The punishment for magic in Ancient Rome


We have a quite biased view of Roman culture at a popular level, considering that their gods were greek copies, and that all their rituals and festivities also had that basis. However, the Romans had their own culture and religious specifications, and if there is one thing they were known for, it was being extremely superstitious. Superstitio, literally "to put above", was something continuous in Roman society, which went far beyond amulets such as the children's "bulla" amulet, or the need to repeat a ritual as many times as necessary until it came out properly, so that the gods agree. Popular and family traditions were formed as a personal means that could alter the general situation of the Roman State.

Despite the criticism of religion made by its own thinkers, apparently the superstitio voice was not necessarily negative. It took that negative meaning as a result of its identification with the lower or rustic classes, who defended part of their traditions against the upper classes, more focused on political and economic matters. This does not mean that the upper classes were not superstitious, but probably much less so, as they were more educated. This is manifested more openly when, with the expansion of the territory, foreign divinities are included in their religious world, who in turn take great care that their cults are not manipulated or adapted, including, moreover, magical rituals that they did not perceive outside their own religion.

There was a struggle between Religio as an arrangement of community identification and the Superstitio as something external, although it was also part of the Roman cultural complex, something "heretical". Almost parallel to this is the use of magic, as a belief system that goes beyond those established at the state level. Religion is true, magic and superstition, no. These are the opinions expressed by Cicero and Pliny, which suggests that among the educated Romans this must be the opinion that prevailed. This denotes, however, a purpose for the protection of one's own cultural values ​​against magic, perceived, although not all of it was, as foreign. Fco. Marco Simón (2002) emphasizes the fact that, in itself, the figure of the magician supposes a double danger, since it alters both the world of men and that of the gods.

However, if there were lawsuits against magic, it was not because it was fraudulent, but because it was dangerous (which in turn tells us that they perceived its "working"). This not only increases its negative connotation, but also its persecution out of fear, both both personally and legally.

Magic in Rome, forsooth, will be persecuted as long as it is understood that it threatens the life or affairs of other people. The seventh of the XII tables condemns the fact that someone "malum carmen incantassit" (although it is still debated whether this text refers to curses or slander and defamation), as well as someone who killed someone through these spells or with poisons. As will be seen later, poison and witchcraft went almost hand in hand in ancient Rome.

In some affairs it was very noticeable, as in the X table of Roman legislation, where it was specified that usurping or disturbing a tomb, as well as keeping any part of the dead body, would be considered and judged as a crime. Regardless of the loss of these tablets, socially, necromancy is more than punished. The Lex Cornelia (S. V a.C., whose original text is lost and reconstructed through citations of other later authors), in the exposition of the jurist Julio Paulo (S.II-III, note the time elapsed and the possible cultural deviations), says so:

<<Dividers, sorcerers and those who make use of witchcraft with bad fines, those who evoke demons, those who try to confuse with insistence and violence, those who, to harm, use wax images, will be punished with death.>>

<<Those who sacrifice a man or obtain omens from his blood (...) or poison the fountains of the temples, must be thrown to the beasts (...) will receive the capital punishment>>

<<No one can own books of the magical art (...) and those found would be confiscated and publicly burned. They will be deported to an island (...) or punished with capital punishment. Not only the profession of this art is prohibited, but also its knowledge>>

In addition, Lex Cornelia specifically mentions the crimes of harming other people through potions, better said, poisons. Potions and love spells were condemned on the grounds that they deprived the individuals to whom they were directed of freedom of action, as well as being related, normally, to the gain of property or inheritance. They seemed to be commonly carried out by women, as well as poisonings, which were clearly condemned.

Potions and love mooring spells were condemned as they deprived of freedom of action the individuals to whom they were addressed, as well as being related, normally, to the gain of property or inheritance. They seemed to be commonly carried out by women, as well as poisonings, which were clearly condemned. Tacitus (Annales II) tells of the trial of Martina, a Syrian sorceress accused of poisoning. In addition to true judgments, we must not forget the value of literature for social depiction: Lucanus (Pharsalia VI) introduces the sorceress Ericto in his narration, describing her disgusting rituals with the bones of young people.

Apuleius (S.II) in his novel Metamorphosis also speaks of women knowledgeable about magical practices and Lucian of Samosata parodies both the rituals and the effects of such acts. As a whole, it can be seen that two basic cultural patterns are still fulfilled as far as magic is concerned: being foreign and being female. Thus, the witches, sagae, were more persecuted and criticized, especially at a popular level, than any man who dabbled a bit with the magical element, as well as being more defenseless, despite the fact that the most relevant figures of magic in the Greco-Roman antiquity at a literary level were, precisely, Circe and Medea. This feminine image will have an important heft when sentences begin, where men and women are accused equally, regardless of their involvement in politics or social life.

As for the tabella defixionum (normally dedicated to infernal gods) and magical rituals of a violent nature, evidently carried out in secret, the effect was not so obvious, but it did make it clear that there were people against such a person, and could lead to revolutions and conspiracies.

