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Mamertine Prison

Mamertine Prison

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The Mamertine Prison in Rome, also known as Carcere Mamertino, is an ancient prison thought to date back to perhaps as early as the seventh century BC. The Romans continued using the Mamertine Prison throughout the Republican and Imperial eras as late as the fourth century AD, with executions also taking place there.

Christian legend says that the Mamertine Prison was the site where Saints Peter and Paul were incarcerated. According to these accounts, Peter managed to create a spring in his cell, allowing him to perform baptisms on his cellmates and guards.

Today, the remains of the Mamertine Prison are found under the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami near the Roman Forum. Dark and dank, the dungeons are accessed via a winding staircase and offer a glimpse into the horrors experienced by criminals of Ancient Rome.

It is also worth noting that, near the Mamertine Prison (some say right next to it) would have been the location of the Gemonian Stairs, also notorious as a site of executions in Ancient Rome.

The Mamertine prison was one of the most brutal in the ancient world. It was created during the era of Roman Kings sometime between 640 and 616 BC. It is located at the foot of Capitoline Hill in Rome and was the only prison in the city at the time. According to Livy, it was the fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marius, who ordered the construction of the prison. The Romans were the first to introduce imprisonment as a form of punishment, and the Mamertine remained in use for centuries.

It is worth noting that the Mamertine was very different to the prisons of today. It was located underground and consisted of upper and lower cell floors. You could only access the lower cell via a hole in the upper cell&rsquos floor. The upper prison is trapezoidal in shape, and there is a plaque naming famous prisoners and their cause of death. There is another plaque featuring the names of saints and martyrs along with the people who tortured them. St. Peter and St. Paul are both said to have died in the Mamertine.

The lower room is called Tullianum, after its builder, Servius Tullius, and is located in a sewer system below the city. This part of the Mamertine was designed for the criminals set to be executed whereas the upper part was for torture. According to Sallust, the Tullianum was 12 feet underground and vile because of the filth and stench. Prisoners in the Tullianum were usually executed via strangulation or else they were left to starve to death. There was also an iron door which was opened when the Romans wanted to toss dead bodies into the River Tiber.

There is a lengthy list of famous individuals imprisoned and/or executed in the Tullianum. These include King Jugurtha of Numidia who died of starvation in 104 BC, Vercingetorix, leader of the Gauls, who was imprisoned there before his execution in 46 BC, and Publius Cornelius Lentulus Sura, who was one of the main members of the Catiline Conspiracy and executed in 63 AD.

Influence of Christianity

  • The paschal indulgence. By virtue of an edict of Valentinian I in 367 all prisons were opened at Easter and the prisoners set free. This edict was called the indulgentia pascalis. The privilege was not extended to those arrested for sacrilege, poisoning, treason, adultery, rapine, or murder. Valentinian the Younger, Theodosius, and Theodoric issued similar edicts, but they excluded in addition recidivists.
  • The right of asylum. Under Constantine the Church had the right of asylum, which was granted also by his successors. Charlemagneordained in a capitulary that no one taking refuge in a church should be taken from it by force, but should be unmolested till the court had pronounced its decision. This privilege in the course of time was abused and consequently was abolished. The right of asylum was not extended to adulterers, ravishers of young girls, or public debtors it was confined to those who were unjustly pursued.
  • The right of intercession. The bishops had the right to ask the civil judge to pardon condemned prisoners, especially those sentenced to death frequently, however, they petitioned to have prisoners discharged.

Influence of the papacy

The influence of the Papacy also was very great, and the prison system at Rome became a model. Popes Eugenius IV (1435), Paul V (1611), and Innocent X (1655) passed regulations improving the conditions of prisoners, until finally Clement XI (1703), by constructing St. Michael's prison, introduced the most essential change needed to ameliorate the penal system: the construction of a house of correction for youthful offenders, as is recorded in the inscription on the façade "Perditis adolescentibus corrigendis instituendisque ut qui inertes oberant instructi reipulicae serviant" (for the correction and education of abandoned youths that they who, without training, were detrimental to the State, may, with training, be of service to it). The methods employed to reclaim culprits were separation, silence, work, and prayer. Each prisoner had his cell at night, but all worked in common during the day. A religious confraternity supervised them and undertook their education. Each one was taught a trade, and was encouraged by a system of rewards. The punishments consisted in bread and water diet, work in their cells, black holes, and flogging. In the large workshop of the jail was inscribed the motto: "Parum est coercere improbos poena nisi probos efficias disciplina" (It avails little to punish the wicked unless you reform them by discipline). In 1735 Clement XII erected a prison for women on the model of St. Michael's. If Clement is considered the creator of the modern penitentiary system, it must be pointed out that at Amsterdam the principle of separation at night and work in common during the day had been introduced in 1603 (Von Hippel, "Beiträge zur Geschichte der Freiheitstrafe" in "Zeitschr. fur die Gesch. Straf.", 1897, p. 437, and Roux, "Revue pénitentiaire", 1898, p. 124 sqq.), and that the work of the Dutch inspired many imitators in Germany and Italy, where learned jurisconsults proclaimed that the reformation of the culprit was the object of punishment (Rivière, "Revue penitentiaire", 1895, p. 1152). A priest, Filippo Franci, after experimenting at Venice and Naples on the effect of separating prisoners according to sex, age, and social rank, succeeded in making his house of refuge at Florence (casa pia di refulgio), by the application of individual separation, a model establishment for the correctional education of children.

