It is Rome, not Paris, that is most obelisk-obsessed.
With thirteen ancient obelisks, Rome has more than anywhere else in the world, including Egypt. The Romans’ fascination with obelisks started long before that of the French.
The first obelisks arrived to Rome before the birth of Christ during the reign of Augustus. The last one came at the bidding of Emperor Constantius who brought it for the Circus Maximus in 357 A.D. Over the centuries many of the obelisks in Rome fell over and were forgotten until Pope Sixtus V came to power in the late sixteenth century.
During his fifteen year reign, Sixtus V taxed his citizens heavily and spent mightily. He was not loved by his people and did not love antiquities. But, as part of his vast urbanization campaign, he was responsible for the re-erection of four obelisks.
The oldest and tallest obelisk standing in the world at 105.6 feet, is that of Constantius. Transporting it to Rome was an enormously tricky technical challenge that his engineers met by using a specially designed boat. Centuries later, Sixtus V had it re-erected where it now stands in Piazza S. Giovanni in Laterano.
Sixtus V also had reassembled, from four pieces, one of two obelisks originally brought to Rome by Augustus to adorn his family tomb on the Campus Martius. This one, he had re-erected at the end of one of his new streets, Strada Felice, in what is today the Piazza dell’Esquillino.
To celebrate his Egyptian victories in 10 B.C., Augustus had carried to Rome another obelisk that he had erected in the Circus Maximus. About 1600 years later, under Pope Sixtus, it found a new home in the Piazza de Popolo where it stands today. At the base of the Obelisk lies the spectacle of four mighty Egyptian lions whose puckered lips spurt fountains of water. These lions, however, didn’t arrive on the scene until the early nineteenth century.
Then there is the obelisk in St Peter’s Square that has been in Rome since 37 A.D. when Emperor Caligula brought it to the Vatican Circus. Like so many others, this one, too, had toppled over and was forgotten until Sixtus V ordered its re-erection in St Peter’s. So excited by its successful re-erection, the people carried the engineer responsible, Domenico Fontana, through the streets in celebration.
Thanks to Augustus and later Sixus V, as well as the technical skills of its engineers and the enthusiasm of its citizens, the obelisks are part of the magnificent scenery of Rome and mark its passage through history.
All original content copyright 2008 Mary E. Slocum