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"Nor are these your only terrors. When your house is shut, when bar and chain have made fast your shop, and all is silent, you will be robbed by a burglar; or perhaps a cut-throat will do for you quickly with cold steel. For whenever the Pontine marshes and the Gallinarian forest are secured by an armed guard, all that tribe flocks into Rome as into a fish-preserve. What furnaces, what anvils, are not groaning with the forging of chains? That is how our iron is mostly used; and you may well fear that ere long none will be left for plough-shares, none for hoes and mattocks. Happy, you would say, were the forbears of our great-grandfathers, happy the days of old which under Kings and Tribunes beheld Rome satisfied with a single gaol!"

Juvenal, Satires III (302-314)

This jail was the carcer, traditionally thought to have been built by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome (640616 BC), to contend with the growing lawlessness of the city (Livy, The History of Rome, I.33) and enlarged by Servius Tullius, the sixth king, who was said to have added a dungeon, the Tullianum. More likely, the subterranean chamber originally was used as a cistern (certainly, it had been built first) and the name derived from tullus, "spring." A spring still wells up from a basin in the floor and, although the water was drained by a channel to the Cloaca (sewer), there is no evidence to support the notion that corpses were disposed of in this way.

In the Middle Ages, the site was called Mamertinus (Mamertine) after the Sabine god Mamers (Mars), who was believed to have had a temple nearby. It was thought to be the place where Peter was imprisoned, the upside down cross signifying his desire to be crucified in such a fashion (The Acts of Peter, XXXVII-XXXVIII). Christian tradition has the saint freed from the chains that bound him to the column to the left of the alter (barely visible in the photograph) and, from the water that miraculously gushed from the floor, baptizing Processus and Martinianus, who had been charged by Nero to oversee Peter's imprisonment (as depicted on the bronze relief behind the altar) (The Passio of SS. Processus and Martinianus, IIII). The churches of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami (Saint Joseph of the Carpenters) and San Pietro in Carces (St. Peter in Prison) now stands over the ancient prison.

The carcer, however, was not a place of imprisonment, which was not a punishment under Roman law, but where the condemned were incarcerated until execution, which took place in the lower cell, the Tullianum, accessible only through a hole in the ceiling, through which the condemned were lowered to await death. (The original floor would have been about six feet lower.) Having been paraded through the Forum, foreign kings then were led to the Tullianum while the triumphator proceeded up the Clivus Capitolinus to the Temple of Jupiter to dedicate part of the spoils. Here, Jugurtha, king of Numidia, was starved to death in 104 BC and Vercingetorix, who had tried to free Gaul from Caesar, strangled in 49 BC. Sejanus, praetorian prefect under Tiberius, was strangled as well in 31 AD, as were Lentulus and his accomplices in the Catiline conspiracy of 63 BC.

Simon ben Giora, a leader in the Jewish revolt of AD 66, suffered a similar fate. Captured four years later, after the siege and destruction of Jerusalem, he was taken to Rome to be displayed in the triumph of Titus.

"The procession finished at the Temple of Jupiter on the Capitol, where they came to a halt: it was the custom to wait there till news came that the commander-in-chief of the enemy was dead. This was Simon, son of Gioras, who had been marching in the procession among the prisoners, and now with a noose thrown round him was being dragged to the usual spot in the Forum while his escort knocked him about. That is the spot laid down by the law of Rome for the execution of those condemned to death for their misdeeds. When the news of his end arrived it was received with universal acclamation, and the sacrifices were begun" (Josephus, Jewish War, VII.5.6).

"But we are told that when he [Jugurtha] had been led in triumph he lost his reason; and that when, after the triumph, he was cast into prison, where some tore his tunic from his body, and others were so eager to snatch away his golden ear-ring that they tore off with it the lobe of his ear, and when he had been thrust down naked into the dungeon pit, in utter bewilderment and with a grin on his lips he said: "Hercules! How cold this Roman bath is!" But the wretch, after struggling with hunger for six days and up to the last moment clinging to the desire of life, paid the penalty which his crimes deserved."

Plutarch, Life of Marius (XII.3-4)


"There is a place called the Tullianum, about twelve feet below the surface of the ground. It is enclosed on all sides by walls, and above it is a chamber with a vaulted roof of stone. Neglect, darkness, and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold."

Sallust, War with Catiline (LV)

The rhetorician Calpurnius Flaccus provides a more vivid description of the horrors of the Tullianum. A parricide suing for imprisonment declaims

"I can visualize the state prison, constructed of huge stone blocks, receiving through the narrow chinks just a faint semblance of light. Culprits cast into this prison look forward to the execution cell, and whenever the creaking of the iron-bound door stirs those helpless, sprawled out people, they are terrified, and by viewing someone else's punishment, they learn of their own soon to come. Whip lashes crack, food is delivered in the foul hands of the executioner to those who then refuse it. The hard-hearted doorkeeper sits by, a man whose eyes would remain dry even when his mother weeps. Filth roughen their bodies, chains grip their hands tightly. Why is it that the law keeps me alive for a year?"

Declamations (IV)

Flaccus uses the phrase robur Tullianumque, which may refer to an oak (robur) post in the cell or the oak beams of the ceiling (cf. Horace, Odes II.13.18; Tacitus, Annals IV.29).

Scalae Gemoniae

The trapezoidal shape of the Tullianum conformed to the Scalae Gemoniae, the so-called "Stairs of Mourning," that ran alongside the carcer from the Forum up to the Capitoline and on which the bodies of traitors and political prisoners, such as Sejanus (and his children), were thrown (cf. Dio, Roman History, LVIII.5.6, 11.5; Suetonius, Life of Tiberius, LXI.4, LXXV.2). Indeed, Suetonius relates that Tiberius actually prided himself for not having had his daughter-in-law Agrippina strangled and her body displayed on the Stairs, exiling her to Pandataria instead, where she starved herself to death. (LIII.2). Vitellius actually was tortured and killed on the stairs (XVII.2). The steps likely were an extension of the Gradus Monetae, which led from the Temple of Concord to the Temple of Juno Moneta, and may have been replaced altogether by the Scalae Gemoniae when Tiberus reconstructed the Temple of Concord, which he dedicated in AD 10. The name is not mentioned before Tiberius and, rather than derive from gemo, "I groan," as was popularly thought or from some eponymous criminal, it likely is a neologism of the time.

References: Juvenal and Persius (1918) translated by G. G. Ramsay (Loeb Classical Library); Titus Livius: The History of Rome (1912) translated by Rev. Canon Roberts (Everyman's Library); Sallust: War with Catiline, War with Jugurtha (1921) translated by J. C. Rolfe (Loeb Classical Library); Josephus: The Jewish War (1970 translated by G. A. Williamson, revised by E. Mary Smallwood (Penguin Classics); The Declamations of Calpurnius Flaccus (1994) translated by Lewis A. Sussman; Tiberiana I: Tiberian Neologisms (2006) by Edward Champlin; C. Velleius Paterculus: The Roman History (1924) translated by Frederick W. Shipley (Loeb Classical Library); The Apocryphal New Testament: The Acts of Peter (1924) translated by M. R. James; The Roman Martyrs (2018) translated by Michael Lapidge.

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