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  • Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity by Julia Hillner
  • Daniel Washburn
Julia Hillner. Prison, Punishment and Penance in Late Antiquity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015. Pp. xx, 422. $115.00. ISBN 978–0-521–51751–5.

In her recent book, Julia Hillner analyzes the late-antique practice of enforced cloistering and its historical precursors. Hillner argues that throughout antiquity philosophers and commentators on the law had conceived of punishments, especially isolation, designed to improve transgressors’ moral sensibilities; monasteries institutionalized this long-standing ideal. In making its case, the book examines a thousand years of thought on, and practice of, rehabilitative punishment.

The book is divided into three parts, each containing several chapters. The first, “Punishment, Reform and Penance,” traces conceptions of justice in Platonic, Roman, and Christian contexts. Part 2, “Prison and Punishment,” examines methods of confinement, including public prison, domestic seclusion, and exile. The book culminates in part 3, “Prison and Penance,” in which Hillner situates monastic confinement in ecclesiastical and imperial contexts. The final section argues that this particular form of seclusion developed from Christian notions of justice (it instilled reflection and contrition in the offender) and was co-opted eventually by state authorities for its utility.

Learnedness and meticulousness mark this work. Stretching from Plato to Gregory the Great, the book displays a vast range in its materials. One representative page draws from Leontius of Byzantium, an anonymous Pelegian treatise, Basil of Caesarea, Libanius of Antioch, one of Diocletian’s rescripts, and an Egyptian military archive (144). The book displays equally extensive coverage in its scholarly bibliography. Similarly, the maps and tables that Hillner includes convey a great amount of scholarship in easily digestible forms.

In its approach, the work maintains a careful balance between theoretical and practical explanations. The need for this balance often arises, as Hillner [End Page 434] considers not only discourses of power but also logistical issues, such as the portion of a house where domestic seclusion could have occurred (168). Hillner shows sound judgment, considering each development on its own merits. For instance, she concludes that a sentence to work in the flour mill was chosen primarily for economic motives (171), whereas frontier exile served an ideology of “social hygiene” and worked woefully in practice (234).

In addition to its specific claims, the book provides a model for how to argue. Hillner supplies clear, thoughtful reasons for taking material as unique or as part of a larger trend (for example, 294). Her interpretation of language likewise exhibits precision. She uncovers the significance of sources’ terms in each specific context. In particular, the book’s first part elucidates subtle but significant shifts in the meaning of emendatio/emendare (38–49, 58–63, 66–76, 96–103).

These qualities, such a boon to specialists, will also make the book difficult for others. Scholars working in fields apart from Roman law will probably derive uneven benefits from the first two parts of the work. Undergraduates are clearly not the intended audience and would find the book overwhelming. Hillner seems aware of these qualities and frequently directs the reader to the connections with relevant arguments in other sections. Furthermore, each part contains a trenchant summary of the preceding chapters. These features will greatly assist casual readers. Even so, the book contains so much evidence and so many overlapping lines of inquiry that, on occasion, a reader can struggle to determine what is essential for the argument and what is not. In particular, the discussion of late-antique coloni may have provided too much explanation of what we cannot know (172–185). Similarly, the book at first blush seems to address monastic confinement, yet it is only the last part that takes up this topic directly. A reader expecting a discussion of late-antique monasteries will have to wait for the concluding section.

Nevertheless, Hillner’s is a valuable book. Part 3 will stimulate any scholar working in the fields of late antiquity or the early Middle Ages. Those specializing in later Roman law or empire will find excellent discussions in parts 1 and 2. All readers of Hillner’s work will develop a keener sense of what a Christian Roman empire entailed and...


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