Slaves, Prisons, Paul, Philemon, and Papyri

I. Introduction

Paul’s letter to Philemon seems to suggest Onesimus is imprisoned with Paul. One question that has preoccupied my time lately has been how common was it for a slave, i.e., a piece of property and a living tool in the ancient world, to be thrown into a prison? What do our ancient sources say? Surprisingly, both the ancient literary and non-literary records on slaves and prisons are scare. Like the subject of crucifixion for which our canonical gospels are the most detailed discussion of crucifixion in the Roman world, it seems ancient, educated people did not desire to talk about such grim topics. Even the archaeological record does not help us in our quest. According to Laura Nasrallah from Harvard Divinity School, no public prisons from the Roman world have been excavated.


II. Slave Prisons

The commonest manner in which slaves were confined was the “slave prison” (ergastulum), which was located on the grounds of the large estates of the wealthy. An ergastulum was “a room in which tied-up slaves had to spend the night.”[1] These were typically underground and had high windows from which slaves could not escape.[2]

According to the Stoic Seneca, these prisons were the proper place for a rebellious slave: “We do a fine thing, indeed, when we send a wretched slave to the ergastulum. Why are we in such a hurry to flog him at once, to break his legs straightway?” (Seneca, On Anger 3:32; LCL). Suetonius records Tiberius had to investigate the contents of the slave prisons because non-slaves were occasionally imprisoned in them: “In the meantime [Tiberius] undertook two public charges: that of the grain supply, which, as it happened, was deficient; and the investigation of the slave-prisons throughout Italy, the owners of which had gained a bad reputation; for they were charged with holding in durance not only travellers, but also those whom dread of military service had driven to such places of concealment” (Suetonius, Tib. 8; LCL).[4]

While this information is well and good, it is clear from the NT Paul is not a literal slave, though he is a slave of Christ, and thus there is no way he could have met Onesimus in one of these prisons.

III. Slaves and “Public” Prisons

Both our literary and non-literary sources on the imprisonment of slaves in some form of a “public” prison are difficult to interpret. When incarceration or arrest is discussed, the sources are vague and it is unclear where the slave is imprisoned. Moreover, the majority of our sources are later than the first century CE and it is unclear if the matters discussed were pertinent for life in the first century CE.

First, according to the church father Cyprian of Carthage, if a slave does not serve a master well, he should be imprisoned: “If you are not served [by your slave] at your whim, if he does not yield subserviently to your will, as the dictatorial and excessive enforcer of his status as a slave, you scourge him, you whip him, you afflict him frequently with hunger, with thirst, with nakedness, and with the sword and with prison” (ferro etiam frequenter et carcere affligis et crucias) (To Demetrius 8) (translation from Brent, On the Church: Select Treaties: St. Cyprian of Carthage (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2006). Into what prison should the slave be confined? Cyprian does not use the Latin term ergastulum, slave prison. Rather, his use of the word carcer suggests Cyprian has a public prison in mind.[7] It is unclear for how long the slave was imprisoned.

Second, the fourth century CE rhetorician Libanius berated the deplorable conditions of prisons in his day. In the process, he noted some people were left in “chains” for their entire lives: “Others besides who get there by other ways, live their lives in chains (ζῶσι τὸν ἐν δεσμοῖς βίον) (Or. 45.7; LCL). Libanius also indicates slaves were confined with free people: “And among them slave and free die alike (ἀποθνήσκουσι δὲ ἐν τούτοις δοῦλοί τε ἐν ἴσῳ καὶ ἐλεύθεροι), some guilty of no offense at all, others of offenses that do not deserve death” (Or. 45.11; LCL). These references are likely to a “public” prison of some sort. At least in the fourth century CE, slaves were imprisoned with free peoples in public prisons. However, the fact remains Libanius is depicting the inhumane treatment of prisoners and it is possible that these occurrences were rare for the Roman world.

