Europe's only ancient pyramid (and Colosseum myths)

In this episode:

Europe's only ancient pyramid


Nero didn't start the fire; it was always burning, as the world kept turning

For those about to rock

You sank my battleship


Obelisks in Rome

Sources, resources and further reading suggestions

Welcome to Digging Up Ancient Aliens. This is the podcast where we examine strange claims about alternative history and ancient aliens in popular media. Do their claims hold water to an archeologist, or are there better explanations out there? 

We are now on episode 65, and I am Fredrik, your guide into the world of pseudo-archaeology. This episode will be a bit different than normal. First, it was recorded in Rome. So, if you wonder why there's any difference in the audio, it might be it. Secondly, there will not be too many aliens. Don't worry, it will be a fun one, we will finally find Europe's only ancient pyramid. They were not in Bosnia or Greece but in Italy all along. Then we'll bust some Colosseum myths and talk a little about Romes's obsession with moving obelisks.

As always, thank you to the Patreons and members! Your support is fantastic, and more bonus episodes will be released shortly. If you want to help and finance the show, wait until the end, and I'll tell you how.

Remember that you can find sources, resources, and reading suggestions on our website, There you also find contact info if you notice any mistakes or have any suggestions. And if you like the podcast, I would appreciate it if you left one of those fancy five-star reviews I've heard so much about.

Now that we have finished our preparations, let's dig into the episode.

Europe's only ancient pyramid

So I have made my way all the way to Rome, where we find Europe's only ancient pyramid. Behind me, you can see the Pyramid of Gaius Sestius. As you might suspect, he was quite an important character within ancient Roman society. He was a praetor, a tribune of the plebs, and a noteworthy member of one of Rome's religious corporations. He served as a septimvir for the Apollonius, one of the four religious corporations operating in ancient Rome.

The pyramid was not built by Sestius himself but upon his order. In his testament, Sestius stated that he wanted this pyramid to be built outside of Rome and completed in 330 days. This number was significant to Sestius, who left this construction project to his heir, whose name is inscribed on the side of the pyramid.

On the side of the pyramid are two original texts from its construction and a third text from the 1600s, added during excavations to determine its origins. Gaius Sestius, son of Lucius of the Polia, was a member of the College of Apollonius, Praetor, Tribune of the Plebs, and Septimvir of Apollonius. The work was completed in accordance with his will in 330 days by the decision of the heir Lucius Pontus Mela, son of Publius of the Claudia, and Pothos, a freedman. The mention of a freedman in the inscription indicates his significant role in the construction.

Today, the pyramid stands in a bustling intersection with heavy traffic, but the area was very different when it was built. Its construction likely occurred between 18 BCE and 12 BCE, though the date is not specified on the pyramid.

Rome originally had two pyramids, but only this one survives. As Rome expanded, the pyramid became incorporated into the city walls built between 271 and 274 CE. This incorporation was necessary as Roman burial practices forbade burials within city limits. This rule needed adjustment as Rome grew.

The Pyramid of Gaius Sestius does not resemble Egyptian pyramids because it was influenced by Nubian pyramid styles. During Sestius' time, Rome had incorporated Nubia into its empire, and Nubian pyramids with steep angles were admired. The construction materials and methods of the Pyramid of Gaius Sestius also differ from Egyptian and Nubian pyramids, featuring smaller decorative blocks and a unique style.

Visitors can enter the pyramid on the second and fourth Saturday of each month to see frescoes and a modest burial chamber. This particular pyramid is distinct because it lacks a corbeled roof, which sets it apart from other pyramids. Additionally, it is notable for being relatively smaller than its counterparts.

In conclusion, the Pyramid of Gaius Sestius is Europe's sole ancient pyramid, a testament to Roman architectural adaptation and cultural influence.


The valley where the Colosseum stands today looked a lot different in the past. The valley would have been narrower and deeper, and before the construction of the theater, it was surrounded by several hills. We can still see some of the hills today. The Palatine, Fagutal, Oppinian, and Caelian can still be seen and visited. Another hill would have been visible too from here, the Velia; it was, however, leveled during the construction of the Via dell' Impero. Even if the area between the hills isn't optimal for human habitation, we can still see people living here in the seventh and sixth centuries. During this era, those living up on the hills seem to move down into the valley to gain better access to the river Tiber. 

As people moved down into the valley, it also quickly became connected to the mythology surrounding Rome's founding. This has become more evident in recent excavations on the Palatine's northeast slope. Archaeologists have found a sizeable sacred area constructed here in the sixth century BCE. When we got to the late Republic and early Imperial era, this district was one of Rome's largest and most densely populated places. However, a great fire in 64 CE would put a drastic end to that. This fire demolished this district, and nearly half of Rome rose in flames. Today, we are not entirely sure what caused the fire. I can stress, though, that there is no need for a massive conspiracy. Remember that the favelas were mostly built with wood and constructed more or less on top of each other. In addition, open flames were necessary for cooking and lighting at night. Yet, many fingers have later in history pointed towards Nero as the cause of the fire. 

