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Journal of Ancient History

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Did Magic Matter? The Saliency of Magic in the Early Roman Empire1

Justin J. Meggitt
Published Online: 2013-11-01 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jah-2013-0010


Magic is usually assumed to have been ubiquitous and culturally significant in the early Roman Empire, something exemplified by Pliny the Elder’s claim that “there is no one who does not fear to be spell-bound by curse tablets”.1 A variety of written and material evidence is commonly taken to be indicative of both the regular use of magic and widespread anxiety about its deployment. However, this paper argues that if we attempt, having determined a contextually appropriate definition of magic, to gauge the prevalence and significance of magic in this period, it can be seen to have had little cultural salience. Not only is evidence for its presence more equivocal than usually presumed, but magic is found to be strikingly absent from major popular cultural sources that shed light on the presuppositions and preoccupations of most of the empire’s inhabitants, and to have had little explanatory or symbolic utility. The paper then proceeds to suggest possible reasons for magic’s lack of salience in the early Empire, including the role of various sceptical discourses concerned with the supernatural in general and magic in particular, and the consequence of the largely agonistic context of its use on the limited occasions that it was employed.

Keywords: Magic,; Popular Culture,; Scepticism,; Belief,; Early Roman Empire.

1 Introduction: The Ubiquity of Magic?

It is usually assumed that belief in magic was ubiquitous in the early Roman Empire,2 that, in the words of Pliny the Elder, “there is no one who does not fear to be spell-bound by curse tablets”.3 One needs only read the accounts of the famous trials for sorcery of Apollonius of Tyana4 and Apuleius of Madaura,5 or the magical explanations given for the untimely demise of Germanicus, Tiberius’ popular heir,6 to see how significant magic appears to have been. Indeed, the only fully extant novel in Latin that we possess,7 the Metamorphoses, is concerned with the consequences8 of meddling in such things.9 Homer’s Odyssey, one of the formative texts for most of the inhabitants of the empire,10 could be thought to be “composed of nothing else”.11 There are also a number of practical magical texts that seem to confirm much the same picture, including not just those that constitute the well-known Papyri Graecae Magicae12 but such works as the amulet grimoire of Cyranides13 or the Testament of Solomon – a handbook for controlling demons potentially responsible for everything from migraine to death.14 Early Christian literature, such as the canonical Acts of the Apostles15 and the apocryphal Acts of Peter,16 depict an empire preoccupied by magic, a world in which those spreading the new faith are forced to battle with magicians17 and magical books are burnt in public by those that they convert.18

The material culture of the empire likewise seems to provide copious, tangible evidence of the vitality of belief in magic. Artefacts, such as the myriad of defixiones (binding spells),19 incantation bowls,20 “voodoo” dolls,21 magical lamellae and amulets,22 brought together in the extensive collections by the likes of Bonner, Gager, Kotansky, Michel, Ogden, and Philipp,23 appear compelling evidence of magic’s significant place in the lives of most of the empire’s inhabitants.24 And we could easily go on: from the presence of the paradigmatic witches Circe and Medea on Roman oil lamps, gemstones, murals and sarcophagi,25 to the plethora of apotropaic representations of the evil eye found on everything from mosaics and amulets to ear-rings,26 the salience of magic in the Roman Empire seems to be anything but illusory. Even epitaphs appear to bear witness to its importance. Here, for example, is one from Rome itself which dates from the 20s CE:

Iucundus, the slave of Livia the wife of Drusus Caesar, son of Gryphus and Vitalis. As I grew towards my fourth year I was seized and killed, when I had the potential to be sweet for my mother and father. I was snatched by a witch’s hand, ever cruel so long as it remains on the earth and does harm with its craft. Parents, guard your children well, lest grief of this magnitude should implant itself on your breast.27

Indeed, the moral and legal prohibitions placed upon magic,28 not least the fact that the practice of magic was deemed a capital offence in Roman law,29 combined with its prominence in early Christian heresiological literature, where it functioned “as the discourse of alterity par excellence”,30 appears to confirm that magic was indeed a dynamic and potent force in early imperial culture. It is, perhaps, so hard to resist the intrinsic allure of an amulet depicting an anguipede, cockerel-headed Abrasax,31 or Solomon, on horseback, spearing a demon,32 that to conclude otherwise seems unimaginable.33 In the face of the data we have just surveyed it could be judged perverse not to agree with Betz that “Magical beliefs and practices can hardly be overestimated in their importance for the daily lives of the people.ˮ34

However, the picture just drawn at best only indicates the presence of ideas about magic and magical practices of some kind, and we need to determine a defensible definition of magic before we can say even this with any confidence. Gauging the character and prevalence of magic requires a more sustained and rigorous analysis of sources that shed light on the early Empire, and one that, importantly, attends not just to the apparent presence of magic but its absence, too. We need to note not just where it appears, but also, tellingly, where it does not. Before we address these two elements of our analysis, let us begin, however, with the question of the definition of the term “magic”, something that is necessary if what follows is to have any value.

2 Now You See It, Now You Don’t: Defining Magic

Although “magic” at least has the advantage of being a “native category of thought” for those who lived in the Roman Empire,35 something that is not necessarily the case for the inhabitants of other cultures in the past and the present,36 what exactly constituted “magic” for them is far from self-evident. To eschew a definition of “magic”, as some classical scholars do,37 is not advisable because it tends to result in the conflation of “magic” with a variety of other things that might strike some modern scholars as manifestly magical but were, in fact, everyday and uncontroversial elements of religious life in the empire and not considered such by any of its inhabitants.38 For example, divination, the attempt to determine the will of the gods and the likely outcome of future events, was not in itself something that would be judged magical by those living in the early Empire. It was not only ubiquitous39 but was a central part of most religions in antiquity,40 and especially the religious life of the Romans.41 It is not, for example, helpful to label the activities of haruspices, many of whom were key religious officiants in the public cults of the empire, as practitioners of “oracular magic”, as some have done.42 Such divination did not constitute magic but a respected and necessary religious act,43 something undertaken, for instance, after most public sacrifices.44 The same could be said of amulets or, indeed, incantations, the use of neither of which was thought in itself to be magical. For example, every freeborn male, before reaching maturity, wore a bulla, a locket hung around the neck, as an apotropaic device, often containing a representation of a phallus, but none would have considered such a thing magical.45 Similarly, incantations were not necessarily magical activities to Romans; their use in the healing of fractures was, for example, recommended by no less a figure than Cato the Elder46 and clearly considered by such a respectable authority to be quite distinct from magical practices proscribed under Roman law.47

Failing to provide a definition of magic can also lead many inadvertently to miscategorise some data, to see magic where it was patently not thought to be. For example, invocations of gods other than the Olympic pantheon and closely associated deities have often been seen as “magical” because of a historical tendency within the field to protect a dominant but narrow understanding of classical religion, to fall victim to what has been termed “Classicity”.48 So, as Mastrocinque has demonstrated, the cult of the Askalon Asklepios has often been labeled “magical” out of ignorance of the iconography of a cult which was regarded as a local manifestation of one of the most widely dispersed and supported of all the cults in the empire, second only in significance, perhaps, to the imperial cult itself.49

However, avoiding a definition is perhaps understandable, if not entirely forgivable. Johnston is surely right to observe that “endless theorizing about how magic was or was not different from religion (or anything else) had stalled our progress toward examining and understanding some fascinating ancient material”.50 And there is good reason to sympathize with Dickie’s “dismay combined with a sense of foreboding”51 upon encountering yet another attempt to define magic. The literature can be quite overwhelming, not least because within anthropology, the field in which most contemporary thinking on the subject of magic has taken place, magic has been “at its epistemological centre”52 since its inception, and continues to generate extensive debate.53

There are well known strengths and weaknesses to the different kinds of definition of magic that have been proffered,54 however we categorise these, whether the definitions could be said, for example, to be essentialist,55 functionalist,56 locative-relational,57 evolutionary,58 developmental,59 intellectualist,60 instrumentalist,61 linguistic,62 performative,63 emotionalist,64 existential,65 phenomenological,66 mythopoetic,67 or sensory.68 For example, essentialist or substantivist definitions of magic have proved notoriously problematic. “Magic” and “religion” cannot be easily distinguished by differences between them in, for instance, intention, attitude, action, or social and moral evaluation,69 nor even, as Smith has suggested, scale;70 no criterion is effective in making a clear distinction between the two.71 Functionalist definitions of magic suffer from the failing common to functionalist definitions more generally: they tend, in practice, to be dependent upon an implicit, substantive definition of something to which a function is ascribed.72 They are also often procrustean, indeed many radically so, only capturing one aspect of a phenomenon in their definition, effectively amputating a great deal that is vital, and sacrificing “historical context in favor of taxonomic purity”.73 For example, it seems unlikely that magic should be viewed solely as a response to risk, something that is found wherever there is “a hiatus in knowledge or practical control”, as Malinowski maintained.74 Such an understanding is impossible to square with ethnographic data75 and does not do justice to the range of motivations, emotions and practices most cultures associate with magic. Those who have argued that magic is a locative or relational category, something that, for example, distinguishes between those labelling and those labelled,76 to designate a form of deviance against which a dominant discourse defines itself,77 have to deal with the problem that such definitions are, at best, once again, only partial. The association of magic with specific subjects, places, practices and practitioners (some of whom may even self-identify as magicians) indicate that there is more to magic than just a way of creating and condemning alterity.78 Within some cultures, including those in antiquity, magic clearly has an identifiable, agreed – if contestable – existence; it had a presence that was more tangible than mere rhetoric,79 and was not necessarily understood in relation to central, sanctioned and normative forms of religious life and practice.80 And considerably more could, of course, be said.

The business of definition has not been helped by the inconsistency of some major contributors within the field. For example, as Hutton has noted, although Dickie eschews essentialist definitions of magic in his comprehensive and influential Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World, by the final third of his work he regularly uses the term in just such a manner.81 It has also not helped that some major theorists, such as Weber, though they regularly discussed magic, and had a substantial impact on subsequent definitional debates, never themselves attempted to define it.82

Given the failure of scholarship to arrive at an agreed definition, Radcliffe-Brown famously suggested that there should be a moratorium on the use of the term “magic”.83 However, this is not a way out of the impasse. In practice, it has just resulted in a proliferation of unhelpful circumlocutions, or forced and ungainly synonyms. For example, some scholars of religion in antiquity refer to magic as “ritual power”,84 a designation that fails to take seriously non-ritual aspects of the phenomenon they are attempting to study. It precludes, for instance, analysis of the evil eye which could be cast inadvertently without any recourse to ritual.85 Where magic can reasonably be argued to be a native category, as is the case in the early Roman Empire, such circumlocutions tend to obfuscate and hamper rather than aid analysis.

Stark is right to observe that, generally speaking, “the term magic has been a conceptual mess”,86 and this is especially true amongst those concerned with the study of magic in antiquity. Even though we have near universal belief in its significance, we do not have anything approaching a consensus about what it is or how it should be studied; instead we have “a confusing spectrum of divergent theories”.87 Indeed, recent debates amongst those who study magic in the ancient Mediterranean have “trodden what appeared to be a reasonable amount of scholarly common ground into a quagmire”.88 However, things are not as intractable as they might appear. A definition of “magic”, for our purposes, need not be one that is ahistorical nor universally applicable. Though such definitions can be useful to “think with”, or said to be sensitising89 – that is, they can assist us in scrutinising the phenomenon more carefully by helping us to ask questions about both the subject and our own analysis of it – they can also be misleading and are unnecessary for interpreting imperial culture. All we require is a definition that fits this particular context. It does not need to extend to making some kind of sense of the world of the Azande, Trobriand Islanders or practitioners of contemporary Wicca.

However, deriving a definition that is rooted in first-century conceptualisations of magic is still a challenging task. Perhaps surprisingly, given that it carried a capital penalty,90 “the Romans produced no precise definition of what magic was and what was not”.91 Indeed, Apuleius raised the matter of definition when defending himself against the charge of witchcraft (an occasion when it was clearly of some consequence), asking a deceptively simple but devastating question of the lawyers representing his accuser: “I should therefore like to ask his most learned advocates how, precisely, they would define a magician?”92 Whatever definition we arrive at will, clearly, have its limitations, particularly given the range of different ethnic and regional cultures encompassed by the empire. Nonetheless, a definition derived from those things which can reasonably be assumed to have been considered magical by most people in the early Roman Empire, largely, but not solely, indicated by the presence of a cluster of key Latin and Greek terms related to magical practitioners (Latin: magus, lamia, saga, maleficus, praecantrix, veneficus; Greek: μάγος, γόης, φάρμακος) and the practice of magic itself (Latin: magica, veneficia; Greek: μαγεία, γοητεία, φαρμακαεία), seems reasonable, even if, as the famous trial of Apuleius indicates, the meaning of such terms was both malleable and contestable.93 Such a definition could, in Ogden’s taxonomy, be termed “linguistic”.94 However, I would also like to propose a definition that is polythetic,95 to borrow a concept from a form of classification employed in biology, but also familiar in the study of religion in general as well as the study of religion in antiquity.96 Such a form of definition allows it to reflect the multivalent interpretations of magic in the early Empire. That is, the definition that follows is based upon a set of characteristic properties regarded as indicative of magic in the early Empire, many of which need to be present for us to identify its presence in our sources (and then undertake the business of gauging its saliency), though none of which is either sufficient or necessary. It is useful to think of those things that were identified as magic in antiquity as possessing what Wittgenstein referred to as a “family resemblance”, something that allows considerable variety whilst also allowing for identifiable commonality.97 The definition I would like to use is also one that is dependent, as far as it is possible, upon the emic perspective of inhabitants of the first century,98 or better, given disagreements and differences over what exactly merited the label “magic”, as we can see in Apuleius’ trial, emic perspectives of inhabitants of the early Empire.99

So, in brief, I believe it is both useful and legitimate to think of magic in the early Roman Empire as something associated with characteristic:

(a) Practices. Magic was often thought to involve nocturnal and secret rites,100 the use of incantations, spells and voces magicae,101 as well as abnormal sacrifices, including the sacrifice of humans.102

(b) Practitioners. Although non-specialists could carry out magical acts,103 a range of identifiable experts were associated with the practice of magic, from sorcerers and magicians to witches and root-cutters.104

(c) Places. Particular locations, especially those places connected with the dead and death, such as cemeteries, battlefields or places of execution,105 and places that were secret or isolated, such as caves, ruins, or woods,106 were regularly associated with magic.

(d) Times. Magic was especially associated with the night,107 a full moon108 or an eclipse.109

(e) Materials and artefacts. Specific plants and gemstones, as well as animal and human body parts, were thought to be necessary for the practice of magic.110 Certain objects, such as amulets, magical books, voodoo dolls, lamellae and defixiones, and knotted threads,111 were believed to be tools employed by those utilising it.

