Curses, Omens, and the Magic of Antiquity

Hercules drunk, in a mosaic detail of a Bacchanalia. The caption is “meoh”, drunk in Greek, not “meh”. Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

From the beginning the word “magic” has been used to convey a sense of the otherworldly or foreign. Magic likely stems in a more orientalist tradition from the Greek word Mageia for Persian practitioners of Zoroastrianism, the Magoi. In the context of the Greek and Roman worlds, “magic” was a term for practices beyond the pale of culture and law. Mageia, especially in Latin, often applied to any non-Roman practices (or whatever the lower classes were getting up to). Mystical cults like the Bacchae of Dionysus definitely fell into this category, even providing the orgy-filled back room shenanigans that would later be applied to Christians.[1] Prostitutes and hedge healers, as well as Jewish and Egyptian religious figures, often fell into this category as sorcerous ne’er do wells.

Like any society, the Romans had their taboo practices; they just defined the categories differently. Which is to say the average Roman would have been quite surprised when some Christian sects began referring to perfectly legitimate practices like soothsaying, dream scrying, prophesy, seering, sky readers, or incantating as if they were magical. These practitioners, in stories like Plautus’ or in the letters of Cicero, were working professionals who helped others make sense of the world in exchange for a practical fee. Amulets were also popular, like a winged phallus that was thought to ward off the evil eye. Cicero at one point takes a dim view of seers (superstitiousus in Latin), and Cato once remarked that if he saw mice nibbling at his slippers this would not be an omen, but “would certainly have been if the slippers had been nibbling the mice.”[2] But Romans generally seem to place great stock in the implication of minor events.

A Fascinus, or winged phallus in the Pompeii museum. The penis tale is an especially nice touch. Photo Credit: Marie-Lan Nguyen

Rome’s patriarchal society applied to sorcerers as well, with men, especially of the educated variety, being prized for their prognosis in times of religious or personal doubt. Curiously though, in Plutarch’s essay, “On Superstition,” after receiving advice from a scholarly male seer Plutarch describes the worried Roman’s next move would be to “call in the old crone who performs magic purifications, dip yourself in the ocean, and sit down on the ground and spend the whole day there.”[3] It suggests that in many cases older women were actually cast as the performer of whatever the suggested spell may have been, a situation that may lend itself towards the later stereotype of the witch.

Sorcerers of all stripes could also be called upon to use their services offensively, which was often when they could run afoul of the law. Approaching a sorcerer for help in poisoning someone was a common situation. Given that this was the equivalent of a modern accessory to murder, it’s a little unsurprising that harmful practice was often banned during the imperial period, or subject to prosecution. The more inventive route involved drafting a curse-tablet. Curse tablets typically called out an individual, directed a God’s attention, and described in vivid detail what the commissioner wanted to see. In one example from the baths at, well, Bath, England:“Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds and eyes in the goddess’ temple.”[4]

curse tablet
“May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely devoured her become dumb”. -Photo taken by the author in Bath, England.

Others were a little less eyeball popping, and more out to change behavior. In one case, a brothel madam seems to have dropped off two tablets in Athens trying to separate one of her prostitutes from a regular client or lover. The inverse was also known. In Lucian’s Dialogues of the Courtesans a prostitute recommends using love magic to a colleague chasing a recent lover, revolving around a similar technique.[5]

Aside from the professional men and women, cults like the Pythagoreans even approached a quasi-mystical status that married mathematics, philosophy, and sorcery. These groups incorporated their practices less for personal gain, and more as a systemic component of their worship. It’s a contrast we will keep returning to.

All in all, the picture of the late Roman period is one where sorcery and magic, both legal and taboo, was a relatively common fact of life. It was a way of understanding the world around the individual, getting medical assistance, and occasionally getting a shot at divine revenge. Most of which was brought to a screeching halt by the rise of state sponsored Christianity.

The major pivot to Christendom arrived with the success of the Emperor Constantine, whose success put the final cap on the wars of the Tetrarchy and marked the resurgence of Roman fortunes after the extended and grim Crisis of the Third Century. The major practical changes to the world of magic began shortly after the Edict of Milan in 313 made toleration for Christianity the policy of the entire Roman Empire. The lobbying must have started immediately afterwards. In general, Christian monotheism operated on a zero sum world of divinity. There was no room for competition, or the possibility of other gods. If a soothsayer had the ability to prophesy the future and they were not pulling their power from the Christian God, then the only other source could be demonic.

By 319, the Emperor passed the first law against consulting or practicing soothsayers who interpreted the signs of animal entrails. The penalty was characteristically harsh: the soothsayer faced burning to death, and the commissioner permanent exile. But notably this was not a complete ban. Other forms of divination were still permitted, though behavior altering magicks like love potions were not. It suggested Constantine was still hedging his bets, hoping to pander to his newly empowered Christian base (especially his mother), and also trying to avoid antagonizing his more traditional subjects. But barring one brief resurgence under Emperor Julian,[6] formal Christian power was here to stay. Subsequent Emperors, like Constantius II and Valens, would expand the crackdown on magical practices that were termed as Maleficium.[7] As Christianity descended into more schismatic backbiting, the same allegations of sorcery would start to be applied against perceived heretical sects like the Gnostics.

