I explore the landscape of carceral practices and geographies in late antique Roman North Africa by applying a comparative lens to carceral punishments of exile and condemnation to the mines. I situate the research within the field of carceral studies, using the concept of carceral practices and geographies (as opposed to the narrower concepts of prison and imprisonment). I first offer a contextualization of the punishments of exile and condemnation to the mines as carceral punishments, remaining especially sensitive to the legal, material, and spatial aspects of each punishment. I then consider how different North African Christians used their carceral punishments and geographies to negotiate issues of political and social power in the broader Roman Mediterranean, specifically the letter exchange between Cyprian and three other groups of Christians condemned to the mines (Ep. 76–79). I use the letter correspondence as a case study to explore the “real-and-imagined” aspects of carceral practices and geographies in Roman North Africa. The carceral punishments of exile and condemnation to the mines have legal, material, social, gendered, rhetorical, and lived-experience components, all of which are treated as distinct, yet also fluid and intersectional with each other. I conclude by gesturing to how the case study adds texture to our understanding of how carceral punishment worked in Late Antiquity.
Different cultures punish different types of bodies in different ways.1 Understanding how such differences are produced offers important indications into how societies function. Many societies across time and space have used various carceral practices and carceral geographies as a part of punishing bodies. Despite Foucault's misleadingly subtitled book, Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison, it was the penitentiary—not the prison, much less incarceration itself—that was born in modern Europe.2 Incarceration was very much a part of the ancient world. Julia Hillner has recently called into question Foucault's chronology about the origins of penal reform by drawing attention to monastic corrective confinement in Late Antiquity as a form of reformatory incarceration, which she demonstrates was a product of long development within antique Roman legal theory.3 Nonetheless, Foucault's distinction between punishing bodies versus punishing souls (or persons) remains productive. Determining whose body receives what punishment for which crime is a socially telling operation, as is observing how these distinctions come to be fabricated, blurred, or transgressed.
Here I use the term incarceration to mean having one's body confined in a place—whether it be a state prison cell, private prison, debtor's prison, the mines, and so forth—for reasons of perceived criminality. Carceral practices refers to different ways of incarcerating a body. Carceral geographies refers to different kinds of place where incarceration happens.
There was a wide variety of carceral practices and geographies in late antique Mediterranean contexts. Having one's body worked to death in a copper mine—incarcerated, inside a gallery in the ground—was probably among the worst. Conversely, exile was—in some iterations—a carceral punishment luxurious enough to dampen only slightly the living standards of socially elite persons. The punishments differ radically in terms of physical punishment of bodies. Condemnation to the mines physically punished—even deformed—the body. Exile, however, punished persons socially, not physically. Who receives what punishment has far less to do with perceived severity of crime than it does with one's social positionality. Bodies of elite persons were to be left whole and unbroken; bodies of persons of lower social status were not. What these two punishments have in common, though, is that both may be understood, broadly speaking, as a carceral practice: the detainment of a body in a place as a result of perceived criminality. Significantly, both left the convict suffering out of sight, removed from the community. In both, incarceration was a form of disappearance.
In this article, I apply a comparative lens to these two punishments. I historically contextualize both punishments in their Roman contexts, looking at material, documentary, and literary data, and then put this broad sketch of carceral punishments in conversation with one specific case study: a collection of four letters between Christians reflecting on and comparing their lived experiences of carceral punishments in late antique Roman North Africa; specifically, a letter of Cyprian of Carthage (sent sometime after August 257 CE) and three response letters from other Christian clergy and laity (Ep. 76–79).4 I use case study in the sense of moving from a broad view of a topic and then zooming in on one particular example, in order to gain understand of the complexity of the context by viewing it from a different vantage point. I consider how the specific case attested to in the letters deepens our understanding of the social function of these two punishments and how they prove surprisingly malleable in their respective carceral imaginations.
Cyprian wrote many letters that dealt directly with issues of prisons, incarceration, and carceral practices.5 Nowhere do the carceral practices of exile and condemnation to the mines come into tighter focus, however, than in Ep. 76–79. These four letters are presented in the Cyprianic letter collection as correspondence between third-century North African clergy and laity embroiled in a broader social conflict with other Christian factions and in political struggles with the Roman state. Cyprian—the elite patron figure of the other clergy and laity—was exiled.6 The other Christians were condemned to the carceral labor in mines in Numidia. The correspondence offers the opportunity to think from a different perspective and in more granular terms about carceral practices and geographies in late antique Roman North Africa. It shifts attention from the Roman legal ideals of punishment to the “real-and-imagined” experience of incarceration, on which these letters supply an uncommon vantage point.7
Correspondence from incarcerated persons must have been fairly common, yet relatively few examples remain.8 The four letters of Ep. 76–79 are thus an important case of communication between different persons in different types of carceral geographies. While exiled in the coastal town of Curubis, an ancient city located on the Mediterranean coast (modern Korba, Tunisia), Cyprian sends messengers with money to comfort as well as a public letter to console fellow Christians condemned to the mines, who in turn write replies thanking him on both fronts. All parties imagine their different punishments in surprisingly similar terms. The letter exchange is also about the exchange of both material and social capital, made possible through the porousness of their respective real-and-imagined carceral practices and geographies.
Carceral studies as a whole has tended to ignore data outside of 18th- to 21st-century European and North American contexts.9 For example, the excellent volumes on the history of “the prison” by Norval Morris and David J. Rothman as well as Karen M. Morin's and Dominique Moran's groundbreaking Historical Geographies of Prisons give limited attention to carceral practices or geographies prior to the 18th century or outside of Europe and North America. This omission, of course, is unfortunate, as incarceration has a far more expansive history, including (as this article will show) in late antique Roman North Africa. Julia Hillner's recent work has provided a critical step forward in the field, yet much work on the cultural history of incarceration in Antiquity remains to be done. As I shall show, early Christian sources (such as Cyprian's letters) are useful to address the cultural history of the real-and-imagined carceral practices and geographies.
