During the last years of the Roman Republic, after Caesar conquered Egypt and vanquished Cleopatra, Egyptiana became the fashion in Rome. Access Rome says, “Numerous pyramids sprouted all over Rome.” I don’t know if that’s true. I do know that the only Roman-era pyramid still in existence sits across the street from the Piramide stop on Rome’s subway line B.
The estate of Caius Cestius built his pyramid in 12 B.C. His tomb claims he was a praetor and tribune, as well as an epulo: one of seven priests who offered sacrificial meals to the gods. Other than the pyramid, he left no mark in recorded history. Only his tomb ensured the survival of his name.
Unlike the other tombs—long destroyed—which once lined the road to Ostia, Cestius’s pyramid survived because it was incorporated into the eleven-mile wall Emperor Aurelian built to protect the city from barbarians in 271 AD. During the Middle Ages, people believed the tomb belonged to Romulus, founder of Rome. I’m fascinated by how different ages mythologized the pyramid to suit their needs. Their veneration kept the tomb intact. In fact, the pyramid owes its continued existence to serving as a landmark as much as to the protection of the Popes, even though it was as pagan as pagan could be.
My husband Mason and I came up out of the Metro to see Cestius’s hundred-foot-tall pyramid directly across the road. Aurelian’s old brick wall connected right up to it. The crumbling bricks looked fragile in comparison to the older pyramid.
Half of the pyramid lies lower than the modern surface of the ground, which seems strange because the Protestant graveyard beside it rises much higher. The cemetery was built on a hill where Rome dumped its garbage, I understand. For how many hundreds of years had this area served as a dump? What treasures lie in the soil accumulated around the pryamid?
Outside the moat around the pyramid, an historical plaque said that in his will, Cestius stipulated that he wanted his Egyptian mausoleum constructed before a year had passed after his death. The project bankrupted his heirs.
A frescoed burial room inside the pyramid spans twenty-by-fifteen feet. Apparently, one can enter the pyramid through an entrance cut into its walls during its restoration in 1663. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that when we visited. It probably wouldn’t have helped if I had. My sources, published over a span of forty years, disagree on how one might get permission to visit the interior of the tomb.
The pyramid’s marble façade glowed bright white in the late April sunshine. Although Cestius’s inscription was still legible, grass and wildflowers had sprouted from toeholds between the stone blocks, bright crimson and lavender and deep pink. I hoped my photos would capture the colors.
The Protestant Cemetery lies directly beside the pyramid. It was my Cemetery of the Week #8: The Protestant Cemetery of Rome in Rome, Italy.