Influence of the religious orders

In the Middle Ages the Church founded religious orders which bound themselves by vow to the redemption of captives the Trinitarians, or Mathurins, established in 1198 by St. John of Matha and Felix de Valois, and the Nolascans, founded in 1223. In Spain, France, and especially Italy, there were, moreover, associations or confraternities labouring to improve the condition of prisoners: the Confraternità della Misericordia and the Compagnia di Santa Maria della croce al Tempio detta de Neri at Florence, the Pia Casa di Misericordia at Pisa, the Casa della pietà at Venice, etc. Besides the prisons depending on the State, there were prisons under the control of the religious authorities. Each convent had one or at times two prisons in which religious were incarcerated. The term of imprisonment was temporal or perpetual. The culprit had to do penance and amend his ways. He was isolated and often chained. Generally the discipline was severe not unfrequently corporal punishment was added to incarceration and the prisoner put on bread and water. The Church had the right to punish clerics for penal offences and had its own episcopal prisons, but from the middle of the sixteenth century, as a result of the changed relations of Church and State, the privilegium fori disappeared and the State resumed its right of punishing clerics in non-religious matters. In the episcopal prisons clerics were treated more gently than were the monks in convent prisons, nevertheless in certain cases the discipline was very rigorous. The Church had jurisdiction also over the laity in offences of a religious character. Finally, it created a new procedure, differing from the ordinary, viz. The inquisitorial procedure in cases of heresy. Imprisonment was the severest punishment the inquisitors could inflict directly. According to the inquisitional theory, it was not really a punishment, but a means for the culprit to obtain pardon for his crimes, and to amend and be converted, while close supervision prevented him from infecting the rest of the flock. The prisoners were subjected to two regimes: the severe and the milder but, in either case, the captive was given only bread and water he was confined to a cell, and forbidden all communication, though the latter provision was not strictly enforced. Those under the milder discipline could, if they behaved well, take a little exercise in the corridors, a privilege granted also to the aged and infirm. Those condemned to the severe regime were cast fettered into a narrow dark cell sometimes they were chained to the walls. The prisons were constructed without any regard to the health or convenience of the inmates, and the condition of the latter was wretched. The Inquisition sometimes commuted or remitted the punishment. The remission was ad tempus, for a longer or shorter period, according to the case.

Mamertine Prison Rome


The Mamerine Prison was built in the 7th century BC and is thus the oldest prison in Rome. Construction was ordered by the 4th king of Rome, Ancus Martius. Until the Middle Ages this ancient state prison was called Tullianum.

Initially its function was probably that of a cistern for water that came from a small well in the floor.

Generally prisoners were not held here for very long periods. Either they were executed or after some time simply starved to death.

According to legend Saint Peter stumbled on his way down into the prison, thereby supposedly leaving an imprint of his head in the wall.

The two saints, who were locked up in the dark, managed to conjure up some water. The guards Processo and Martiniano were so impressed that they converted immediately and let their prisoners escape. The Latin word for “puddle of water” is tullus, which is why the prison came to be called Tullianum.

Other VIPs that spent time in the Mamertine Prison were the King of Numidia and the Gallic leader Vercingetourix, who had tried to lead his people into a revolt against Caesar (52 BC).

In the 15th century the prison came to be considered a holy building. It is dedicated to San Pietro in Carcere (“Saint Peter in Prison”).


The present marble façade dates back to the year 40 BC and covers the original tuff stone one, which was made two centuries earlier. An inscription shows the names of two consuls, C. Vibius Rufinus and M. Cocceius Nerva.

The entrance opens up into a trapezoid space, which is called the carcer. Underneath this space is a round room, which is the actual Tullianum. Until not too long ago this space could only be entered through a hole in the floor, but nowadays there are steps leading down. The hole itself is now covered with an iron gate.

There might have been a smaller entrance in the right wall. This was located above the present street level and is now bricked up. At the time there were other rooms called Lautumiae, which had been dug out in the tuff stone.

There are two plaques on this wall, of which the first one lists its most famous prisoners and how they died. The other one names the imprisoned martyrs and saints and who their persecutors were.

An iron door at the back of the Tullianum probably led to the sewer system, which was called Cloaca Maxima. It is possible that this was used to get rid of the dead bodies, which then floated through the sewers to end up in the river Tiber.

An altar with the busts of Saints Peter and Paul is placed against the back wall.

A Political Institution

It is important to remark that Livy places the original location of the carcer in the middle of the city, and overlooking the forum. Indeed, the carcer was not only used as a physical space where convicted enemies of the state could be detained and executed, but also as a metaphorical reminder of the power of the Republic or the Emperor, and its placement in the city was significant. It was the physical manifestation of power—the right of the Republic or Emperor to impose the law in the most severe fashion.

