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The Pyramid of Cestius

The Pyramid of Cestius was built in the 1st century BC along the Via Ostiense, as usual at that time. Despite that, it is one of the most unusual funerary monuments in Rome.

At first sight, one might believe to be in Egypt, or maybe in Las Vegas.

But it is in the center of Rome, in the Ostiense district, and with a 20-minute walk you can reach the Colosseum. Instead, the Via Ostiense takes you to Ostia, the ancient port of Rome.

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Questo post è disponibile anche in italiano.

Cet article est disponible en français.

The Pyramid of Cestius in Rome is only apparently extravagant.

In fact, in the first century BC the Roman army conquered Egypt, and similarly the style and the culture of Egypt conquered Rome.

How Egypt invaded Rome

Statue of Augustus, called “Augusto di via Labicana”. Rome, Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme

In 30 BC the Roman army of Octavian (aka Augustus, the first Roman emperor) won the battle of Actium against the Roman-Egyptian army of Mark Antony and Cleopatra. Therefore, Egypt officially became a province of the Roman empire.

A few years earlier, however, Cleopatra have been in Rome: her exotic style and the charm of Egypt invaded the city. The Egyptian style and everything that somehow could be connected with Egypt simply became fashionable.

Egyptian sphynx made of granit. Rome, Vatican Museums, Greek Cross hall.

Very soon, some ancient obelisks were moved from the banks of the Nile to those of the Tiber, and when the ancient ones wasn’t available anymore, new obelisks were made. In addition, the cult of the Egyptian gods spread among the Romans, especially that of the goddess Isis, for whom were built big and beautiful temples. Moreover, clothing, hairstyles and makeup reminiscent of Egypt conquered the upper class women.

Rome and its pyramids

Suddenly, even the pyramids struck the imagination of those who saw it or who, somehow, had been in contact with the Egyptian culture. These royal, colossal and mysterious tombs sparked such admiration that someone even wanted to emulate the Egyptians traditions concerning the death!

It doesn’t surprise, therefore, that in Rome there were at least three other pyramids, in addition to the Pyramid of Cestius: one in the Vatican area and two near the actual Piazza del Popolo.

Among these pyramids, the only one that survived to the present is the Pyramid of Cestius. Due to its exceptional presence, in the Middle Ages it was called Meta Remi and believed to be the tomb of Remus, coupled with that of the Vatican area, believed to be the tomb of Romulus, was called Meta Romuli.

Matching pyramids for the most popular twins of the Roman mythology.

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The Pyramid of Cestius

This pyramid has a square base, about 30 meters wide, and 36 meters tall. More slender than the pyramids of Egypt, its shape is much more similar to those of the Nubia region.

Not only the proportions are different from the ones of the Egyptian pyramids, but the building materials are: the massive blocks of stone was replaced by concrete covered with Carrara marble, the same materials that characterize the Roman imperial architecture.

Who was Gaius Cestius

The surfaces of the pyramid tell us about the man who was buried in there.

C.CESTIVS L.F.EPVLO POB PR TR PL VII VIR EPVLORVM

(inscription engraved on marble on the Pyramid of Cestius)

His name was Caius (or Gaius) Cestius. He was a praetor (a high-ranking political office) and was member of the priestly college of the Septemvires Epulones, in charge of organizing sacred banquets.

As one can understand from some details of his will, Gaius Cestius died between 18 and 12 BC.

The will of Caius Cestius

We know some details of Caius Cestius’s will thanks to an inscription discovered near his tomb. This document provided scholars with some information about the man who choose to be buried inside the pyramid along the Via Ostiense, as well as about the Pyramid of Cestius itself.

OPVS · APSOLVTVM · EX · TESTAMENTO · DIEBVS · CCC · XXX  · ARBITRATV · L· PONTI · PVBLII · FILII · CLA · MELAE · HEREDIS · ET · POTHI · L

(inscription engraved on marble on the Pyramid of Cestius)

Gaius Cestius ordered the construction of his pyramid-shaped tomb to be done within 330 days of his death, otherwise his sons would have lost their legacy.

An incredibly short time to build a monument of this size.

In the same text, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa (son-in-law, friend, confidant and military general of Augustus) is also mentioned among his heirs. This let the archaeologists to affirm, therefore, that the death of Caius Cestius occurred before that of Agrippa (12 BC).

Gaius Cestius was a very rich man: not only he had the money needed to build such a magnificent monument, but the burial chamber also had to be beautifully decorated. For this purpose he bought some precious tapestries called attalica, woven with gold threads. But the attalica were never been placed inside the pyramid.

In 18 BC, in fact, a law prevented the undue luxury in the funeral context (lex suntuaria). For this reason, the attalica were then sold by the heirs of Caius Cestius, and the money obtained used for two large bronze statues, to be placed them next the Pyramid of Cestius. This fact also made possible to state that Caius Cestius died after 18 BC, when the lex suntuaria was enacted.

Inside the Pyramid of Cestius

As the Egyptian pyramids, the big Pyramid of Cestius, only contains a small burial chamber.

It is a small room, only 20 squared meters, and its decoration is very simple: few small and elegant figurines painted on a white background. Unfortunately, these paintings are partly damaged because the burial chamber was desecrated in antiquity, perhaps in search of the magnificent treasures that one expected to decorate such a spectacular tomb. In addition to that, the sarcophagus or cinerary urn too, containing the remains of Caius Cestius, was probably gone on the same occasion.

The Pyramid of Cestius is currently accessible only with an extraordinary authorization of the Soprintendenza speciale di Roma.

The Pyramid of Cestius and the Aurelian Walls

A few centuries after the construction of the Pyramid of Cestius, the barbarians threatened to attack Rome. The capital of the empire was in danger, as it never happened since centuries, and the city wasn’t ready to face it. At that time, in fact, the walls of Rome were those built in the sixth century BC (the so-called Servian Walls), only surrounding the oldest area of Rome, a very small part of the actual city.

The Emperor Aurelian then decided to build a new and more suitable wall for the city, so that the Aurelian Walls were built between 270 and 275 AD.

Due to economic and military reasons, some pre-existing buildings with a solid structure and potential defensive character were incorporated into the construction of the walls.

The insertion of the Pyramid of Cestius within the layout of the Aurelian Walls guaranteed its exceptional conservation, unlike the other pyramids of Rome, which have been destroyed over the centuries. Looking at the Pyramid of Cestius and the surrounding area, we can easily identify the walls still standing, the gate (Porta Ostiense or Porta San Paolo) piercing the walls at the intersection with the Via Ostiense, and the sections of walls incorporating the funeral monument of Caius Cestius.

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