Read in the historical context of Roman carceral practices and geographies, the correspondence of Ep. 76–79 offers an illuminating look at the difference between and intersectionality of legal ideals, material realities, rhetorical presentation, and lived experienced (real-and-imagined) of carceral practices and geographies.10 Through the case study that the letters witness, the article considers the fluidity and social negotiation of such differences within late antique Roman North Africa. In so doing, the correspondence between the North African clergy and laity raises questions about the limits of incarceration and of martyrdom.
CONTEXTUALIZING THE PUNISHMENTS OF EXILE AND CONDEMNATION TO THE MINES
Not all forms of exile are equal. Ancient and late antique sources distinguish between relegation (relegatio) and deportation (deportatio). Though both were forms of exile, deportation was a harsher punishment.11 In general, deportation involved loss of property and civil rights.12 It could be to a specific place, could be in perpetuity, and could involve imprisonment of some sort.13 Deportation was often confinement within a specific place, while relegation was banishment from a specific place. Relegation, however, did not necessarily come with loss of property or civil rights, and could involve living in tremendous luxury.14 In fact, the emperor Augustus in 12 CE placed limits on the wealth of exiled aristocrats. His “limitations” barely represent a hardship for the average person: a 1,000-amphorae cargo vessel, two ships with oars, 20 slaves or freedmen, and 500,000 sesterces.15 Relegation may represent a diminished economic situation for some. For most, however, relegation could still involve extraordinary levels of opulence. Painting in broad strokes, one could describe deportation as a form of dying while relegation could be a prolonged stay at a country estate.
Both deportatio and relegatio may be understood as involving the detainment of a body in a place for reasons of perceived criminality and may thus be regarded as forms of carceral practice. Admittedly, referring to relegation as a carceral practice stretches the limits of the phrase, perhaps even up to its breaking point, while one may more easily may understand deportation as such. The distinction between the two types of exile—deportation and relegation—will prove significant in the case attested to in the letter correspondence between the North African Christians presented in Cyprian, Ep. 76–79, as their letters show subtle social negotiation of this legal distinction.
Sadly, many societies’ perceptions of what counts as just punishment is based more on class, race, gender, or other social distinctions rather than on the severity of the crime committed. At least the Romans were honest about it.16 With exceptions, Roman jurists regarded exile as the most severe punishment for the bodies of socially elite persons (honestiores).17 They reserved condemnation to hard labor, on the other hand, for lower classes (humiliores), specifically, those below the rank of decurion or veteran.18 Condemnation of a lower-class person to hard labor was roughly equivalent to deportation of a more socially elite person.19 Some Roman jurists considered condemnation to the mines a capital punishment with loss of citizenship, property, and status.20
Exile and incarceration are rarely considered by scholars as part of the ecosystem of Roman jurisprudence, but rather the result of it. Yet such is clearly not the case. While such punishments were generally quite distinct in Roman jurisprudence, in terms of the “real-and-imagined” experience of carceral punishments in Roman North Africa, they had a social and rhetorical plasticity to them. The capability of such legal distinctions to be transgressed, resisted, and reimagined proves critical for understanding the carceral imagination in Roman North Africa, as reflected in the social scenario of Ep. 76–79.
Once one sees the function of exile and incarceration in both jurisprudence and the cultural imagination, the larger picture of carceral punishments naturally becomes much more complicated. The legal penalty of relegatio, even if to a luxurious garden villa on the Mediterranean coast, could be socially imagined as a death sentence. Conversely, incarceration could socially be regarded as not only a death sentence but a form of death itself, even while in Roman jurisprudence and some regional legal practice it could be an ellipse, not a period.
For instance, while condemnation to the mines was in some cases effectively a death sentence, it could also be a limited term carceral sentence. Although there is evidence to suggest that Roman jurists did not imagine carceral geographies like carceres as places for convicts to serve limited-term sentences, this legal ideal was not uniformly held. In some contexts, condemnation to the mines could occur for limited terms.21 For example, Modestinus, a Roman jurist who lived around the same time as Cyprian, wrote (preserved in the Digest) that, if not specified, the condemned were to spend ten years, not perpetuity, in the mines.22 Moreover, papyri from second- and third-century Egypt document the bureaucracy surrounding the release of convicts after a specific number of years of detainment and labor.23
Of particular interest is SB. 1.4639 [= P. Berol. 11532] (see Image 1). It merits close attention, as it offers a window into the carceral practice of condemnation to the mines and provides historical information relevant to understanding the configuration of carceral practices and death, both physical and civil. The papyrus was penned in 209 CE in the Arsinoite nome and records the release of a convict laborer who had completed a limited term (five-year) sentence.24 Multiple hands writing in different styles are evident. The first six lines are written by a secretary in formal, so-called “chancery” script.25 The secretary writes on behalf of the Egyptian prefect Ti. Claudius Subatianus Aquila to Theon, the strategos of the Arsinoite nome.26 The text reads in translation:
Subatianus Aquila to Theon the strategos of the Arsinoite (nome). Greetings. Nigeras, son of Papirios, who was condemned (καταδικασθέντα) to the alabaster (quarry) for a period of five years (ἐπὶ πενταετίαν) by Claudius Julianus the most honorable, and who has fulfilled (πληρώσαντα) the time of his sentence (τὸν τῆς καταδίκης χρόνον), I release (ἀπέλυσα).
