The obelisk (9.25 m) on the Pincian Hill (Monte Pincio) was commissioned by the emperor Hadrian (r.117-138) to mark the death of his young friend and favoured companion Antinous (c.111-130), who, in the October of 130, had drowned in the river Nile under rather mysterious circumstances (accident, suicide, human sacrifice).
The death of Antinous devastated Hadrian, who immediately had the youth deified. Hadrian also announced that a city would be built on the site of his death, to be called Antinopolis. The obelisk on the Pincian Hill was first erected at Hadrian's villa at Tivoli. In the third century it was moved to the Circus Varianus, which lay in the northern part of Rome. At an unknown date it was toppled and, over time, it disappeared under the city's accumulating debris.
Many centuries later the obelisk was unearthed near the Porta Maggiore. After passing through several hands, it was finally acquired by Pope Clement XIV (r.1769-1771), who had it set up in the Vatican. In 1822 it was moved to its present position by order of Pope Pius VII (r.1800-1822).
Little is known about Antinous's life, but we do know that he was born in Claudiopolis (present day Bolu, Turkey) in the Roman province of Bithynia around the year 111. He was probably introduced to Hadrian in 123 and by 128 he had become the emperor's favourite, becoming part of his personal retinue on a tour of the empire.
We might not known much about the life of Antinous, but we certainly know what he looked like from the numerous statues of him that have survived.
My name is David Lown and I am an art historian from Cambridge, England. Since 2001 I have lived in Italy, where I run private walking tours of Rome.
Search Walks in Rome: