By guest writer Arlene Gibbs, whose blog NYC/Caribbean Ragazza captures her life in the Eternal City.
Recently, I was invited to join several journalists and bloggers on a special tour of the Mamertine Prison. The prison is most famous for being the place where, allegedly, St. Peter was held before his crucifixion. It is rumored that St. Paul was also held at the Mamertime.
The Mamertine is believed to be Rome’s first maximum-security prison. Scholars agree the prison dates back to the 6th century BC, and was located near the Arch of Septimius Severus in the Roman Forum. Today, part of the Mamertine Prison is found beneath San Giuseppe dei Falegnami Church, a modest 17th century façade just off the via dei Fori Imperiali.
Our tour was lead by archeologist Patrizia Forini, who also worked on the recent digs. It was fascinating even though I only understood only every other word. Clearly my Italian is not as strong as I thought it was. It’s one thing to go to a dinner party and follow a conversation; a lecture is a whole other story. I had to ask my friend Bernhard to translate a few times.
The Mamertine prison was brutal. It was here that many enemies of the state met their horrific fate. In addition, archeologists found evidence proving many pagan cults had worshiped there before the Romans. We saw the passageway that the prisoners took on their way to the cells. They walked past some of the very first walls in Rome. In addition, Ms. Forini showed us a section of the Campidoglio’s original wall. These walls were here 800 years before Julius Caesar. In the 1930s, big chucks of the area were bulldozed to make room for a nice wide street to the Coliseum. It’s a miracle anything is still standing.
Under the site is a spring. Water has always held an important and spiritual meaning to the pagans. They believed water could transport a dead person’s spirit to the other side. This was a good thing. The Romans used this belief to their advantage. They told prisoners’ families they sent dead prisoners down the spring, which lead out to the Tiber. Very cruel and very effective.
The excavation did not turn up any evidence of spring connection to the Tiber. However, in 2010 they found the cadavers of a man, a woman and a 10 year-old child in an area where the dungeons would be. The bodies date to approximately 800 BC, which means they were there 200 years before the jail. I wondered who they were and why were they there? Were they dead before being brought to the location or did they die there?
There is no definitive proof St. Peter was held at the Mamertime. However, recent findings lead in that direction. The legend is while Peter was held at the prison, he pounded on the stone floor and a spring miraculously burst open. He then went on to baptize several guards and prisoners. There’s a framed section of the wall leading down to the cell where St. Peter was allegedly shoved so hard against the wall by prison guards; he left an imprint on the wall. Two interesting frescos remnants are on the second level.
The Mamertine Prison is a fascinating location. It’s amazing to me archeologists and historians are still discovering new information about one of the oldest structure in Rome. I would highly recommend it to anyone who is interested in leaning more about ancient Rome or early Christianity. I’m not Catholic but was moved while standing in that little cell (with a low ceiling) and seeing the column where St. Paul and St. Peter could have been chained.
Hour-long audio guides are available in Italian, English, Spanish and French, and tours are led by Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi.
Photos by Arlene Gibbs