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Roman Imprisonment

What is known about Christian imprisonments by the Romans?

This is a painting of Paul in prison made by Rembrandt van Rijn in 1627.

Q. My question has to do with imprisonment of Christians by the Romans. I know that the persecution of Christians was sporadic and geographically isolated. I know that Paul wrote from prison and had visitors. Eusebius’ mentor Pamphilus was arrested and tortured for some time during the last great persecution of the Church. He wrote a six-volume work called the Apology of Origen, either with Eusebius who was in prison, or while Eusebius visited him in prison. What is known about the imprisonments of this period?

A. Thanks for your question. As a Roman social historian, I’ve shared your curiosity about ancient prisons. One thing you already noticed: they were apparently quite permeable—people visiting those imprisoned could freely come and go, bringing food and supplies.  It’s probably better, then, to think of imprisonment as house arrest rather than incarceration.

Roman sources differ from Christian sources, however, in that Christians tend to allude to a situation that makes little sense from a Roman juridical perspective. If you did something wrong, Roman law demanded quick punishment, from fines or forced exile to execution. The entire city of Rome (with a million inhabitants!) had no prison—its carcer was a temporary holding cell for those on the way to death. And for elites or private citizens, it is difficult to imagine a long period of incarceration such as Eusebius describes.

So I would exercise some suspicion regarding early Christian sources. Some are written well after the fact; some overemphasize the concept of imprisonment for rhetorical reasons; and some have been translated in anachronistic ways such that we impose our own modern ideas onto the text.  But that’s just my view! I would recommend my colleague Candida Moss’s important book, The Myth of Persecution, which provides a controversial way of thinking about martyrdom. It doesn’t directly address your question, but it does speak to the way in which imprisonment and martyrdom may be largely constructed rhetorical categories. For a different, more conservative view, you might try Craig Wansink’s Chained in Christ: The Experience and Rhetoric of Paul’s Imprisonments.

  • Nicola Denzey Lewis is a visiting associate professor in the Department of Religious Studies at Brown University. An award-winning teacher and researcher, she is a frequent contributor to Bible Odyssey. She is also featured in documentaries on the Bible and Early Christianity on the History Channel, the BBC, and CNN’s new six-part series, Finding Jesus: Faith, Fact, and Forgery.