One way that this power was manifested was during the triumphal procession. The carcer was an important stop along the procession. The purpose of the triumphal procession was to demonstrate the dominance of the victor over the enemy, and often captives of war were part of the procession, and the leader of the enemy was the highlight. The public execution of the enemy to the state, whether that person was the leader of an enemy people or a Roman citizen who was charged with treason, was made into a spectacle for the whole populace to see. The carcer was a part of the political aspect of the forum. It was located near the forum because that was the center of Roman life and politics.

In Against Verres, Cicero writes, “Those who celebrate a triumph temporarily stay the executions of the enemy’s leaders so that the people of Rome can witness the beautiful spectacle and the reward of victory when these men are paraded in the triumph. But when the wagons in the procession begin their turn from the Forum to the Capitoline, they order the captive leaders to be led into the Prison [Carcer] to their death. Thus does one same day put an end to both the command of the victorious general and the life of the defeated foe.” (Cicero, Against Verres 5.77. Aicher, p. 55.) Josephus confirms in his description of Vespasian’s triumph of 71 CE that the leader of the enemies were executed at the carcer. (Josephus, The Jewish War 7.132-155. Aicher, p. 57)

There are several famous instances in which the carcer was used—two will serve here as illustrations, the incarceration and execution of Vercingetorix and of the Catilinarian conspirators.

First, the leader of the Averni tribe of Gauls, Vercingetorix, surrendered to Caesar after the battle of Alesia in 52 BCE. He was incarcerated and then forced to participate in Caesar’s triumphal parade of 46 BCE. At the end of the parade, he was lowered into the Tullianum through a circular hole by a rope, with his executioner, and decapitated in the dark. (Deutsch, 101 Plutarch, Life of Julius Caesar, section 27 Cassius Dio, Roman History, book 40, section 41). Here the carcer was being used to assert the dominance of the Republic over people who they considered “barbarians.” However, interestingly, this also allowed the prisoner to die with a certain amount of dignity that was not even given to the lower class.

In the Roman Republic, Roman citizens were granted certain protections in the law. They could be executed for serious crimes like treason, but the only method of execution that was considered appropriate for a citizen was decapitation. In this way, citizens were allowed to die in a dignified way that was considered appropriate for their social status. By contrast, slaves and non-citizens could be sent to the beasts, be forced into gladiatorial combat or sentenced to die working in the mines, or they could be crucified. As citizenship expanded, it became less valuable as a marker of social status. In 212 CE Caracalla extended citizenship to practically all inhabitants of the Roman Empire. The category of honestiores (upper-class) and humiliores (lower-class) replaced the citizen/non-citizen distinction, and honestiores were afforded protections that had previously been restricted to citizens. So in allowing enemies of war to be executed by decapitation in private, the Romans were almost treating them with the same level of respect as they treated citizens or honestiores.

The second illustration occurred in 63 BCE, when Cicero as consul tried the Catilinarian conspirators. They were found guilty but without giving them access to their right to appeal, Cicero wisked them off to the carcer and executed them. As Sallust writes in War against Catiline, “Cicero, as consul [in 63 BCE], decided to carry it [the death sentence] out before nightfall to forestall any further developments, and ordered the prison officials to prepare everything necessary for execution. After stationing guards around, he personally led Lentulus into the prison praetors escorted the other conspirators. […] Into this chamber [the Tullianum] Lentulus was lowered, and the executioners of those who commit capital crimes did as they were told and strangled him. Thus did a patrician of the distinguished family of the Cornelii and former consul in Rome end his life, in a manner worthy not of his birth but of his character and his own deeds. Cathegus, Statilius, Gabinius, and Caeparius died in the same way.” Sallust, War against Catiline 55. (Aicher, p. 70)

It is interesting to note that enemies of the state were afforded the same dignity and privilege of being executed in the same way that citizens were allowed to be. They were allowed a private execution by decapitation or strangulation. In addition, the way that the Catelinarian conspirators were treated, being executed in the Tullianum, placed them on the same level of Vercingetorix and other foreign enemies. This may be an intentional juxtaposition by Cicero, because it almost strips them of their citizen status and gives Cicero more validity in treating them the way that he did. These cases point to the complex political and social connotations that were connected to the carcer. It served not merely a prison—though not for penal servitude or correction, naturally, but for detention and execution—but a symbol of power, a political institution, and an expression of social order.

Mamertine Prison - History

The Mamertine Prison, otherwise known as the Tullianum, is located on the east side of the Capitoline Hill, adjacent to the Roman Forum, and near the Arch of Septimius Severus, and below the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami. The prison consisted of two vaulted chambers, one above the other. The lower chamber is often referred to as the "Tullianum" as it is thought that the room was originally constructed to be a water cistern.

The name "Mamertine" originates from medieval times, probably to reinforce the claimed connection to the legends surrounding Saint Peter. The ancient Romans simply called the site "carcer", which is commonly translated to mean "prison". The "carcer" the only prison in the ancient city, and was reserved for important state prisoners, often prior to their execution.

The legend that Saint's Peter and Paul were imprisoned here seems to stem from the fifth century, although this does not exclude the fact that it may be true. It is possible that Paul could have been imprisoned here before he was executed at Aquas Salvias, and Peter before his execution in Nero's circus on the Vatican Hill. Paul wrote about his imprisonment several times in his letters, for an example see Philippians 1:13. The legend regarding the spring, where Saint Peter is supposed to have caused the spring to well up in the prison so enabling him to baptize his fellow prisoners, originated from much later times.