(f) Knowledge. Magic was usually thought to involve the possession and application of distinctive, specialist and secret knowledge. This could be of both a technical and propositional kind. In the case of the former, it could include such things as knowledge of specific rituals and practices, and, in the case of the latter, such things as knowledge of supernatural realms and their inhabitants, or the true natures of, and potential causal relationships between, animate and inanimate objects.112

(g) Gods and spirits. Magic was particularly associated with infernal, chthonic gods of the underworld, especially Hecate,113 and the spirits of the dead, especially the restless dead, those who had died too early, or too violently or who had not received the appropriate burial rites, or had been killed by magical practitioners themselves.114

(h) Effects. Magic was usually thought to be something that was harmful to at least one of the parties involved.115

There are other traits that regularly appear in depictions of magic that were prominent in the early Roman Empire.116 Magic was, for example, regularly associated with particular geographical locations, such as Babylonia,117 Egypt118 or Thessaly,119 and cities such as Ephesus120 and Memphis,121 or ethnic groups, both real and imagined, such as Chaldaeans,122 Hyperboreans,123 Persians,124 Egyptians,125 Jews,126 and the Marsi.127 It was also usually deployed in specific agonistic contexts where the practitioner or client often had much to lose or gain, such as trade, law, sport and love.128 It was sometimes spoken about in terms of compulsion, with the magician assumed to have the power to be able to compel even a god to act against their will.129 However, the key characteristics I have just adumbrated are a useful distillation of the central features of magic in the early Roman Empire, at least for most of its inhabitants (there were, of course, variations within some groups, notably Jews, and later Christians, who, in addition to sharing many of these general notions about magic, tended to equate the religious practices of others with magic).130

So, using our definition, perhaps unsurprisingly, the famous depiction of the witch Pamphile in Apulieus’ Metamorphoses could be said to contain (a) Practices, (b) Practitioners, (d) Times, and (e) Materials and Artefacts, that to inhabitants of the early Empire were characteristic of magic:

As night began … she arranged her deadly laboratory with its customary apparatus, setting out spices of all sorts, unintelligibly lettered metal plaques, the surviving remains of ill-omened birds, and numerous pieces of mourned and even buried corpses: here noses and fingers, there flesh-covered spikes from crucified bodies, elsewhere the preserved gore of murder victims and mutilated skulls wrenched from the teeth of wild beasts. Then she recited a charm over some pulsating entrails and made offerings with various liquids…. Next she bound and knotted those hairs together in interlocking braids and put them to burn on live coals along with several kinds of incense.131

Similarly, the description of events surrounding the death of Germanicus, as recounted by Tacitus, has (a) Practices, (c) Places, (e) Materials and Artefacts, (g) Gods and spirits, and (h) Effects, associated with magic by most in Graeco-Roman culture:

Explorations in the floor and walls [of the building in which Germanicus died] brought to light the remains of human bodies, spells, curses, leaden tablets engraved with the name Germanicus, charred and blood-smeared ashes, and others of the implements by which it is believed the living soul can be devoted to the powers of the infernal deities.132

However, using our definition, the much-discussed Isis theophany that is central to the climax of Apuleius’ Metamorphoses133 and which leads to the protagonist’s return to human form, would not be considered an example of “magic” because it fails to possess any of its possible characteristics (other than it taking place at full moon, a time which, in any case, had specific non-magical associations for worshippers of Isis).134 Whilst modern commentators, such as Frangoulidis, are entitled to label it magical,135 depending upon what kind of definition of magic they are employing,136 such a designation would have made little sense to its original readers.

Certainly if we look at the implied definition of magic found in Roman legislation, our operational, polythetic definition appears congruent with what is assumed there. Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis of 81 BCE, the chief law relating to magic that was in force in the early Empire,137 contains all of the elements of our definition (with the exception of a clear reference to characteristic (b) Place). Although we do not have the text of the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis itself, this can be seen in excerpts from Pseudo-Paulus’ famous commentary on this law.

15. Those who perform, or arrange for the performance of, impious or nocturnal rites, in order to enchant, transfix, or bind someone, shall either be crucified or thrown to the beasts.

16. Those who sacrifice a man or obtain omens from his blood, or pollute a shrine or a temple, shall be thrown to the beasts or, if honestiores,138 be punished capitally.

17. It is agreed that those guilty of the magic art be inflicted with the supreme punishment, i.e., be thrown to the beasts or crucified. Actual magicians, however, shall be burned alive.

18. No one is permitted to have in their possession books of the magic art; anyone in whose possession they are found shall have their property confiscated and the books publicly burnt, and they themselves shall be deported to an island; humiliores shall be punished capitally. Not only is the profession of this art but also the knowledge prohibited.139

Of course, there was another side to magic in the empire to that which we have discussed so far. For some, there was a respectable and venerable form of magic. So Apuleius, for example, initially defended himself against the accusation of sorcery by confirming that he was happy to be called a magus – as long as it was understood that by this he meant someone in the line of the ancient Persian magi,140 priests of Zoroaster who were considered especially skilled in such things as oneirology, astrology, and additional forms of divination, including the ability to undertake otherworldly journeys.141 And this was clearly distinguishable from the corrupt form that was popularly thought to be “magic”. As Calasiris, an Egyptian priest in Heliodorus’ Aethiopica declared:

Of our wisdom there is one kind that is common and – as I may term it – creeps on the ground, which is concerned with ghosts and occupied about dead bodies, using herbs and addicted to enchantments, neither tending itself nor bringing such as use it to any good end….The other, my son, which is the true wisdom, from whence the counterfeit has degenerated.142

It the light of such material it might appear useful to speak of a variety of magics co-existing in the Roman Empire, as Richard Gordon has suggested.143 Indeed, forms of magic developed and changed over the centuries, and it is possible to see the increasing elaboration of practice from relatively simple Greek techniques of the Classical period to the involved esoteric forms that are more common in the Empire (evidenced in the increasing complexity of curse tablets and the growing popularity of a new genre of physica, works such as that of Cyranides that detail the occult forces of nature).144 Indeed, according to Graf’s analysis, we can see a shift from an essentially instrumental interest in magic to an epistemological fascination with what knowledge it might be able to provide about the supreme God. The latter was especially manifest in the various Hermetica that flourished from the mid-second century CE145 and the theurgy of the Iamblichus that became prominent in the third,146 though it might also have been present in the possible neo-Pythagorean revival associated with Nigidius Figulus which appeared in the late Republic.147 However, whilst it is certainly important to note rarefied discourses of magic, and, indeed, different regional and ethnic traditions and emphases, this should not preclude us from identifying and scrutinising the significance of what most people judged to be magic, of making judgments on the saliency of something that constituted the generally held, shared culture of the empire. Our definition is one that reflects the dominant and most widespread understanding of magic in the early Empire, the kind that Calasiris calls “common”; a kind of magic identified by most commentators as taking a surprisingly similar form across the empire by at least the second century CE,148 though present in most forms of Graeco-Roman culture sometime before that.

3 Just an Illusion? Evaluating Evidence for the Presence of Magic

Before we evaluate the evidence for magic in the early Empire, we need to begin by abandoning the fundamental assumption of many working in the field, or dependent upon work in this field, that magic must, of necessity, have been significant because the Roman Empire was a pre-modern culture. In approaching the empire and its inhabitants we need to do something analogous to that which Mary Douglas, some decades ago, advocated anthropologists should do, and “ditch the myth of the pious primitive”.149 We need to be aware that the salience of magic needs to be proven rather than assumed, however much some may have invested in the subject. Magic was not necessarily a constant or significant feature of all pre-modern societies, and we should not presume that it must have been for the inhabitants of the early Roman Empire.150

Indeed, when we look at the evidence rather more closely, some perplexing things emerge and reasons for believing that magic was a significant element of early Imperial culture and the day to day lives of its inhabitants appear less compelling. For example, the interest in magic in literary sources is a far from unproblematic indication of its saliency. Despite its centrality, Homer’s representation of magic is actually somewhat ambivalent and cannot be presumed to have contributed to its alleged importance in the empire. As well as providing the paradigmatic literary representations of magic, in the depiction of figures such as Circe151 and Calypso,152 Homer was also capable of demonstrating a sustained disinterest in it,153 something that did not escape the attention of his readers: whilst the Odyssey is replete with references to magic,154 there is, as Pliny the Elder observed, no mention of it at all in the Iliad.155 The engaging depictions of magic by the likes of Apuleius, Lucian and Petronius,156 with their accounts of such things as haunted houses and human sacrifice, are heavily stylised and formulaic and, as Anderson has argued, reminiscent of folk-tales or better fairytales that predate these texts.157 Such works tell us that stories about magic were considered entertaining and had an audience, but little else. Magic might “matter” but not in the sense that is usually assumed: the inhabitants of early Empire could well be like the Dani of Papua New Guinea who show “more fear of ghosts in stories than they do in their everyday activities.ˮ158

The reservations we have about the value of literary works as evidence for widespread significance of magic in the early Empire should also extend to legal sources too. The existence of laws aimed specifically against magical practices and practitioners, such as the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis, do not, in themselves, tell us much about the saliency of magic in the empire. Such laws do not necessarily reflect the sustained assumptions and anxieties of the wider cultures within which they operate. Indeed, laws against magic are often the residue of short-lived moral panics.159 In this sense, laws like the Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis (and the earlier laws from which it was constituted),160 may well be similar to such things as the Garrotter’s Act of 1863, which remained on the statute books in England and Wales for almost a century, and was a legal response to the sudden appearance of foreign stranglers who, albeit briefly, gripped the imagination though not the throats, of Victorian Londoners.161 Indeed, the limited number of prosecutions for witchcraft in the early Empire supports such an interpretation of the nature of such legislation and, in itself, is indicative of a general lack of interest in magic. Few people were tried and even less executed for magic in the empire (nor is there evidence of the extra judicial or de facto killing of magical practitioners). Relative to the population of the empire as a whole, the numbers put to death appear to have been extremely small, and when judged against practices in other cultures, strikingly so. For example, although the data is not entirely unproblematic and cross-cultural comparisons can be invidious, the number of witches executed in only two years in the English region of East Anglia between 1645 and 1647 appears to be roughly comparable to the total number executed in the first few centuries of the Roman Empire162 – and the former had a population of less than one percent of the latter.163

There is also a famous paradox, well known in antiquity, evident in the actions of those that did bring prosecutions against magical practitioners, which makes it difficult to believe that they really credited magic with the kind of power that is often assumed: as Apollonius of Tyana allegedly remarked, “If you think me a sorcerer, how will you chain me? And if you chain me, how will you think me a sorcerer?ˮ164 Indeed, not only would it be impossible to punish someone who had such power but, as Apuleius pointed out in his own defence, it would also be suicidal: “the man who believes in the truth of such a charge as this is certainly the last person in the world who should bring such an accusation.ˮ165

The material culture associated with magic which can be dated to the early Empire is also a far from reliable indicator of the ubiquity of assumptions about its efficacy even though it is tempting to interpret such evidence in this way.166 Of course, many artefacts associated with magic are, by their nature, ephemeral and unlikely to leave much of an impression on the archaeological record – one thinks, for example, of the magical threads that were used as charms or to affect binding spells167 – but magical artefacts, or references to them, are surprisingly thin on the ground. For example, no objects that Romans would have considered unequivocally magical were discovered at Pompeii or Herculaneum,168 and references to magic do not appear, even obliquely, in the abundant graffiti from these sites, material that allows “an attempt to define a popular culture of the time”.169 As Wilburn has observed in his recent study of the archaeology of magic in Roman Egypt, Cyprus and Spain (a study predicated upon a much more expansive definition of magic than the one employed in this paper):170

The preserved evidence of enacted magic such as curse tablets is comparatively small when juxtaposed with other corpora of textual artifacts such as public inscriptions and ostraca. The number of published curse tablets stands at approximately 1,600 which derive from over a period of approximately one thousand years and the full geographic extent of the Roman empire. In contrast, over one thousand ostraca have been published from the University of Michigan excavations at the site of Karnis alone.171

Even when we do discover objects that can, with reasonable certainly, be categorized as magical, what we can deduce from them about the significance of magic in the early Empire is far from self-evident. Although it is common to see such things as having “attendant beliefs and assumptions”172 what exactly these might be is not easily discerned. What can we say about the “attendant beliefs and assumptions” possessed by an amulet that was claimed to render the wearer invisible?173 Did those manufacturing and using such an object really think that it worked? Did they imagine it was as efficacious as, say, those amulets that were declared, rather more modestly, to relieve indigestion or alleviate a hangover? Or to make the wearer more popular or lucky? (all claims that allowed a rather more subjective assessment of their veracity).174 What can we say about the kind of beliefs that “attended” to the defixio found in Hadrumetum (Sousse) in which a man sought to make four women fall in love with him? Does the large number of potential lovers tell us merely about the ambition of the man or does it tell us that he did not hold out much hope of the likely efficacy of such a practice in relation to any of the women named?175 And what of a bracelet made up of over forty different “charms” found at Herculaneum?176 Should it be considered evidence of the significance of magic in the life of the wearer? Or was it primarily decorative, sentimental, or even a form of mnemonic device, providing a means of exercising control over the universe, in a limited but effective way, though not through the supernatural power of magic but through the process of collecting to which it bears witness177 and the autobiographical structuring of memory such an activity can facilitate?178 Of course, none of these alternatives need be the sole “meaning” of the charm bracelet for the wearer or others creating or encountering it, and need not preclude the possibility that magic was, indeed, a constituent part of its variegated “attendant beliefs” but they do alert us to the possibility that magic might, at best, be just one, perhaps inconsequential, element in the meaning ascribed to an object, even an object that some might assume must be understood in such a way.

