Did you know there is a Pyramid in Rome? Yes, you read that right! Rome Pyramid – called Piramide Cestia in Italian, or Pyramid of Cestius in English, is located in the Ostiense District, not far from many other interesting sites, and while it may look completely random in a city like Rome, it is certainly fun to see. Many people who end up in the area not knowing much about it are certainly caught by surprise at the sight of that!
Known to be one of Rome’s hidden gems, the Pyramid of Cestius is actually located in an area that is very easy to reach so you really don’t have to go out of your way to admire it – besides, there are more interesting places to visit nearby so it’s a great option if you want to get away from the crowds of the historic center of Rome.
Curious to find out more? Continue reading, and I will share everything you need to know about the Pyramid in Rome.
What You Must Know About Rome Pyramid Of Cestius
Why is there an Egyptian Pyramid in Rome?
That’s a good question. First of all, though it may be a pyramid (and definitely ancient), Rome Pyramid is not actually Egyptian. This is an ancient Roman monument that’s been built in the style of the great Egyptian pyramids that came thousands of years before.
To be specific, it’s actually the tomb of an important Roman called Caius Cestius. It was built somewhere between 18 and 12 BC.
Who was Caius Cestius?
I have told you before that Rome Pyramid is actually called Pyramid of Cestius. But who was Cestius?
Caius Cestius was a Roman magistrate. He was a member of the epulones group. Epulones were one of the four “religious corporations” of ancient Rome. Latin for “feasters”, the epulones were tasked with arranging feasts that went alongside ludi (games) and religious festivals.
We know that the pyramid-shaped tomb is for Caius because it has the following inscription on its eastern face:
“Caius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the Poblilia tribe, praetor, tribune of the people, septemvir of the epuloni.”
Apart from this inscription, not much is known about Caius Cestius. There is also some information about his will, which mentions that the pyramid should be completed in exactly 330 days. But it was actually built in less than 300 days.
Another of Cestius’s request was unable to fulfilled. Much like the ancient Egyptians, Cestius wanted to be buried with luxury tapestries from Pergamum (Asia Minor, present day Turkey). However, there was a law in place that prohibited luxury items being buried with the deceased in 18 BC.
Instead, the tapestries were sold and statues of Cestius were created instead. One of these statues has survived and is on display in the Capitoline Museums.
It’s thought that the Cestius who was buried in the pyramid was the same Cestius who constructed the Ponte Cestio: the ancient bridge that connects Tiber Island with the Trastevere district. It’s also thought that this is the same Cestius who was in Asia Minor between 62 and 51 BC.
The history of the Pyramid of Cestius, Rome
The tall, slim pyramid, with its sharply angled point, is actually more similar to the pyramids found in Nubia than the more famous pyramids at Giza, for example. In fact, it is particularly similar to those found in the ancient city of Meroe.
Situated on the east bank of the Nile, Meroe was attacked by Rome in 26 BC. It’s believed by historians that the similarity between Cestius’s tomb and the pyramids at Meroe point to the possibility that he served in this Roman military campaign.
The Pyramid of Cestius was built at a time when Rome looked to Egypt for style and design inspiration. To take another example, the obelisk at the Circus Maximus was taken from Egypt and placed here by August in 10 BC. Egyptian things were all the rage.
But even though the outside of the pyramid looks Egyptian, inside it is distinctly Roman: there are Roman-style frescoes as well as a typical barrel-vaulted ceiling.
When it was first constructed, the location of the pyramid would have looked much more different to its current setting. That’s because it would have originally been situated in a pastoral locale, surrounded by fields. At the time, tombs were forbidden within the city walls of Rome, and so the area would eventually have other columns and monuments to the dead surrounding it.
However, when the Aurelian walls were constructed between 271 and 275 AD, the Pyramid of Cestius was actually incorporated into them. It served as a kind of pyramid-shaped bastion in the defenses.
In fact, lots of other pre-existing monuments were actually incorporated into the wall. This not only helped reduce costs, but also helped reduce the building time of the wall itself, too.
We fast forward now to the Middle Ages. The origins of Pyramid of Cestius had by this time been lost to history. Some medieval Romans even thought that the pyramid was the tomb of Remus, the twin brother of Romulus, the ancient founder of Rome.
Later, it was Pope Alexander VII who oversaw excavations in the 1660s that demystified the structure. By clearing up the plants that were overgrowing the pyramid, they were able to uncover the inscription to Caius Cestius; they also discovered the bases of the statues that once stood there.
Pope Alexander VII also inscribed the pyramid. His inscription commemorates excavation and restoration work that was carried about between 1660 to 1662. During this time witness accounts of the interior of the pyramid describe a fascinating scene: monochrome panels, frescoes of female figures, a candelabra, among other riches.
It became a popular attraction for those embarking on the Grand Tour, which was essentially the 18th and 19th-century equivalent of a gap year for aristocratic Europeans. Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley described the pyramid as “one keen pyramid with wedge sublime” in his 1821 poem, Adonais: An Elegy for John Keats.
English novelist and poet Thomas Hardy visited the pyramid during a trip to the nearby Protestant Cemetery in 1887, which inspired him to write the line “who, then was Cestius, and what is he to me?” in his poem Rome: At the Pyramid of Cestius near the Graves of Shelley and Keats.
In more recent times (2013), there has been restoration work to clean up the pyramid’s marble cladding, which has become porous over time, with moisture affecting the interior frescoes. This has been sponsored by Japanese businessman Yuzo Yagi.
It was the pyramid’s fame that helped it to become the archetype for many pyramids built in Europe and beyond during the 18th and 19th centuries.
Why visit the Rome Pyramid?
