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Crime and Punishment: the Mamertine Prison

The Roman Forum was the very heart of the Empire: here, in addition to the temples and the basilicas, stood the Comitium, the Curia, the Regia, the Rostra, the Tabularium. And, along the Via Sacra, on the slopes of the Capitoline Hill, there was also the ancient state prison, which in the Middle Ages would have taken the name by which we still know it now: the Mamertine Prison. Accessible today from a ramp in the church of San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, the ancient prison consisted of two distinct and overlapping rooms. The first one is the «Carcer», a trapezoidal hall designed to accommodate prisoners awaiting trial; evidently, the trials had biblical times already at the time, so much so, that the poet Nevio (275 – 201 BC), waiting to know the verdict of the judges, was able to compose two comedies here. On the floor of this room there is a circular hole: this, in ancient times, was the only access to the chamber below, the terrible “Tullianum” in which the condemned to death died. Sallust, in the “De Catilinae Coniuratione” describes it thus:
“[…] there is a place in the prison called Tullianum, a little to the left going up, sunk about 12 feet below ground. It is closed all around by sturdy walls, and above, by a ceiling made of a stone vault: its appearance is repulsive and frightening due to the state of abandonment, darkness and stench.”
In addition to the co-conspirators of Catiline, the king of Numidia Jugurtha, and Vercingetorix, ruler of the Gauls, spent the last hours of their lives between these walls. According to tradition, even the apostles Peter and Paul awaited death in Tulliam, but most probably it is only a medieval legend, despite the numerous alleged traces of the passage of the two saints: The column to which the two would have been tied; the well from which they drew water to baptize the jailers; the hollow in the rock that marks the point where Pietro would have fallen by beating his head.

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