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p478 Sepulchrum Caii Cestii

Article on p478 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Black-and‑white images are from Platner; any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer


[image ALT: A stone pyramid, square and peaking at an angle of about 40 degrees, about 9 stories tall, at the end of a lawn; behind it, about half as tall, a medieval gate, crenellated, with two cylindrical towers. It is a view of the Pyramid of Cestius and the Porta S. Paolo from the Protestant Cemetery in Rome.]

NW face, from the Protestant Cemetery.
In the background, the medieval towers of the Porta S. Paolo, successor to the Roman Porta Ostiensis.

Sepulchrum C. Cestii: * the tomb of a C. Cestius, possibly the praetor who is mentioned once by Cicero (Phil. III.26; cf. RE III.2005). In any case he died before Agrippa, 12 B.C. (CIL VI.1375), and the monument dates from that period. It is a pyramid, standing in the angle between the Via Ostiensis and the street which skirted the south-west side of the Aventine, directly in the line of the later Aurelian wall close to the Porta Ostiensis. It is of brick-faced concrete covered with slabs of white marble, is 27 metres high and about 22 square, and stands on a foundation of travertine. In the interior is the burial chamber,1 5.95 metres long, 4.10 wide and 4.80 high. On the east and west sides, about halfway up, is the inscription recording the names and titles of Cestius, and below, on the east side only, another which relates the circumstances of the erection of the monument (CIL VI.1374). In front of the west side two bases of statues were found in 1660,2 each with an inscription recording its erection by the heirs of Cestius (CIL VI.1375). In the Middle Ages this monument was called sepulcrum Remi (Petrarch, Ep. VI.11; Poggio var. Fortunae, Paris 1723, p7, ap. Urlichs 236; De Rossi, Piante pl. II.1), and meta or sepulcrum Romuli (Jord. II.430; BC 1914, 395; cf. also HJ 179‑180; NA 1910, 193‑204; Reber 540‑542; Middleton II.284‑286; DuP 137‑139; RA 15, 16).


The Authors' Notes:

1 For the frescoes of Victories in the vault see Architettura ed Art Dec. I. (1921‑2), 339. See also Mitt. 1927, 66, where they are assigned to the third Pompeian style.

Thayer's Note: Tobias Smollett, in Letter 32 of his Travels through France and Italy (1765), states that this chamber was painted with frescoes, "now almost effaced". It is not clear that he saw them himself: I suspect he is reading from the Grand Tour or a similar guidebook.

Richardson (A New Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome, p354) confirms Smollett, writing that the stucco and painting decoration of the chamber was "all but invisible a hundred years ago (Middleton 2.433)", and then goes on to record as to their style such disparity of opinion, from the 18c to the 20c, as to suggest much the same thing.

Yet — some, at least, of the frescoes are not effaced at all. The interior of the pyramid may now be visited, and Prof. Diana Spencer alerted me to "Eclectic Exoticism and Funerary Bling: The Pyramid of Gaius Cestius" by Agnes Crawford, an art historian and guide, that includes several photographs of the frescoes, apparently taken in 2013.

The moral of the story, as very often: Don't believe everything you read. I myself haven't seen the interior of the pyramid.

2 When the bases were first found, a bronze foot still stood on one of them; but it is no longer in existence.


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Page updated: 10 Feb 16