Rome is full of interesting and peculiar buildings, but I believe there is one that is even more peculiar and unexpected than the others: la Piramide Cestia, Rome’s Pyramid.
When you learn about pyramids, you often do so in the context of the history of Egypt: you learn about them along with the names of the pharaohs, imagine them in the scorching sun of the north African desert, surrounded by the camels and the slaves that built them with techniques that still defy us. But if you are from Rome, your first experience of a pyramid is likely to be very different: substitute the desert with a concrete esplanade, the camels with trams and the slaves with irritated commuters and there you have it: modern Rome’s interpretation of ancient Egypt’s funerary grandeur.
La Piramide Cestia in Rome is indeed not blessed with a particularly spectacular location. Piazzale Ostiense, where it stands, is a busy and congested junction, with cars, scooters, trams and commuters heading to the metropolitan train line station that overlooks the square, but the pyramid itself is beautiful, original and has an interesting story.
Top tip: instead of looking at the pyramid from the front, overlooking ugly Piazzale Ostiense, take a stroll down via Caio Cestio, on the side of the building and enter the non-catholic cemetery. Worth a visit in itself, this small cemetery offers a vantage point to enjoy a traffic-free view of the pyramid
Rome Pyramid: a bit of history
La piramide cestia was built in the 1st-century a.C., between the year 18 and the year 12 a.C. It is a mausoleum and the epigraphy on its side tells us that is was erected as a tomb for C. Cestius, the Roman citizen from whom it takes its name, and its construction took exactly 330 days.
The existence of an Egyptian style monument in Rome is not, per se, unusual. Rome had conquered Egypt in 30 a.C and since then the fashion for all things Egyptians had taken Rome by storm: Romans were obsessed with having conquered such a powerful country and elements of the Egyptian religion and Egyptian elegant costumes quickly made their way to the capital. Obelisks and temples became frequent, in the city, but pyramid didn’t: Cestius’ pyramid was the only monument of its kind in the whole of Rome and, by far, the most extravagant.
C. Cestius had hoped that his pyramid would stay forever as a memento to his riches and achievements and in his original plans, he had foreseen elaborate patterns to decorate the inside of its final resting place. History, though, had different plans: in 18 a.C. Agrippa issued a law that prohibited the flaunt of wealth in funerary monuments and Caius was not only forced to abandon his design ambitions but he ended up having to sell all of his wealth.
It was the beginning of the end for this unusual project: just at the edge of the perimeter of ancient Rome, the pyramid never attracted much attention and, slowly, modern life crept up around it. Nowadays, the pyramid lies off the main tourist itineraries but has a special place in the heart of the locals who will fondly tell you its story while shaking their heads at the crazy man who wanted it built.
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