On lines six and seven, just at the bottom right corner of the secretary's writing in lines one through six, cramped along the margins of the papyrus, there is a second hand, ostensibly that of Subatianus Aquila himself, written in smaller and less formal script.27 It reads “I wish you good health” (Ἐρῶσθαι σε βούλομαι).28 A third hand appears (lines eight and eleven) above and below a dating formula, which appears on lines nine and ten. The third hand represents the writing of Mauricianus Menios, who verifies having read the letter with the formula, “I, Mauricianus Menios, read [this]” (Μαυρικιανὸς Μήνιος ἀνέγνω̣[ν]) and offers the date of “Tybi, first day of the month” (Τῦβι νεομηνίᾳ), which would be December 27, 209 CE.29 Antonia Sarri has recently argued that the same secretary (the first hand) that wrote lines one through six also wrote lines nine and ten, though in a different, more informal, cursive script, giving the dating formal: “eighteenth year of Emperor Caesar Lucius Septimius Severus … ”
Thus, the papyrus offers an illuminating datum point of the fulfillment of a limited term carceral sentence and release from convict labor in early third-century Egypt. The scenario may be summarized as follows: A person named Nigeras had been convicted of a crime and condemned ad metalla sometime around 204 CE by the previous prefect Claudius Julianus. Nigeras had served as a convict laborer for five years in an alabaster quarry. During that time a new prefect named Ti. Claudius Subatianus Aquila had come to office and had somehow received notice that Nigeras had served his time, which would indicate that a now-lost record of his conviction and sentencing had been kept in the old prefect's archives and brought to the attention of the new prefect. The documentation of release from carceral labor was produced and likely kept in an original among the prefect's records. Copies would potentially be made for others’ archives or records.30 Perhaps Nigeras also possessed a copy to prove his release and freedom from the carceral geography of the alabaster mines, should some of the bodily markings and deformities remain after his release (on bodily deformation associated with condemnation to the mines, see below). Much bureaucratic process and record-keeping went into the conviction, sentencing, and release of the convict. All in all, the papyrus makes clear that limited term carceral sentences were not just a legal ideal but part of the carceral practice in early third-century Egypt.
Thus, damnatio ad metalla was often a death sentence, but was in some iterations also something one could imagine surviving and living beyond, especially if the convict laborer was not working amid heavy metals (e.g. copper). In addition to giving some sense of historical imagination about the procedure of sending someone to the mines, this information is important for grasping the social negotiations in the scenario attested in Ep. 76–79. It contributes to the question of how the damnati could conceivably have had time or means to write letters of correspondence, especially more polished pieces of writing like Ep. 77, while incarcerated in the mines. It also adds depth to Cyprian's claims about those condemned to the mines already being martyrs. Based on legal theory and documentary evidence, it was not a given that all condemned to the mines would die there.
Labor in the mines, unlike public labor in one's city (opus publicum), often involved transport.31 Not all provinces had mines, but most did and those that did not have mines would send their convicts to mines in other provinces.32 Transport to another place was one way to increase the severity of one's sentence.33 This would seem to be the case because support from the convict's community was crucial to survival, and travel over long distance made such support difficult, if not impossible.34 This is the context within which the subdeacon's envoy and acolytes bringing money and letters from Cyprian must be understood. The coastal city of Curubis, from which Cyprian sent his letter and money, lies ca. 380 kilometers due east of Sigus, where (at least some of) the North African Christians were incarcerated in the mines. A journey by foot between the two places would perhaps have taken roughly two weeks each way.35
As the references in Artemidorus's dream handbook indicate, convict labor (including in the mines) occupied a place in the carceral imagination by at least the second century CE, if not earlier.36 This provides context for appreciating Cyprian's imagined description of the mines in Ep. 76.2.1–3.2, even though he had perhaps never personally visited one. Ample descriptions exist from ancient writers. According to Pliny the Elder, workers would enter the galleries through shafts and work by torchlight, claiming that they would not see the light of day for months on end.37 It is productive to compare the description in Pliny to the Roman bas-relief of miners found in Linares, Spain. In it, the supervisor carries tongs and the other workers carry a pick and a lamp, and, based on the striations on the far right, they appear to be walking through a gallery.38 Umm al-Amad, in the Wadi Faynan region of Jordan, however, is an example of an arched gallery mine used during the Roman era in which one must enter by crawling through a small cramped entrance. The layout inside would have made walking possible but difficult (see Images 2, 3, and 4). The mine slopes gently downward, fanning out into the mountain for ca. 120 meters. During a trip to Umm-al-Amad in October of 2018, I noticed that its arches have niches cut into them where lamps could be placed to provide light in the mine while the laborers worked. Both Cyprian and the other Christians mention darkness in the mines and the need for light several times in Ep. 76–79, and Cyprian specifically evokes the ability to walk in the mines in Ep. 76.7.1.
The sense of smell and breathing is central to understanding the carcerality of condemnation to the mines. “[T]o our nostrils you have brought the fragrance of flowers, driving away the noisome stench of smoke,” Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix, and Victor write to Cyprian.39 The air in mining galleries was dangerous, especially when mining for heavy metals. Those laboring in the mines would sometimes use linen rags to combat the noxious breathing conditions.40 Labor demands at Mt. Sandaracurgium, Strabo claims, could not keep up with dying bodies, with the result that mining operations would have to cease. Strabo writes that “in addition to the painfulness of the work, they say that the air in the mines is both deadly and hard to endure (καὶ θανάσιμον καὶ δύσοιστον) on account of the grievous odor of the ore, so that the workmen are doomed to a quick death.”41
Fergus Millar argued, however, that convict mine labor was not primarily about economics but about violence against the body.42 The Cyprianic letter collection, along with other early Christian textual traditions (such as Eusebius's Martyrs of Palestine) corroborates the connection between condemnation to the mines and violent deformation of the body. Convicts’ heads were often half-shaved.43 Tattooing, branding, beating the body with rods, and shackling with heavy iron chains were common features of the carceral practice of condemnation to the mines as well as a regular feature in the late antique Roman carceral imagination.44 At a structural level, condemnation to the mines was about exhibiting political power over human bodies as a way of maintaining social control of the larger populations.
