Following his release at the end of his two-year imprisonment in Rome, Paul had a brief period of freedom where he continued to preach, teach, and encourage the churches around the Mediterranean region. Between 62 and 65 AD, Paul seems to have brought the Gospel to Spain, which was his stated intention a few years earlier in his letter to the Romans. Although we know very little about this journey, a brief record of it has been preserved in the 1st century writings of Clement.
In addition to Spain, Paul went to the island of Crete and then on to Nicopolis in the Province of Macedonia in late 65 AD. It was at Nicopolis where Paul wrote a letter back to Titus at Crete and his first letter to Timothy at Ephesus.
According to Roman history, Emperor Nero visited Nicopolis in 66 AD to participate in the Actian games. Since he was a megalomaniac feared by the people, the games were rigged so that Nero won every event he competed in, from music contests to chariot races. Did Paul and Nero meet up again in Nicopolis? Was Paul arrested there and brought back to Rome? We just don’t know. But shortly after the Actian games, Paul was back in Rome, in prison, and ultimately condemned to death.
Paul’s second imprisonment in Rome might have started in the Praetorian barracks or another rented apartment, but it probably ended in the infamous Mamertine Prison. The prison was originally constructed as a water cistern in the late 7th century BC, but the Romans used it for high profile criminals under sentence of death. There is an ancient tradition that both Paul and Peter were held here at Mamertine Prison during the final days of their lives.
The dungeon of this prison was called the Tullianum — from tullius, meaning a spring of water. The Tullianum was a rounded subterranean chamber about 23-feet in diameter, which was lowered down through a hole in the ceiling. Usually, prisoners were removed from the chamber to be executed, although some faced their end inside the chamber itself.
Paul was executed in Rome in about 67 AD. According to ancient sources such as Clement, Dionysius, Eusebius and Tertullian, Paul was executed by beheading, a death befitting a Roman citizen. Ancient records suggest that Nero knew Paul personally, so it’s likely that he had Paul beheaded through order of the prefects of Rome.
The Church of Saint Paul at the Three Fountains is one of the oldest churches in Rome, and the traditional site of Paul’s martyrdom on the Via Laurentina. The symbolic legend that passed down is that when Paul was beheaded, his head bounced three times, and at each spot a fountain appeared. Although excavations established that the original three springs on the church grounds pre-dated the execution of Paul, it is still considered a dramatic memorial to the courageous apostle that dates back to the 5th century.
Christian friends took Paul’s body up the road to the second mile marker on the Ostian Way, buried him in the family tomb of a Roman woman named Matrona Lucilla, and put up a grave marker near the road. It was there in the fourth century that the Roman Emperor Constantine built the first church commemorating Paul’s martyrdom. It was also during the fourth century that tradition tells us Paul’s remains were moved into a marble sarcophagus and buried in the church’s crypt. The tombstone reads:
PAULO APOSTOLO MART (Latin for PAUL APOSTLE MARTYR)
The Modern-Day Basilica
Between the fourth and fifth centuries, four other Roman emperors expanded the site. Today, the church is known as the “Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls,” with the latest construction completed in the year 1800.
On December 6, 2006, after four years of careful excavation, Vatican archaeologists confirmed the discovery of a white marble sarcophagus beneath the church’s altar. They left it in place, but allowed one of its sides to remain visible. Then, in 2009, the Vatican revealed that the sarcophagus had bone fragments and a purple linen cloth laminated with gold. Scientists ran tests on the bone fragments and confirmed that they dated to the first or second century. The Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls is now considered by many scholars to be the authentic site of Paul’s tomb.