An essential guide to the obelisks in Rome: what they are, where to find them and what they teach us about the history of Rome.
As you walk around Rome, you are sure to notice a very peculiar type of Rome monument, gracing the center of important piazzas and public spaces: obelisks.
An obelisk is a type of free standing stone column or pillar: they are tapered, with a pointy top and have four sides, sometimes smooth and sometimes with carvings.
You can see them in the center of squares, and in front of churches, on top of tall pedestals to enhance their height or as part of more elaborate monument such as fountains or statues.
Sometimes you can even see them in gardens and parks.
Obelisks are not unique to Rome and they did not originate in the city.
However, Rome is the city in the world with the highest number of obelisks and, as the story of obelisks in Rome below shows, they are significant to the city and worth noticing.
In this guide to Rome’s obelisks, we will look at:
- What obelisks are
- Why there are obelisks in Rome
- Where to see Rome’s obelisks
- Which Rome obelisks are original and ancient
- Modern obelisks in Rome you may encounter
I hope you enjoy it!
Good to know: if you are visiting Rome with kids, you may like to know that obelisks are one of the items we included in our printable Rome scavenger hunt for kids.
What is an obelisk?
An obelisk is a tall, narrow tapering stone pillar with four sides and a pointy top reminiscent of that of a pyramid.
Obelisks are an architectural feature and were originally in use in ancient Egypt, where they graced the graves and burial monuments of important personalities as a symbol of rebirth and of the connection between the spirit and the sun.
Obelisks seem to date all the way back to the Egyptian Fifth Dynasty (almost 2500 years before the Christian Era) and were first used as funerary monuments themselves and then as parts of more elaborate burials.
An obelisk is a free standing pillar and has some specific elements that make it different from other types of columns, even though they share some similarities with decorative columns.
The difference between an obelisk and a column are:
- An obelisk is a monolith, made by one solid piece of stone (not all columns are like this)
- Obelisks have a tapering shape, culminating into a pointy top with a pyramidal shape.
- Obelisks have a square section/ base and four sides
- An obelisk is not a weigh bearing structure
If you are curious about other types of columns you can see in Rome, you can see here >>> our guide to the most significant columns in Rome.
Why are there obelisks in Rome?
Since obelisks are from Egypt, it may be surprising to see so many of them in Rome. However, archaeologists and historical sources tell us why!
Obelisks first came to Rome in the I century BC and, after Octavian, the future Emperor Augustus, won over Egypt and brought their riches and treasures to Rome as spoils of war .
The conquest of Egypt was not small feat for the Romans and the arrival of treasures from such as powerful, significant and culturally rich country had a strong impact not just on political developments but also on common taste and costumes.
As the Romans go tot know Egypt, they developed a real passion from its aesthetic and almost an obsession with all things Egyptians, a true Egypt-mania!
From 31st AD, the year of the victory over Mark Anthony and Egypt at Actium, Rome started getting not just obelisks but also monuments commissioned by locals in Egyptian style, such as the unique Rome Pyramid, made in Rome by wish of a lover of the Egyptian aesthetic, and started seeing a growth in the number of followers of Egyptian religion and deities.
The obsession with all things Egypt lasted a long time and several more obelisks came to Rome in the centuries following the first conquest of the country. We know of a total of possibly 17 obelisks making their way into Rome, 13 of which still exist.
In later times, obelisk were purpose built to resemble original ones, repurposed and reused: this is why in Rome you have some original Egyptian obelisks but also several later ones.
In the list below we look at all of the original Egyptian obelisks in Rome and some of the latter ones you may anyway enjoy seeing.
List of Ancient obelisks in Rome
|Name of Obelisk||Height (meters)||Current Location|
|Obelisco Flaminio Obelisk||25.9||Piazza del Popolo, Rome|
|Obelisco Vaticano Obelisk||25||Piazza San Pietro, Vatican City, Rome|
|Obelisco Campense Obelisk||21.79||Piazza Monte Ciborio, Rome|
|Obelisco Lateranense Obelisk||31.18||Piazza San Giovanni in Laterano|
|Obelisco Agonalis Obelisk||16.54||PIazza Navona|
|Obelisco Esquilino Obelisk||14.75||Piazza Esquilino|
|Obelisco Quirinale Obelisk||14.63||PIazza del Quirinale|
|Obelisco Salustiano Obelisk||13.91||PIazza di Spagna|
|Obelisco Macuteo – Macutean Obelisk (Pantheon obelisk)||6.34||Piazza della Rotonda|
|Obelisco del Pincio – Aurelian Obelisk||9||Viale dell’Obelisco, Borghese Gardens|
|Obelisco Minerveo or dell’Elefante||7||Piazza della Minerva|
|Obelisco Villa Celimontana||2.5||Villa Celimontana (Carlina Hill)|
|Obelisco Caduti di Degli||6.34||Viale delle Terme di Diocleziano|
How many obelisks in Rome?
