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Pyramid of Cestius

The pyramid of Cestius seen from the Protestant cemetery. Photo Marco Prins. Pyramid of Cestius: famous funeral monument in Rome.

The pyramid of Cestius was built during the reign of the emperor Augustus, probably between 18 and 12 BCE. It is a remarkable monument, made of white Carrara marble and exactly 100 Roman feet (30 meters) high. On the first photo, the pyramid can be seen from the Protestant cemetery, which is southwest of the tomb. In the background is the Porta Ostiensis., the online home of Ancient Warfare magazine
The Pyramid of Cestius seen from the east. Photo Jona Lendering.
The second photo shows the Pyramid of Cestius from the southeast. There is an inscription, CIL VI.1374, on this side of the monument; it is repeated on its northwestern side.
C.  Cestius  L.F.  Pob.  Epulo  pr.
VII  vir epulonum
Opus  apsolutum  ex  testamento  diebus  CCCXXX  arbitratu
L.  Ponti  P.F  Cla.  Melae  heredis  et  Pothi L.

Which means:

The inscription at the Pyramid of Cestius. Photo Bill Thayer.
Gaius Cestius Epulo, son of Lucius, of the Poblilian district, praetor, tribune of the people, official of the public banquets.
According to his will, this work was completed in three hundred and thirty days; it was executed by his heirs L. Pontus Mela, son of Publius, of the Claudian district, and his freedman Pothus.

The Pyramid of Cestius seen from the south. Photo Jona Lendering.
The Pyramid of Cestius and the Porta Ostiensis (to the right) seen from the railroad station in the south. You can see that the monument was converted into a bulwark in the Wall of Aurelian, which was built after 270. In the seventeenth century, when a tunnel was added to the defense works, the funerary chamber of the pyramid was discovered. It turned out to contain wall paintings in what was later called the Third Pompeian style. Pope Alexander VII ordered restorations, which are also commemorated in an inscription.

Joseph in Egypt. Mosaic in San Marco's basilica in Venice.
Compared to the real, Egyptian pyramids, the Pyramid of Cestius is too steep and too pointed. This explains why in the Middle Ages and Renaissance, pictures of ancient Egypt also contained too pointed monuments: the only place where European artists could see a pyramid, was at Rome, and Cestius' mausoleum did not have the right proportions. The picture to the left shows a mosaic from the San Marco in Venice with a scene from the Biblical story of Joseph in Egypt. The artist has tried to make it look really Egyptian, but his pyramids are clearly based on the Pyramid of Cestius.

Cornelis de Bruijn's drawing of the pyramids and sphinx of Gizeh. From Reizen van Cornelis de Bruyn door de vermaardste Deelen van Klein Asia (1698).
This is another example, which shows the influence of the error. These pyramids and sphinx were drawn by Cornelis de Bruijn, who had actually visited Egypt. On his return to Holland (after a visit to Venice) in 1698, he must have started to doubt about his drawings, because when he published his book, he made the pyramids pointed again.

A satellite photo of the Pyramid of Cestius can be found here.

Jona Lendering for
Livius.Org, 2003
Revision: 13 Dec. 2008
Livius.Org Anatolia Carthage Egypt Germ. Inf. Greece Judaea Mesopotamia Persia Rome Other