~ There Once Was In Rome... ~
- 5 -

the Meta Romuli
and the legendary Terebinthus





One of ancient Rome's most peculiar landmarks is the lavish tomb of Gaius Cestius, shaped as a pyramid (1st century BC). But this is not the only monument with this shape built in the city. A very similar one once stood in the Vatican area, just outside the north-western boundary of ancient Rome. 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 the earliest 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 also the stadium built by emperors Gaius (better known as Caligula) and Nero, opened in AD 56.

Another outstanding landmark by the riverside was the monumental tomb of emperor Hadrian, finished around AD 135, now known as Sant'Angelo Castle, after having been turned into a stronghold in the early Middle Ages.

the pyramid of Gaius Cestius, by St.Paul's Gate
Near the pyramid, two main roads, the Via Triumphalis and the Via Cornelia, formed a crossing, just past Nero's Bridge (Pons Neronis, or Pons Triumphalis). Just north was the Gaianum, a racing track for chariots, yet not a real stadium. Some sources also mention a nearby naumachia (naval stadium), but its exact location has never been identified.


↑ enlarged detail of the area by the Vatican Hill, after the making of Hadrian's tomb (AD 135):
the Meta Romuli is marked in red, the main buildings yet to come are outlined with a dotted line

the site of the pyramid of Gaius Cestius (red arrow) compared to that of the Meta Romuli →

During the Middle Ages the impressiveness of such pyramids indeed caught the imagination of the people, who related them to Romulus, the mythical founder and first king of Rome, and to his brother Remus.

the Meta Romuli, between the circus of Nero
and the tomb of Hadrian (whose square base
is seen in the background) from a map
of ancient Rome by Pirro Ligorio (1561)
The one by the Vatican Hill was known as Meta Romuli (the Meta of Romulus), because its shape somewhat recalled the tapered pillars called metae that in Roman stadiums marked the two ends of the track. The pyramids built in Rome had a sharper angle than the Egyptian ones, i.e. they were narrower. But art historian Umberto Gnoli, in a work about Rome's topography (1939), claimed that in medieval Latin this word had a meaning of 'hostel', thus the monument may have been called a meta after having been turned into a facility for pilgrims, many of which were found in the district. During the Middle Ages several family houses and small fortresses actually enclosed ancient ruins left standing, in order to make the building more steady, as in those years engineering techniques were rather primitive.

According to a popular belief, Romulus was buried inside the pyramid, and some sources refer to this monument more explicitly as 'the tomb of Romulus'. This was clearly a legend. But the name Meta Romuli became so common that, during the Middle Ages, the now surviving pyramid of Gaius Cestius, despite bearing an inscription with his name, became known as Meta Remi (the meta of Remus), or as 'the tomb of Remus', in opposition to the one in the Vatican area, despite the two monuments stood about 4 km (2.5 mi) apart, see map above right.

Other names the pyramid was known by are Borgo's Meta, after the district of Borgo, that during the early Middle Ages had spread over the suburban Vatican plains, and St.Peter's Meta, after the nearby basilica built over the tomb of the apostle and first pope Peter.

Most of the medieval sources that describe the Meta Romuli also mention a second tall building (or monument) that allegedly stood very close to the Meta Romuli, more often referred to as the Terebinthus of Nero, but in some cases its name was spelt Terabintum, or even Tiburtinum (i.e. made of travertine, Latin marmor tiburtinum), whose purpose and age remain unknown.

view of Borgo district, in 1493, featuring the Meta Romuli (centre)
and St.Angelo Castle, i.e. Hadrian's tomb (right)

Provided that such monument really existed (evidence to this was never found), according to the literary sources it may have collapsed or been destroyed already in the days of old, as all texts refer to it in terms of "there once was...".
However, archaeologist Italo Gismondi, who is the author of the famous model of the city during the Imperial Age, on display in the Museum of Roman Civilization, must have been convinced that Terebinthus really existed, because next to the Meta Romuli he set a cylindrical building of similar height.

