The Pyramid of Caius Cestius


This pyramid-shaped mausoleum was a bold style statement in 18-12 BC Rome.  Located on a prime site along the Aventine Road, the main route connecting the metropolis with its great port at Ostia, the tomb was one of the first Egyptian-style buildings in the city. Until Cestius's pyramid, Egypt, and its subjugation, had been represented architecturally by a few recycled obelisks.


Little is known of Cestius other than the funerary description on his tomb which states that “Gaius Cestius Epol, son of Lucius, from the tribe Publilia, praetor, plebeian tribune, one of the seven priests in charge of religious banquests [is buried here]".The builders added some advertising: "This work was completed in 330 days, in accordance with the will of the deceased, under the direction of Pontius Mela, Publius’s son and heir from the tribe Claudia, and of the freedman Pothos.” 

A slight reference to Cestius also appears in Cicero: Why should I speak of Lucius. Cinna? whose extraordinary integrity, proved under many trying circumstances, makes the glory of his present admirable conduct less remarkable; he has altogether disregarded the province assigned to him; and so has Caius Cestius, a man of great and firm mind’.(CiceroPhil III 26). In the middle of the seventeenth century Pope Alexander VII ordered an examination of the tomb's interior. Frescoes, badly damaged, were found, but there was no sign of the funeral urn that would have contained the mortal remains of Cestius. 


The pyramid was a must see for travellers doing the Grand Tour in the 18th and 19th centuries. Shelley described it as "one keen pyramid with wedge sublime" in Adonaïs, his 1821 elegy for John Keats. Half a century later the novelist and poet Thomas Hardy saw the pyramid during a visit to the nearby Protestant Cemetery and was inspired to write a poem, Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats, in which he wondered: "Who, then was Cestius, / and what is he to me?" (Next)

The images

Top: Nova raccolta di 100 vedutine antiche della cittá di Roma e su vicinanze incise a bullino da Domenico Pronti. Rome, [1795].

Middle: Roma antica di Famiano Nardini. Rome, 1666.

Bottom: View of the Remains of Ancient Buildings in Rome, and its vicinity with a descriptive and historical account of each subject. London, 1820.