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Philosophies of Imprisonment in Late Antiquity

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30 Mary Olson Philosophies of Imprisonment in Late Antiquity Mary Olson Prisons in the Late Antique world were intended, by those in power, to function as a sort of half-way house for the accused awaiting trial or the condemned awaiting death. Legal understanding of prison was not, however, what resulted for all classes and social groups. Though it was unintentional, prisons became yet another form of punishment to the masses. And while philosophers like Libanius1 agonized over the miserable conditions in the prison for the poor, the Christians saw the prison as a time of seclusion, a time to reflect and grow spiritually. Christianity applied a new religious twist to the prison system; and from this ideological application, prisons were transmuted into theoretical havens that assisted the transition into the next world. Although prisons changed little during Late Antiquity, the perception and the understanding of prisons varied by social groups; from the law-makers to the common man, but it was the Christians who applied a higher spiritual meaning to what was an inconvenience to some and an unintentional form of suffering to others. In order to understand how the conceptual perception of prisons changed with different social groups, one must first understand what prisons were meant to be and what they actually were. Prison structure was governed on logic, with different types of prisons to separate the accused from the condemned. From the structure, scholars can understand the purpose of the prison, and current scholarly debate revolves around the intention of the law-makers. The Digests of Justinian2 outlined what prisons were intended to be and how they should be used. 1Libanius was a Roman scholar from Antioch, living from 314-393 CE. 2Set of laws complied under Emperor Justinian in 533 CE, consists older legal texts and commentaries of jurists on the civil law.Constructing the Past 31 Treatment of detainees, however, differed due to class. Libanius rallied against prisons, deplorable conditions, and the suffering therein. It was with the Christians that prison shifted from a place of suffering to a locale for salvation. Spiritual revelation became the main purpose of prisons. Despite their intention and structure, the purpose and perception of prisons changed throughout social groups within the Roman Empire of late antiquity. Though few of the prison structures have survived in Rome, some physical evidence of prison complexes has been found elsewhere. In Athens, prison remains consisted of “eight cells and courtyard.”3 The structure was more open; or at least this was the design of the main, outer prison. There is evidence that there were multiple parts of the prison system, the outer, more open area and “an inner (or deeper) [prison]..in which the accused might be shut up in darkness...”4 While the inner prison was dreary, “other parts of the prison were less terrible. Some had windows...The more desirable parts of the prison could sometimes be obtained by purchasing them from jailers...”5 This division begs the question: which type of prisons do the extant primary sources examine? While there is enough physical evidence left to distinguish various types of prisons, the sources themselves do not identify which type of prison they were discussing, or provide enough description to visualize its dimensions. Another complication in the modern study of ancient prisons can be found in Gerasa, a Roman prison in present-day Jordan. Now housed in a museum, an inscription from the site asserts that some prison buildings were built by Bishop Paul between 539 and 540 CE. Along with naming the founder, the inscription discerns between two different types of prisoners. “The 3 Brian Rapske, The Book of Acts and Paul in Roman Custody. Vol. 3, The Book of Acts in its First Century Setting (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1994), 196. 4 Edward M. Peters, “Prison Before the Prison: The Ancient and Medieval Worlds,” in The Oxford History of the Prison: The Practice of Punishment in Western Society, ed. Norval Morris and David J. Rothman, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1998), 19. 5 Peters, “Prison Before the Prison,” 21.32 Mary Olson condemned were arranged in one prison and the accused were placed in the new building that we are naming ‘the preventive prison.’”6 In this case, the two types of prisons were physically separated in two different buildings. These various types of prisons further obfuscate reports like Diodorus Siculus' account of Alba Fucens, a prison in Southern Italy. According to Siculus: “[Alba Fucens] is a deep underground dungeon, no larger than a nine-couch room, dark and noisome from the large numbers committed to the place, who were men under condemnation on capital charges...”7 But neither of these two sources outlines what type of prison was implemented, and for what crimes. Due to the division of prison buildings and the separation of different types of prisoners, ancient primary sources are once again called into question. From the inscription at Gerasa and additional textual evidence, it is clear that the division between the two types of prisons, whether in separate buildings or different parts of the same building, had a practical application. The inner prison, which was equated to “a dark hole,”8 was reserved for the condemned. For those merely accused there were mandates against such imprisonment: [w]hen incarcerated [the accused] must not suffer the darkness of an inner prison, but he must be kept in good health by the enjoyment of light...at early sunrise, he shall forthwith be led out into the common light of day that he may not perish from the torments of prison, a fate which is considered pitiable for the innocent but not severe enough for the guilty.9 The inner prison was more severe, darker and more desolate than the outer prison. This division reflected a practical separation of prisoners between the condemned and the accused. 6 Pierre-Louis Gatier, “Nouvelles Inscriptions de Gerasa,” Syria 62 (1985), 301 : “Les condamnés disposent d'une autre prison et les inculpés sont mis dans le nouveau batiment que nous nommerions <<prison préventive>>.” 7 Diodorus Siculus, Library of History Vol XI, in Loeb Classical Library, trans. Russel M. Geer (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Loeb Classical Library, 1954), 31.9.2. 8 The Martyrdom of


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