It is not unusual for a tour group to discuss what was their favorite or most meaningful location/event during their trip. On our recent “Highlights of Italy Tour,” many of our group cited the Mamertine Prison in Rome as being at the top of their list. To be able to walk down to the dark prison cell, and recall Paul’s last words in 2 Tim. 4, really enhances one’s understanding of the text and of Paul’s circumstances:
6 For I am already being poured out as a drink offering, and the time of my departure is at hand. 7 I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. 8 Finally, there is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will give to me on that Day, and not to me only but also to all who have loved His appearing. 9 Be diligent to come to me quickly; 10 for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica — Crescens for Galatia, Titus for Dalmatia. 11 Only Luke is with me. Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry. 12 And Tychicus I have sent to Ephesus. 13 Bring the cloak that I left with Carpus at Troas when you come — and the books, especially the parchments. 14 Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. 15 You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words. 16 At my first defense no one stood with me, but all forsook me. May it not be charged against them. 17 But the Lord stood with me and strengthened me, so that the message might be preached fully through me, and that all the Gentiles might hear. And I was delivered out of the mouth of the lion. 18 And the Lord will deliver me from every evil work and preserve me for His heavenly kingdom. To Him be glory forever and ever. Amen! (2 Tim. 4:6-18).
Mamertine Prison in Rome. Photo ©Leon Mauldin.
We cannot affirm that this is the exact part of the prison that Paul was in as he penned the above text. But this is definitely a part of the state prison complex, and it illustrates the biblical setting as Paul, near death, penned his last letter to his faithful friend and fellow-worker, Timothy. I.e., it is safe to say that Paul was in a cell like this, in this area, awaiting execution. BAS in their photo collection has this information:
Near the Forum, at the base of the Capitoline Hill, is the dungeon of the Mamertine Prison. This was the state prison of Rome, and Paul may have ended his days here.
We see the lower of two chambers constructed of blocks cut from tufa, the local porous rock. Originally, this 30-foot diameter room could be reached only through the hole visible in its ceiling. This would have been the dungeon cell for prisoners; above it is a smaller room for the warders. Conflicting Roman traditions attributed the building of the prison to different rulers of the 7th and 6th centuries B.C.E. Some modern investigations have suggested a 3rd-century B.C.E. date for this lower chamber and a 1st-century B.C.E. date for the room above, but there is no question that it was in use in Paul’s time. Christian tradition also places Peter’s final internment here, at the time of Nero’s persecution. (Biblical Archaeology Society: The Biblical World in Pictures).
The Wycliffe Historical Geography of Bible Lands has this entry:
Tradition has it that during his second imprisonment Paul was detained in the Mamertine Prison in Rome. The name Mamertinus is postclassical; during the Empire the place was known simply as the Carcer. This was the ancient state prison of Rome at the foot of the Capitoline Hill. It was used as a place of detention, not of penal servitude, although executions occurred there. The upper room is a vaulted trapezoid, the sides varying in length from eleven to sixteen feet.
Below it was a subterranean chamber, originally accessible only by a hole in the roof. This Tullianum was nearly twenty-one feet in diameter and, according to Sallust, twelve feet high. All who wrote of the place described it with horror. Sallust (86–34 B.C.) described it as “exceeding dark, unsavory, and able to craze any man’s senses.” Under such circumstances the apostle would indeed have felt the need of the cloak and the books he had left behind at Troas (2 Tim. 4:13).
As Paul wrote Second Timothy, he had none of the optimism expressed in his earlier letters, when he expected release. He had obtained a preliminary hearing, and it had been a dismal failure (2 Tim. 4:16). Though he found himself in dire circumstances, he delivered what sometimes has been called his valedictory, for he was about to “graduate.” “For I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Tim. 4:6–8) (Eds. Pfeiffer & Vos, 1996).
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