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15th century the basement of a "market house" used as a prison

Prisons and Imprisonment in the Ancient World: Punishments Used to Maintain Public Order


One of the most well-known forms of punishment today is imprisonment. One could argue that for any society to function properly, public order has to be maintained. This is an important function of the state and one of the ways this goal is achieved is through laws. Inevitably, laws have also been broken since they emerged, and punishments have been provided either as a form of retribution or as a deterrent to would-be law-breakers. The history of imprisonment can be traced back all the way to the ancient world.

Mesopotamian Imprisonment

The earliest known use of imprisonment as a form of punishment can be traced to the Mesopotamian civilization. In the oldest known surviving law code, the Code of Ur-Nammu , it is written that:

If a man commits a kidnapping, he is to be imprisoned and pay 15 shekels of silver.

In another Mesopotamian law code, the famous Code of Hammurabi , it is written:

If anyone has a claim for corn or money upon another and imprisons him; if the prisoner dies in prison a natural death, the case shall go no further.
If the prisoner dies in prison from blows or maltreatment, the master of the prisoner shall convict the merchant before the judge. If he was a free-born man, the son of the merchant shall be put to death; if it was a slave, he shall pay one-third of a mina of gold, and all that the master of the prisoner gave he shall forfeit. 

Code of Hammurabi stele (1792-1750 BC). (Mbzt/Wikimedia Commons) The Code of Hammurabi contained laws and punishments in the ancient Mesopotamian world.

Code of Hammurabi stele (1792-1750 BC). ( Mbzt/Wikimedia Commons ) The Code of Hammurabi contained laws and punishments in the ancient Mesopotamian world.

In other words, those who were in debt could be imprisoned by their debtors, rather than the state. Nevertheless, the prisoner was protected by the state, in the sense that his debtors could be punished if a person died in prison due to maltreatment.

Although the Code of Ur-Nammu and the Code of Hammurabi both show that imprisonment may be used as a form of punishment, it has also been pointed out that this was not the punishment favored by the state. The Mesopotamians came to believe that imprisonment did not do any good in the end - either to the injured party or the state.

Rather than imprisonment, the Mesopotamians had a preference for the use of criminals for forced labor. It has been said that in the later Assyrian state, for instance, sentencing prisoners to forced labor, rather than imprisonment, was perceived as a more economically productive and socially beneficial alternative.

For more severe crimes, the Assyrians were also known to use capital punishment, e.g.  flaying. This was more common for the punishment of criminals such as rebel leaders.

For more severe crimes, the Assyrians were also known to use capital punishment, e.g.  flaying. This was more common for the punishment of criminals such as rebel leaders. ( Public Domain )

The Ancient Chinese Legal System

Not all ancient civilizations, however, agreed with the Mesopotamian view of punishment. In ancient China, for example, its legal system was dominated by the school of Legalism. According to the teachings of Legalism, punishment for all crimes had to be universal as well as harsh.

Apart from the use of prisons (the conditions of which were likely to have been horrible), the state could also inflict cruel and unusual punishments on law-breakers. These include the use of a variety of wooden collars and cages to inhibit a criminal’s movement, and having a chain attached to a heavy stone tied around a convict’s neck.

A couple forms of the harsh punishment used in Legalism in ancient China.

A couple forms of the harsh punishment used in Legalism in ancient China. ( Duhaime)

Despite the influence of Legalism, the ancient Chinese legal system had, at times, followed a more benevolent path. A stone tablet dating back to 723 AD (when China was ruled by the Tang Dynasty) records that Buddhist temples were expected to be built close to prisons, which some scholars believe was as a means to help rehabilitate criminals.

Ancient Greek Rehabilitation… for Some

The idea of rehabilitating prisoners is said to have also been shared by some ancient Greek philosophers, such as Plato. Nevertheless, it has been mentioned that there was a ‘class bias’ in punishment, and criminals who were not citizens of Greek city states were punished severely.

These punishments, which included stoning, burning alive, and crucifixion, were apparently aimed at retribution, and would be regarded as cruel by today’s standards.

Although prisons existed in ancient Greece, they were used differently from their modern counterparts. Prisons in ancient Greece were normally used to house criminals condemned to die. Nevertheless, it seems that they were rather willing to allow prisoners on death row to escape and go into exile. In Plato’s Crito, for instance, Crito advises Socrates to escape from prison, and that a moderate sum of money would be sufficient to free him:

Actually it’s quite a moderate sum that certain people want for rescuing you from here and getting you out of the country. And then surely you realize how cheap these informers are to buy off; we wouldn’t need much money to settle them.

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David. (Public Domain) In Plato’s ‘Crito,’ Crito advised Socrates to pay his way out of prison.

The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David. ( Public Domain ) In Plato’s ‘Crito,’ Crito advised Socrates to pay his way out of prison.

