One of the most popular sites to visit in Rome is the Roman Forum, located immediately adjacent to the even more popular Coliseum. While it’s estimated that some 4 million visitors tour the coliseum, around 2.5 million make it over to the Forum. But the vast majority of those visitors are unaware of what I believe to be the most historically intriguing portion of that walk.
Starting next to the magnificent Arch of Septimius Severus, near the far western end of the Forum, climb the stairway leading up and away from the arch. At the top of the first set of stairs and around to your right you’ll find an overlook area with a spectacular view looking down on the Forum.
When you’re finished enjoying the view, look back at the tall white marble church adjacent to the stairway and you’ll see the word “Mamertinum” on the level below the church entrance. This is the church of San Guiseppe dei Falegnami, and it was built in the 16th century above what is perhaps Rome’s most infamous ancient prison. You can visit this remarkable prison through the entrance doors located directly under the Mamertinum inscription.
It’s believed that this prison was used primarily for enemies of the state. Foreign military commanders who had been defeated were kept here until they could be paraded in a triumphant procession through the Forum and then strangled in public Most of the other political prisoners eventually died of starvation or were executed. Still other famous prisoners held here included martyrs and saints. In ancient Rome mere imprisonment, or incarceration, was not recognized as a punishment.
Go thought the entrance and on the street level you’ll find steps leading down to the upper level of the prison itself, which was actually at the ground level of ancient Rome. On the wall in this upper room of the prison you’ll see a plaque with the names of some of the more well-known prisoners that were held here. This list also includes information on when and how each of those prisoners died. Another plaque lists martyrs and saints who were held here as well as prominent visitors who came here on pilgrimage.
According to tradition, the list of prisoners that were held here includes Simon Peter of Cephas (a humble fisherman that we know as Saint Peter) and Saul of Tarsus (a modest tent maker that we know as Saint Paul). While there is no hard evidence supporting this traditional belief, that assertion has been widely accepted since at least the 5th century. Some believe that Paul may have been imprisoned here before his crucifixion and Peter before being beheaded, probably on Vatican Hill.
On this level you’ll also find a small round opening in the floor that is now covered with a grate. This hole was originally the only access to the lower level of the prison and it was through this hole that prisoners were thrown into the lower cell. Imagine the terror that must have overwhelmed those prisoners who were dropped through the hole into a dark, dank chamber below.
Fortunately, you won’t have to jump through the hole to see the lower chamber since narrow stone stairs now lead you down into the dark cell. This lower cell is about 7 meters or 23 feet in diameter with a height of only around 6 feet. It is known as the Tullianum, believed to have been named for Servius Tullius, the builder of this portion of the prison.
In this lower chamber you’ll find a small, red marble altar with a relief of Saint Peter performing a baptism. The cross on this altar is upside down, not to make it look satanic but in recognition of a prominent Christian belief that Peter was crucified in an upside-down position at his own request because he felt unworthy to be crucified in the same manner as Jesus.
Some believe that the lower chamber may have originally been used as a cistern because of the fact that a small spring still rises below an opening in the floor near the altar. According to religious legend, Peter produced that spring in order to have water with healing properties which he could then use in baptizing his fellow prisoners.
It’s not known when the chamber here stopped being used as a prison but it was still operating until at least the late 4th century AD. After it became, and remains today, a pilgrimage site.
This is a small site with few specific objects to see. But for Christians, the religious implications of the events that transpired here some two thousand years ago are well worth the few minutes required to experience it. For others, the sheer impact of standing where such tragic yet important ancient activities occurred can be a memorable part of a visit to Rome.
Next in Rome, we’ll climb the city’s most infamous stairway.