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Thus the Christian may enter prison just as though leaving it--experiencing not a punishment, but discipline.--Tertullian, On Fasting
Although few Christians were likely to suffer the most violent consequences of persecution under the Roman Empire, (1) the experiences of those imprisoned, tortured, or killed were significant far beyond the lives of the individuals concerned. These living martyrs took on a significance that was important for the whole of Christian identity, becoming spiritual patrons dispensing grace, or exemplars of an alternative mode of life. (2)
If it is clear that Christians at large viewed those incarcerated with curiosity, awe, and compassion, it may be more surprising to find that they were also deeply concerned about what and how much their imprisoned associates were eating. Accounts of imprisoned Christians in places as far apart as Gaul and Syria indicate that, during the late second and early third centuries, food was fundamental to the process whereby prisoners became figures not so much of pity but of power, and exerted an influence on Christian identity that was to extend beyond even the time of persecution. (3) North Africa is an especially rich source of information from this period, not just about the feeding of prisoners, but for the controversy that the practice provoked among Christians. Through attention to evidence such as the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas and the writings of Tertullian, this study explores how and why some Carthaginian Christians preferred to feed the martyrs and feed them well, while others sought not just to preserve the martyrs' bodies, but also to preserve the hunger that helped bestow authority upon them. These contrasting attitudes to the diet of prisoners nonetheless share two features: a view of the martyr as symbolically important for the whole church in the present, and a desire to cultivate the bodies of the prisoners for the future ordeal of torture and death. These alternative strategies for the nourishment of prisoners demonstrate that the question of appropriate eating and drinking touches on the very nature of the church itself and its relation to the persecuting empire.
Ancient Roman prisons were not corrective institutions or places of indefinite detention, but sites for immediate and active punishment, and of transition between arrest and trial or execution. (4) Although sometimes circumstances (including actions taken against Christians) may have given rise to a de facto use of imprisonment as an actual penalty, and certainly many of those imprisoned were later released, detention was generally the necessary assumption of other processes rather than an end in itself. (5)
Given the combination of the ad hoc and the vindictive that comprised this system, some of the accompanying experiences of the Roman prison were horrific, if more or less inherent in confinement in the crowded, dank spaces that seem to have been typical. (6) Chains, darkness, and odors are most prominent among these more or less incidental features, and are often mentioned together in contemporary accounts. (7) Other more active strictures were added, most obviously judicial torture. Thus, the mere fact that many of those imprisoned later walked free did not mean that they had escaped punishment through malign neglect, or "served time"; to be in a prison was itself active and passive punishment for the body. This was punishment as "an art of unbearable sensations," as Michel Foucault put it, rather than the "economy of suspended rights" more familiar in modern times. (8)
This important and acknowledged contrast between ancient and more recent practices of imprisonment also indicates, however, that the realities of ancient custodia are not adequately described or understood simply through an account of the role of the state in punishment. If ancient prisons and penalties were potentially spectacular in the extent of their violence or neglect, they were often less coherent, predictable, or all-encompassing in their function than their successors. The prominence of death and torture in martyr accounts ought not to obscure the complexity of social relationships and benefits, including those of participation in the Christian community, that might continue to operate for the ancient prisoner.
