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Constantius and the Obelisk: Ignoring the Lessons of History

Jonathan Tracy

Massey University

At 17.4 of his Res Gestae, Ammianus Marcellinus narrates at length how an obelisk originally removed from Egyptian Thebes is conveyed to Rome and installed in the Circus Maximus by the emperor Constantius II.  This episode has received much scrutiny from scholars (e.g. Kelly 225-230, with bibliography in n. 8).  Nevertheless, it is usually examined in isolation, as a historical curiosity.  I propose a different approach: to explore, within Book 17 and the Res Gestae as a whole, the moral function of the obelisk, of its Theban backstory, and of Constantius’ own smugly superficial attitude toward its meaning.

As in Tacitus’ presentation of the ruins at Thebes (Annales 2.60-61), the most striking feature of Ammianus’ narrative is a contrast of past glory with present decadence.  Ammianus describes a city repeatedly devastated both by foreign conquerors and by corrupt misgovernment (17.4.3-5), in a precise inversion of the two preconditions that, according to Ammianus, justified the erection of obelisks in the first place by Egypt’s rulers: victory over foreign enemies and domestic prosperity (17.4.6).

Here is a pessimistic lesson on the transience of power.  Not only did Egypt itself decline and fall as an independent state (this fact emphatically concludes Ammianus’ general description of Egypt at 22.16.24), in spite of the flourishing conditions that originally gave rise to the obelisks, but the Carthaginians, who (at least in Ammianus’ narrative) raided Egypt and ravaged Thebes early in their rise to Mediterranean prominence, were subsequently annihilated, and Cambyses, who likewise plundered the city, nearly came to a bad end there (by Ammianus’ account).  Finally, the enforced suicide of Cornelius Gallus, first Roman prefect of Egypt, swiftly followed his exploitative rule over Thebes (17.4.5).  The general omens for Constantius’ act of imperial appropriation were clearly not favourable, if he cared to consider the deeper historical background.

More specifically, within the immediate context of Book 17, Ammianus represents Constantius as conspicuously falling short of both the stated conditions for obelisk-raising: conquest abroad and internal prosperity.  At 17.3.5, we see Constantius intervening in an ill-judged attempt to prevent his Caesar Julian from mitigating the burden of unjust taxation on Gaul; this is in keeping with the general rapacity and indifference to provincial suffering of which Ammianus accuses him at 21.16.17.  Again, in 17.5, directly after the obelisk narrative, Constantius fails utterly to impress the Persian king Sapor (Shapur II) with a letter (17.5.10-14) whose grandiloquent rhetoric matches the pharaonic inscription on one of the obelisks previously brought to Rome, as reproduced in Greek translation by Ammianus at the conclusion of 17.4.  Although the texts themselves are (probably) original documents, the pointed juxtaposition of the two is Ammianus’ own authorial choice.  Note the parallel of Ramses’ αἰώνιον βασιλέα (17.4.23) with Constantius’ semper Augustus (17.5.10), where the modifier “eternal” turned out manifestly untrue for both rulers, and also the resonance between the pervasive solar-light imagery of the obelisk text and Constantius’ proclamation that, with his recent victory, gestarum rerum ordines...nobis multipliciter illuxerunt (17.5.13).

Constantius, however, is no world-bestriding Ramses, as his addressee Sapor is well aware.  The victory of which Constantius boasts in the letter quoted by Ammianus was, crucially, won over a domestic enemy, the usurper Magnentius.  Constantius’ unseemly eagerness to build triumphal arches for conquests in civil war is condemned by Ammianus at 21.16.15; in 17.4, we find him raising a spectacular monument in Rome when his only real achievement to date has been the destruction of Magnentius.  Julian, by contrast, already enjoys a solid combined record of benevolent provincial administration and imperial defence against barbarians.  Indeed, as prompted by flatterers (17.4.12), Constantius seems to regard the technological challenge of transporting and erecting the obelisk as itself a signal feat that will allow him to surpass the glories of Augustus and Constantine (presumably Julian’s too).  Such prioritization of expensive, competitive display over concrete achievement is, for Ammianus, a major factor in Rome’s decline (compare 14.6.8).

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The Power of Place

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