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Blog: Power to Punish and Authority to Forgive: Imperial State and Imprisonment in 4th-Century Antioch

A hand-drawn map on yellowed parchment with drawings of buildings and an aqueduct. In the center, a togaed man sits on a throne with a spear in his right hand and a halo behind him, indicating his sainthood. Red text behind his head reads ANTIOCHIA.

Research ideas often develop out of chance encounters or unplanned circumstances. My dissertation project was born just like that: when the intersection between an author that I was falling in love with and a pressing question that emerged from a completely unrelated event started bugging my young researcher’s mind.

I completed my M.A. by producing a translation, with commentary, of the letters of Libanius of Antioch to Datianus. A Greek sophist under the Roman empire, Libanius held the chair of rhetoric in Antioch for the greater part of the second half of the 4th century CE. His immense production, often mined for its wealth of historical information, has been the object of a resurgence of interest in the past few decades. I started working on his epistolary corpus only a few years after the publication of a precious volume that collected the state of the art in Libanian scholarship. A teacher myself and forced to maintain long-distance relationships with friends and family in my home country, I felt in familiar territory making the acquaintance of this ancient teacher, who gracefully preserved copies of some 1500 letters he sent to friends, students’ parents, bureaucrats, politicians, governors, and emperors of his time. 

Unrelated to my studies of Libanius and his beautiful, Demosthenic style, I developed a particular interest in mass incarceration in the U.S.—its history and its current reality. I then got in touch with the Intersections group on mass incarceration at the University of Florida, a program funded by the Mellon Foundation that explores “grand-challenge questions,” bringing together people from across the humanities and allied disciplines. Conversations with members of the group and participation in many of their events gave me the idea of exploring imprisonment as a possible avenue of research for my dissertation project.

While I was exploring theories of punishment, the Attic orators, and Roman law in search of a point of entry for understanding prison in antiquity, Libanius came to me again, with two orations to the Emperor Theodosius (Orr. 33 and 45), in which he addresses and denounces living conditions in the prisons of Antioch and the problems they pose to the preservation of a just justice system. Several letters in which the sophist advocates and intercedes for friends and acquaintances who are experiencing imprisonment confirmed Libanius as a fertile ground for my research interest. Finally, the narrative on the Riot of the Statues of 387 CE became the focus of my dissertation, since it not only allowed me to explore one author’s perspective on imprisonment, but also gave me the opportunity to study a historical event in which imprisonment figured prominently, introducing a second actor on the stage: Libanius’ former student and newly ordained presbyter, John Chrysostom.

The Riot started on a Thursday or Friday morning at the end of February 387, when the city councillors of Antioch gathered in the dikasterion to listen to the proclamation of a letter from the emperor Theodosius. The emperor was imposing a new tax on the city, which the city notables deemed unbearable. The discontent soon spread and involved the larger citizen body: inflammatory words were spoken, insults shouted, and the crowd turned into a mob, which targeted first the painted portraits of the emperor and his kin, then their statues, which were violently hauled down and vandalized. The governor intervened with arrests and summary executions. When momentum waned, great fear overtook the city, and many fled to the countryside. Bishop Flavian departed, headed to Constantinople to personally plead the case of the city with the emperor.

Theodosius, apprised of the situation, sent two officials to investigate and punish those responsible. The trial took place on March 17. The whole senate of the city was arrested and awaited punishment, but the imperial officials decided to stay the executions and ask the emperor to confirm his will. Between the trial and the resolution of the affair, the councillors spent about a month in prison.

The imperial pardon reached the city around Easter, when Bishop Flavian returned. John Chrysostom preached 22 homilies during that Lenten season, both addressing the unfolding events and delivering his customary instruction. Libanius, on his part, wrote five orations, all after the events, praising the emperor and his officials, disparaging those who fled the city, and presenting himself as the champion of the same Greek paideia that, in his view, inspired Theodosius to pardon the city.

The two series of texts by Chrysostom and Libanius have been widely studied. As it is, they present perfect comparanda for rival narratives of punishment and forgiveness that illustrate the conflict or struggle between pagan and Christian culture in the 4th century. The case is enriched by the personal relationship between Libanius and John, and it makes also for a perfect narrative of the pupil surpassing his master and asserting the predominance of the new Christian religion over the old pagan culture.

In my dissertation, I am returning to these texts to ask new questions, investigating the role of the imprisonment of the councillors in the interpretation of the Riot by Libanius and John. Prison, in fact, lies at the margins of the justice systems of the Greeks and the Romans and has therefore lain at the margins also of the scholarship on punishment and justice in the ancient world. And justifiably so.

