By Melissa Butz
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.
In 7th century B.C., Mamertine Prison was the main jail in Rome, located in the center of the city on Capitoline Hill. Today its memory is sacred, especially two ancient jail cells built right on top of one other.
Carcer is the upper area, where Roman guards kept watch over the prisoners below. Roman expert Carlo Munns says it was reserved for the worst “enemies of Rome.” Criminals were thrown down this hole into the dungeon, before stairs were built to connect the two levels.
In 67 AD, Peter and Paul were among those arrested. Statues and relics of the saints recall their presence, along with other markings on the wall.
“At the beginning of the stairs, we see a place which is a memory of the passage of Peter,” Carlo said. “Just bringing him down to the jail, he hit his head on the marble and there was a memory here, made for memory of this place.”
But its Tullianum, the cell below, where Peter and Paul were imprisoned during Nero’s persecution of Christians. This small area held 49 people while the Apostles were here, and is said to be the site of a miracle.
“What’s important for Christians is in this water, which sprung out for the intervention of Peter and Paul,” Carlo says. “Forty-seven people were baptized here. Two of them were the jailers, also martyred after their conversion.”
While water flowed centuries before, it had dried up in the previous 900 years. That’s why at the beginning of the 4th century, the cell was transformed into a place of worship. This sacred transformation allowed it to be preserved, instead of destroyed like other monuments.
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.
This prison, while Saints Peter and Paul were inside, actually resembled a sewage tank, since prisoners were often forgotten and starved as it was the final step before their execution. However, we know that for St. Peter, he was crucified upside down in Rome, while St. Paul was beheaded because he could not be crucified as a Roman citizen.