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By order of Constantius Augustus an obelisk is set up at Rome in the Circus Maximus; also an account of obelisks and hieroglyphics.


During these first steps towards the rehabilitation of Gaul, and while Orfitus was still conducting his second praefecture, an obelisk was set up at Rome in the Circus Maximus; and of it, since this is a suitable place, I shall give a brief account. [2] The city of Thebes, founded in primitive times and once famous for the stately structure of its walls and for the hundred approaches formed by its gates, was called by its builders from that feature Hecatompylos, 1 or Hundred-gated Thebes; and from this name 2 the province is to this day called the Thebaid. [3] When Carthage was in its early career of wide expansion, Punic generals destroyed Thebes by an unexpected attack; and when it was afterwards rebuilt, Cambyses, that renowned king of Persia, all his life covetous of others' possessions, and cruel, overran Egypt and attacked Thebes, in the hope of carrying off therefrom its enviable wealth, since he did not spare even gifts made to the gods. [4] But while he was excitedly running about among the plundering troops, tripped by the looseness of his garments he fell headlong; and his own dagger, which he wore fastened to his right thigh, was unsheathed by the sudden force of the fall and wounded him almost mortally. [5] Again, long afterwards, when Octavian was ruling Rome, Cornelius Gallus, procurator 3 of Egypt, drained the city by extensive embezzlements; and when on his return he was accused of peculation and the robbery of the province, in his fear of the bitterly exasperated nobility, [p. 321] to whom the emperor had committed the investigation of the case, he drew his sword and fell upon it. He was (if I am right in so thinking) the poet Gallus, whom Vergil laments in a way in the latter part of the Bucolics 4 and celebrates in gentle verse.

[6] In this city, amid mighty shrines and colossal works of various kinds, which depict the likenesses of the Egyptian deities, we have seen many obelisks, and others prostrate and broken, which kings of long ago, when they had subdued foreign nations in war or were proud of the prosperous condition of their realms, hewed out of the veins of the mountains which they sought for even among the remotest dwellers on the globe, set up, and in their religious devotion dedicated to the gods of heaven. [7] Now an obelisk is a very hard stone, rising gradually somewhat in the form of a turning-post 5 to a lofty height; little by little it grows slenderer, to imitate a sunbeam; it is four-sided, tapers to a narrow point, and is polished by the workman's hand. [8] Now the infinite carvings of characters called hieroglyphics, which we see cut into it on every side, have been made known by an ancient authority of primeval wisdom. 6 [9] For by engraving many kinds of birds and beasts, even of another world, in order that the memory of their achievements might the more widely reach generations of a subsequent age, they registered the vows of kings, either promised or performed. [10] For not as nowadays, when a fixed and easy series of letters [p. 323] expresses whatever the mind of man may conceive, did the ancient Egyptians also write; but individual characters stood for individual nouns and verbs; and sometimes they meant whole phrases. [11] The principle of this thing for the time it will suffice to illustrate with these two examples: by a vulture they represent the word “nature,” because, as natural history records, no males can be found among these birds; 7 and under the figure of a bee making honey they designate “a king,” showing by this imagery that in a ruler sweetness should be combined with a sting as well; 8 and there are many similar instances.

[12] And because sycophants, after their fashion, kept puffing up Constantius and endlessly dinning it into his ears that, whereas Octavianus Augustus had brought over two obelisks from the city of Heliopolis in Egypt, one of which was set up in the Circus Maximus, the other in the Campus Martius, as for this one recently brought in, he neither ventured to meddle with it nor move it, overawed by the difficulties caused by its size-let me inform those who do not know it that that early emperor, after bringing over several obelisks, passed by this one and left it untouched because it was consecrated as a special gift to the Sun God, and because being placed in the sacred part of his sumptuous temple, which might not be profaned, there it towered aloft like the peak of the world. [13] But Constantine, 9 making little account of that, tore the huge mass from its foundations; and since he rightly thought that he was committing no [p. 325] sacrilege if he took this marvel from one temple and consecrated it at Rome, that is to say, in the temple of the whole world, he let it lie for a long time, while the things necessary for its transfer were being provided. And when it had been conveyed down the channel of the Nile and landed at Alexandria, a ship of a size hitherto unknown was constructed, to be rowed by three hundred oarsmen. [14] After these provisions, the aforesaid emperor departed this life and the urgency of the enterprise waned, but at last the obelisk was loaded on the ship, after long delay, and brought over the sea and up the channel of the Tiber, which seemed to fear that it could hardly forward over the difficulties of its outward course to the walls of its foster-child the gift which the almost unknown Nile had sent. But it was brought to the vicus Alexandri 10 distant three miles from the city. There it was put on cradles 11 and carefully drawn through the Ostian Gate and by the Piscina Publica 12 and brought into the Circus Maximus. [15] After this there remained only the raising, which it was thought could be accomplished only with great difficulty, perhaps not at all. But it was done in the following manner: to tall beams which were brought and raised on end (so that you would see a very grove of derricks) were fastened long and heavy ropes in the likeness of a manifold web hiding the sky with their excessive numbers. To these was attached that veritable mountain engraved over with written characters, and it was gradually drawn up on high through the empty [p. 327] air, and after hanging for a long time, while many thousand men turned wheels 13 resembling millstones, it was finally placed in the middle of the circus 14 and capped by a bronze globe gleaming with gold-leaf; this was immediately struck by a bolt of the divine fire and therefore removed and replaced by a bronze figure of a torch, likewise overlaid with gold-foil and glowing like a mass of flame. [16] And subsequent generations have brought over other obelisks, of which one was set up on the Vatican, 15 another in the gardens of Sallust, 16 and two at the mausoleum of Augustus. 17 [17] Now the text of the characters cut upon the ancient obelisk which we see in the Circus 18 I add below in its Greek translation, following the work of Hermapion. 19 The translation of the first line, beginning on the South side, reads as follows: [18] “The Sun speaks to King Ramestes. I have granted to thee that thou shouldst with joy rule over the whole earth, thou [p. 329] whom the Sun loveth—and powerful Apollo, lover of truth, son of Heron, god-born, creator of the world, whom the Sun hath chosen, the doughty son of Mars, King Ramestes. Unto him the whole earth is made subject through his valour and boldness. King Ramestes, eternal child of the Sun.”

