The ancient penal history of stigma

This is a short extract from Chapter One ‘The Penal Tattoo’ of Stigma: The Machinery of Inequality


The modern word ‘stigma’ originates in a clutch of Ancient Greek words, derived from the root stig-, meaning to prick or to puncture.[i] In the essays ‘Stigma: Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity’ (1984) and ‘Stigma and Tattoo’ (2000), classics scholar Christopher Jones transformed received understanding of the meaning of stigma in the Graeco-Roman world. Through meticulous research, Jones uncovered that in Ancient Greece the verb stizo was used to describe ink tattooing with needles or other sharp implements on human skin, and stigma described the resulting mark. In short, a stigma was an ink tattoo, an involuntary tattoo, pricked into human skin for ‘penal and property purposes’.[ii]  As Jones and other classics scholars have revealed, penal stigmatisation was ‘routine’ and ‘entrenched’ in these Ancient Empires.

One of the first recorded uses of the word ‘stigma’ appears in a fragment of sixth-century BC poetry written by Asius of Samos, who uses the word stigmatias to describe ‘a marked slave’; and slaves are henceforth regularly and scornfully referred to with words such as literati (lettered), stigmatici (tattooed), inscripti (inscribed), and graptoi (written upon). Indeed, in the Graeco-Roman world, penal tattooing was a punishment reserved exclusively for non-citizens: slaves, indentured labourers, prisoners of war, other resident aliens or religious minorities. As Plato wrote in The Laws, a dialogue on the ethics of government, ‘if anyone is caught committing sacrilege, if he be a slave or a stranger, let his offence be written on his face and his hands’.[iii]

Penal tattooing involved the inscription of words, symbols, and sometimes full sentences into the skin. These tattoos ‘usually consisted of the name of a crime’ inked into the face.[iv] Records of common stigmas include ‘Thief’ or ‘Stop me, I’m a runaway’, tattooed on the forehead.[v] If you survived the torture of being tattooed (without antiseptic) you would never be free of the stigma, the ‘disgrace, humiliation and exclusion’ remaining ‘indelibly written on one’s face for all to see’.[vi] As Mark Gustafson reflects, ‘the effects of a penal tattoo forcibly applied to the face’ must have been ‘deeply felt, devastating even’.[vii] Certainly, a tattoo on the face would have been difficult to conceal: ‘the gaze of the onlooker is virtually inescapable; there is little defence against it’.[viii]

Penal stigmatisation was intentionally visible, a public form of inscription designed to humiliate and inculcate shame. The Greek philosopher Bion (c. 325 – c. 250 BC) described how his father had ‘in place of his face … a document [syngraphen] on his face, the mark of his master’s harshness’.[ix] The Byzantine chronicler Zonaras records a case from the 8th century of two brothers, Christian monks, whose religious worship of icons led to them having twelve lines of ‘execrable poetry’ tattooed on their faces.[x] Later sainted as Theodorus and Theophanes, these brothers came to be known by the surname Grapti, from the Greek ‘graptoi’, meaning written upon. Penal stigmatisation was a form of bodily inscription which, as the Roman emperor Valerius Maximus (AD 14–37)  put it, turned the stigmatised into the ‘image of his own penalty’.[xi]

Page duBois draws our attention to a play written by Herondas in the third-century BC, in which ‘a slave is tattooed on the forehead with the proverbial words “know thyself”’.[xii]  This tattooing was a punishment meted out by a mistress upon a slave who is her lover, but who ‘has lost sight of his position as a slave’ by cheating on her.[xiii]  The choice of the Delphic maxim ‘know thyself’ underscores the way in which a penal stigmatisation functioned as an injunction to a particular kind of self-knowledge: a mortifying punishment through which you were taught to ‘know yourself’ by ‘knowing your place’ in a highly stratified social order.[xiv] Stigmatisation was thus an act of pedagogical violence through which a person was tutored back into a place of unfreedom, and a means through which domestic slaves, indentured miners, soldiers, roadbuilders, munitions workers could be ‘marked for life with the insignia of their professions’ – stigmata signalled that that your labour (and body) was owned by another.[xv]

