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The Obelisk in the Piazza: An Exploration of Egyptomania in Rome as Reflected in Art and Architecture in the Age of Antiquity

December 03, 2019


    Egypt is one of the oldest human civilizations on Earth, along with the other three ancient river valley civilizations that emerged as far back as 5000 years ago. A sentence that encapsulates the sheer antiquity of this civilization is “Ancient Egypt was more ancient to the Ancient Romans than the Ancient Romans are to modern civilization.” It is often common misconception to conceive the relationship between the Romans and the Egyptians as coexisting due to the abundance of information regarding the later eras of Egypt including Cleopatra and her interactions with the Roman Empire. Rome, after Julius Caesar, continued to be captivated by Egypt. The Romans engaged in Egyptomania; an intense interest and fascination regarding Ancient Egypt. The mysterious, exotic allure of Egypt influenced Rome and created and developed an appreciation for Ancient Egypt that continues well into the modern era.

    For the Romans, this attraction reached beyond the scope of Rome claiming Egypt as a mere possession. The intense interest of Egyptian culture, the fascination with the mystery and exoticism of Egypt is demonstrated throughout Rome in their art and architecture, much of which still stands today, further evidencing the lasting impact of Egypt on Rome. Throughout Rome today, evidence of Egyptomania is distinctively apparent, most notably with the Egyptian obelisks that are prominently featured in the center of many Roman piazzas, which were erected during Roman occupation over 2,000 years ago.

    This paper examines and explores the influence of Ancient Egypt on Roman art and architecture in the period during and after Roman occupation of Egypt.  Particular attention will be given to specific art and architecture such as the Temple of Cestius, the Temple of Isis and the obelisks that adorn the multiple Roman piazzas. Additional attention will also be given to the cross-cultural influence that Rome had on Ancient Egypt during the Roman occupation with regard to specific art such as the Fayum paintings, which demonstrate an unmistakable trace of the Roman art style, which was distinctively artistically divergent to that of existing Egyptian art. The influence that both these significant historical civilizations had on each other will also be examined.