From the perspective of theories of punishment, prison as we understand it in modern societies does not find a space within ancient penology. It constitutes something of an anomaly — a place that, far from being understood within a logical and comprehensive theory of punishment, appeared to have first of all happened and grown out of practice. Yet if prison did not occupy a space from a theoretical standpoint, it did so within the landscape of the ancient cities. In practice, prisons were located at the center of civic life, at the edges of the forum or the agora, within close reach of the law-courts. Massive and out-of-sight penitentiaries common in rural American landscapes appeared in the ancient world only as part of the utopia in Plato’s Laws.

I structure my research in two parts. In the first, I address the wider methodological and theoretical frameworks of my inquiry. An overview of prison in antiquity opens my dissertation, addressing theories of punishments and historical evidence of the use of prison as a penalty and as a place of remand/detention for citizens. This overview is intentionally broad and includes the cultural precedents of Chrysostom and Libanius, since their cultural milieu encompasses a stark Greek identity within a Roman political system. Their understanding of prison, therefore, stems from the contamination of ideas they found in the Greek tradition, especially the widely studied Demosthenes, and the experience of political life of a Greek city under Roman rule. From a methodological standpoint, I address the nature of the texts and the interpretive problems associated with their genres: homilies delivered in the context of religious instruction for Chrysostom, and rhetorical orations, most likely delivered before a selected audience of trusted friends, for Libanius.

The second part of my research, currently in development, addresses the narratives of power that John and Libanius construe with their texts. Both authors portray fictive addresses to the emperor: John purports to be reporting verbatim the speech that Bishop Flavian delivered before the emperor, whereas Libanius pretends to be serving as ambassador for the city and speaking directly to Theodosius in Constantinople, although we know for certain that he never met the emperor in person. By praising the emperor, they offer a justification of imperial power that lays the groundwork for their request for clemency. Their political theories — or discourse on kingship — are a reflection de clementia, or περὶ φιλανθρωπίας, which argues the reasons why the emperor is better off forgiving his subjects than exacting an exemplary punishment. Although teacher and student use the same language (mainly φιλανθρωπία), their cultural references are far apart. Libanius almost never mentions Bishop Flavian, who instead is the champion of John’s version of the story. Libanius reminds Theodosius (or so Libanius pretends) of past examples of clemency and forgiveness from the Athenians to Constantine and champions the virtue of magnanimity as the peak of classical paideia. John, on his part, grounds his narrative of clemency in Bishop Flavian’s persuasive reminder of the lordship of God and of the last judgment, from both of which not even the emperor is exempt.

From their understanding of power comes their plea and/or compassion for the prisoners. I analyze along two key dimensions the attitudes that Libanius and John display in their speeches toward the incarcerated councillors. First, parallel texts with similar concern help me frame a more general attitude towards prisoners. As I noted above, Libanius dedicates several texts to this issue of social justice, while John’s compassion towards incarcerated individuals mirrors the evangelical mandate to visit and take care of prisoners. Second, I discuss the physical placement of the prison and the significance of its features. Libanius praises the imperial official Ellebichus for having permitted, thanks in part to Libanius’ intercession, the transfer of the prisoners to the council hall, where they could enjoy the protection of a roof and more humane living quarters. The bouleuterion, we are told in his orations, shared a wall with the prison but was also adjacent to the classroom where he was holding his lectures. Both authors report having visited and talked to the prisoners.

By combining the physical environment of and around the prison, I will enrich our understanding of its experience by those inside and those outside. The topographical placement of the prison in the city landscape and its conceptualization by the pagan rhetor and the Christian preacher open the possibility of a new understanding of prison in antiquity: a place not intended to punish (the senate was “detained”) and yet experienced as such that constitutes the ground of contention between the letter of the law and its application, between the misgivings of the subjects and their emperor, between the meaning of power and the good of the citizens. This research also provokes questions about our understanding of the nature of incarceration, and it challenges us to reflect on the implications of its deployment for the good of society.

Do you want to write a spotlight on your dissertation or thesis, or want to recommend someone to do one on theirs? Get in touch with the SCS Blog’s Editor-in-Chief, T. H. M. Gellar-Goad!

Header image: Antioch on the Tabula Putingeriana.

aldesimoni's picture

Alberto De Simoni was born in Milan, Italy. He attended the Università degli Studi di Milano where he earned a B.A. and an M.A. in Italian Literature and Philology, with a thesis on Dante’s Inferno. He taught Italian and Latin language and literature in High School, both in Italy and in Florida. In 2017, he earned his M.A. in Classics at the University of Florida. He is currently pursuing his Ph.D. at the same institution. His research focuses on Libanius of Antioch and the problem of prison and incarceration in the Eastern provinces of the Late Roman Empire. Find him on the web at https://desimonialberto.weebly.com/

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