Pyramid of Cestius: The 2,000-year old ancient pyramid in…Rome

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We have talked about the Great Pyramid of Giza, and how the massive structure has baffled historians throughout the ages by not only its size but also by its abstruse construction process. But as it turns out, in the ancient times, pyramids were not only limited to the African continent – as is evident from the still existing Pyramid of Cestius. Presumed to be built between 18 and 12 BC, the structure (situated along the Via Ostiensis in Rome) was erected during the reign of the famed Augustus. As for its size, the monument being certainly dwarfed by the Egyptian pyramids, is still substantially imposing – with a square base of 29.5 m (around 97 ft) on all sides, and a height of 36.4 m (around 120 ft).

Now, in terms of structural bearing, the Pyramid of Cestius is too steep and more pointed when compared to its Egyptian counterparts. This may have demonstrated the Roman engineering prowess (or mistake), with the tapering end possibly achieved due to the use of concrete as the core building material (curtained by bricks and the clad with Luni marble).

However in spite of this dimensional ‘mismatch’, the construction of the Roman pyramid might have been influenced by its African counterparts. In historical terms, Egypt was already absorbed as one of the provinces of Rome by 30 BC. But arguably more interesting is the scenarios pertaining to the Roman military expedition to Kushite territory (northern Sudan) in 23 BC. This invasion endeavor might have played its part its ‘inspiring’ role – because the steeper facade ratios of the Pyramid of Cestius are more akin to the extant Nubian pyramids designed by the Kingdom of Kush.

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Quite intriguingly, the Roman architecture of the time was already propelled by the ‘Egyptian’ phase, with obelisks cropping up in many parts of the city. Some of the structures were even ‘shipped’ from Ancient Egypt – like the 25.5 m (84 ft) high obelisk in St. Peter’s Square which was probably constructed way back in 13th century BC. Furthermore, there was a larger pyramid built inside Rome, known as the ‘Pyramid of Romulus’, and it was probably located between the Vatican and the Mausoleum of Hadrian.

In fact, during the medieval times, the Pyramid of Cestius was known as the ‘Pyramid of Remus’, and both of the monuments were (wrongly) believed to be the mausoleums of Rome’s legendary founders. Unfortunately, the craze for Egyptian structures had largely subsided during the late empire epoch. So in an unfortunate event of state-sponsored vandalism, the ‘Pyramid of Romulus’ was stripped down, and its marbles were used centuries later for the stairs of St. Peter’s Basilica (much like the Roman Pantheon components being used for the inner ‘baldacchino’).

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As for the details of the Pyramid of Cestius itself, the structure boasts a barrel-vaulted burial chamber of around 23 sq m (or 247 sq ft) area, which is then walled in accordance with Egyptian style. This interior portion was originally decorated with vibrant frescoes, while the inscriptions on the southeast side pertaining to the original occupant (Cestius himself) read –

Gaius Cestius Epulo, son of Lucius, of the Poblilian district, praetor, tribune of the people, official of the public banquets. According to his will, this work was completed in three hundred and thirty days; it was executed by his heirs L. Pontus Mela, son of Publius, of the Claudian district, and his freedman Pothus.

As we can make out (from the second line of the inscription), the pyramid was completed in just 330 days. For comparison’s sake, the Great Pyramid at Giza was constructed over a time of 20 years. And interestingly, all of these details were rediscovered in the 1600s when tunnel builders found the Roman pyramid intact in its place. It should be also be noted that the Pyramid of Cestius was already structurally connected to the fortifications of the Aurelian walls (a task achieved between 271 and 275 AD) – an architectural decision that might have played its crucial role in the ‘maintenance’ of a monument over the centuries. And finally, the good news for history enthusiasts is that the monument has gone through restorative works in the recent times, aided by donations from a few philanthropists, including Japanese businessman Yuzo Yagi.

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Sources: AtlasObscura / Livius / ArcheoRoma

Part of the original article was published in our sister site HEXAPOLIS.

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