Many people know one of the great, most curious, ancient roman ruins, the pyramid where Cestius was buried (first century BC). Yet this is not the only monument of this kind to have been built in ancient Rome.
A very similar one once stood in the Vatican area, just outside the north-western boundary of the city. Of this second pyramid, whose size was similar to the surviving one, if not even larger, no trace at all has survived. Whether it was older than the aforesaid tomb of Gaius Cestius cannot be told, nor what was its purpose, although it may have likely been another tomb, as well. We know about the monument mostly from scanty descriptions found in guides of Rome dating back to the 12th-14th centuries, written in medieval Latin and in early Italian, for the benefit of pilgrims and travellers. Unfortunately, these accounts were not very detailed, but still give us an idea of what the monument looked like, and where it was located.
The Horti Agrippinae (Gardens of Agrippina) were an open area on the western bank of the Tiber, once outside the city boundary, bordered by the river itself (to the east), the Vatican Hill (to the west) and the Janiculum Hill (to the south), which today corresponds to Borgo district and the Vatican City. There stood the circus built by emperors Gaius (better known as Caligula) and Nero. Not far away, at the bank of the majestic river stood the Mausoleum of Hadrian, renamed Castel Sant’Angelo after being transformed into a fortification. The pyramid was built between these two large buildings at the intersection of two main streets , just across the bridge of Nero.
During the Middle Ages the grandeur of the white pyramid certainly captured the attention of the common people, who related them to Romulus, the mythical founder and first king of Rome, and to his brother Remus and known as Meta Romuli. Some sources speak explicitly of the monument in terms of “Tomb of Romulus”.
The Meta Romuli survived as a whole until 1499. In that year, pope Alexander VI had the main street of Borgo district straightened, and renamed via Alexandrina after himself. For this reason about one half of the pyramid, which obstructed the street, was sacrificed. The remaining part disappeared a few decades later, in 1564, when the nearby church of Santa Maria in Traspontina was taken down and rebuilt 100 metres off the original spot, where it still stands today.
Several depictions of the Meta Romuli exist in works of art, spanning from the 13th to the 17th centuries, most of which are reliable, as they date back to times when the monument was still standing. One of the earliest examples is a fresco by Cimabue (1280 A.D.), in the Upper Basilica in Assisi, unfortunately in a poor state of preservation.
The Vatican Pyramid is also featured in the fresco The Vision of the Cross (1520-24) inside Vatican Rooms, by Giulio Romano and other assistants of Raphael, whose landscape in the background also includes Hadrian’s tomb.