Philosophies of Imprisonment in Late Antiquity
By Mary Olson
Constructing the Past, Vol.9:1 (2008)
Abstract: One of the few things that prisons were not used for, in a legal sense, was punishment. However, a multitude of laws outlined the necessity of a quick trial and short jail time. Imprisonment was seen as an inconvenience to all parties involved, and a constant flow, rather than maintaining the status quo, was the way prisons were supposed to work. There existed no sense of the prison as a final destination for the guilty, “no one [was] to be condemned to permanent imprisonment.” Manifesting a distaste for imprisonment in general, Roman law prohibited jail time and simultaneously ascribed the uses of the institution while limiting its reach. Expediency was the best policy as far as prisons were concerned and the laws themselves upheld the preventative and practical facets of prison.
Introduction: 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 Libanius 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 Justinian outlined what prisons were intended to be and how they should be used. 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.” 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…” 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…”This division begs the question: which type of prisons do the extant pr imary 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.