Mining operations in antiquity were vast. Polybius estimates that 40,000 people were constantly working the mines near New Carthage, Spain, making 25,000 drachmae each day for the demos of the Roman people.45 In fact, the Greenland ice sheet still bears witness to the devastating global effects on the environment of immense Roman-era silver mining.46 Tablets from Vipasca (now Aljustrel in Portugal) show a surprising range of occupations within the mining community, such as shoemakers, fullers, schoolteachers, and barbers, as well as baths with assigned hours for men, women, children, and even slaves.47 These were complex and substantive carceral and industrial communities. Paleobotanical analysis shows that some workers at Mons Claudianus in the Eastern Egyptian desert ate quite well, even luxuriously.48 Many mining communities had an economy, a variety of different social strata, and a combination of free (hired), convict, and slave laborers all working together in the same complex. Based on certain clues in Ep. 76–79, one can sense a range of social complexity within the mining communities where the North African Christian clergy and laity were incarcerated as convict laborers.
Yet, at the same time, analysis of bones buried in graves among the mines in the Wadi Faynan region of Jordan indicates that “copper toxicity must have made life unbearable for the unfortunate souls condemned to mines.”49 The bones show the presence of both adults and children within the community—even children as young as four years old.50 Thus, the remaining textual and material evidence presents differing, complicated (if not contradictory) pictures of ancient mining communities as socially complex places. Mining required both specialist and highly skilled labor, as well as menial, body-destroying labor.51 There was immense variation in ancient carceral practices and geographies between persons in terms of class, age, role in the community, functions performed, freedoms experienced, daily schedules, access to food/water/light/bathing, power to move one's body, and so forth, all of which likely related largely to one's social class and technical skill level. The composite social organization of mining complexes gives a context for thinking about why Cyprian sent money to the clergy and laity in the mines, why they were so grateful for it, and what they might have done with it during their incarceration.
CARCERALITY AND MARTYRDOM IN CYPRIAN's
Having surveyed the carceral practices of exile and condemnation to the mines, I shift focus to a specific case study from third-century Roman North Africa: the situation attested to in Cyprian's Ep. 76–79, which envisage punishments at the more comfortable and the more devastating end of carceral practices. The correspondence offers a window into how these differences work and how they are produced, blurred, and negotiated within the complex social world of third-century Roman North Africa, raising questions about the limits of carcerality and the limits of martyrdom.
Understood in the widest terms, Cyprian had two periods of exile. The first was not technically an exile in any legal sense, but rather an elective flight from persecution. In 249 CE, when Decius issued an empire-wide edict requiring universal supplicatio, Cyprian fled the city.52 Demanding that no Christians comply with Decius's demand to sacrifice, Cyprian left certain clergy posted in harm's way in Carthage, while he hid and managed affairs from afar.53 He claimed that, as a person of some social status, he would be an easy target and thus it was in the best interest of all for him to flee.54 Some Roman clergy wrote a letter that took Cyprian to task for what they perceived to be the abandonment of his flock in a moment of crisis.55 After Decius's death in June 251 CE, Cyprian returned to Carthage.
Some years later, in 257 CE, when Valerian issued his first, less harsh edict, Cyprian took another tack. He did not flee Carthage but was brought before the proconsul on August 30, 257 CE.56 He was then exiled to Curubis, roughly 50 kilometers east-by-southeast of Carthage.57 From his country estate in Curubis, Cyprian wrote the letter now identified in the collection as Ep. 76, which elicited the three responses now identified as Ep. 77–79.58
A letter collection attributed to Cyprian appears to have come together as a constellation relatively early, though only much later taking definitive shapes.59 For instance, the manuscript Add MS 40165 A, now housed in the British Library, contains fragments of Cyprian's Ep. 55, 74, and 69 on ff. 1r–5r. They are dated to the fourth or fifth century and believed to be from North Africa before being brought to England in the seventh or eighth century and used as flyleaves in a twelfth-century manuscript, along with an eighth-century Old English martyrology.60 Thus, the manuscript provides material evidence that some letters of Cyprian circulated together within a century or so of his death, and textual evidence suggests many of Cyprian's letters were published and so meant to be circulated and read widely, within his own lifetime.61
In 1904, Hans Freiherr von Soden listed 151 manuscripts containing parts of Cyprian's letters; none of these manuscripts contains all the letters now comprising modern critical editions.62 Additionally, the number and order of the letter in the extant manuscripts differ from each other greatly.63 Thus, it is possible to envision a collection of Cyprian's letters extending back to a period before Cyprian's death, while a fixed number and order for the Epistles does not exist until the modern period, if a definitive fixed order can be mentioned at all.
Nonetheless, Ep. 76–79 form a unit—a letter and three replies—and it is not hard to imagine that Cyprian might have desired to see them circulated together publicly.64 Cyprian had a subdeacon named Herennianus and a few acolytes deliver his letter (Ep. 76) to the mines along with money and aid.65 Epistles 77, 78, and 79 represent the replies from Cyprian's co-bishops, priests, and laity—carceral subjects condemned to the mines.
These letters present as places porous to visitors, even visitors of incarcerated convict laborers. Their three separate responses provide an important clue about the carceral geography of the mines, suggesting their senders inhabited different parts of a mining complex or in different mining complexes across Numidia, and thus had no means of communication with the other groups of condemned Christians. Only Ep. 79 identifies the location of the mine from which it is written: “… with the priests and all those detained with us at the mine at Sigus” (cum presbyteris et omnibus nobiscum commorantibus apud metallum siguensem).66 There was a town called Sigus about 40 kilometers south-by-southeast of Cirta in Numidia.67 It has been claimed that evidence of Roman mining exists in the area, though there are problems with the evidence supporting such a claim.68
Despite Cyprian's rhetorical presentation, one should not imagine the clergy and laity in Ep. 76–79 as incarcerated in a flat, two-dimensional “Christian prison camp” in Numidia. The letters hint in various ways at the social complexity of the mining community where the letter writers are incarcerated—similar to the Aljustrel mining community discussed above. In keeping with the material record from other mining complexes indicating a variety of occupations within the community, Cyprian's letter suggests the presence of a blacksmith (faber) in Ep. 76.2.3, who maintained the metal chains of the convict laborers. Furthermore, Cyprian had sent not only a letter to his fellow bishops, clergy, and laity in the Numidian mines; he also sent money. While Cyprian does not mention the money in his letter (Ep. 76), all three replies (Ep. 77–79) explicitly acknowledge their acceptance of a gift of money from Cyprian and a certain Quirinus.
Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix, and Victor (Ep. 77) explain what they plan to do with the money in their response letter:
Indeed, thanks to your kindly ministrations and those of our cherished Quirinus, what you have sent for distribution by the hands of the subdeacon Herennianus and the acolytes Lucanus, Maximus, and Amantius has enabled us to make good all the deficiencies in our bodily needs (Fecit autem et prosecutum est ministerium tuum et Quirini dilectissimi nostri, quod per Herennianum hypodiaconum et Lucanum et Maximum et Amantium acolitos distribuendum misisti, quaecumque necessitatibus corporum defuerant expediri).69
Their comment implies some kind of an economic system which the convict laborers themselves are able to access. Again, this must reflect a similar degree of social complexity as at Aljustrel, with a variety of types of free and unfree people of different social classes living in the same place—all participating in a system created by the economics of metal production.
I suggest describing such a site as a carceral-industrial complex. Without the money from Cyprian and Quirinus, the incarcerated persons could not participate in the economy. With the money, they could purchase the things they lack for taking care of their bodily needs. The money economy implies the presence of a variety of occupations and products or services to purchase. Based on the occupations from other known mining communities and the bodily needs mentioned by Cyprian, one can imagine that the money would be used within the mining economy to acquire food, access to the baths, clothing of some sort, and so forth. Lucius and his companions refered to the money as a sacrificium analogous to Noah's, in that it offers a sweet smell that pleases God. Their comment, which should be read in context of the harmful olfactory elements, relates to the mines mentioned above.70 Felix, Iader, and Polianus similarly wrote to accept the money brought by Herennianus the sub-deacon and Lucanus and Maximus. G. W. Clarke rightly noted that the “gauche phrasing and ungainly sentence structures disclose a low level of literary attainment in Felix, the bishop who penned [Ep. 79].” They called the monetary gift a quantitas, a term which is used in Roman legal contexts, as here, to refer to a quantity of money.71 Thus, the letter exchange hints at a socially complex mining community with different occupations beyond just convict laborers and supervisors or guards, and with an economy that includes a variety of participants and occupations, one in which the incarcerated miners were not excluded. The three separate replies along with the elegant Latin of Ep. 77 and the rudimentary Latin of Ep. 79 may offer further insight in the social stratigraphy of the Numidian mines holding the North African Christians, suggesting a diverse social composition within the mining community.
Cyprian's letter implies that women and children were also condemned to the mines and incarcerated in prisons.72 Roman law designated a special punishment for women condemned to the mines: ministerium metallicorum, which involved performing menial duties for the miners.73 Ancient graves and gravestones similarly present the evidence of both children and adults working in mining communities. The graves from Faynan, Jordan—discussed above—indicate the presence of men, women, and children in the mining community. Similarly, a gravestone from Spain, likely dated to the second century CE, shows a child miner (or perhaps the son of a miner) named Quartulus, who had died at the age of four.74 It is not clear from the grave or the gravestone whether the child laborer was free or unfree. Nonetheless, if one can imagine the use of free child-labor at the mines, it is not hard to imagine unfree child-labor. The point is that the material evidence of both the graves and the gravestones, along with Cyprian's letter, suggest the presence of children as well as adults working within ancient mining communities.
The social negotiations present in Ep. 76–79 blur the lines between the carceral practices and punishments—both of exile and condemnation to the mines (in their various forms). Each was related to death and martyrdom, though in different ways. Cyprian describes his exile to Curubis as a relegation (relegatum), not deportation,75 likely at his country estate.76 In Ep. 77, however, Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix, and Victor upgrade the harshness of Cyprian's punishment, naming it as an exilium, or the harsher form of exile: deportation.77 Furthermore, Cyprian subtly folds his punishment of exile together with those in the mines. He rhetorically presents their condemnation to the mines as a form of relegation. He, like those in the mines, was also relegated (me quoque … relegatum).78 In the case study reflected in the Cyprianic letter collection, there was an effort recorded on both sides of the correspondence to imagine the different carceral punishments in analogous terms.
Condemnation to the mines was categorized as a form of incarceration.79 Like a prison, those in the mines existed in an enclosed place, surrounded by darkness and foul air. Like many prisoners, they were chained. Cyprian imagined the experience as involving iron chains with the potential to affect the body chemically, tarnishing and weakening the feet and hands where the iron touches skin:
Then they manacled your feet with fetters and bound about those blessed limbs, which are temples of God, with degrading chains—as if, when the body is bound, they could bring the spirit as well, as if your gold could be tarnished by its contact with this iron! But on men dedicated to God, who bear witness to their faith with such devout courage, these things fit not as chains but as ornaments; they do not bring hobbling degradation upon the feet of Christians, they bring them radiant glory and the prospect of a martyr's crown. O feet blessedly enchained: no smith can loosen their bonds, only the Lord. O feet blessedly enchained: they are now being guided along the path of salvation that leads to paradise.80
Those in charge of the mines were imagined as detaining the condemned within the mines by means of chaining their bodies.81 What's more, Nemesianus and his companions in Ep. 77 refer to their mines as a carceral geography—explicitly linking the mines with the carcer. They write: “Into the darkness of the prison you have brought light (tenebras carceris inluminasti), you have leveled the mountain of ore.”82 Here the whole mountain region was viewed as a carceral geography. In Ep. 78, Lucius and his companions similarly refer to themselves as carceral subjects: “reading this letter of yours has eased the burden of our chains” (in vinculis laxamentum).83 Cyprian lumps the prison and the mines together as carceral geographies.84 In Ep. 76.1.1, he writes:
Through those deeds God has favored and honored you: some of your number have already gone on ahead to receive from the Lord their crown for their deserts, having brought their martyrdom to its accomplishment, while others of you still linger on behind, incarcerated in prisons or enchained in mines (pars adhuc in carcerum claustris sive in metallis et vinculis demoretur).85
Thus, not only are both the prison and the mines linked with the carceral, but the carceral is linked with death itself. To be incarcerated is to exist in a liminal place between the living and the dead.