Third, an inscription from Dephi notes: “Eisias is to remain with Kleomantis for the rest of his life and do everything that she is ordered as if she were a slave (ὡς δούλα). And if Eisias does not remain or does not do what she is ordered, Kleomantis is to have the right to punish her in whatever way he wishes—by beating her or imprisoning her or selling her (ψο]φέων καὶ διδέ[ων] καὶ πωλέων)” (Fouilles de Delphes, 3, 3, No. 329, lines 4–7; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery (1989)). Although Eisias is not a slave, for all practical purposes she was treated like one. One of the ways this occurred was the punishment Kleomantis could mete out. Among the various things mentioned, Eisias could be imprisoned. This seems to suggest that in Delphi slave imprisonment was as common as being beaten or sold.

Fourth, according to the following papyrus dated c. 150 CE, slaves who were put in chains were ineligible for bequests: “Bequests made to one who as a slave was put in chains and was afterward freed or who was freed when not yet thirty years old are confiscated” (Sel. Papyri 2.206=BGU 5.1210; translation from LCL). It is unclear what being put “in chains” means. Was it in an ergastulum? Or, was it in a “public” prison? Either are possible.

Fifth, the following papyrus dated c. 298 CE is a deed giving permission for the friend of the owner of a fugitive slave to go to Alexandria, find the slave, and punish him: “Aurelius Sarapammon also called Didymus, . . . to Aurelius . . . and as you are styled, of the said city of Oxyrhynchus, greeting (sic). I appoint you by this instruction as my representative to journey to the most illustrious Alexandria and search for my slave called . . . aged about 35 years, with whom you too are acquainted . . .; and when you find him you are to deliver him up, having the same powers as I should have myself, if present, to . . . ; imprison him (εἴργιν), chastise him, and to make an accusation before the proper authorities against those who harboured him, demand satisfaction. This instruction I have issued to you in a single copy, which is to be valid wherever produced, and in answer to the formal question I gave my consent (translation from P.Oxy 14.1643). Literally, this friend who functions as a bounty hunter is told to “shut up the slave.”[5] It is unclear where the slave is to be confined. Since this slave has escaped from his master’s estate in Oxyrhynchus and journeyed to Alexandria, which is at least several hundred miles apart, he is most likely to have been jailed in some form of a “public” prison and not his master’s ergastulum.

What is interesting about this papyrus is the owner of the slave calls for the punishment for those who harbored the slave. Could this be a possible reason Paul sent a letter to Philemon? That is, Philemon somehow knows Onesimus is with Paul and Paul does not want to be found guilty of harboring a slave?

Finally, another papyrus from Egypt dated c. 325 CE indicates a fugitive slave was to be apprehended for his actions. A certain Flavius Ammonas requested a man named Flavius Dorotheus find his fugitive slave who had also stolen some items: “Flavius Ammonas, officialis on the staff of the praefect of Egypt, to Flavius Dorotheus, officialis, greeting (sic). I order and depute you to arrest (ἐπιτρέπω) my slave called Magnus, who has run away and is staying at Hermopolis and has carried off certain articles belonging to me, and to bring him as a prisoner (δέσμιος) together with the head-man of Sesphtha. This order is valid, and in answer to the formal question I gave my consent. I, Flavius Ammonas, officialis on the staff of the praefect of Egypt, have made this order” (translation from P.Oxy 12.1423).

The word the translators have rendered “arrest” may not be the best translation for ἐπιτρέπω. According to LSJ, the term means, “to transfer or to turn over.”[6] However, context best determines the definition of a word and the translators of P.Oxy have read a lot more papyri and classical sources than I ever will. Notwithstanding, Flavius is invested with power to take the slave into custody. Where would the slave have stayed during the journey from Alexandria to Oxyrhynchus? Most likely in some form of a “public” prison.

This papyrus could explain Onesimus’s situation and how he makes into to the prison in which Paul is staying. Onesimus could have stolen some items from Philemon, i.e., “if he has harmed you in any way or owes you anything” (v. 17), and, because of a letter from Philemon to a local official, Onesimus could have been arrested (cf. v. 15). Coincidentally, Onesimus could have been taken to the same “public” prison in which Paul is staying.