← today's view of the place; once in the right half
of the picture stood old buildings, among which
the early church of Santa Maria in Traspontina
in Gismondi's model, by Hadrian's tomb (A) stand →
the Meta Romuli (B) and a round building (C) of similar
height, which might represent the mysterious Terebinthus

Several sources maintain that the material which the two aforesaid buildings were lined with was used for the making of the old St.Peter's basilica (finished around AD 335).
Therefore, by the time the Terebinthus was described, it was no longer there, whereas the Meta Romuli could be seen standing until the second half of the 1500s.
The following passages are taken from 12th-13th century works in which both the pyramid and the Terebinthus are described. By clicking on the small book icon, the original text can be read.

XX. about the Meta and the Tiburtinum[Terebinthus] of Nero.

By the Naumachia stands the tomb of Romulus, which is called Meta, and was covered with fine stone [marble], out of which the floor and the stairway of St.Peter's were made. It had a 20-foot open space around it, made of travertine, with its own drainage gutter and flowers.
Nearby was the tiburtinum
[terebinthus] of Nero, as tall as Hadrian's Castle, covered with fine stone, out of which the steps and the paradise [the courtyard before St.Peter's] were built. This round building had two round walls in a fashion similar to the Castle, whose upper edges were covered with marble slabs to let the water drip; by this spot the saint apostle Peter was crucified.


from Mirabilia Urbis Romae
("the Wonders of the City of Rome"),
c.12th century
III. about the Meta and the Castle.

By the Naumachia stands the tomb of Romulus, which is called St.Peter's Meta. It was covered with fine marble, out of which the floor and the stairway of St.Peter's was made. It had a 20-foot open space around it, made of travertine marble, with a drainage gutter in which the water of the Meta's open space flowed.

about the Terebinthus of Nero.

Beside the Meta stood the Terebinthus of Nero, as tall as Hadrian's Castle. It was covered with large slabs. And it had two round walls, in a fashion similar to the Castle. And the upper part of the walls was protected for the water by large marble slabs [as a waterproof cover]. The Terebinthus stood next to the spot where the saint apostle Peter was crucified, and where now stands the church of Santa Maria in Trasbedina [Traspontina].

from Le miracole de Roma
("Rome's Wonders"),
c.13th century
By the Naumachia is the tomb of Romulus, which is called Meta; it used to be covered with fine stone, out of which the floor and the stairway of St.Peter's were made. It had a 20-foot open space made of travertine marble all around it, with a drainage gutter and flowers of its own.
Next to it stood Nero's Terebinthus, as tall as Hadrian's memorial, covered with fine stone, out of which the steps and the paradise
[the courtyard before St.Peter's]</FONT> were built. This round building had two round walls, in the fashion of the memorial, whose top part was covered with marble slabs for the water to drip; by this spot the saint Apostle Peter was crucified.

from Graphia aureae urbis Romae
("Account of the Golden City of Rome"),
late 12th century

A fewer number of sources mention the pyramid in Borgo as the tomb of Remus (instead of Romulus).

By the Almachia [a corruption of Naumachia], that is to say by Santa Maria in Traspontina's church, stands the meta which, it is said, was the tomb of Remulus [Remus], killed on the Janus [likely, the nearby Janiculus hill] by order of Romulus; and with regard to this meta, as I already said, I am in doubt that it may have not been built by Romulus for Remulus, because in those days Romulus and his clan did not have so much power. I cannot find another etymology worthy of reliability; but whatever it may be, it was very beautiful, covered as it was with marble slabs, which emperor Constantine had Saint Peter's floor built and decorated with. The aforesaid meta had a circle of twenty steps around it, and a hight of ten feet, with a patio in travertine, a drainage gutter and a hole. In front of it stood Nero's Terabintum [Terebinthus] , which was built over the remains of the Temple of Jupiter: from this building comes the basin of the fountain in the square, in which the guest priests preached in the time when the Terabintum was there. After its destruction, a temple of Diana was built, and Hadrian's great tomb with the bridge, which today is called Sant'Angelo Castle, as will be said further, according to what can be read in the inscriptions, up to emperor Crescentius, who changed its name into Crescentius' Castle, and the aforesaid name Sant'Angelo Castle, chosen by saint pope Gregory, has been haded down up to our days.


