One of the world’s oldest and most terrifying prisons, reserved for ancient Rome’s fiercest enemies, has reopened to the public after years of excavation that have revealed new clues about the very birth of the Eternal City itself.
The Carcer Tullianum (Tullianum Prison in Latin) is notoriously known as the squalid underground dungeon where the Romans would lock up enemy leaders, including Simon Bar Giora, one of the architects of the Great Revolt of 66-70 C.E. Other honored inhabitants, according to medieval Christian tradition, were the apostles Peter and Paul.
But the three-year excavation has shown that the structure, located between the bottom of the Capitoline hill and the entrance of the Forum, was much more than just a prison, and may in fact predate the founding of Rome itself.
Before Romulus killed Remus
Archaeologists were surprised when they turned up walls made of tufa stone blocks and other finds dated to the late ninth or early eighth century B.C.E.
Ancient Roman historians believed their city was founded around 753 B.C.E. on the nearby Palatine hill, and modern archaeologists have found some evidence supporting this.
But by the time Romulus supposedly founded Rome and killed his twin brother Remus, structures like the Tullianum were already standing. In fact, the building was apparently part of a wall that surrounded the Capitoline, defending a village on top of that hill.
The discovery of such important structures predating the city’s legendary birthdate supports the theory that Rome did not rise from a single foundational act, but from the union of several communities that may have inhabited its famous seven hills from the late Bronze Age, says Patrizia Fortini, the archaeologist who led the dig.
Researchers also discovered that the round building, with walls up to three meters thick, did not start out as a prison, but as a cultic center built around a small, artificially-dug spring that gushes into the lowest cell of the dungeon to this day.
This may also have given the place its name, as tullius means "water spring" in Latin. Other scholars link it to the name of two of Rome’s legendary kings, Tullus Hostilius or Servius Tullius.
It was next to the spring that Fortini and her colleagues discovered a grouping of votive offerings: ceramic vessels, remains of sacrificial animals and plants, dating back as far as the sixth century B.C.E.
Alongside fairly mundane offerings such as grapes and olives, they also found the seeds and rind of a lemon. This is the first appearance of the fruit in Europe and is somewhat of a head-scratcher for archaeobotanists, who had thought the citrus reached the continent from the Far East at a much later date, Fortini said.
While it is unclear which deity was being worshipped in the Tullianum, the cult was probably not just about offering up animals and exotic fruits. The site also yielded the grisly burial of three individuals: a man, a woman and a female child, all dated to the earliest stage of the monument. The man was found with his hands bound behind his back and signs of blunt force trauma to the skull.