Indeed, we should be careful not to mistake the presence of an object with the simple presence of particular ideas, magical or otherwise. Although artefacts may have the capacity to “symbolise the deepest human anxieties and aspirations”,179 such as those associated with the agonistic obsessions of love, sport, law and business, that are, for example, the stuff of ancient magic, and such objects might relay “a cultural image of the way in which the universe works”,180 they also have “social lives”181 and “biographies”,182 determined locatively and temporally, and we should not overlook what Woodward calls the “idiosyncrasies, incoherencies and sheer mundanity of the user’s perspective.”183 We know, for example, that some who wore amulets (which were, as we have noted, not necessarily understood to be magical), had little interest in their supposed effects,184 and others recommended their use for psychological benefits but completely disavowed any “worldview” implicit in their manufacture.185

Even tombstones do not provide us with evidence of the saliency of magic in the everyday lives of inhabitants of the empire that is quite as solid as it might at first appear. We have tens of thousands of epitaphs from the Roman Empire, often recounting the manner in which the person commemorated met their death, but the epitaph mentioned at the outset of this paper is one of only a handful that speak of someone being killed by witchcraft.186

In short, the data often taken as evidence for the cultural significance of magic in the early Empire, even when examined on its own, in isolation from the wider social context to which we shall now turn, is not as unequivocal or necessarily as substantive as is often assumed.187

4 An Empty Box? The Absence of Magic

Although it is generally correct to say that absence of evidence is not evidence of absence, if magic were something of significance in the early Empire, we would expect to find evidence of its presence in sources that shed light on the day to day lives of its inhabitants,188 that is, to find evidence of it in those texts and artefacts which, however imperfectly, could be said to be indicative of popular culture. If we leave aside those sources that are directly concerned with magic, such as the Papyri Graecae Magicae or Apuleius’ Apologia – compelling though they may be, and particularly so when grouped together in collections dedicated solely to the subject of magic in antiquity189 – and instead look at those sources that reveal the general preoccupations of the time, we discover a near silence concerning all things magical. The lack of interest is striking and unequivocal. Witches, sorcerers, and spells warrant virtually no mention or none at all in, for example, the popular ethical literature common in the early Empire, the collections of proverbs, fables, gnomai, and exempla.190 The only appearance of a magical practitioner in Aesop’s Fabulae, for example, a body of literature that was culturally omnipresent and popular across all strata of Graeco-Roman culture,191 is one in which the powers of a witch are ridiculed (with no untoward effects): “One of the spectators, seeing her [a witch] being dragged out of the court said to her: ‘How is it that you claim to be able to avert the gods’ anger, that you were not even able to persuade human beings?’”192 Nor is magic of consequence in the Vita Aesopi either, the comic biography of the fabulist, composed around the second century CE.193 The collection of exempla by Valerius Maximus, from the reign of Tiberius, and a useful window into common assumptions and obsessions, likewise, contains no clear reference to magic.194

Magic and magicians also play little part in popular paradoxographical literature of the period, such as Phlegon of Tralles’ de Mirabilis, texts that seem to have had a wide readership across social and cultural groups in the principate.195 Nor do they feature in Artemidorus’ Oneiroctica, a handbook of dream interpretations that provides an extremely valuable repository of the anxieties of the time and which has been likened to an ethnography of the second century Mediterranean world.196 Whilst the Oneiroctica indicates that those who lived in the early Empire were fearful of such things as disease197 and poverty,198 and dreamed of a host of subjects, from having sex with their mother,199 to being crucified,200 or getting dressed the wrong way in the morning,201 they did not dream of magicians or spells. Nor, from the range of interpretations given, was magic one of the things that they believed that their dreams were really about.202 Nor is magic a subject that appears in Roman joke books, such as the Philogelos, again a useful source for identifying the general preoccupations of the time and which, instead, finds humour in such perennial topics as sickness, sex and intellectuals’ lack of common sense.203 Nor is it a concern of the popular do-it-yourself oracle books such as the Lots of Astrampsychos.204 Although this text does have an exotic quality to it – it took its name from a mythical Zoroastrian priest205 – when we scrutinise the wide variety of questions that could be asked of the oracle (of which there were 92), and the answers given (of which there were 1030), it is clear that magic was of no consequence.206 Other things preoccupy the text and, one assumes, those using it, such as employment, health, love, fertility, travel, business and death. Nor is magic amongst the causes of fortune and misfortune assumed. Similarly, the popular Homeromanteion, an oracle which consisted of 216 lines of Homer that provided possible answers to whatever questions were put to it, makes no direct reference to magic or witchcraft even though many of the excerpts from Homer were taken from the Odyssey, a text which, as we have noted, has a considerable interest in magical themes.207 Such material appears to indicate that most people were unconcerned by magic, most of the time. They clearly did not think it had explanatory power in making sense of their lives or obtaining their goals. Nor was it something perceived to be a threat. Nor did they ascribe to it any symbolic significance. They were, it appears, at best, indifferent to it. From these popular cultural texts it is fair to conclude that it had little saliency in the early Empire.

In the light of the preceding discussion it is apparent that Betz’s assertion that “Magical beliefs and practices can hardly be overestimated in their importance for the daily lives of the people”208 is untenable. It is clear that the significance of magic in the lives of those in the early Empire can, in fact, all too easily be overestimated and, indeed, regularly is. To put it crudely, and I am aware the distinction has its limitations, for most of the inhabitants of the Roman Empire, for most of the time, magic appears to have been largely the stuff of stories and not of life.

5 Explaining Indifference.

It is not necessary to explain why inhabitants of the early Empire had such limited interest in magic in order for our conclusions about its lack of saliency to stand. Nonetheless, given that it is often, even if erroneously, assumed that magic was a significant preoccupation of pre-modern cultures, this unusual finding does invite further comment and I would like to posit some tentative, partial explanations for this phenomenon. Indifference is under theorised in the study of religion in antiquity (although it is of increasing interest for the study of contemporary religion);209 nonetheless I would like to suggest three possible reasons for the absence of interest in magic in the lives of most inhabitants of the empire, most of the time. I believe that it is probably, in part, a consequence of the existence of widespread scepticism of two kinds, which whilst related are not synonymous: (a) scepticism concerning the supernatural and (b) scepticism concerning magic.210 In addition it is also likely to be (c) a function, on those limited occasions when it was indeed used, of the agonistic contexts within which magic was deployed in the early Empire, something to which we shall return at the conclusion of this essay.

It is important to emphasise that the term scepticism is used here both in the modern, popular sense of active disbelief, as well as the related sense of the necessary suspension of judgement where a valid conclusion is impossible, for example, about the causation of a phenomenon. I am not using it with Pyrrhonism and formal philosophical Scepticism in mind.211 It is also important to emphasise that scepticism about magic does not necessarily imply scepticism about the power of the gods, although the reverse is not the case.212

However, the use of the concept “scepticism” requires some defence. It could be said to be misguided, to be both unhelpfully polarising213 and to approach the subject with unwarranted, anachronistic, presuppositions about the necessary significance of “belief” in the study of religion generally, and the religions of antiquity more specifically.214 As Dowden quite rightly says: “One of the hardest features of ancient religion for the modern student is the sheer unimportance of belief. … The ancient religions are not dead faiths, they are obsolete practices.”215 It could also be said to be an idea that does not do justice to the mutually contradictory ways of talking about the gods that were common and allowable in the empire that resulted from “the different kinds of assent and criteria of judgement”216 applied in different contexts; an approach to religion characterised by what Veyne calls “mental Balkanization”.217 Such a view is most clearly evident in the three very different theologiae of poetry, politics and philosophy identified by Varro.218

Nonetheless, whilst it is true that public, elective and domestic cults of the empire did not have any place for instrumental or soteriological conceptualisations of belief,219 and nor did magic, religion and magic in the empire were both predicated on certain assumptions, such as the efficacy of ritual and the power of the gods that underpinned their workings.220 Such “beliefs” (or, perhaps better, “ideas” or “convictions”) were not the kind that required active assent – they were not beliefs “in” but rather beliefs “that”221 – they were not of a soteriological but of an epistemological kind.

However, even beliefs of this sort can be the subject of dissent (rituals, for example, can be left undone) and so it is not unreasonable to speculate on the role of scepticism in making sense of the lack of interest in magic in the empire. And whilst it is true that most of those in the empire operated with a number of different, apparently mutually contradictory, theologiae of the kind identified by Varro, this does not preclude us talking about scepticism, although it does require us to be sensitive to the situational articulation of such beliefs so that we do not misread the evidence.

5.1. Sceptical Attitudes Towards the Supernatural

There is evidence of a significant degree of scepticism concerning the supernatural in the early Empire, particularly in relation to the possibility of direct intervention by the gods or other supernatural powers in human life (something that is not necessarily the same as scepticism about the existence of the gods per se). Such an argument is not dependent upon the number of those who identified themselves with philosophical schools that were hostile to supernaturalism, such as the Epicureans, Cynics, and Sceptics, something that, relative to the population as a whole, is unlikely to have been large.222 We should not overlook the attempts by members of these movements to disseminate key doctrines beyond their core adherents, seen, for example, in the remarkable inscription at Oenoanda in Lycia which gave passers-by access to an extensive collection of Epicurean treatises,223 or the notorious behaviour of Cynics that was intended, in part, both to embody and communicate their ideas to a wide audience,224 but their success appears to have been limited.225

Rather scepticism towards the supernatural went beyond such circles and was not necessarily associated with strong philosophical commitments or philosophical identities of any particular kind. This is evident, for example, in historiographical and medical discourses prominent in the early Empire in which the supernatural was not a causative agent in the lives of humans. Some historians of the period excoriated those that believed it was,226 whilst most seem to have been studiously “ambivalent”227 about the direct intervention of the gods in human history, and it is common to find naturalistic explanations for allegedly supernatural events,228 even if many were not always consistent in their approach.229 Naturalistic explanations of disease were also dominant in professional medical discourses of the empire that were indebted, directly or indirectly, to the Hippocratic tradition that effectively demythologised supernatural aetiologies.230 Of course, such rational approaches to disease and healing should not be crudely contrasted with those that allowed room for intervention from the gods (even the physician Galen could believe that the god Asklepios had saved him from the plague and that he was only a doctor because the god had appeared in dreams to his father),231 nor should we assume that they were dominant in popular culture232 but they were well known233and contributed to the normalisation of discourse in imperial culture which was sceptical of the supernatural.234

Although no one in the Roman Empire achieved the notoriety of the infamous “atheist” Diagoras of Melos of the fifth century BCE who not only mocked the Eleusinian mysteries but, after his prayer for the return of a lost manuscript went unanswered, boiled up some turnips on a fire kindled with a wooden statue of Heracles,235 it is also the case that there were some who, at least on occasion, showed a comparable lack of concern for the supernatural power of the gods. The general Claudius Pulcher, for example, famously drowned the sacred chickens who refused to eat when offered grain, and so failed to provide a positive omen for his forthcoming (and unsuccessful) campaign, quipping “If they will not eat, let them drink”.236 And he was hardly alone.237 According to Suetonius, Roman crowds, grief-stricken at the death Germanicus despite their prayers, “stoned the temples, and toppled the divine altars, while others flung their household gods into the street”, in part, no doubt, an attempt to punish the gods but also, in part, an indication that the gods were judged to be powerless.238 It was not unusual to doubt whether gods were capable of intervening in human affairs,239 and such a position was not limited to moments of collective crisis or disappointment.240 We find plenty of examples of popular, everyday scepticism in the period. So for example, one of Babrius’ Aesopic fables reads: “Since the gods do not know who steals from their own temples what is the use of appealing to them for help in finding any other lost property?ˮ241 In the Enchiridion Epictetus is reported as observing that those who did not obtain what they expected in life were prone to abuse the gods and accuse them of being uninterested in human affairs, something that was particularly true of farmers, sailors, merchants and those who had been bereaved.242

On occasion the gods, both new and old, could be the subjects of ruthless satire243 and irreverent behaviour: their festivals244 and oracles245 mocked, their sacred groves cut down,246 sacrifices stolen,247 and cult images abused.248 People could even dress up as gods for fancy dress parties249 and make the condemned parade as gods for sport before their execution.250 It is, perhaps, no surprise that there was such widespread concern in the empire about the danger of impietas (denying the gods the honours and rank that were rightfully theirs”)251 and, in particular, impietas that was deliberate, with malicious intent, rather than accidental (prudens dolo malo rather than imprudens), something that was inexpiable.252 Clearly there were at least some in the empire more than willing to behave in a manner that showed no fear of supernatural retribution, to the concern of their contemporaries.253

In addition to scepticism of the supernatural evident in the behaviour of some towards the gods, there are also indications that other supernatural powers could be approached with significant scepticism. Epitaphs, for example, could mock the existence of ghosts254 and interest in demons could be ranked alongside interest in quail fighting, as a frivolous waste of time.255 Even those traditionally believed, at least amongst the elite, Roman males who dominate our literary sources, to be particularly receptive to such beliefs, had, according to Cicero, albeit writing from the context of the late Republic, become more rational:

“Who now credits that the hippocentaur or the Chimaera ever existed? Is there a single old woman to be found who is so unhinged as to be sorely afraid of those monsters in the nether world in which people once believed? Time obliterates the falsehoods of common belief”.256

The existence of scepticism towards the supernatural in the early Empire, whether of an intellectual or apparently more visceral kind, is certainly not key, nor even, necessarily significant, in explaining the lack of saliency of magic, but it undoubtedly had a part to play in this phenomenon.

5.2 Sceptical Attitudes Towards Magic

There is considerable evidence that magic in the early Roman Empire was regularly denounced as fraudulent. As Gordon has effectively demonstrated, important representations of magic in antiquity “conceived of it not as powerful for harm but on the contrary as vacant show, as empty nonsense.”257 And such scepticism was not just an elite perspective: “Although this view is associated generally with the educated elite, it was also a view widespread in the population at large: for most of the time, under most circumstances, many people considered … it absurd”;258 something that played on people’s foolish and extravagant hopes. Those writers, such as Petronius, that made extensive use of magic in their narratives did so “to enthral and entertain in their own right, but at the same time they serve to convey the gullibility and feeble-mindedness of their tellers”.259 And they were not alone. The hostility towards magical practitioners evident in the Aesopic fable to which we earlier referred260 is a sentiment that recurs elsewhere.261 The failure of magic to achieve results was infamous. The inefficacy of love-magic, for example, is a recurring topos in literature.262 In Ovid’s Heroides even Medea has to admit she cannot be successful at this.263 The idea that magicians and witches were frauds who preyed on the vulnerable is a recurring motif in a range of texts.264 It can be seen, for example, in Tacitus’ account of the story of the young Servilia, tried before the Senate for using magicians to determine the future fate of her family after it had fallen foul of Nero, and forced to commit suicide as a consequence.265

Stinging criticisms of magical claims can be found in medical writing, too. Galen mounted a savage attack on Pamphilius, composer of a treatise on herbs which included extensive discussion of their magical properties, denouncing it as “long-winded Egyptian sorcery” so incredible that not even a child could believe it.266 And for the encyclopaedist Pliny the Elder the fact that Nero had reportedly sought to become a magician but, despite all the means he had at his disposal, had failed, was evidence that magic was fraudulent, “ineffectual, vain”.267 Cynic criticisms of the claims of magicians were also common. According to Lucian, Demonax confronted a magician who claimed to be able to obtain whatever he wanted by means of incantations, and offered to go to the nearest baker and turn a coin into a loaf of bread.268

For some critics, magic was no more than trickery. For example, Plutarch mentions a witch using her knowledge of the occurrence of an eclipse to achieve the so-called Thessalian trick:269

Aglaonice, a Thessalian woman – though being thoroughly acquainted with the periods of the full moon, when it is subject to eclipse, and knowing, beforehand the time that the moon was due to be overtaken by the earth’s shadow, imposed upon the (other) women, and made them all believe that she was drawing down the moon.270

Indeed a number of authors appear to have written works containing rational, reductionist explanations of the secrets of magic. These evidently circulated widely in the empire as Philostratus can mention in passing that several individuals “who have laughed out loud at the art”, had written books on how its effects were manufactured, and seems to assume that these would be familiar to his readers.271 Such rationalisations were of various kinds. Some seem surprisingly modern whilst others are wedded to specific ideas about causation that might seem implausible to us.272 The plausibility of such rationalisations to us is, of course, of no consequence – the issue is the plausibility of such rationalisations for those whole lived in the early Empire.

