Ancient Rome

Egyptian Legacy of Ancient Rome

Rome's landscape is adorned with Egyptian obelisks and relics, a testament to its fascination with ancient Egyptian culture and art.

By Gemini
Egyptian Legacy in Rome

Rome, often referred to as the Eternal City, is a treasure trove of history, not just from its own past but also from the civilizations it interacted with. Among these, the influence of ancient Egypt is particularly fascinating. The city is home to a variety of Egyptian artifacts and monuments, a legacy of the time when Egypt became a province of the Roman Empire in 30 BCE. This event sparked a wave of Egyptomania, a fascination with the ancient culture that was as mysterious to the Romans of that era as ancient Rome is to us today.

While many tourists flock to Rome for its Roman ruins and Renaissance art, there is a lesser-known side of the city waiting to be explored – its collection of Egyptian relics. These range from forgotten temples to statues, obelisks, and even a pyramid. These sites offer a unique window into how the Romans perceived and integrated Egyptian culture into their own.

This guide aims to take you on a journey through Rome’s Egyptian heritage. It’s an opportunity to delve into a lesser-known aspect of the city’s history and to understand the cultural exchange that occurred between two of the most powerful civilizations of the ancient world. Whether you’re a history enthusiast or simply curious, exploring these Egyptian sites in Rome will add a new dimension to your understanding of the city’s rich and diverse past.

Pyramids

The Pyramid of Cestius stands as a remarkable symbol of Rome’s enthrallment with ancient Egypt, a period often termed as ‘Egyptomania’. Erected between 18 and 12 BCE, this pyramid is an enduring testament to the cultural and historical intermingling that occurred in the ancient world. It was built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a Roman magistrate known for his wealth and deep fascination with Egyptian culture. This fascination became widespread in Rome, especially after Egypt was annexed by Emperor Augustus in 30 BCE.

The Pyramid of Cestius, although dwarfed by the grandeur of the Egyptian pyramids, is nonetheless a significant and impressive monument within Rome’s landscape. It’s intriguing to think that this structure, built in a mere 330 days, has withstood the passage of over two millennia, a silent witness to the ever-evolving cityscape of Rome. Historical records and artistic depictions suggest that this wasn’t the only pyramid in ancient Rome. There was another, the so-called “Pyramid of Romulus”, which once stood near the current location of Castel Sant’Angelo but was later dismantled to contribute materials for the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The survival of the Pyramid of Cestius is partly due to its incorporation into the Aurelian Wall, a defensive barrier built between 271-275 CE. This inclusion saved it from the fate that befell many ancient structures in Rome, which were often cannibalized for their materials.

Visitors can easily spot the pyramid and the well-preserved segments of the Aurelian Wall from the road. The site is accessible on foot, by public transportation, or by train, with the nearest station being Piramide. For a more serene and contemplative experience, a visit to the nearby Cimitero Acattolico (Non-Catholic Cemetery) is recommended. This cemetery, an oasis of tranquility amidst the bustling city, offers a unique vantage point for viewing the pyramid. It is also the final resting place of notable poets like John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. The cemetery is also home to the “Angel of Grief”, a poignant sculpture by William Wetmore Story, adding to the site’s evocative atmosphere.

For those interested in exploring the interior of the pyramid, private guided tours are available. This offers a rare opportunity to delve into the heart of a monument that bridges Roman and Egyptian histories, providing a tangible connection to an era when these two great civilizations were intimately intertwined.

Obelisk

Rome’s cityscape is dotted with a remarkable collection of obelisks, serving as timeless reminders of its historical ties with ancient Egypt. With 13 obelisks adorning the city, Rome holds the unique distinction of having more of these ancient structures than any other city in the world. These monuments, each with their own story and journey, add a fascinating dimension to Rome’s architectural and cultural heritage.

The transport of these obelisks from Egypt to Rome began following Emperor Augustus’ victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BCE and the subsequent annexation of Egypt. Among these, one of the most prominent is the obelisk that now stands at St. Peter’s Square in Vatican City. Erected in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, it draws millions of visitors yearly, serving as an iconic landmark. Its origins trace back to the ancient city of Heliopolis in Egypt. Brought to Alexandria by Augustus, it was later moved to Rome by Emperor Caligula and finally repositioned in its current location in 1586.