Saint Augustine of Hippo, shown here shortly after the world’s most disastrous attempt at open heart surgery. Photo Credit: Philippe de Champaigne

Complementary with the state, the Church itself dove feet first into a systemic effort at oppressing any perceived magical practices. Beyond just divination, this effort was a wholesale assault on some of the more everyday practices and prescriptions. St. John of Chrysostom took time out of his busy ranting schedule in the 4th Century to assail “drunken hags” peddling amulets purported to cure common ailments, or prostitutes trying to use love potions to pull good Christians from the flock. Other church leaders sermonized on the importance of rooting out any sorcerers in their communities and burning their books. One story revolves around an Alexandrian man tearfully confessing to a magic addiction after a failed love spell, and then naming all of the colleagues in his sorcerer’s clique before burning his own books. Given that a Christian source relays the story, it’s unclear whether in practice the sorcerer himself was also not flung onto the literary pyre.

Above it all and providing much of the intellectual heft for the entire theological approach to magic was Augustine of Hippo. As one of the most influential and well written of the early Church fathers, his approach to sorcery in City of God against the Pagans became the cornerstone for later Catholic thinking. Written in the aftermath of the first sack of Rome in 410, the book is a masterclass in theological analysis, religious intolerance, and philosophical discourse, as much as it is a thesis for the future of the Church against the backdrop of a collapsing Roman Empire in the west.[8]

Unsurprisingly, in Augustine’s viewing there was no other God but God, but this did not rule out the prospect of other, weaker demonic magic. Along these lines, there are:

“miracles, and many others of the same nature, which it were tedious to mention, were wrought for the purpose of commending the worship of the one true God, and prohibiting the worship of a multitude of false gods. Moreover, they were wrought by simple faith and godly confidence, not by the incantations and charms composed under the influence of a criminal tampering with the unseen world, of an art which they call either magic, or by the more abominable title necromancy, or the more honorable designation theurgy; for they wish to discriminate between those whom the people call magicians, who practise necromancy, and are addicted to illicit arts and condemned, and those others who seem to them to be worthy of praise for their practice of theurgy,— the truth, however, being that both classes are the slaves of the deceitful rites of the demons whom they invoke under the names of angels.”

…”As to his idea that by means of herbs, and stones, and animals, and certain incantations and noises, and drawings, sometimes fanciful, and sometimes copied from the motions of the heavenly bodies, men create upon earth powers capable of bringing about various results, all that is only the mystification which these demons practice on those who are subject to them, for the sake of furnishing themselves with merriment at the expense of their dupes.”[9]

John “I hate fun” Chrysostom confronts the Empress Aelia Eudoxia. The two had a fierce series of disagreements over Eudoxia’s policy of toleration and integration of Greek traditional religion into Christianity, as opposed to John’s policy of breaking everything without Jesus on the cover. Photo Credit: Jean-Paul Laurens

Through both legal and social channels, the Roman world was under incredible pressure to get with the Christian program. The strain of it also highlights how magical practitioners were forced to change their practices to survive. Either they had to go underground like our Alexandrian magic junky, or they had to adapt. Many of the ‘drunken hags’ or other feminine figures that Chrysostom railed against are accused of repackaging their amulets with biblical verses or the icons of saints.[10] Like Cicero or Cato, St. John of Chrysostom clearly did not represent the dominant opinion. Augustine himself also abstains from going all in on his demonic condemnations. Some herbs and cures might have normal, non-magical medical properties.

This was the course charted by the Church and Christian state of Rome, and it would more or less continue in the Byzantine world accordingly. Over the centuries the legal and social nooses would continue to tighten. Former holy sites like the Oracle at Delphi’s Temple were destroyed in 390. Other strongholds for the traditional faiths like Rome were directly assailed. Temples unearthed in the forum still bear the marks where Christians fastened chains to their pillars in an attempt to pull the structures down. Under Justinian and Theodosius, the legal codes would be tightened to make non-Christian magic a capital crime. Yet practice continued, even if the words had changed. As Will and Arial Durant put it more generally, “while Christianity converted the world, the world converted Christianity”.[11]

All the railings from John of Chrysostom would do little to stop many a sick person from turning to an amulet, even if it was now inscribed with a Christian prayer as opposed to a flying dong. Charioteers continued to inscribe verses onto the wheels of their carts, or to occasionally suggest their opponents had tried to sic a demon on them mid race. Sex workers continued to be the go to port of call for anyone looking for love spells, and in turn one would be accused of seducing the Emperor’s brother with magic in the 7th Century. For the most part, this is where we will leave the Eastern Roman Empire. As with many things, the east would continue, but Rome itself would have to change its methods or face oblivion.

[1] The Bacchae were actually banned by the Republican Senate.

[2] Augustine. On Christian Teaching. Book II

[3] Plutarch. (1928 ed.) On Superstition. Loeb Classical Library. Available at:*.html

[4] The Bath Museum. The 130 odd lead tabs recovered from the complex are a vital insight into vernacular Latin, especially the dirty sweary bits we all actually care about.

[5] Some were just downright petty. Another Bath example curses the man whole stole the hexer’s towel.

[6] Naturally dubbed “The Apostate” by the Church. Somewhat of a misnomer, given that Julian never embraced Catholicism in the first place. If his reign hadn’t been cut short by a Sassanian spear, the course of history may have changed under this talented and philosophically minded emperor.

[7] Sorcery, with a negative, and later diabolical, connotation.

[8] Subtitle: Everyone sucks but us. Also don’t try to pin the sack of Rome on Christendom, totally not our bad.

[9] Saint Augustine. (425). The City of God Against the Pagans. Translated by Marcus Dods, 1887. Available at:

[10] Kalleres, D.S. (2014) Drunken Hags with Amulets and Prostitutes with Erotic Spells: The Re-Feminization of Magic in Late Antique Christian Homilies.

[11] Durant, W. (1944). The Story of Civilization Book III: Caesar and Christ. Simon & Schuster. Will Durant is credited as sole author on the print of Story the author has, but Ariel is considered coauthor on later editions.


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