Ancient Roman View on Prisons

The idea of allowing prisoners condemned to death to ‘make a run for it’ and go into exile was also apparent in Roman society. Like the Greeks, the Romans viewed prisons not as a place to punish criminals, but to hold those awaiting the death sentence.

One of the most famous prisons of the ancient world, the Mamertine Prison, can be found in Rome. Scholars believe this prison was built during the 7th century BC by the legendary fourth king of Rome, Ancus Marcius. The Mamertine Prison is located on the northeastern slope of the Capitoline Hill. Some famous figures said to have been imprisoned in the Mamertine Prison whilst awaiting their execution include the Gallic leader Vercingetorix, St. Peter, and Jugurtha, a Numidian king.

The inside of Mamertine Prison of Rome, Italy. St. Peter may have been one of the famous prisoners in this prison.

The inside of Mamertine Prison of Rome, Italy. St. Peter may have been one of the famous prisoners in this prison. ( CC BY SA 3.0 )

It may be argued that in some ancient societies, such as Mesopotamia, imprisonment was indeed used as a form of punishment. In others, such as ancient Greece and Rome, prisons were just used to hold criminals waiting to be executed. In the end, it would take over a millennium before prisons developed into the form that we are familiar with today.

Featured image: 15th century the basement of a "market house" used as a prison ( Public domain ).

By Ḏḥwty


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Duhaime, L., 2011. Crime and Punishment in Ancient China. [Online]
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Hammurabi, The Code of Hammurabi [Online]
[King, L. W. (trans.), 1915. Hammurabi’s The Code of Hammurabi .]
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Hassett, M., 2010. Mamertine Prison. [Online]
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Plato, Crito,
[Trednnick, H., Tarrant, H. (trans.), 2003. Plato’s Crito , in The Last Days of Socrates . London: Penguin Books Ltd.]

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Prisons and governments are simply methods that allows one group of people (those in power) to use state sanctioned violence, force, and coercion against another group (those not in power). In modern day United States of America, it is estimated tens of thousands of people in prison are either innocent or accused of crimes with no victims. The US government recently informed thousands of inmates that the evidence that was used against them at pretrial and trial was fabricated by the law enforcement officers and forensics and fraudulently presented as fact and truth to the court by the prosecuting attorneys. In the US it is estimated the average citizen commits three felonies every day. The only difference between the inmates and those who are not inmates is the fact the government prosecuted the inmates and not the non-inmates. This is criminal background checks are worthless in the states.

Are you implying that because these men have no access to vagina they become homosexual and rape at every opportunity? Wow!

The US secretary of state under Bill Clinton, Madeline “It was worth it” Albright, admitted on 60 Minutes to Lesley Stahl that the USA killed over 500,000 Iraqi children with sanctions, long before the 2003 war.  Go to youtube and watch her say it.

As to US prisons, having practice criminal defense law for decades and having visited prisions in the US and in other countries, I can say that even many third world countries have better and more decent prisons that the USA.

Alone among all western countries, the US does not allow conjugal visits, resulting in massive amounts of homosexual rape.  Alone among all western countries, the US has life without parole.  Along among all western countries, the US has the death penalty.  Alone among all the western countries, the US has solitary confinement, and uses its super frequently with tens of thousands in solitary.

And most important, alone among all countries in the whole world, the US makes all prisoners into slaves and makes them work for corporations for nothing.  If they don’t work, they get punished.


Tom Carberry

Oh please, I do not see the USA going out killing millions of Muslim kids- I do however hear of Muslims killing their own kids and calling it honor killings. I do hear of certain religions that kill unfaithful spouses (usually just the women though), and even certain groups killing other people who don't believe their version of some fairly tale story passed down from a time when people thought the earth was flat. Please save your anti-USA rants for the less intelligent masses, because if you asked pretty much any single criminal in the world where they would prefer to serve their time I'm betting 99% would choose the USA prisons over any other prison in the world.

Prisons exist onnly because of our higly unequal, patriarchal societies.  People cmmit theft because they have no wealth.  Wealthy people have wealth because of thousands of years of violent exploitation of the masses.


All the lords and ladies and kings and queens in Europe got their wealth through mass murder of children, aka war, and slavery.  

Today, the biggest mass murderers lead our world.  War criminals and war profiteers run all the major countries.  The USA, the most patriarchal of all the countries, has slaughtered over 5 million children since WWII and continues to slaughter innocent Muslim chlldren as I write this post.




Tom Carberry

dhwty's picture


Wu Mingren (‘Dhwty’) has a Bachelor of Arts in Ancient History and Archaeology. Although his primary interest is in the ancient civilizations of the Near East, he is also interested in other geographical regions, as well as other time periods.... Read More

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