Pompey's Pillar (column)

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Pompey's Pillar
Pompey's Pillar
Pompey's Pillar (column) is located in Egypt
Pompey's Pillar (column)
Shown within Egypt
LocationAlexandria, Egypt
Coordinates31°10′56.98″N 29°53′47.23″E / 31.1824944°N 29.8964528°E / 31.1824944; 29.8964528Coordinates: 31°10′56.98″N 29°53′47.23″E / 31.1824944°N 29.8964528°E / 31.1824944; 29.8964528
TypeRoman triumphal column
Diameterc. 2.7-2.8 m (column shaft)
Heightc. 33.85 m (total original with 7 m statue)

26.85 m (present total)

20.75 m (monolithic granite column shaft)

6 m (granite socle)
BuilderPublius praefectus aegypti on behalf of emperor Diocletian
Materialgranite, lost statue in porphyry
Founded298-303 AD (dedicated)
Pompey's Pillar in 1911

Pompey's Pillar (Arabic: عمود السواري, romanized'Amud El-Sawari) is the name given to a Roman triumphal column in Alexandria, Egypt. Set up in honour of the Roman emperor Diocletian between 298–302 AD, the giant Corinthian column originally supported a colossal porphyry statue of the emperor in armour.[1] It stands at the eastern side of the temenos of the Serapeum of Alexandria, beside the ruins of the temple of Serapis itself.

It is the only ancient monument still standing in Alexandria in its original location today.[2]


The local name is Arabic: عمود السواري, romanized'Amud El-Sawari, where the word 'Amud means "column". The name Sawari has been translated in many ways by scholars, including Severus (i.e. Emperor Septimius Severus).[3]

The name of Pompey in relation to the pillar was used by many European writers in early modern times. The name is considered to stem from a historical misreading of the Greek dedicatory inscription on the base;[4] the name ΠΟΥΠΛΙΟΣ (Πού̣π̣[λιος], Pouplios) was confused with ΠΟΜΠΗΙΟΣ (Ancient Greek: Πομπήιος, romanized: Pompeios).[4]


1809 publication in the Description de l'Égypte: "Vue profils et détails de la grande colonne appelée communément Colonne de Pompée"

In 297 Diocletian, Augustus since 284, campaigned in Egypt to suppress the revolt of the usurper Domitius Domitianus. After a long siege, Diocletian captured Alexandria and executed Domitianus's successor Aurelius Achilleus in 298. In 302 the emperor returned to the city and inaugurated a state grain supply.[4] The dedication of the column monument and its statue of Diocletian, describes Diocletian as polioúchos (Ancient Greek: πολιοῦχον Ἀλεξανδρείας, romanizedpolioúchon Alexandreias, lit.'city-guardian-god ACC of Alexandria').[5][6] In the fourth century AD this designation also applied to Serapis, the male counterpart of Isis in the pantheon instituted by the Hellenistic rulers of Egypt, the Ptolemies.[7][8] The sanctuary complex dedicated to Serapis in which the column was originally erected, the Serapeum, was built under King Ptolemy III Euergetes in the third century BC and probably rebuilt in the era of the second century AD emperor Hadrian after it sustained damage in the Kitos Wars; in the later fourth century AD it was considered by Ammianus Marcellinus a marvel rivalled only by Rome's sanctuary to Jupiter Optimus Maximus on the Capitoline Hill, the Capitolium.[9]

The monument stands some 26.85 m (88.1 ft) high, including its base and capital, and originally would have supported a statue some 7 m (23 ft) tall.[4][10][1][a] The only known monolithic column in Roman Egypt (i.e., not composed of drums),[12] it is one of the largest ancient monoliths and one of the largest monolithic columns ever erected. The monolithic column shaft is 20.46 m (67.1 ft) in height with a diameter of 2.71 m (8 ft 11 in) at its base, and the socle itself is over 6 m (20 ft) tall.[13][4] Both are of lapis syenites, a pink granite cut from the ancient quarries at Syene (modern Aswan), while the column capital of pseudo-Corinthian type is of grey granite.[4] The weight of the column shaft is estimated to be 285 tonnes.[13]

