Allora, Viterbo

The Roman Obelisks

By Shane Bennett

The Agonalis Obelisk in Piazza Navona, Rome

The Agonalis Obelisk in Piazza Navona, Rome



Scattered throughout Rome are eighteen of the most impressive obelisks known to man, the most in any city in the world. These tall, narrow, four-sided monuments were most common to the Egyptians, but intrigued the Romans, resulting in a large collection of obelisks in Rome. By their very nature they are hard to miss but there are a few that boast more significance than others.

When you find yourself in the famous Piazza Navona, the Agonalis Obelisk will instantly grab your attention. Dead center in this piazza, which is a short walk from San Luigi dei Francesi, the national church of France, this red granite monolith stands over 30 meters tall. It was erected on top of Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi (Fountain of the Four Rivers) by Bernini in 1651. The obelisk was actually commissioned to celebrate the Emporer Domitian and was originally constructed at the Temple of Serapis. This obelisk is one of the five famous ancient Roman Obelisks and once you see it, you will know why.

The Pulcino della Minerva near the Pantheon.

The Pulcino della Minerva near the Pantheon.

The Pulcino della Minerva is a curious obelisk located just behind the famous Pantheon in front of Santa Maria Sopra Minerva. It was commissioned by the Egyptian Pharoh Apries and then brought to Rome by Diocletian for the temple of Isis, an Egyptian goddess of nature and magic. It was re-discovered in 1655 by Pope Alexander VII and erected on top of a beautiful elephant base, built by Bernini, in 1667. Bernini was inspired by a novel whose main character meets an elephant with an obelisk on its back. This obelisk is actually part of a pair of obelisks from Sais, with the other now located in Urbino, Italy.

Column of Marcus Aurelius in the center of Piazza Colonna, Rome.

Column of Marcus Aurelius in the center of Piazza Colonna, Rome.

Towering over all who witness it, the Column of Marcus Aurelius stands alone and magnificent in the center of Piazza Colonna, a perfect stop as you travel between the Pantheon and the Trevi Fountain. This is actually considered a victory column, not an obelisk, because of the fact that it is not four sided and does not have a pyramidal top. It stands as a tribute to Marcus Aurelius, the last of the Five Good Emperors of the Roman Empire whose success in the Marcomannic Wars is depicted on the column. He is also considered one of the most important Stoic philosophers and a philosopher king.

The construction finished in 193 AD and left a structure standing at an impressive 39.72 meters tall, about the same height as a 13 story building. The 3.7 meter thick column has a 200 step internal staircase that is occasionally open to the public for a unique view of Rome. Equally as amazing is the spiral picture relief that encircles the entire shaft of the tower. The intricate stone-work tells detailed stories of Marcus Aurelius’ Marcomannic Wars. Pope Sixtus the V ordered its restoration in 1589 where it was adapted to the ground level of the time and a figure of the apostle St. Paul was placed on top.

With all of the amazing places to see in Rome, stopping by these obelisks may seem low on your priority list, but I can assure you they are absolutely part of the glory and fame this city is renowned for. The sheer number and historical significance of these structures cannot be found anywhere else in the world and their unique architecture adds another layer to the infamy that is Rome.

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