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We continue our tour of Imperial Rome with the tomb of Cestius. Now, can anyone tell me what’s interesting about this tomb? It’s a pyramid! But don’t be fooled by the shape: it’s still a tomb. The reason as to why it was built in this fashion can be found when we consider when it was constructed. Any guesses? Well, it’s thought to have been made between the years of 18 and 12 BC (Pyramid of Cestius). However, many have now pinpointed it more towards 15 BC (Kleiner). What’s particularly significant about this time is that the Romans had recently managed to conquer Egypt in 30 BC and the Egyptian style had become the fashionable thing! A notably important victory was that over Mark Anthony and Cleopatra in the Battle of Actium. So, for Augustus, this wasn’t simply an Egyptian fad: he hadn’t just stolen hair styles and home furnishing ideas. This pyramid symbolizes a political turning point not only a social trend. Augustus had conquered Egypt and this is a manifestation of his pride (Kleiner). In fact, he also carried off obelisks as trophies and the funny thing is that today you can find more obelisks in Rome than in Egypt! (Armen, 273-283).
This is not the only pyramid built by the Romans although it is the only one surviving today. We’ll look more into why that probably was later on. No-one actually knows for certain how many pyramids there could have been (Kleiner). There used to be a larger and more elaborate one based by the Castel St. Angelo. However, this was demolished and the marble used for its sheathing is what now makes up the staircase to St. Peter’s Basilica (Alfano, 7-17). This pyramid shape in particular, with its sharp angled sides, is thought to reflect those built in Nubia. They were especially popular in Meroe which had only recently been attacked and captured in 23 BC (Amanda, 364-366). This style not only reflects the conquests of the Romans and the influence this country had but also their ability to adapt how they built and their resourcefulness.
Now, does anyone have any ideas as to who this Cestius could be? The funny thing is that no-one knows completely for sure. However, the main consensus is that he was a magistrate and a member of the Septemviri Epulonum which was one of the four major religious bodies in Rome (Amanda, 364-366). It is said that he was part of the body of priests in charge of sacred banquets. It’s also believed that, due to the style of the tomb and its sharp angled sides, he may have been part of the attack against Meroe. So, in a sense, this could be seen as a form of commemoration to the victory they had here (Amanda, 364-366). However, there are other reasons that have been put forward for this particular design. These range from incorrect information on pyramid structures, poetic license on the part of the Romans or the fact that they had concrete to play with and not stone so could build higher structures (Pyramid of Cestius). Nevertheless, what we do know about Cestius is that he lavished strict deadlines: he ordered in his will (and in a moment we’ll be able to read it on this monument) that his tomb be built in a mere 330 days! He was a real stickler for time schedules it would appear! (Pyramid of Cestius).
This tomb does not only echo the cultural influences Egypt had on Rome. It also reflects the economic status Rome had at the time of Augustus’ reign. This amazing building was built for one man! True, he was a rich man but this structure would have been constructed for Pharaohs in Egypt. Plus, only three Egyptian pyramids are taller than this one (Pyramid of Caius Cestius). This truly reflects the power and wealth Rome had at the time that this was built.
On a wider scale, this tomb also reflects how elaborate the burial places were for Romans with wealth. Maybe some of you have seen the tombs of Hadrian or Augustus: these are far more elaborate though maybe not as intriguing in shape. Basically, if you had wealth you flaunted it, both in life and in death.
Likewise, this represents the importance that hierarchy or social order had in Roman times. Essentially there were two classes: an upper class and a lower class. These classes were, in turn, then divided within themselves. Status was very relevant for the Romans and so publically showing what you had was of the utmost importance and the only real way to make it meaningful (McManus, 2009). As you can see, even in death the rich strode to show their wealth.
So, let’s take a closer look at what materials the Romans used to create this intriguing piece of architecture. Well, as you can see, the outer layer is composed of carrara, white marble slabs or, more specifically, Italian Luna marble. The inside, however, is composed of brick-faced Roman concrete while the whole structure rests on a travertine base (Pyramid of Cestius). It is also thought that the tip of the pyramid was guided. Now, travertine is only found in tombs built for the aristocracy so obviously it was a choice material for this class (Kleiner). You can see how carefully these blocks were carved: real craftsmanship.
The concrete is a good reflection of how far the Romans had come with building materials. They’d moved away from cut stone and beam as used by the Greeks and developed a better material. Concrete was flexible (as it could be poured), capable of being used to stretch over distances (for example with arches), quicker to make, easier to use, fireproof and cheaper to produce (Yegul). Concrete is, in fact, considered by many as one of the Romans best discoveries. It’s what they used to build their famous Roman roads, vital for good connections to other provinces! They created three different types but the one we can see here is called opus caementicium. This was made of volcanic ash, lime, sand, gravel and stone: all materials which the Romans could find in this area (Grundmann and Fürst, 38). It was a waste of time and effort to use cut stone. Plus, it required more skill: unskilled workmen could use concrete making it much more financially viable. Due to this the Romans were able to build a pyramid at a more acute angle than those built by the Egyptians as well as higher. Any guesses as to the dimensions? It is in fact about 37 meters in height and around 30 meters in diameter. Or, in Roman measurements: 100 Roman feet square and 125 Roman feet high (Claridge, 364-366).