Nero didn't start the fire; it was always burning, as the world kept turning

Today, I don't think any historians believe that Nero planned these fires. If there are, I've not been able to find them at least. But let's put it like this: Nero had very little to gain and a lot to lose by staging the fires. While the Emperor is often described as unstable, he is not stupid. His enemies would have gained much ammunition for their propaganda if they were credible eyewitnesses. Even without their accusations, they still survive to our day. Nero also lost his precious art collection in the fire, risked losing his popularity among the plebs, and, in the end, used vast amounts of his wealth to rebuild the city. 

Tacitus that would have been a contemporary with the fires gives us several versions of the causes. In his work, the Annals in book 15.33-47, Tacitus covers the Great Fire of Rome and claims, "A disaster followed—whether accidental or treacherously contrived by the emperor is uncertain, as authors have given both accounts; worse, however, and more dreadful than any which have ever happened to this city by the violence of fire." Tacitus then goes on to talk about the events and while mentioning that Nero was not in town for the event, there where rumors that "at the very time when the city was in flames, the Emperor appeared on a private stage and sang of the destruction of Troy." So Tacitus seems to try to be a bit neutral, presenting different versions of the events and the causes. 

Other authors are more direct in their blame. In 121 CE, Suetonius wrote in his book "Life of the Twelve Ceasars" that Nero started the fire because the city was too ugly. He wanted to reshape it in his image. We again find the singing part: "Viewing the conflagration from the tower of Maecenas and exulting, as he said, 'in the beauty of the flames', he sang the whole of the 'Sack of Ilium,' in his regular stage costume." Cassius Dio claims in his Roman History, book 62, verses 16-18, written around 221 CE, that Nero sent out men on the town to burn it down. The Emperor is then to have "put on the professional cithara players garb, and sang 'The Sack of Troy' (so he asserted), although to common minds, it seemed to be 'The Sack of Rome'." From this passage, we get the saying that "Nero fiddled while Rome burned," stemming from a mistranslation or an attempt to make the instrument more relatable in the 17th-century play The Tragedy of Nero. While Cassius Dio never explicitly claimed that Nero played an instrument, most poetry recitals during this time were accompanied by an instrument. While only the garb is mentioned, it's very plausible that Cassius meant for it to be an instrument there, too. 

So, while Nero most likely was innocent of the fire, he seems to have blamed it on the tiny Jewish cult called the Christians, leading to a minor local persecution. Four years after the fire, Nero died in 68 CE. Shortly after, the former Emperor was sentenced posthumous to "damnatio memoriae." This means all of his monuments were to be destroyed, even the large palace he had started building where Coloseum now stands. The following Emperor Vespasian from the Flavian family saw the need for a permanent amphitheater. With the area of Neros Domus Aurea opened up, he used this to his political advantage. He regifted the land back to the public as a place for entertainment. Just imagine how this must have affected Vespasian's approval rating among the Roman population. The construction of this enormous arena would take ten years and be completed by Vespasian's son Titius in 80 CE. 

For those about to rock

Colosseum's construction took about ten years, and the quick construction was partly due to the reuse of material from Nero's constructions. It's not only in the material parts of Nero's legacy is preserved, but also in the name. Today, you might hear this building being referred to as the Flavian Amphitheater, but there's no real evidence this name was used in Roman times. While it's easy to think that the Colosseum refers to the giant theater, it's actually in reference to a large bronze statue outside. The statue depicted the god Sól, or Helios, the sun god. The statue, however, didn't start out like that; it started out as the Colossus of Nero. Instead of melting it down when "damnatio memoriae" went into effect, it was reworked into the image of a diety. I don't think Nero would have protested this, to be honest.

So Titus inaugurated the arena in 80 CE with games that lasted 100 days. These games would not have been cheap and must have been an unforgettable event that remained a topic of conversation for decades. The Flavian dynasty had procured considerable wealth from their successes in the Jewish wars. There would have been beast hunts, gladiator fights, and even naval battles, an event we will circle back to in a moment. 

I'd like to take a moment here and talk about a common misconception I had until quite recently. From movies, books, games, and other pop culture sources, we get this picture of gladiators entering the arena and marching up in front of the Emperor. There, they stop and utter these famous words: "Ave Imperator, morituri te salutant." Or, in English, "Hail Cecar, those who are about to die salute you." It's powerful imagery, and it's easy to see how people just accept it as true. With high certainty, though, this was not a standard gladiator greeting. The only time we know it was, in fact, used was in a naumachy, or naval battle, that took place in 52 CE on Lake Fucine, organized by Claudius. Three authors mention this naumachy. Tacitus was the first, and he doesn't mention this greeting. Later, author Suetonius is the first to mention it, with the addition that Claudius responded wittely "Aut non." Cassius Dio is the third and might be quoting Suetonius on this. 

