Historical Background of Paul’s Final Imprisonment

On July 19, AD 64, a fire broke out in Rome, destroying ten of the city’s fourteen districts. The inferno raged for six days and seven nights, flaring sporadically for an additional three days. Though the fire probably started accidentally in an oil warehouse, rumors swirled that Emperor Nero had ordered the inferno so he could rebuild Rome according to his own liking. Nero tried to stamp out the rumors—but to no avail. He then looked for a scapegoat. And since two of the districts untouched by the fire were disproportionally populated by Christians, he shifted the blame to them.

Roman historian Tacitus tells the story:

But all human efforts, all the lavish gifts of the emperor, and the propitiations of the gods, did not banish the sinister belief that the conflagration was the result of an order. Consequently, to get rid of the report, Nero fastened the guilt and inflicted the most exquisite tortures on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace. . . . Accordingly, an arrest was first made of all who pleaded guilty [of being Christians]; then, upon their information, an immense multitude was convicted, not so much for the crime of firing the city, as of hatred against mankind.1Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, in Annals, Histories, Agricola, Germania, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 353–4.

The accusation that Roman Christians hated humanity likely took root in their refusal to participate in Rome’s social and civic life, which was intertwined with pagan worship. Whether for that reason or for the fire, once Nero’s madness inflamed, he continued his persecution of Rome’s Christians. And as a “ringleader” (Acts 24:5), Paul was rearrested at some point and placed, according to church tradition, in the Mamertine Prison.

The Mamertine Prison could have been called the “House of Darkness.” Few prisons were as dim, dank, and dirty as the lower chamber Paul occupied. Known in earlier times as the Tullianum dungeon, its “neglect, darkness, and stench” gave it “a hideous and terrifying appearance,” according to Roman historian Sallust.2Sallust, The War with Catiline, 55.5, in The War with Catiline, The War with Jugurthine, trans. J. C. Rolfe, rev. John T. Ramsey (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 133.

Prisoners in the ancient world were rarely sent to prison as punishment. Rather, prisons typically served as holding cells for those awaiting trial or execution. We see this throughout Scripture. Mosaic Law made no provision for incarceration as a form of punishment. Joseph languished in an Egyptian prison for two years, presumably awaiting trial before Pharaoh on a charge of rape (Genesis 39:19–20; 41:1). Jeremiah was imprisoned under accusation of treason (Jeremiah 37:11–16) but was transferred to the temple guardhouse after an appeal to King Zedekiah, who sought to protect the prophet (37:17–21). And though Jeremiah was later thrown into a cistern, the purpose was to kill him, not imprison him (38:1–6).

During Paul’s first imprisonment, he awaited trial before Roman governors Felix and Festus (Acts 24–26). He then was under house arrest in Rome for two years (28:30), awaiting an appearance before Nero. Scholars believe Paul was released sometime in AD 62 because the Jews who had accused him of being “a real pest and a fellow who stirs up dissension” (24:5) didn’t press their case before the emperor. However, during Paul’s second imprisonment in the Mamertine dungeon, he had apparently received a preliminary hearing and was awaiting a final trial (2 Timothy 4:16). He didn’t expect acquittal; he expected to be found guilty, in all likelihood, for hating humankind. From there, Paul believed only his execution would be left (4:6–7), which was probably carried out in AD 68.3Paul must have languished in the Mamertine Prison for a couple of years before his beheading (as befitting his status as a Roman citizen), which, according to tradition, occurred on the Ostian Way about three miles outside the city. Eusebius notes that Paul and Peter were executed during the same Neronian persecution, though Peter was crucified upside down, as he requested. See Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, 2.25.6, 8 and 3.1.2, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926), 181, 183, 191.

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1. Tacitus, Annals, 15.44, in Annals, Histories, Agricola, Germania, trans. Alfred John Church and William Jackson Brodribb (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2009), 353–4.
2. Sallust, The War with Catiline, 55.5, in The War with Catiline, The War with Jugurthine, trans. J. C. Rolfe, rev. John T. Ramsey (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2013), 133.
3. Paul must have languished in the Mamertine Prison for a couple of years before his beheading (as befitting his status as a Roman citizen), which, according to tradition, occurred on the Ostian Way about three miles outside the city. Eusebius notes that Paul and Peter were executed during the same Neronian persecution, though Peter was crucified upside down, as he requested. See Eusebius, The Ecclesiastical History, vol. 1, 2.25.6, 8 and 3.1.2, trans. Kirsopp Lake (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1926), 181, 183, 191.
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Derrick G. Jeter holds a master of theology degree from Dallas Theological Seminary and served as a writer for the Creative Ministries Department of Insight for Living Ministries. He has authored or coauthored more than twenty-five books. Derrick's writing has appeared on influential Web sites, and he is a contributing writer for The Christian Post. He and his wife, Christy, have five children and live in the Dallas area. He blogs at www.DerrickJeter.com.