Although no texts of the kind alluded to by Philostratus have come down to us, Hippolytus’ Refutatio omnium haeresium273 does include a substantial section that appears to be dependent upon a source of this kind, and gives us our most extensive exposé of the fraudulent techniques of magicians. In this we hear, for example, that magicians demonstrated their powers – such as drawing down the moon and reading sealed letters – in mostly darkened rooms, a context conducive to deception, and used such staples of modern stage magic as misdirection, prestidigitation, and ingenious stage props.274 A skull could be made to speak, for example, by the surreptitious use of the long windpipe of a crane;275 the clever deployment of rocks, planks and sheets of brass, could create the illusion that the magician is able to summon up thunder.276

Such books may well have made public the secrets of a particular genre known as Paignia or “trifles”, of which our most extensive, surviving fragment, ascribed to Democritus, can be found, somewhat tellingly, in the Papyri Graecae Magicae.277 These works seem to have given specific recipes to create dramatic effects, akin to childhood chemistry experiments, some of which were designed to liven up dinner parties278 but others of which, such as those found in the Paignia of Salpe, or the collection by Anaxilaus of Larissa, were evidently intended to be employed in other contexts,279 and “could be used to impress the gullible with the superhuman powers of the magician”.280

Some provided rational explanations of the apparent effects of magic of a somewhat different kind. Rather than expose the techniques of its practitioners, they attacked the non-falsifiable nature of its claims. Such criticisms had a long pedigree. The author of the Hippocratic work, De morbo sacro, for example, said of magicians that: “They also employ other pretexts so that, if the patient is cured, their reputation is enhanced, while, if he dies, they can excuse themselves by explaining that the gods are to blame while they themselves did nothing wrong”.281And a similar argument is made by Philostratus who provides a surprisingly modern-sounding explanation for the apparent success of magic: to those committed to its use it can never fail, the believer will always provide technical or other excuses to justify whatever outcome occurs; an observation strikingly reminiscent of Malinowski.282

The vulnerability of magic to rational criticism in the early Empire is perhaps no better seen than, somewhat paradoxically, in the defence used by some of those tried for practising it. As Pliny recounts, a farmer accused of achieving outstanding yields by magical means defended himself by explaining that toil, not magic, led to his abundant harvests.283 Scepticism about magic was clearly vibrant in the early Empire and may also have contributed to its lack of cultural saliency.

5.3 The Deployment of Magic

The lack of significance of magic in the day to day lives of inhabitants of the early Empire was probably not only a consequence of scepticism about the supernatural and scepticism about magic itself. It may also have been, in part, a consequence of the context of its deployment, on the limited occasions when some made use of it, something that, as we noted earlier, appears to have been primarily agonistic. There is good reason for thinking that such agonistic use accompanied conceptualisations of magic in which it would be understood to be insubstantial; something ephemeral, equivocal and transitory.

The approach taken by Lindquist is particularly useful for identifying the nature of such magic.284 Magic accessed in contexts characterised by deep uncertainty and lack of control285 is, according to Lindquist, a form of materialised “hope” conjured up by frustrated agency, “where the uncertainty of life calls for methods of existential reassurance and control that rational and technical means cannot offer.”286 However, the use of magic is not just an attempt to stack the odds in ones favour through supernatural assistance but has other, more substantive effects. For example, Lindquist usefully suggests that it can redefine a situation, taking away responsibility and accountability for misfortune by transforming “risk” (something dependent upon the decision of an individual) into “danger” (something that can be attributed to the environment).287 As she puts it, “When one risks and loses, one has only oneself to blame. In danger, if one is struck and hit, one is an unwitting victim, unfortunate but not guilty.”288 There is a temporal and contingent dimension to belief of this kind and it is not useful to think only in terms of what someone “believes” when a curse is written or spell cast but also about the subsequent form this takes (as Schmitt has rightly said, “a belief is never a completed activity”).289 Once the challenge is passed, Lindquist found that the need for magic or even the recognition of its efficacy often diminishes or vanishes.290 Clients create post-hoc, rationalisations of events, similar to Kleinman’s “explanatory models” familiar from medical anthropology and which reflect the plural, indeterminate, and mutable character of potential interpretations over time.291 Although we lack first-hand accounts to confirm this reading for the early Empire, I would suggest that narrations of magic in this period, for most of the limited numbers that seem to have accessed it, would have taken a similar shape to that found in the lives of Lindquist’s contemporary informants: it would acquire a degree of potential saliency at the time of need but rather less or none in retrospect as the individual returns to a society in which magic, when it was thought about at all, was viewed as an unsanctioned and problematic activity – whether because it was something shocking and subversive or something embarrassing and risible.

6 Conclusion

There is a great deal more that can be said about the nature and place of magic in the early Empire. It would, for example, be useful to explain why magic did have considerable and unusual saliency for the early Christians, and the factors that led them to conjure up a useful, oppositional illusion of an enchanted and enslaved world.292 The alleged significance of magic in the early Empire is not solely a matter of smoke and mirrors but by arriving at their estimations of its importance by focusing solely on evidence of its presence, by being too quick to fall under the spell of texts such as the Papyri Graecae Magicae, scholars in the field could be said to have unwittingly been guilty of the classic magician’s trick of misdirection, and have themselves missed perhaps the feature of magic in the early Roman Empire that is its most surprising: its lack of significance in the day to day lives of its inhabitants. Whilst they clearly enjoyed stories about magic, magic itself seems to have been largely inconsequential and ephemeral, of only fleeting importance and the subject of the most attenuated and sporadic interest except amongst a handful. We have made some suggestions as to why this might be so, but the necessary process of revision and re-description has only just begun. Despite the plethora of publications in the field, substantial work, some of the most fundamental kind, clearly remains to be done.


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  • 2

    See, for example, Betz (1997), xli. 

  • 3

    Plin. Nat. 28.4.19. Pliny also claimed that such belief was not new but had “held sway throughout the world for many ages” (30.1). 

  • 4

    Philostr. VA 8.1–31. For Apollonius and the accusation of magic, see Abraham (2009); Koskenniemi (1994); Reimer (2002). 

  • 5

    Apul. Apol. For studies of the Apologia see Abt (1908); Bradley (1997); Graf (1997a), 65–88; Harrison (2000), 39–86; Hunink (1997); Riemer (2007); Riess (2008); Rives (2003). Apollonius and Apuleius are also both discussed by Augustine (see Graf 2002b). 

  • 6

    Tac. Ann. 2.69. See also Suet. Cal. 3.3 and Dio 57.18.9. See Lund (2009); Tupet (1980). Germanicus died in Antioch on the Orontes in 19 CE. 

  • 7

    Petronius’ Satyricon could also be legitimately classified as a novel, despite the extensive use of poetry. However, substantial sections of this work are missing. We only have books fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen out of the twenty-four books that probably constituted the original: see Schmeling (1996), 460–61; (2011).The Satyricon also shows an extensive interest in magic. See, for example, Petr. Sat. 61–63, 131. 

  • 8

    For studies of the representation of magic in Apul. Met., see Frangoulidis (2008); Graverini (2012); Leinweber (1994); Ruiz-Montero (2007); Winkler (1986). Apuleius’ novel has had a considerable effect on the subsequent portrayals of magic and witchcraft in Europe; see Gaisser (2008). A Greek version of the same story, Pseudo-Lucian’s Onos, displays a similar interest in magic. For Pseudo-Lucian’s Onos, see Anderson (1976), 34–67 (though Anderson argues for Lucian’s authorship). Both the Met. and the Onos were based on an earlier, longer, Greek version of the story; see Mason (1994); Thiel (1971–1972). 

  • 9

    For treatments of magic and magical practitioners in classical literature see, for example, Eitrem (1941); Lowe (1929); Luck (1999); Pollard (2008); Stratton (2007); Tupet (1976). 

  • 10

    See Herac. All. 1.5–6; cf. 76.3–5; Hor. Ep. 2.2.41–2; Quint. Inst. 1.8.5. For the place of Homer in both Greek and Roman education, see Bonner (1977), 213; Marrou (1965), 246–47; Morgan (1998), 69–71, 105–15. See also Petr. Sat. 48, 59. For a discussion of the significance of Homer in Roman culture more generally, see Farrell (2004). 

  • 11

    Plin. Nat. 7.5. 

  • 12

    For the PGM, see Betz (1997); Brashear (1995); Preisendanz, Abt, and Henrichs (1973). 

  • 13

    See Waegeman (1987). 

  • 14

    For the Testament of Solomon, see Bohak (2008), 179–82; Busch (2006); Duling (1983, 1988); Johnston (2002); Klutz (2005); Schwarz (2007). Magic can also be found in texts concerned with other things, such as the pharmacopeia of Dioscorides. Dioscorides distinguished the medical usage of plants from their alleged magical properties in his De Materia Medica, placing the latter at the end of each chapter. He also made it clear to the reader that such traditions consisted of what others had said, rather than what he himself had determined through his own experience, experiment and observation (Praef. 2–5). See, for example, Mat. Med. 1.90, 103; 2.104, 125, 126; 3.91, 131; 4.20, 76, 130. See Riddle (1985), 84. For a valuable translation and commentary, see Beck (2005). 

  • 15

    For treatments of the theme of magic in Acts of the Apostles, see Garrett (1989b); Klauck (2000); Marguerat (2003); Porter (2007); Reimer (2002); Reuter (2009); Shauf (2005). 

  • 16

    See, for example, the magical battle between Peter and Simon Magus found in Acts of Peter 23–32. See Bremmer (1998, 2002b); Schneemelcher (1992). 

  • 17

    Notably Bar-Jesus (Acts of the Apostles 13.6–12) and Simon Magus (Acts of Peter 4–32). For studies of the conflict between Bar-Jesus and Paul, see Garrett (1989a), (1989b), 79–87; Nock (1972); Strelan (2004b). Simon is first mentioned in Acts of the Apostles 8.9–24 where he is rebuked for attempting to purchase the miraculous power of the Holy Spirit. He acquired the epithet “Magus” in subsequent literature and became a figure associated with both magic and gnosticism. See Adamik (1998); Derrett (1992); Edwards (1997); Ferreiro (1998, 2005); Lüdemann (1987); Luttikhuizen (1998); Tuzlak (2002). 

  • 18

    Acts of the Apostles 19.11–20. For studies of this narrative, see Garrett (1989b), 89–99; Klauck (2000), 97–101; Shauf (2005); Strelan (2004a), 107–12. For the symbolism of book burning in the empire, see Sarefield (2006, 2007). 

  • 19

    See Faraone and Kropp (2010); Gager (1999); Ogden (1999). 

  • 20

    Bohak (2008), 183–93; Levene (2003). 

  • 21

    This is a problematic term but remains the best way of referring to such objects in English. It is not meant to imply any association with contemporary religious practices found in Haiti, West Africa or elsewhere: see the remarks in Faraone (1991a), 65, n. 4. The term “poppet”, whilst increasingly common, is inappropriate as it is a term of endearment in a number of dialects of British English. For an example of the use of such dolls, see Hor. Sat. 1.8; Ovid Her. 6.83–94; Ps-Call. Alex. 5; Theoc. Id. 2 (Pharm.). 

  • 22

    See, for example, Bonner (1950); Kotansky (1994). 

  • 23

    Bonner (1950); Gager (1999); Kotansky (1994); Michel (2004); Michel, Zazoff and Zazoff (2001); Ogden (2009); Philipp (1986). 

  • 24

    For studies of the use of objects in actual practice, see Bailliot (2010) and Wilburn (2012). 

  • 25

    See, for example, the depiction of Circe and her wand found on a first-century CE pottery oil lamp from Pozzuoli, in the British Museum: Bailey (1975), Q949. Such imagery was relatively common. Another example can be found in the Antikensammlungen, Munich. Stanford (1945) has argued that Circe’s staff need not be interpreted as magical in the Odyssey but whilst this may be the case, subsequent receptions of the narrative were unanimous in understanding it in this way. For primary sources for Circe, see especially Hom. Od. 10.293, 388; Ov. Met. 14.278, 413; Verg. A. 7.189–91. For the depictions of Medea in material culture, see Schmidt (1992). For Medea in primary sources, see especially Apol. Rhod. Argon; Eur. Med.; Hyg. Fab. 21–6; Ov. Her. 12, Met. 7.1–450; Pind. Pyth. 4; Sen. Med. See also the discussion of the Medea myth in Clauss and Johnston (1997) and Griffiths (2006). For the representation of witches in Roman art and literature more generally, see Pollard (2008) and Luck (1999). 

  • 26

    For mosaics, see Dunbabin (2001), 312, 323–24; Cousland (2005). For amulets, Bonner (1950), 97–100. For earrings, see, for example, the recent find of a Roman earring from Norwich featuring an evil eye being attacked and which probably had an apotropaic function (http://finds.org.uk/database/artefacts/record/id/490934 [Accessed October 13th, 2013]). For useful discussions of the evil eye in the Roman Empire, see Bryen and Wypustek (2010); Dickie (1995); Elliott (1994, 2011); Nuño (2012); and for more general studies, Elworthy (1895) and Maloney (1976). See Catul. 5, 7; Hor. Ep. 1.14.37–8; Plin. Nat. 7.16–8, 28.39; Plut. Mor. 680c-683b; Strab. Geog. 14.2.7, 654c; Verg. Ecl. 3.103. 

  • 27

    CIL 6.19747; see Ogden (2009), 119. For a catalogue of inscriptions that make reference to, or might make reference to, untimely death as a result of witchcraft, see Graf (2007). 

  • 28

    For socio-religious prohibitions against magic, see Phillips (1991). For legal prohibitions, see Collins (2008a), 132–65; MacMullen (1966), 124–27; Ogden (2009), 275–99; Pharr (1932); Rives (2003, 2006). Magic, per se, was not a subject of legislation in Greek law, though actions that could be interpreted as magical could provoke a legal charge of ἀσέβεια (impiety). See Phillips (1991), 262. For an example of a legal accusation of magic during the principate, see P.Mich. VI.423 and 424 (Karanis, Roman Egypt, 197 CE); discussed in Bryen and Wypustek (2010) and Frankfurter (2006). 

  • 29

    Notably Sulla’s Lex Cornelia de sicariis et veneficiis (81 BCE). See Pauli Sent. 5.23.15–18. 

  • 30

    Stratton (2007), 107. See, for example, Iren. Haer. 1.4.7, 1.13.1–6, 2.31.2–3, 2.32. See also Breyfogle (1995). Interestingly this was not the case in Second Temple Judaism. See Bohak (2008), 76. 

  • 31

    See, for example, Bonner (1950), 123–39 (plates viii and ix). Such gems are often associated with the second-century Christian gnostic Basilides or gnosticism more generally but it is unwise to assume an exclusive or even primary identification of Abraxas/Abrasax and gnostic thought and practice; the deity appears to have had much wider appeal and non-gnostic origins. See Janssens (1977). See also Barb (1957, 1960); Harrison (2012), 11; and Nilsson (1951). 

  • 32

    For such amulets see, for example, Bohak (2008), 213. Solomon’s power over demons is found in a number of textual traditions. See, for example, Jos. Ant. 8.42–45; Test. Sol. See also Fulghum (2001), 142–43; Klutz (2005). 

  • 33

    This is, perhaps, particularly true for scholars of early Christianity, for whom material culture directly relevant to their field is thin on the ground before the conversion of Constantine. For useful analyses of the scant data relating to the ante pacem church, see MacMullen (2009); Snyder (2003). 

