What Is A Pyramid Doing In The Heart of Rome?


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. 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 types, 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 (Wikimedia Commons). The Pyramid of Romulus is depicted in the background.

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 on each side, whist its height is measured at 36.4 m. Within the pyramid is a barrel-vaulted burial chamber measuring about 23 square metres, and 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 (Wikimedia Commons)

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

It has been highlighted that the Pyramid of Cestius is steeper and more pointed than the pyramids in Egypt. This has been used to explain the presence of steep and pointy pyramids in the art of Medieval and Renaissance Europe depicting scenes from ancient Egypt. It has been suggested that the only pyramid that European artists were able to see at that time was the Pyramid of Cestius, and that they used it as their model. Whilst it may be possible that Cestius and his architects got the angle of their pyramid wrong, it is also plausible that this pyramid was based on the Kushite models, which were steeper and more pointed than the Egyptian ones.

Kushite pyramids are generally steeper and more pointed than the Egyptian pyramids

During the Grand Tour, the Pyramid of Cestius was a must-see site, and it inspired writers such as Percy Bysshe Shelley (whose ashes, incidentally, were interred in the nearby Protestant Cemetery) and Thomas Hardy. 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, further restoration work was announced, and its funding included a million euros donated by a Japanese businessman. With such work underway, it is likely that the Pyramid of Cestius will continue to stand for a long time to come.