In keeping with his coupling of the carceral and death, Cyprian labeled those in the mines not only as confessors but as already martyrs (constitutis martyribus), even though they are not yet dead.86 Allen Brent has written about Cyprian's “new theology” of living, bloodless martyrdom.87 Cyprian wrote that some of the number of martyrs have already died, while those in prisons or in the mines have not.88 Those in the mines both stood in the lead and drew others into the blessed flock of martyrs with them.89 Given the realities of the possible release from the mines, the socially composite nature of mining communities, and the ability of the convict laborers to participate in the economy of the mining complex(es), this seems a strong claim on Cyprian's part, as it is not yet clear what the fate of those condemned would ultimately be. Their prayers as proleptic martyrs already have increased efficacy.90 Cyprian even suggests a heightened glory to their incarcerated condition vis-à-vis other martyrs by stating that each day they spend incarcerated increased the number of their rewards in heaven.91
Yet, unlike martyrs who died publicly in their city, those condemned to the mines were fated to die out of sight and without witness. This is a significant social problem. They ran the risk of dying as martyrs, yet without anyone to write their accounts of martyrdom for posterity. As Cyprian knew well, the label of martyr was socially negotiated and recognized, and if they died in obscurity in the mines, out of sight and out of mind, their status as martyrs comes into question. In a social context where who died for what purpose matters immensely (that is, who is rightly regarded as martyred, what counts as martyrdom, and what are its limits), the situation of dying in the mines raised the question of who will write the biographies of their glory.
A close analysis of Ep. 76.2.1–3.2 offers useful hints to such a question. When Cyprian writes his letter, he labels their actions as exhibiting maiora documenta and bringing forward titulos ampliores.92 G.W. Clarke translates these phrases as “lessons all the more effective” and “illustrious distinctions.” His translation is not necessarily wrong, yet something subtler seems to be at play.
Cyprian used words that clearly evoke a literary image: documents and titles. When those in the mines heard these ambiguous words read aloud, they may have imagined that they were already reading the accounts of their own deaths as martyrs, written simultaneously for them and preserved in Cyprian's records for subsequent reading communities. This interpretation of Cyprian's Ep. 76 seems especially likely given that it was the kind of letter that would have circulated publicly, as the letter either already existed in multiple copies for the three different groups in the mines or was already circulating between groups of readers. Either way, the Christians in the mines, when they read Cyprian's letter, whether in triplicate or circulating between reading communities, could well have imagined a broader public reading them, too.93 Writing the memories of martyrs for the purposes of their commemoration was an activity known from other Cyprianic letters. In Ep. 12.2.1 Cyprian asked incarcerated Christians to record the dates of their fellow Christians who died while in prison. He said that someone named Tertullus has been doing so already.
Writing their martyrdom account, Cyprian offered, not the personally experienced, first-hand realities of condemnation to the mines, but his carceral imagination about the experience.94 He narrates step-by-step their imagined entrance and experience in the mines as exemplifying the ideal “Christian body” (christianum corpus).95 The Christian body, as described in 76.2–3, was fundamentally a deformed body.96 First, prior to entering the mines, their bodies were beaten with wooden rods (fustibus). The Christian body did not fear or despise wood, however, since its salvation came through wood as a sacramentum salutis. Next, the Christian body was then placed in the mines, which is not surprising since it is analogized as gold and silver vessels, thus belonging in the subterranean realm.97 The Christian body was then bound with chains that hang on it not as vincula but as ornamenta.98
Having narrated their imagined entrance and incarceration, Cyprian then painted a picture of the ideal Christian body's ongoing existence within the mines. It had no bed or pillow, no chance to bathe, and minimal access to bread, but all these experiences are made sense of and reversed through the refrigerio of Christ.99 The Christian body was naked, but clothed by Christ. The head of the Christian body was half-shaved, but Christ was its true head.100 Finally, the bodies of the Christian clergy were unable to offer the sacrifice of the Eucharist due to the carceral geography of the mines. Cyprian employed this imagined reality by claiming that the incarcerated Christian body in the mines becomes itself a living sacrifice (hostiam vivam; citing Rom 12.1–2).101 Thus, the ideal Christian body was not only formed (deformed) by entrance into the mines, but it also mirrored the dying body of Christ.
It is important to bear in mind that Cyprian here idealized a Christian body that he himself could not have had as a result of being a more socially elite person. His social position had led him to exile in a country estate in Curubis, not to the mines in Numidia, where one could receive the deformity of the ideal Christian body. The preserved integrity of his elite body has come to be a social liability. Thus, through specific kinds of carcerally inflected martyrdom, persons of lower social status acquired a unique possession of social capital: living martyrs. The liminality of the carceral geography of the mines presented unique social and political possibilities.
As discussed above, the Roman legal theory allows the bodily mutilation of the bodies of the humiliores by punishments like damnatio ad metalla, while the integrity of bodies of the honestiores were not to be violated. Given the importance in Roman legal jurisprudence of which bodies receive what punishment, it is striking that in the end of Ep. 76 Cyprian promised that the Lord would transform their bodies, using language that echoes the legal distinctions. He ventriloquized the apostle Paul in Phil 3:21 to speak to his own social situation: “the Lord will transform our humble body (corpus humilitatis) to conform to the body of his high estimation (corpori claritatis suae).”102 In addition to yoking Cyprian's elite body to their bodies of lower social rank, Cyprian here simultaneously seemed to acknowledge the Roman legal distinctions, while also working to undermine them.
