Ancient Prisons – Horror & Torture

Ancient Prisons – Horror & Torture | Essay

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“Prisons exist since mankind learned to close entries. Years ago during excavation of the Basilica of St. Paul (Tiberias, Israel) they found another one of these horrible places, likely built during the Herodian dynasty; Roman Republic. It had a rather terrifying and unique design by leaving only less than 5 sqm left to use for occupants.”

Built into the ground, the visible one meter thick stone cell walls prevented any escape. While those prisons may look from the outside sometimes somewhat spacy because of their height of 2 meters or more, they were in fact often crowded and rather dark. They were so narrow that it was impossible to sit inside. Worse even, similar constructions elsewhere showed that sometimes additional ways were added to torture the prisoners non-stop if needed.

: Tiny Confined Dungeon

The Oubliette – History’s Most Brutal Torture Method?

Prisoners of those tiny confined dungeons were purposely thrown in to be left forgotten or disciplined. Few of them were ever released. No wonder that most if not all died there in a short time. Imagine the brutal torture of not to be able to move or sit combined with the overall darkness, lack of food and hazardous environment.

One of these newer ‘standing-only’ constructed prisons is the Oubliette, a special, usual medieval dungeon where the only narrow access was a trap door at the top. Those dungeons were built and maintained in secret, starting around the 18th century in Europe although similar designs have been found up to 1800 years ago in other regions of the world.

Arguably less brutal, many of the differently designed ancient prisons were often used only as holding places for peoples before they came to trial. But most had to wait up to several years for their case to come up for discussions. If they were lucky or had good connections, that trial waiting period would only last a few months. Enough time to die anyway and many or most did.

Ancient prisons and the underlying justice system were more than cruel but might have followed the law at their times and the defendant could be found innocent, no matter how unlikely. Still, waiting for months for a trial was an indirect and lawless punishment in itself. Yet, if the accused was found innocent, some (especially Roman) laws allowed it to punish the accuser instead with the penalty he was looking for.

It isn’t fun to be a prisoner at any time and anywhere but back then you had luck if not being tied with chains to one of the walls, restricted with shackles or ended up at a fully occupied place. Corner places were those most sought after. But the food might have been rotten and only with luck could have been delivered by the families of those prisoners for a high service fee, perhaps additionally after some extensive bribe.

Not much different from Europe, it was very common for prisoners in China to be in a prison for years before they got to see a judge who finally let them know why they ended up in such a place. Many died quickly if there was no outside help. In most cases, visitors were not allowed and if that happened often only for a few minutes, and again often for a high bribe.

One of the famous Roman prisons was the Tullianum (or Mamertine Prison) in the Forum Romanum in ancient Rome, constructed about 390 years ago. That particular prison was only for famous prisoners since Roman law did not use and recognized imprisonment itself as a punishment. But there was always a way to go around that obstacle.

Still, some were imprisoned there for years before they were executed… which was perhaps most common in medieval times and earlier. The judgement and trial process were often not transparent at all and there was no lawyer who would speak on the behalf of the accused. The judge was the sole authority for every case brought to his desk. Only the emperor could cancel the execution of prisoners and that did not happen often. He was often told exactly (but indirectly) which of the accused must be punished (executed) and which not. Not seldom politics and money played an important role in who could survive.

Maybe this hasn’t changed even until today: “The law says what the king pleases“. ~ French Proverb

There were however attempts made to streamline and change existing laws such as it happened for Sicily, the largest Mediterranean island (for example by Emperor Friedrich II in 1231) and to collect them together, although some of these laws were later changed again without the authority who ordered those collections in the first place. Not always to the better or keeping the improvements as originally intended.

Over the centuries there have been significant progress to interpret laws on a more even level. Yet, to try and to find ways to avoid the laws are many and with top lawyers nowadays you still can delay or get away with “crimes” otherwise you could not.

What happends at prisons nowadays? What is the current social structure and context? Maybe have a look at ‘Friends in Locked Places: An Investigation of Prison Inmate Network Structure‘ (US).  ##

© 2010, Original: Article-Athenaeum (Another Point of Views)
© 2022, Republished and updated with permit: Rainer F. Otto (Link-Mail)

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