Roman law itself allowed for vastly different experiences of prison, decreeing, in theory, different forms of punishment depending on the social standing of the prisoner. (9) Although traditional status distinctions were perhaps becoming increasingly irrelevant to penal practice during the Severan period (193-235 C.E.), the conditions of imprisonment may still often have varied according to the prisoner's economic power. (10) Detention could take forms ranging from the placement of restrictions on the detainee's movement and a demand for the provision of guarantors to more and less horrific forms of actual imprisonment. The wealthier or better-supported might even hope for libera custodia, a term that could refer both to "house arrest" and to less unpleasant forms of accommodation in an actual carcer. (11) The evidence from both literary and archaeological evidence suggests that even in a given prison there might be different spaces, with varying conditions and ease of access for visitors and commodities, which could be allocated to prisoners. (12) The actual conditions of custodia also depended not only on initial sentence and the venue of its execution, but also on jailers and supporters and their continuing interaction, most obviously through bribery. Jailers could increase their income by controlling access to prisoners and by restricting the flow of food and other goods to them. (13)
Here then, the arbitrary or piecemeal functioning of the ancient prison is evident, and important. Punishment in this setting found ultimacy when it involved the permanence of marking or destroying the body, rather than by detaining it indefinitely or controlling it immediately and completely. Imprisonment did not involve totalizing control over the body, but allowed certain forms of social relations to remain functional, if in an attenuated sense. Thus it is not only the general character of the ancient prison as an arena of social control, but also the variety of responses that could be made to it, that invite exploration of ancient incarceration and its conditions.
* Feeding the Martyrs
Hunger and thirst were prominent among the privations of imprisonment, and typically were also among the conditions that supporters of the prisoners sought to mitigate. (14) Although authorities sometimes provided a diaria or ration for the support of prisoners, (15) it was usually possible and often necessary for families or friends to maintain them. (16) Hence, the privilege of receiving food from outside the prison, while subject to restrictions, was not abnormal or remarkable. (17) Such maintenance was not only an obvious benefit to prisoners; it also relieved the prison authorities of responsibility for their support.
The ties that might otherwise have provided material support for Christian prisoners may often have been jeopardized, less by imprisonment itself than by conversion. Existing family structures--the most obvious source of assistance--may well have been disrupted for many by their declared allegiance to the Church. (18) The North African martyr Perpetua is herself depicted as ending her roles as both daughter and mother during her trial and time in prison (6.1-8). (19) It is thus not surprising to find the martyrs actually being fed by other members of the church. Whether organized and community-led, or spontaneous and individual, such feeding was more than a conglomeration of personal acts of compassion, but the functioning of a community or family substituted for that compromised by conversion. (20)
Just a few years before Perpetua's experience, the Christian author Tertullian had addressed a group of Carthaginian prisoners in terms of kinship, describing the offerings of their supporters as "the food for the body ... which Lady Mother Church from her fruitful breasts, and each brother from his own means, provided for your needs in prison" (Ad Martyras 1.1). (21) Feeding the martyrs was thus a sort of family affair, the dietary construction or expression of relations already inherent in the formation of the Church, but rendered more concrete through the necessity of imprisonment. (22)
This could be an organized procedure coordinated by deacons, who according to the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas actually arrange for the movement of the prisoners into a better area so they can be fed. (23) Yet individuals also seem to have participated somehow in feeding the martyrs, either as regular acts of piety or for specific ends, even taking from their own plates and cups at home to bring food into the prison, perhaps for a form of communal meal. (24) Tertullian's description of their provision as the work of both ecclesia mater and of various fratres might correspond to more institutional and spontaneous aspects of this quasi-familial support. (25)
Christians do seem to have shared the hopes of other prisoners for the improvement or alleviation of their condition. In the Martyrdom of Perpetua and Felicitas, set in Carthage in 203 C.E., the dreams and visions of Christian prisoners reverse the violence, deprivation, and especially the hunger experienced in prison, invoking space, light, human community and, most strikingly, attractive things to eat and drink. Each of Perpetua's visions includes a prize of food or drink won in circumstances evocative of her actual setting and its demands. She sees herself eating a sacramental morsel of cheese that tastes like honey, found in a garden at the top of the ladder adorned with instruments of torture (4.9); then she envisages the provision of drinking water for her dead brother, who languishes in a place of eternal detention (8.2); and finally she dreams of a branch of golden apples granted to the victor in a gladiatorial contest (10.8-9).
The provision of food for the martyrs thus seems to have been a common hope or shared expectation among members of the Carthaginian Church, in and out of …