The upper room, which is on a level that was once the ground level of the prison in ancient times, is thought to date back to the second century B.C. The walls are made of blocks of tufa on which there is mounted a plaque on which are the names of the prisons most celebrated prisoners. At the back is a small alter with busts of both Saint Peter and Saint Paul. Originally access to the lower room was gained by throwing or lowering prisoners through a hole in the floor. Nowadays for safety reasons the hole is covered b a metal grate, with access to the lower floor being gained via a set of comparatively modern steps.

The circular lower room or Tullianum, is where the condemned prisoners were thrown and sometimes strangled. Here can be seen a small altar, backed with a relief of Saint Peter baptizing his fellow prisoners. On the front of the alter, standing out against a red marble background is the upside- down cross of St. Peter, depicting that he was crucified upside- down. In the floor in the front of the alter is a round opening leading to the spring, the water from which it is said, Saint Peter baptised his fellow prisoners, and guards.

What Were Roman Prisons Like in Paul’s Time?

In the New Testament, we hear a lot about Christians being imprisoned—especially Paul. In fact, he wrote his letter to the Philippians while in a Roman prison! We’ve gathered information from the ESV Archaeology Study Bible for you to learn more about Roman jails were like.


In the Roman world, imprisonment was rarely a long-term punishment. Most prisoners were awaiting either trial or execution. Debtors could be imprisoned until their friends or family paid o‘ the debt (Matt. 18:30). The length of imprisonment depended on the swiftness of a trial, which could be drawn out for years, especially in political cases. Conditions of imprisonment were closely linked to the status of the prisoner. Non-Roman citizens, even of high status, were often harshly treated. In contrast, house arrest was typically more comfortable for the prisoner, who was usually physically chained to a guard but could still host visitors.


Paul experienced a wide variety of Roman prison conditions. He was chained in a common holding cell in Philippi (Acts 16:23– 30), imprisoned in probably better conditions in the praetorium at Caesarea (Acts 23:35), and held in relative comfort while in house arrest in Rome (Acts 28:16). In Rome, Paul was responsible for maintaining himself during his imprisonment, including his meals and clothes (Acts 28:30). Paul’s Roman citizenship meant he was eligible for a daily food allowance, but Paul depended on his friends and fellow believers to supply this food. While under house arrest in Rome, Paul was guarded around the clock by soldiers of the elite Praetorian Guard.


Finally, when he was later rearrested and executed (likely a few years after this letter), Paul was probably placed in an underground cell somewhere in Rome. It is possible that he was then imprisoned in the Roman Mamertine Prison in the Roman Forum. This was where major convicted enemies of the state were strangled or kept before being thrown off the Tarpeian Rock on the Capitoline Hill. However, if Paul was executed by a sword outside the city, as later tradition claimed, he probably would not have been imprisoned at Mamertine.



Paul is the stated author of Philippians, and while Timothy is listed in 1:1 as a coauthor, the main voice is clearly Paul’s. Timothy may have been Paul’s amanuensis, or secretary. The letter was written to the Christians in the Roman colony of Philippi. Some scholars have suggested that the current epistle combines two authentic letters of Paul, with the first letter concluding at 3:1 (“Finally, my brothers . . .”). However, Paul elsewhere uses “finally” in the middle of an epistle (1 Thess. 4:1 2 Thess. 3:1 cf. 1 Pet. 3:8).


Paul wrote this letter while in a Roman prison, and the date of the composition of Philippians depends on where Paul was imprisoned. His statements to the Philippians concerning his possibly imminent death (e.g., Phil. 1:20) indicate the letter was most likely written from Rome, perhaps in AD 62. This also fits most naturally with the mention of the praetorium and “Caesar’s household”.


The church at Philippi had a special significance for Paul, as it was the first church he founded in Europe (see Acts 16:6–40). The first convert was Lydia, a seller of purple cloth, and women continued to have a prominent role in the Philippian church (e.g., Phil. 4:2). His brief incarceration in Philippi (Acts 16:23–40) would make Paul’s later imprisonment mentioned in this letter all the more poignant for the Philippians, especially for the converted Philippian jailer. Paul visited Philippi a few times after his initial departure, and the church maintained active support for his ministry (Phil. 4:15–16). Imprisonment carried with it a social stigma, and it would have been easy for the Philippians to turn their back on Paul at this point instead, however, they remained faithful to him. Paul thus writes of his gratitude for the Philippian church and for their loyalty to the gospel.


This blog is adapted from notes inside the ESV Archaeology Study Bible. This resource roots the biblical text in its historical and cultural context. Then it offers readers a framework for better understanding the people, places, and events recorded in Scripture. With this knowledge, Christians will be better equipped to read, study, understand, and apply the Bible in their daily lives.

The ESV Archaeology Study Bible is part of the ESV Study Pack, a hand-picked collection that includes everything you need to effectively study and apply God’s word. Learn more about Study Packs.

Rome to reopen ancient Mamertine Prison

Prison at Roman Forum will reopen with new visitor facilities .

