Gaius Cestius pyramid returns to its white, ancient glory after centuries of neglect

One of Rome’s most unlikely monuments

Coming from the airport you might pass one of Rome’s most unlikely monuments, the Pyramid of Cestius or the “Piramide di Caio Cestio or Piramide Cestia” in Italian, on the Piazzale Ostiense.
Caius Cestius was one of the seven Epulones (members of one of the four great priestly colleges at Rome) under Emperor Augustus. His pyramid shaped tomb has been a subject of speculation and mystery for centuries. First there was the odd shape, and second: strange enough the urn holding the ashes of Caius Cestius has never been found. Perhaps it was stolen in the Middle Ages, together with the bronze statutes portraying Caius Cestius outside the building, they are lost as well.


Built of brick of and marble somewhere in between 18 and 12 BC this unusual pyramid shaped monument had really stood the test of time in the past 2000 years. Years of neglect and traffic fumes, plus the damage of weeds and bushes growing in between its enormous stone blocks, managed to do what time and wars (before the restoration World War II bomb and bullet holes were visible) could not, to damage this ancient structure. Something had to be done to save the Pyramid.


Japanese help

It took a Japanese fashion tycoon Yuzo Yagi and his two million euro donation to kick-start this public and private collaboration to restore the internal and external areas of the tomb. The restoration required a mix of traditional and non-traditional conservation methods, including vegetation removal, marble facade protection, marble panel stabilisation and damage prevention, and the construction of a handicap accessible wheelchair ramp.

Roman built in Egyptian style

The pyramid has a square base of 29.5 meters on each side (or 100 Roman feet) on a foundation of travertine and is 36.40 metres (125 Roman feet) in height. It was built in opus caementicium (ancient Roman concrete) covered with slabs of Carrara marble. Inside the tomb there is a barrel-vaulted burial chamber measuring about 23 square metres, built in the same way as the Egyptian tombs. Once the walls were adorned with frescoes, described in detail by early travellers (apparently Victories that bear offerings on ceremonial vessels), but the walls are now mostly bare and empty.


The pyramid of Cestius is the only surviving example of the Roman pyramids. Following Rome’s conquest of Egypt, a building hype of all things Egyptian led to obelisks and other Egyptian styled architecture in Rome (see also Retroblog Rome’s blogpost – All what´s left of Isis and Serapis is a marble foot). The larger “Pyramid of Romulus”, located in between the Vatican and Hadrian’s Mausoleum, was often paired with the Pyramid of Cestius (for a while even called the ‘Pyramid of Remus’, as it was believed that these two pyramids were the tombs of the legendary founders of Rome) until its demolition in the 16th century, the Romans needed the marble for St. Peter’s Basilica.

Between 271 and 275 AD, the pyramid of Cestius was incorporated into the fortifications of the Aurelian walls, which probably helped to ensure that this unusual monument survived and never got demolished. The pyramid was not (re)discovered until tunnel builders found it again under the rubble in the 16th century. In 1663 the Pyramid had been the object of excavations and Pope Alexander VII ordered the restoration of the four sides (to secure the heavy deformations of the cladding) by replacing 5000 marble shields, also commemorated in an inscription.

Later the pyramid of Cestius became part of the standard itinerary during any Grand Tour (traditional trip of classic Europe undertaken by the young elite). The tour generally included a visit to the peaceful green oasis of the Protestant or Non-Catholic Cemetery  as well, where the poets Keats and Shelley are buried. Oddly enough Shelley’s heart lies in St Peter’s Churchyard (Bournemouth, Dorset, England) because it refused to burn when Shelley’s body was cremated on the beach at ViaReggio. Shelley’s heart was passed on to Leigh Hunt who later gave it to Mary Shelley and his ashes were stored temporarily in the British Consul’s wine cellar in Rome before finally being buried in the Protestant Cemetery next to the pyramid.


Difference between the Pyramid of Cestius and the pyramids in Egypt

A notable difference between the Pyramid of Cestius and the pyramids in Egypt is that Cestius pyramid is much steeper and more pointed. Could it be that Cestius and his architects got the angle of their pyramid wrong, or they may have been inspired by the steeper Nubian or Kushite pyramids, which were steeper and more pointed than the Egyptian ones? It is also plausible that the Roman builders, with no visual example to rely on, experimented with concrete to build more steeply. The pyramid was built, however, with locally known Roman construction techniques.

What we do know through the inscriptions on its walls that Cestius’ pyramid, near Porta San Paolo, was built in 330 days. The 327 days (75 days less than expected) of restoration may not seem much after some 2000 years in Rome and 10 years of study and research, but the result is amazing, better than I have ever seen it for a long time.

Via del Campo Boario
Piazzale Ostiense
00154 Roma
Metro: Line B stop Piramide
Bus: n. 23
Web: Official site of Piramide Cestia or Pyramid of Cestius in Rome