Hidden Rome: Pyramids and Man-made Mounds

South of Corso

Still on the trail of some of the lesser-known Roman sites, at the weekend I found myself wandering around a quiet area south of via del Corso. Testaccio is still very much a people’s neighbourhood. Old men gather on benches in shady piazzas, constantly gabbling away about who-knows-what (hotly debating the government’s latest PR disaster or contesting who won the last game of boules, it’s difficult to tell in their Romanaccio dialect), while children play with the pigeons.

There aren’t many tourists to be seen, even though the area holds a couple of attractions. I stop short of calling them ‘hidden jems’ because there aren’t many plausible ways to argue that a 36-metre high pyramid or a 35-metre hill can be disguised.

Rome’s Only Pyramid

The Pyramid of Cestius is one of the more incongruous monuments in Rome. It was built between 18-12 BC as a monument to Gaius Cestius Epulo, a rich magistrate and member of the Septemviri Epulones during the rule of Augustus.

It wasn’t the only pyramid built in Rome during the Augustan age there were strong Egyptian influences but it is the only surviving example. Another larger pyramid once stood between the Vatican and Castel Sant’Angelo, but it was destroyed during the 16th century.

Cestius’s pyramid was incorporated into the Aurelian Walls between 271-275 AD and is well preserved. It was rediscovered during the late 17th century, when excavators tunnelled underneath it and found the internal chamber decorated with frescoes. Recent restoration work means that these frescoes are now open again to the public. They are well worth a visit and can be seen as part of a tour group. For more information on booking a visit, see www.pierreci.it.

The Man-made Mound of Pottery

A short walk from the pyramid is another monument that probably goes for whole days without so much as a photo opportunity. Walk away from the pyramid down via Marmorata, take the first left that will take you all the way to via Zabaglia.

If you fancy a quiet stop-off on the way, pop inside the non-Catholic cemetery on via Caio Cestio, where Keats, Shelley and Gramsci are all buried: it’s a quiet oasis set apart from the constant whir and screech of tyres on sanpietrini.

At the end of via Zabaglia you find the entrance to a unique and peculiar site: a man-made hill, made of more than 80 million terracotta jars, which were used to transport olive oil from the Roman provinces of Hispania Baetica and Northern Africa between the first century BC and 260 AD. The oil was imported into Rome for cooking and burning, but the large clay amphorae about 60cm in diameter and 80cm high couldn’t be recycled, perhaps for hygiene reasons or maybe because it was simply too expensive to ship the empty jars back to the olive groves. It was just cheaper to fire new containers.

So each year about 320,000 containers were discarded. Of course, the methodical Romans didn’t just throw the jars away randomly. They deliberately broken them in half, filling the bottom with the pieces from the top of the amphora and stacked them in perfect layers. Over the years, layer upon layer grew and today Monte Testacccio stands 50 metres high, 35 of which are above ground. Although it is ‘just a hill’, it is still a fascinating place to visit, just because it tells you so much about the Romans. You can climb right to the top, walking on top of the 2,000-year old pottery pieces, by booking a visit through a cultural tour group (for more information see www.info.roma.it).