Worth noting here that it's not gladiators that these authors are writing about here but condemned criminals. Suetonius and Cassius Dio frame this as an attempt by these men to be spared. When these pleas for mercy were ignored, these two authors claim that the fighters refused or fought in a way that would not hurt their opponents. A pretty different tale compared to Tacitus, who wrote, "The battle, though one of criminals, was contested with the spirit and courage of freemen; and, after much blood had flowed, the combatants were exempted from destruction." So, if this greeting even happened at all, it could be debated, but we got a pretty catchy AC/DC song out of it.

So, we have already mentioned naval battles, and a common claim about the Colosseum is that maritime battles were arranged at the arena. While sounding a bit over the top, it seems it could have happened. It was not a regular thing and likely only occurred twice in the arena's history. One time, during the inauguration of the arena, Titus did so in 80 CE, and the second time, in 85 CE, arranged by Domitian. This would also be the Emperor who would complete the arena, construct the lower gallery we see today at the site, and stop any future water events at the theater.

While it must have been an experience for those attending the naumachy, the Colosseum isn't that big. The arena part of the Colosseum is only something like 80 times 47 meters. This means that you can't have large ships or too many vessels in there. It's also hard for them to move around, making the battle relatively stationary. Compare this to the Augustinian basin, which would allow for a proper naumachy. 

By building the lower galleries, you lost the water element but, in turn, gained the ability to make the fights and hunts more interactive. With these galleries, animals, sceneries, people, and other things could be raised from below up on the arena. Whole forests and beasts could suddenly appear in front of the crowd with impressive lifts and trapdoors. 


Did women fight in the arena? Based on historical sources, women participated as fighters on occasion. An issue for us today is that most of these sources have a tendency to only focus on the sexiness of these fighting women and the novelty of the act. Kathleen Coleman has done some fantastic work trying to shed light on these combatants. From Coleman and others' work, we can see that there was a profession of trained female gladiators. It is harder to know if a male or female gladiator was in the arena because they have no separate words. Or a masculine or feminine version. There isn't a gladiatrix entering the scene. The closest word we have is a very uncommon one, Lydia. The word, however, seems to be used for female slaves connected to the gladiator schools who were the lovers of a gladiator. It seems to not have been used when discussing a woman fighting in the arena, though. 

There are a few different sources for women in the arena. One part is laws that forbade daughters, granddaughters, great-granddaughters, and wives to senators or equestrians from participating in the games. A law not needed if it didn't happen. 

Tacitus lamented that during Nero's games in 63 CE, "prominent matrons and senators disgraced themselves by appearing in the amphitheater." Cassius Dio mentions that female and male venatores or hunters participated in the beast hunt during Titus opening games. Domitian is supposed to have liked seeing women fighting people with dwarfism in the arena. Statius also describes professional women gladiators in his work Silvae. Marcus Valerius Martialis mentions female gladiators and venatores in his poems.

While it might have been, to some extent, a novelty act, women definitely engaged in combat and hunting in the public games in Rome.

Obelisks in Rome

So, if you happen to visit Rome, you might notice that there are a lot of obelisks standing around in the city. In fact, there are more obelisks in Rome than in Egypt. So, eight ancient Egyptian obelisks here in Rome still stand. But in Egypt, there are seven obelisks still standing. In total, there are 13 obelisks that you can visit here in Rome. However, as I mentioned, eight of them are from ancient Egypt. The rest were later replications by the Romans, who wanted more obelisks and didn't want to go to Egypt to fetch more.

From historical sources that we have preserved to our day, they shipped between 40 and 50 obelisks from ancient Egypt to Rome. So, the first obelisk moved by the Romans is the one you see behind us here at the Flaminian square, and the obelisk is called the Flaminian obelisk. The obelisk was moved to Rome on the order of Emperor Augustus, formerly known as Octavian. This large stone obelisk is made out of Egyptian granite and weighs 263 tons. So this was not something that would be able to move quite quickly. They actually had to do a couple of trial runs, and these trials started in 13 BCE. Augustus then ordered two obelisks to be moved from Heliopolis to Alexandria, and this took a little bit, but they figured out how to do this well. They then moved on in 10 BCE to move two obelisks from Heliopolis. One of them is the one you see behind us here, and the other obelisk is today found at the square of Montecitorio. Augustus ordered this movement of these two obelisks a bit to celebrate his victory over Cleopatra and Mark Anthony. But we will get to more reasons behind this move in just a moment. They managed to move these large stone pillars across the Mediterranean using technology similar to ancient Egypt.

