When visiting Rome, I couldn’t help but think about the rich Christian history (bravery) that took place here. I was struck by the lives of the bold men and women of the Bible that passed through Rome and helped paved the way for the Gospel of Jesus to expand to every corner of the world.
As with many things of the Kingdom, what the enemy (via the half crazed leader Nero) intended for evil; God used for good. As mentioned in Foxe’s book of Martyr’s: [speaking of the persecution of Christians in Rome by Nero] “…it rather increased than diminished the spirit of Christianity.”
Part One: Arrivals
Three of the Hero’s in first century Rome and how they first arrived:
The Apostle Paul waited and wanted to go to Rome. In Romans 15:24, Paul writes: “I am planning to go to Spain, and when I do, I will stop off in Rome…”
However, Paul arrived in a different fashion than he expected, sailing there in chains as a prisoner (his initial miraculous arrival is detailed in Acts 27 and 28).
The Apostle Peter went to Rome with the goal of converting the Emperor (his thought was that it would be easier to convert the whole empire if he converted the Emperor first).
Photina/Photini (the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4 had an incredible Christian witness after her Jesus encounter) was told to go to Rome by the Lord (church history says this was in a dream and others suggest it was communicated directly).
All three arrived in Rome in the same generation that Jesus launched his earthly ministry (Mid 60’s A.D.). All three arrived knowing they could be killed for preaching Jesus (and all three ultimately were martyred, in amazing fashion, for their bold and unwavering faith in Jesus).
The villain in this story, Nero, burned Rome and displayed excessive cruelty against Christians (54-68 A.D.). He was also responsible for the imprisonment and eventual executions of all three of our hero’s: Paul, Peter and Photina.
Part Two: Imprisonment
The revelatory part of my trip to Rome was during our visit to the Mamertine Prison (now a church, San Giuseppe dei Falegnami, sits “on top of” the prison – modern day photo below).
First Century Rome did not have prisons like we think about today. Prison space was limited and most of the accused, with financial means, were kept under “house arrest” until a trial could take place (this was the case for Paul’s first imprisonment in Rome). The poor generally found “justice” quickly and fatally. Actual prisons in Rome truly served as a holding place for those condemned to die. The Mamertine was one of these prisons.
When it was built, Mamertine was Rome’s first and only prison. It was more like a dungeon that prisoners were lowered into. This is where we attribute the phrase: “To be cast into prison.” It consisted of two underground cells.
According to church tradition, Peter and Paul were both imprisoned at the Mamertine Prison by the Emperor Nero prior to their execution.
At the end of his fifth and last journey, in 67 A.D., Paul is again arrested and sent to Rome. Paul was confined to jail until he is sentenced to death. He refers to this waiting time in 2 Timothy 4:21 (when Paul urges Timothy to visit him in prison).
This is likely the prison cell [photo below] that help both Peter and Paul (and possibly Photini and members of her “group”: Sebastian, Photinus or Joses) spent time in before their executions.
What an experience for me to be there and reflect on this. Most Christians would pick Paul or Peter (outside of Jesus) as their favorite New Testament “role model.” This cell [photo below] likely held both of them at one point. I am hoping to convey this experience to you in this post, that even in the darkest places, even on the doorstep of physical death, we are called to bring salt, light, hope and the life giving message of Jesus!
Even in these conditions, they all continued to present the gospel in bold fashion. Church history reports several amazing testimonies about this pre-execution time. They all saw through the circumstances. These were changed people, filled and sustained by the Holy Spirit!
The round opening in the floor provided access to a spring: this water is said to have healing properties which Peter supposedly caused to miraculously rise up out of the ground to baptize fellow prisoners and guards with! Peter was the first of our hero’s to spend time here, thus is makes “miraculous sense” that he was the one to spring up the baptismal for others that followed him to use for the amazing testimony that would come out of this place!
According to legend, Martinian and Processus were imperial soldiers assigned as the warders of Saint Peter and Saint Paul in the Mamertine Prison. The apostles converted their jailers after a spring flowed miraculously in the prison. Peter then baptized them in the miraculous waters. By order of the emperor Nero, the guards were then arrested, tortured and beheaded.
I am also intrigued by the possibility that Photina (or the male members of her group) may of also been imprisoned here at Mamertine since her execution in Rome was right in between the executions of Peter and Paul (read Photina and her “ministry teams” amazing testimonies of prison environment and baptisms at the end of this post).
Part Three: Martyrdom
Peter (Circa 64 A.D.): According to tradition, Peter was crucified in Rome under Emperor Nero. It is traditionally held that he was crucified upside down at his own request, since he saw himself unworthy to be crucified in the same way as Jesus.
