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OBELISCUS (ὀβελίσκος) is a diminutive of Obelus (ὀβελός), which properly signifies a sharpened thing, a skewer or spit, and is the name given to certain works of Egyptian art.1 A detailed description of such works would be inconsistent with the plan of this work, but some notice of them is required by the fact that several of them were transported to Rome under the emperors. Ammianus Marcellinus (17.4) says that “an obelisk is a very rough stone in the shape of a kind of land-mark or boundary stone, rising with a small inclination on all sides to a great height; and in order that it may imitate a solar ray by a gradual diminution of its bulk, it terminates in a prolongation of four faces united in a sharp point. It is very carefully smoothed.” Most ancient writers consider obelisks as emblematic of the sun's rays. (Comp. Plin. Nat. 36.64.)

An obelisk is properly a single block of stone, cut into a quadrilateral form, the sides of which diminish gradually, but almost imperceptibly from the base to the top of the shaft, but do, [p. 2.253]not terminate in an apex upon the top, which is crowned by a small pyramid, consisting of four sides terminating in a point. The Egyptian obelisks were mostly made of the red granite of Syene, from which place they were carried to the different parts of Egypt. They were generally placed in pairs at the entrance to a temple, close to other monuments of proportionate size. But the Romans, as Mr. Burn remarks, viewed them only as trophies, and, except those at the Mausoleum of Augustus, they stood apart from anything of equal height, presenting a naked and forlorn appearance. (Rome and Campagna, p. xliv.)

Obelisks were first transported to Rome under Augustus, who caused one to be erected in the Circus and another in the Campus Martius. (Plin. Nat. 36.71; Mon. Ancyr. iv.) The former was restored in 1589, and is called at present the Flaminian obelisk. Its whole height is about 116 feet, and without the base about 78 feet: it now stands in the Piazza del Popolo. The obelisk in the Campus Martius was set up by Augustus as a sun-dial. It stands at present ,on the Monte Citorio, where it was placed in 1792. (Burn's Rome and Campagna, p. 333.) Its whole height is about 110 feet, and without the base about 71 feet. Another obelisk was brought to Rome by Caligula, and placed on the Vatican in the spina of the Circus of Caligula. (Plin. Nat. 36.74, 16.201.) In drawings of the 16th century it is represented as still standing in its original place. It stands at present in front of St. Peter's, where it was placed in 1586, and its whole height is about 132 feet, and without the base and modern ornaments at top about 83 feet. But the largest obelisk at Rome is that which was originally transported from Heliopolis to Alexandria by Constantine, and conveyed to Rome by his son Constantius, who placed it in the Circus Maximus (Amm. Marc. 17.4). Its present position is before the north portico of the Lateran church, where it was placed in 1588. Its whole height is about 149 feet. and without the base about 105 feet. (See Gibbon, Hist. of Rome, vol. ii. p. 400.)

There are nine other obelisks at Rome besides those mentioned above, but none of them are of historical importance. Three, however, which were found under and near the church of S. Stefano del Cacco, one as late as 1882, are interesting as remains of the temples of Isis and Serapis on that site. They are now in the Piazza della Rotonda, the Piazza della Minerva, and the Piazza del Collegio Romano. (See Middleton's Rome, p. 392.) There are also obelisks in various other places, as at Constantinople, Arles, Florence, Catana in Sicily, &c., some of which are works of Egyptian art, and others only imitations.

The preceding brief account is chiefly taken from Long's Egyptian Antiquities, vol. i. cc. 14, 15.

[W.S] [G.E.M]

1 Herodotus (2.111) uses ὀβελὸς in the sense of an obelisk.

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