edited by Hermann Dessau

Rerum Gestarum by Ammianus Marcellinus

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Created by David Hendrix Copyright 2016