SECOND LINE.

[19] “Mighty Apollo, seated upon truth, Lord of the Diadem, who hath gloriously honoured Egypt as his peculiar possession, who hath beautified Heliopolis, created the rest of the world, and adorned with manifold honours the Gods erected in Heliopolis—he whom the Sun loveth.”

THIRD LINE.

[20] "Mighty Apollo, child of the Sun, all-radiant, whom the Sun hath chosen and valiant Mars endowed; whose blessings shall endure forever; whom Ammon 20 loveth, as having filled his temple with the good fruits of the date palm; unto whom the Gods have given length of life.

“Apollo, mighty son of Heron, Ramestes, 21 king of the world, who hath preserved Egypt by conquering other nations; whom the Sun loveth; to whom the Gods have granted length of life; Lord of the world, Ramestes ever-living.”

[p. 331] WEST SIDE, SECOND LINE. 22

[21] “The Sun, great God, Lord of Heaven; I have granted to thee life hitherto unforeseen. Apollo the mighty, Lord incomparable of the Diadem, who hath set up statues of the Gods in this kingdom, ruler of Egypt, and he adorned Heliopolis just as he did the Sun himself, Ruler of Heaven; he finished a good work, child of the Sun, the king ever-living.”

THIRD LINE.

[22] “The God Sun, Lord of Heaven, to Ramestes the king. I have granted to thee the rule and the authority over all men; whom Apollo, lover of truth, Lord of seasons, and Vulcan, father of the Gods, hath chosen for Mars. King all-gladdening, child of the Sun and beloved of the Sun.”

EAST SIDE, FIRST LINE.

[23] “The great God of Heliopolis, heavenly, mighty Apollo, son of Heron, whom the Sun hath loved, whom the Gods hath honoured, the ruler over all the earth, whom the Sun hath chosen, a king valiant for Mars, whom Ammon loveth, and he that is all-radiant, having set apart the king eternal”; and so on.

[p. 333]

1 Iliad, ix. 383 ff.; Mela, i. 9.

2 I.e. Thebes.

3 Gallus was praefectus Aegypti (not procurator) from 30 to 26 B.C.

4 Eclogue, x.

5 A meta was one of the three conical columns on the end of the spina of a circus.

6 Cf. Diod. Siculus, iii. 3, 5, who says that hieroglyphics were understood by the priests alone, and that the knowledge was handed down from father to son.

7 The females were said to be impregnated by the south or the east winds; Aelian, Hist. Anim. ii. 46; cf. Plutarch, Quaest. Rom. 93.

8 Seneca, De Clem. i. 19, 2 ff., compares a king to a bee.

9 That is, Constantine the Great.

10 The origin of the name is unknown; it was obviously on the Tiber, below Rome.

11 Chamulcus, which occurs only here, is the Greek χαμουλκός glossed by Latin traha (cf. Virg. Georg. i. 164). Here, a kind of sledge or platform without wheels, on which ships were launched or drawn up on the shore.

12 One of the regions of the city, a part of the Aventine Hill.

13 Here meta must refer to the upper (outer) part of the mill, which was turned around the inner stone.

14 Cavea, regularly used for the spectators' seats, here means the circus as a whole; cf. Plautus, Truc. 931, quod verbum in cavea dixit histric; Cic., De Leg. ii. 15, 38.

15 On the spina of the Circus Gai et Neronis; it is now in front of St. Peter's; it is 25.36 m. high and without hieroglyphics.

16 These now belonged to the imperial house; the obelisk is at present in the Piazza delta Trinità dei Monte; it is 13 m. high and has a copy, made in Rome, of the hieroglyphics on the obelisk set up by Augustus in the Circus Maximus.

17 These are before the church of Santa Maria Maggiore and on the Quirinal; the former is 14.40 m. high, the latter somewhat less; neither has hieroglyphics.

18 This obelisk, the greatest of them all (32. 50 m.), was set up at the Lateran by Fontana in 1588.

19 He seems to have lived in the time of Augustus.

20 Ammon (or Hammon), was an important Egyptian and Libyan god, identified by the Romans with Jupiter, cf. Virg., Aen. iv. 198 ff.

21 See Index.

22 There seems to be no reason to suspect lacunae. Ammianus gave only parts of the inscriptions as specimens, in order not to weary his readers by repetitions of the same general purport.

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