The History, 17.4

Ammian  translated by C. D. Yonge

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4While Julian was thus beginning to put Gaul into a better condition, and while Orfitus was still governor of the second province, an obelisk was erected at Rome, in the Circus Maximus, concerning which, as this seems a convenient opportunity, I will mention a few particulars.

2The city of Thebes, in Egypt, built in remote ages, with enormous walls, and celebrated also for entrances by a hundred gates, was from this circumstance called by its founders ἑκατόμπυλος (Hecatompylos); and from the name of this city the whole district is known as Thebais.

3When Carthage began to rise in greatness, the Carthaginian generals conquered and destroyed Thebes by a sudden attack. And after it was rebuilt, Cambyses, the celebrated king of Persia, who throughout his whole life was covetous and ferocious, overran Egypt, and again attacked this city that he might plunder it of its wealth, which was enough to excite his envy; and he spared not even the offerings which had been made to the gods.

4And while he was in his savage manner moving to and fro among his plunderers, he got entangled in his own flowing robes, and fell on his face, and by the fall his dagger, which he wore close to his thigh, got loose from the scabbard, and he was mortally wounded and died.

5And long afterwards, Cornelius Gallus, who was governor of Egypt at the time when Octavianus was emperor of Rome, impoverished the city by plundering it of most of its treasuries; and returning to Rome on being accused of theft and of laying waste the province, he, from fear of the nobles, who were bitterly indignant against him, as one to whom the emperor had committed a most honourable task, fell on his own sword and so died. If I mistake not, he is the same person as Gallus the poet, whose loss Virgil deplores at the end of his Bucolics, celebrating his memory in sweet verses.

6In this city of Thebes, among many works of art and different structures recording the tales relating to the Egyptian deities, we saw several obelisks in their places, and others which had been thrown down and broken; which the ancient kings, when elated at some victory or at the general prosperity of their affairs, had caused to be hewn out of mountains in distant parts of the world, and erected in honour of the gods, to whom they solemnly consecrated them.

7Now an obelisk is a rough stone, rising to a great height, shaped like a pillar in the stadium; and it tapers upwards in imitation of a sunbeam, keeping its quadrilateral shape, till it rises almost to a point, being made smooth by the hand of a sculptor.

8On these obelisks the ancient authority of elementary wisdom has caused innumerable marks of strange forms all over them, which are called hieroglyphics.

9For the workmen, carving many kinds of birds and beasts, some even such as must belong to another world, in order that the recollection of the exploits which the obelisk was designed to commemorate might reach to subsequent ages, showed by them the accomplishment of vows which the kings had made.

10For it was not the case then as it is now, that the established number of letters can distinctly express whatever the human mind conceives; nor did the ancient Egyptians write in such a manner; but each separate character served for a separate noun or verb, and sometimes even for an entire sense.

11Of which fact the two following may for the present be sufficient instances: by the figure of a vulture they indicate the name of nature; because naturalists declare that no males are found in this class of bird. And by the figure of a bee making honey they indicate a king; showing by such a sign that stings as well as sweetness are the characteristics of a ruler; and there are many similar emblems.

12And because the flatterers, who were continually whispering into the ear of Constantius, kept always affirming that when Augustus Octavianus had brought two obelisks from Heliopolis, a city of Egypt, one of which was placed in the Circus Maximus, and the other in the Campus Martius, he yet did not venture to touch or move this one which has just been brought to Rome, being alarmed at the greatness of such a task; I would have those, who do not know the truth, learn that the ancient emperor, though he moved several obelisks, left this one untouched, because it was especially dedicated to the Sun-god, and was set up within the precincts of his magnificent temple, which it was impious to profane; and of which it was the most conspicuous ornament.

13But Constantine deeming that a consideration of no importance, had it torn up from its place, and thinking rightly that he should not be offering any insult to religion if he removed a splendid work from some other temple to dedicate it to the gods at Rome, which is the temple of the whole world, let it lie on the ground for some time while arrangements for its removal were being prepared. And when it had been carried down the Nile, and landed at Alexandria, a ship of a burden hitherto unexampled, requiring three hundred rowers to propel it, was built to receive it.