Yeah. According to our sources, the Romans used similar technology inspired by the ancient Egyptians to move the obelisk through the Nile. So, they designed the ships in a manner similar to the ancient Egyptians' stone-moving barges.

But why did the Romans move so many Egyptian obelisks to Rome? To answer this question, we need to go to a different location to figure this out.

Here at Circus Maximus, Emperor Augustus placed one of the Egyptian obelisks that he brought back from Egypt. So, the obelisk would have stood in the center of the Spina here. And that's also why Rome brought in so many in the end, because later in Roman history when you had these arenas for horse races, you wanted one at each end of the spine. So, one over there and one over there.

The second Egyptian obelisk that Augustus brought to Rome became part of his giant sundial. While the Romans were excellent engineers, the movement of these giant obelisks was still viewed as quite an achievement in ancient Rome.

So the ships they used to transport these giant obelisks from Egypt to Rome were often put out on display when the task was complete. So, the citizens of Rome could marvel at the large vessels used to transport the obelisks. And if you read Pliny the Elder, he covers these just a few years after the first obelisks were moved to Rome. It's not really strange that ancient Roman citizens looked upon these obelisk movements as technical achievements.

The largest obelisks ever moved by the Romans were not the first one by Augustus but a later one known today as the Lateran Obelisk. Once upon a time, this giant stone pillar weighed a whopping 413 tons. Today, it weighs only 330 tons because it was toppled over in an earthquake, and part of the obelisk broke down and couldn't wait to be put back together.

Something worth noting is that the Romans, while being more technically advanced, used most of the same methods as the ancient Egyptians when raising and transporting these obelisks. The difference is that the Romans used pulleys.

One thing that the ancient Egyptians, during the construction of many of these obelisks, did not have access to other than the similarity in the tools and the ways they transported the obelisks. But when it came to putting the obelisk up on this pedestal, they used pulleys.

For the ancient Egyptians', we're not a hundred percent clear on which method to use, which they built it up and then toppled over. If they build a larger hill and then just drag it up to the top and then slid it down on the other side, there's several different possible solutions to the issues that do not require a pulley system.

But a pulley system isn't essential for raising an obelisk, as we discussed. Wally Wallington from the US has demonstrated that with simple fulcrums and levers and plain sticks, you can, if you have some time on your hands, you can get these large blocks in place by yourself and build. He builds his own Stonehenge in his backyard. If you're not familiar with this person.

And while putting it on the spina in the circus racetracks was one reason for this obelisk to be transported to Rome, it's not the only explanation for them because later in Roman history, there was a bit of Egyptian mania, cults dedicated to Isis and the Serapis sort of become a bit popular. And they imported these obelisks to, you know, decorate these Egyptian-Roman temples dedicated to these mystery cults.

These actually started with Augustus bringing the first two obelisks here to Rome. Before that, the Roman government and those in charge of Rome were a bit skeptical of this non-Roman religion starting to pop up in Rome. Augustus managed to change this with these two obelisks that he imported here because he did not only put them up for decoration, but they also have the original meaning of the obelisk. They were a sort of sun symbol, and I talked more about this in the special episode about the obelisk. But he dedicated this obelisk to the Roman god Sol, the sun god within the Roman Pantheon. This opened up the Egyptian influence to start making its way into Roman culture and civilization and being accepted within Roman society.

But yes, this is why we have more obelisks in Rome than in ancient Egypt: They were well exported out of the country. And it really shows that if it was possible for the Romans, I don't think it was impossible for the ancient Egyptians either. They didn't need aliens to solve this type of thing, as we see later in history.

Until then, please spread the word by leaving a positive review on platforms like iTunes, Spotify, or even among your fellow trench dwellers. For more information about me and my podcast, check out

You'll find an extensive list of sources and resources and reading recommendations for those eager to expand their knowledge on the subject matter on the episode page.

If you want to support the show, head over to, or if you want to get the most out of your buck. Head on over to, where you get a ton of bonus content, slack channels, and early ad-free episodes. That membership covers every episode, so that’s a great amount of content for your hard-earned money.

If you want to contact me, it can be done through most social media sites, and if you have comments, corrections, suggestions, or just want to write an email in all caps, you can find my contact info on the website.

Sandra Marteleur created the intro music, and our outro is by the band called Trallskruv, who sings their song "tin foil hat." Links to both these artists will be found in the show notes.

Until next time, keep shoveling that science!

Sources, resources, and further reading suggestions


“Folie hatt” by Trallskruv

Lily of the woods by Sandra Marteleur