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The main issue with the concrete, however, was that it was ugly. Aesthetics is especially important with a construction like a monument or tomb. Hence the marble. Italian Luna marble, so called because it was excavated from the quarries close to the city Luna, was particularly popular in the time of Augustus. A lot of public architecture at this time was made from marble. It was brought in from the north-west coast of Italy. Quarrying started in 1 BC and a lot of buildings used it (Kleiner). In fact, Augustus was quoted as saying that he found Rome constructed of clay but left it made of marble. This elaborate monument is a good example of how it was in the time of Augustus. This emperor was very keen to show himself as the leader who would restore Rome to its previous glory. As Julius Caesar had attempted to recreate Alexandria so Augustus wanted to recreate Athens. This is a fine example of Augustus’ attempts at Helenisation (Kleiner). He was very eager to bring back traditional ideals and religious practices (The Roman Empire).
Now, this temple was rediscovered during the 1660s and at this time there were also two marble bases (Pyramid of Cestius (Atlas Obscura)). Furthermore, remnants were also found of bronze statues, one of which would have adorned each of the pillars. Although the pillars don’t remain a record was made of the inscriptions found on the bases. Basically, they listed the heirs of Cestius as Marcus Valerius Messala Corvinus, who was a famous general, Publius Rutilius Lupus, who was an orator and whose father had been in consul during 90 BC, and Lucius Junius Silanus, known for being a member of the gens Junia, a very important family in Rome. Now, in Cestius’ will he had stated that he wanted his Pergamene tapestries to be put into the tomb with him. However, this was forbidden by recent laws passed by the aediles. (Basically, the aedile were like the police and local authorities rolled into one. They were in charge of taking care of particular matters from the up keep of public buildings to enforcing law and order). So, almost as a replacement, the tapestries were sold and the statues were purchased instead (Pyramid of Caius Cestius (Cemetery)).
One name in particular that stands out in the inscriptions is that of Agrippa. This man was a boyhood friend, son-in-law and confident to Augustus. Now, the fact that Cestius has some connection to Agrippa is a clear indicator of his aristocracy (Kleiner). Also, let’s think back to what I was talking about at the start in terms of the social and political context of this structure. Augustus was proud to have defeated Egypt and wanted to flaunt it. If there was a connection between these three men then this tomb could also be regarded as a form of memorial to Augustus’ victory.
Let’s move closer to the temple now. As you can see there is an inscription on the east and west side walls. This artistically backs up some of what I’ve just explained. However, it is in Latin so most of you will probably have to take my word for it! This is inscribed on the two walls this side of the fortress: ‘Caius Cestius, son of Lucius, of the gens Pobilia, member of the College of Epulones, praetor, tribune of the plebs, septemvir of the Epulones’. (Amanda, 364-366). So, what’s the purpose of all this? Why record it so blatantly? Well, it makes people who knew and respected him feel proud. But, and probably more to the point, it preserves his name. I mean, look at us now! He has truly succeeded in memorializing himself and achieving some form of immortality.
The third wall faces out into the Protestant cemetery which, in itself, is another very interesting place to visit. If you have time to investigate this inner wall you’ll find another inscription which states: ‘The work was completed, in accordance with the will, in 330 days, by the decision of the heir Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothus, freedman’ (Amanda, 364-366). Basically, this refers to who was concerned with the construction of the monument. There is also another inscription which was added in 1663 by Pope Alexander VII which commemorates the finding of the pyramid and the restoration work done in 1660 to 1662 (Amanda, 364-366).
An interesting social point is that of the freedman. As I mentioned before, there were essentially two classes in Roman times. However, there was also a class of non-citizens which consisted of women, foreigners, slaves and freedmen. Freedmen were essentially freed slaves. By being freed they were granted a Latin Right. They could become part of what was called the plebeian class and any children they went onto have were given full citizenship. If the slave became a citizen, however, depended on a number of factors: if their master was a citizen himself, if the ceremony was a formal one and the age that the slave was (The Roman Empire). For the Romans, not everyone was created equal. In fact, as some of you may have noticed, there wasn’t even a middle class.
