Imprisonment in the Roman world: Prison vs. house arrest (Acts 26)

Illustration: The Mamertine Prison in Rome, with an altar commemorating the legendary tradition that Saints Peter and Paul were imprisoned there.

Persons were imprisoned in Roman times while awaiting trial or execution, for political reasons of for ensuring compliance with a judicial order. Paul was detained for a trial in Caesarea (Acts 23:33-24:27) and in Rome (Acts 28:16), John the Baptist was imprisoned for accusing Herod of adultery and thus threatening his political authority (Luke 3:19-20) and debtors were sometimes imprisoned to pressure them to pay their debts (Matthew 18:30, Luke 12:58). Imprisonment as a method of formal punishment was rare.

Times of detention were neither limited nor strongly enforced, and ordinarily the prisoner was poorly treated. Many were beaten, tortured and given inadequate food and water, although a prisoner of higher status would often fare better. Herod Agrippa I, before he became ethnarch of Judea and Samaria (Acts 12), experienced various degrees of imprisonment. At first Emperor Tiberius placed him in chains in a military camp under the prefect of the praetorians in Rome. Tiberius’ sister-in-law, Antonia, lessened the severity of conditions during this incarceration, asking the guard to be more humane, to allow Agrippa to bathe every day and to permit his friends to bring him food and clothing. After Tiberius died Agrippa was allowed to live in his own private residence. He was still guarded and chained at the wrist to a guard each day but was permitted to handle his own affairs (Josephus, Antiquities 18.6.6-11).

Paul was probably detained in the Praetorium, a fortress or governor’s residence, while in Caesarea. While in Rome he was allowed to dwell outside the military camp, as well as to find and rent his own quarters. He received this relatively mild treatment for three reasons:

  • Paul was a Roman citizen.
  • He had received favourable verdicts from governors Festus and Agrippa.
  • The Praetorian prefect overseeing prisoners from the provinces in the years A.D. 51-62 was the honest Afranius Burrus.
  • Paul’s trial took two years to conclude. According to Eusebius (History 2.22.25), Paul was released but later detained again in Rome when Nero began to execute Christians. Paul was at that point probably placed in the tullianum, the underground execution cell of the prison at Rome.

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