Making a point
Country Life UK|November 11, 2020
The first obelisk to be erected in Europe was a trophy of war. Loyd Grossman considers how these ancient monuments came to be understood and became the mark of every great city
Loyd Grossman

WHEN Napoleon wished to carry out an ambitious tree-planting programme for Rome, he was firmly reminded by the sculptor Canova that ‘in Rome, we do not plant trees, we plant obelisks’. The planting of obelisks in Europe is a 2,000-year-old habit, started by the Emperor Augustus in his lust for conquest and self-commemoration.

In the year 10BC, Augustus ordered the removal of two obelisks, the oldest of which was then 1,300 years old, to Rome. These first obelisks were the ultimate war trophies, a physical celebration of the Roman conquest of Egypt. They demonstrated geopolitical control of the Eastern Mediterranean and, as importantly, a source of grain to feed Rome’s million-plus population.

The arrival of the obelisks in Rome was an unequivocal statement that Rome had now superseded the world’s longest-enduring civilisation. The moving of an obelisk is a tricky business. Stone is strong in compression and weak in tension: an upright obelisk is sturdy, an obelisk at any other angle is likely to crack or shatter. Then there is their huge weight—each of Augustus’s two obelisks weighed more than 200 tons. Special ships had to be constructed to carry the monoliths across the Mediterranean and then, with little more than wooden rollers, ropes, pulleys and brute manpower, the obelisks were taken from Ostia to Rome and hauled upright. The whole operation was a testimony to Roman skill and determination. One of the obelisks was installed to decorate the central reservation of the great stadium the Circus Maximus; the other became the gnomon or hour indicator of a huge sundial that, thanks to Rome’s soggy low ground, subsided and became hopelessly inaccurate within 30 years.

Augustus’s successors got the obelisk habit, too, bringing more back from Egypt to adorn temples and stadia. The centuries after the fall of Rome, the ruination of the city and its reduction to a small urban core and an abandoned hinterland were bad news for the obelisks, which fell and were often buried under the rubble of once grand buildings and the rising urban ground level.

The Vatican obelisk, 75ft of red granite kidnapped from the sacred Egyptian site of Heliopolis, was the only one to remain standing. Legends grew around it: the golden ball on its pinnacle was reputed to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar and it was thought that the obelisk’s survival was thanks to the fact that it had witnessed the martyrdom of Saint Peter. In 1586, the great counter- Reformation Pope, Sixtus V (reigned 1585–90) commanded the movement of the Vatican obelisk to the front of St Peter’s Basilica, where it remains today (Fig 2).

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