Egypt in Rome

by Danilo Brunetti

Rome conquered Egypt in 31 BC and in the process ignited a love affair with Egyptian art and culture. This fascination lasted from ancient times to the Renaissance and beyond, and even to this day Rome is bursting with art and artifacts from or inspired by the land of the Pharaohs. Discover all the ways you can soak up Egyptian culture—without leaving the Eternal City—including an exhibition on at the Colosseum all month, Isis’s Beloved: Nero, The Domus Aurea, and Egypt.

Obelisks in Abundance

Carved to represent petrified sunrays, these granite monoliths were once placed in pairs at the entrance of temples dedicated to Amun-Ra, the Egyptian sun God. Today, there are more obelisks in Rome than in the entire country of Egypt, collected by the Roman emperors like so many trophies to celebrate their subjugation of the once great empire. The most impressive of Rome’s 13 obelisks can be found in front of St. Peter’s Basilica, St. John in Lateran Basilica, and Palazzo Montecitorio—the latter was once used as the needle of a vast sundial commissioned by Emperor Augustus. Rome’s tiniest obelisk sits on the back of a baby elephant designed by Gian Lorenzo Bernni in Piazza della Minerva, and perhaps the most scenographic adorns the Fountain of the Four Rivers in Piazza Navona, also by Bernini.

Lions, Mummies, and a Giant Foot

Obelisks aren’t the only artifacts the Romans “borrowed” from Egypt. Two Egyptian basalt lions spout water at the base of the Capitoline Hill, and two more, complete with hieroglyphics and dating to the 4th century BC, adorn the Pinecone Courtyard of the Vatican Museums. A cat from a temple dedicated to the Egyptian goddess Isis can be spotted on a building ledge on the aptly named Via della Gatta, and an enormous marble foot of Isis’s colossal statue is not far away on Via del Pie’ di Marmo. Find more ancient treasures, including a 3000-year-old mummy, at the Vatican’s Gregorian Egyptian Museum.

Nile Mosaic in Palestrina

If Rome’s many Egyptian monuments have whet your appetite for more, take a day trip to nearby Palestrina. This unassuming town possesses one of the most extraordinary mosaics in the world; dating to 100 BC, it’s one of the earliest Roman representations of Egypt. The mosaic depicts the flooding of the Nile, an annual phenomenon that contributed to the rich fertility of the area, and as a result, the prosperity of the empire. Twenty separate scenes feature hunters, fisherman, boaters, swimmers, soldiers, reclining maidens, washerwomen, numerous varieties of plant life, and dozens of different animals, including camels, pythons, hyenas, turtles, otters, monkeys, hippos, crabs, peacocks, crocodiles, giraffes, lions, lizards, bears, cheetahs, and even mythical creatures. Find it at the Museo Archeologico Nazionale Prenestino in Palestrina.

Queen of the Nile

If ancient Egypt could be represented by one person, no doubt it would be Cleopatra. Arguably the most fascinating woman who ever lived, Cleopatra and her beauty, charisma, and sex appeal are the stuff of legends. Even more extraordinary was her ability to captivate the two most powerful men of her time, Julius Caesar and Mark Antony: the latter even went so far as to betray Rome for the bewitching queen of Egypt (both later committed suicide). Find a marble bust of the iconic female pharaoh at Rome’s Centrale Montemartini museum.

A Roman Pyramid

The most eye-catching Egyptian-inspired sight in Rome is arguably the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius. Standing at over 120 feet, the Nubian-style pyramid is constructed of brick-faced concrete, with a travertine foundation and a facing of brilliant white luna marble, as well as an interior burial chamber lined with frescoes. It was built as a tomb for Gaius Cestius, a consul who had fought in Egypt and intended the pyramid to serve as a commemoration of his military exploits. In the late 3rd century, thanks to its strategic position, the pyramid was incorporated into Aurelian Walls, making it a valuable part of Rome’s defenses, and therefore inviolable.