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The Pyramid of Cestius overlooks the Protestant Cemetery of Rome

The Pyramid of Cestius: Why Would a Roman Nobleman Construct a Pyramid Tomb?

In the heart of ancient Rome, near the Porta San Paolo, the last echo of a Roman fascination with the power of Egypt is located. The pyramid was built during the reign of Augustus, the adopted son of Gaius Julius Caesar. But why did a Roman nobleman, Gaius Cestius, want to be buried in such a tomb?

The pyramid appeared on the landscape of Rome between 18 and 12 BC. The one who ordered it was a magistrate and a member of Septemviri Epulonym, one of the religious corporations of Rome. What was his inspiration? Maybe he was one of the soldiers of Caesar who traveled with him and the famous Cleopatra along the Nile River and enjoyed the view of the pyramids from one of the impressive ships of the legendary queen? It will perhaps never be revealed, but the tomb of this man whose life took place during one of the most fascinating periods in history stays a pearl in the architectural treasures of Rome.

Pyramid of Gaius Cestius, Rome.

Pyramid of Gaius Cestius , Rome. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

The Architecture of the Pyramid of Gaius Cestius

Who would imagine that Rome has a pyramid? Most tourists seem to be rather surprised by this out of place construction. Many of them suspect that it was created during the 19th century as a monument in memory of one of the enthusiasts of the ancient history of Egypt. But the reality is different – it was made in antiquity when Octavian Augustus was the emperor of Rome. The construction measures 29.6 meters (100 Roman feet). The square base is covered by the building which is 37 meters (125 Roman feet) high. It seems to be a monument dedicated to a fascination with Egyptian culture and it may be significant evidence of the travels of its owner.

Although the shape of the pyramid is reminiscent of the Egyptian adventure of Julius Caesar, this sharp construction is more related to the pyramids of Nubia, characteristic to the kingdom of Meroe. Meroe was attacked by the Roman Empire in 23 BC, but it seems that Romans saw the small pyramid from the south as another example of architecture related to the impressive and mystical culture of the country ruled by pharaohs.

When the pyramid was created, it was located outside the city of Rome, as it was not permitted to create burials within the walls of the city. After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the pyramid started to be an unusual cause for fascination. As the culture of ancient Egypt started to be forgotten, the ancient tombs of the city began to be surrounded by legends, gossip, and fears. In this case, the pyramid had a special place among the eerie corners of the city.

Heritage of the Pyramid

When it was opened in 1660, the people who entered the tomb encountered a beautifully preserved chamber decorated with frescoes. Although only a part of the remarkable frescos has survived until now, they are some of the most precious ancient paintings in existence. The restoration of the wall decorations ended in 2015 and now they can be admired by thousands of tourists.

The room inside the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome, Italy.

The room inside the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome, Italy. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

During exploration, researchers discovered epitaphs including the one that belonged to the owner of the tomb:

''There is an inscription, CIL VI.1374, on this side of the monument; it is repeated on its northwestern side.
C.  Cestius  L.F.  Pob.  Epulo  pr. tr. pl.
VII  vir epulonum
Opus  apsolutum  ex  testamento  diebus  CCCXXX  arbitratu
L.  Ponti  P.F  Cla.  Melae  heredis  et  Pothi L.

Which means:

Gaius Cestius Epulo, son of Lucius, of the Poblilian district, praetor, tribune of the people, official of the public banquets. According to his will, this work was completed in three hundred and thirty days; it was executed by his heirs L. Pontus Mela, son of Publius, of the Claudian district, and his freedman Pothus.''

Epitaph Written on the Pyramid of Cestius.

Epitaph Written on the Pyramid of Cestius. ( CC BY-SA 4.0 )

There is another inscription in the tomb, however, it comes from 1663 AD. Pope Alexander VII commemorated the work of many people who excavated and restored the tomb between 1660 and 1661.

Isis Smiles in Rome

The pyramid of Cestius wasn't the only pyramidal construction of Rome. There was also a larger one, known as the pyramid of Romulus. It is similar, but its story remains unknown. It was located between the Mausoleum of Hadrian and the Vatican. In the 16th century, Pope Alexander VI decided to destroy it and use the marble to create the steps of the St. Peter's Basilica.

Investigators have tried to discern the style and the origins of the pyramid without any convincing results. Some relate the construction to the history of Egypt; a few suggest Nubian aspects. However, the most convincing explanation may lie in the attention of the Ptolemaic dynasty to Nubian style pyramids. Therefore, the Ptolemaic inspiration and the idea that the pyramid was created due to the legendary relationships between Rome and Alexandria, seems to be the most likely. It wouldn't be the only inspiration of this fascination; the Circus Maximus was decorated during the reign of Augustus with the Egyptian obelisk, while many villas and palaces included Egyptian details.

Night view of the pyramid from Porta San Paolo.

Night view of the pyramid from Porta San Paolo. ( CC BY-SA 3.0 )

The Long Breath of History from the Lungs of the Pyramid

The reign of Julius Caesar was militarily successful, but also full of scandals. One of them was a romantic relationship with Cleopatra VII, the last queen of Egypt. The impact of this story on the architecture of ancient Rome is still visible. His adopted son, Octavian, continued the best ideas of Caesar, but also is known as the one who expanded the Empire, and finally included Egypt as a part of the Roman Empire. Some Roman nobles adopted a fascination with the ancient Egyptian monumental structures, style of presentation, the rulers, and symbolism. Now the pyramid of Cestius is known as one of the best preserved ancient Roman buildings in the entire city of Rome.

During the Middle Ages, Roman citizens started to think that it was the tomb of Remus, brother of Romulus. The real inscription was uncovered during the 17th century. 18th and 19th-century writers and artists liked to spend time around this mysterious building. John Keats wrote about this place in his elegy from 1821. The 21st century brought to the ancient pyramid an opportunity for restoration as Japanese businessman Yuzo Yagi sponsored the work.

Top Image: The Pyramid of Cestius overlooks the Protestant Cemetery of Rome; Italy. Source: CC BY-NC SA 2.0

By Natalia Klimczak

References:

Rome, Pyramid of Cestius, available at:
http://www.livius.org/articles/place/rome/rome-photos/rome-pyramid-of-cestius/?

Pyramid of Caius Cestius, available at:
archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/archaeological-site/pyramid-caius-cestius

The Restoration of the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, available at:
http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/events/current-events/restoration-pyramid-caius-cestius

A. Krawczuk, Juliusz Cezar, 1962.

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