The Pyramid of Cestius, a fragment of ancient Egypt in Rome
by Alberto Manodori Sagredo
Aren’t pyramids only in Egypt? And maybe Paris, sometimes?
Indeed, the pyramidal shape – elevating a square base to the apex of triangular faces – marked the whole neoclassical aesthetic: think of Antonio Canova’s tomb in the Basilica dei Frari, in Venice.
The pyramid! A mountain of stone built by the pharaohs to make sure that their mummy – that is, their body – would be safe, in the realm of immortality, protected from sacrilegious thieves, and remembered by their descendants and all of posterity.
The pyramid! A giant mountain of stone, pointing to the sky in the superhuman effort to escape the oblivion that death brings everyone, in time.
After the land of the Nile was conquered by Caesar and then, definitively, by Augustus, the powerful men of Rome – as later would the generals and noblemen of France after the return of Napoleon from Egypt – adopted many of Egypt’s cultural, aesthetic and even religious traditions, spurring a trend for pyramid-shaped tombs.
Several literary and archaeological sites bear witness to this. There are records of two stations in the area where Piazza del Popolo is today, which it is believed were exactly where Rainaldi’s two churches rise now. There was the so-called Meta Romuli: Romans called this pyramidal monument ‘meta’ (literally “goal”, “destination”), because it reminded them of the reference point that marked laps during races at the circus. The central stones of the Meta Romuli were visible until the 16th century, between Castel Sant’Angelo and the Borgo district, where today Via della Conciliazione begins.
Another tomb in the form of a pyramid stands out in Rome, and for centuries was a favorite of many artists, sculptors and painters, who depicted it in their works when they wanted to represent the city of Rome. You can see it, for example, in the bronze bas-reliefs of the door that Filarete created for the basilica of Saint Peter in the Vatican, or in Andrea Pozzo’s fresco for the apse of Saint Ignatius, representing Christ’s apparition to the saint. It is the pyramid of Caius Cestius, which was incorporated in the walls of Rome when emperor Aurelian ordered them built.
Indeed, leaving a stronghold like this monumental pyramid outside the walls would have been unthinkable. When it was decided to build the fortifications, around 275 AD, the barbarians’ overwhelming pressure on the borders of the empire was a threat so real that it was felt even in the capital.
Thus, to this day the pyramid of Caius Cestius leans against the city walls, although these have been greatly modified for traffic reasons, as the nearby Porta Ostiense leads to the road to Ostia and, first and foremost, to the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls, where lie the remains of the great “apostle” who organized the nascent Church of Christ.
Caius Cestius Epulo, who died in 12 BC as stated on the inscription that adorns the building’s façade on Piazzale Ostiense, wanted this to be his tomb, and his heirs respected his will. Furthermore, it is certainly no coincidence that during the 19th century – in the middle of the Romantic era, and in line with new regulations that forbade placing burial grounds inside the city – the new Non-Catholic Cemetery (where orthodox Christians and protestants are buried, while space for Jews was reserved at Campo Verano) was placed beside the pyramid.
Caius Cestius, son of Lucius, was Praetor and Plebeian tribune, and was part of the Septemviri Epulonum, the college including the seven priests in charge of organizing religious sacrifices to the most important gods of the city.
The Pyramid of Caius Cestius has not survived unscathed across the centuries that history has cast over Rome. It witnessed sieges and conquests, from the Saracens and Robert Guiscard to the Landsknechte, but could not escape the furtive longings of those who imagined fantastic treasures enclosed in it, who violated the pyramid in search of gold – who knows whether they found it.
What we know for certain is that the pyramid’s sepulchral rooms were frescoed with various images – probably representing mythological scenes or landscapes – of which nothing is left but the marks where they were torn off. Separated from the walls they once adorned, they went on to enrich the collections of antique lovers from the 16th to all of the 18th century, and perhaps remain to this day in some European castle or museum!
We also know that on the main side of the pyramid, where now there are two columns, there used to be the bronze statues of Caius Cestius and his brother Lucius, who probably had the Cestius Bridge over the Tiber built.