from Tractatus de rebus antiquis et situ urbis Romae
("Essay About Antiquities and the Site of the City of Rome"),
by an anonymous author, early 15th century

← the Vatican area in a map of Rome by Pietro del Massaio (1472);
on the western bank of the Tiber, in the foreground, from the left:
the tomb of Hadrian (Sant'Angelo Castle), the wall of Leo IV that
surrounded the Vatican, better known as the Passetto, with its two
gates, Porta Castello (behind which Borgo's pyramid is labelled
"tomb of Remulus") and Porta Viridaria (behind which stands the
old St.Peter's basilica and the obelisk on one side) and, on the right,
one of the round towers of Nicholas V (see The Walls of the Popes)



The legend about the origin of the two pyramids misled even cultured people, such as Petrarch.

Around 1440-50 Poggio Bracciolini, a distinguished man of letters, mentioned how the poet had mistaken the pyramid of Gaius Cestius, despite the inscription it bears at the top:

What surprises most, being the inscription still preserved, is that Francis Petrarch, a most learned man, wrote in one of his letters that this [the pyramid of Gaius Cestius] is the tomb of Remus; I believe that, following the popular belief, he did not make an in-depth investigation of the inscription, covered by branches, in reading which those who came after him, yet being less cultured, proved to be more careful.

  (...)

Furthermore, in the Vatican stands a large-sized pyramid, similar to a massive building, free from any ornament.


from De varietate fortunae
("The Vagaries of Fortune")
by Poggio Bracciolini, 1431-1448

rough view of Borgo district, from an
illumination of 1456: the pyramid (bottm right)
stands between Hadrian's tomb and St.Peter's


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. Instead, the fewer images of the Terebinthus are almost entirely fictional, being based on the very scanty descriptions previously mentioned which, in turn, were very likely legendary.
The subject which more often than any other features a view of Borgo district in the background is the crucifixion of St.Peter. One of the earliest examples is a fresco by Cimabue (c.1280, below left), in the Upper Basilica in Assisi, unfortunately in a poor state of preservation.

the crucifixion of St.Peter by Cimabue
An almost identical view is featured in one of the panels of the Stefaneschi Triptych (right), an altarpiece painted around 1320 by Giotto (who had been one of Cimabue's followers), for one of the altars in the old St.Peter's basilica. In the background, on the left side of the view, stands a towering pyramid, i.e. the Meta Romuli, while on the opposite side a matching structure, of similar height and shape, but apparently hexagonal in section, is topped by a tree; this may be the Terebinthus.
the same subject by Giotto

There are also scholars who maintain that the monument on the right is the Meta Romuli, while the pyramid on the left is that of Gaius Cestius (a.k.a. Meta Remi), despite the considerable distance between the two landmarks.
What may seem a paradox can be explained according to a very popular belief that lasted throughout the Middle Ages, according to which St.Peter had been crucified inter duas metas, i.e. between two monuments, both of which identified as a meta. There were two ways of interpreting this vague location.
One of them was to consider the two metae as the one in Borgo district, i.e. the Meta Romuli, and the one of Gaius Cestius, then known as Meta Remi; for this reason many people believed that the site of St.Peter's crucifixion was the top of the Janiculum hill, a spot which is, in fact, midway between the two monuments, where a church dedicated to the saint was also founded (see Trastevere district). In this respect, the monuments featured in the aforesaid paintings are not meant to be shown in their real location, but only simbolically comply with the belief, i.e. St.Peter crucified between them.
A similar arrangement, yet seen from a shorter distance, is featured in a painting by Masaccio (1426), in which the two metae are so close to each other that there is barely room left for the cross.

