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The Pyramid of Cestius, Rome

2,000-Year-Old Pyramid in Rome Gets a Facelift

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Few are aware that in the heart of Rome there sits a 2,000-year-old pyramid constructed as the burial tomb for a Roman praetor named Caius Cestius.  It is Rome’s only surviving pyramid from ancient times, however, decades of neglect left the white marble exterior covered in grime and corroded by pollution.  Thanks to a wealthy Japanese clothing magnate, the Pyramid of Cestius has just received a facelift and is now open for exclusive tours.

Associated Press reports that Yuzo Yagi, who heads a clothing and textile company, provided 2 million euros toward the restoration of the pyramid, and it is now back to its shiny white marble exterior.  Furthermore, the pyramid is being maintained and cleaned every few months by a team of free-climbers, eliminating the need for costly scaffolding.

The tip of the Pyramid of Cestius, now back to its shiny white surface

The tip of the Pyramid of Cestius, now back to its shiny white surface ( public domain )

Egyptian Influence on the Roman Empire

The Great Pyramid of Giza is undoubtedly one of the most well-known icons of ancient Egypt. Nevertheless, similar pyramids are found scattered all throughout Egypt and beyond. For example, Egyptian-style pyramids have been found south of the border in modern day Sudan. These pyramids were built by the rulers of the Kingdom of Kush.

In 30 BC, Egypt became a province in the Roman Empire, and the Romans even launched a military expedition into Kushite territory in 23 BC. It is possible that the encounter with the Egyptian pyramids, or the Kushite ones, or both, influenced the construction of the Pyramid of Cestius in one of the most unlikely of places, Rome.

It should first be pointed out that the Pyramid of Cestius was not the only Egyptian-style pyramid in Rome. There was also another pyramid, known as the ‘Pyramid of Romulus’. Incidentally, during the Middle Ages, the Pyramid of Cestius was known as the ‘Pyramid of Remus’, and it was believed that these two pyramids were the tombs of the legendary founders of Rome. The larger ‘Pyramid of Romulus’, located between the Vatican and Hadrian’s Mausoleum (known also as the Castel Sant’Angelo), was dismantled sometime during the 16th century so that its marble could be used in the construction of St. Peter’s Basilica.    

The ‘Vision of the Cross’ by Raphael

The ‘Vision of the Cross’ by Raphael ( Public Domain ). The Pyramid of Romulus is depicted in the background.

The Construction of the Pyramid of Cestius

The Pyramid of Cestius was built along the Via Ostiensis sometime between 18 and 12 BC. The pyramid has a nucleus of concrete with a curtain of brick, and its exterior is covered with Luni marble. The base of the structure is a square measuring 29.5 m (96.58 ft.) on each side, whist its height is measured at 36.4 m (119.4 ft.)

Within, the pyramid is a barrel-vaulted burial chamber measuring about 23 square metres (247.6 sq. ft.), and it was walled up in accordance with Egyptian custom at the time of entombment. During the 3rd century AD, the pyramid was incorporated into the circuit of walls known as the Aurelian Walls. One of the southern gates, the Porta San Paolo, is just a stone’s throw away from this monument.

The Pyramid of Cestius incorporated into the Aurelian Walls

The Pyramid of Cestius incorporated into the Aurelian Walls ( Public Domain )

Ancient Inscriptions

The identity of the pyramid was later forgotten, and was only rediscovered sometime in the 1600s. During this time, the pyramid was being restored, and the inscriptions on its faces were uncovered. According to the inscriptions on the east and the west flanks of the pyramid, the structure was built as a tomb for a man called Gaius Cestius Epulo, the son of Lucius, of the tribe of Pobilia. The inscription also mentions that Cestius was a praetor, a tribune of the plebs, and a septemvir of the Epulones (a college of priests responsible for preparing the feasts in honor of the gods). A second inscription announces that the building of this monument was completed in 330 days.

Inscription on the Pyramid of Cestius

Inscription on the Pyramid of Cestius ( Giovanni Dall'Orto/CC.0 )

Restoration of the Pyramid

Over the centuries, the Pyramid of Cestius has been battered by the elements. The first major restoration was undertaken in the 1600s, and the restoration of the burial chamber was carried out in 2001. In 2011, Yuzo Yagi announced his intention to provided funding for further restoration.

Archaeologist Leonardo Guarnieri told reporters on Wednesday that tours, including of the frescoed burial chamber, are now being given twice a month by reservation. Visits can be booked at www.coopculture.it

The entrance to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome, Italy, as seen from inside

The entrance to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome, Italy, as seen from inside ( public domain )

Featured image: The Pyramid of Cestius, Rome. Source: Zachary Maggio/CC BY 2.0

By April Holloway

Content also provided by Dhwty (see ‘ What is a Pyramid doing in the Heart of Rome? ’)

References

archeoroma.beniculturali.it, 2012. Pyramid of Caius Cestius. [Online]
Available at: http://archeoroma.beniculturali.it/en/archaeological-site/pyramid-caius-cestius

Black, A., 2015. Pyramid of Cestius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/pyramid-of-cestius

famouswonders.com, 2011. Pyramid of Cestius. [Online]
Available at: http://famouswonders.com/pyramid-of-cestius/

Lendering, J., 2003. Pyramid of Cestius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.livius.org/ro-rz/rome/rome_pyramid_cestius.html

Squires, N., 2011. Japanese tycoon steps in to restore dilapidated treasure in Rome. [Online]
Available at: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/worldnews/europe/italy/8983766/Japanese-tycoon-steps-in-to-restore-dilapidated-treasure-in-Rome.html

www.aviewoncities.com, 2015. Pyramid of Caius Cestius. [Online]
Available at: http://www.aviewoncities.com/rome/pyramidofcaiuscestius.htm

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