The Athenian State Prison

Paul Cartledge reconstructs the prison and execution-site of Socrates

Among the manifold and multifarious delights awaiting visitors to the new eighteenth-century gallery of the Museum of London are the original doors from Newgate Gaol now standing in a massive reconstruction of the prison's stone walls. Nearby are the cells from Wellclose Square lock-up, poignantly adorned with carvings of prisoners' names and incised images of gallows. These places of confinement may have been, as Roy Porter has drily put it, 'laws unto themselves'; but quite certainly they were (in the words of a contemporary) 'fitter to make a rogue than reform him'.
By their prisons shall ye know them. Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish has brilliantly shown how the eighteenth-century's vision of the prison as a panoptic mode of social control serves to illuminate eighteenth-century society as a whole. The ancient Athenians, however, were entertaining no such elevated notions of moral education or reformation when in about 450 BC they constructed their state prison, an edifice which they called literally and euphemistically 'The People’s Thing'. In fact, imprisonment was only rarely used by them as a form of penal servitude. Rather, incarceration in The People's Thing was for most inmates the Athenian equivalent of Death Row.

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