14And when these preparations were made, and after the aforenamed emperor had died, the enterprise began to cool. However, after a time it was at last put on board ship, and conveyed over sea, and up the stream of the Tiber, which seemed as it were frightened, lest its own winding waters should hardly be equal to conveying a present from the almost unknown Nile to the walls which itself cherished. At last the obelisk reached the village of Alexandria, three miles from the city; and then it was placed in a cradle, and drawn slowly on, and brought through the Ostran gate and the public fish-market to the Circus Maximus.

15The only work remaining to be done was to raise it, which was generally believed to be hardly, if at all, practicable. And vast beams having been raised on end in a most dangerous manner, so that they looked like a grove of machines, long ropes of huge size were fastened to them, darkening the very sky with their density, as they formed a web of innumerable threads; and into them the great stone itself, covered over as it was with elements of writing, was bound, and gradually raised into the empty air, and long suspended, many thousands of men turning it round and round like a millstone, till it was at last placed in the middle of the square; and on it was placed a brazen sphere, made brighter with plates of gold: and as that was immediately afterwards struck by lightning, and destroyed, a brazen figure like a torch was placed on it, also plated with gold—to look as if the torch were fully alight.

16Subsequent ages also removed other obelisks; one of which is in the Vatican, a second in the garden of Sallust; and two in the monument of Augustus.

17But the writing which is engraven on the old obelisk in the Circus, we have set forth below in Greek characters, following in this the work of Hermapion:—


18The first line, beginning on the south side, bears this interpretation—“The Sun to Ramestes the king—I have given to thee to reign with joy over the whole earth; to thee whom the Sun and Apollo love—to thee, the mighty truth-loving son of Heron—the god-born ruler of the habitable earth; whom the Sun has chosen above all men, the valiant warlike King Ramestes. Under whose power, by his valour and might, the whole world is placed. The King Ramestes, the immortal son of the Sun.”

19The second line is—“The mighty Apollo, who takes his stand upon truth, the lord of the diadem, he who has honoured Egypt by becoming its master, adorning Heliopolis, and having created the rest of the world, and having greatly honoured the gods who have their shrines in the city of the Sun; whom the son loves.”

20The third line—“The mighty Apollo, the all-brilliant son of the Sun, whom the Sun chose above all others, and to whom the valiant Mars gave gifts. Thou whose good fortune abideth for ever. Thou whom Ammon loves. Thou who hast filled the temple of the Phœnix with good things. Thou to whom the gods have given long life. Apollo the mighty son of Heron, Ramestes the king of the world. Who has defended Egypt, having subdued the foreign enemy. Whom the Sun loves. To whom the gods have given long life—the master of the world—the immortal Ramestes.”

21Another second line—“The Sun, the great God, the master of heaven. I have given unto thee a life free from satiety. Apollo, the mighty master of the diadem; to whom nothing is comparable. To whom the lord of Egypt has erected many statues in this kingdom. And has made the city of Heliopolis as brilliant as the Sun himself, the master of heaven. The son of the Sun, the king living for ever, has co-operated in the completion of this work.”

22A third line—“I, the Sun, the god, the master of heaven, have given to Ramestes the king might and authority over all. Whom Apollo the truth-lover, the master of time, and Vulcan the father of the gods hath chosen above others by reason of his courage. The all-rejoicing king, the son of the Sun, and beloved by the Sun.”

23The first line, looking towards the east—“The great God of Heliopolis, the mighty Apollo who dwelleth in Heaven, the son of Heron whom the Sun hath guided. Whom the gods have honoured. He who ruleth over all the earth: whom the Sun has chosen before all others. The king valiant by the favour of Mars. Whom Ammon loveth, and the all-shining god, who hath chosen him as a king for everlasting.” And so on.

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