Exile, removal from the centre of things to the periphery, or beyond, was normal part of punishment in antiquity; the Romans didn’t invent it, but they used it a lot, especially in the later empire.
Roman Britain was a place of exile, which is why it may have become such a hotbed of trouble. Valentinian exiled Palladius, chief marshal of the court at Chalcedon (Ammianus XXII.3) to Britain, while ‘Frontinus, an adviser of the said Hymetius, was charged with having drawn up the form of prayer that was made, he was mangled with rods, and having confessed his guilt, was exiled to Britain’ (Amm. XXVIII.1.21). Similarly, Valentinus, a senior military officer, was exiled to Britain and was involved with the barbarian conspiracy of AD365, and in its suppression. The mysterious fifth province, Valentia, taken to be named for Valentinian, might actually have derived its name from Valentinus (Amm. XXVIII. 3.5).
|Scilly Islands, off Cornwall, England|
Followers of the supposed heretic Priscillian, including two bishops, Instantius and Tiberianus, were exiled to Sylina ‘which is beyond Britain’; believed to be today’s Scilly Islands, which many think were once a single island Scillonia Insula, of which Sylina is a variant. The action taken against Pricillian was by Magnus Maximus, who had him executed (the first major Christian figure to be murdered for heresy; figures like St Ambrose of Milan and St Martin of Tours, opponents of Priscillian, urged him not to be executed). These two prelates were too risky to be sent even to Britain; sending them to the delightful Scillies was almost like sending them to Ireland.
We shouldn’t be surprised. Being exiled to an island (deportatio in insulam) was a common Roman punishment; the future emperor Tiberius was sent to Rhodes in 6BC and spent right years there, unable to return, eventually coming back as a private citizen. Agrippa Postumus, an heir to Augustus, was sent to Planasia (Pianosa) and kept in solitary confinement for eight years until his death. Cornelius Laco, deputy emperor and head of the Praetorian Guards under Galba, was taken to an unnamed island and then killed by Otho. Apuleius in The Golden Ass tells the story of an imperial official sent to Zakynthos after losing the emperor’s favour (fictively Antoninus Pius). While this is fiction, there is nothing to suggest this was unusual.
|Julia Caesaris 'the Elder'|
This is distinguished from relegatio in insulam, mainly used for women. The Italian island of Pandateria (modern Ventotene) was a frequent base for exiling imperial women. Augustus exiled his daughter Julia Caesaris there, along with his ex-wife, her mother Scribonia. Tiberius exiled Agrippina the Elder there, where she died. Gaius brought her body back to Rome, but exiled his own sister, Julia Livilla there in turn. Nero’s first wife, Claudia Octavia was exiled there in AD62, then killed. Finally Flavia Domitilla, a relative of Vespasian, was exiled to a neighbouring island by Domitian. She may have converted to either Judaism, or to an early form of Christianity.
|Ventotene Island, anciently Pandateria|
Under deportatio, one lost all one’s goods and property and forfeited Roman citizenship. By contrast, relegatio did not involve such losses, perhaps because a married woman’s property was at her husband’s disposal anyway.
Those who were to be watched were sent to Italian islands. Tiberius went to Rhodes before he could be exiled. Sending someone to Britain suggests they were not watched; one wonders why they were not simply killed. There seems to have been a tradition of sending troublemakers to Britain. It has been suggested that the satirist Juvenal was sent there for some extended period by Trajan in the second century AD.
Exile of political rivals was established punishment in the fourth century. Valens sent Phronimius, a former commander of Julian’s armies, to exile in the Crimea (Chersonesus) for having backed the usurpation of Procopius in 371. This is odd. The Crimea was a Gothic stronghold at that time, so sending someone who knew the Goths quite well into exile in Gothland reads more like an undercover mission. Two other relatives by marriage of Constantius, Eusebius and Hypatius, brothers, were exiled by Valens, but soon recalled and restored to favour (Amm. XXIX.2.11). Then again, Valens had no sons, so they may have been considered for elevation (rather than the fanatic Theodosius – how different might the end of the Roman Empire have been without him?)
Nor was Valens unusual: following the defeat of the British usurper Magnentius, Constantius II, while at Arles, ‘among other atrocities … tortured Gerontius, a count of the party of Magnentius, and visited him with the sorrow of exile’ (Amm. XIV.5.1). Constantius also enabled his urban prefect Leontius to exile to unspecified islands (Amm. XV.7.2) anyone who stood up to him in what appears at first to be a non-political matter: the arrest of a charioteer Philoromus. This may have been a disguised political cell, since there had recently been an attempted coup by the Frankish leader Silvanus; the name of the charioteer – ‘I love Rome’ – may be a secret phrase used by conspirators, a bit like shouting ‘Verdi’ in the Risorgimento of 19th century Italy. Valentinian also exiled several senators who were said to be conspiring with Auchenius, another charioteer; some others were also tried, but acquitted (Amm. XXVIII.1.27). Julian did much the same, exiling Florentius, chief marshal of the imperial court, to an island called Boae off the coast of Dalmatia (Amm. XXII.3.6).
