The Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery

When you think of pyramids, you probably think of Egypt — but Rome’s got one, too! As familiar to Romans as the Colosseum, the Pyramid of Cestius is relatively unknown to first-time visitors to Rome. The pyramid was built approximately 18 B.C.E., during a time when the Romans were enjoying a fashion for all things Egyptian, as a tomb for the wealthy Roman Gaius Cestius. Later, the Romans built the Aurelian Wall right around the pyramid, using it as part of the fortification. For many people coming in to Rome from Fiumicino, you’ll see the pyramid as you whizz through a busy intersection: seeing the Roman walls means you’ve arrived in the historic center of Rome.

The Pyramid of Cestius
The Pyramid of Cestius

For me, the pyramid has extra meaning. First, I’m always fascinated by WWII history in Rome, and the pyramid is a memorable part of that. On September 10, 1943, the pyramid was the scene of Romans civilians, including women and teenagers, joining what was left of the military to valiantly try to halt the Nazi invasion of the Eternal City.  Known as the Battle of Porta San Paolo (after the nearby city gate), 570 people died here trying to defend Rome. I am always reminded of that sacrifice when I see the pyramid, a place where some ordinary people did an extraordinarily brave thing.

The pyramid also backs the quiet green oasis of the Protestant Cemetery (technically, the “Non-Catholic Cemetery for Foreigners”), and that’s my second reason for it being so special to me. My father, who came to Rome in WWII, is buried here, as are many expats who came to Rome, fell in love with it, and never left. Strolling the peaceful paths, you’ll notice a number of artists, writers, archaeologists, seminarians, and others who are buried here. The best known are, of course, the poets Keats and Shelley.

The gravestone of John Keats
The gravestone of John Keats

Today, the Protestant Cemetery is also home to a cat sanctuary, and the furry denizens lounge about the place enjoying the sunshine. It’s a very relaxing and peaceful place to explore.

One of the resident cats
One of the resident cats

The Pyramid of Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery are easily reached by metro from the Spanish Steps Apartment – get off at the “Piramide” stop. The Testaccio district where the pyramid is located is an interesting one to explore. Historically a working class neighborhood where slaughterhouses were located, today it’s got a branch of the MACRO modern art museum (in a former slaughterhouse), the enormous food emporium Eataly, the new Testaccio food market, and much more.

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