At present, there are 13 ancient obelisks in Rome and three modern obelisks.
Ancient obelisks of Rome: info and history
Obelisco Vaticano Vatican Obelisk
The Vatican Obelisk (Obelisco Vaticano) is in the center of St Peter’s Square, as designed by architect Bernini.
The obelisk is 25.3 meters tall but stands on a tall basement that makes it reach 40 meters.
The obelisk is made of pink granite and has no inscription on its sides.
The Vatican obelisk comes from Helipolis in Egypt and came to Rome in 37 AD under Emperor Caligula, who wanted it placed in his circus.
It then moved to the Vatican by order of Pope Sixtus V in 1586 and found it current location in the center of the Piazza when Bernini took car of the redesign of the area.
Documents from the time tell us that architect Domenico Fontana managed to titanic job of moving such a heavy pillar and the job took months of preparation and nine hundred men, 75 horses and 40 winches to be completed!
Since the obelisk was originally a pagan or anyway a non Christian monument, the Pope decided to complete it with an inception and by adding a cross on top.
The inscription on the basement reads: CCE CRUX DOMINI – FVGITE – PARTES ADVERSAE – VICIT LEO DE TRIBV IVDA, which translates from latin into ‘Behold the cross of the Lord, flee your opponents, the lion of the tribe of Judah’conquers.
Fun fact: the obelisk was originally topped by a globe which is now preserved in the Capitoline Museums. The globe it as the center of several legends including one that wants th ashes of Julius Caesar to be inside it!
Find here >> all you can see in Piazza San Pietro
Obelisco Flaminio / Flaminian Obelisk
The Flaminian obelisk is one of the first obelisks to have made its way to Rome.
It dates back to 1200 BC and came to Rome under Augustus, who placed it in the Circus Maximus as one of its metae.
The obelisk is a single block of red granite and its sides are incepted with hieroglyphs commissioned by Pharaoh Seti I and Ramses II, father and son.
The obelisk is 25.9 meters tall but stands on a tall pedestal which makes it reach over 40 meters.
The obelisk was moved from its original location under Pope Sixtus V and it is now part of an elaborate fountain with Egyptian theme by architect Valadier, who also added statues of lions, in the center of stunning Piazza del Popolo, one of hte most famous and important piazzas in Rome.
Find here >> all you can see in Piazza del Popolo in Rome
Campense Obelisk (aka Obelisco di Montecitorio)
The Campense Obelisk is in Piazza Montecitorio, in front of one of Italy Rome’s most important building, Camera dei Deputati (one of Italy’s two Government Chambers).
The obelisk comes from Heliopolis and dates from the VII century AD and Pharaoh Psammetic II who wanted it made.
The obelisk is a little shorter than others on this list: the monolith is 21.79 meters tall and reaches 33 meters if we inlcude its basement and the globe on top.
The four faces of the obelisks are decorated with hieroglyph and scholars have identified them as a list of pharaoh and also excerpts of the Egyptian doctrine about weather events.
The Campense obelisk came to Rome in 10 AC, under Augustus, and originally placed in Campo Marzio, from where it takes its name.
Once in Rome, the obelisk acquired and inscription in Latin with reads: «IMP CAES DIVI FIL AUGUSTUS PONTIFEX MAXIMUS IMP XII COS XI TRIB POT XIV AEGYPTO IN POTESTATEM POPULI ROMANI REDACTA SOLI DONUM DEDIT.
In English: Emperor Augustus, son of the Divine Caesar, Pontifex Maximus, Emperor for the twelfth time, console for eleven times, carrier of the trinunicia potestas fourteen times, having bought Egypt under the power of Rome, gave this as a gift to the Sun.
In origin, the obelisk seems to have had a base decorated with a mosaic and representing the winds and the zodiac signs and most likely operated as a sundial.
