The Pyramid of Cestius

Capitol, Palatine, and Forum; arches, baths, and temples; all, till now, have lain well within the limits of the imperial city. But the Pyramid of Cestius is at its boundary; forms, indeed, part of those fortifications which the Emperor Aurelian began in A.D. 272 when the danger of barbarian invasions from the north had made Rome feel the need of walls for the first time in five centuries or more. The long Roman Peace was ending and the Middle Ages drawing near.

The pyramid itself belongs to the earlier and more confident time which dispensed with walls. An inscription which bears the name of Caius Cestius, praetor, and tribune of the people, states that Agrippa was one of the executors who raised this tomb; it must, therefore, have been built before that general's death in 12 B.C. In shape this monument of brick and concrete faced with marble recalls the interest in Egyptian affairs which marked those days when Cleopatra was but lately dead and Egypt a newly acquired Roman province. It was almost three centuries later that Aurelian's wall cut into the pyramid's eastern and western faces; the neighbouring Gate of San Paolo, the old Porta Ostiensis opening on the road to Rome's ancient port, was reconstructed by the Byzantine general Belisarius in the sixth century.

The clearest of inscriptions, however, did not prevent confusion in the Middle Ages. This pyramid, and another which stood near the Vatican until the late fifteenth century, seemed then too imposing to mark the graves of any but great heroes.

The pyramid by the Porta San Paolo thus became the 'Tomb of Remus'; the one near the Vatican was called the 'Tomb of Romulus'. The two appear in most medieval views of Rome, usually labelled meta Remi and meta Romuli because their forms suggested the pyramidal shape of the meta or goal of a circus.

In the fourteenth century even Petrarch referred to the pyramid as the 'Tomb of Remus'. A little later Boccaccio, sceptical concerning its connection with this hero, noted in his Genealogy of the Gods: 'People of the present day point out a pyramid built over his body and raised on high in the wall with stone blocks.' But by the early fifteenth century the humanist Poggio was surprised that so learned a man as Petrarch should not have read the name of Cestius in the inscription.

The wall which abuts against the ancient pyramid has survived many a war since Aurelian began it; has been repaired and enlarged by Byzantine generals and popes; and has been threatened by destruction in the name of progress. Its latest damage came from Allied bombing during the Second World War, when fragments struck both the wall and the pyramid. But neither the siege-engines of the Goths nor bombs of the present age have so far wrought lasting damage.

New associations have gathered about the old monument during the last two centuries. More visitors, perhaps, are drawn today to the foot of this pyramid because it looks down upon the Protestant Cemetery than come to it because it is a majestic survival from the days of Augustus.

The regular burial of Protestants beside the pyramid and the Aurelian wall began in the second half of the eighteenth century. The dead who lie so near the grave of this citizen of ancient Rome are of many nations, but the majority from English-speaking lands is so great that it has often been called 'the English Burying-ground'. Many of the tombstones here are silent witnesses to the popularity of Rome as a health resort in the nineteenth century for those ordered to a mild climate, and of the frequent tragic failure of the hopes of those who followed this last resource. The sudden upswing of travel after the close of the Napoleonic Wars is evident, too, in the number of foreign, tombstones dated early in this period of comparative peace.

It was in these years that the burial of Keats and Shelley here made the cemetery a shrine for literary pilgrims. Keats came to Rome to die in the winter of 1820-1821 in the house beside the Spanish Steps. His was one of the last graves in the old cemetery, for the great increase of burials here, and the fear that the planting of trees might obstruct the view of the pyramid, led to the closing of the old burying-ground soon afterward. Joseph Severn, who had accompanied Keats from England and stayed by him until his death, secured a place for himself at the same time and so, years later, was laid beside his friend.

More than any other individual, perhaps more than all others together, Shelley spread the fame of this cemetery beside the ancient pyramid. He had visited and loved the quiet place before Keats came to Rome, writing of it to a friend in 1818:

'The English burying-place is a green slope near the walls, under the pyramidal tomb of Cestius, and is, I think, the most beautiful and solemn cemetery I ever beheld. To see the sun shining on its bright grass, fresh when we first visited it, with the autumnal dews, and hear the whispering of the wind among the leaves of the trees which have overgrown the tomb of Cestius . . . and to mark the tombs, mostly of women and young people who were buried there, one might, if one were to die, desire the sleep they seem to sleep.'

In the early summer following the death of Keats, Shelley wrote his famous description of the place in Adonais, his lament for the young poet:

'Go thou to Rome,--at once the Paradise,
The grave, the city, and the wilderness;
And where its wrecks like shattered mountains rise,
And flowering weeds, and fragrant copses dress
The bones of Desolation's nakedness
Pass, till the Spirit of the spot shall lead
Thy footsteps to a slope of green access
Where, like an infant's smile, over the dead
A light of laughing flowers along the grass is spread;

'And grey walls moulder round, on which dull Time
Feeds, like slow fire upon a hoary brand;
And one keen pyramid with wedge sublime,
Pavilioning the dust of him who planned
This refuge for his memory, doth stand
Like flame transformed to marble; and beneath,
A field is spread, on which a newer band
Have pitched in Heaven's smile their camp of death,
Welcoming him we lose with scarce extinguished breath.'

The next year, Shelley was drowned in the Gulf of Spezia and in 1823 his ashes were buried in the new cemetery here, close by a buttress of the Aurelian wall and the grey pyramid's 'wedge sublime'.

It is not unfitting that beneath an inconspicuous flat stone in this cemetery there should lie the remains of that Charles Andrew Mills who covered the walls of the old Villa Palatina with a Gothic mask. His name, his age of 86, and the date, 10, iii, 1846, alone recall the eccentric Scot whose memory still haunts the halls where Domitian once held court.

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