The Pyramid of Cestius: Once outside city limits, it now stands among contemporary buildings in the middle of Rome

Nikola Petrovski
Ethan_Doyle_White - CC BY-SA 4.0

Upon the mention of pyramids, one unavoidably tends to think about Egypt and the Giza Plateau, where the famous pyramids tower over sandy Saqqara: structures built by thousands of unknown men to serve as resting places for people who wanted to remain known for eternity.

But there are many other, lesser-known pyramids. These include Mad Jack Fuller’s pyramid-shaped grave in Britain; the pyramid of Alexander Golod, who decided to erect pyramids outside of Moscow, Russia; and the Nubian pyramids of Sudan.

Although Egypt is more famous internationally for its pyramids, Sudan actually has twice as many within its borders, built by the ancient Kushite people.

Etching of the pyramid c. 1700s.
Etching of the pyramid c. 1700s.

But Europe has its own set of surprises, including the Pyramid of Cestius. Found in the Italian city of Rome, not far from the ancient city gate Porta San Paolo, is a pyramid that was built to serve as a tomb.

The tomb was built to house Gaius Cestius, a member of the Epulones: one of the four religious corporations of the day. The tomb was constructed between the years 18-12 BC and stands in the middle of two ancient roads. One of these roads is the famous Via Ostiensis, which ran from Rome to the port of Ostia Antica.

The pyramid in 2014. Author: Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0
The pyramid in 2014. Author: Livioandronico2013 – CC BY-SA 4.0

The pyramid is 100 Roman pes (97 feet) square at its base and towers 125 pes (121 feet) over these ancient roads.

The interior contains a rectangular opening with a barrel vault that serves as a burial chamber. Its dimensions are about 20 feet long, 13 feet wide, and almost 16 feet high.

Old engraving of the pyramid and Porta San Paolo.
Old engraving of the pyramid and Porta San Paolo.

The chamber was originally sealed, but in 1660, when the chamber was opened, it was discovered that it was filled with frescoes, and the Italian painter and engraver Pietro Santi Bartoli made sure to record these decorations. Unfortunately, only a small portion of these frescoes survive today.

The vaulted chamber. Author: Alessio Damato – CC BY-SA 3.0
The vaulted chamber. Author: Alessio Damato – CC BY-SA 3.0

Historians have managed to discover that even though the pyramid was sealed upon its completion, it was nonetheless plundered at some point in antiquity. Given its ancient origin, public visits were forbidden until 2015 when restoration works were finished. Until that point, only researchers and scholars were allowed inside, with special authorization.

The pyramid and Porta San Paolo. Author: Joris – CC BY-SA 3.0
The pyramid and Porta San Paolo. Author: Joris – CC BY-SA 3.0

The exterior of the pyramid is covered with white marble, under which are bricks and concrete. This wasn’t the only pyramid to be built in Rome. The pyramid of Romulus, which was larger, was deconstructed and its white marble used to construct the stairs of St. Peter’s Basilica.

The entrance. Author: Alessio Damato – CC BY-SA 3.0
The entrance. Author: Alessio Damato – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Pyramid of Cestius is mostly intact and bears a number of inscriptions. According to the book Rome: An Oxford Archaeological Guide by Amanda Claridge, “the tomb was built in accordance with Cestitus’ will, taking only 330 days.”

Closer view of the inscriptions. Author: Ethan_Doyle_White – CC BY-SA 4.0
Closer view of the inscriptions. Author: Ethan_Doyle_White – CC BY-SA 4.0

During the medieval ages, there were speculations that this pyramid and Romulus’s Pyramid were actually the resting places of legendary twin brothers Romulus and Remus. During the 17th century, the real inscriptions were uncovered during excavations by Pope Alexander VII, which involved tunneling into the tomb’s burial chamber.

When the pyramid was erected it stood outside the city walls, for it was forbidden to have tombs within the city limits.

Night photo of the pyramid. Author: 3impact – CC BY-SA 3.0
Night photo of the pyramid. Author: 3impact – CC BY-SA 3.0

Rome continued to expand, and by the 3rd century, the pyramid was already surrounded by a number of structures.

Today, the pyramid is one of the most important ancient structures in Rome. It attracts thousands of tourists, allowed to visit the interior but only on certain days.