I’d like to make one more point before we enter the tomb. Now, as you can see, the tomb is currently standing within the city of Rome. However, when it was built it resided outside the city walls. Does anyone know why this would have been? Because it was forbidden for tombs to be built in the city. A necropolis, which is Greek for city of the dead, was always built outside the city. On a practical level, this reduced the risk of disease spreading, especially when burial (or inhumation) became more popular with the influence of Christianity in the 3rd century. At this time, however, cremation was mainly used. This is also a reflection of the politics at that time. The Law of the Twelve Tables was the core of Roman law and in Table X, the funeral regulations, it states that no-one could be buried or cremated within the city limits. Burial places, for those who could afford it, were along the sides of the roads leading up to Rome (Nock, 321 - 359). They were put there purposefully so that everyone could view the beautiful burial sites and see the wealth as they entered the city. Monuments, this one being a prime example, would have cost a lot of money.
It was during the reign of Emperor Aurelian in around 271 CE that, as the city had expanded, the tomb was made part of the fortifications and formed one of the bastions (Kleiner). You can see there to your right the gateway of the wall. That is St. Paul Gate but it was originally the Porta Ostiensis and part of the Aurelian Wall (Aldrete, 41). The reason why this memorial was incorporated is thought to be that it enabled costs to be cut as well as the time it would take to build the fortifications. The reason why it had to be build in the first place is simply a reflection of the increase in power within the Roman Empire during the 3rd century CE. Now, I don’t know how you’d feel about your tomb being made part of a wall but, due to this, this structure is one of the most well preserved ancient structures within Rome. It’s also the reason why the outside is in so much better condition than the inside, as we shall see. Maybe the Romans even realized its worth at the time themselves and so made special efforts to make sure it was well maintained.
Now, if you’d all like to follow me this way we can make our way into the tomb. It’s only recently that visitors have been able to actually enter the tomb. This pyramid was originally built without an entrance. Does anyone know why this is strange compared to an Egyptian pyramid? Well, this is because Egyptians believed in an after life and so they constructed their pyramids with an entrance. The Romans, however, did not share the same beliefs (Aires and Duby, 219). This is an example of how the Romans adapted a religious symbol to incorporate their own values and purposes.
This is the burial chamber. I don’t know how much you know about burial chambers but the shape you can see here is a barrel-vaulted rectangular cavity. This was the simplest kind of vault and was used by the Egyptians as well as the Romans. However, it’s thought that the Romans adopted this design from the Etruscan civilization which was based in ancient Italy (Amanda, 364-366). This is another reflection of how different societies had a large influence on Roman design.
As you can see this tomb is very small. However, it’s believed that this was, in fact, a family tomb (Kleiner). It used to be decorated with beautiful frescoes and stuccoes of female figures. We know this because it was recorded when discovered in 1660. However, as you can, or rather can’t, see, much of this art has now faded away. Now, the style of the painting would have been what’s known as third style. Does anyone know what this means? Third style was a style of painting very popular at the time of Augustus. Basically it consisted of mythological figures painted in the middle of a panel as if they were floating (Kleiner). They wanted to give the impression of framing the painting. You can see this figure here, painted onto what would have been a completely white panel. Backgrounds of one color were also a feature of the third style. This is a victory figure and she’s carrying a wreath. Here you can also see a thin candelabra. This was painted on instead of having columns.
Historians have dated this art back to 15 BC. This is a great indicator as to Roman culture at the time (Kleiner). Artists wanted to move away from imitation, as was the second style, and concentrate on creating their own images. There was also a shift away from illusion and towards surface ornamentation (Heilbrunn Timeline). It was very popular at the time and was the style of art used by Augustus, and his close friend Agrippa, in the court.
Art is a big indicator of the culture of a civilization. The Romans were influenced by the tomb art they’d encountered with the Etruscans but went on not only to decorate the homes of their dead with such designs but also their own living quarters (Ramage and Ramage, 23). They particularly focused on deity images. Now, this is a clear reflection of the Roman belief system in that period. Basically, the Romans were polytheistic and so they worshipped many deities, each of which represented something in particular. Nike, for instance: does anyone know why she was worshipped? (And no-one say footwear!) She is, basically, the goddess of victory. Each deity also had its own image and altars and temples were built where people could worship them. However, they transferred to monotheism with the rise of Christianity between the ages of 1 to 4 CE. This being a religious structure it’s clear to see why images of gods and goddesses would have been used.
Now, tombs were very popular with the Romans. Well, for the rich as we’ve established. However, it wasn’t simply a representation of social status. Religiously, the tomb was considered a home for the dead. You see, the dead were considered as sacred. But this was only really noticeable in the burial of those with wealth.
Not many people associate Romans and Italy with pyramids and rightly so in many ways. This is the only Roman pyramid left today and, as I said, although many speculate we can’t be certain how many were actually built. However, as I hope you’ve come to realize, this is a fantastic example of the wealth and power that the Romans had and a great reflection of the mixture of cultures which made up this civilization. Burial places in general are a superb way in which to gain information about a civilization.
So, ladies and gentlemen, if you would like to make your way back outside we’ll continue with our tour.
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