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The Development of Exile and Banishment from the Roman Republic to the Early Empire

Habilitation project Dr. Reitzenstein-Ronning

In Roman law "voluntary" banishment was an accepted option. It allowed a person to leave Roman territory to avoid being prosecuted in court. In fact, this option is one of the most characteristic and remarkable featuers of Roman law. Already the Greek historian Polybios praised the high functionality of this legal provision in his analysis of Roman Republican "constitution". He considered it one of the reasons for the stability and far-ranging international success of the Roman state. Whereas to Polybius, who wrote in the second half of the 2nd century BCE, exile was clearly a prerogative of the magisterial classes, sources of the Imperial period give one quite a different impression. Not only poetry and historiography, but also legal texts immediately associate exile with punishment. The poet Ovid, for instance, also considered his relegation to the allegedly inhospitable coast of the Black Sea an almost unbearable punishment by the emperor. It seems obvious then that evaluations of exilium had shifted substantially between the late Republic and the early Empire.

Upon close scrutiny, the sources reveal an even more complex picture: Whereas Polybios limits the applicability of "voluntary exile" to the nobility, the commentaries of the imperial jurists collected in Justinian's digests treat exilium as an alternative to execution, forced labour and damnatio ad ludum, available to the far larger group of the Empire's function elites, the honestiores. Especially provincial governors were exhorted to take this into account in dealing out their punishments. Already in literature of the first century CE banishment further appears as one central element in a catalogue of punishments of gradually increasing intensity that could apparently be selected quite freely.

Close consideration of the legal sources from the Imperial period reveals that the large majority of the available evidence on exile is concerned with the legal, social, and economic consequences of the punishment. It seems clear that the demand for clarification and regulation was most pronounced in this area. Given the wide range of concrete forms the punishment could take, the Empire's administration was evidently confronted with a mass of petitions and requests aimed not only at improving the delinquents' own circumstances, but especially the consequences of the punishment for their social environs.

On the basis of this material, the project aims to trace the development of exilium in detail, especially during its crucial phase of transformation between the second century BCE and second century CE. The guiding research question concerns the search for a model capable of explaining the transformation of exilium from an established way of evading punishment into a regularised component of the Roman penal regime.

Particular interest will be due to the changes in the position and function of exilium and banishment in the Roman legal system, which of course went through fundamental changes in the period under consideration. The study further pays heed to the feedback loop between the various types of banishment and the progressive administrative unification of the Roman territory.


Dr. Reitzenstein-Ronning