From the Mamertine prison that dates back to the 4th century BC you can walk about 100 yards to reach two of Rome’s most popular museums in a wonderful square that was created by Michelangelo in the 14th century. And you can make that short walk along the path of a stairway that was built in the first century AD and would soon become known as the city’s infamous “Stairs of Mourning”.
In Latin, the word for a prison is “carcer” and the street that passes the left side of the building that houses the Mamertine prison is the Via di San Pietro in Carcere, or “Street of Saint Peter in Prison”. Our English word “incarcerated”, meaning imprisoned, is derived from that Latin word “carcere”.
And this stairway that leads up from the prison to the top of the Capitoline Hill follows the ancient path of the Gemonian Stairs, known by the nickname “Stairs of Mourning”. Those original stairs were built here around the beginning of the first century AD and often used as a place of execution in ancient Rome, especially under the reign of Emperor Tiberius.
At first the tradition was to just throw statues of disgraced public figures down the stairs where they would then be destroyed by the mob gathered there for the event. But as morality in the empire disintegrated the bodies of the offending officials themselves soon followed their statues down the stairs, often after having been tortured in the prison at the bottom. Perhaps the bloodiest day on the stairs occurred when the friends and political allies of a condemned Commander of the Praetorian Guard, the bodyguards assigned to protect the Emperor, were all massacred on the stairs under the orders of Emperor Vitellius,.
The condemned were usually strangled and then their bodies were thrown onto the stairs. But even the victims of executions carried out in other locations throughout the city were sometimes brought here to be put on public display. And the corpses were often left on open display to rot on the staircase in full view of the Forum where people would desecrate their bodies and wild dogs would feed on them. After a few days, the decaying bodies were finally removed and thrown into the Tiber River.
Death on the Gemonian Stairs was considered especially dishonorable but several senators were among the numbers executed here. And in the year 69 AD even Emperor Vitellius, who had himself condemned many to death on these stairs, was executed right here ending his reign as Emperor that lasted just eight months.
At the top of these stairs that represent one of the darkest eras in Roman history, you’ll find a shining example of what would become Rome’s brightest days in terms of art, sculpture and design – Michelangelo’s Piazza del Campidoglio and its Capitoline Museums.