Pyramid of Cestius - History and Facts | History Hit

Pyramid of Cestius

Rome, Lazio, Italy

The Pyramid of Cestius is a unique and startling pyramid-shaped tomb dating back to Ancient Roman times.

Peta Stamper

11 May 2021
Image Credit: Shutterstock

About Pyramid of Cestius

The Pyramid of Cestius is the tomb of affluent magistrate Caius Cestius which was built in the 1st century BC in Rome, Italy. Constructed of white marble and brick, this ostentatious 35-metre high tomb was built in this style due to the popularity of all things Egyptian which swept through Rome after Egypt was incorporated into the Empire.

This pyramid-tomb was later set into the Aurelian Walls, helping to ensure its preservation through the ages so that visitors today largely see what our ancient ancestors saw.

Pyramid of Cestius history

The immense pyramid was built as a tomb between 18 and 12 BC for the Roman magistrate Gaius Cestius. Cestius was a member of the one of Rome’s great religious organisations – the Septemviri Epulonum. The pyramid was built from brick-faced concrete covered with slabs of white marble. Measuring 29.6 metres square at the base, the monumental resting place rose 37 metres high.

The sharp point at the top of the tomb resembled the pyramids of Nubia from the kingdom of Meroë, attacked by Rome in 23 BC. It is likely Cestius served in the Egyptian campaign and so the pyramid commemorated both his military and religious career. The other pyramid of Rome, the Pyramid of Romulus, dwarfed Cestius’ tomb but was dismantled by the papacy in the 16th century to build the steps of St Peter’s Basilica.

During the construction of the Aurelian Walls between 271 and 275 BC the pyramid was incorporated into the fortifications as a triangular bastion. Reusing the pyramid in this way would have reduced the costs and building time of the new walls.

In the Middle Ages, people believed that Cestius’ pyramid was the companion to Romulus’ pyramid and thus belonged to his legendary brother Remus. However, during excavations led by Pope Alexander VII in the 1660s, inscriptions and tunnelling into the tomb found bronze statues that clarified the resting place as that of the largely unknown and slightly underwhelming Gaius Cestius.

For those embarking on the Grand Tour during the 18th and 19th centuries, the Pyramid of Cestius was a must-see. Percy Shelley described it as “one keen pyramid with wedge sublime” in a 1821 elegy for the poet John Keats.

Pyramid of Cestius today

Today, the pyramid can only be accessed with special permission due to ongoing conservation works. Yet the pyramid’s exterior can be admired fully from within the Aurelian Walls near the Protestant Cemetery on the northwest side.

Ring-fenced by a guard railing, the Pyramid of Cestius continues to provide a dramatic, awe-inspiring feature to the ancient Roman landscape – a true feat when you consider the monuments it shares the city with.

Getting to the Pyramid of Cestius

Situated next to the Porta S. Paolo at a busy traffic intersection, the Pyramid of Cestius is easily found on foot or via Rome’s immense public transport network. Get the Roma Lido metro line to Porta S. Paolo station over the road from the pyramid, or catch the 23, 77, 715, 716, 769, n716, nMB or NME buses to stops of the same name. Trams 3 and 8 also stop at the Porta S. Paolo.

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