Notwithstanding the above evidence, it seems the majority of the time slaves were beaten, tortured, sold, or sent to the mines: “Slaves should be sentenced according to the rules applying to the punishment of the lower orders. For those crimes for which a free man [of the lower orders] is thrashed with rods, a slave must be sentenced to be whipped and returned to his owner; for those crimes for which a free man is first thrashed and then condemned to hard labor, a slave must be sentenced to be whipped and then to be returned to his owner to be kept in chains for the same period of time. If a slave who has been sentenced to be returned to his owner to be kept in chains is not in fact taken by him, he is to be sold; and if he can find no one who is prepared to buy him, he should be sentenced to hard labor for life” (Digest 48.19.10; translation from Wiedemann, Greek and Roman Slavery, 30).

IV: Conclusion

Our scant, extant evidence indicates slaves were imprisoned outside of private slave prisons in the Roman world. Save for being a fugitive slave and/or stealing items from one’s master, we have no idea for what other reasons, for how long, etc. slaves were imprisoned. As noted in the introduction, this paucity of evidence is probably due to the fact of the social status of those from antiquity who composed our extant documents. The relative silence of our sources could indicate the imprisonment of slaves in public prisons was axiomatic in the Roman world and ancient authors were not compelled to discuss such a common occurrence. Nevertheless, the little papyrological evidence I was able to marshal, along with the commonest function of prisons in the Roman world, indicates a slave’s imprisonment was short term and only until the owner either came and repossessed his/her slave or the slave was punished.[8]

This could be one of the reasons for the composition of Philemon. Thus from the papyri my reconstruction is as follows: Onesimus stole certain items from his master and either ran way or went AWOL while on a trip for Philemon (“If he has wronged you or owes you anything” (v. 18)). Philemon sent a representative to the city where Onesimus fled to retrieve him. The representative had Onesimus arrested and coincidentally (“Perhaps for this reason he was separated for this moment” (v. 15)) he ends up in the same prison as Paul (stranger things have happened). Paul, therefore, converts Onesimus and writes a letter to Philemon on Onesimus’s behalf. While there are difficulties with this reconstruction, given the papyrological evidence, it seems to me the most plausible.

[1]. Werner Eck, “Ergastulum,” Brill’s New Pauly (Accessed Online). Eck, “Ergastulum,” further notes: “With the acquisition of larger numbers of slaves during the Roman expansion in the 2nd and 1st cents. BC, the Roman slave owners were more frequently confronted with the fact that slaves fled or became violent against their owners. The result was an increased occurrence of slaves being tied up, who also had to do their work in that condition (compediti or vincti).”

[2]. Ibid.

[3]. Pliny the Elder notes of Roman farms: “But at the present day these same lands are tilled by slaves whose legs are in chains” (Pliny, NH 18.4).

[4]. Similarly, Augustus had to take actions against the wrong persons being imprisoned: “Many pernicious practices militating against public security had survived as a result of the lawless habits of the civil wars, or had even arisen in time of peace. Gangs of footpads openly went about with swords by their sides, ostensibly to protect themselves, and travellers in the country, freemen and slaves alike, were seized and kept in confinement in the workhouses (ergastula) of the land owners; numerous leagues, too, were formed for the commission of crimes of every kind, assuming the title of some new guild. Therefore to put a stop to brigandage, he stationed guards of soldiers wherever it seemed advisable, inspected the workhouses, and disbanded all guilds, except such as were of long standing and formed for legitimate purposes” (Suetonius, Aug. 32).

[5]. LSJ, “ἔργω.”

[6]. LSJ, “ἐπιτρέπω.”

[7]. “Prison,” OCD 1212. Sallust describes the public prison in Rome as follows: “In the prison, when you have gone up a little way towards the left, there is a place called the Tullianum, about twelve feet below the surface of the ground. It is enclosed on all sides by walls, and above it is a chamber with a vaulted roof of stone. Neglect, darkness, and stench make it hideous and fearsome to behold” (Cato 55).

[8]. Prisons were meant to be a short-term solution until either a magistrate was bribed or the prisoner was executed. “Prison,” OCD 1212; Walter Eder, “Prison Sentence,” Brill’s New Pauly (accessed online). Digest 48.18.9, “Prison indeed out to be employed for confining men, not for punishing them.” See William Buckland, The Roman Law of Slavery: The Condition of the Slave in the Private Law from Augustus to Justinian (Union, NJ: Lawbook Exchange, 1908), 404.

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