The Mamertine Prison (a.k.a Carcere Mamertino in Italian) is an ancient prison located in Rome at the foot of Capitoline Hill overlooking the ruins of the Roman forum. When it was built, this was Rome’s only prison – and not a prison like we understand them today. These written words, “The Mamertine Prison of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul,” signal where Saints Peter and Paul were arrested and held while evangelizing in the Eternal City.
The prison once bore the name “Tullianum.” Its story is broad and includes historical figures such as King Vercingetorix – who was captured during the Siege of Alesia in the year 52 BCand was immortalized in the French comic book Asterix – and King Jugurtha, whose story is as exciting as the dungeon he was thrown into, where he died of starvation.Given the ancient origins of the prison, numerous legends were born over the years: tales that include the biblical figures of St. Peter and St. Paul.
Originally the complex was much larger, but now only two cells and part of the facade remain. The cell consisted of an upper section (Carcer) and a lower section (Tullianum). The Tullianum was probably built in the 3rd century BC and was connected to the Carcer with a hole. The Tullianum was used as a death row. Prisoners were let down through the hole in the ceiling and executed on this death row. In the end, the bodies were transported via the Tiber River.
Roman jails were subterranean cells used for holding political prisoners and criminals for short periods of time in cramped, miserable conditions. The practice of confining prisoners for extended periods of time as a form of punishment was not widespread until the 15th century A.D.
Legend has it that the Apostles St. Peter and St. Paul didn’t die in their cells but were held for a period and then taken to be crucified. St. Peter was crucified upside down on the site of the Vatican and St. Paul was taken to Three Fountains Abbey where he was beheaded. His head is said to have hit the ground three times and where it hit, fountains sprang forth.
This is how Three Fountains Abbey came to exist. Whilst in his cell, St. Peter took the opportunity to baptize the other inmates using water from a spring that he miraculously created: a spring that is active to this very day. It is noted in the Catholic Encyclopedia, however, that the spring existed long before the time of his incarceration.
The story of St. Peter and St. Paul spread across the globe, and with time the prison became a destination for pilgrims. According to the Telegraph, “Italian archaeologists have found frescoes and other evidence which indicate that it was associated with St. Peter as early as the 7th century.”
An altar was installed, the water source protected and the column which bound Peter and Paul was guarded. They all have since been removed and can now be found in the museum just above the cement cells, leaving the prison in its original condition when the apostles were awaiting their death nearly 2,000 years ago. Today, the San Giuseppe dei Falegnami church stands on top of Mamertine Prison.