This Graeco-Roman practice of writing a crime or criminal sentence into the skin adds a literal dimension to the practice of being sentenced. As Steven Connor suggests, in ‘the mark incised or pricked or burned upon the body of the criminal, the law precipitates a lasting sign of its action, the letter of the law made actual and present.’[xvi] As a ‘running advertisement of one’s guilt and subjugation’, stigmatisation wasdesigned to permanently lower your social status.[xvii] For example, in Ancient Rome, where slaves could theoretically earn their freedom, a Roman law from the fourth-century AD details that slaves who had been tattooed on account of a crime should never be allowed to become free citizens. If a tattooed slave later earned their freedom they were consigned ‘to the lowest possible category of free non-citizens’.[xviii] A penal tattoo (a stigma) relegated the stigmatised to a bottom rung in the extant social hierarchy. The letters on your body marked your exclusion from citizenship (and rights).

The Ancient Greeks associated voluntary tattooing, undertaken as an aesthetic and/or a religious practice, with ‘barbarians’ and in particular with their despised northern neighbours, the Thracians.[xix] Surviving Greek pottery portrays Thracian women as marked with decorative tattoos.[xx] Indeed, within the iconography of vase painting, Greek artists employed tattoos to visually differentiate Thracian women, other foreigners and enslaved people from their unmarked Greek superiors.


In ‘Stigma and Tattoo’, Christopher Jones suggests that it was likely because of this abject cultural association between tattoos and feminised foreign others that the Greeks developed the practice of tattooing slaves as a humiliating punishment. As we shall see, the association between voluntarily acquired tattoos and ‘barbarians’ was revived in eugenicist social scientific discourses in the nineteenth century, when the tattoo became foundational to the development of the discipline of criminology, and its ancient connotations of ‘barbarianism’ were viciously reworked as a means of classifying the ‘lower orders’ both within the European interior, and its Imperial outposts – including as we shall see in colonial era India.[xxi]

Penal stigmatisation was so entrenched a practice in antiquity that it began to be used metaphorically as a term of disgrace. The Greek orator and writer Aelius Aristides (117–181 BC) attacks Plato for slander with the words ‘you never tattooed any of your own slaves but you have as good as tattooed the most honoured of the Greeks’.[xxii]  The Roman Poet Martial (circa AD 38–104) also employs stigma as a metaphor, writing that ‘whatever the heat of my anger burns into you will remain for good and be read throughout the world, and Cinnamus [an acclaimed historian] with his cunning skill will not erase the tattoos’.[xxiii] The Roman writer known as Nicanor Stigmatias (in the early second century) was given the name Stigmatias as a teasing reference to his work as a grammatican, a labour which involved punctuating text; the joke being that it was unimaginable that a citizen, especially one of such high standing, would be actually stigmatised. It is in these ancient allegorical uses of the term stigma, that the modern understanding of stigma as a symbolic mark of disgrace was forged. Indeed, these metaphorical uses mark the beginning of a traffic in the meaning of stigma, between stigma as a literal punishment, and the more psychological meanings that stigma subsequently acquired.

Capturing labour

In the Ancient Graeco-Roman world, penal stigmas had a specific economic function as a mechanism for the systematic exploitation of specific classes of people. That is, stigmatisation was a way of marking bodies in order to secure an indentured or slave labour force. Over time, the economic efficacy of penal tattooing intensified as ‘the sentence of exile and, most likely, hard labour’, became ‘part of the total package of which the penal tattoo [was] the sign’.[xxiv] Indeed, the Romans extended practices of penal stigmatisation to ‘all classes virtually indentured to the state’ employing stigma en masse to generate new sources of slave labour for the vast economies and infrastructures of expanding Empires.[xxv]

In the Roman period, while a penal stigma might still record the name of aspecific crime or infraction, it wasas likely to spell out thetype and length of the criminal sentence bequeathed by a court of law, or the name of the emperor under whose jurisdiction a sentence of hard labour was enforced. As the classics scholar Mark Gustafson details, there is extensive evidence in late antiquity of the words metallicae damnationis (condemned to the mines) being tattooed on the foreheads of those convicted in Roman courts. People marked in this way were called the metallic. They were tattooed, ‘beaten with clubs’ and chained, before being transported, by land and sea, to Imperial outposts, where they would be lucky indeed to survive their sentence of hard labour.[xxvi]The Romans also regularly tattooed captured enemy soldiers during border skirmishes and expropriation of territory, and tattooed army recruits (evidence suggests mainly on the wrists) so they could be ‘recognised if they go into hiding’.[xxvii]

