The Pyramid of Caius Cestius was built around 12 BC by praetor Caius Cestius as his tomb. The pyramid was later integrated into the Aurelian Wall, which helped its preservation.
A Fashionable Tomb
Caius Cestius Epulonius, a rich praetor (an elected magistrate) and member of a group of priests responsible for sacred banquets, died in 12 BC. Caius Cestius is now best known for his tomb, modeled on Egyptian pyramids.
Anything Egyptian had become fashionable after Rome had conquered Egypt in 30 BC, hence the uncommon choice for a pyramidal tomb.
The pyramid, which was constructed in a mere 330 days, is more than 36 meters high and 29.5 meters wide (118 x 97 ft.). It was built of concrete and brick on a travertine foundation and covered with Carrara marble blocks. Thanks to the use of concrete, it was possible to build a pyramid with a sharper angle – and relatively taller – than those in Egypt.
On the east and west sides are inscriptions with the names and titles of Caius Cestius. A corridor at the northern side led to the burial chamber. The walls of the rectangular chamber, which measured six by four meters (20 x 13ft), were decorated sumptuously with frescoes and panels framing female figures.
The pyramid was originally surrounded by four columns and the entrance was flanked by two bronze figures, now on display in the Musei Capitolini at the Capitoline Square.
Porta San Paolo
While the interior is badly preserved, the exterior has survived relatively well thanks to the incorporation of the pyramid into the Aurelian wall in 275 BC. Its marble casing was restored in the twelfth century.
Only three Egyptian pyramids – the main pyramids of Gizeh – are taller than this Roman imitation. It tells us something about the wealth of Rome during the reign of Emperor Augustus, when a single citizen – albeit a rich one – was able to build a pyramid worthy of Pharaohs.
The Pyramid of Caius Cestius can be found at the southern edge of ancient Rome, near the Porta San Paolo, part of the Aurelian Wall. The subway station ‘Pyramide’ is right across the square.
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