Rome’s Pyramid: all you need to know about Rome’s most peculiar building

by marta
Pyramid of Rome with umbrella pines

All you need to know about the Pyramid of C. Cestius, Rome’s pyramid. Where to find it, what is the story behind it, how to visit.

Rome is full of peculiar buildings however, out of the many, there is one that many would agree is the most peculiar of all: Rome’s pyramid aka Pyramid of Cestius or Piramide Cestia, in Italian.

If you didn’t know that Rome had a pyramid, you are not alone.

Despite it being in the center of the city and dating back to the I century AD, the same era as the Colosseum, the pyramid of Rome has never really been promoted as a big tourist attraction and has also remained closed to the public for very many years.

As a result, it sits pretty much outside all Rome’s itineraries for first-timers and tends to appear only as a hidden gem, usually recommended as a side stop when going for a foodie night in the Testaccio neighborhood, nearby.

Despite this lack for fame, the pyramid is worth seeing, if not necessarily inside, at least from the outside.

If you know where to go, it is one of the most peculiar and quintessentially Roman corners of the city and a truly beautiful one, especially in spring.

This is my essential guide to Rome’s pyramid.

What is Rome’s Pyramid?

The Pyramid of Rome is an ancient building in the shape of an Egyptian pyramid.

It dates backs to the I century AD and it was built as a burial monument for a wealthy Roman figure, Caius Cestius who embraced the love for Egyptian aesthetics typical of its time and demanded his tomb to be built in the style of that of the Pharaos.

The pyramid is called Piramide Cestia in Italian or even just ‘Piramide‘ by Romans, and usually referred to as the Pyramid of Cestius, Cestius Pyramid, or Rome’s Pyramid in English.

Is the Rome pyramid worth seeing?

Piramide Cestia / The Pyramid of Cestius is an interesting building and a pretty one, however, how worth it or not it is to see it depends on how much time you have in Rome and what type of sights you are most interested in seeing.

I believe the Pyramid is worth seeing if you are in the area, or don’t mind stretching your legs to it, and you go at a time when you can enter the so-called protestant cemetery nearby: this is a lovely corner of Rome and offers the best view over the pyramid.

I also think it can be worth seeing the pyramid inside or outside if you are interested in history and have a curiosity for going beyond what you can see during standard tours of ancient Rome.

If, on the other hand, you don’t find yourself in the area and don’t have a special interest in history, then I believe you can skip it.

I believe it is first and foremost a pretty corner of the city so if you are nearby definitely worth seeing, but possibly not one to actually alter your plans for.

Fun fact for cat lovers! Rome has special laws protecting stray cats and Rome’s pyramid is one of the areas where they can roam undisturbed! If you visit, you are likely to encounter some of the felines and maybe even some of the volunteers feeding them! If you love cats, this is a great place to go and also a fun place to go if you are in Rome with kids and want a feline cuddle.

Is the Rome pyramid Egyptian?

Cestius’ Pyramid is an Egyptian-style pyramid but it didn’t come form Egypt.

The materials, the design and the work was entirely carried out in Rome and while he pyramid was built following influences from Egypt, it has proportions that are very different from those of the originals, to such an extent that even an untrained eye can spot it.

The Rome pyramid is significantly slimmer and pointier than those in Egypt!

It is not clear why this difference however, there are some interpretations.

One is that the use of cement allowed to make a taller building and that therefore the shape was intentional to give as much height to the pyramid as possible.

Others instead believe this may be because the inspiration from the pyramid came from those in Jebel Barkal, now in Sudan and that are indeed much steeper.

Whatever interpretation we go for, it is possible that this pyramid and maybe another in Rome historians have reason to believe existed, where at the basis of the incorrect representation of pyramids in European paintings for centuries to come!

Rome pyramid from the protestant cemetery in spring

Why is there a Pyramid in Rome?

Looking at the Piramide Cestia, it would be easy to think that this particular monument was the creation of an extravagant rich man with a personal connection with Egypt.

However, this would only be part of the truth.

In the first century in particular, Egypt was relevant to the people of Rome.

People in the city would have heard of the conquest of this ancient land, become a Roman province in 30 AD, and the influence of its art and aesthetics were so strong, archaeologists talk about a real Egypt-mania or Egyptophilia that took Rome by storm.

The Pyramid is only one of its examples.

Many obelisks also came to Rome from Egypt (although not all those we see today are actually from Egypt) and the city also acquired several temples to the Egyptian deity Isis, some of them still visible today in Rome and Pompeii.

Obelisk in Villa Torlonia, Rome

How tall is the Pyramid of Cestius? What is it made of?

Cestius’ pyramid is over 36 meters tall and has a square base of 30 meters.

Inside, it has a burial chamber decorated with religious paintings of which we can still see traces, probably an apotheosis of Cestius himself, with nymphs and a Nikes carrying garlands and crowns.

The Rome Pyramid is made of calcestruzzo, a type of cement, bricks then and decorated with marble slabs.

Originally, it was been surrounded by tufo walls, still partially visible today, 4 decorative columns and two bronze statues, now gone.

Where is Rome’s pyramid? What is nearby?

The Rome Pyramid is in Piazza San Paolo, in the neighborhood of Ostiense.

When built, it would have been well outside the center of the city but nowadays is in a busy intersection, close to both a large tram stop, a metro stop (Piramide) and even the train (the urban train to Ostia Antica goes from here).

The easiest way to get the pyramid is either the metro or the tram or you can also walk here from the Colosseum: the walks will take about 10 minutes and it is downhill.

Once you are in the area, there are several other attractions worth seeing:

  • The so-called ‘protestant cemetery’, which is lovely and offers the best view over the pyramid too
  • Testaccio, a lovely neighborhood popular with foodies especially
  • Centrale Montemartini, a wonderful museum of ancient sculpt and mosaic hosted in an old power plant
  • Caracalla’s Baths, one of the most imposing Roman ruins in the whole of the city
  • The Aventine Hill and the not-so-secret Aventine Keyhole, a fun keyhole offering unexpected views over St Peter’s Dome

How to visit Rome’s Pyramid

To see the pyramid from outside it is enough to get to Porta San Paolo: the pyramid is in the center of a busy crossroads and you cannot miss it!

However, to view from here is not great, mostly because of the usually heavy traffic.

The best view of the Pyramid of Cestius is from the so-called protestant cemetery: you access it from behind the pyramid following the small road called Via Caio Cestio and access is free (donations welcome).

You will see the pyramid at best turning left once inside the cemetery.

To see the pyramid inside, you need a tour that you can buy here

News! On the 1st of May 2020, a new video was released by the Rome ‘sopraintendenza’ (the body overseeing archaeological work in Rome) that allows to have a peek inside the pyramid! You can find the video here

I hope you enjoyed this overview of the Rome pyramid. Happy travel planning!

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