The Obelisk in St. Peter’s Square, was originally erected at Heliopolis, by the Egyptian King Nuncores; the Emperor Caligula (37-41 A.D.) had it brought to Rome and raised in his circus, which later on was named after Nero; here it was dedicated to Augustus and Tiberius as is stated on its pedestal. Guide of Rome.
Among all the obelisks which decorated the ancient mistress of the world, this is the only one which has never been overthrown. It has come down to us intact. No other monument in the world is the surviving witness of so many tragic and important historical and religious events. For 15 centuries it stood in the spine of Caligula’s Circus ( near the sacristy) where it was the mute spectator of the orgies and games of the pagans, of the chariot races of Caligula and Nero, of the heroic martyrdom of the early Christians (dressed up in skins and devoured by wild dogs), of the living torches as narrated by Tacitus*, of the crucifixion and burial of St. Peter. Later on it witnessed all the vicissitudes of the construction of the most important monument humanity has ever erected to religion.
* We give here the well known passage of Tacitus:
Nero punished, with exquisite torture, a race of men detested for their evil practices, by vulgar appellation commonly called Christians. The name was derived from Christ, who in the reign of Tiberius, suffered under Pontius Pilatus, the procurator of Judea.
By that event the sect, of which he was founder, received a blow which for a time soon after, and spread with recruited vigour, not only in Judea, the soil that gave it birth, but even in the city of Rome, the common sink into which everything infamous and abominable flows like a torrent from all quarters of the world. Nero proceeded with his usual artifice, he found a sect of profligate and abandoned wretches , who were induced to confess themselves guilty and on the evidence of such men, a number of Christians were convicted not, indeed upon clear evidence of having set the city on fire but rather on account of their sullen hatred of the whole Roman race. They were put to death with exquisite cruelty, and to their sufferings Nero added mockery and derision, some were covered with the skins of wild beasts, and left to be devoured by dogs; others were nailed to cross; numbers were burnt alive; and many covered with inflammable matter, were lighted up when the day declined, to serve as torches during the night. For the convenience of seeing this tragic spectacle, the Emperor lent his own gardens. He added the sports of the circus, and assisted in person, sometimes driving a curricle, and occasionally mixing with the rabble in his coachman’s dress. At length the cruelty of these proceedings filled every breast with compassion. Humanity relented in favour of the Christians. The manners of that people were, no doubt, of a pernicious tendency, and their crimes called for the hand of Justice; good but to glut the rage and cruelty of one man only.
Pope Sixtus V in 1586, after having exorcised it as an infernal idol, had if removed here by the architect Fontana, erected in the centre of the square and dedicated to the Cross, a relic of which is preserved on the top. Here it continued to be spectator of the torrent of pilgrims who for 2000 years have come from all parts of the world to venerate the tomb of the humble fisherman of Galilee.
The meridian line we see in the centre of the square was traced by the astronomer Gigli in 1817..
Around are traced the different directions of the winds, and the twelve signs of the Zodiac. The obelisk, serves as a gnomon to the meridian, and the extremity of its shade, indicates the entrance of the Sun into the above mentioned signs.