The obelisk is one of the worst preserved in Rome asd we know it had to endure fire, breakage and many years underground because of instability of the terrain and flooding of the area. However, its connection with astronomy and the Egyptian origins made it a valuable asset to the city and finally it was salvaged and located in its current, significant location by architect Antinori in the XVII century.
Obelisco Lateranense, Lateran Obelisk
The Lateran Obelisk is the tallest of all Egyptian obelisks in Rome and stands beside the the Basilica of Saint John in Lateran, one of the main basilicas in Rome.
The obelisk itself is 32,18 meters tall and I reaches 47.50 meters with its pedestal and cross. As well as very tall, the obelisk is also extremely heavy, being recorded as weighting 455 tons!
The obelisk comes from Assuan, in Egypt and seem to date back to 1400 A.C. It was originally located in Thebes and came to Rome rather late, under Emperor Constantine the Great, who got it to Rome in the IV century AD.
HIstory tells us that the trip to Rome was so difficult and so long, Constantine never saw it succeeding: the task was carriers out by his son Constatius who put to work 300 rowers for the obelisk to cross the sea.
Once in Rome, the obelisk stood beside the Flaminian Obelisk and, after many vicissitude, found its final location where we see it now.
Fun fact: Constantine is the Emperor who declared Christianity the new official religion of the Roman Empire. Because of this, this obelisk albeit pagan in origin, juicily became a symbol of the victory of Christianity over Paganism. Possibly because of this powerful symbolism, in the Middle Ages a legend took hold according to which the water of this fountain can keep away bad luck!
The obelisk is a monolith of red granite and is not part of a monumental fountain fed by Aqueduct Felix and dating from the XVII century.
Obelisco Agonale is a small obelisk now towering above one of the most famous fountains in Rome: the fountain of the four rivers in Piazza Navona.
The obelisk is 17 meters tall and seems to have arrived in Rome from Assuan under Emperor Domitian, in the II century AD, who wanted it carved with inscriptions that resembled hieroglyphs as well as an image of himself in between two deities.
Fun fact: since Romand did not understand Egyptian writing, the copied what they saw on other obelisks but the writing makes no sense to anyone familiar with ancient Egyptian pictograms!
The obelisk is now part of one the famous Fountain of the Four Rivers, sculpted by Gian Lorenzo Bernini in the XVII century and financed by the Doria Pamphili Family.
The fountain has a peculiar and funny history which you can read here >>> Fun facts about The Fountain of the Four Rivers in Rome
The obelisk is about 17 meters tall but reaches over 30 meters of height with its pedestal and top.
Obelisk Esquilino or Liberian Obelisk as it is also known as, stands int he square at the back of Santa Maria Maggiore, one of the most important churches in Rome.
The obelisk is made of red granite of Assuan, it is 14.7 meters tall and stands on a basement that makes it reach a height of 25.53 meters.
The obelisk is most likely made in Rome, not Egypt, and it doesn’t have inceptions, an element that makes its dating challenging for scholars.
The obelisk is more likely from the time of Emperor Domitian and it seems to have originally been places with the quirinal obelisk in front o the Mausoleum of Augustus.
The obelisk came to its current location by order of Pope Sixtus V, which wanted each main church in Rome to get an obelisk, so that they could form stops along a pilgrimage path across the city.
ON its top, there is the family crest of Sixtus V, three hills with stars surmounted by a cross.
The Quirinal Obelisk stands in the center of the piazza by the same name, Piazza del Quirinale, just in front of the seat of the President of the Italian Republic, the Quirinale Palace.
The obelisk is 14.63 meters tall and stands on a basement that makes it reach 28.48 meters. It came to Rome with the Esquiline obelisk and, with it, it seemed to have been originally places in front of the Museum of Augustus.
History tells us that the obelisk was found yet lost again several times and it only found its current location in the XVIII century, when it was incorporated in the design of the Dioscuri Fountain sculpture that we still see decorating the square. The fountain we see today is a later development and was added by Giacomo della Porta who used the statues and the obelisk as part of the final design.
The amscutean obelisk is one of the mosty visited obelisks in Rome, however, few people notice it as it is right in front od the Pantheon which tends to steal the show!
This obelisk is very small if compared with others in Rome, being only 6 meters tall, and it came to Rome from Helopolis, with its twin obelisk now in Villa Celimontana.
