Let’s play a game of word association. We say ‘Gondola’, you would likely say ‘Venice’ . We say ‘Michelangelo’, you may come up with ‘Florence’, ‘David’ or perhaps ‘Sistine Chapel’.
But how about ‘Pyramids’?
Not many of us would call out ‘Rome’.
And yet, Rome was actually the site of two pyramids built as tombs somewhere between 18 and 12 BC.
The Pyramid of Cestius (Piramide Cestia or Piramide di Caio Cestio) was built well out of what where then the city walls, being that burial was banned inside the Roman city gates.
The pyramid however was slowly engulfed within the expanding city throughout Rome’s illustrious history, at one point being incorporated into the city’s fortification wall at the intersection between Via Ostiensis and what is now Via della Mormorata – two major roads in Rome.
There was also the Pyramid of Romulus near the Vatican which was sadly destroyed in the 16th century. It was the Romulus pyramid which led some to believe that the Pyramid of Cestius was actually a Pyramid of Remus – even Petrarch thought so. However restoration in the 1660s, including uncovering the pyramid from greenery that had enveloped this important archeological site of Rome.
The pyramid exterior, constructed of concrete blocks, white marble bricks and travertine slab, hides a simple frescoed burial chamber.
Pope Alexander VII also had, ‘INSTAVRATVM · AN · DOMINI · MDCLXIII’ added to this great archeological site of Rome, in commemoration of the restoration work carried out, including work on the frescoed interior.Despite this work in the mid-1600s, only slight traces remain of the artworks today however.
Further work on the pyramid in Rome was carried out in 2001, with additional efforts to be undertaken in 2011.
The Pyramid of Cestius was thankfully preserved in Rome thanks to the 19-kilometre Aurelian Walls, built around 271-275 AD. Emperor Aurelian wisely had the wall incorporate many historic sites of Rome, probably at the time to save time and money on the construction. However, this has meant that many amazing sites of Rome have been preserved.
Obviously not everyone can have a pyramid built for their tomb, so who was the important figure who had such an amazing burial site constructed in his honour? And, in the then-outskirts of the city of Rome, why would he have wanted a pyramid for a tomb?
Caius Cestius was a magistrate who also played an important role in the Septemviri Epulonum – one of four important religious colleges of ancient Rome, whose importance was on par with the colleges of the pontiff throughout the period. The board was initially created around 196 BC. Seven men were carefully selected to organize public feasts and games that formed part of religious festivals of the time – a task which previously befell the Pope.
The Roman pyramid did not at the time stand alone. Rather it was kept company by additional tombs, statues and columns.
Details of the construction are inscribed on this unusual thing to see in Rome as: OPVS · APSOLVTVM · EX · TESTAMENTO · DIEBVS · CCCXXX ARBITRATV PONTI · P · F · CLA · MELAE · HEREDIS · ET · POTHI · L
For those of us who are not quite up on our Latin studies, the inscription says:
This work was completed in 330 days in accordance with the will, by the decision of the heir Pontus Mela, son of Publius of Claudia and Pothus, freedman.
Despite being sealed, other contents were thieved during times of antiquity. However a second inscription reveals: C · CESTIVS · L · F · POB · EPULO · PR · TR · PL VII · VIR · EPOLONVM, or, Caius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the gens Pobilia, member of the Epulones College, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir of the Epulones  
As to why Caius Cestius chose such a unique tomb, it is believed it was in commemoration of time he may have served in Nubia, which was conquered by Rome. Egyptian became high fashion in Rome as a result, and that is the reason why you can now find an obelisk and other Egyptian-styled monuments in Rome’s historic city centre.
Today, the Pyramid of Cestius is in an area close to the Piramidi metro station, in what is mostly a residential area.
Interestingly, this historical site in Rome was an important place to visit in Rome for undertakers of the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries. Artviva Walking Tours has a super-discounted Italy Grand Tour.
Rome is world-famed for its historical city centre packed with amazing historical must-see sites. The Coliseum, the Vatican, the Spanish Steps… they are images known around the world, iconic and imbued with a sense of important history.
We have small-group Rome guided tours with a great tour guide, and guided small-group, skip-the-line tour of the Vatican where you can see more classic artworks in the Vatican Museum with a great tour guide.
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