The obelisks of Rome vary from huge imposing structures to small pieces of history, but all provide a fascinating insight into ancient Rome.
Rome is full of obelisks, some are several thousands of years old, and others are much younger.
But what is an obelisk, and why does Rome have so many?
Find out the answers to these questions and more on this page:
An obelisk is a type of sculptural monument most commonly associated with ancient Egypt.
They are typically tall square pillars that taper into a point at the top, and more often than not are created from a single block of carved stone.
Most often they are used to celebrate or commemorate an individual or a historical event, with writings or reliefs featured on their sides.
There are a total of 13 ancient obelisks in Rome, eight of which are from ancient Egypt, and five are later ancient Roman creations.
There are also a handful of ‘modern’ obelisks in Rome, which like their ancient counterparts were created to mark moments in history.
On this page you’ll find a profile of each of Rome’s obelisks, along with details on how to visit them.
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The obelisk ‘trend’ began with Augustus, the first emperor of ancient Rome.
After he annexed Egypt as his own personal property following the defeat of Mark Anthony and Cleopatra, Augustus brought the first obelisks for the imperial capital (the now-called Flaminian Obelisk and Solare Obelisk) from Heliopolis as trophies of this victory.
Over the ensuing centuries other Roman emperors ordered that more obelisks be brought to Rome, but also that local craftsmen create (at that time) modern versions.
It wasn’t until relatively recently (in the grand scale of history) that experts realized that a lot of the obelisks around Rome were not ancient Egyptian originals.
How? Because the hieroglyphics on the ancient Roman versions didn’t make any sense; they had just copied the designs from the originals that looked good without any knowledge of their meaning!
There are a total of eight original ancient Egyptian obelisks in Rome which were brought here by various Roman emperors – more than you’ll find today in Egypt!
This is one of the two original Egyptian obelisks brought to Rome by emperor Augustus in 10 BC from Heliopolis.
It was originally placed on the spina of the Circus Maximus, the raised central area of the track dividing the race course.
After collapsing at an unknown point along with the Lateranense obelisk (more on this below), Pope Sixtus V ordered it be reconstructed in the late 1500s at Piazza del Popolo where pilgrims coming to Rome via the Flaminian Gate would see it as they entered the city.
This is the second of emperor Augustus’ two obelisks brought to Rome in 10 BC.
It was originally used to create the gnomon of the Solarium Augusti in the Campus Martius, a monumental meridian line marker commissioned by Augustus as part of his efforts to elevate Rome’s architectural landscape.
It was lost for an extended period and rediscovered in the late 1700's at which point it was re-erected in front of Palazzo Montecitorio (now the home of Italy’s parliament) under the orders of Pope Pius VI.
So-called the 'Lateranense' because it now stands in Piazza di San Giovanni at the Lateran Palace (San Giovanni in Laterano), this is Rome’s tallest ancient obelisk.
It was brought to Rome to adorn the Circus Maximus by emperor Constantius II where it had been originally erected at the Karnak Temple in southern Egypt.
Reading the Latin inscription on the base it states that the obelisk marks the spot that emperor Constantine was baptised.
This is not correct, Constantine was actually baptised in Nicomedia in modern day Türkiye.
It collapsed at an unknown point but was re-erected in the 1500's at its current location under the orders of Pope Sixtus V.
This red granite obelisk was transported to Rome from Egypt under the orders of emperor Caligula in 40 AD, where it was placed in the Circus of Nero, a racetrack and stadium close to the modern location of Vatican City.
This obelisk stood there since ancient times until Pope Sixtus V ordered in 1586 it be relocated the short distance to St Peter's Square.
In ancient times there was a metal orb fixed to the top of the obelisk, which was rumoured in the middle ages to contain the ashes of Julius Caesar.
However, when inspected, no ashes were discovered.
You can see the orb now in the Capitoline Museums.
How did the ancient Romans transport obelisks from Egypt to Rome?
Firstly the Romans likely pulled down the obelisks using soldiers or slaves, lowering it as gently as possible to avoid the stone from breaking. It's probable that the obelisk was positioned on wooden runners were it would have been hauled to the Nile river, where it would have been loaded on to a transport barge.
From here it would have sailed slowly up the river, and across the Mediterranean Sea before arriving in Ostia, Rome's port.
From here it would have been sailed along the river Tiber to a disembarkation point.
At this stage the process of unloading it and moving it to its new location would have been similar to the process undertaken in Egypt, only in reverse!
Once ready to be erected it's likely the Romans would have used a series of pulleys, winches and cranes (and slave labour) to stand the obelisk up again.
This obelisk is one of a pair, with the second being the Matteiano obelisk (info below), originally from the Temple of Ra in Heliopolis in Egypt.
It was possibly brought to Rome during the reign of Domitian but this cannot be said with certainty.
During its time in Rome it has been placed at multiple locations.
First at the Temple of Isis near Santa Maria Sopra Minerva, then later at Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill (following its rediscovery in the 1300s near San Macuto - hence the name!) before arriving at its current location in Piazza della Rotonda under the orders of Pope Clement XI in 1711
This obelisk is the second of the pair possibly brought to Rome from Heliopolis in Egypt by Domitian.
This is Rome's smallest obelisk, with a large part of the original sculpture lost, it would have been at least as tall as its 'sister' the Macuteo obelisk.
Note when looking at it that only the top half is original.
Like its sister, its original ancient site was at the Temple of Isis and then at Santa Maria in Aracoeli on the Capitoline Hill when rediscovered.
When Michelangelo redesigned Piazza del Campidoglio in the 16th century, the obelisk was lost again before being rediscovered in the 1800's and re-erected in its current location in the grounds of Villa Celiomontana.
