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p816 Obeliscus

Unsigned article on pp816‑817 of

William Smith, D.C.L., LL.D.:
A Dictionary of Greek and Roman Antiquities, John Murray, London, 1875.

[image ALT: zzz.]
The Flaminian obelisk
with the Porta Flaminia behind it
OBELISCUS (ὀβελίσκος) is a diminutive of Obelus (ὀβελός), which properly signifies a sharpened thing,a 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 (XVII.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 (cf. Plin. H.N. XXXVI.14).b

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 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, and occasionally in the interior, and were usually covered with hieroglyphical inscriptions.

Obelisks were first transported to Rome under Augustus, who caused one to be erected in the Circus and another in the Campus Martius (Plin. XXXVI.14). 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. 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. 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 Circus of Caligula (Plin. XXXVI.15, XVI.76 §2). It stands at present in front of St. Peter's, where it was p817placed 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. XVII.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.

There are eight other obelisks at Rome besides those mentioned above, but none of them are of historical importance. There are also obelisks in various other places, as at Constantinople,º Arles, Florence, ºCataniaº in Sicily, &c., some of which are works of Egyptian art, and others only imitations.c

There are two small obelisks in the British Museum, which were brought by the French from Cairo. The preceding brief account is chiefly taken from Long's Egyptian Antiquities, vol. I cc.14, 15. London, 12mo. 1832.

The Author's Note:

1 Herodotus (II.111) uses ὀβελός in the sense of an obelisk.

Thayer's Notes:

a Obelus and obeliscus (in later Latin, often obolus and oboliscus) are therefore also found somewhat interchangeably to mean an arrow, or a commentator's or proofreader's mark. For both meanings, and the connections between them, see Isidore, Etymologies, I.21.3‑4 (and for compound uses, the rest of chapter 21) and XVIII.31 (De obelisco); also, Allen's Star Names, p350. Similarly, in English, obelisks have also been called "needles", a usage now pretty much restricted to Cleopatra's Needle in New York City.

A small hieroglyphic inscription, composed of four signs: from left to right, a semi-circle resting on its base, a circle hatched with horizontal stripes (both of these underscored by a long zigzg line), and a representation of an obelisk. It is the Egyptian word for 'obelisk'. b In fact, Pliny says that the word 'obelisk' in Egyptian actually means 'sunbeam', to which passage the Loeb edition has this note: "Pliny is right. Tekhen means both 'sunbeam' and 'obelisk'."

A cursory check of Gardiner's Egyptian Grammar confirms that t‑kh‑n (you should ignore the arbitrary vowels supplied in the Loeb note; hieroglyphically spelled as seen in the little image immediately above, although often reduced to the determinant) means 'obelisk', but yields nothing about 'sunbeam'.

It is curious, and just possibly relevant, that the word used by Pliny to introduce the obelisk to his readers is trabes: not only does that normally translate into English as 'beam', but the same Latin term is used by Seneca and Pliny himself to mean 'meteor'. For that matter, the English word beam itself — means both a ray of light, and a load-bearing structural element, of rectangular section and often very heavy. When we see this kind of connection between the two concepts across three essentially unrelated languages, it makes one wonder whether there might not be some organic relationship involved.

c The tallest such imitation and possibly the most famous, certainly to Americans, is the Washington Monument in Washington, D.C. (USA), completed in 1884. One hundred and sixty-nine meters tall, it is technically not an obelisk at all, being built of thousands of individual stone blocks. It is also hollow and provided with a staircase (and now, an elevator), and memorializes one man; its lineage is thus more directly traceable to Trajan's Column than to the obelisks of Egypt.

(The official site of the Washington Monument is here.)

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