Having blurred the line between the status of those in the mines with his status as relegated exile, Cyprian then conflated his status with theirs by placing himself in the mines. Since his garden walls detain him within his exiled carceral geography, he sought another way to break out of his country estate and enter the carceral geography of the mines. Through his letter, he made himself present in the mines (repraesento me vobis).103 This was not just generally implied by the act of writing a letter but was explicitly stated by Cyprian and received as such by those in the mines, who confirm the salubrious effects of his presence there.104 The recipients of his letters heard him speak in the mines, portraying his very self to them (ipsum te nobis designasti).105 Cyprian's presence in the mines healed their beaten bodies, released their chained feet (which according to Ep. 76.2.3 only the Lord can do), and restored the hair of their half-shaved heads. He leveled the mining mountain, thus destroying their “prison.” He brought flower petals to their noses to overcome the smoke of the mining and smelting operations.106
Having entered the mines through his letter and having established those in the mines as already martyrs, it is as unsurprising as it is bold that Cyprian, writing from the luxury of his gardens as a relegated exile, identified himself as already also participating in their identity as martyrs (participem me conputans vobis).107 Even though not bodily in the mines with them, he remained their consortio caritatis.108 While one must avoid the etymological fallacy, the root of a consortio is one who has the same fate (con + sors) and such an idea seems not far from Cyprian's rhetoric.109 As Cyprian's letter reaches its crescendo, he switched from referring to “you” martyrs and wrote about “we” martyrs: God aids us in our struggle, crowns us in victory, rewards us.110 Cyprian wrote of the victory we martyrs gain, the laurels we win. He boldly concluded his letter by writing:
Petite inpensius et rogate ut confessionem omnium nostrum dignatio divina consummet, ut de istis tenebris et laqueis mundi nos quoque vobis cum integros et gloriosos deus liberet, ut qui hic caritatis et pacis vinculo copulate contra haereticorum iniurias et pressuras gentilium simul stetimus pariter in regnis caelestibus gaudeamus.
Ask and pray, therefore, with all greater fervor that the divine honor may bring confession of all of us to completion, that God may unfetter both us along with you, unmutilated and glorious, from this darkness and fetters of the world, that we who are united together by the fetter of charity and peace and have here taken our stand side by side facing the assaults of heretics and the persecutions of pagans, may together rejoice in the realms of heaven.111
Here Cyprian, writing while exiled in his country estate in coastal Curubis, had now fully joined his status as an incarcerated martyr with those in the mines. He pushed carcerality to its very limits by analogizing the whole world (mundus) as site of incarceration. His rhetoric works within a Roman legal framework which seeks to preserve the integrity of his body but not the bodies of the humiliores. He promised that God will liberate their bodies as integros, which one may translation as unmutilated or inviolate, from the carceral geography of the world. Not only was their confession linked together in the prayer, but Cyprian spoke of God unshackling them from their common darkness, fetters, and chain, all images which strongly evoke the experience of incarceration. One senses something of a quid pro quo here: Cyprian wrote their martyrdom accounts through Ep. 76 and subtly requested that they acknowledge his role as fellow living martyr.
Convicts’ bodies were regularly worked to death in the mines. The same treatment of the body was hardly true of relegated exiles. Yet Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix, and Victor in their reply (Ep. 77) confirmed Cyprian's claim to martyr status. In the train of martyrs, they acknowledged Cyprian as first (prior).112 They offered him the special distinction of leading the way to martyrdom.113 Because Cyprian had accepted deportation (in exilium), relinquished his civitas, and went to a deserted place (none of which seems to have been true), the result was that his innocent anima has led the vanguard to martyrdom, he was due no less than the one hundredfold reward of a martyr (which, by Cyprian's own logic, is reserved for virgins),114 he had set an example of martyrdom that others have followed, and he was not only a companion (socia) with the martyrs in the present age, but already united fellowship (amicitiam copulavit) with those who will be martyrs in the future.115 The proleptic identification of those in the mines as martyrs is not all that surprising; Cyprian's claiming the title for himself, while living in a country estate along the Mediterranean coast, however, is. The idea of Nemesianus, Dativus, Felix, and Victor reading his letter and writing a reply acknowledging Cyprian's status as martyr, even though sitting comfortably in faraway Curubis, may strike some readers as somewhat jarring. It pushes the legal distinctions between punishing certain bodies (as opposed to others) as well as incarceration and martyrdom up to or even beyond its meaningful limits.
Other evidence of the association of Cyprian and those in the mines as co-martyrs perhaps may be found in a mensa martyrum (table of martyrs) from modern Kherbet Oum el Ahdam, Algeria (between Roman Tixter and Ras el-Oued), which is currently in the Louvre (see Image 5). It reads:
From the land of promise where Christ was born[, | and the birthplace of?] of the apostles Peter and Paul. Nam | es of the martyrs Datianus, Dona | tianus, Cyprian, Nemesianus, | Citinus, and Victor | ia. In the provincial year 320. | Benenatus and Pequaria set (this) up.116
The table of martyrs is dated to 359 CE, nearly a century after Cyprian's death.117 It brings the names of Cyprian and Nemesianus together as fellow martyrs, even naming the two immediately after one another. The names of Datianus and Victoria are similar though not identical with fellow bishops Dativus and Victor mentioned in Ep. 76 and 77. Such a collocation of names may support the idea that the mensa refers to the same Cyprian, Nemesianus, Dativus, and Victor from the Cyprianic letter collection. Yet the names of Donatianus and Citinus are absent from Ep. 76–79 and this perhaps ought to give some pause in such an identification. Thus, this may provide some evidence of mid-fourth century mutual commemoration in North Africa of the two groups—one exiled in a garden estate in Curubis, the others condemned to convict labor in the mines—suggesting the success of Cyprian's request to link their fates together. Of course, tradition has it that Cyprian would go on to be martyred in Carthage.118 Yet, the fact that the Tixter table of martyrs records their names right next to each other here may perhaps gesture to the lingering consequences of the social capital exchanged in Ep. 76–79.