  • 34

    Betz (1997), xli. 

  • 35

    Noegel, Walker, and Wheeler (2003), 12. 

  • 36

    Indeed, some have suggested that “magic” should cease to be used as an analytical category on these grounds. Pocock (1972), 2, for example, has argued that “if categorical distinctions of the Western mind are found upon examination to impose distinctions upon (and so falsify) the intellectual universes of other cultures then they must be discarded or, as I have put it, dissolved. I believe ‘magic’ to be one such category”. Most in the field reject the notion that “magic” is a universally applicable category. See, for example, Smith (1995), 16; Segal (1981), 50–51. For studies of the discursive contexts within which “magic” emerged as a discrete analytical category, see Styers (2003) and Tambiah (1990). 

  • 37

    For example, Betz (1997), xlix, n. 6 declares, “a definition of the notion of magic cannot be attempted here”. Whilst Betz does refer the reader to some literature on the subject, it is a little surprising that in a book concerned with magic, of over three hundred and fifty pages in length, he does not attempt such a thing. This does result in some confusion. For example, at the outset of his work, Betz equates the burning of magical books in Acts of the Apostles 19.19 with the burning of books of prophecy by Augustus in 13 BCE (Suet. Aug. 31.1). The two are not obviously comparable. The latter may have been regarded as threatening and seditious but it is not evident that such books would have been considered magical – after all the authentic Sibylline oracles (some of whom were saved from the conflagration) were a central and revered aspect of Roman religion. See Parke (1988). A better parallel is found in Pauli Sent. 5.23.18. 

  • 38

    Ogden refuses to provide a definition of magic for his important sourcebook on the subject. The contents of his work are determined by “the subject matter of recent scholarly books on antiquity with such words as ‘magic’ in their titles”: Ogden (2009), 5. 

  • 39

    As Cicero notes, “I know of no people, whether they be learned and refined or barbaric and ignorant, that does not consider that future things are indicated by signs, and that it is possible for certain people to recognise those signs and predict what will happen” (Div. 1.2). See, for example, Dion. Hal. Ant. Rom. 4.62; Livy 1.18.6–10; Luc. 1.605–38; Plut. Num. 7. 

  • 40

    See, for example, Johnston (2008); Johnston and Struck (2005). 

  • 41

    For the centrality of divination in Roman religion, see the remarks of Cotta in Cic. N.D. 3.2. See also Liv. 6.41. 

  • 42

    Downing (2000), 212–23. Downing includes in his discussion of “oracular magic” the criticism of haruspices found in Cicero’s De Divinatione, which included Cato’s famous quip that he was surprised a haruspex did not burst out laughing when he saw another one (Div. 2.24.51). Cicero’s own position on the matter is rather more equivocal than is often assumed. It seems most likely that he was opposed to private divination (as were others, see Suet. Tib. 63.1) and believed it was an example of superstitio, but approved of the official, public interpretation of portents as an acceptable element of religio (appropriate honouring of the gods). See, for example, Div. 2.72.148 and the discussion in Rasmussen (2003), 215. Even when the haruspices are criticised in De Divinatione they are not criticised for practising magic. Downing’s interpretation has more in common with that of the fourth-century Christian emperor Constantius II who did not distinguish between traditional haruspices, astrologers, dream interpreters and magicians when outlawing pagan divinatory practices; see Fögen (1995), 103. See also Cod. Iust. 9.18.3 (Constantine, 319 CE), 5 (Constantius II, 357 CE), 7 (Constantius II, 358 CE). Note Lucan’s clear distinction between such practices that whilst arcane, were lawful, and “the mysteries of cruel witchcraft, which the gods abhor” (Luc. 6.431). A similar distinction is also made in Dio 52.36.1–2. 

  • 43

    As Rives (2007), 27 rightly notes:“Since divination has been rigorously excluded from the dominant religious traditions of Europe and the Middle East ever since the conversion of Constantine, many people are now apt to think of it as mere fortune-telling, a way of looking in to the future. This was of course important, but there was generally more to it than that. […] Divination was […] an essential complement to prayer and sacrifice, completing the circle of communication between gods and mortals”. 

  • 44

    See, for example, Haack (2003); MacBain (1982); North (1990); Scheid (2003), 111–26. 

  • 45

    See, for example, Palmer (1998). See Macr. Sat. 1.6.7–13; Plin. Nat. 33.4.10; Plut. Rom. 20.3, 25.5. Amulets were not understood en masse as “magical” in the early Empire, although some were, by virtue of their specific form and the use to which they were put. The blanket designation of them as such by some is unhelpful (see, for example, Kotansky (1991), 113–14; Ogden (2009), 261). Pliny the Elder, for instance, clearly distinguished between magic, the “most fraudulent of arts” (Nat. 30.1; cf. 28.12), to which he was strongly opposed, and the production and use of numerous amulets that he described, without criticism, in his Naturalis Historia. Indeed, he singled some out as efficacious, and particularly helpful when employed where conventional medicine was unlikely to succeed. See for example, Nat. 28.5.27–8, 28.98, 106; 30.30, 47; 36.11. See also Martini (1977). Likewise, Trajan could endorse a medical text for his legions that recommended the use of amulets, evidently perceiving such things to be clearly distinguishable from magic: see Nutton (2004), 269. Ammianus Marcellinus’ shock at the outlawing, in the late fourth century, of traditional, doctor-approved charms, is indicative of how such things were not considered magical in the earlier period (see 16.8.1; 19.12.14). Even those medical writers who rejected the reasoning that lay behind amulets, such as the often rather arcane notions of sympathy and antipathy which most employed, could still view them as potentially beneficial to a patient’s sense of wellbeing (see Sor. Gyn. 3.42). Amulets were ubiquitous and their use largely uncontroversial; indeed those who rejected the use of amulets to protect themselves from disease were sufficiently eccentric as to be considered mad (SHA Car. 5, 7). To judge from the archaeological record, almost everyone carried an amulet to aid digestion and ward off such things as fever: see Bonner (1950), 51–66. 

  • 46

    See Cat. Agr. 160. Also referred to in Plin. Nat. 17.267. See Laughton (1938); McDaniel (1972); Versnel (2002). 

  • 47

    Our earliest source for Roman law, the Lex Duodecim Tabularum from the fifth century BCE (see Westbrook (1988); Cic. Orat. 1.44), outlawed specific practices – harmful incantations and the enchanting of crops – rather than magic per se (XII Tab. 8). However, such practices “were later reconceptualized as instances of magic” (Rives (2007), 317) and by about the first century BCE magic itself was believed by the Romans always to have been outlawed. See also Dickie (2001), 124–41; Gordon (1999), 164–65, 207, and 229–31. 

  • 48

    Mastrocinque (2011), 4. 

  • 49

    Mastrocinque (2011), 5. For Asklepios, see Edelstein and Edelstein (1998); Petsalis-Diomidis (2010). Studies of the imperial cult are legion. Notable contributions include Brodd and Reed (2011); Gradel (2002); Price (1984). 

  • 50

    Johnston (2003), 50. It should be noted that Johnston herself makes a convincing plea for the need to attempt a definition of magic. For a valuable critique of analogous debates about “religion” and the danger of exaggerating the importance of definitional issues, see Bruce (2011). 

  • 51

    Dickie (2001), 18. 

  • 52

    Kapferer (2003), 1. 

  • 53

    For helpful surveys of the contours of the debate, see Cunningham (1999); Otto and Strausberg (2012); Stein and Stein (2011); Wax and Wax (1963). It would be invidious to single out any particular recent contributions but the recent reflexive turn has revitalised the definitional debate considerably. See, for example, Greenwood (2009); Lindquist (2006); West (2007). 

  • 54

    For critical surveys of theories of magic, see Cunningham (1999); Glucklich (1997), 3–81; Hamilton (2001), 39–54; O’Keefe (1983); Tambiah (1990); Wax and Wax (1963). 

  • 55

    Essentialist or substantive definitions of magic assume that there is something distinctive about magic, evident in particular characteristics that distinguish it from religion or science. Such definitions have been put forward, albeit in very different ways, by, for example, Tylor (1871); Frazer (1890); Evans-Pritchard (1937); Titiev (1960); and some more recent studies, such as Greenwood (2009). 

  • 56

    Functionalist definitions, such as that found in Malinowski (1948), emphasise the social or psychological functions of magic. Frustratingly Durkheim, the leading functionalist, did not provide a definition of magic although he wrote much about it. For him, magic was essentially the opposite of religion. For example, for Durkheim religions create social and moral communities but magic is antithetical to such social and moral life. See Durkheim (1915), 42–49. 

  • 57

    Locative-relational definitions of magic define magic relative to something else, and its concomitant location. Mauss (1902), 24 provides a good example of such a definition: “A magical rite is any rite which does not play a part in organised cult … We do not define magic in terms of the structure of its rites, but by the circumstances in which these rites occur, which in turn determine the place they occupy in the totality of social customs”. 

  • 58

    The notion that magic is a stage in human development is found in Tylor (1871); Frazer (1890); Weber (1978). For a survey of such evolutionary approaches, see Styers (2004). 

  • 59

    Developmental interpretations of magic can take a number of forms. For example, it is often argued that “magical thinking” – the conviction that a person’s thoughts directly affect the world – is particularly associated with childhood, e.g. Piaget (1929), and bereavement, e.g. Didion (2005), and reflects a cognitive misunderstanding of causality. Lewis (1986), 414 has also suggested that conceptualisations of magic may alter over the general course of a person’s life, as a result of both individual experience and the effect of the different roles that accompany various phases of adulthood. To put it succinctly, we need to understand magic in a way that accounts for the fact that “people change their opinions as they grow older”. 

  • 60

    The term “intellectualist” is one particularly used of Tylor (1871) and Frazer (1890), though it is also used of more recent figures, such as Horton (1997), and refers to those scholars who view magic (and religion) as something employed by people to explain puzzling aspects of the world about them; something that is “essentially rational” even though it provides explanations that are “crude and fallacious”: Radcliffe-Brown (1961), 20. See Cunningham (1999), 15. 

  • 61

    Although one of the founding figures in functionalism, Malinowski’s understanding of magic can also be termed instrumentalist. For him, magic was “a practical art consisting of acts which are only means to a definite end expected to follow later on”: Malinowski (1948), 68. 

  • 62

    This is the label given by Ogden to conceptualisations of magic that are derived from the use of one or more magical terms within a chosen society. See Ogden (2004), xviii-xix. 

  • 63

    Tambiah, for example, argues, using the work of Austin (1962), that magic is a kind of “performative utterance”, that is an illocutionary act which itself changes reality. See Tambiah (1968, 1990). 

  • 64

    For example, Marrett (1914) understood magic to arise “from the emotion of tension and is cathartic or stimulating, providing relief or encouragement when technical methods are inadequate”: Cunningham (1999), 24. See Lindquist (2006) for a contemporary example of such an approach. 

  • 65

    E.g. Kapferer (1997). 

  • 66

    E.g. Leeuw (1938); Stoller (1989); West (2007). 

  • 67

    E.g. Greenwood (2009). 

  • 68

    E.g. Glucklich (1997). 

  • 69

    The classic summary of this position can be found in Goode (1949). Although very critical of the motivations that lay behind those who insisted, for ideological reasons, on a distinction between “magic” and “religion”, he still found that such a distinction had analytical utility. Aune’s (1980) influential study of magic in antiquity assumes a traditional, essentialist, dichotomy between magic and religion, despite claims to the contrary in his text, as Hutton (2006), 103 has rightly noted. For a significant critique of attempts to distinguish “magic” and “religion”, see Hammond (1970). For criticisms of essentialist and substantive interpretations see, for example, Smith (1995) and Versnel (1991). 

  • 70

    Smith (1995), 227. To be fair to Smith, his remarks relate specifically to the PGM (ibid. 222) and he is not explicitly claiming that his observations have any saliency beyond the analysis of that corpus of texts (however, as with much of what Smith has to say, they have been understood to have more wide-ranging implications). The “miniaturization” of ritual could be said to be a characteristic of everyday private and domestic devotion in antiquity and not something that should be seen as an unusual or distinguishing feature of the PGM. For Roman domestic religion, see Clarke (1991); Kaufmann-Heinimann (2007); Orr (1973, 1978, 1980). For the use of statuettes in private and domestic devotion see Plut. Sull. 29.6; Amm. 22.13.3; Apul. Apol. 63.2. 

  • 71

    As, for example, Smith (1978), 69 rightly observes:“Private dealings with supernatural beings make up most of what we call ‘magic’ as well as what we call ‘private religion.’ There is no clear line between the two. When we compare avowedly religious texts and reports of religious practices with the texts of the magical papyri and the practices they prescribe, we find the same goals stated and the same means used. For instance, spells for destruction of an enemy are commonly supposed to be magical, but there are many in the Psalms. The cliché, that the religious man petitions the gods while the magician tries to compel them, is simply false.” 

  • 72

    The trenchant criticisms of functionalist definitions of religion made by Bruce (2011), 111–12 are applicable to functionalist definitions of magic. 

  • 73

    Francis (2008), 90. 

  • 74

    See Malinowski (1931), 638. 

  • 75

    See Nadel (1957). 

  • 76

    For example, Gager (1999), 24–25; Mauss (1972), 24. Such a perspective is succinctly described by Crossan (1991), 304: “Religion is official and approved magic; magic is unofficial and unapproved religion. More simply: ‘we’ practice religion, ‘they’ practice magic”. 

  • 77

    Whether that be religious or secular and scientific. See Pettersson (1957); Styers (2004); Tambiah (1990). 

  • 78

    A point made by Bohak (2008), 62. 

  • 79

    A similar point is made in Smith (1995). 

  • 80

    Evans-Pritchard’s study of the Azande provides a famous example of this. According to his account, the Azande possess no substantive religious beliefs, rituals or institutions, relative to which their magic can be defined. See Evans-Pritchard (1937). 

  • 81

    Hutton (2006), 312. 

  • 82

    A point made by O’Keefe (1983), 10. For analysis of Weber’s understanding of magic, see Breuer (2001). The same, as we have already noted, could also be said of Durkheim. 

  • 83

    Radcliffe-Brown (1961), 138. He suggested the same for the term “religion”. 

  • 84

    See, for example, Meyer and Smith (1999), 1–6; Smith (1995). For a criticism of this practice, see Bohak (2008), 61; Hoffman (2002). 

  • 85

    Dundes (1981), 258. 

  • 86

    Stark (2001), 102. 

  • 87

    Versnel (1991), 181. Although Versnel’s words were published over twenty years ago, they accurately describe the current state of scholarship in the field. 

  • 88

    Hutton (2006), 106. Although, as Hutton has noted, in his useful survey of the classical scholarship on the subject, a form of the traditional, essentialist, dichotomy between magic and religion, in which the former is seen as manipulative and coercive and the latter supplicatory, has persisted, even in works by authors who have explicitly rejected it. See Hutton (2006), 98–103. See also Versnel (1991). 

  • 89

    See Blumer (1969), 148. 

  • 90

    See, for example, Pauli Sent. 5.23.14–19. 