← the crucifiction of Saint Peter, Deodato Orlandi (early 14th century)

the same subject by Masaccio (1426) ↓


However, there was also who rebutted this legend, claiming that the apostle had been killed somewhere near the stadium of Gaius and Nero, which in the 1st century AD stood on the grounds left to the basilica of St.Peter's (yet to be built). According to this school of thought, the two metae between which the crucifixion site was to be sought for may either be the ones belonging to the stadium itself or, more likely, the Meta Romuli in the nearby Borgo district and another outstanding local monument, similar in shape, thus perceived by the people as the second meta; for instance, the obelisk that once marked the centre of the arena, which was the only relic spared from the ancient stadium. Up to the late 1500s the spire stood on one side of the basilica and was topped by a bronze globe (see the Obelisks monograph). This clearly appears in a panel belonging to a series of frescoes featuring episodes of the saint's life, in the basilica of San Pietro a Grado (near Pisa), painted in the early 1300s by Deodato Orlandi, to celebrate the first Jubilee Year held in 1300 (above left).
The composition of the scene is very similar to the aforementioned one by Masaccio, painted over one century later. But in this case, the artist mixed up the architectural elements, because on the left stands a structure made of large red blocks, with a polygonal section and an ogival shape (typical of the metae of Roman hippodromes), which certainly alludes to the stadium of Gaius and Nero, as confirmed by the white monument in the centre, identifiable as the Vatican obelisk (the only one that in the 14th century was still standing) because of the bronze globe at the top. A real pyramid, instead, is partly seen on the right, at a short distance, consistent with the no longer extant Meta Romuli in Borgo district.

In a series of nine paintings by Andrea Mantegna called Triumphs of Caesar (c.1485-1495), the landscape in the background depicts ancient Rome, and among several monuments, most of which are fictional, there is a pyramid topped by a sphere, which may be a sort of 'hybrid' between the obelisk and the Meta Romuli.

Scholar Biondo Flavio, a secretary of pope Eugene IV, who wrote an essay about Rome's antiquities called Roma Instaurata ("Renewed Rome") (c.1444-48), refuted the old belief about the Janiculum:

detail from A.Mantegna's 7th painting from
the Triumphs of Caesar series
Book one - 45. The site of St.Peter's martyrdom

But now, dealing with issues concerning saints, let us expose our opinion about the site of the martyrdom and passion of St.Peter, the prince of apostles. As it is a common conception that he had suffered them by the terebinthus between the two metae. What place this may be, is completely obscure; and there are also those who wrongly try to assign such honour to the Janiculum.

from Roma Instaurata
("Renewed Rome")
by Biondo Flavio, 1431-1448
This quotation once again mentions the mysterious Terebinthus. But artists of the 15th century were either oblivious of its written description as a monument, or simply rejected this interpretation, and started depicting it as a tree. Terebinth, or turpentine tree, is in fact the name of a tree of the genus Pistacia that grows in the Mediterranean area, and is even mentioned in the Bible (Book of Judges 6, 11 and Sirach 24, 16).

The crucifiction of Peter is also featured in a square panel in relief belonging to the bronze doors of St.Peter's basilica (right), cast in 1445 by the famous sculptor Filarete. In the panel, one pyramid is clearly recognizable in the bottom left corner, a similar monument stands in the opposite corner, recalling in shape the one painted by Cimabue and Giotto, while a third building in the centre, with a square base and a cylindrical top, is undoubtly Hadrian's tomb. The space between the latter and the right moument is occupied by the trunk of a large tree: the Terebinth. In the top right corner, emperor Nero witnesses the crucifiction, sitting on a lavish throne with a canopy.

the panel of St.Peter's door featuring the saint's crucifixion:
note the terebinth tree between Hadrian's tomb
and the monument in the bottom right corner

In an early 17th drawing by Vatican archivist Giacomo Grimaldi, likely inspired by the bronze panel, the same details are clearly described by captions added below: the tapered moument on the right is referred to as Meta, while the tree standing next to it is labelled Terabintus. The tomb of Hadrian is described as Castellum Hadriani, i.e. Hadrian's Castle, having the monument long since been turned into a stronghold. Curiously, the pyramid on the left has no caption, so this leaves once again open the debate whether the landmark on the right is the Meta Romuli and that on the left the Meta Remi (Peter being crucified at equal distance from the two spots, on the Janiculum hill), or whether the Meta Romuli stands on the left and the generic Meta is some other unidentified landmark in Borgo district (Peter being crucified somewhere nearby).