This might be my favorite obelisk because of its surroundings; you’ll find it in a very quiet and beautiful (free to enter) park not far from the Colosseum.
Note that getting to this obelisk is less obvious than the others, following Google Maps directly will likely lead you to a road nearby, not the exact location.
I know this from my own experience!
As such, enter the Celiomontana park via the entrance on Via della Navicella and then follow Google Maps.
The obelisk was brought to Rome during the reign of emperor Diocletian, and like the Matteiano and Macuteo obelisks was used to decorate the Temple of Isis.
It is in fact one of a pair, with the second now being in Urbino in the Marche region of Italy.
It was discovered and re-erected (after the obelisk fell at an unknown point) in Piazza della Minerva under the orders of Pope Alexander VII between 1655 and 1657.
This is probably Rome's most overlooked obelisk as it's found near a main road intersection and Termini train station.
It is originally from Helipolis in Egypt and one a pair, with the second now in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
After being lost at an unknown point, it was rediscovered in 1884 and erected in its current position in honor of fallen Italian soldiers in 1924.
Its likely that the small obelisks, such as those at Santa Maria Sopra Minerva or Piazza della Rotunda were originally much bigger, what we see now are just the top sections.
It's possible that the Romans were unable to transport the full obelisks (they may have broken during the dismantling process), or that they just didn’t want to for some reason. Maybe they did but it has been lost to time.
No one knows for sure, but as a general rule of thumb, these things were HUGE, like the examples at San Giovanni or Piazza del Popolo.
Beyond the Egyptian obelisks, you'll also find a number of ancient Roman obelisks in the Eternal City if you know where to look!
These obelisks were created by the Romans in an Egyptian style to evoke the mystique of ancient Egypt and show off their own personal power.
Often mistaken for an Egyptian original, this obelisk was commissioned by emperor Domitian for the Temple of Serapis in Rome.
Emperor Maxentius later moved it to his race track, the Circus of Maxentius on the Appian Way.
It was then relocated and erected on the elaborate Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona created by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in 1651 where it has stood since.
This is the first of a pair of obelisks created during the early imperial period of the Roman empire and was used to decorate the Mausoleum of Augustus.
After falling at an unknown point it was found in in the early 1500's but was not raised or repaired until over 200 years later.
Eventually it was moved and re-erected in 1786 under the orders of pope Pius VI on the Quirinal Hill.
This is the second of the pair used to decorate Roman emperor Augustus' mausoleum.
Reconstructed also in 1527, it was relocated and erected behind Santa Maria Maggiore under the orders of Pope Sixtus V.
This obelisk is a copy of the much larger Egyptian obelisk in Piazza del Popolo, created during the reign of emperor Aurelian.
It was originally placed in the Gardens of Sallust, a sprawling garden and villa complex created by the famous ancient Roman historian Sallust and then used for centuries by Rome's emperors.
Like most other obelisks, this one fell at an unknown point.
It was found and relocated to Piazza di San Giovanni where it remained horizontal until pope Pius VI ordered it be re-erected at Piazza della Trinità dei Monti, above the Spanish Steps.
If you stand at the intersection of Via 20 Settembre and Via delle Quattro, known as the 'Corner of the Four Fountains', you can see the Esquiline Obelisk, Quirinal Obelisk and the Sallustian Obelisk!
This is the only obelisk that was not originally intended for placement in Rome itself.
It was created during the reign of emperor Hadrian to decorate the tomb of Antonius at Villa Adriana in Tivoli.
It was later moved by emperor Elagabalus to decorate the spina of the Circus Varianus.
As with nearly all other obelisks, it fell and was lost for centuries.
It was discovered in the 16th century and first moved to Palazzo Barberini, before then being moved again to the Vatican.
Finally it was relocated and erected at its current position on the Pincian Hill under the orders of Pope Pius VII in 1822.
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You'll find a number of more modern obelisks in Rome:
Until 2005 there was also an an Ethiopian obelisk located close to the Circus Maximus in Piazza di Porta Capena in Rome; the Obelisk of Axum.
It was taken from Axum by the Italian army during the second Italo-Ethiopian war in 1937.
After decades of discussions, the obelisk was returned to Ethiopia to its original position where it has remained since.
The Egyptian Pharaohs had countless obelisks dedicated to the various Egyptian deities and themselves.
As mentioned previously, other Egyptian obelisks exist in Italy - in the Boboli Gardens in Florence and Piazza Rinascimento in Urbino.
The design of the Washington Monument in Washington DC was inspired by the classic Egyptian style, with the key difference being that the Washington Monument is not made from one single piece of stone due to its size and height.
Another famous obelisk is the so-called Luxor Obelisk in Place de la Concorde in Paris, France.
It is one of two obelisks that were placed by Ramses ii at the Luxor Temple complex, with the second remaining in situ in Egypt to this day.
Ready to plan your trip?
Like a lot of Rome's monuments, all of Rome’s obelisks can be seen for free, just use the info on this page and Google Maps to reach them!
They are all in publicly accessible piazzas where they can be admired up close.
The only one that you may have some difficulty accessing is the Celiomontana as the park in which its located is very occasionally closed, if this is the case, try again the next day!
Before I lived in Rome I used to visit as much as I could, and see as much as I could in the limited time I had.
One of my all-time favorite memories of that period is a day where myself and a good friend visited each original Egyptian obelisk, sequentially, with pit stops for lunch, coffee and spritzes.
We started with the Dogali obelisk which was closest to where we were staying during that trip and followed a clockwise path around the city, but if you wanted to do the same, you could start with any of them!
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