Monday, October 24, 2016


Julia Hillner, Prison, Punishment, and Penance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xx, 422. ISBN 9780521517515. $115.00.

Reviewed by Jennifer Barry, University of Mary Washington (

Version at BMCR home site


Too often the boundary between pre-modern and modern creates unhelpful divisions in reconstructions of the past as if the turn to modernity eclipsed the ingenuity of its pre-modern past. Not so in Julia Hillner's timely evaluation of the different forms of social and legal discipline in late antiquity. In her work, Prison, Punishment, and Penance in Late Antiquity, Hillner asks her readers to set aside static historical categories and she instead offers new interpretive frameworks to assess the role of confinement and, yes, even reform, in the late Roman Empire.

Hillner's central aim is to trace alternative punitive practices that were not reliant on the spectacular, but were no less brutal. For example, Hillner calls our attention to the horrors of domestic seclusion (157-163) and the alienation that exiles experienced at edges of the Roman Empire (213-217). By doing so, Hillner helps the reader to imagine much more complicated systems of punishment at play than has previously been acknowledged. To accomplish her goal, Hillner uses a variety of theoretical methods such as quantitative, spatial, and literary analysis. Admittedly, this book was difficult to review given the amount of detail Hillner provides, though this is also a key strength of the book. As a way to organize this material, Hillner helpfully divides her work into three sections and provides section conclusions to summarize her main points. I will, therefore, leave those summaries for the reader to explore and, instead, highlight here a few of the more tantalizing topics found in this excellent book. The first third of the book, Chapters 1-4, traces the philosophical and legal concepts that attempt to theorize what punishment was even used for in an ancient context. In the first two chapters, Hillner focuses primarily on terms such as emandatio, and σωφρονισμός to capture the philosophical roots behind later legal theories. Punishment, for example, could be seen as a tool with which to educate and instill virtue or as a way to purge society for the greater social good. Hillner then notes a later shift in legal theories. Jurists began to articulate systems of punishment linked to education and leniency that promoted social reform rather than retaliation and expiation. This section also provides the reader with interesting case studies on the Didascalia and Augustine's treatment of the Donatists (78-86). The take away from the later half of section one is the evolution of the Christian concept of penance and its overlap with later legal codes. In the minds of late ancient Christians, punishment as reform not only had temporal ramifications, but eternal ones as well. A move to theories of punishment bent to the nature of the crime serves as an important foundation for Hillner's second section. I found this section of the book to be the most compelling and it is where many late ancient historians, in particular, stand to benefit from the most.

In Chapters 5-8, Hillner narrows her focus to practices of confinement and their meaning in late antiquity. Here she looks at alternative penal practices that took the place of corporal punishment. We thus find discussions on the history of custodia libera and custodia militaris (125-133). Hillner also highlights how confinement and forced labor exacerbated already growing class divisions. For instance, the use of flogging (verberare), chains (compedes), or forced labor in the flourmill (pistrinum) were reserved for lower-class offenders, but particular forms of exile were reserved for the Roman elite. Hillner concludes that what changes significantly during this period was the growing use of relegatio and deportatio not only to punish offenders, but also to enforce religious conformity.

Hillner then persuasively charts how this practice departs from earlier forms of exile due in no small part to the role episcopal leaders now played in imperial politics. Chapter 7, in particular, showcases one of Hillner's most interesting arguments in the book. She rightly notes that these new members of the elite were not sent to islands, but expelled to either a new city or to the edges of the Roman Empire. In both instances, these exiles brought about new social concerns and resulted in the increase of political surveillance and, here she convincingly argues, imprisonment (221-232). The very act of confining these exiles was a practice infused with cultural and theological meaning not lost on their victims. Hillner then turns to the variety of ways Christians interpreted these experiences. For example, many Christian bishops described their exiles as a new type of imperial persecution (249-255). And still others took a more positive stance and described their confined exiles as a form of training for the ascetic life (262-274). It is in this setting that Hillner introduces the theory and practice of the monastic prison: a penal system that stood outside of late Roman law, but would become a favored institution for social order and spatial segregation.

In chapters 9 and 10, Hillner examines in greater detail how monastic communities served as useful sites for this new method of imprisonment. She argues that monastic communities took on the role as non-state institutions used to punish and reform the elite in the fifth and sixth centuries. In short, these practices could serve a pastoral function as well as a punitive one that quickly grew in popularity. To demonstrate this point, Hillner cites Gregory the Great's appeal to the penitential role of monastic confinement (293-298). Even the Emperor Justinian would make ample use of monastic confinement to preserve his image as a merciful leader, while simultaneously skillfully silencing his critics (316-321). As Hillner characterizes it, monastic confinement was a very effective and conveniently public penalty that promoted authoritative reputations and reinforced those theories of punishment and reform with which her book began.

To conclude, Julia Hillner's inviting style allows the reader to come to her own conclusions with guided direction. Even if one does not always agree with some of the arguments put forth, all the evidence is provided for you, which is an invaluable feature of this book. Finally, due to the vast amount of topics discussed by the author, readers will inevitably be inspired to pick up new threads for further discovery. This book is a wonderful contribution to the field and comes highly recommended.

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