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
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. 2
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
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 68.3