← the crucifiction of St.Peter, Giacomo Grimaldi, early 17th century

In either case, both depictions contain a chronological paradox, as Peter was crucified in either AD 64 or 67, whereas Hadrian's tomb was built no sooner than seventy years later, so quite obviously it could not be standing there yet.
Furthermore, if the pyramid on the left was that of Gaius Cestius (a.k.a. the Meta Remi), in the bronze panel by Filarete it would be standing on the wrong side of the river, although such depiction may be highly symbolic, as already said about the paintings. But also the other interpretation may be possible, if we bear in mind that the bronze doors of St.Peter's were commissioned to Filarete by pope Eugene IV, whose secretary Biondo Flavio opposed the belief of the apostle's crucifixion on the Janiculum.

The Meta Romuli is also featured in the fresco The Vision of the Cross (1520-24), by Giulio Romano and other assistants of Raphael, whose landscape in the background also includes Hadrian's tomb. Since the subject of the painting is the battle of the Milvian Bridge between Constantine and Maxentius (AD 312), which took place about 4 km (2.5 mi) north of Borgo district, the view appears much closer than in reality, and a second pyramid in the distance (right to Hadrian's tomb) may refer to the Meta Remi.

detail from The Vision of the Cross, by Giulio Romano →


Beside such works of art, also several maps and views of the city shed some light on the ancient monuments in Borgo district. A good number of them date to the 16th century; most of them were new city plans, as in those years Rome's urban structure was rapidly changing, but some were maps of ancient Rome, due to the revived interest for classic antiquities over the Renaissance.
Unlike the background views in religious scenes, whose adherence to reality was marred by medieval beliefs, maps were mostly based on the investigation of the many ruins that lay scattered all over the urban area and the suburbs. Actually, the Terebinthus in never featured in maps, neither as a building, nor as a terebinth tree. And since the Meta Romuli, which instead is often included (see the several sample pictures), was demolished no sooner than the mid 1500s, its look may have been reasonably faithful to its depiction in such maps, although sometimes it was given different names.

map of ancient Rome drawn by
Étienne du Perac (1574); the pyramid
is labelled Mon[umentum] Semproni
For instance, in two maps of ancient Rome, by ╔tienne du Perac (1574) and Pirro Ligorio (1561), the pyramid in Borgo district is labelled Monumentum Semproni, i.e. the Monument of Sempronius; the gens Sempronia was a very important family in ancient Rome, which had several branches.
Another historical personage whom the Meta Romuli was referred to was Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus (235ľ183 BC), the famous Roman general who defeated Hannibal. In the 15th century essay Tractatus de rebus antiquis..., previously quoted, among the list of Rome's important palaces, the pyramid is described as follows:
Scipio's palace stood by the horse, along the Cornelian way, where it is still visible now.

'Horse' is a simplification of the old name of the site once called coxa caballi ("horse's leg"), which later in time was Italianized into Scossacavalli, a no longer extant square in the very heart of Borgo district; a nearby street is still called via Scossacavalli. The real tomb of the Scipioni, instead, stands along the ancient Appian Way

Although such different interpretations of the monument provide no clue to the real nature of the monument, they do give us further confirmation about its presence in the district.

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.


← the Renaissance church of Santa Maria in Traspontina

In the map of Rome by Leonardo Bufalini (detail on the right), drawn only a few years before the last half of the Meta Romuli was removed, we can clearly see the pyramid's position in relation to the new street plan of the district. The church of Santa Maria in Traspontina is still featured in its original location, while the Meta, whose floor plan is the dark square in the bottom left corner, labelled as 'the tomb of Scipio Africanus', is crossed by via Lexandrina (Alexandrina). The new Santa Maria's church was then built just past this spot.



Bufalini's map (1551): the asterisk →
marks Santa Maria in Traspontina's,
still in its old location, while the arrow
indicates the spot where the church was
rebuilt a few years later; the floor plan
of the pyramid is clearly visible, i.e. the
dark square crossed by via Alexandrina