  • 91

    Mastrocinque (2007), 387. Although this does not mean that there were not a number of theories of magic in antiquity, as Graf has demonstrated (2002a). 

  • 92

    Apul. Apol. 25. Indeed, as Rives (2006), 65 has persuasively argued, it was precisely through such trials as that of Apuleius that definitions of magic were thrashed out and developed over time. See also Rives (2003). 

  • 93

    For the Latin terminology associated with magic, Burriss (1936) remains useful. See also Bremmer (2002a). 

  • 94

    See Ogden (2004), xviii-xix. 

  • 95

    For polythetic definitions, see Needham (1975). For the use of polythetic definitions in the study of religion, see especially Smith (1988); Wilson (1998). For the use of polythetic definitions of magic in antiquity, see Rives (2003), 317; Versnel (1991), 182–87. 

  • 96

    See, for example, Beckner (1959), 22. Whilst monothetic definitions identify one or more distinguishing feature as necessary for classification, polythetic definitions include a number of features which, by themselves, are neither necessary nor sufficient but are commonly occurring amongst a classification. Smith (1988), 4 is wrong to maintain that polythetic definitions retain “the notion of necessary but abandoned the notion of sufficient criteria for admission to a class”; in polythetic definitions there are no characteristics which need to be found in every member of a class. It should also be noted that polythetic definitions have come in for significant criticism in the biological sciences. See, for example, Sutcliffe (1994). 

  • 97

    Wilson (1998), 158. 

  • 98

    That is, “the insider’s or native’s perspective of reality”: Fetterman (2010), 20. 

  • 99

    Though any claim to provide an emic account, even of the most rudimentary kind, is obviously not without its problems. See Headland, Pike, and Harris (1991). 

  • 100

    Apol. Rhod. Argon. 3.1026; Apul. Met. 3.20, Apol. 42; Cic. Clu. 194; Diod. 4.52; Hor. Epod. 5; Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1.38; Ov. Met. 7.179, Am. 1.8.1–20. See Kippenberg (1997). 

  • 101

    Apul. Apol. 26, 38; Eus. C. Hier. 2.27; Luc. Philops. 12, 35, DMeretr. 288–89, Men. 9; Verg. Ecl. 8.64–109. 

  • 102

    For human sacrifice see Cic. Vat. 14; Hor. Epod. 5; CIL VI.19747; Pauli Sent. 5.23.14–19; Philostr. VA 7.11; cf. also Liv. 25.1. Human sacrifice had been an element of the public cult of Rome although this had ceased by the second century BCE: see Várhelyi (2007). 

  • 103

    As, for example, Libo Drusus (Tac. Ann. 2.27–32) and Claudia Pulchra (Tac. Ann. 4.52) were accused of so doing. 

  • 104

    For example, Apul. Apol. 26; Met. 1.8, 2.21; Ps.-Call. Alex. 3–4; Luc. Men. 6; Max. Tyr. Diss. 8.2; Dio. 56.23; Philostr. VA 4.25. For a comprehensive treatment of different magical specialists in the Graeco-Roman world, see Ogden (2008), (2009), 9–145. 

  • 105

    E.g. Luc. 6.413–507; Ov. Her. 6.83–94. 

  • 106

    E.g. Calypso in Hom. Od. 1.11–19, 5.151–58. See also Luc. 6.624–830; Luc. Philops. 17, 22–24; Ov. Met. 7.159–321; Ps.-Quint. Decl. 10.19; SEG IX.72.110–21. 

  • 107

    See, for example, Apul. Met. 3.16–17; Cic. Clu. 194; Clem. Alex. Protr. 22; Luc. 6.570; Ov. Am. 1.8.13, Met. 7.193; Tib. El. 1.2.42–66. 

  • 108

    Ov. Met. 7.179; Petr. Sat. 61–62. The period around a full moon could also be significant. See Heliod. Aeth. 6.14; Luc. Philops. 14. 

  • 109

    For lunar eclipses, associated with the magical practice of “drawing down the moon”, see Plut. Mor. 145cd; Zenob. Epit. 404. See Ogden (2009), 236–37. 

  • 110

    Plin. Nat. 28.92–106; Ov. Met. 7.238–93; Hor. Epod. 5; Apul. Met. 2.21–30, 3.17, Apol. 30; Luc. 6.507–830. See also Cyran. 

  • 111

    See Apul. Met. 3.17; Ov. Fast. 2.533–638; Petr. Sat. 131; Theoc. Id. 2. 

  • 112

    See, for example, Apul. Met. 3.15–25; Hor. Epod. 17; Luc. 6.413–587; Luc. Philops. 33–36. 

  • 113

    For example, Apol. Rhod. Argon. 3.1026–62, 1191–1224; Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1.38; Hor. Sat. 1.8; Luc. Men. 9, Philops. 22–24; Ov. Met. 7.174, 194; Theoc. Id. 2; Tib. El. 1.2.42–66. For defixiones invoking Hecate that date from the early Empire, see Gager (1999), 180–84. 

  • 114

    Apul. Met. 3.17, Apol. 63; Hor. Epod. 5, Sat. 1.8; Luc. 6.624–830; Tert. An. 56–57. Magic was not necessarily associated with demons in the early Empire. The relationship between daimones and humans in the classical world was an ambivalent one (for a survey see Flint (1999), 281–92) and although demons could be associated with magic (e.g. Apul. Apol. 43), and equated with the spirits of the dead (e.g. Apul. Soc. 15), they only became prominent in the broader culture of the empire, and understood as consistently malign, as a result of the influence of Judaism and emergent Christianity, traditions that also helped to introduce angels into the eclectic repertoire of supernatural powers employed by magicians, something evident from the PGM. For demonology in the early Empire, see Brenk (1986); for early Christianity, Eitrem (1966) remains useful. 

  • 115

    For the common picture that magic was harmful see, for example, Apul. Met. 2.21–30; Petr. Sat. 63; Plat. Rep. 364b–e, Leg. 933a-b, e; Tac. Ann. 2.27–32, 4.52; CIL VI.19747. The notion that magicians were harmful both to individuals and the state is evident in the regular expulsion of practitioners of magic from Rome, in which magicians found themselves lumped with other subversives and troublemakers perceived to threaten the peace of the city, including Jews, Christians, astrologers, worshippers of Isis, fans of charioteers and pantomime artists. For the expulsion of magicians and others, see Dio 49.43.5, 52.36.1–2, 57.18.5a, 60.6.6–7; Jos. Ant. 18.63 f; Phil. Spec. 159–61; Suet. Tib. 36.1, Cl. 25; Tac. Ann. 2.85.4–5; Val. Max. 1.3.3. See MacMullen (1966), 95–127.Love magic might be thought an exception of a kind, but it was generally considered harmful to the victim. Such magic was believed to be able to drive the object of desire mad (see Plut. Mor. 139a; Suet. Cal. 50; cf. Jer. Vit. Hil. 21; Ov. Met. 9.101–238) and that those “dragged together by the magical twisting of threads” were forced into lives contrary to fate (Luc. 6.434; see also Apul. Met. 1.5–19, Apol. 41) – not necessarily a happy state of affairs. Those practising it faced severe punishment (Pauli Sent. 5.23.14). For a comprehensive discussion of love magic, see Faraone (1999).Forms of magic associated with warding off or obtaining relief from sickness might also appear to be an exception. However, we must be careful to note that many practices that might seem, to a modern interpreter, self-evidently magical were not considered such in antiquity and did not, in most cases, suffer from legal or social prohibitions, something we have noted in our earlier discussion of Cato the Elder’s use of an incantation to deal with a dislocation (Agr. 160). For a therapeutic practice to be judged magical it required an additional association with malign forces and nefarious activities and practitioners. This distinction can be seen clearly in Manichaean sources. Although Mani had explicitly prohibited the use of magic in his religion (Keph. 6.31.24b-33), Manichaeans had no compunction in using “magical” practices to obtain healing probably because, as Canepa has argued, they did not view activities of a therapeutic kind as proscribed: Canepa (2011), 75. Though cf. Gardner and Lieu (2004), 278–80. 

  • 116

    E.g. the list found in Schauf (2005), 184–88. 

  • 117

    E.g. Iamblichus’ Babyloniaka in Phot. Bib. 75b (this is not a reference to Iamblichus the Neoplatonist); Luc. Philops. 11–13; Ps.-Call. Alex. 11. 

  • 118

    See, for example, Luc. Philops. 33–36; Heliod. Aeth. 3.16.1–4, 6.12–15. 

  • 119

    See Phillips (2002). For example, Sosiph. Mel. fr. 6 n. 2; Apul. Met. 1.5–19, 2.21; Hor. Epod. 5; Luc. 6.434; Pl. Am. 1043–44; Plin. Nat. 30.6. “Most Romans of the principate knew Thessaly chiefly through literature as a place of magic and of demonic women”: Bowersock (1965), 277. 

  • 120

    See Arnold (1989); McCown (1923). 

  • 121

    For the reputation of Memphis as a key centre for magic, see Apul. Met. 2.28; Jer. Vit. Hil. 21; Luc. Philops. 34; Luc. 6.459. 

  • 122

    Iamblichus, Babyloniaka in Phot. Bib. 74b; Luc. Philops. 11–13; SHA Marc. 19. Although often included with various kinds of sorcerers in Roman legislation, Chaldaeans were particularly associated with astrology in its most subversive form and were regularly expelled from Rome because of their ability, amongst other things, to ascertain the date of the emperor’s death (e.g. Tac. Ann. 12.52). For astrology in antiquity, see Barton (1994). It is important to note that by the early Empire “Chaldean” had ceased to have a clear ethnic referent and had become a synonym for a type of seditious magician, a process that had begun in the late Republic. 

  • 123

    E.g. Luc. Philops. 13–15; Porph. Vit. Pyth. 28–29. 

  • 124

    E.g. Apul. Apol. 26; Plin. Nat. 30.3, 8. 

  • 125

    For example, Apul. Met. 2.28; Heliod. Aeth. 3.16; Luc. Philops. 33–36; Ps.-Call. Alex. 1–7, 12. See Ritner (1995). 

  • 126

    For example, Apul. Apol. 90; Orig. C. Cel. 1.26; Plin. Nat. 30.11. 

  • 127

    The Marsi were an Italian people particularly associated with magic (see Plin. Nat. 7.15; Aul. Gel. NA 16.11.1). It is often said that ethnic groups associated with magic were “exotic” or “foreign” in the empire and this characteristic played a significant part in the creation of their magical identity. Whilst there is some truth in this, such an evaluation is clearly dependent upon perspective, something which was obviously not uniform: an early Imperial Egyptian, for example, was not exotic to another Egyptian, nor were the Marsi, an Italian tribe, particularly exotic to most Romans. For the ethnicity of magicians, see Ogden (2008), 77–114. 

  • 128

    See especially Clerc (1995); Faraone (1991b). See also Gager (1999); Ogden (2009), 210–26. The digression in Philostr. VA 7.39 is particularly telling in this respect. 

  • 129

    Apul. Met. 3.15; Luc. 6.434–506; Plin. Nat. 28.104, 30.14; Lib. Decl. 41; Ps.-Quint. Decl. 10. 

  • 130

    See, for example, LXX Deut. 32.17; 1 Cor. 10.20–21; Gal. 4.8–11; Just. 1 Apol. 14. See Flint (1999); Janowitz (2001), 16–26. For general prohibitions on magic in Judaism and Christianity, see Exod. 22.18; Lev. 19.26, 31, 20.27; Deut. 18.10–11; 1 Sam. 28; Mal. 3.5; m. Avot 2.7; Phil. Spec. 3.101–2; b. Sanh. 67a; Acts 19.18–20; Gal. 5.20; 2 Tim. 3.13; Rev. 9.21, 21.8, 22.15; Did. 2.2, 3.4, 5.1; Barn. 20.1; Ign. Eph. 19.3; Hipp. Trad. Ap. 16.21, 22. 

  • 131

    Apul. Met. 3.17–18. 

  • 132

    Tac. Ann. 2.69. See also Suet. Cal. 3.3. and Dio 57.18.9. 

  • 133

    Apul. Met. 11. 

  • 134

    Apul. Met. 11.1. See Plut. De Iside 8. 

  • 135

    See Frangoulidis (2008), 5. 

  • 136

    Which, in the case of Frangoulidis, is never stated. 

  • 137

    For discussion of this much studied text, see Rives (2003, 2006). For another commentary on this law, see Dig. 48.8.2. Cf. also Cic. Clu. 148. 

  • 138

    The reference to honestiores and humiliores in this text is characteristic of a fundamental distinction between the treatment of different social classes in Roman law. For the classic study of this, see Garnsey (1970). 

  • 139

    Pauli Sent. 5.23.15–18. Translation Rives (2003), 329. 

  • 140

    Apul. Apol. 26. A similar distinction is drawn by Philo in Spec. 3.93–103. See Bremmer (2002a). 

  • 141

    For oneirology see, for example, Cic. Div. 1.23.46; D. Chr. 49.7; Hdt. 1.107–8, 1.120, 1.128, 7.19; Plut. Quaes. Conv. 4.5.2. For astrology, see Mat. 2.1; Just. Epit. 1.1.7–10 (although this reputation is probably a result of a popular conflation of ideas about magi and Chaldeans). For other sorts of divination see, for example, Strab. 15.3.20. For journeys to the underworld, see Luc. Men. 6–8: and journeys to the heavens and hell, see Kirdēr’s vision: Gignoux (1991) and Shaked (1999). For the cultural representation of magi in Greek and Roman literature, see de Jong (1997), 387–403. See also Becker (2007). 

  • 142

    Heliod. Aeth. 3.16. 

  • 143

    Gordon (1999), 162. 

  • 144

    Waegeman (1987), 7. 

  • 145

    Fowden (1993), 162. 

  • 146

    See Graf (1997a), 232–33. 

  • 147

    For Nigidius Figulus, see Dickie (2001), 170–72. See Apul. Apol. 42; Cic. Tim. 1.1; Suet. Aug. 94. Jerome (Chron. 156 H) refers to Nigidius Figulus as Pythagoricus et magus. However, Pythagoreanism did not necessarily have a positive reputation. Cicero (Vat. 14), for example, could accuse Vatinius, self-proclaimed Pythagorean, of practising necromancy and sacrificing young boys. 

  • 148

    See Wilburn (2012), 264. 

  • 149

    Douglas (1975), 81. 

  • 150

    There is much to gain here from examining the question in the light of cognate discussions about the value of speaking about “religion” in pre-modern cultures. See, for example, the critical analysis of the emergence of “religion” as a historical category in Asad (1993) and Fitzgerald (2000); though cf. Bruce (2011). The recent interdisciplinary study of “religion” at Çatalhöyük, i.e. Hodder (2010), is also helpful for rethinking fundamental assumptions. Although it is common to speak of religion as “embedded” in all aspects of life in the ancient world, for example, Beard, North, Price (1998), 1.143, this raises significant theoretical problems (see Nongbri (2008) and cannot be said of magic in antiquity which seems to have been largely limited to agonistic contexts. 

  • 151

    Hom. Od. 10.133–405 and 569–74. 

