Rome – Gate of St. Paul and Pyramid of Gaius Cestius

We are outside the ancient city now looking up to its southern wall. There is the Pyramid of Cestius on our left with the St. Paul Gate farther away to the right. The Gate of St. Paul, originally the Porta Ostiensis in the Aurelian Wall, was rebuilt by Belisarius. It was there that the Emperor Claudius, when returning to the city from Ostia to take vengeance upon his wife Messalina, was met by his two children, Octavia and Brittanicus, and also by a Vestal Virgin who insisted upon the rights belonging to her order and demanded that the Empress should not be condemned without a hearing. This gate belongs to the old wall, a portion of which may be seen in the lower part of the right-hand tower.

All the walls on this side of the Tiber are, with only a few changes, the same as those commenced by Aurelian in A. D. 272 and finished a few years later by Probus. Repairs were made by Honorius, Theodoric, Belisarius, and several popes. Benedict XIV in 1749 made the last repairs of any great extent. The wall is composed of red brick set with cement and is so solid that when there was occasion to build a railroad through it, dynamite had to be used to demolish it.

The gray, sharp pyramid of Gaius Cestius makes a very striking and picturesque combination with the battlemented Gothic towers of the gateway. Each intensifies the effect of the other because of the greatness of the contrast. I do not remember to have seen in Rome, and scarcely anywhere, a more unique and curious architectural object than this pyramid of marble which is one hundred and twenty-five feet in height and one hundred feet square at the base. This is the only instance in Rome of a pyramid serving for a tomb. It stands partly within and partly without the wall of Aurelian, for, as it had been standing here several hundred years before the wall was built, Aurelian simply included it in the line of his fortifications. The pyramid was erected in honor of a tribune of the people, who died nearly two thousand years ago, 29 B. C., leaving to Agrippa a sum of money to provide for him a suitable monument. Two colossal statues were erected in his honor at first, as well as the pyramid, but the statues have long since disappeared. As you observe, the pyramid is well-nigh perfect to-day, being of the shape best suited to defy the ravages of time. That protecting wall has been built to guard its base from the many vehicles passing around it on this much frequented road.

Extending from the pyramid toward us, you will notice a short section of the old wall. Just back of that wall lies the beautiful Protestant Cemetery in which the gifted poet Keats, who died in Rome of consumption, lies buried.

His friend, Severn, wrote of his last hours: “Among the many things that he requested of me to-night, this is the principal, that on his grave should be this:

`Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’

“At times, during his last days,” he continued, “he made me go to see the place where he was to be buried, and he expressed pleasure at my description of the locality of the Pyramid of Cestius, about the grass and many flowers, particularly the innumerable violets, also about the flocks of goats and sheep and a young shepherd that attended them; all these intensely interested him. Violets were his favorite flowers, and he joyed to hear how they overspread the graves.

He assured me that he had seemed to feel the flowers growing over him.” And there they do grow all winter long, violets and daisies mingling together, and, in the words of Shelley, who is buried in the same cemetery and not far away, “making one in love with death to think that one should be buried in so sweet a place.”

Sixty-one years after the death of Keats, Severn was buried by the side of his friend of boyhood days. They rest together, life’s fever gone, near the en-trance of the old portion of the cemetery.

On Keats’ tomb are the words, ” 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 engraved on his tombstone : ` Here lies one whose name was writ in water.’ ” On Shelley’s tombstone are the words, ” Cor Cordium.” Speaking of this place, George Eliot wrote, ” It was a spot that touched me deeply. It lies against the old city’s walls, close to the Porta S. Paolo, and is one of the quietest spots of old Rome. And there, under the shadow of the old walls on one side, and the cypresses on the other, lies the ‘Cor Cordium’ forever at rest.”

The monstrous walls, grim old pyramid and the silent cemetery alone with its dead, would all be oppressive, were it not for flashes of present-day life and gladness that, like the coming of the birds and flowers, brighten everything. We only need to catch sight of that proud little urchin standing erect as a soldier and the laughing young woman beside him to bring our thoughts back to the Rome of to-day, to the bustle and blessing of the brightest, busiest century that ever the sun shone on.

Along this very road it is believed that the Apostle Paul, the greatest man of his time, went to martyrdom. One of the most beautiful churches in Italy, S. Paolo fuori le Mura (St. Paul’s Without the Walls) is found a mile and a half out along this road, and here the apostle was buried. This gate being on the road to the church thus obtains its name.

When, in Rome, finding myself wearied at times by wildernesses of ruins, and by enormous structures too vast to contemplate without an effort, I used to stroll out of the city by this old gate, linger for a little at the foot of the pyramid, sombered as it is by the sunshine and the storms of two thousand years, step into the Protestant Cemetery and pick a handful of daisies, and then walk out to the Church of St. Paul’s Without the Walls. Today, I am not alone, for we shall go and stand amid its splendors together.