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Thursday, April 9, 2015

Pyramid of Cestius

It’s a tomb in the form of a pyramid, built around AD 15.  Why?  Because that’s what C. Cestius wanted.  And tombs offered lots of room for creativity: a tomb could take any form the builder wanted it to take.  The wealthy baker Eurysaces built a tomb in the shape of…well, nobody really knows what it was supposed to be.  More on Eurysaces’ tomb in a later post.  Others built tombs that looked likes houses or temples.  And Augustus chose to be buried in a huge tumulus—a burial mound covered with evergreen trees and a colossal bronze statue of himself.  But Cestius went for a pyramid.  There was a craze for all things Egyptian at the time—especially since Egypt was conquered by Octavian in 30 BC and then became the emperor’s personal province.  Had Cestius served in Egypt and seen firsthand pyramids large and small?  Perhaps.  The pyramid’s steep sides
recall the pyramid-tombs built for private individuals in Upper Egypt and in Nubia.  But what do we really know about Cestius?  Nothing, beyond the tomb’s inscription, which tells us that he had been a praetor, a tribunus plebis, and one of the epulones or ten state priests who organized public banquets in honor of Jupiter and other gods.  So he was a man of some distinction.  And it’s a fair guess that he wanted passers-by to notice his tomb.  He got his wish: they are still doing so today.

The tomb was located on the Via Ostiensis.  It was built of concrete faced with blocks of luna marble.  Inside was a barrel vault leading to a funerary chamber with wall paintings in the Third Style—which, curiously, bear no Egyptian motifs.  So much for the tomb of Cestius, which has been called “the most famous pyramid in Italy.”

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