The Mamertine prison at the Roman Forum will reopen to the public on 21 July, following a year-long closure to allow for archaeological work and the installation of multimedia visitor facilities.

Located under the 16th-century S. Giuseppe dei Falegnami church in the north-eastern corner of the Forum near the Vittoriano museum, the 3,000-year-old Carcer Tullianum is the oldest jail in Rome.

According to popular legend, the prison's inmates included St Peter although the Catholic Encyclopedia states that there is no "reliable evidence" of the saint's imprisonment there.

The city is also expected to open a new entrance to the Roman Forum, beside the reopened prison, on 21 July, according to Francesco Prosperetti, the superintendent for Rome&rsquos archaeological heritage.

Prosperetti also stated that the Forum exits at S. Teodoro and at Clivo Palatino would be &ldquoactive within a few months&rdquo, as part of plans to improve access to the Roman Forum.

The news follows the recent experimental opening of a new entrance at the Colosseum .

The Mamertine museum can be visited on Saturdays, Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays, every half an hour from 09.00-midday and from 14.00-16.00. A maximum of 15 people are allowed to enter at any one time, for details see Opera Romana Pellegrinaggi website .

History of the West

Cleopatra by Edward Mason Eggleston The famous picture of a red-haired Cleopatra

Did she really look like Elizabeth Taylor? We will never know, but the odds are she did not – what we know from coins and ancient busts speaks against it. She may have had red hair, as in the famous picture, but most likely she shaved all her bodily hair, as it was Egyptian custom, and wore elaborate wigs. It seems clear, however, that she knew everything about ancient make-up, using belladonna to dilate her pupils and stibium (also called kohl, antimony sulphide) to colour her eyebrows. Very little, however, speaks against Cleopatra VII Philopator‘s force of personality, wits and political shrewdness.

Although she was, technically spoken, survived for a few days by her and Caesar‘s son Caesarion as sole ruler, she was in practical regards the last true pharaoh of the Ptolemaic Kingdom of Egypt, successor to the various Egyptian Empires in the lands of the Double Crowns.

Papyrus document, right bottom corner an annotation by the queen’s own hand

Her descent features more than a few incestual, er, complications – within her last four patrilineal generations (father to father), there were three brother-sister marriages and the same number of uncle-niece marriages, so that in the end her family tree looks suspiciously like a vertical line – in fact, she only had two pair of (instead of four) great-grandparents – of which one was the son and daughter of the other!

In her youth as a scion of the royal Macedonian but thoroughly Hellenized family of the Ptolemies, founded in 305 BC by Alexander‘s general, companion and historian Ptolemy I Soter (c. 367 – 282 BC), she stood out by her talent for languages – she was the first of the family to learn the Egyptian language, but also spoke Ethiopian, Troglodyte, Hebrew or Aramaic, Arabic, some Syrian language – perhaps Syriac – Median, Parthian, and Latin in addition to her native Koine Greek.

From 81 BC on, mayhem, murder and very irresponsible financial planning within the royal family ended with the Romans’ – initially under Sulla – titular takeover of Egypt as collateral for outstanding loans. Cleopatra’s father Ptolemy XII succeeded as a client king of Rome hanging on to power – by his nails – from 80 to 58 BC and again from 55 to 51 BC with a small interruption when having been intermittently deposed by his daughter and Cleopatra’s elder sister Berenice IV.

After Berenice’s fall and subsequent beheading, Cleopatra was made co-ruler with her father some time in 52 BC, but faced serious problems after her father’s death in 51 BC. Irregularities of the Nile flooding had left the land in famine and a debt of 17,5 million drachmas to Rome (it is hard to assign a present-day value to the then-drachma, but for a long time in ancient Greek one drachma represented the daily wage of a skilled worker) petrified the state’s fiscus – aggravated by the lawless behaviour of the largely Germanic/Gallic-Roman garrison left by the financiers of the Empire.

Two factors further complicated Cleopatra’s new royal position – her younger brother Ptolemy XIII, whom she had initially rejected as co-regent but probably married for the sake of tradition – aspired to power and the ascendancy of the Roman civil war, which began to extend to Egypt.

By the summer of 49 BC, Cleopatra was fighting her brother and losing, when Pompey’s son Gnaeus Pompeius arrived from Greece with a request for military assistance against Caesar – which was granted by both Ptolemy and Cleopatra alike in their last concurrent decision. Eventually, she had to flee to Roman Syria, where she attempted to find troops for an invasion of Egypt. Yet the invasion soon stalled, and she was forced to camp outside the town of Pelousion in the Eastern Nile Delta over the winter.

Cleopatra Testing Poisons On Those Condemned To Death by Alexandre Cabanel

Having lost the Battle of Pharsalus in August 48, Pompey decided to make Egypt the basis for his tactical retreat but was promptly murdered by agents of Ptolemy XIII soon after having made landfall near Pelousion. Ptolemy believed to have perfected nothing but a masterpiece – having removed Cleopatra’s supporter Pompey, thus weakening his sister, and simultaneously earning Caesar’s gratitude for the removal of his enemy.