The small obelisk has original Egyptian inscriptions about the good deeds of Pharaoh Ramses II and its connection with solar deities.
Historians have no info about when and how the obelisk came to Rome but they do know that it took a few attempts to find a suitable place for it.
The location in front of the Pantheon dates fro the XVIII century when Giacomo della Porta included it in the design of the fountain we still see now.
Obelisco Salustinao or sallustina obelisco stands in one of the most famous and photographed places in Rome: the Spanish Steps!
The obelisk is not Egyptian by Roman and seems to date from the age of peer Hadrian, so the III century AD.
Made of red granite, the obelisk has inscriptions on all sides that look Egyptian but are nothing more than copies of those of the Flaminian Obelisk in Piazza del Popolo. Fun fact: since the Romans could not read Egyptian writing, not only they copied the symbols without understand them but they even got some of them wrong and replicated them upside down!
The obelisk is 13.91 meters high, 15,21 counting its basement but appears much taller thanks to it position a the higher end of the steps.
The obelisk is called Sallustinao as it originally graced Horti Sallustinai gardens; it came to its current location under Pope Pius IX in the XIX century.
Obelisk of the elephant (Obelisco Minerveo)
The obelisk of the elephant is part of one of the most unique statues in Rome, the Minerva’s Chick, in Piazza della Minerva.
The statue is one of the most famous statues in Rome, it is made by Bernini and it represents an elephant with a drape on its back, sippoeruni the obelisk. A inscription reads: you need a strong mind to support solid wisdom.
The obelisk came to Rome form Egypt but historians do not have much ifnoramion aobt it: all they know is that it stood in the same area of Rome where we see it today and was probably a decotation to teh temples to Egyptian deities that existed in this area.
the obelisk is 7 meters tall and has linear inscitoon ons its sides.
You can read here >> all about PIazza della Minerva and minerva’s chick
Aurelian Obelisk (Obelisco del Pincio)
The Aurelian obelisk is a roman obelisk dating to the time of emperor Aurelian, from whom it takes its name. History tells is that teh emperor wanted this obelisk made to commemorate a young man ne was fond of, Antonio, who drowned in the Nile.
The obelisk is decoareyd with Egyptian looking carvings and found its current location in the XVIII century, when architect Valadier redesigned this area.
The Aurelian obelisk is 9 meters tall, 17,26 meter if also including the basement and the star on top.
Obelisco of Villa Celimontana
Obelisco Matteiano is the smallest obelisk is Rome and is only 2.5 meters tall, although it reaches over te meters is we also counts is pedestal and an add on pillar of 10 meters at its basis.
The obelisk seem to date from the XIII century AD and ot have to come Rome form Heliopolis in Egypt. There are inscriptions at its top only since the biggest part of what we see today is, in fact, a later addition to give the small obelisk additional height.
Obelisco di DOgalu
The so called Dogali Obelisk is an ancient Egyptian obelisk in Rome now visible in front of the Diocletian Baths, near Piazza dei Cinquecento and Rome’s Termini station
The obelisk came to Rome from Heliopolis with a twin obelisk now in the Boboli Gardens in Florence.
There is little information about this obelisk but we know it is now part of a monument to the soldier fallen in Dogali, inaugurated in 1887.
Other obelisks in Rome you may like
As well as these Egyptian and Roman obelisks, there are other obelisks in Rome you may encounters.
- The obelisks of Villa Torlonia (XIX century) – these are two narrow, tall obelisks in Villa Torlonia, the once private park of the Torlonia family and now a public garden.
- The obelisks date from the XIX century and are part of the (fake) ruins that decorate the park, a fashionable ‘look’ during the Romantic era.
You can read here >>> what to see in Villa Torlonia
- The obelisk of Foro Italico (1932), a great example of fascist aesthetic
Obelisco di Marconi (1959) or Obelisco dell’eur, the most moder obelisk in Rome
Map of Obelisks in Rome
Below you find a map of the obelisks in Rome.
In orange, you see the locations of the ancient obelisks
In yellow, you see the three most important obelisks in Rome
The maps if from Google Maps: if you cannot see it you can access it by clicking on this link
How to see Rome’s obelisks
Rome’s obelisks are urban decorations public spaces. As such, they are free to visit and you will enoucnter them as you explore, especially if you visit Rome’s most famous piazzas!