The average tourist visiting Rome may not know, heading north from the Forum to the Pantheon, that they have just walked past one of this century’s most fascinating archaeological finds. My husband and I would have missed it if it hadn’t been for good friends who’d visited Rome the year before we did.
The ancient site is the Mamertine Prison, known in Italian as the Carcere Mamertino or the Tullianum in antiquity. Located near the Forum, the Colosseum, and Palatine Hill, the site has yielded some of the most astounding information about the antiquity of Rome. The Renaissance Church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami was constructed in the sixteen century atop the prison—one reason the Tullianum below is so easy to miss. Evidence suggests two of Jesus’s apostles, Peter and Paul, were incarcerated there before execution.
The city of Rome took shape around 753 B.C., but the archaeological findings around Mamertine Prison suggest the structure, about the 17th – 14th century B.C., is older than the city of Rome itself. Its stones became part of a wall on the northeastern slope of the Capitoline Hill, the most important of seven hills on which Rome was founded since it was the religious and political center and the site of most of Rome’s temples.
Sometime later, the inhabitants constructed a round building with walls over three meters (9 feet) thick and dug deep into the earth to create an artificial spring that appears to have been a cultic center of worship. Evidence of human remains, animal sacrifice, and fruits and grains offered to a deity exist.
The Mamertine Prison or Carcere Tullianum has long been considered the oldest prison in Rome, constructed by Ancus Marcius between 640-616 BC. It consisted of a dungeon divided into two dank cells on top of one another. Archaeologist Patrizia Fortini, who led the archaeological dig, said in an article published by Haaretz on April 8, 2016, “The lowest [cell] encased the spring and was accessible only through a tight opening, still visible today, used to lower prisoners into what must have seemed like a dark and foul-smelling antechamber to Hell.”
I have to admit that walking down into the dank enclosure made me feel claustrophobic, and I wondered how anyone could have survived there for any length of time. It would have seemed better to die than live like a caged rat in a hellhole.
The prison hosted numerous historical figures considered enemies of Rome or a threat to the Roman way of life. It was not a place of incarceration as we know it today.
According to academic researcher and teacher of ancient and medieval history, Matthew A. McIntosh, “Incarceration in … the Tullianum was intended to be … temporary … Located near the law courts, the Tullianum was used as a jail or holding cell for short periods before executions …” (See quote here.) Those unfortunate enough to be imprisoned there knew it was their last stop before execution. Some more highly-visible offenders, such as the Jewish Revoltist Simon Bar Giora, were paraded publicly before being led to the slaughter.
Most historians believe the prison’s position overlooking the Forum symbolized the Republic’s power and the Emperor’s right to impose the law in the most formidable fashion. Indeed, prisoners received the most heinous punishments during their internment. Physical abuse, verbal terrorizing, and starvation were common. Such treatment is reminiscent of how the Roman soldiers taunted and abused Jesus in the hours leading to his crucifixion.
We can be reasonably certain that Jesus’s Apostles, Peter and Paul, were incarcerated at the Tullianum. For one thing, The Carcere Tullianum held those deemed the vilest offenders against the Roman empire. Nero, arguably the most treacherous of the twelve Roman emperors, terrorized Christians because they would not bow to his claim of absolute power. Only God deserved such worship, their faith said. Nero would have treated them as enemies of the state and a threat to the empire. With its position near the law courts, the Tullianum would have been the most likely place Nero would have kept Peter and Paul until their execution.
Moreover, the site of the Mammertine Prison has been a focal point of Christian worship since the early centuries of Christianity. Patrizia Fortini and her team found frescoes and other evidence that associated the site with the veneration of Peter and Paul from the 7th century. It’s plausible that such a tradition has a basis in reality.
Some more highly-visible offenders include:
- Gaius Pontius, a Samnite commander during the Second Samnite War, defeated the Roman legions at the Battle of the Caudine Forks in 321 BC but was eventually captured and executed by Fabius Rullianus.
- Eumenes III of Pergamum, aka Aristonicus, rebelled against Rome in 132 BC and was defeated in 130 BC.
- Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls during the Gallic War, was executed at Caesar’s Triumph in 46 BC.
- Peter performed baptisms in the spring at the bottom of the pit before being crucified.
- Simon bar Giora, Jewish Revoltist was captured in Judea and brought to Rome to be paraded publicly before being led to the slaughter in 70 AD.
(This blog was first published in February 2021 and has been updated with additional information.)
Donna worked as a communications professional before turning to full-time writing. Her short stories, essays, and articles have appeared in various inspirational publications, and she has two indie-published novels published on Amazon.com–Light Out of Darkness and Undaunted Valor, Books One and Two of The Waldnesian Series.
Weaving history and faith into stories of intrigue and redemption grew out of her love of history and English literature as a young adult while attending the United World College of the Atlantic—an international college in Wales, U.K. She still loves to explore peoples and cultures of the world and enjoys developing plots that show how God’s love abounds even in the profoundly difficult circumstances of our lives. Her stories reflect the hunger in all of us for love, forgiveness, and redemption in a world that often withholds second chances.