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Bill Thayer

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 p99  Carcera

Article on pp99‑100 of

Samuel Ball Platner (as completed and revised by Thomas Ashby):
A Topographical Dictionary of Ancient Rome,
London: Oxford University Press, 1929.

Black-and‑white images are from Platner;
any color photos are mine © William P. Thayer.

[image ALT: A 5olic altar with an upside-down cross in a low vaulted stone room. It is a partial view of the Carcer Tullianum or Mamertine Prison, now the church of S. Pietro in Carcere, next to the Roman Forum in Rome.]
You are looking at about a fifth of the entire upper story of the Carcer.
To the very old tradition that St. Peter was imprisoned here, we owe the conversion of the upper story of the Carcer into the Christian church of S. Pietro in Carcere; note the cross on the front of the altar, in commemoration of Peter's upside-down crucifixion.

For a related photo with different detail, see Alan Zeleznikar's site.

Carcer: the ancient state prison of Rome, situated between the temple of Concord and the curia at the foot of the Capitol (Liv. I.33: media urbe imminens foro). Cf. Vell. II.7.2; Val. Max. IX.12.6; Plin. VII.212; Seneca, Controv. IX.27.20; Fest. 264.

It was used simply as a place of detention, and not of penal servitude, though executions (i.e. those of Jugurtha and Vercingetorix and of the Catilinarian conspirators) also took place here. The subterranean part was called Tullianum (applied in Amm. Marc. XXVIII.1.57 to the whole). The name (Liv. XXIX.22.10; XXXIV.44.8; Serv. ad Aen. VI.573; Calpurn. Flacc. decl. 4: Acta Chrysanth. et Dariae, 25 Oct. p483) is by Varro (LL V.151) and Festus (356) derived from Servius Tullius, who was the builder of this portion of the carcer: while Livy (I.33) attributes the construction of the carcer to Ancus Martius. Sallust (Cat. 55) describes it in a well-known passage: in carcere locus quod Tullianum appellatur, ubi paullulum ascenderis ad laevam, circa duodecim pedes humi depressus. Eum muniunt undique parietes atque insuper camera lapideis fornicibus iuncta, sed incultu, tenebris, odore foeda atque terribilis eius facies est.

This lower chamber of the buildingb is subterranean and was originally accessible only by a hole in the roof. It is nearly 7 metres in diameter: in the walls only three courses of stone are visible, and it is thus less than 6 feet high: but three more courses may still be hidden by the present floor, and this would give the 12 feet of which Sallust speaks. The building was, according to one theory, in origin a cupola grave, like those of Mycenae: while others think that it served as a water reservoir, and derive the name Tullianum from tullus, a spring. A small spring does indeed still rise in the floor; and the absence of incrustation, used as an argument against the second hypothesis, has little weight, as the water is not calcareous.

It has generally been believed that the cupola was cut by the constructors of the upper chamber; Tenney Frank (TF 39‑47) now supposes, without sufficient reason, that the lower chamber originally had a flat wooden roof, which later served as a scaffolding for the flat stone vault, which dates from after 100 B.C. But the holes to which he points in support of this theory may just as well have been cut for this scaffolding.  p100 There is little doubt that the chamber was originally circular (the statement that the straight chord on the side towards the Comitium is of rock, is incorrect). See JRS 1925, 121.

Most authorities attribute to it a high antiquity: but Frank assigns the lower chamber to the third century B.C. owing to the use of peperino (not tufa, as all other authorities state) and the regularity of the blocks, uniformly 56 cm. high: while the date of the drain leading into the forum appears to be debateable.

The upper room is a vaulted trapezoid, the sides varying in length from 5 to 3.60 metres. This Frank assigns to about 100 B.C. on similar grounds; and the vault of the lower chamber, as we have seen, to a slightly later date.

A new façade of travertine was added by C. Vibius Rufinus and M. Cocceius Nerva, consules suffecti, perhaps in 22 A.D. (CIL VI.1539 = 31674; cf. 9005; Pros. I. p428, No. 972; III. p424, No. 395), but, it may be, a good deal later (Mommsen, Westdeutsch. Zeitschr., Korrespondenzblatt, 1888, 58, puts it a little before 45 A.D.; cf. ILS III. p342). It was still used as a prison in 368 A.D. (Amm. Marc. XXVIII.1.57), so that the tradition that it was converted into an oratory in the fourth century is without foundation; and the fons S. Petri, ubi est carcer eius of Eins. (7.2), cannot have been here (Mon. L. I.481; HCh 421‑422).

The name Mamertinus is post-classical.

The building near the Regia, mis-called Carcer by Boni, is a series of cellars,1 and may belong to about 70‑40 B.C. (CR 1902, 286; Mitt. 1902, 94; 1905, 116‑117; TF 87; HC). See Jord. I.2.323‑328; RL 1902, 226‑239; HC 119‑123; AJA 1923, 397; ZA 60‑63; Leclercq in Cabrol, Dict. V.2053‑2057; HFP 5‑8.

The Authors' Note:

1 They might well be slaves' bedrooms, like those in the large Republican house near the arch of Titus (CR 1900, 239; 1905, 76; AJA 1923, p405, fig. 6). Cf. also Doliola.

Thayer's Notes:

a On August 30, 2018, about three-quarters of the roof of the church above the Carcer — the church of S. Giuseppe dei Falegnami — collapsed, gravely damaging the church, and causing some damage, seeming slight, to the next story below, the Cappella del SS. Crocefisso. News outlets were reporting, but very vaguely, that the actual Carcer might have been damaged. I can't confirm it, having seen nothing, neither statement nor photographic evidence, that this was the case.

b Under the church of S. Giuseppe de' Falegnami, there are three descending levels of "carcer". What you see in my photo is the top one, the Chapel of the SS. Crocefisso: the two levels of prison lie below it. A site of nearly a dozen pages with several dozen photographs, plans, and drawings, laying out the entire complex in detail, was once (2003‑2006) available on the site of the Soprintendenza Archeologica di Roma, but billed itself as temporary, and sure enough, eventually vanished. Why people do this is beyond me.

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Page updated: 30 Aug 18