As the classics scholarship suggests, the meaning of stigma is entwined with slavery, with the punishment of the enslaved and with the capture of people as unfree labour. In Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), the Roman writer Apuleius (c.AD 124–170) describes an utterly abject scene of labourers working in a public flour mill. Whip marks have left their skin ‘painted with livid welts’, their heads are half-shaven, and their feet are chained together.[xxviii]   What marks out these mill-workers as slaves who have been sentenced to indentured labour is their tattooed foreheads (frontes litterati).

Graeco-Roman economies were ‘slave economies’: ‘slaves were essential in mining, worked on the rural estates and in the workshops and businesses of the wealthy, and served them in their homes’.[xxix] There is a tendency to ‘forget’ that slavery was the economic structure which underpinned these often-venerated cradles of European civilisation and democracy. Or rather, ancient systems of slavery have been mystified and romanticised in ways that disguise the material realities of enslavement, including the fact that ‘the ancient Greeks and Romans routinely tortured slaves’.[xxx] As Page duBois suggests, the ‘torturability’ of slaves and their susceptibility to being written upon marked ‘the boundary between slaves and free beings’.[xxxi]

Penal stigmatisation was particularly associated with people’s attempts to escape enslavement. Indeed, a penal stigma was often a record of an escape attempt. In some cases, slaves who had previously tried to escape would be collared rather than tattooed. These slave collars were iron neck rings which would have been riveted in place, and the inscriptions on them ‘often provide the owner’s name, status, occupation, and the address to which the slave should be returned’.[xxxii] Several Roman slave collars ‘have been found in funerary contexts, suggesting that, for some slaves at least, a metal neck collar was permanent’.[xxxiii]  One surviving fourth- or fifth-century Roman slave collar has a bronze tag that reads: ‘I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.’[xxxiv]

Like the advertisements for runaway chattel slaves posted in British and North American newspapers more than 1,000 years later, these penal forms of stigmatisation signalled commodification and ownership, and were a means of identification, capture and retrieval.


The BC 4/5th Century Zoninus Slave Collar which reads ‘I have run away; hold me. When you have brought me back to my master Zoninus, you will receive a gold coin.’

Threads of racism

In Black and British a Forgotten History (2016), David Olusoga details a similar fashion for slave collars in eighteenth-century Britain: ‘usually brass or copper, occasionally silver’, these collars ‘were riveted or padlocked around the neck and could not be removed’.[xxxv] A runaway advertisement posted in The Edinburgh Evening Courant in 1727 reads:

RUN away on the 7th Instant from Dr. Gustavus Brown’s Lodgings in Glasgow, a Negro Woman, named Ann, being about 18 Years of Age, with a green Gown and a Brass Collar about her Neck, on which are engraved these Words “Gustavus Brown in Dalkieth his Negro, 1726.” Whoever apprehends her, so as she may be recovered, shall have two Guineas Reward, and necessary Charges allowed by Laurance Dinwiddie Junior Merchant in Glasgow, or by James Mitchelson, Jeweller in Edinburgh.

People like Ann who were collared in Georgian England were evidentially unfree and considered property.[xxxvi] Just as in Ancient Rome, these slave collars demand ‘the reader’s attention on behalf of the absent owner’ and ‘assert the owner’s control of the slave’.[xxxvii] In so doing, they stigmatise the collared person as a possession, an object – a Negro.  That those stigmatised in this way were not considered fully human is underscored by eighteenth-century English paintings such as Bartholomew Dandridge’s portrait A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog (c.1725), in which both the servant and dog are collared. Olusoga directs us to a 1726 advertisement for ‘Matthew Dyer, a goldsmith on Duck Lane in Westminster’, who specialises in making silver collars and padlocks ‘for Blacks or Dogs’.[xxxviii]

Bartholomew Dandridge’s portrait ‘A Young Girl with an Enslaved Servant and a Dog’ [with detail here] (c.1725)

The similarities between the tattooing, branding and collaring of slaves in the Ancient Graeco-Roman Empires, and in Georgian Britain at the dawn of another European Empire, is striking.

