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Pyramid of Cestius, Rome
Pyramid of Cestius history
The massive monument that is Pyramid of Cestius has a rich history. The pyramid was built on request by Gaius Cestius Epulo; a rich magistrate, praetor and a member of one of the four great religious corporations at Rome. It is believed to have been built around year 15 BC as an extraordinary tomb.
A Roman pyramid
One might think it is strange to find an old pyramid in the center of Rome and in a sense – it is. However, after the Roman conquest of Egypt in year 30 BC, Rome was going through a fad for all things Egyptian. Several obelisks were taken from Egypt and placed at Circuses and Forums all around Rome. There was also another pyramid raised in Rome, the pyramid of Romulus, which was demolished in the 16th century.
Despite the Egyptian craze and in contrast to popular belief, the Pyramid of Cestius is not based upon the famous pyramids in Giza. If you think about it, the Giza pyramids are all much shallower than this rather steep pyramid.
The Pyramid of Cestius is instead believed to have been based upon the more pointy Nubian pyramids. One Nubian kingdom was attacked shortly before the construction of this pyramid, which suggests that Gaius Cestius possibly served in that campaign and became inspired. Historians suggest the purpose of the tomb’s pyramid-shape was to serve as a commemoration to the Roman victories in Africa.
A marble marvel
The Pyramid of Cestius stands an impressive 37 meters high and almost 30 meters wide. It was built using concrete and brick on a travertine foundation and covered with marble blocks. Today, the pyramid is located in the city but during the time of its construction, it stood in open countryside. During this period, large tombs were not allowed within the city walls.
However, Rome grew at a rapid and by the 3rd century, The Pyramid of Cestius had been surrounded by buildings and thus it became a part of the city. The pyramid was even incorporated into the city wall during the construction of the Aurelian Walls towards the end of the 3rd century.
The inclusion of the pyramid into the wall is the main reason why it is so well preserved. The inclusion made it hard to demolish the Pyramid of Cestius without also destroying the Aurelian Wall.
Why visit Pyramid of Cestius ?
The Pyramid of Cestius is a beautiful site. Anyone looking closely at the outer walls of the pyramid should be able to spot inscriptions. There inscriptions dedicate the pyramid to Cestius. They read;
C · CESTIVS · L · F · POB · EPULO · PR · TR · PL
VII · VIR · EPOLONVM
OPVS · APSOLVTVM · EX · TESTAMENTO · DIEBVS ·
PONTI · P · F · CLA · MELAE · HEREDIS · ET · POTHI · L
These inscriptions says;
“Gaius Cestius Epulo, son of Lucius, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir epulonum “ – with the latter referring to his religious group. “The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia and Pothus, freedman”
There is also an additional inscription on the east side, added in the 17th century. This inscription commemorates the excavation and restoration work carried during the time on orders of Pope Alexander the 7th.
The burial chamber
The tomb of Gaius Cestius was located inside the pyramid within a small burial chamber. The chamber was rediscovered in year 1660, during the pope’s restoration. They discovered that the small room was decorated with several detailed wall paintings - so called frescoes.
The wall painitings were however in bad condition and only parts of them remain today. These paintings are some of the first examples in Rome of the so called Third Style Roman painting.
A family tomb
They found no traces of any other contents in the tomb, as it most likely had been plundered in the past. During the excavations, they also found traces of several columns and statues outside the pyramid – remains which today can be found at Musei Capitolini. Inscriptions on the bases of the statues imply that the burial chamber, despite its small size, served as a family tomb for several members of Cestius’s family.
An appreciated pyramid
The pyramid has been much admired by architects throughout history and it became the primary model for pyramids built in the West during the 18th and 19th century. Today, it is the only ancient roman pyramid standing in Rome, making it a truly unique sight. It is also one of the very best preserved ancient buildings in Rome.
Pyramid of Cestius location
The Pyramid of Cestius is located in Rome, Italy. The cemetery is situated in southern parts of the city, next to the Aurelian Wall and the Pyramid of Cestius. For the exact location of the Pyramid of Cestius, check out the location map to the right.
Pyramid of Cestius resources
Wall paintings in the inner chamber. (GFDL) Lalupa.
Close-up of one of the paintings. (GFDL) Lalupa.
Interactive location map. For a larger and more detailed map, check out our Italy map.
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