Lucius and those with him (Ep. 78), however, responded to Cyprian's subtle request differently than those who sent Ep. 79. Lucius and others granted Cyprian the honor of being the dux of the confessors (not the martyrs).119 Moreover, those in the mine at Sigus (Ep. 79) granted Cyprian even less. While they acknowledge that Cyprian had breached normal social distinctions, condescending to speak words of console to them as sons (tamquam filios confortare), they failed to acknowledge his status as a martyrized exile. Even Cyprian's confession is not yet accomplished. They asked Cyprian's prayers that the Lord help fulfill both their confession and that of Cyprian.120 Though all express gratitude for the money Cyprian had sent, their responses to Cyprian's subtler request were not uniform.
That Cyprian ambiguated his punishment of exile with that of condemnation to the mines is significant, as condemnation to the mines was a capital punishment but their martyrdom would occur unceremoniously, over time, and, like an exile, outside of view and far outside of their hometown. Both may be understood broadly as a carceral practice, though they differ extremely in levels of carcerality. Attentiveness to the social negotiations attested to in these letters, their understanding of the porous and pliable nature of carcerality, their social inflections, along with a contextualized understanding of exile and condemnation to the mines all add texture to our understanding of how carceral punishment worked in Late Antiquity. The unusual struggles occasioned by the social capital gained by Christian martyrs in the third century is an important part of the history of carceral practices and geographies in Roman North Africa. Because of the prevailing criminal justice system, it seems Cyprian had to ask fellow Christians of lower social status for authority to exercise power—a situation to which he was no doubt hardly accustomed.
Taking the social situation of Ep. 76–79 as a case study within a broader picture of Roman carceral practices and geographies presents several points of illumination about incarceration. First, it offers a more historically robust way of approaching carceral practices and geographies in one part of the late Roman world. It allows us to zoom in on one particular situation. The letters sketch a complex picture of carcerality and its limits, as well as how the carceral relates to intricate social and political matters. Insofar as Ep. 77–79 are letters written by convicts condemned to the mines, they present intriguing details about a carceral imagination of the “everyday” of what incarceration might look in the form of damnatio ad metalla: how convicts might eat, what they might do, or how they might communicate with the outside world.121 This, of course, is as much as part of the carceral imagination as it is grounded in historical or material realities.
Second, setting the case of Ep. 76–79 in a broader context of Roman carceral practices and geographies adds further texture to an understanding of Cyprian's social struggle with other Christian factions and political struggle with the Roman state. The Roman commitment to punishing, deforming, and incarcerating bodies of lower social status persons had produced critical transmutations of Christian social capital. For this reason, Cyprian recognized yet also sought to blur the social distinctions of Roman carceral practices. While Roman legal and penal thought sought not to violate the wholeness of the bodies of elite persons by distinguishing between the punishments of exile and condemnation to the mines, Cyprian simultaneously acknowledged the legal realities of Roman jurisprudence yet also destabilized the differences of bodily punishments of exile and condemnation of the mines. Moreover, despite reasons to suspect otherwise (both historical and those internal to the letters), Cyprian offered an imagined presentation of their damnatio ad metalla as a carceral practice and geography of certain death. Consequently, those living incarcerated in the mines already exist in a liminally dead space as proleptic martyrs. Yet since they suffer out of sight and away from their communities, their stories must be told and commemorated by the living, in order to be regarded as martyrs. Cyprian as patron wrote the account of their martyrdom in the mines, along with a gift of money, while they as clients acknowledged his exile also as a form of incarcerated martyrdom similar to their own. Julia Hillner has written about “‘[m]artyrising’ the exile of [the] leaders [of various Christian factions]” within the context of late antique political and religious conflict.122,Ep. 76–79 offer further data in this development.123 The letter collection presents an instructive precursor to data on which Hillner focuses attention.
Third, the “real-and-imagined” lived experience of incarceration witnessed in Ep. 76–79 reframes issues of criminality, carcerality, and punishment as socially constructed, porous, and negotiable. Each of these concepts has legal, material, social, gendered, rhetorical, and lived-experience components, all of which must be treated as distinct, yet also fluid and intersecting with each other. For instance, if the mensa in fact relates to Ep. 76–79, the change from the male name of Victor in the Cyprianic letters to the female name of Victoria in the inscription is a significant one that intersects with Roman jurisprudence and a gendered inflection of the “real-and-imagined” lived experience in the Christian carceral imagination. In terms of legal ideals and carceral imaginations, Cyprian played with the legal ideals in careful, rhetorical ways. Yet he also had a clear picture of a carceral imaginary that he wishes to project. Moreover, the material realities of condemnation to the mines both contribute to and work against the carceral and martyrdom story Cyprian wishes to tell.
Finally, this article places the practices and geographies of condemnation to the mines in Roman Late Antiquity within the scholarly frame of carceral studies, which has tended to focus chronologically and geographically on 18th to 21st century European and North American contexts. Scholarship on incarceration in the modern Western world is vast and rapidly growing, yet carceral practices in the ancient world and non-Western contexts are relatively understudied. Such an historical and intellectual blind spot confirms that Foucault was right: as soon as the penitentiary was born, the penitentiary (and the prison-industrial complex) captured society's imagination. Perhaps it is also true, however, that Foucault's framework has similarly captured the scholarly imagination about what counts as incarceration. Carceral practices and geographies have a much broader history, both chronologically as well as geographically, as these letters demonstrate. This article seeks to contribute to the field of carceral studies more broadly by suggesting that the case study of Cyprian and his fellow North African Christians presents an important example from outside the field's traditional frame of reference about carcerality and its limits. Who punishes what kind of bodies in what ways is an old question with a capacious history that reaches far and wide. The question is one that is deeply intertwined with legal, social, material, rhetorical, and real-and-imagined considerations. Seeking to gain an historically broader appreciation of how such carceral relationships are configured, reproduced, concealed, and transgressed is a worthy historical endeavor.