In The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (2004), Benjamin Isaac argues that we can trace ‘red threads’ of connection between ‘proto-racisms’ in the Graeco-Roman world and modern scientific racisms. As Isaac argues, ‘racism is a phenomenon that can assume many apparently different shapes and forms while preserving a remarkable element of continuity which is undeniable, once it is traced over the centuries’.[xxxix] Similarly, Cedric Robinson argues that the ‘template’ for modern racism, ‘its ordering principle, its organizing structure, its moral authority, its economy of justice, commerce, and power’, can be found in the writing of Aristotle, and other ‘aristocratic apologists’ for slavery in the Ancient world.[xl] This racialised understanding of slavery in the Ancient world is highly contested, raising questions about the changing meaning of ‘race’ and whether systems of slavery are always racialised. Amongst critical race scholars, the general consensus is that modern epistemologies of race emerged during the European Renaissance with European colonisation of the Americas. Scholars such as Sylvia Wynter, C. L. R James and Aimé Césarie suggest that modern racism is coincident with Columbus’s discovery of the West Indies in 1492, the expansion of the West into the New World and the racial genocides that followed.

What we can say with certainty is that penal tattooing forms part of a long and expansive European tradition of social classification through degrading forms of bodily marking, and is linked especially to the stigmatisation of slaves. Robinson makes the further point that ‘slave labor persisted within European agrarian production up to the modern era’.[xli] We also know also that the penal tattooing of slaves, serfs and indentured workers continued within Europe ‘through late antiquity and the Byzantine Empire into the Middle Ages and into the modern period’.[xlii] With the advent of the colonial capitalist world order from the fifteenth century, distinctions between citizens and slaves, civilised and barbarian, capital and labour, and between the propertied and unpropertied classes sedimented in the creation of a new classed, gendered and racialised social hierarchies. The European men who placed themselves at the top of this new global racial order exported and innovated penal stigmatisation as technologies of classification and subjugation.

In summary, stigma is an Ancient Greek word which originated to describe forced tattooing – words, marks and images etched into the skin against your will, in ways designed to permanently lower your social status and curtail your mobility. In a world before identity-cards, passports, finger-printing, bio-metric forms of marking, penal tattooing was an important technology of identification, surveillance and social control, innovated and expanded to aid colonial expansion. Seeing the tattooed faces of slaves and indentured labourers doubtless functioned as a terrorising warning to others, assisting with the task of imposing order on the variously dispossessed and disenfranchised multi-ethnic classes of slaves and non-citizens who lived within the vast territories of these ancient empires, and quelling the freedom dreams of conquered and subjugated peoples. Stigma was also, then [as now], an important form of political publicity.


[i] Christopher Jones, “Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” The Journal of Roman Studies 77 (1987): 142.

[ii] Jane Caplan “Introduction,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion, 2000), xvi.

[iii] Page duBois, Slaves and Other Objects (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 108.

[iv] Mark Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion, 2000), 25.

[v] Mark Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan, 1st Edition edition (Princeton, N. J: Princeton University Press, 2000), 17–31.

[vi] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 23.

[vii] Gustafson, 25.As Gustafson writes:

The face is, without a doubt, the worst place to receive a tattoo against one’s wishes. Not only does it defy most attempts at concealment, but the face is also commonly viewed as the reflection of one’s person, of the self, the soul. […] The gaze of the onlooker is virtually inescapable; there is little defence against it. The ancient Mediterranean city was a face-to-face society, and the discipline of physiognomics—that is, the attempt to detect one’s character, disposition, or destiny from external, especially facial, features – was more than an idle pastime. Gustafson, 25.

[viii] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 25.

[ix] C.P. Jones, “Stigma and Tattoo,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion, 2000), 9.

[x] Jones, “Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 149.

[xi] Valerius Maximus in Jones, 153.

[xii] Page duBois, Torture and Truth(New York: Routledge, 1991), 24.

[xiii] duBois, 73.

[xiv] Delphic maxims are 147 proverbs inscribed in stone at the temple of Apollo in Delphi, an ancient sanctuary which the Greeks considered to be geographic centre of the world.On this example of the penal tattoo ‘know thyself’ from Herondas, see Steven Connor, The Book of Skin (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004); duBois, Torture and Truth.

[xv] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 22.