Uh oh. Caesar was royally angry about the coward murder and ordered – from the royal palace – both Cleopatra and Ptolemy to stop the nonsense, end the war, kiss and make up. We know what happened then: Ptolemy decided on war and Cleopatra on love, arriving at Caesar’s quarters, as Plutarch recounts, in a rug or bed sack.

Caesar’s subsequent attempts to find a solution for Egypt momentarily fizzled, and he had to endure the famous siege of the palace – protected by 4000 guards and most likely in the arms of the queen – until reinforcements arrived in the spring of 47 BC. Ptolemy XIII, his sister Arsinoe IV (half-sister to Cleopatra) and their supporters were defeated quickly, but Caesar remained wary of the intricacies of Egypt and the preceding chaos of the sole-female-rulership of Berenice and proceeded to set up Cleopatra with her younger brother Ptolemy XIV as co-rulers. While his consulship had expired at the end of 48, Mark Antony had provided him the dictatorship of Rome until the end of 47, and thus he possessed the proper legal authority.

In April 47, Caesar departed for Rome, leaving three legions in Egypt, and his son Caesarion was born on June 23. In Rome, Caesar paid respect to his childless marriage with Calpurnia by keeping his mouth horkos odonton in public while Cleopatra blazoned forth the news of his paternity to everyone.

In late 46 followed the visit of Cleopatra and Ptolemy XIV to Rome which is so memorably depicted in Joseph L. Mankiewicz‘s Cleopatra with Elizabeth Taylor. The queen had to remain outside the pomerium, i.e., outside the holy precinct of the inner city, for no monarch was allowed to enter she was put up in a villa in Caesar’s garden.

They were still in Rome – unpopular with most of the senators – when Caesar was assassinated at the Ides of March 44. Perhaps she hoped for Caesarion to be named the heir to Caesar, but when that honour fell to Octavian, she left for Egypt, had her brother killed by poison (it is said) and elevated Caesarion to co-ruler.

Cleopatra and Mark Antony at the Funeral Bier of Julius Caesar, 1878. Lionel-Noel Royer

In the Liberators’ Civil War, forced by Mark Antony and Octavian against the assassins of Caesar, she was initially courted by both sides but quickly declared for Mark Antony. Alas, one of her own lieutenants, the governor of Cyprus, defected to the enemy and subsequently she had to attend a possibly dangerous confrontation with Mark Antony at Tarsus – which she, however, defused easily by a few lavish banquets and her considerable personal charms. Mark Anthony fell for her hook, line and sinker, and Arsinoe IV, who had only been banished before, and the treasonous governor were duly executed.

The lovely couple was fond of parties and even founded their own drinking club, the “Indestructible Livers” …

But the high life did not last long – trouble developed soon. After the defeat of Brutus and Cassius at Philippi, Octavian faced the task of simultaneously providing land for the retirement of the pro- and contracaesarian veterans of the civil war – most of the latter having been pardoned by Caesar before his death. The choice was either to enrage the citizens by confiscating the required land or enrage the veterans, who then might easily decide to support a possible opponent of the triumvirate. Octavian resolved in favour of the veterans by confiscating no less than eighteen towns and their hinterlands for the soldiers – driving whole populations out – which, of course, resulted in civil unrest.

On the terraces of Philae, by Frederick Arthur Bridgeman

Enter Fulvia Flacca Bambula, widow of two former supporters of Caesar and third wife of Mark Antony (from 47 or 46 BC until 40 BC). She was, through her family connections, by far the most powerful woman in Roman politics ever, and managed even during Antony’s absence in Egypt to raise eight legions – formally commanded by Lucius Antonius, Mark’s younger brother – in Italy for a civil war against Octavian and his veterans, the so-called Perusine War. She apparently committed, however, the critical mistake of not telling her husband of her campaign and Anthony’s supporters in Gaul – for the want of orders – did not come to her aid. The rebels subsequently lost the war and Fulvia fled to her husband in Athens. It would appear that the triumvir, upset with his dear wife, sent her into exile, where she dutifully died and sailed back to Rome to mend affairs within the triumvirate.

Antony thus had to return to Rome on urgent business and Cleopatra was absolutely not amused when he – in a scheme to lessen tensions within the triumvirate – not only married Octavia, the elder sister of Augustus, in Rome but also produced two daughters with her. Yet the Perusine War had critically lessened his subsequent political influence and Octavian gained the upper hand, first in Italy, and then in Gallia.

This was documented by a new agreement between the triumvirs in the Treaty of Brudisium, in which the West fell to Octavian and the East to Antony, while Lepidus received Africa Provincia as a sort of junior partner. In this context also fell the above mentioned marriage of Antony and Octavia.

Anthony then set out on his grand design, the war against the Parthian Empire – for which Cleopatra and Egypt had to chip in a most substantial contribution. The less is said about the campaign the better – there were a few successes but defeats as well and the “Endsieg” remained a chimaera. At least the campaign had a somewhat positive end when Anthony conquered Armenia in 35 BC.

