I’ve recently been spending more time in Rome, a city that needs no introduction. It’s a city I know well but until now I’ve spent most of my time visiting the main sights. But Rome is packed full of breathtakingly important things that many visitors never get to see. So, I’ve decided to do a series of posts choosing one ‘off-the-beaten-track’ sight, starting with the Pyramid of Caius Cestius, and then recommending somewhere to eat nearby. Enjoy!
The Pyramid of Caius Cestius and the Protestant Cemetery
An inspection of the Rome Metro map reveals a stop curiously named, Piramide. Its name derives from the fact that just outside is a large, Egyptian-style pyramid dating from about 15 BC. It was the tomb of one Caius Cestius, who we are told via an external inscription, was a priest and magistrate during the reigns of Julius Caesar, and Augustus.
The pyramid forms part of the Aurelian Walls, built around the city in the 270s AD. But when it was built, it was just outside the walls of Rome, on the Via Ostiensis (in Latin, Via Ostiense in Italian), the road which led to the port of Ostia. For the Ancient Romans, it was illegal to bury people within the boundaries of the city and so tombs and monuments were erected by the sides of the roads leading away from the city. The richer and more important you were, the closer to the city you would be placed: Caius Cestius obviously fulfilled these criteria.
One side of the pyramid faces the Via Ostiense, one of modern Rome’s busy thoroughfares, but the other side faces one of the most beautiful and tranquil places in the whole of Rome: the Protestant Cemetery.
The Protestant Cemetery, or to give it its official name, the Non-Catholic Cemetery (Cimitero Acattolico di Roma), was founded in the early 18th Century, appropriately in the shadow of the Pyramid. It is the final resting place of many British, German, Greek, and Russian nationals who died in Rome, as well as Italians who identified as non-Catholic (this category includes Antonio Gramsci, 1891–1937, the founder of the Italian Communist Party).
Perhaps the two most famous burials are those of the English Romantic Poets, John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley, both of whom died in Italy.
Keats died of tuberculosis in 1821. His tombstone, which is very close to the pyramid, doesn’t contain his name, but instead the following epitaph:
“This grave contains all that was mortal,
of a young English poet,
who on his death bed,
in the bitterness of his heart,
at the malicious power of his enemies,
desired these words to be engraven on his tombstone:
Here lies one whose name was writ in water.”
Shelley drowned the following year, whilst sailing near Viareggio in Tuscany. His friend, the poet Lord Byron, arranged for his body to be cremated, classical style, on the beach. His heart, however, was removed from his body and given to his wife Mary, the author of Frankenstein. Found in her desk, after her death, the heart is now buried with her in Saint Peter’s churchyard, Bournemouth, England.
Shelly’s tomb contains a quotation from The Tempest, by Shakespeare, in which the spirit Ariel describes what is happening to the body King Alonso of Naples, who is thought to have been lost at sea.
“Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a sea-change,
Into something rich and strange.”
Although many visitors visit the cemetery each year to see the illustrious tombs, it remains an unspoilt part of the city and a beautiful place to pass some time if you are in the area.
Where to eat?
The Tigelleria Romana is on the Via Ostiense about five minutes walk from the pyramid. It serves tigelle (a sort of palm-sized flatbread originally from Emilia-Romagna) and gnocco fritto (fluffy parcels of deep fried dough) with different toppings. You choose one of the topping sets and then the tigelle and gnocchi are served on an all-you-can-eat basis. With menus starting at €13.90, it’s a real bargain. They also served gluten free menus.
Via Ostiense, 73p, Rome, Italy.
tel. 06 45666153