  • 152

    Hom. Od. 1.11–9 and 5.151–58. 

  • 153

    Despite allegedly summoning up Odysseus from the dead to gain information about the Trojan war (Philostr. Her. 43) and also being summoned up from the dead himself by the grammarian Apion in order to settle the hotly disputed question of his origins (Plin. Nat. 30.18). 

  • 154

    It could be edited to include even more magic. See, for example, Jul. Afr. Kest. 18 (PGM XXIII.1–70). 

  • 155

    Plin. Nat. 30.5. 

  • 156

    E.g. Apul. Met. 1.5–19, 2.21–30, 3.15–25, 9.29–31; Luc. Philops. 11–7, 22, 30–31, 33–36, DMeretr. 288–89, Men. 2, 6–10, 21–2; Petr. Sat. 61–63, 131. 

  • 157

    See Anderson (2002), 103. See also Felton (1999). 

  • 158

    Stein and Stein (2011), 172. 

  • 159

    For “moral panics”, see Cohen (1980). For moral panics, witchcraft and the law, see Goode and Nachman (2010), 168–96; Lemmings and Walker (2009). 

  • 160

    Which seem to have been created, in part, in response to activities ascribed to those involved in the Bacchic “Conspiracy” of 186 BCE. See Liv. 39.8–19; ILS 18. 

  • 161

    Pearson (1983), 143. 

  • 162

    The numbers killed in East Anglia probably amounted to a few hundred: see Sharpe (1997), 126–27; for the context, see Gaskill (2005). The number of those executed for sorcery in the early Roman Empire is difficult to gauge but although we hear about individual trials, such as that of Libo Drusus (Tac. Ann. 2.27–32), Claudia Pulchra (Tac. Ann. 4.52), Lucius Pituanius and Publius Marcius (Tac. Ann. 2.32), Marcia Servilia (Tac. Ann. 16.30–33), Apuleius of Madaura (Apol.), and Apollonius of Tyana (Philostr. VA 8.1–31), these are rare and evidence of the conviction and execution of magicians and witches in any numbers is almost non-existent; for a survey of such trials, see Melounová (2012). A fourth-century source, Chronographus Anni CCCLIIII, claims that Tiberius put to death 130 sorcerers in his reign; but even if this is reliable it is, according to the source itself, something that was unprecedented: see Mommsen (1892), 142–48. It is possible that Rome went through its own paroxysms and moral panics brought about by fears of witchcraft but aside from the sensational case of the events surrounding the death of Germanicus (Tac. Ann. 2.69; Suet. Cal. 3.3; Dio 57.18.9), which did not result in any executions (Piso and the venefica allegedly committing suicide), there is no evidence of this in the early Empire. Our best candidate for such an event, if it is reliable, involves the Republic, and consists of Livy’s claim that shortly before the repression of the Bacchic worship in 186 BCE – an extremely unusual event in Roman history – 5,000 people were put to death for veneficia (Liv. 39.41 and 40.43); see North (1979); Takács (2000). We hear of similar panics in the later Empire, notably under Constantius II and Valens; see Cod. Theod. 9.16.4–6; Amm. 19.12, 29.1–2. 

  • 163

    The population of East Anglia was about half a million, out of a total population in England of 5 million: Wrigley and Schofield (1989), 210. The population of the early Roman Empire was about 50 million: Hopkins (1980), 118; though cf. Frier (2001). 

  • 164

    Philostr. VA 7.34. 

  • 165

    Apul. Apol. 26. A point also made by Downing (2000), 210. However, Downing does not note that both Apuleius and Apollonius said much the same. 

  • 166

    As Gager (1999), 219, for example, extrapolates from the reference to the use of amulets by Jewish soldiers found in 2 Macc. 12.39–40: “To be sure, 2 Maccabees does not offer the sort of hard demographic data preferred by modern social scientists, but the fact remains that in this randomly chosen sample of ancient Jews, every one wore an amulet, as did virtually every sensible person of the time”. Gager seems to have ignored the rhetorical context. It is just as likely that the claim about the use of amulets is part of an attempt by the author to explain why these particular Jews had died in battle (the amulets are referred to as “idols of Jamnia”; cf. Exod. 23.24; 32; Num. 25). It tells us more about the theology of the author, and his hostility to idolatry, than the practices of a “randomly chosen sample of Jews”. 

  • 167

    Ov. Am. 1.8.7; Petr. Sat. 131; Verg. Ecl. 8.74–77. 

  • 168

    Amongst the plethora of jewellery there were a number of charms but none of these contained elements that Romans would have categorized as magical. The only possible exception are those that took the form of representations of Fascinus, the divine, and often winged, phallus, the medicus invidiae which was thought to protect against the evil eye (Plin. Nat. 28.4.7). However, Fascinus was a public cult, most famously venerated by the Vestal Virgins, and representations of Fascinus functioned as a general apotropaic image, protecting from harm of any kind, and especially that which resulted from envy. It was not in itself considered magical nor necessarily indicated anxiety about the possible presence of magic. 

  • 169

    See Millar (1983), 91. The graffiti from Pompeii are overwhelmingly scatological or erotic. See, for example, CIL VI.1679, 1751, 3932, 3951, 4523, 5092, 7716, 8442, 8767, 8898, 10070, 10488, 10619, 10675, 10677, 10678. There is nothing magical about the so-called “Magical Squares” found in Pompeii (8297, 8623). For the graffiti, see Tanzer (1939); cf. also Baird and Taylor (2011) and Varone (2002). Likewise, there is nothing magical about the so-called House of the Magical Rites and it appears to have been so named because of the presence of two hands of Sabazios, the Phrygian and Thracian sky-god. To refer to such objects as “magical” is to engage in the error of “Classicity”, of the kind identified by Mastrocinque (2011), 4 and to confuse these objects with the so-called “Hand of Glory” of later witchcraft traditions (see Tricomi 2004). 

  • 170

    Wilburn (2012), 15. 

  • 171

    Wilburn (2012), 20. Wilburn explains this dearth of archaeological evidence as a result of “the vagaries of preservation, a desire for secrecy on the part of the practitioner, and the tendency of rituals to destroy or use up the material components of a spell” (ibid., 25). Whilst these factors no doubt affected the record, they do not account for it. He seems unwilling to accept that the lack of evidence might well be an indication that magic was, in fact, not widely practised. 

  • 172

    Gager (1999), 219. 

  • 173

    For the invisibility amulet, see Cyran. 1.15.33–37 with Waegeman (1987), 115. See also the invisibility lotion found in PGM I.222–31 and the famous ring of Gyges in Plat. Rep. 359d–60b. For a discussion of invisibility spells, see Mirecki (2001). 

  • 174

    For an amulet promising relief from migraine, see Cyran. 1.16.38–42 with Waegeman (1987), 119. For an amulet promising relief from indigestion, see Cyran. 1.9.12–16 with Waegeman (1987), 71. For an amulet promising to prevent drunkenness, see Cyran. 1.8.25–28 with Waegeman (1987), 65. For amulets promising to make the wearer popular and lucky, see Cyran. 1.5.27–31 with Waegeman (1987), 41, and 1.4.45–61 with Waegeman (1987), 35. See also PGM XIV.309–334. 

  • 175

    See Faraone (1999), 85; Jordan (1985), 186–87. I would like to thank Andrew Wilson for drawing my attention to this defixio. 

  • 176

    Roberts (2013), 290–91. 

  • 177

    The charms were made of a variety of different materials that originated from all over the empire and beyond. Roberts (2013), 291. 

  • 178

    See, for example, the discussion in Baudrillard (1994) and Parrott (2011). 

  • 179

    Woodward (2007), vi. 

  • 180

    Geertz (1975), 83. 

  • 181

    Appadurai (1986). 

  • 182

    Kopytoff (1986). 

  • 183

    Woodward (2007), 4. 

  • 184

    E.g. Plut. Per. 38. Cf. Diog. Laert. 10. 

  • 185

    See, for example, Sor. Gyn. 3.42. Galen’s position seems somewhat more complex. He was generally dismissive of amulets (see Nutton (2004), 268–70), however his assumptions did allow for the possibility that some might have an effect by virtue of the materials used (Keyser 1997), though carving amulets into particular shapes was, in his judgement, pointless (Nutton 2004), 269). For an example of Galen conceding that an amulet could work, despite his scepticism, see Simp. Med. 6.3.10. For the opinion of other medical writers about amulets, see the useful collection of sources in Tavenner (1916), 76–123. 

  • 186

    As Graf (2007), 139 has noted, a magical “explanation of an untimely death is relatively rare and late”. 

  • 187

    Indeed, Parsons has even suggested, in his study of the documentary data from Oxyrhynchus, that what limited evidence we have of the use of magic appears to come from a small, privileged section of society and reflect their preoccupations; “the diversion of well-heeled, sex-crazed urbanites” (Parsons (2007), 192). 

  • 188

    Although the study of popular culture in modern and early-modern societies is long established, see, for example, Burke (1978); Shiach (1989); interest in the popular culture of the Roman Empire is less so. For recent contributions, see Clarke (2006); Horsfall (2003); Knapp (2011); Morgan (2007); Toner (2009). See also Meggitt (1998, 2004). 

  • 189

    Such as Luck (2006); Ogden (2009). 

  • 190

    See the analysis of such literature found in Morgan (2007). Of course, in an empire with limited literacy, in which no more than about 20% of males could read (Morgan (2007), 3) this is not the same as saying that the texts themselves were necessarily widely read but their contents were widely known and can be judged to be indicative of wider culture. 

  • 191

    See Morgan (2013), 3–4. See also Zafiropoulos (2001), 36–41. For the cultural significance of Aesop, see especially Kurke (2011). Aesop’s Fabulae were popular in the first-century CE, as we can see in the Latin edition by Phaedrus and the Greek editions by Babrius and the anonymous compiler of the Collectio Augustana: see Zafiropoulous (2001), 23; see also P.Haun. 3.46. Although the fables ascribed to Aesop originated in the fourth century BCE, the versions popular in the early Empire reflected and contributed to cultural assumptions of this later period. For fabular literature in the early Roman Empire, see Adabros (2000). Such material has been widely neglected as a source for cultural, social and religious history. See, for example, Versnel (2011), 327. 

  • 192

    Aes. Fab. 56 (Collectio Augustana). For this fable, see Dickie (2001), 151–52; Perry (1965), 430–31. 

  • 193

    See Hansen (1998), 106–62; Holzberg (2002), 72–84. For an exception cf. Vit. Aesop. 16. 

  • 194

    See Tavenner (1916), 54. This is perhaps all the more surprising as Valerius Maximus’ work reveals an intense religiosity. He was not averse to detailing prodigies and wonders (e.g. Val. Max. 1.6) and he evidently wrote for the “religiously credulous”: Mueller (2002), 53. 

  • 195

    For Phlegon of Tralles see Hansen (1996). For paradoxography see Delcroix (1996); Schepens (1996). 

  • 196

    For Artemidorus’ method, which involved both the critical use of pre-existing texts and interviews, see Oneir. 1.1. For a positive assessment of Artemidorus as an ethnographer of antiquity, see Winkler (1990), 26; though cf. Harris (2009), 113–15. See also Harris-McCoy (2012); White (1975). 

  • 197

    E.g. Artem. Oneir. 1.5, 3.22, 3.47, 3.51, 4.2, 4.45. 

  • 198

    E.g. Artem. Oneir. 4.18, 5.88. 

  • 199

    Artem. Oneir. 1.79. 

  • 200

    Artem. Oneir. 2.53, 4.33, 4.49. 

  • 201

    Artem.Oneir. 3.24. 

  • 202

    Artem. Oneir. 2.69 does include a single mention of necromancers. 

  • 203

    For the Philogelos and its cultural significance see Baldwin (1983), (1989), 624–37; Dawe (2001); Hansen (1998), 272–82. For references to the use of joke books, see Ath. 614d--e; Pl. Per. 392, St. 400. 

  • 204

    See Browne (1983); Hansen (1998), 285–324; Hoogendijk and Clarysse (1981); Stewart (2001). See also van der Horst (1998). 

  • 205

    Diog. Laert. 1.2. 

  • 206

    The closest we find to a concern about magic is one question about poisoning (Sort. Astr. Q. 91; cf. also R. 9.8). See P.Oxy. 12.1477; Gager (1999), 220. For the use of such do-it-yourself oracles, see Paus. 7.25.10. 

  • 207

    The answer was obtained by throwing dice to determine which verse was applicable. For the Homeromanteion, see Collins (2008b); Maltomimi (1995); Parsons (2007), 189–90; Schwendner (2002). Versions of this oracle can be found in P.Oxy. 56.3831, PGM VII.1–148, and P.Bon. 1.3. 

  • 208

    Betz (1997), xli. 

  • 209

    Although the analysis of secularism and atheism are long established in the study of religion, “non-religion” has only recently become a focus of considerable attention. See, especially, the work of the Nonreligion and Secularity Research Network, which, though influenced by the seminal text of Campbell (1971), has just been initiated. Religious indifference and “non-religion” are not identical, the latter is usually taken to imply “a relationship of difference to religion” (Lee (2012), 131) and so far has only been scrutinised in relation to modernity, but there are significant commonalities. It is possible that the reluctance to examine religious indifference in antiquity owes itself, in part, to an understandable reaction to earlier, prejudicial and pejorative constructions of Roman religion as something that had “failed”, an interpretative trope common, for example, in past histories of the origins of Christianity that tried to explain its “success”. See, for example, Frend (1984), 904. 

  • 210

    Downing (2000) does not draw such a distinction which makes his resulting analysis problematic. 

  • 211

    See Hankinson (1998). A school that would see a revival in the late second century CE with Sextus Empiricus. See Bailey (2002); Bett (2003). 

  • 212

    Although it was a common trope in anti-magical writing to complain that its practitioners functionally denied the existence of the gods because of the power they claimed over them (Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1.30; Luc. 6.523; Plat. Leg. 909a), gods, albeit primarily chthonic ones, were central to magical rites. 

  • 213

    See, for example, the complaint of Davies (2007), 17. 

  • 214

    See Feeney (1998), 12. See also McGuire (2008), 39. 

  • 215

    Dowden (1992), 8. 

  • 216

    Feeney (1998), 14. 

  • 217

    Veyne (1988), 41–57. For all the analytical value of this phrase, it is an uncomfortable one in its essentialist assumptions about the cultures and nations that constitute the Balkans. 

  • 218

    See Feeney (1998), 12–46; Green (2002). 

  • 219

    Though cf. SIG 1168.29–33 and the case of “Apistos” at the Asclepeion at Epidauros. Healing cults, such as that of Asclepius, may have been the exception to this rule. 

  • 220

    Even if in magic this power was often conceptualised as something at the beck and call of the magician. See Apul. Met. 3.15; Luc. 6.434–506; Plin. Nat. 28.104; Lib. Decl. 41; Ps.-Quint. Decl. 10. Some perceived that such power did not originate with the gods but demonic or ghostly forces (e.g. Apul. Apol. 43). The control of demons and ghosts was a recurring theme in magical and anti-magical literature. See, for example, PGM XIa.1–40; Apul. Met. 1.10, 9.29–31; Eus. C. Hier. 27; Ps-Quint. Decl. 19. It should be noted that demons and ghosts were generally closely related in the early Imperial period, though not in Judaism and Christianity; see Apul. Soc. 15; Paus. 1.32.4–5; Philostr. VA 3.38; Tert. An. 57. 