[xvi] Connor, The Book of Skin, 74.

[xvii] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 24.

[xviii] Gustafson, 22.

[xix] Thrace was roughly speaking a dominion which stretched across modern day Turkey, Bulgaria and North Eastern Greece.

[xx] The Greek essayist Plutarch suggests that the Maenads (mad women), followers of the god Dionysus,had been tattooed by their husbands as a punishment for killing Orpheus.

[xxi] Caplan, “Introduction,” xvi.

[xxii] Jones, “Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 148.

[xxiii] In Christopher Jones, “Stigma and Tattoo,” in Written on the Body: The Tattoo in European and American History, ed. Jane Caplan (London: Reaktion, 2000), 14–15.

[xxiv] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 23.

[xxv] Jones, “Tattooing and Branding in Graeco-Roman Antiquity,” 142. To illustrate the importance of tattooing in capturing labour force, Jones draws our attention to how the Roman Emperor Caligula (AD 12 – 41) even ‘had many people of the better sort’ marked with tattoos (stigmatum notis) before condemning them ‘to the mines and the paving of roads’. Jones, 151.

[xxvi] Gustafson, “The Tattoo in the Later Roman Empire and Beyond,” 2000, 22.

[xxvii] Jones, “Stigma and Tattoo,” 2000, 12.

[xxviii] Apuleius, Metamorphoses (The Golden Ass), ed. and trans. J Arthur Hanson, vol. 2 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1996), 148–49.9

[xxix] Walter Scheidel, “The Comparative Economics of Slavery in the Greco-Roman World,” Princeton/Stanford Working Papers in Classics, 2005,

[xxx] duBois, Torture and Truth, 4.

[xxxi] duBois, 62.

[xxxii] Jennifer Trimble, “The Zoninus Collar and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery,” American Journal of Archaeology 120, no. 3 (2016): 447.

[xxxiii] Trimble, 457.

[xxxiv] Trimble, 447.

[xxxv] Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, 94.

[xxxvi] We don’t know what happened to the runaway Ann. Her story is imagined in the graphic novel Freedom Bound which draws on the ‘Runaway Slaves in Britain’ archive. Warren Pleece, Freedom Bound: Escaping Slavery in Scotland (Glasgow: BHP Comics, 2018). See also the short film 1745 – An Untold  Story of Slavery (2017) inspired by the runaway advertisements archive, which tells the story of two sisters torn from their home in Nigeria and sold into slavery who try to retake their freedom in the Scottish Highlands.

A little of the life of Dr Gustavus Brown is recorded. He migrated permanently to Virginia, and his will listed a number of enslaved people as his property, but not an Ann. His son of the same name was also a physician and attended George Washington on his death bed. Washington, the first President of the United States (1789 to 1797), owned 317 enslaved people when he died.

[xxxvii] Trimble, “The Zoninus Collar and the Archaeology of Roman Slavery,” 462.

[xxxviii] Olusoga, Black and British: A Forgotten History, 94.

[xxxix] Benjamin Isaac, The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004), 3.

[xl] Robinson, Black Marxism, xiii.

[xli] Robinson, 11.On the persistence of slavery within Europe in the modern period see also Federici, Caliban and The Witch: Women, The Body and Primitive Accumulation.

[xlii] Mark Gustafson, “Tattooing,” in The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, ed. Junius Rodriguez, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 1997), 629.



  1. […] In Stigma, this shift in perspective has been vertical (looking upwards to sites of stigma production) and temporal (taking long views on histories of stigma practices), while focusing throughout on developing a new understanding of stigma as a violent practice of exploitation and social control. In order to track the history of stigma as a history of practices, I researched the etymology of stigma, read classics scholarship, histories of slavery, Imperialism, and colonialism, and the history of capitalist enclosures. Then I read Frank Kafka’s short story ‘In the Penal Colony’ (1919) and I began to think about stigma as a machine. [See also this earlier blog on the etymology of stigma, and stigma as penal tattoo] […]


  2. […] The word stigma is taken from the Latin stigmat-, stigma, to mark or brand, which was in turn derived from the Greek stizo, to tattoo. This is social rejection as a literal act of violence – that a person’s physical existence should be distorted by public opinion of them, dehumanizing them by rendering their otherness a source of ongoing cultural sabotage: […]


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