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.
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.
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.
 Grant, Michael (1970), The Roman Forum, London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson; pg 11.
A few bonus thoughts:
- According to tradition, the Apostle Peter was also held in the Mamertine Prison. (The image below is a super-old painting of Paul and Peter on the wall in the prison.)
- The Mamertine Prison is minutes away from the Coliseum, so if you go there, swing by Mamertine. (Preferably after reading 2 Timothy and 1 Peter :))! Other ideas of Christian sites to visit in Rome.