Friday, December 30, 2011

Kind of Curious: The Obelisks of the Circus Maximus

Kind of Curious: The Obelisks of the Circus Maximus

The city of Rome is home to more obelisks than any other city in the world. This is the story of two of those obelisks, that once stood in the Circus Maximus. Rome went through two periods of obsession with Egypt. The first was when the growing Roman Empire required huge amounts of grain to feed its population. No doubt Caesar fell in love with the beautiful and charming Cleopatra, but he first fell in love with the fertile Nile Delta.

As was the custom when conquering foreign lands, the Romans dragged several obelisks from Egypt back to Rome, just to prove how powerful they were. Actually, the dragging was the shorter part of the trip. To get across the Mediterranean, the Romans built some of the biggest ships of the ancient world – "obelisk ships" specially designed for this purpose. For the largest obelisks, such as these destined for the Circus Maximus, they actually used 3 ships working together – two ships connected side-by-side with the obelisk suspended from them under water, and a third ship out front like a tug boat. The smaller of the two obelisks in the spina (the central "median strip") in the drawing above was taken from the Egyptian city of Heliopolis, in 10 BC. The larger one was taken much later, in 357 AD, from the temple of the chief Egyptian god Amun in the city of Thebes. Until 550 AD, these obelisks witnessed a lot of action.

Sometimes after the sack of Rome by the barbarians, the obelisks in the Circus Maximus were either torn down or fell down due to an earthquake. No one seems to be sure, and the details are lost in the fog of the Middle Ages. The stadium was located in a flood plain, and with no one maintaining it, over the years the fallen obelisks became buried in the mud. This is what the Circus Maximus looked like on our recent trip to Italy. The tall tree in the middle is where the obelisks would have been.

During the Renaissance, Rome tried to rebuild some of its former glory, including the spoils of its battles with Egypt. Pope Sixtus V had the obelisks excavated from the old stadium in 1587. Both of them were broken. He had the larger one repaired, topped with a Christian cross, and erected in the Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano. Here it is today, the largest obelisk surviving from antiquity. It is now known as the Lateran obelisk.

And here is the other obelisk from the Circus Maximus, also repaired and topped with a cross, this one installed in the Piazza del Popolo. It is known as the Flaminian obelisk, after the ancient Via Flaminia which began here at the Porta Flaminia (Flaminian Gate) in the ancient wall and ran to the north of Rome.