Pyramid of Caius Cestius, Rome’s Sole Pyramid

The Pyramid of Caius Cestius in Rome

photography by: Omri Westmark

Reading time: minutes

It goes without saying that pyramids are first and foremost associated with their birthplace, Ancient Egypt. Nonetheless, these geometrically basic structures have inspired zillions of replicas all over the world, including the Roman Empire. While the Pyramid of Caius Cestius is nothing of the scale of its Egyptian counterparts, it is the only building of its type anywhere in Europe and as such, offers a fascinating retrospective of Rome’s bygone era.

While it was the Roman Empire that conquered Egypt in 30 B.C, in the aftermath of its victory, the latter’s cultural heritage managed to trickle quite significantly into the former’s day to day life. Perhaps among the most prominent vestiges of the “all things Egyptian” trend across the empire is the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, located in the busy intersection of Via Ostiense and Via Raffaele Persichetti, in modern-day Rome.


Made of bricks and concrete, and entirely covered with white marble cladding, the structure was built somewhere between 18 to 12 B.C. as a mausoleum for Caius Cestius, a high-ranking Roman official who was a praetor as well as a religious cleric. Determined to ensure the construction of his lavish tomb, Cestius conditioned the bequeathing of his property with the completion of the pyramid-shaped building. In fact, one of the pyramid’s faces is inscribed with an explicit instruction that the construction works should last no more than 330 days if the heirs wish to redeem their inheritance.


Dwarfed by its Egyptian counterparts, Cestius’s pyramid is merely 36 meter tall, featuring a square base, each side of which is 30 meter long. Well under the thick layer of sleek marble, concrete and bricks lies a barrel-vaulted burial chamber, where the wealthy magistrate was once interred. Over the centuries, the tomb along with its vividly frescoed walls were plundered, probably by looters who made their way via an underground passageway. At first, the structure was situated at the outskirts of town, but as the city developed and expanded, it was eventually incorporated to the Aurelian Walls, functioning as a formidable rampart.


Due to the pyramid’s pointed tip and relatively sharp angles, several speculations have risen as to its true source of inspiration. Some have argued that a wrong depiction of Egyptian pyramids in Roman culture is behind the modified design, whilst others claim that the building was modeled after the Nubian pyramids which tend to be far steeper in shape.


Apparently, the article’s protagonist wasn’t the only building of its type across ancient Rome, as a larger pyramid existed next to the Vatican City. Known as the pyramid of Romulus, the edifice was razed to the ground while its much-coveted marble ended up as the steps of St. Peter’s Basilica. Before its unfortunate end though, the pair of Roman pyramids were mistakenly believed to be the burial grounds of Romulus and Remus, the fabled founders of Rome.


Up until 2015, the entry to the Pyramid of Caius Cestius’ burial room was completely restricted. As of today, the tomb can be visited via a guided tour (must be booked in advanced) on the third and fourth Sundays and Saturdays of every month.