The Obelisk of Theodosius, which once stood on the spina of the Hippodrome of Constantinople, is the monument in modern Istanbul. Erected by Theodosius in 390, it is also the last known obelisk erected in the Roman Empire. While originating in Ancient Egypt, it bears witness to the original Romanness of Constantinople, as obelisks had long been erected in the city of Rome.
While the city of Rome came to acquire a large number of obelisks, their history begins in Ancient Egypt. An Egyptian obelisk, which is a tall, four-sided, narrow tapering monolithic stone shaft surmounted by a pyramidion, were usually made from the reddish Aswan granite. Obelisk occurred in two contexts - temples and tomb-chapels; in both cases the religious meaning of the obelisk is related to solar cults, in particular that of the sun god Re at Heliopolis. Most obelisks were raised in pairs at the entrance to a temple, on either side of a primary axis. Several single obelisks are known, but their existence may merely reflect the inability of successfully extracting or raising a pair.
While the first true obelisk dates to the 24th century BC, the great age of obelisks began in the 16th century BC when Thutmose I erected a pair of obelisks at Thebes. His successors, such as Thutmose III, continued those efforts, primarily at Thebes (Karnak) and Heliopolis (Luxor), but in other places as well. The practice of raising obelisks continued into the nineteenth dynasty under Ramesses I and others. Pharaohs from later dynasties as well as the Ptolemy rulers also erected obelisks. Obelisks continued to be produce in Egypt even after the Roman conquest.
Obelisks in Rome
The first obelisks were brought to Rome by Augustus after his victory of Anthony and Cleopatra. He brought two obelisks from Egypt to Rome in 10 BC, erecting one obelisk on the spina of the Circus Maximus, while the other was used as a sundial for the Horologium Augusti. Obelisks continued to be erected in Rome for the next three centuries.
Egyptian obelisks in Rome also relates to larger trends in Rome. As Egyptian cults grew in popularity and the fashion for exotic Egyptian decor among the Roman aristocracy, there was a demand for Egyptian objects. One of the most obvious examples can be seen in the Pyramid of Cestius, built in Rome as a tomb around 12 BC during the reign of Augustus. Emperor Hadrian was particularly fascinated with Egypt, who visited it twice, recreated an Egyptian setting for his villa at Tivoli in the famous Canopus.
The erection of obelisks in circuses by Roman emperors was both a religious and a political act. The original connection of the obelisks with solar cults was also emphasized by Augustus when he had an obelisk erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus. The Circus Maximus had always been a religious institution, which was connected with the sun-cult. The course of chariots around the spina was compared to heavenly bodies moving around the sun, while the factions represented the four seasons, and the seven laps represented seven days of the week. Moreover obelisks were viewed as being shaped like a sunbeam. The typical Roman decoration of obelisks was a gilded bronze orb was placed on the pyramidion – further stressing the solar symbolism of obelisks. The obelisk erected by Augustus in the Circus Maximus was also linked with his victory over Anthony and Cleopatra along with his conquest of Egypt.
During the Roman era, many of Egypt's ancient obelisks were moved to Rome, while new obelisks were also made. Karnak. At least fifteen obelisks were transferred to Rome, although only thirteen now remain there. Other obelisks include the Esquiline Obelisk and the Quirinale Obelisk, which were once erected in front of the Mausoleum of Augustus. The Vatican Obelisk, erected on the spina of the Circus of Gaius and Nero during the reign of Caligula, was later associated with the martyrdom of St. Peter. The Obelisk of Antinous was built during the reign of Hadrian and probably first stood before Temple of Divus Antinous in Egypt before being brought to Rome. Several obelisks were erected in the vicinity of the Temple of Isis Campensis, including the obelisk with an elephant designed by Bernini at Piazza della Minerva. Another obelisk from this location was later erected on the spina of Circus of Maxentius out on Via Appia and now stands on Bernini's fountain in the Piazza Navona. The last and largest obelisk to arrive in Rome was brought by Constantius II to adorn the Circus Maximus after his visit to the city in 357.
Obelisks in Constantinople
In about A.D. 337, Constantine moved two obelisks to Alexandria with the intention of moving them – possibly to Constantinople. While he died before he could move them, his son Constantius had one of the obelisks taken to Rome and erected on the spina of the Circus Maximus as Augustus had done centuries before. According to a lost inscription on its base, this obelisk originally had been intended for Constantinople by Constantine, but abandoned by him in Egypt.
When Constantine moved these obelisks, there was already a long tradition of circuses having obelisks, as the Circus Maximus, the Circus of Gaius and Nero, and the Circus of Maxentius already had their own. Emperors in Constantinople decided that the “New Rome” also needed obelisks. This was first accomplished when Theodosius had the second obelisk taken to Constantinople around 390 and erected in the Hippodrome.
In addition to the Obelisk of Theodosius erected in the Hippodrome in 390, a “false” obelisk - the Masonry Obelisk - built of stone blocks (rather than being a monolith) and sheathed in bronze was erected. While the date of its erection is uncertain, it is almost certainly of late antique date. An Egyptian porphyry obelisk was erected in the city – which must have been especially quarried to adorn the city, as porphyry was associated with emperors and no porphyry obelisks were available from ancient Egypt.
This erection of obelisks relates to the rivalry that existed between the old capital Rome and the new capital. It also belongs to the imperial program to emphasize the Romanitas (or “Romanness”) of the new capital, which was mirrored by many other building programs, such as the creation of the Forum of Constantine. Of course, Constantinople – which started erected obelisks at a late date – would never match the number found in Rome.
The desire for obelisks would return during the Renaissance, when popes began to re-erect fallen obelisks. Paris, London and New York also acquired their own Egyptian obelisks in the 19th century, which can still be seen in these cities today. Furthermore, the Washington Monument in Washington DC was built of ashlar blocks like the Masonry Obelisk once on the spina of the Hippodrome of Constantinople.
Obelisks of Constantinople and Rome
Image by Ward-Perkins
Circus Maximus from the Atlas van Loon (1649)
Piazza del Popolo
Elephant and Obelisk
Obelisk originally located near the Temple of Isis Campensis
Obelisk of the Fontana del Pantheon
Luxor Obelisk in Paris
Cleopatra' Needle in London
Cleopatra's Needle in New York
A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome by L. Richardson, Jr.
The Egyptian and Egyptianizing Monuments of Imperial Rome by Anne Roullet
The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Egypt edited by Donald B. Redford
“Points of View: The Theodosian Obelisk Base in Context” by Linda Safran
Two Romes: Rome and Constantinople in Late Antiquity edited by Grig and Kelly
Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium edited by Alexander Kazhdan