One of the three 64 foot long megaliths in the Baalbek terrace. (Notice the man in the lower lefthand corner.)
In 27 BC, the Roman emperor Augustus supposedly made the unfathomable decision to build in the middle of nowhere the grandest and mightiest temple of antiquity, the Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek. The platform and large courtyard is still retained by three walls containing twenty-seven limestone blocks which have no equal in size anywhere in the world, as each of them weighs in excess of 300 metric tons.
Three of the blocks, however, weigh around 1000 tons each. This block trio is world-renowned as the "Trilithon". Consider also the even larger monolith lying in a quarry over a half-mile away from the main Acropolis. It measures roughly 70 X 16 X 13 feet and weighs an estimated 1200 tons. (The weight estimates of the stones mentioned were made by fully qualified and practising American civil engineers.)
There is also the mystery of a total lack of documentation for the laying of these huge stones, which would have been proudly noted by Roman historians and politicians, if it had been their work. It's a little like American history books skipping the fact that America sent men to the Moon. Meanwhile, Arabic legends ascribe the stones to the time of Genesis, claiming that the big blocks were part of a fortress built by Cain!
Standing and looking at some of the stupendous and magnificent stoneworks of the ancient Romans, one becomes awed by the sheer size of the stones. Dizzied and breathless in the presence of such architectural engineering, one might think there was nothing too great for the Romans to accomplish. But there is good reason to believe that in reality they did have limitsand there is also good archeological data which demonstrates just what these limits were.
The largest stone at Baalbek (the one remaining in the quarry) is just about the same weight as the famous abandoned obelisk at Aswan, Egypt. The "Roman theory" (of Baalbek) gets more complicated when we learn that the fifty-four enormous columns for the Temple of Jupiter came from Aswan, Egypt. There the Roman engineers could not have missed witnessing the abandoned 1,170 ton obelisk, which the Egyptians had obviously intended to move, prior to discovering that it was cracked (or maybe it cracked during their attempt to transport it).
When Augustus conquered Egypt in 27 BC, he ordered that a massive obelisk, towering above others at the Karnak temple in Egypt, be brought to Rome. Easier said than done! The effort was eventually aborted when the trophy simply proved to be too heavy. (The Karnak obelisk was abandoned for 300 years, until the emperor Constantine decided to have the heaviest portion removed before transporting it.)
Instead, Augustus took two other obelisks from the Sun Temple in Heliopolis. It was the first transport of obelisks to Rome. The obelisks are now in the Piazza del Popolo (235 tons), and the Piazza di Montecitorio (230 tons). These are clear indicators of Roman capacity in moving heavy stones.
As far as the Karnak obelisk, sources give varying estimates of its weight, from 323 tons to 455 tons. The discrepancy could stem from the fact that the original obelisk was 36 meters long when it weighed 455 tons. Now it is 4 meters shorter at the base, and correspondingly lighter; and because obelisks are always considerably thicker at the base than higher up, the loss of a hundred tons is not out of reason.
Anyway, some 300 years later Constantine solved the Karnak obelisk problem by cutting off the bottom portion (the largest, most massive part), thus reducing its weight. This is the reason he succeeded where Augustus had failed in taking the obelisk out of Egyptbut in the process, the pedestal and a large part of its base were destroyed.
So this seems to represent the absolute limits of ancient Rome's ability to move massive stones. Since we are talking about otherwise indestructible Aswan granite, we have to consider the obliteration of the thickest, strongest part of the obelisk deliberate. Unable as they were to move the whole obelisk, the Romans had taken only as much as they could carry. After all, Constantine's workers had similar troubles with the obelisk of Tuthmoses III now standing in Istanbul.
Elsewhere in the Roman empire, just slightly over 300 metric tons seemed to be the limit for the transport of big blocks, and this achievable only with the greatest difficulty. The transport of the 323 ton Laterano obelisk to Rome spanned the reigns of three emperors. Clearly, if the ancient Roman engineers had this much trouble with the relatively light Lateran Obelisk, they could never have managed the task of transporting the 1000 ton Baalbek monoliths.
FAIR USE NOTICE: This page may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This web site distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107.