Banishment seems to have become normalised in the Dominate after AD284 as discussed in depth in Washburn D.A. (2012) Banishment in the Later Roman Empire 284-476 Routledge, especially p.136 . We should consider whether Britain was unusual in receiving exiles. It was an island, with the benefits of movement control. It was distant and it would be very easy for an emperor to have enemies bumped off quietly. It seems the emperor wanted political and religious troublemakers moved from the core of the empire to its periphery, but not outside it.
Given the powers of the emperor, why were these enemies not simply killed then? Since both pagan and Christian emperors, and among Christians both Catholics and Arians, exiled opponents, including those who were guilty of attempting to overthrow the state, we can’t say it was because of Christian scruples.
The difference between the early imperial processes of deportatio and relegatio, which were confined to family rivalries, including disputes over heirs and potential illegitimacies and the use of islands near Elba (these same islands had Bourbon prisons, restocked by Mussolini), the later exiles to islands were primarily aristocrats involved in coups and conspiracies. By the fourth century the old division of patrician and plebeian orders had largely disappeared, to be replaced by those of honestiores and humiliores. Honestiores couldn’t be killed without overriding reasons. It was likely that the Roman upper order would take revenge. The emperor needed them on his side.
Life in the upper orders depended very strongly on the social network individuals could command. Patrons offered endorsement to their clients. Membership of colleges of priests depended very much on people cooperating and collaborating. Exile places the individual outside the network. To be exiled was social murder.
|Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was exiled|
If we wanted a modern equivalent, the placement of South African revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, intended to be permanent would be comparable. Napoleon was left on Elba and then St Helena rather than face execution in the afterglow of the Enlightenment. It need not be an island. In the 1930s, the Turinese writer Carlo Levi was sent as punishment for anti-Fascist agitation to the Italian Mezzogiorno, where he wrote his great book Christ Stopped At Eboli.
Certainly the later empire was no kinder than the earlier configuration. If the idea was to store errant officials who might have powerful connections, literally isolating them, rendering them powerless, it didn’t work. While the empire was united, exiles could be sent anywhere, and Westerners could be sent east; Bishop Lucifer of Cagliari was sent by Constantius II to Marash in south eastern Anatolia and from there to Egyptian Thebes. Constantius also exiled Bishop Athanasius of Alexandria to Trier in Gaul, and in total Athanasius was exiled five times, although it was increasingly notional – the fifth exile ordered by Valens was from Alexandria to the suburbs of the same city, which strikes me as simply a forced retirement.
The creation of twin empires in AD395 limited this, of course. An emperor could not simply exile a troublesome political or politico-religious figure to an area outside his authority. There are some instances of indulgentia, under which exiles were allowed to return and jurisprudence about whether this meant simply they were to come home, or whether property seized under deportatio and, perhaps most importantly, prior status (dignitas) were to be restored or compensated for. We can imagine that people who had legitimately bought an exile’s farming estate would resist it being given back to him. Christian emperors did use the celebration of Easter to free criminals and exiles (shades of Barabbas!), which was a way to exteriorise this: it wasn’t me who freed him, it was God.
We should note that the Romans did not have a policy of imprisonment as a punishment. If found guilty of a major crime, the alternatives were a fine, the mines, beheading, the arena or crucifixion. Prisons were generally lockups, to hold people prior to trials or pending transfer or execution. Foucault considered it a significant rise in humanity that France had moved from torturing convicts to death to holding them captive for many years, watching them perpetually in panopticon prisons (Michel Foucault: Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Prison (1991) London: Penguin).
It’s hard to see that any Roman punishment was designed to reform criminal behaviour, except for fines. The level of the fine would have been designed, like the medieval wergild, to be one which required support from the criminal’s family and patron to be paid, imposing a future discipline and severely limiting the resources to achieve much.
The mines were a form of slow death, where the criminal was to be worked to death, and the galleys would have been a similar fate. Forcing people into the arena to face wild beasts only works if the victim is frightened. Efforts to kill Christians failed because the Christians believed they would go to heaven. We might remember the attitudes of ISIS: you don’t love life as much as we love death.
Exile was often a sentence outside the court system. It was not a death sentence, any more than a concentration camp was, but (except for relegatio in insulam, mainly used as I said above for women) it transferred the convicts’ resources to the control of the state. Deportatio could be used to store the victim till a more politically convenient time, when they had been forgotten, so they could be killed when required with impunity.
Whether Foucault was right to see an increase in humanity and the concept of reforming the individual’s attitudes rather than damaging his body as signs of progress, the Romans never tried this.