The surviving and readable four lines[6] of the inscription in Greek on the column's socle relate that a Praefectus Aegypti (Ancient Greek: ἔπαρχος Αἰγύπτου, romanized: eparchos Aigyptou, lit.'Eparch of Egypt') called Publius dedicated the monument in Diocletian's honour.[14] A praefectus aegypti named Publius is attested in two papyri from Oxyrrhynchus; his governorship must have been held in between the prefectures of Aristius Optatus, who is named as governor on 16 March 297, and Clodius Culcianus, in office from 303 or even late 302.[14] Since Publius's name appears as the monument's dedicator, the column and stylite statue of Diocletian must have been completed between 297 and 303, while he was in post. The governor's name is largely erased in the damaged inscription; the Greek rendering of Publius as ΠΟΥΠΛΙΟΣ (Πού̣π̣[λιος], Pouplios)[15] was confused with the Greek spelling of the Republican general of the first century BC Pompey, ΠΟΜΠΗΙΟΣ (Ancient Greek: Πομπήιος, romanized: Pompeios, Latin: Pompeius).[4]

The porphyry statue of Diocletian in armour is known from large fragments that existed at the column's foot in the eighteenth century AD. From the size of a 1.6 m (5 ft 3 in) fragment representing the thighs of the honorand, the original height of the loricate statue has been calculated at approximately 7 m (23 ft).[1] While some fragments of the statue were known to be in European collections in the nineteenth century, their whereabouts were unknown by the 1930s and are presumed lost.[1][10]

It is possible that the large column supporting Diocletian's statue was accompanied by another column, or three smaller columns bearing statues of Diocletian's co-emperors, the Augustus Maximian and the two Caesares Constantius and Galerius. If so, the group of column-statues would have commemorated the college of emperors of the Tetrarchy instituted in Diocletian's reign.[12]


Commander John Shortland, R.N. atop the pillar with telescope (1803)

Muslim traveller Ibn Battuta visited Alexandria in 1326 AD. He describes the pillar and recounts the tale of an archer who shot an arrow tied to a string over the column. This enabled him to pull a rope tied to the string over the pillar and secure it on the other side in order to climb over to the top of the pillar.[16]

In early 1803, British naval officer Commander John Shortland of HMS Pandour flew a kite over Pompey's Pillar. This enabled him to get ropes over it, and then a rope ladder. On February 2, he and John White, Pandour's Master, climbed it. When they got to the top they displayed the Union Jack, drank a toast to King George III, and gave three cheers. Four days later they climbed the pillar again, erected a staff, fixed a weather vane, ate a beef steak, and again toasted the king.[17] An etymology of the nickname "Pompey" for the Royal Navy's home port of Portsmouth and its football team suggests these sailors became known as "Pompey's boys" after scaling the Pillar, and the moniker spread; other unrelated origins are also possible.[18]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ Other authors give slightly deviating dimensions. According to Thiel, the single-piece column is 20.75 m high (28.7 m including base and pedestal), with a diameter of 2.7–2.8 m.[11]


  1. ^ a b c d Delbrück 2007, pp. 100–101.
  2. ^ Loar, M.; Loar, M.P.; MacDonald, C.; Peralta, D.P. (2017). Rome, Empire of Plunder: The Dynamics of Cultural Appropriation. Cambridge University Press. p. 155. ISBN 978-1-108-41842-3. Retrieved 2022-11-12. This is the sole ancient monument still standing above water in that city today
  3. ^ White 1801, p. 79-93.
  4. ^ a b c d e f g Gehn, Ulrich (2012). "LSA-874: Column used as base for statue of Diocletian, emperor (so-called 'Column of Pompey'). Alexandria (Aegyptus). 297-302". Last Statues of Antiquity. University of Oxford. Retrieved 2020-03-06.
  5. ^ Kayser 1994, pp. 52–57, № 15.
  6. ^ a b Dittenberger, Wilhelm, "718", Orientis Graeci inscriptiones selectae (OGIS). At Searchable Greek Inscriptions of the Packard Humanities Institute.
  7. ^ Julian (1923). "Epistle 47: to the Alexandrians". Letters. Epigrams. Against the Galilaeans. Fragments. Loeb Classical Library 157. Translated by Wright, Wilmer C. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 144–145–432-D. doi:10.4159/DLCL.emperor_julian-letters.1923. ISBN 9781258090814.
  8. ^ Rokeah, D. (1982-06-01). Jews, Pagans and Christians in Conflict. BRILL. ISBN 978-90-04-07025-7.
  9. ^ Ammianus Marcellinus, Res Gestae, XII:16:12. (1940). History, Volume II: Books 20-26. Loeb Classical Library 315. Translated by Rolfe, J. C. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. pp. 300–303. doi:10.4159/DLCL.amminanus_marcellinus-history.1950. His accedunt altis sufflata fastigiis templa, inter quae eminet Serapeum, quod licet minuatur exilitate verborum, atriis tamen columnatis amplissimus, et spirantibus signorum figmentis, et reliqua operum multitudine ita est exornatum, ut post Capitolium, quo se venerabilis Roma in aeternum attollit, nihil orbis terrarum ambitiosius cernat.
    [There are besides in the city temples pompous with lofty roofs, conspicuous among them the Serapeum, which, though feeble words merely belittle it, yet is so adorned with extensive columned halls, with almost breathing statues, and a great number of other works of art, that next to the Capitolium, with which revered Rome elevates herself to eternity, the whole world beholds nothing more magnificent.]
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  10. ^ a b Adam 1977, pp. 50fBergmann, Marianne (2012). "LSA-1005: Fragments of colossal porphyry statue of Diocletian in cuirass (lost ). From Alexandria. 297-302". Last Statues of Antiquity. University of Oxford. Retrieved 2020-03-06.
  11. ^ Thiel 2006, pp. 252f.
  12. ^ a b Thiel 2006, pp. 251–254.
  13. ^ a b Adam 1977, pp. 50f.
  14. ^ a b Vandersleyen 1958, p. 114.
  15. ^ See Leiden Conventions.
  16. ^ "Ibn Battuta's Rihla". 1904 – via World Digital Library.
    Battutah, Ibn (2002). The Travels of Ibn Battutah. London: Picador. p. 7. ISBN 9780330418799. The Pillar of Columns. Another of the marvels of this city is the awe-inspiring marble column outside it, called by them the Pillar of Columns. It is in the midst of a grove of date-palms, but it stands out from amongst its trees, over-topping them in height. It is a single block, skilfully hewn, erected on a plinth of square stones like enormous platforms, and no one knows how it was erected there, nor for certain who erected it.
  17. ^ Naval Chronicle, Vol. 27, p. 111.
  18. ^ Dent, Susie, ed. (2012). Pompey. Brewer's Dictionary of Phrase & Fable. Chambers Harrap Publishers. Retrieved 2020-03-06.


  • White, Joseph (1801). Aegyptiaca: Or Observations on Certain Antiquities of Egypt: In Two Parts. The history of Pompey's pillar elucidated. Cadell & Davies. Retrieved 2022-11-12.
  • Adam, Jean-Pierre (1977). "À propos du trilithon de Baalbek: Le transport et la mise en oeuvre des megaliths". Syria. 54 (1–2): 31–63. doi:10.3406/syria.1977.6623. JSTOR 4198097.
  • Delbrück, Richard (2007) [1932]. Antike Porphyrwerke. Berlin [reprinted: Rome]: de Guyter [reprinted L'Erma di Bretschneider]. ISBN 978-88-8265-454-2. OCLC 191032377.
  • Kayser, F. (1994). Recueil des Inscriptions grecques et latines (non funéraires) d'Alexandrie impériale (in French). Cairo: Institut français d'archéologie orientale du Caire. ISBN 9782724701456.
  • Thiel, W. (2006). "Die 'Pompeius-Säule' in Alexandria und die Vier-Säulen-Monumente Ägyptens". In Boschung, D.; Eck, W. (eds.). Die Tetrarchie: Ein neues Regierungssystem und seine mediale Repräsentation. Schriften des Lehr- und Forschungszentrums für die antiken Kulturen des Mittelmeerraumes. Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag. pp. 251–270. ISBN 978-3895005107.
  • Vandersleyen, C. (1958). Le préfet d'Égypte de la colonne de Pompée à Alexandrie. Chronique d’Égypte. Vol. 33. Brussels. pp. 113–134.