Paul (Circa 68 A.D.): Foxe’s Book of Martyrs relates Paul’s martyrdom as follows (paraphrased with modern language):
The apostle Paul, who was before called Saul, after great trials and tribulation laboring to promote the Gospel of Jesus Christ, suffered in the first persecutions in Rome under Nero. Nero sent two of his men (Ferega and Parthemius) to lead Paul to be executed. Upon coming to Paul, they instructed his people that they wanted Paul to pray for them, that they might believe and be baptized. After this was done, they led him to the place of execution, where after his prayers were made, gave his head by the sword. – Circa 68 A.D.
At the direction of the Holy Spirit, Paul led his executors to Jesus just before Paul is to be executed!
Paul was beheaded, according to tradition, on the Ostian way, at the spot now occupied by the Abbey of the Three Fountains. The three fountains are said to have sprung up at the spots where Paul’s head struck the ground three times after the decapitation!
The account of Photini is purposefully listed out of order (she was martyred in between Peter and Paul), but I wanted to give more space to her here since many do not know the traditions of, as Paul Harvey says, “The rest of the story:”
Photini (Circa 66 A.D.): Photini was the Samaritan woman at the well. While much of her account is not featured in the Bible, it is available to us in in writing of church history. After she met Jesus, Photini went and told everyone in her town that she had met the Christ. She converted her five sisters and together they all became tireless evangelists for Jesus.
As Dr. Brian Simmons (The Passion Translation) points out in the footnotes of John 4:29:
“An internet search of her name will yield many interesting stories about her post-conversion ministry, including her being names an “apostle” of Jesus and her eventual martyrdom. Regardless of the validity of the extra-biblical references, she will go down in history as the first New Testament evangelist to win a city to Christ.”
Church history records her fascinating and largely unknown story as follows (paraphrased):
During the reign of Emperor Nero, Her eldest son, Victor, fought bravely in the Roman army against the barbarians, and was appointed military commander in the city of Attalia (Asia Minor). Later, Nero called him to Italy to arrest and punish Christians.
Sebastian, an official in Italy, said to Victor, “I know that you, your mother and your brother, are followers of Christ. As a friend I advise you to submit to the will of the emperor. If you inform on any Christians, you will receive their wealth. I shall write to your mother and brother, asking them not to preach Christ in public. Let them practice their faith in secret.”
Victor replied, “I want to be a preacher of Christianity like my mother and brother.” Sebastian said, “O Victor, we all know what woes await you, your mother and brother.” Then Sebastian suddenly felt a sharp pain in his eyes. He was dumbfounded, and his face was somber. For three days Sebastian lay there blind, without uttering a word. On the fourth day he declared, “The God of the Christians is the only true God.” Victor asked why Sebastian had suddenly changed his mind. Sebastian replied, “Because Christ is calling me.” Soon he was baptized, and immediately regained his sight. Sebastian’s servants, after witnessing the miracle, were also baptized.
During this time Photini (and her ministry team) arrived in Rome.
At Rome, Emperor Nero ordered that Photini and her “group” be brought before him, and he asked them whether they truly believed in Christ. They all refused to renounce the Savior. The emperor then gave orders to smash their finger joints. During the torture, they felt no pain, and their hands remained unharmed.
Nero ordered that Sebastian, Photinus and Joses (the men) be blinded and locked up in prison (possibly the Mamertime), and St. Photini and her five sisters were sent to the imperial court (house arrest) under the supervision of Nero’s daughter, Domnina. During this time, Photini converted both Domnina and her servants to Christ. She also converted a sorcerer, who had brought her poisoned food that was meant to kill her.
Three years passed, and Nero sent to the prison (possibly Mamertine) for one of his servants, who had been locked up. The messengers reported to him that Sebastian, Photinus and Joses, who had been blinded under Nero, had completely recovered, and that people were visiting them to hear their preaching. Indeed, the whole prison had been transformed into a bright and fragrant place where God was glorified!
In a rage, Nero gave orders to flay the skin from Photini and to throw her down a well. During this time, many of the others were brutally tortured and martyred. Photini was removed from the well and locked up in prison for twenty days (this is where it is very possible she was imprisoned at Mamertine). Nero had Photini brought to him and asked if she would now relent and offer sacrifice to pagan idols. Photini spat in Nero’s face, and laughing at him, said, “O most impious of the blind, you profligate and stupid man! Do you think me so deluded that I would consent to renounce my Lord Christ and instead offer sacrifice to idols as blind as you?” Hearing these words, Nero gave orders to throw St. Photini down a well, where she died in the service of Christ.
Ironic, that “the woman at the well”, was martyred in a well. She definitely received her full portion of living water (in her ministry, testimony and eternity).
These are lives well lived. I celebrated them While in Rome.
The Passion Translation, Book of John, Chapter 4 and Footnotes
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs
1st Century Rome Prisons: