Visiting Rome’s Circus Maximus you see what is for all intents and purposes a modern public park with today’s Romans exercising, running and walking their dogs. There are towards the eastern end remains of what was the rounded seating built during the reign of Trajan (98 – 117 AD), but the rest is a relatively recent landscaped impression of a Roman circus that was created after the removal of various industrial buildings in the 1930s; there is a sandy track and a grassy spina.
Except for a lone tree, today’s spina is bare. What remains of the original is some nine metres below ground level. But we know from representations of this structural feature, the central area around which the racetrack turned, that it was ornamented. In 1587 the spinaas dug up under orders from Pope Sixtus V. Two ancient Egyptian Obelisks were found, the first being what is now known of as the Lateranense Obelisk, and the second the Flaminio Obelisk. Both were then removed from the circus, repired and erected elsewhere in Rome, the Piazza di San Giovanni in Laterano and the Piazza del Popolo respectively, where they have remained since.
There are more obelisks in Rome than anywhere else in the World, eight ancient Egyptian examples, five Roman and a number of modern ones. The largest standing Egyptian obelisk (the Lateranense Obelisk) is in Rome. Strictly speaking, an obelisk is a tall, four-sided, tapering monument that ends at the top with a pyramid. This rules out monuments such as Trajan’s Column. Ancient obelisks are made from a single piece of stone, whereas modern ones tend to be made from several stones and are often hollow. Although the oldest known obelisk is Egyptian, the word itself is of Greek origin, as it was the Greek traveller Herodotus who first described them.
The ancient Egyptians made a number of obelisks, mostly they were placed in pairs at the entrances to temples. But more than half of those surviving are now scattered all over the world. The Temple of Luxor in Luxor, Egypt, has one remaining obelisk in front of its pylon. The other of this pair is now a well known attraction on the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The two obelisks were offered to France as a gift in 1829, but only one made the journey to Paris where it was erected on 25 October 1836. The other remained in Luxor and the gift was officialy renounced in the 1990s by France’s President François Mitterrand.
The first obelisk to be taken from Egypt, the Flaminio Obelisk, was in fact one that ended up on the Circus Maximus. Following Augustus’s defeat of Cleopatra and Mark Anthony he took from a temple in Heliopolis a granite obelisk created in about 1280 BC under Ramses II. Augustus had it erected on the spina towards the eastern end of the circus. During battles between the Byzantines and the Goths for the control of Rome in the sixth century, the obelisk fell amongst the rubble and remained buried until 1587, when it was excavated, repaired and moved to its present location in the Piazza del Popolo.
Of the Egyptian obelisks in Rome, my favourite has to be the Minerveo Obelisk just behind the Pantheon on the Piazza della Minerva. Not only is the Egyptian object itself of interest, but it is also the obelisk’s story in Rome that adds to its character. The Minerveo was one of two obelisks brought from the small ancient Egyptian town of Sais by Emperor Diocletian to be placed in the Temple of Isis. Much later when the foundations of the temple were discovered they were misidentified as being those of a temple dedicated to the Greek god Minerva. For this reason the basilica was named the Basilica of Saint Mary Above Minerva. And so when in 1655 the obelisk was found in the same temple it was understandably given the Greek god’s name. Perhaps it is not so surprising that the temple was thought to have a Greek connection not an Egyptian one. It was Pope Alexander VII who then commissioned the famous marble sculptor Benini to create the pedestal and the obelisk was erected in the piazza in 1667.
Every now and then there are murmurings that these obelisks should be returned to their native lands. And indeed some are repatriated. The 1,700 year old Obelisk of Axum from Ethiopia, for example, stood on the Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome from 1937 until April 2005 when it was returned to Ethiopia. The rights and wrongs of whether the Egyptian obelisks should remain in cities around the world aside, they are where they are today as a result of complex and interesting social and political relations, and are as much a part of the heritage of those cities as any other archaeological site. In a very physical way the obelisks are a testimony to these relations, and visiting Rome today one can not fully understand the many Roman monuments without appreciating that they were possible as a result of a vast Empire, that included Egypt.
By the way, at the western end of the Circus Maximus, and to the right (looking west, down the length of the track) is a patisserie that makes the best hot chocolate I have ever had.
A must read for anyone who is interested in the history of the Egyptian Obelisks found in cities around the world is Susan Sorek’s fascinating The Emperors’ Needles: Egyptian Obelisks and Rome, available on both Amazon.com and Amazon.co.uk
Read my review of The Emperors’ Needles.