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Is Foucault Useful for the Study of the Ancient Prison? The View from Archaic Poetry and Greek Tragedy

Marcus Folch

Columbia University

‘Sovereign is he who decides on the exception.’

Karl Schmitt, Political Theology

This talk explores the intersection of politics and violence through the lens of representations of incarceration in archaic poetry and tragedy, with principal focus on the Theogony, Odyssey, and Prometheus Bound. Its chief contributions are to propose a new interpretive framework for understanding the political function of binding and imprisonment in antiquity, to argue for the centrality of incarceration in ancient notions of sovereignty, and to present a reappraisal of a neglected practice in archaic and classical literature.

Studies of incarceration in ancient Greece have aspired to historical reconstruction, seeking to identify the location of, and to elucidate the legal principles governing, the ancient prison (desmôtêrion; Vanderpool 1980; Peters 1995; Krause 1996; Hunter 1997; Bertrand-Dagenbach et al. 1999). Some commentators have offered anthropological interpretations of incarceration in antiquity (Gernet 1981; Hunter 1997), while others have argued that the prison became integrated within ancient penal ideology in the fifth and fourth centuries BCE (Allen 1997; Allen 2002). Others still have examined philosophical representations of the ancient prison (Saunders 1991; Hunter 2008). With rare exception, however, the secondary literature on incarceration in antiquity has been dominated by a single, disjunctive question: whether the prison was used as a form of punishment. Orthodox opinion maintains that ancient criminal law did not employ punitive incarceration independent of other penalties such as fines and exile; instead, the prison is thought to have served as a jail, a temporary detention facility for remanding inmates at various stages of prosecution (Hansen 1976; MacDowell 1978; Todd 1993; Rivière 1994; Hunter 1997; contra Barkan 1936). Because ancient imprisonment appears not to have been punitive and because the prison was certainly not used as a corrective facility, it is regarded as fundamentally unlike the modern prison system Foucault analyzed in Discipline and Punish (1977), and incarceration is often treated as having played little substantive role in ancient law and political life. This paper departs from previous scholarship by concentrating on poetic representations of incarceration, which are routinely overlooked in historical reconstructions of the ancient prison, and by extending the study of incarceration to the archaic period, a period that predates the institutionalization of imprisonment in the classical Athenian polis. It also departs from earlier studies by attending to the historically particular language and conceptual categories by which ancient societies rendered incarceration intelligible.

Beginning from archaic representations of incarceration, this paper thus examines the emergence of binding in the fifth century as a locus of political dissent—a space to interrogate the legitimacy of newly founded sovereign regimes. Building on a loosely Foucauldian framework, it argues that binding and incarceration are represented in the archaic period as the foundational act of sovereignty: it is by incarcerating that sovereigns (typically aspiring tyrants) consolidate political power and arrest regime change. Athenian tragedy, by contrast, is shown to subvert the archaic topos, rewriting mythological representations of incarceration as a critique of political power. Binding and incarceration are shown to form a conceptual crux around which are posed such seminal political questions as the definition and limits of sovereignty, citizenship, liberty, and legitimate violence.

The transformation of incarceration from foundational political act to node of dissent is illustrated in the representations of binding in Theogony and Prometheus Bound. Each successive divine regime in the Theogony seeks to establish authority by casting rivals (e.g., hekatonkheires, Prometheus, titans, Typhon) in shackles (desmoi) and unbinding those who were confined by the previous regime. Hesiod thereby stages a progressive exploration of the manner in which binding and incarceration may become legitimate mechanisms of political control. [Aeschylus], however, focalizes incarceration from the perspective of the imprisoned, mapping incarceration onto the distinct political realities of the democratic Athenian polis, of which the play provides thoroughgoing (if oblique) criticism.

Concentrated on select passages from three ancient authors, this paper is appropriate for a twenty-minute talk.

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Violence and the Political in Greek Epic and Tragedy

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