  • 221

    For a helpful discussion of the different conceptions of belief in the critical study of religion, see Stringer (2008), 39–46. 

  • 222

    Although there have been some innovative studies of the social world of philosophers in the early Empire (see, for example, Eshleman 2012), there has been little analysis of their relative significance within society as a whole, and which of their ideas, if any, might have been “popular” (though cf. Malherbe (1989). For philosophical allegiances in the Graeco-Roman world, see Sedley (1989). 

  • 223

    See Smith (1996, 2003). 

  • 224

    For Cynics, see Navia (1996, 2005). Despite the plethora of scholarly literature on Cynicism (see, for example, the bibliographical guide of Navia 1995), Aune (2008), 48–49 is right to note that they are often overlooked in surveys of Hellenistic philosophy. 

  • 225

    Though see Horsfall (2003), 54–55. The popularity of the Epicurean epitaph Non fui, fui, non sum, non curo (“I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care”) may be indicative of the wider impact of that school. 

  • 226

    See Plb. 16.12.3–1; cf. also 3.48.8. See, for an example from the early Empire, Tac. Hist. 1.86; although Tacitus too could on occasion demonstrate this failing; see Syme (1958), 521–26. See also Luc. Hist. Conscr., VH. with Morgan (1985). For the irrelevance of the supernatural (though not necessarily the divine) in theories of historical causation following Thucydides, see Fornara (1988), 81. For a low estimation of the credulity of many historians from the early Empire, see Sen. Nat. Quaest. 17.16.1–2. 

  • 227

    Davies (2009), 168. Dio. Hal. Ant. Rom. provides an excellent example of this. Dionysius’ rational approach to myth is so thoroughgoing that it has been called “euhemeristic”: Fox (1993), 44. However, this may well be a rhetorical move common to many authors, and an aspect of authorial persona: see Rüpke (2007), 139. 

  • 228

    See, for example, Diod. 4.47.3–4. Even a writer such as Livy, who provides a list of prodigies for each year of Roman history, is undecided about both the origins and meanings of many of these, and critical of the credulity of those who generated such stories (e.g. Liv. 24.10.6). For an example of such ambivalence, see Jos. Ant. 1.108; 3.81; 3.322; 4.158; 10.281; 17.354. 

  • 229

    Dio Cassius, for example, could recount dreams and signs that were taken by Septimius Severus as an indication that he would become emperor (72.23) whilst complaining that many stories about miraculous events are no more than the result of “idle talk and fear” (14.57.7). See Grant (1952), 171. 

  • 230

    See, for example, Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1. It is important to note that the disease was still considered “sacred” by the writer of this treatise. As Eijk (2010), 45 has demonstrated, the author does not reject the divine character of the disease, but modifies the sense in which this disease (and, indeed, all diseases), may be regarded as divine: it was divine not because it had been sent by a god, but because it shares in the divine character of nature in showing a fixed pattern of cause and effect and in being subordinated to a natural “law” or regularity. See also Temkin (1971). For the rationalism of the Hippocratic corpus, see Jouanna (1999), 181–209. Interestingly the author of De morbo sacro saw the claims of magic as the denial and negation of the power of the gods. See Hp. Morb. Sacr. 3.12–20. Cf. Luc. 6.492–94. 

  • 231

    Gal. Lib. Prop. 2.19.18, 4, Prog. 2.12, Meth. Med. 9.4. However, Harris (2009), 64 maintains that Galen, like many in the empire, had become uncomfortable about such epiphany dreams and they did “not suit the image of himself he was keen on maintaining”. For Galen’s religious beliefs, see Kudlien (1981). See also Holowchak (2001); Mattern (2013), 169–79; Oberhelman (1993). For the relationship between secular and sacred in Greek medicine, see Horstmanshoff (2004); Israelowich (2012); Lloyd (2003), 40–83. 

  • 232

    For the different therapeutic approaches used in the Roman empire see, for example, Cruse (2004); Jackson (1991); Nutton (1992). 

  • 233

    The famous incident in which Asclepiades of Bithynia, the physician credited with bringing Greek medicine to Rome, restored a man already on his funeral bier – by observing the presence of his vital signs and administering drugs – is emblematic of such a naturalistic approach to medicine. See Apul. Fl. 19; Plin. Nat. 7.124; Cels. Med. 2.6.15 (cf. Philostr. VA 4.45; Luke 7.11–17). 

  • 234

    The continuing significance of writings by the likes of Euhemerus, Palaephatus, Xenophanes, and Zoilus, which encouraged the rational explanation of myth, no doubt contributed to such a culture. For Euhemerus, see Winiarczyk (2002, 2013); for Palaephatus, see Stern (1996); for Xenophanes, see Lesher (2001); for Zoilus, see Apfel (1938). For the Homeromastix tradition more generally, of which Zoilus is the most famous figure, see Katridis (1974). The persistence of knowledge of such writers is evident from Christian apologetic literature, which often made use of their criticisms. See, for example, Palmer (1983). 

  • 235

    See Athen. Legat. 4 (I would like to thank Richard Carrier for this reference). See also Cic. N.D. 3. 37, 89 for similar traditions. For Diagoras, see Woodbury (1965). For atheism in antiquity, see Bremmer (2006). However, it is probably more appropriate to call such figures adevists rather than atheists, to use the term initially employed by Max Müller to refer to those who denied the gods rather than the divine per se: see Thrower (1971), 17. See also Thrower (1980). 

  • 236

    See Suet. Tib. 2.6. 

  • 237

    For example, Julius Caesar, and indeed the whole Senate ignored adverse omens when he sought approval for a new agrarian law. See Suet. Jul. 20.1. 

  • 238

    Suet. Cal. 5.1. 

  • 239

    Some even excised them entirely from Homer; see O’Hara (1984). 

  • 240

    The kind of reaction found in Thucydides’ account of the plague in Athens (2.53). See also Lucr. 6.1138–1286. 

  • 241

    P.Ryl. 3.493. See also Perry (1965), 155 (Fable 119). 

  • 242

    Arr. Epict. Ench. 31. 

  • 243

    See, for example, Luc. Jupp. Conf., Jupp. Trag., Deor. Conc. and Alex., or Sen. Apoc. 

  • 244

    See, for example, the libidinous and sacrilegious graffito from Catania in Sicily discussed in Manganaro (1962), 490–93. See also Casson (1994), 216–17. 

  • 245

    The most famous attack on the oracles in antiquity was The Detection of Impostors of Oenomaus of Gadara, a Cynic who lived during the reign of Hadrian. Significant extracts from his work appear in Eus. Praep. 5.18–36 (cf. his remarks on fate in 6.7). Oenomaus was criticised by Julian for his damaging effect on belief in the gods. See Jul. Orat. 7.209 (cf. 6.199). See also Hammerstaedt (1988). Oenomaus gained a reputation for being the most learned pagan philosopher amongst Jews. See Gen. Rab. 65.20; Feldman (1996), 130. 

  • 246

    E.g. Val. Max. 1.1.19. 

  • 247

    E.g. Tac. Ann. 2.69. 

  • 248

    See, for example, the actions under Tiberius (Jos. Ant. 18.3.4; Suet. Tib. 36.1). See also Dio 59.28; Suet. Cal. 22. Cf. also Jos. Ant. 18.8; Philo Legat. 188. Of course, the introduction of Isis worship into Rome was not straightforward and such actions might be viewed as a response to a foreign cult that had not, unlike, for example, the cult of Cybele, been formally established in the city. Cybele arrived in Rome in 204 BCE on the orders of the Senate, in response to a Sibylline oracle; see Beard (1994); Liv. 29.10–14. However, such behaviour does show a disregard for the power of a god, one that was venerated throughout the empire, and reveals implicit assumptions about human primacy. Despite a cultural concern with antiquity and continuity, cults were regularly superseded, dissolved, abandoned, and sometimes abolished in a process of the focalisation and defocalisation of specific deities in Roman life. See Lipka (2009). 

  • 249

    Most famously Augustus, who, dressed as Apollo, oversaw a scandalous dinner party of twelve other “gods”. See, Suet. Aug. 70. 

  • 250

    Coleman (1990). 

  • 251

    Scheid (2003), 26–27. In particular by theft or neglect of their property. 

  • 252

    Scheid (2003), 28. 

  • 253

    On impiety, see Torelli (1981). 

  • 254

    CIL VI.27365. The epitaph asked those reading it, if they had any doubts about the existence of ghosts, to call out to the dead person. The joke relied on a local echo. See Ogden (2004), 6. 

  • 255

    Aur. Med. 1.6. 

  • 256

    Cic. N.D. 2.5. 

  • 257

    Gordon (1999), 210. It should be noted that this section is indebted to Gordon’s ground-breaking treatment of the subject. See Gordon (1999), 210–43. 

  • 258

    Gordon (1999), 210. 

  • 259

    Ogden (2009), 177. 

  • 260

    Aes. Fab. 56 (Collectio Augustana). For this fable see Dickie (2001), 151–52; Perry (1965), 430–31. 

  • 261

    See, for example, Enn. Tel. frg CXXXIVb. This is quoted in Cic. Div. 1.132; though see Nice (2001). For Ennius, see Jocelyn (1967). 

  • 262

    Gordon (1999), 213. See, for example, Tib. 1.8.24 f; Prop. 2.4; Ov. Am. 2.99–106, Rem. 261–290; Nem. Ecl. 2.62–73. 

  • 263

    Ov. Her. 12.163–167. See also Deianeira in Sen. Her. O. 465–72. See also Philostr. VA 7.39. 

  • 264

    See Cic. N.D. 3.12; cf. Hor. Sat. 2.6.77 f. Such a topos was an old one and can be found in the fourth-century BCE comedy of Anaxilas, Lyre-Maker fr. 18. See Edmonds (1957), 336–39. Cf. Orig. C. Cel. 3.59 for similar remarks by Celsus about the categories of people drawn to Christianity. 

  • 265

    Tac. Ann. 16.30–33. 

  • 266

    Gal. Simp. Med. 6. See Boudon (2003). 

  • 267

    Plin. Nat. 30.14–15. See also Suet. Nero 34.4. Pliny did, however, note: “if there is a shimmer of truth in it, that shimmer owes more to chemistry than magic” (Nat. 30.17). 

  • 268

    Luc. Demon. 23. See also the joke in Apul. Met. 3.23. 

  • 269

    See, for example, Plin. Nat. 25.10. For the “Thessalian trick”, see Apol. Rhod. Argon. 4.60. See also Liv. 44.37 for a different use of knowledge of an eclipse. 

  • 270

    Plut. Mor. 145d. Cf. 416 f-417a. 

  • 271

    Philostr. VA 7.39. See, for example, Luc. Alex. 21 for a reference to such a work. 

  • 272

    For example, the theory of effluences proposed by Empedocles and Democritus allowed them to explain magical phenomena as in accord with natural laws. See Gordon (1999), 221–22. 

  • 273

    Hipp. Haer. 4.28–42. As Gordon (1999), 218 has noted, Hippolytus’ remarks appear to be dependent upon a Cynic source as they are “founded on the Cynic contrast between reason and folly”. Dickie (2001), 219 claims that Hippolytus’ source is a lost text called The Art of Thrasymedes. Early Christian attacks on magic more often presuppose that it made use of supernatural but malign power, as we can see, for example, in Tert. Apol. 23. 

  • 274

    See Lamont (2013), 34–43. 

  • 275

    Hipp. Haer. 4.41. See Luc. Alex. 26. 

  • 276

    Hipp. Haer. 4.32. For accounts of mechanical devices intended to create such special effects, see Scherrer (1984). 

  • 277

    See PGM VII.167–86. See also PGM XIb, VII.149–54. See Bain (1998); Betz (1997), 119–20; Davidson (1995). 

  • 278

    The setting of the Paignia of Democritus. For similar dinner party tricks, see Ath. 2.52d, 2.57b-d, 2.58 f, 2.69 f, 3.84c; Plin. Nat. 35.175; Aul. Gel. NA 1.38. 

  • 279

    For Salpe, see Plin. Nat. 28.38, 66, 82, 262; 32.135, 140. See also Ath. 322a. For Anaxilaus, see, for example, Epiph. Pan. 34.1; Plin. Nat. 35.175. For similar tricks, see Luc. Alex. 12, 14, 19–21; Ach. Tat. 3.15–20. 

  • 280

    Dickie (2001), 218. 

  • 281

    Hp. Morb. Sacr. 1.20. 

  • 282

    Philostr. VA 7.39. See Malinowski (1948), 66. It is also similar to the “secondary rationalisations” suggested by Evans-Pritchard to explain why, regardless of experience, magic was not thought to fail: see Glucklich (1997), 10. The idea that the validation of magic is fundamentally social – that is, it requires the validation of clients, an element of Philostratus’ critique – also has analogies with the insights of Mauss (1972), 150. 

  • 283

    Plin. Nat. 18.41–43. 

  • 284

    Lindquist (2006). 

  • 285

    For a study of how magic in antiquity was indeed deployed in response to such experiences, see Graf (1997b). 

  • 286

    Lindquist (2006), 2. 

  • 287

    Lindquist (2006), 234. In making this distinction she is using Luhmann (1993), 30. 

  • 288

    Lindquist (2006), 234. 

  • 289

    Schmitt (1999), 7. 

  • 290

    Exemplified by the failure of one of Lindquist’s informants, a formerly impoverished businessman, to mention that he had consulted a magical practitioner when providing an account of the past; he now speaks in “didactic monologues on the worth of having done it all by himself”: Lindquist (2006), 226. 

  • 291

    For Kleinman’s “explanatory model”, see Kleinman, Isenberg and Good (1978). 

  • 292

    See Tert. An. 57. Studies of formative Christianity and magic are numerous. See, for example, Arnold (1989); Aune (1980); Garrett (1989a, 1989b); Hull (1974); Kee (1986); Klauck (2000); Klutz (2003); Lebahn and Peerbolte (2007); Meggitt (2006); Reimer (2002); Smith (1978, 1996); Thee (1984); Thomas (2010). The possibility that the nature and intensity of belief in magic can fluctuate as a result of ideological changes can be seen by the examination of comparative data. See, for example, Cohn (1993); Flint (1991); Haar (2007); La Fontaine (1998), 190–92; Lindquist (2006); Thomas (1971), 755–800. However, it is important to attend to the definitional assumptions about what constitutes “magic” in these works, which are varied and can be problematic. See, for example, Geertz’s (1975) criticism of Thomas (1971) and Kieckhefer’s (1994) criticism of Flint (1991). 

About the article

Justin J. Meggitt

Published Online: 2013-11-01

Published in Print: 2013-11-01

Citation Information: Journal of Ancient History, Volume 1, Issue 2, Pages 170–229, ISSN (Online) 2324-8114, ISSN (Print) 2324-8106, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/jah-2013-0010.

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