Yet in the aftermath of this success, Anthony developed a clear case of megalomania – in addition to his infatuation, yes, besottedness with the queen. For a long time, he had followed a strategy to use the prestige and power of the Egyptian Ptolemy dynasty to set up a Hellenistic follow-up state to the Seleucid Empire in Asia and in 36 BC had presented a plan of making pseudo-donations to titular Hellenistic rulers – client kings – which were to form buffer-states on the Parthian borders. At this time, Octavian had agreed and such donations were presented at Antiochia. In 34, however, as Jenny Hill describes …

Frederick Arthur Bridgeman – Cleopatra on the Terraces of Philae

“… During this triumph in Alexandria (for his victory in Armenia the preceding year) , Mark Antony proclaimed Cleopatra the ‘Queen of Queens’ and claimed that he, not Octavian, was the adopted son of Caesar. He also formally pronounced Cleopatra and Caesarion joint rulers of Egypt and Cyprus, Alexander Helios (his first-born son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Media, Armenia and Parthia Cleopatra Selene II (his daughter, twin of Alexander) the ruler of Cyrenaica and Libya and Ptolemy Philadelphus (his second son by Cleopatra) the ruler of Phoenicia, Syria, and Cilicia.”

These declarations – usually called the Donations of Alexandria – meant not only the end of the triumvirate but were an invitation to war – not because of the titular land grants but because of Antony’s claim of the Caesarian inheritance for Caesarion – not Octavian. This Octavian could not suffer. His claim to rulership was adoption by Caesar – through which he not only had inherited possessions and authority but also the loyalty of Caesar’s veterans and personal popularity. This status being called into question by a biological son of Caesar – by the richest woman in the world – he could, politically, not possibly survive. Antony’s declaration meant war – but it hadn’t yet begun.

Cleopatra by William Wetmore Story

Sparks began to fly in earnest and a full-fledged propaganda war began. Octavian basically argued – very much in public – that Anthony was not only giving away the spoils of the Armenian war but also possessions that legitimately belonged to Rome and had been paid for by the blood of the legions, that Antony was but the “slave” of a foreign queen, to whom he had bequeathed huge properties – and that to his children, a most non-Roman idea. By his giving away provinces he also deprived deserving senators of proconsulships and was starting wars, as against Parthia and Armenia, without the senate’s consent. The pro-Antony faction in the capital accused Octavian of unspeakable crimes in Gallia and Spain in addition to homosexuality and cowardice. Par for the course, one could say.

In the eyes of most Romans, Octavians arguments were better and thus the political battle developed very much to his advantage. He was also able to rouse the feelings of the citizens of the capital in regard to the various executions without trial that had become standard procedure in the East – and of course in Egypt.

Marc Antony and Cleopatra planning …

In 32 BC, the senate formally deprived Antony of his powers and declared war on Cleopatra – not Anthony. It was very important for Octavius not to appear to start another civil war – thus Cleopatra – still very unpopular in Rome – was the perfect target. Yet the political majorities were not clear and almost half of the Senate left Rome and defected to Antony and Cleopatra in Greece.

War finally broke out, and the naval Battle of Actium on September 2, 31 BC, decided emphatically against the fortunes of the couple. In the August of 30 BC, Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa led an invasion of Egypt which the wrought-out country was powerless to resist.

The Battle of Actium – September 2, 31 BC

Antony committed suicide in the mistaken belief that Cleopatra had done so already. When he, lethally wounded, was informed of the fact that she was still alive, he was brought to her and died in her arms.

Louis Gauffier – Cleopatra and Octavian Guercino – Cleopatra and Octavian

Octavian captured Cleopatra but allowed her to bury Antony in the usual fashion. She was destined to be led through Rome in Octavians’ subsequent triumph and afterwards ritually murdered. Robby House writes:

Another prevalent form of execution was that of Strangulation. This was perhaps the most popular form of execution for Rome’s greatest enemies although in those cases it was usually referred to as ritualistic strangulation which would often occur after the vanquished and shackled enemy was paraded through the streets of Rome as part of a Roman Triumph. While many of the victims were publicly strangled in the Forum area, perhaps the most famous war trophy was that of Gallic Chieftain Vercingetorix, arguably Caesar’s greatest foe in the field of battle. Perhaps out of some sort of pity, Caesar had him strangled away from the eyes of Rome’s citizens inside the confines of his cell in the Tullianum Prison (a.k.a. the Mamertine Prison).

Cleopatra knew very well what Octavian intended, and hence, after a few failed attempts, she took her own life – either on August 10 or 12, 30 BC.
The popular story goes that she died by the bite of an asp – an Egyptian cobra – but it is also quite possible that she took poison. Egyptian medicine knew many potent toxins, such as Hemlock, Opium, Belladonna or Aconitine, and combinations of them which yielded deadly potables or ointments. The snake story is, of course, the best copy, and hence it does not surprise that the subject was taken on by a plethora of painters and sculptors, of which we show a few below.

La mort de Cleopatre. Rixens Jean Andre. 1874. The Death of Cleopatra by Hans Makart The Death of Cleopatra by John Collier The Death Of Cleopatra – by Louis Jean François Lagrenée Cleopatra by Alfonso Balzico, 1874

Cleopatra, by Charles Gauthier, 1880 Cleopatra, taking her own life with the bite of a venomous serpent, by Adam Lenckhardt

Servant of Another Kingdom: Reflections on Visiting the Mamertine Prison

This summer my wife and I traveled to Rome to take in the sights and wonders of the ancient city. Due to the many layers of history buried beneath many current structures, one of our tour guides described the city like ‘lasagna.’

