Of all the settings portrayed in my novel about 1st Century Rome, Rubies of the Viper, none was more painful—and paradoxically more exciting and challenging—to envision than the Carcer Tullianus, Rome’s notorious underground death chamber. I can’t be specific about the scenes set there, because that would reveal key elements of the plot, but the place is fascinating enough on its own to be worth a post.
Located in a swampy area near the River Tiber, a spot ultimately drained by the Cloaca Maxima (great sewer) to become the Roman Forum, the two-level Carcer Tullianus was begun by Ancus Marcius, the fourth king of Rome (reigned 640-616 BC), and expanded by Servius Tullius, the sixth king (reigned 578-535 BC). Marcius built the upper chamber (the carcer) as a holding pen for state prisoners. Tullius added the lower portion (the tullianum), where prisoners were either killed outright or buried alive and left to die. Bodies of those unfortunates were usually dumped into the Cloaca.
The Carcer (pronounced kar-ker, the root of the English incarcerate) wasn’t built for long-term confinement, much less as a “penitentiary” per our modern thinking. Roman kings and emperors didn’t grant common criminals or political enemies the luxury of contemplating their sins and reforming their ways. Rather, political foes were unceremoniously stabbed or poisoned, either in public or in their homes. Mere criminals were dispatched in the arena, which served the dual purpose of ridding society of undesirables and providing public amusement.
The Carcer Tullianus was a combination holding pen and human disposal system, but seldom were both uses applied to the same individual. Captured enemies or rebel chieftains were kept there for a limited time until their day came to be paraded through the streets and strangled as part of the festivities associated with some victorious general’s “triumph.” Slaves whose testimony was required by the Roman system of justice were routinely tortured in the Carcer; many undoubtedly made their exit via the vile waters of the Cloaca Maxima. And anybody the emperor wanted to see disappear without a trace could do so in the infamous lower level of the Carcer Tullianus.
Legend says the Emperor Nero ordered Saint Peter held in the Carcer before sending him on to execution in the arena. There’s a church atop the site now, and modern-day visitors see a highly Christianized restoration of the prison (see the cutaway illustration above). But long before the rise of Christianity, the Carcer Tullianus occupied a gruesome, greatly feared role in Roman society.
In Chapter 15 of Rubies of the Viper, during a visit to Rome in A.D. 53, Theodosia’s slaves discuss the place:
“What’s that?” Stefan pointed to an oddly shaped building on the north side of the Forum.
“The Carcer Tullianus,” said Alexander.
“The famous prison? So small?”
“It’s mostly underground.”
“They say you go in alive through a hole in the floor,” Lucilla said, “and come out dead in the sewer below.”
“What happens in the meantime is anybody’s guess,” added Marcipor. “But if they want to keep you alive for a while, they stick you in some underground cave where the Cloaca Maxima enters the Tiber.”
Alexander chuckled without mirth. “And then they allow you the luxury of dying of fever and starvation, instead of torturing you to death.”
“A place to stay away from,” Lucilla whispered. “They say it’s easy enough to wind up there without trying.”
Martha Marks, June 26, 2012