The Pyramid in Rome is something that has overseen many of the changes throughout the history of the Eternal City. Although the Italian capital city is full of odd, fascinating structures, the Pyramid of Cestius is definitely up there as one of the most striking of all.
Despite being located in what is now the center of the city, it has withstood multiple eras of construction, invasion and war, while other tombs have been completely lost.
Nevertheless, the pyramid is not usually on people’s Rome bucket list – even if it was on the Grand Tour itineraries. It’s a more off the beaten track sort of site to discover. Just standing there and thinking about all the people throughout history who have passed by and considered its origins, or even just its shape, makes you consider just how storied this city is.
Can you visit inside Rome Pyramid?
No, unless for special occasions, but it’s still worth seeing on the outside.
Sadly, or maybe not so sadly for reasons of preservation, the Pyramid of Cestius is not open for general admission. It’s understandable, as the interiors are very precious and important for Rome’s history.
However, there are specific times when Rome’s Pyramid is open for tourists to take a glimpse inside. Thanks to the restoration work undergone by Yuzo Yagi, the tomb has been wonderfully restored and is open for visits on certain days.
Visits of the Pyramid of Cestius are temporarily suspended.
How to book a tour of Rome Pyramid
Tours need to be arranged, and these are available on the third and fourth Saturday and Sunday of every month. You can’t just turn up either; you need to reserve in order to secure a place on the tour.
Tours must be booked in advance on the site of Coop Culture or by sending an email to firstname.lastname@example.org – however, keep in mind that tours are only available in Italian (I’d still go, just to look at the interior!).
Tours usually start at 11:00 am and are in the range of €7 per person.
There’s also the option to join a private tour. You can organize these for a maximum of 20 people. These also take place on the third/fourth Saturday/Sunday of every month, and can be conducted in English, Italian, French, German, or Spanish. Needless to say, the private tour is significantly more expensive but you can share the costs with the rest of the group if you aren’t traveling solo.
Please be advised that visits of the Pyramid of Cestius are temporarily suspended.
Location of the Pyramid in Rome and how to get there
The location of the Pyramid of Cestius is at Via Raffaele Persichetti in the Ostiense district. It’s very easy to get to, since there’s a metro stop nearby that’s actually called Piramide – that shows you just how entrenched in the landscape of the city this landmark is!
Another nearby train station is Roma Ostiense. There’s also a tram stop at Piramide.
While this is the location of the pyramid itself, it’s not necessarily where you can get the best view. That’s because it’s right in the middle of a busy intersection – it is the center of Rome, after all.
In order to get the best view, I recommend heading to the nearby Protestant Cemetery. Just head behind the pyramid itself along Via Caio Cestio to get to the cemetery; this is free to access (you will have to leave a small donation). Inside the cemetery, you’ll be able to glimpse the pyramid among the greenery rather than with cars driving by all the time.
Interesting facts about the Rome Pyramid
The square base of the pyramid measures 100 Roman feet on each side. That’s 29.6 meters (97 feet). The pyramid stands 125 Roman feet tall (37 meters or 121 feet).
Standing on a travertine base, the pyramid is constructed from brick-faced concrete, which has then been covered with slabs of white marble.
The location is significant: it is placed right on the fork of the Via Ostiensis and another ancient road that ran along the River Tiber. It would have been a landmark for travelers, and people wouldn’t have been able to ignore it.
When it was first completed, the Rome Pyramid was completely sealed, and there was no entrance. However, like the pyramids of Egypt, it was plundered sometime in antiquity.
The Pyramid of Cestius wasn’t always the only pyramid in Rome. At the time of its construction, there was another: the Pyramid of Romulus. Built in a similar style, it stood between the Vatican and the Mausoleum of Hadrian (the Castel Sant’Angelo today). That gave rise to the belief that Cestius’s pyramid was the “twin” of Romulus’s, and therefore belonging to Remus.
No one knows who was buried in this other pyramid, but it had to have been someone with great wealth and a prominent figure in Roman society. Sadly, the tomb was dismantled in the 16th century by Pope Alexander VI. The marble from the Pyramid of Romulus was repurposed as the steps for St Peter’s Basilica.
A cat sanctuary now surrounds the grounds where the pyramid sits. For that reason, it has become something of a haven for cat lovers and photographers who want to snap a pic of the pyramid with a feline addition. You may also meet some of the volunteers during your visit.
Make sure to read my post Where To See The Cats Of Rome.
The restoration personally financed by the Japanese entrepreneur Yuzo Yagi took 327 days: just three days less than was originally planned to build the pyramid in the first place.
Things to see nearby the Rome Pyramid
Rome’s Protestant Cemetery
If you’re seeing the Pyramid of Cestius, you should definitely make sure to stop by the Protestant Cemetery. This historical graveyard is the final resting place of numerous European visitors to Rome. It’s a leafy, tranquil spot that makes for an interesting stroll. It’s free to enter (donations are welcome).
Make sure to read my post A Guide To The Protestant Cemetery Of Rome.
Porta San Paolo
This is one of the best-preserved Roman gates of the Aurelian walls. The ancient Via Ostiensis led from here to Ostia, the harbor that served Rome (today a popular beach destination). The gate was reinforced in 306 AD by Emperor Maxentius, and has been pretty much the same since.
If you’re hungry for a bite to eat after seeing the Pyramid in Rome, or simply want to have a look at an interesting market, make a beeline for this spot. It’s a covered market, making it great for rainy days.
Baths of Caracalla
For more ancient wonders, head over to the Baths of Caracalla. This enormous bath complex, which housed not only multiple baths and steam rooms, but also a library, dates back to the 3rd century AD. It’s just a short walk from the pyramid.
Head over to my post A Guide To Visiting The Baths Of Caracalla.