By Donna Wichelman
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.
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.
I must 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. I imagine most prisoners felt the same.
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 link 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.
The prison hosted numerous historical figures considered enemies of Rome or a threat to the Roman way of life. 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.
- St. Peter performed baptisms in the spring at the bottom of the pit before being crucified.
- Simon bar Giora, a Jewish Revoltist, was captured in Judea and brought to Rome to be paraded publicly before being led to the slaughter in 70 AD.
Thank you for posting today. If this is your first time, welcome to the blog! It must be amazing to see a structure that is as old as this.ReplyDelete
Connie, yes, it was impressive, but also a sober reminder of the inhumane treatment of prisoners in times past regardless of their innocence or guilt.ReplyDelete
Donna, thanks for sharing this history and your photos. I'm interested in this time period in Christian history. I currently write in the time of the prophets Elijah and Elisha, but am planning some future titles in the times of Jesus and the early church.ReplyDelete
Dana, I'm glad you enjoyed the blog. I look forward to hearing more about your projects during biblical times. I would love to know more about them sometime. Thank you for your interest and comment.ReplyDelete