The Eternal City is home to an elusive ancient pyramid that has captured the imagination of both locals & tourists alike for centuries. If you have already heard about it, or seen a picture of it somewhere, you’re probably wondering where exactly it stands… and you’re very probably asking yourself why on Earth is it there. Read on as we’ve got all the answers!
An ancient pyramid standing tall in the heart of a Roman neighborhood may come as a surprise to many visitors. However, this monument dates back to 12 BC, over 2000 years ago, and predates many of the more famous Roman landmarks we all have come to know and love. It was built as a tomb for a wealthy Roman magistrate, Gaius Cestius.
At the time of its construction it was in the middle of the countryside just outside Rome, and then incorporated into the Aurelian Walls. It now dominates a busy intersection in the popular neighborhood of Ostiense.
Egypt Was All the Craze in 12 BC Rome
Located in Piazzale Ostiense the Pyramid of Cestius is part of the Aurelian Walls and next to the San Paolo Gate
While an Egyptian style pyramid seems an unusual choice for the final resting place of an ancient Roman citizen, it’s important to consider the period in history in which it was built. In 30 BC, Rome conquered Egypt and what followed was a Roman fascination for all things Egyptian. Monuments were both stripped from Egypt and taken as booty, or constructed in an Egyptian style.
The most common of these monuments are the series of obelisks that pepper Rome’s beautiful piazzas. Many an emperor and military commander took obelisks from Egypt as trophies and re-erected them in various locations around Rome as a sign of power. Today, a total of 13 ancient obelisks remain in Rome (8 Egyptian and 5 Roman), scattered around the city.
A Pyramid with a Mistaken Identity
An amazing Egyptian obelisk sits in the center of Piazza del Popolo on the north end of Rome’s historic center
In addition to the many obelisks and other Egyptian monuments there was a second, larger pyramid in Rome. This was known as the ‘Pyramid of Romulus’ and stood near Castel Sant’Angelo. As the years passed by, the origins of the Pyramid of Cestius were gradually forgotten and in the Middle Ages people began to believe it was the tomb of Remus.
This propagated the myth that the twins linked to the founding of Rome, Romulus and Remus, were both buried in the only two pyramids in the city. The myth was busted in the 1600’s when the Pyramid of Cestius was excavated and its inscriptions were visible again. Not long after, the Pyramid of Romulus was demolished and its marble was used for the stairs in St Peter’s Basilica, leaving Rome with only one pyramid.
Perhaps the Pyramid of Cestius stood the test of time because it was incorporated into the city walls and fortifications in 275 AD. Many existing structures in Rome were reused or repurposed to build the Aurelian Walls to reduce costs. Today, the pyramid still stands a short distance from Porta San Paolo, a part of the original wall.
The Nubian Origins of Rome’s Pyramids
Rome’s pyramids were modeled after the orginal Egyptian ones that the Romans saw after the conquest of Egypt
When most people think of Egyptian pyramids, they think of the famous Pyramids of Giza, near Cairo. However, the Pyramid of Cestius was modelled on the Nubian Pyramids, specifically from the ancient city of Meroë (in modern Sudan). Meroë was attacked and conquered by the Romans in 23 BC. The similarity between the Pyramid of Cestius and those of the Nubian style suggests that Gaius Cestius was a part of that military campaign and his pyramid was meant to commemorate his win.
The Nubian Pyramids were favored by the Ptolemaic dynasty, who ruled Egypt at the time of the Roman conquest. The difference between the Pyramids of Giza and the Nubian Pyramids can be clearly seen in their varying shapes; those of Giza have a much slighter incline and the Nubian Pyramids have a steeper gradient leading to a sharper point.
The Tomb of Gaius Cestius Itself
The back of the Pyramid of Cestius as seen from Rome’s Protestant Cemetery
In keeping with Egyptian tradition, the tomb of Gaius Cestius can be found inside the pyramid in a burial chamber. Not unlike its counterparts in Egypt, the tomb was ransacked and anything of value was stolen long ago, leaving historians unsure what the tomb may have contained. However, this is where the similarities end.
Bright, Roman style frescoes were found adorning the walls of the tomb. Over time the frescoes were damaged, but parts of them remain and are visible today. Visits to the tomb are by guided tour only, on the 3rd and 4th Saturday and Sunday of every month. Tickets cost €7.50 and must be purchased in advance from coopculture website.
The pyramid is a truly unique sight in Rome and has been admired by architects and travelers alike throughout history. It remains one of the best preserved ancient buildings in Rome and is well worth checking out!
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