Marcus Folch

Assistant Professor of Classics

Columbia University

Heyman Center Fellow 2016-17

Project Description:

The Heyman Center Fellowship allowed me time to develop, conduct research for, and launch a book project, provisionally entitled Bondage, Incarceration, and the Prison in Ancient Greece and Rome: A Cultural and Literary History. This book will be the first major study of the development of prisons in the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. It combines archaeological, epigraphic, historiographical, and legal evidence, to reappraise the place of prisons in Greek and Latin literature and culture; and it argues that prisons played a more vital role in ancient history, literature, and culture than has been recognized to date. 

It departs from previous studies of ancient prisons in three respects. First, whereas scholarship has tended to focus on particular prisons within discrete cities and periods (for instance, the prison in Athens, during the Classical period), Bondage, Incarceration, and the Prison in Ancient Greece and Rome takes a diachronic perspective on incarceration, tracing the history of the prison from the first appearance of the institution in Archaic Greece into the late Roman empire.  Second, the book gives sustained attention to literary portrayals of binding and incarceration in poetry and prose, which are often neglected in historical and legal studies of ancient prisons. Incorporating literary representation into a history of the prison not only vastly increases the evidentiary bases from which such a history may be written. It also presents significant interpretive opportunities. Accounting for the ways in which literature confirms, contests, and envisages alternatives to the uses of incarceration attested in law and history; in which certain prison narratives (such as Socrates’) are retold and adapted across time, languages, and cultures; and in which historical accounts of incarceration often take on a tropological quality, following a generic script, which governs how narratives involving bondage and imprisonment are told—all of this provides important insight into ancient understandings of incarceration.  Finally, the book draws on Egyptian, Near Eastern, and North African evidence to contextualize prisons in Greece and Rome within the broader ancient Mediterranean. Such an approach is necessary insofar as, however uniquely embedded in the distinctive built environments, legal institutions, and political cultures of individual cities and states, prisons are nevertheless interrelated phenomena, institutions developed by different cities and city-states to address problems shared with other cities and city-states. Cross-cultural analysis may thus illuminate, and fill gaps in the evidence for, prisons in Greece and Rome. Conversely, only comparative analysis may reveal what is culturally distinct and unique about the uses of incarceration in any particular society. By shedding new light on the Greco-Roman prison as it is attested diachronically in law and history, as it is imagined in ancient literature, and in light of the carceral practices of neighboring ancient societies, this book will offer a comprehensive reimagining of the history of incarceration and its significance for scholars and students of antiquity.

Marcus Folch, who joined the Columbia Classics Department in 2009, received his Ph.D. in Classics from Stanford University in 2006 and his B.A. in Classics from Cornell University in 2000.  From 2007-2009 he was Assistant Professor of Classical Studies at the University of Richmond; from 2006-2007 he was Lecturer in Classical Studies also at the University of Richmond. His main areas of interest include fourth-century Greek prose, ancient philosophy, and performance.  His research focuses on the dialogue between ancient philosophy and the Greek poetic and rhetorical traditions, particularly as they touch on issues of performance, citizenship, gender, slavery, and punishment.  His current book project, The Polis and the Stage: Citizenship and the Politics of Performance in Fourth-Century Athens, examines fourth-century discussions of the role of poetry, song, and dance in the making of citizens.