Empires and Criminals: Can Convict Politics in the Past Shed Light on the Present?
4: Greek Prisons in the Roman Empire: Law, Space, and Imperial Interaction in the Eastern Mediterranean (First and Second Century CE)
Sunday, March 27, 2022
9:00am – 10:30am EST
Location: Conv. Center, Room 322B
Columbia University, United States
Study of Roman prisons has long been understood as a subfield of Roman law. According to ancient juristic commentary (and many legal historians today), Roman prisons served a single purpose: custodial detention of the accused prior to trial and of convicts awaiting punishment. As the third-century CE Roman jurist Ulpian insists: ‘the prison ought to be maintained to detain people not to punish them’ (ad continendos homines, non ad puniendos, Dig. 220.127.116.11). This essay puts pressure on traditional, legalistic interpretations of Greco-Roman prisons, arguing instead for a sociological approach to the study of ancient prisons, in which Roman law and professional juristic commentary are contextualized alongside competing discourses and agents who sought to delineate the uses and symbolic valence of coercive confinement. Close scrutiny of Greek accounts of incarceration in the Roman Empire reveals practices of imprisonment that conform neither to the custodial operations that Ulpian argues are consistent with Roman law, nor with the punitive functions that Roman law prohibited. Rather, I argue, Greek prisons in the Roman Empire appear as nodes of imperial interaction: spaces in which diversely situated actors--including Roman imperial governors and professional jurists, but also inmates, prison guards (who were often enslaved), local politicians (who manipulated the prison for personal and political advantage), Roman soldiers (routinely from non-Italic and -Hellenized provinces and therefore unfamiliar with both Roman and Greek legal custom), and the inmates' family members--negotiated and ultimately defined the nature and scope of Roman imperial authority.