In Rome the perception of how magic worked was based on the principles of sympathy and antipathy. Pliny (Natural History, 29) criticizes these methods in healers and "false doctors", but cannot deny that, in fact, this is also how much of true medicine works.

These ambiguities and ambivalences between magic and science, between personal religious worship and malefic ritual can find their defense in the Apology of Apuleius (S.II), who defends himself against the accusations of magic that are made towards alleged enchantments that he would have performed so that Pudentila, a forty-year-old woman with a great fortune, fell in love with him, which the defendant interprets as a clear attempt by the family to prevent him from inheriting. In addition, it exposes with great success a comparison of what can be considered magic or not, relating practices of science and religion as possible magic depending on whether they are viewed from within or from without.

It must be said that, in fact, we do not find in the Latin texts a proper definition of magic, since the concept itself, linked on the one hand to religion and on the other to superstition, as well as to personal worship, did not have a closed canon of acts or not of such nature; the mentioned text becomes one of the best dissertations for it, as well as to analyze the uses that can be made of it, beneficial or harmful. The text of the Apology is also useful for us to see what the most common crímenes magiae were: poisoning, love spells, suspicious clandestine actions and having objects of a magical nature.

In this comparative sense we also have the Pliny's testimony, although in a more radical way. Many ointments, poisons, and other substances can have certain magical "seeming" effects, like herbs, but that is due to properties of the elements themselves. It does not discredit the sacredness or magical power of certain plants, but he does dispute the fact that they are more or less effective depending on the position of the stars in the sky.

About divination, subject intrinsically related to religion, such as oracles or expiation procedures, were justified by their subjection within the legal aspect. However, criticism to those who escaped these limits continued. Cicero (De officis II) says that magic is vain and useless, and in the specific case of divination, he only exposes what has happened, which can be known, as well as what is present, and what is to come, which is decided by natural laws and the consequences of acts, not by pure imagery. The same goes for predictions through dreams. But the truth is that the problem in the case of divination as in other magical disciplines was secrecy. That is why Tiberius, according to Suetonius (Tiberius LXIII), even demanded that his own haruspices make their observations and testimonies in public.

The pursuit of magic joins politics. Confirmed by Tacitus, in the year 15 the first accusation with a crime of magic is carried out against Libón Druso, great-grandson of Pompey, for consulting some astrologers. In the 17 exile to the Roman magicians and/or Roman astrologers is established, condemning those foreigners to death. In 20 Piso is accused of the "mysterious" death of Germanicus, and Emilia Lepida, also a descendant of Pompey, is accused of poisoning and consulting astrologers to find out secrets of the imperial family.

Calpurnio Pisón was accused of having in his possession or having pronounced evil secret texts, and the wife of a consul, Numantina, of having driven her husband crazy with filters; Between the AD 20 and 30 , various men and women were told of having pronounced or hidden curses against the Emperor in public writings. In AD 49, the second Agrippina sent a tribune to execute a woman, Lolia Paulina, for questioning oracles and astrologers about imperial marriage. In AD 52, there was another exile for consulting astrologers, and then a "Senatus consultum" for the expulsion or conviction of astrologers, which caused so many problems. Agrippina accused many other men and women of embezzling the Emperor, of "foreign practices", and Nero also condemned many, although most opted for suicide rather than public death, and some of these used "devotions contrary to the Emperor", already deified. However, Suetonius tells us that Nero did request the services of magi for the summoning of his own manes. As many have pointed out, whether true or not, the inclusion of this passage is a clear hint of Nero as the dark and terrible figure that he was.

Thus, also as a danger to the State, meetings of atheists and Christians ended up being prohibited, who were accused of celebrating hidden rites, along with the Chaldeans, a generic name referring to the Medo-Persian magicians that will be reinforced as a nickname for the practitioners of magic, while suspicions of magic increase as soon as a conspiracy is suspected, and the accused of magic, as happened with Apuleius, becomes a new model of criminal. Even more so when since the middle of the Empire a remarkable event has taken place, the propagation and increase of magicians as an "anti-system" movement, if I may use such a modern term, as opposed to the direction the empire was taking, which falsely the preached the values ​​of the mos maiorum. Their continued expulsion and condemnation did not reduce the number of magic practicioners, but with the acceptance of Christianity as the state religion in the 4th century, the persecution of the pagans automatically caused the abandonment or concealment, along with their religion, of magical practices.

Pietro V. Carracedo Ahumada - pietrocarracedo@gmail.com


-Apuleyo, Apología o Discurso acerca de la magia en defensa propia. CSIC, Madrid, 2015
-Flint, Valerie, VVAA, Witchcraft and magic in Europe: Greece and Rome. The Athlone Press, London, 1999
-Marco Simón, F. Sobre la emergencia de la magia como sistema de alteridad en la Roma Augústea y Julio-Claudia.
-Rives, James. B., Magic, religión and law: the case of the Lex Cornelia. Religion and law in Classical and Christian Rome. Franz Steiner Verlag, 2006.

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