The Circus Maximus, a major venue for public games in ancient Rome, was also home to two significant obelisks. The Flaminio Obelisk, now standing in Piazza del Popolo, dates back to the reigns of Seti I and his son Ramesses II. This monument was one of Augustus’ acquisitions for the Circus Maximus, showcasing his penchant for Egyptian culture.

Constantius II, aiming to outdo Augustus, brought another monumental obelisk to Rome. Known as the Lateran Obelisk, it originally stood in Aswan, Egypt, and was crafted during the reign of Thutmose III. After falling and being buried, it was rediscovered and erected in front of the Basilica of St. John Lateran in 1587. Notably, it is the tallest ancient Egyptian obelisk still standing today.

Another fascinating piece is the Montecitorio Obelisk, brought to Rome by Augustus and dating back to the reign of Psamtik II. Known also as the Solar Obelisk, it was a crucial part of the Solarium Augusti, an ancient sundial in the Campus Martius. This obelisk currently stands in the Piazza Montecitorio, in front of the Italian Chamber of Deputies.

These obelisks, far from their original homeland, continue to bear witness to Rome’s ancient fascination with Egyptian culture. They are not just relics of a bygone era but living symbols of the enduring legacy of cultural exchange and admiration between two of the greatest civilizations of the ancient world. Their presence in Rome offers both residents and visitors a tangible link to the city’s rich and multifaceted history.

The obelisks at the top of the Spanish Steps and in Piazza Navona are indeed unique attractions in Rome, blending historical intrigue with a touch of artistic license. While they may not be ancient Egyptian relics in the strictest sense, their stories add another layer to Rome’s rich tapestry of history.

The Sallustiano Obelisk, perched atop the Spanish Steps, is a notable example. Despite its Egyptian style, it was actually constructed during the reign of Emperor Aurelian in the 3rd century CE. It was part of the Gardens of Sallust, a landscaped area developed by the Roman historian Sallust in the 1st century BCE. This obelisk, while not authentically Pharaonic, still carries the essence of the Egyptian influence that permeated Roman culture.

Similarly, the obelisk at the center of the Fontana dei Quattro Fiumi in Piazza Navona, designed by the renowned Gian Lorenzo Bernini, has a misleading appearance. Although it appears ancient and was indeed crafted from Egyptian granite, it dates back to the Roman Empire, not the Pharaonic era. It was commissioned by Emperor Domitian and originally adorned a temple dedicated to the Egyptian gods Isis and Serapis.

Sallustiano Obelisk, Rome
Sallustiano Obelisk, Rome. The Sallustiano Obelisk, positioned in front of the Church of Trinità dei Monti at the top of the Spanish Steps in Rome, is an ancient structure, but not of Pharaonic origin. It was built during Emperor Aurelian’s reign (270 – 275 CE) and originally placed in the Gardens of Sallust. In 1789 CE, it was moved to its current location.

These two obelisks, along with the others scattered throughout Rome, contribute to the city’s allure, blending historical authenticity with creative reinterpretation. They invite visitors to explore the intricate layers of Rome’s history, where the lines between original and replica, ancient and relatively modern, often blur.

As for visitors to Rome, balancing the exploration of these historical treasures with indulging in the city’s culinary delights, like its world-renowned pizzas, is part of the charm of experiencing this eternal city. Each obelisk, whether authentic or a later creation, tells a story of Rome’s past and its centuries-old fascination with Egyptian culture. It’s a journey through time, punctuated by the simple pleasures of Italian cuisine.

The Temple of Isis

The integration of various religious cults and mystery religions from the Hellenistic world, Persia, and Egypt into Roman religion is a fascinating aspect of ancient Roman history. The cult of Isis, the Egyptian goddess, is a prime example of this cultural and religious assimilation.