In our several days in the city, we drank from a fire hose as we took in the sites. We saw the Coliseum, Circus Maximus (where chariot races took place), the Trevi Fountain, Palatine Hill, the Roman Forum, and other key places in this remarkable city. I got to a point where my brain couldn’t process any more amazing history—you can only eat so much lasagna.

While we visited many unforgettable sites, there is one place I haven’t been able to stop thinking about: the Mamertine Prison, where according to tradition, the Apostle Paul spent his final days awaiting execution. (It’s also the likely place where Paul wrote 2 Timothy.)

It has taken me months to process the significance of this place. No, I don’t need help processing the dingy hole in the ground where they kept Paul—I can more or less imagine what life would have been like. What has taken more time to process is the spiritual and eternal significance of Paul’s life in the prison now known as Mamertine.

In Chains at the Center of the World

What surprised me most about the prison was its location. The prison overlooks the Roman Forum and Palatine Hill the epicenter of political, religious, commercial, and judicial power in ancient Rome. Some have called the Roman Forum the most celebrated meeting place in all of world history.[1]

Palatine Hill overlooks what is left of the once-powerful Roman Forum.

If you walked the courtyard of the Forum in Ancient Rome during Paul’s day, you would stand where Caesar and other leaders gave public speeches. You would walk where soldiers marched in triumphal procession after major victories. You would see the birthplace of the Roman Senate and be surrounded by statues of celebrated men from Roman history. You would walk in the shadows of ornate temples to Vesta and Caesar. To make the location’s significance more contemporary, it’s as if Paul was imprisoned a half block down from the White House on Capitol Hill.

To a Roman citizen, Paul must have been the epitome of weakness and failure—he was about to be crushed by the iron fist of the mighty Roman Empire. The gospel preacher and church planter had met his match he was on the wrong side of history. Even many believers fell into this thinking and abandoned Paul (2 Timothy 1:15 4:10 4:16). But Paul knew the kingdom he served plays by different rules.

Hope from an Ancient Dream

As a former Pharisee, Paul knew Old Testament prophecies on the coming kingdom of God. In Daniel 2, the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar dreamed of a great statue made of different materials. The statue’s head was gold, the chest and arms silver, the belly and thighs bronze, the legs iron, and feet iron mixed with clay. These materials represented coming world powers such as the current Babylonian kingdom, the future empires of the Medo-Persians (as seen in Esther), the Greeks, and the Romans.

Then Daniel saw a stone cut from a mountain by no human hand (Daniel 2:45) came and smashed each layer of the statue into pieces so small that they “became like chaff…and the wind carried them away, so that not a trace of them could be found” (Daniel 2:35). Then, the stone cut from a mountain would grow to become a kingdom that would fill the earth and stand forever (Daniel 2:35, 45).

The kingdoms of this world will literally be broken to pieces—a fact which makes the location of the Mamertine Prison much more interesting: The nearby Roman Forum is today a collection of ruins. Random pillars, partial foundations, and tattered facades scatter the landscape shadows of their former glory. The location was so abandoned after the fall of Rome that, up until the 19th century, the land housing the Forum was known as Campo Vaccino (“cow field”)—a place only deemed fit for grazing animals. The Roman Forum is visible proof Daniel 2 has partially come to pass.

The Mamertine prison is the building mostly covered by the arch in the center of this photo (The Arch of Septimius Severus)

More proof comes from kingdom growth since the time of Christ. In the sixteen centuries since the fall of Rome, the Kingdom of God has expanded larger than the Roman Empire—spreading across every continent and conquering peoples one soul at a time. The kingdom that started the size of a mustard seed (Mark 4:30-32) is growing until one day it reigns supreme and is filled with people from every tribe and tongue and language (Revelation 7:9).

The Way of the Cross & Kingdom Advance

While exploring the streets of Rome, my wife and I stumbled upon the intersection of “Via Della Croce” (the Way of the Cross) with “Via Bocca di Leone” (Mouth of the Lion Way)—a corner that reminds of how God’s Kingdom often advances.

In gospel ministry, suffering is expected (2 Timothy 1:8, 2:3, 3:12, 4:5). Weakness is strength. Service and sacrifice are signs of greatness and sources of eternal gain. Christ advances His Kingdom not with sword and spear but through prayer and witness. Even when God’s people are bound, His Word is never bound (2 Timothy 2:9).

Like Paul and Daniel, following the way of the cross may lead straight to the lion’s mouth (2 Timothy 4:17). Even so, we take heart knowing that even if our enemies kill us, they can never take our life (2 Timothy 1:1 4:18). Christ has beaten death and conquered every human power—even if He allows oppression today. We are more than conquers (Romans 8:37) because the ultimate conqueror with all authority is seated at God’s right hand interceding for us.

No matter the strength of powers or the struggles we face today, we march in triumphal procession knowing that our loving King cannot be stopped in advancing His kingdom.

[1] Grant, Michael (1970), The Roman Forum, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson pg 11.

Watch the video: 360ᵒ: Φυλακές (May 2022).