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The Prison System: Rome 509 BCE vs. USA 2010 CE

In History, Opinion on March 10, 2010 at 16:49

by Bryan Fidler

The purpose of correctional facilities has changed greatly since the Roman Republic established their first prisons. Romans did not use prisons for the same purposes that we do in the United States. In fact, Roman law did not recognize imprisonment as a form of punishment.

In 451 BCE, with the issuance of the Twelve Tables, the main function of the jail was to provide a place to keep state prisoners pending execution, and for people awaiting trial. The wealthy were held under house arrest at the home of a friend, who would guarantee their appearance in court ( The only instance of imprisonment in the Twelve Tables occurs in the laws concerning debt. Debtors who could not or would not pay were incarcerated for sixty days and were to have their debts announced publicly in the marketplace three times. If their debt was paid, they were released, if not they were executed or sold into slavery outside the city (Morris and Rothman, 15).

If Romans were caught in the act, or confessed to the crime, their sentence was immediately imposed and no trial was held (Morris and Rothman, p.18). Conviction for some offenses was “an eye for an eye”, but a frequent penalty for a crime was death. Capital punishment took many forms such as burning alive for those convicted of arson, throwing off the Tarpeian Cliff for perjury, hanging for theft and burying alive the vestal virgins who violated their oaths of chastity (Morris and Rothman 14). Exile might be chosen by a convicted felon as an alternative to execution, in exchange for loss of their property and citizenship. Those exiled could be killed if they returned to Rome.

The Carcere Mamertino, or Mamertime Prison, is an ancient Roman prison typical during the Roman Republic. It served as the State Prison and had an underground cell which was a hole twelve feet below ground into which prisoners were lowered. It was basically a dungeon, where the conditions were so deplorable that many died before reaching trial, or the completion of the decided penalties. It was the death chamber for those sentenced to strangulation or starvation (Morris and Rothman, 19). High profile prisoners of war were also kept in the prison, where they stayed until a public procession could be held when they were paraded and strangled in public (Morris and Rothman, 22).

In the United States today we use prisons to hold inmates awaiting trial, but also for punishment. Capital punishment is rarely used as evidenced by the statistic that only 52 inmates were executed in 2009, as compared to 1,610,446 people being held as prisoners ( Also, the methods of capital punishment are considered to be more humane than during the Roman Republic, with the use of lethal injection or electrocution being the most common. The punishment of “an eye for an eye” no longer exists, and we now have an alternative or adjunct to incarceration under the system of parole and probation, where prisoners are released into the community under certain conditions, which only if not met, result in re-incarceration. Unfortunately, in 2008, over 7.3 million people were on probation, in jail or prison, or on parole at year-end, which is 3.2% of all U.S. adult residents, or 1 in every 31 adults. Furthermore, expenditures on corrections have increased 660% from $10 billion in 1982 to $68 billion in 2008 ( From a local perspective, in 2009 the Harford County Detention Center in Maryland housed, on average, 500 people per day, at a cost of $45/day. This amounts to an annual cost of $8,311,050 for a County with a population of approximately 250,000, which is the same approximate population of Rome at the beginning of the Roman Republic. (

So the prison system today in the United States is more humane than during the Roman Republic, which shows progression. Prisons are regulated at the Federal, State, and local levels by government. Prisoners are not kept in unsanitary places or starved and in Roman times, and in fact, “three hots and a cot”, is the current standard. Prisons now even provide job training and education to inmates to prepare their re-introduction into society.

But how effective is punishment as a deterrent to crime?

In a 15 State study conducted from 1983-1994, over two-thirds of released prisoners were rearrested within three years ( Punishment is defined as a process of presenting a consequence, delivered after a behavior, which serves to reduce the frequency or intensity with which the behavior occurs( If the purpose of incarceration in United States prisons is punishment, the tremendous costs and recidivism rates indicate that the prison system is not working. Indeed, the Roman Republic process seemed a more efficient — if utterly less humane — form of handling and deterring the commission of crimes.

“Annual Report.” Harford County Sheriff’s Office. Jan 2010. Harford County Government, Web. 5 Mar 2010.(

“Key Facts: Corrections.” Office of Justice Programs. 7 Jan. 2010. U.S. Department of Justice, Web. 5 Mar 2010. (

Morris, Norval, and David Rothman. The Oxford History of the Prison. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 1995. Print., pp. 14-22.

“punishment.” Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. 2010.Merriam-Webster Online. 5 March 2010 (

“Roman Prisons.” UNRV History. 2003-2010., Web. 5 Mar 2010. (