Isis, revered as the goddess of motherhood, magic, healing, and wisdom, held a significant place in Roman religious life. The Iseum Campense, her temple near the site of the modern Pantheon, was a hub of devotion, where daily rituals such as the lighting of a sacred flame and the singing of hymns took place.

Adjacent to the Isis temple was a complex dedicated to Serapis, a deity blending Egyptian and Hellenistic elements. Serapis, associated with both the underworld and the sun, emerged as a fusion of the sacred Apis bull from Egyptian religion and the Greek god Zeus.

Serapis.
Serapis. A basalt bust of Serapis, the syncretic Egyptian-Hellenistic deity, was fashioned during the reign of Ptolemy I (304-284 BCE) to foster a connection between Greek and Egyptian cultures and religions. This particular bust, dating from the 2nd century CE, is housed in the Vatican Museums in Rome.

The Navigium Isidis festival on March 5th was a major event in the Roman calendar, marking the seasonal reopening of navigation. The colorful procession and the launching of a boat dedicated to Isis along the Tiber were central to this celebration.

Despite the closure of the Isis temple in 391 CE by Emperor Theodosius I, who declared Christianity the empire’s sole legal religion, the cult of Isis may have lingered unofficially for some time. This continued devotion could be attributed to the deeply ingrained belief in Isis’s protective powers over seafaring and the long-standing reverence for her.

Today, the original temple of Isis no longer exists, but its location near the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva is well known. This church, the only Gothic church in Rome, stands as a monument over the ruins of ancient temples, including one believed to be dedicated to Minerva. This association between Minerva and Isis, both goddesses of wisdom and knowledge, illustrates the syncretism typical of ancient Roman religion. Over time, many attributes of these pagan goddesses were assimilated into the figure of the Virgin Mary in Christian tradition, further exemplifying the complex interplay of religious beliefs and practices across different cultures and eras.

Roman Mural of Isiac Cult
Roman Mural of Isiac Cult. The worship of Isis, an Egyptian goddess, reached Rome during the Hellenistic period and remained popular until Christianity became widespread in the Roman Empire in the 4th century CE. A mural from a temple dedicated to Isis in Herculaneum, dating from 62 to 79 CE, illustrates Isiac priests performing a water ritual before a group of followers. Discovered in 1765 CE, this mural is now part of the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, Italy.

The presence of an Egyptian obelisk in the Piazza della Minerva, near the Basilica di Santa Maria sopra Minerva, serves as a subtle reminder of Rome’s ancient Egyptian connections. This obelisk, known for its unique placement atop an elephant sculpture by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, is believed to have been part of the ancient temple complex dedicated to Isis and Serapis. Although the origins of this particular obelisk are not definitively known, it is thought to have been brought to Rome during the reign of Emperor Diocletian.

Visiting the Piazza della Minerva offers a moment to reflect on the enduring legacy of ancient cultures and their intermingling within the city of Rome. The sight of the obelisk on the elephant, a fusion of Egyptian, Roman, and Renaissance elements, encapsulates the city’s rich and diverse history.

For those wishing to delve deeper into the temple’s past, the Capitoline Museum offers a tangible connection with its collection of artifacts, including columns and statues that once graced the temple of Isis. A notable piece is the statue of Isis, discovered at Hadrian’s Villa, dating back to the 2nd century CE.

Furthermore, the Museo Nazionale Romano in Palazzo Altemps and the Vatican Museums, particularly the Gregorian Egyptian Museum, house impressive collections of Egyptian artifacts. These collections provide an extensive overview of the Egyptian influence in Rome, offering insights into the religious, cultural, and artistic exchanges between these ancient civilizations.

Exploring these sites and museums not only enriches one’s understanding of ancient Rome’s cosmopolitan nature but also highlights the enduring fascination with Egyptian culture and its integration into the Roman world.

gemini a writer on ancient rome
Gemini
Gemini is a young writer with a fresh perspective on ancient history. Her studies in international relations fuel her passion for exploring Western civilizations like Greece and Rome, bringing a depth and insight to her writing. A graduate of the University of Lisbon in Portugal, her love for history shines through in every word.

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