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  • Writer's pictureWill von Behr, MA

A Brief History of the Lateran Obelisk in Rome

What is the Lateran Obelisk?

The Lateran Obelisk is an Egyptian obelisk constructed in the 15th century BC and brought to Rome by Constantine II in the 4th century AD.

Lateran Obelisk

Lateran Obelisk History

From the 1st century BC onwards, the Romans developed an overwhelming infatuation with all things Egyptian, to such an extent that they began transporting Egyptian artefacts and obelisks to the city, and over two centuries Rome came to possess the largest collection of obelisks in the world, as it does to this day.

Built in honour of the Egyptian sun god Ra, obelisks were constructed to symbolise the sun: the pyramid-shaped top was plated in an alloy of gold and silver, called electrum, that would reflect the sun’s rays, imitating the way they fall onto the earth.

The monuments were cut from red granite, an exceptionally hard stone found in the Aswan region of Egypt. Removing the monolith from the quarry was an arduous and backbreaking task. Firstly, the workers would heat the surface of the rock and then cover it in cold water, thereby cracking the uppermost layer. The cracked stone was then pounded until they had a flat surface, after which the workers would excavate a trench, essentially marking out the monument’s full length. The enormous monolith then had to be dislodged. The workers would painstakingly hammer wooden plugs into a series of holes in the trench, soak the channel with water, and allow them to swell and crack the rock.

The obelisk’s face was then smoothed so that a dedicatory inscription could be carefully carved into the hard rock. Whereas the Egyptians tended to place pairs of these obelisks in front of temples and funerary monuments, the Romans erected them individually, often at the centres of racetracks, as a display of imperial power.

This particular monument is the largest ancient obelisk still standing in the world, at a height of 32 metres and weighing an incredible 455 tons. The inscriptions tell us that it was begun during the reign of Thutmose III, in the 15th century BC. Over a thousand years later, Emperor Constantine desperately wanted it to be taken from Egypt and brought to his new capital, Constantinople, however this never materialised. His son decided it was better placed in Rome, at the centre of the Circus Maximus, the city’s vast chariot racing stadium. Its imposing shape could be seen for miles, and it stood proudly opposite the Flaminian Obelisk, which you’ll now find in the Piazza del Popolo.

We know that at some point in the Middle Ages the Lateran obelisk toppled over. The monolith broke into three enormous pieces, and was buried underground at what was by that time a derelict race track. It wasn’t until the 16th century that the obelisk was recovered and restored, when Pope Sixtus V despatched a search party to retrieve the once glorious monument. The obelisk was repaired, now standing four metres shorter than before, but no less imposing and magnificent. The restoration was so impressive that only when up close can you detect any signs of its former damage. Sixtus had the obelisk topped with a cross and set on a pedestal with inscriptions explaining its Egyptian heritage and its epic travels all the way from Egypt to where it stands today.

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