The sky is the limit

Human powered cranes and lifting devices

In 1586, Pope Sixtus V decided that the 344 ton obelisk at the Circus Maximus had to move to the square in front of the newly built Saint Peter’s Basilica. A mere 256 metres further, but nevertheless the huge stone had to be lowered, transported, and erected again.

Fontana documented the undertaking extensively in his 1589 book “The movement of the Vatican obelisk”. By then, lifting materials, devices and methods had hardly changed since Roman times, so we can assume that the Romans raised the same stone in a similar manner.

The job was done using a wooden construction 27.3 metres tall, ropes up to 220 metres long, 40 capstans, 800 men and 140 horses (when lowering the obelisk the workforce consisted of 907 men and 75 horses). While the whole undertaking took more than a year – including the transport of the obelisk (on rollers) and the assembly of the tower, the capstans and other lifting machinery – the stone was erected in just 13 hours and 52 minutes. As a result of this successful operation, many more obelisks were moved around Rome, one of these weighing 510 tonnes.

The spectators watching the event were ordered not to speak or make any noise under the penalty of death, and police were used to enforce the orders. Silence was crucial in maintaining communication between those monitoring the ropes and pulleys at the top of the tower and those on the ground operating the capstans. The signal to begin turning was given by a trumpet; the signal to stop was given by a bell.

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