Witches, Warlocks, and Magic

13 Roman perceptions of magic

Serena So

Learning objectives

This section will tell you about:

  • How (some) Romans thought of magic and presented its history;
  • How magic can be seen as beneficial if done by the ‘right’ person, and if done for ‘good’ reasons;
  • How magic – especially that done by outsiders – can be seen as automatically harmful or destructive;
  • The very blurred line that separates magic from other areas such as medicine or religion.

Romans distinguished between good and bad magic: good magic helped your crops, kept you healthy and had other positive outcomes without harming others.

Cato the Elder, a new man or novus homo, who had made himself the epitome of Romanness to many Romans, wrote about agricultural magic in his 2nd century BCE On Agriculture, a farming manual for the well to do estate owner needing management advice. Sometimes Cato will discuss medical practices that are basically magic, as in the following remedies for oxen. In the first remedy the repeated number three hardly seems likely to be there for a medical reason, and the same is true of making the person giving the cure fast.

70.1 Remedy for oxen: If you have reason to fear sickness, give the oxen before they get sick the following remedy: 3 grains of salt, 3 laurel leaves, 3 leek leaves, 3 spikes of leek, 3 of garlic, 3 grains of  p81 incense, 3 plants of Sabine herb, 3 leaves of rue, 3 stalks of bryony, 3 white beans, 3 live coals, and 3 pints of wine. You must gather, macerate, and administer all these while standing, and he who administers the remedy must be fasting. Administer to each ox for three days, and divide it in such a way that when you have administered three doses to each you will have used it all. See that the ox and the one who administers are both standing, and use a wooden vessel.

The following also, with its use of snake skin, seems to verge on the magical:

 73.1 Give the cattle medicine every year when the grapes begin to change colour, to keep them well. When you see a snake skin, pick it up and put it away, so that you will not have to hunt for one when you need it. Macerate this skin, spelt, salt, and thyme with wine, and give it to all the cattle to drink. See that the cattle always have good, clear water to drink in summer-time; it is important for their health.

Even if Cato the Elder saw this as magic in some way, he would surely have put it into a different category than other forms. Previously he insisted that the slave manager of an estate should “not consult a fortune-teller, or prophet, or diviner, or astrologer” (5.5)[1]


One of our major sources for Roman perceptions of magic is Pliny the Elder, a Roman aristocrat, general, politician and advisor to the Emperor Vespasian. Although he wrote much, his only surviving work is the Natural History, completed in 77 CE, and which was comprised of 37 books that are topically organized. This work collected knowledge about the world amassed from his rich lifetime of experience and research from a huge range of sources. Pliny prefaces the entire work with a dedication to the emperor Titus,[2] the most elite Roman in imperial Roman society, whom this information would be of great interest to. After the dedication and explanation of sources at the beginning, the topics follow as such: astronomy, geography, human biology, zoology, botany, medicinal remedies from plants, medicinal remedies from animals, metals, minerals, gemstones, and art. Book 30 is within the category of medicinal remedies derived from animals, and is focused on magic – it explains where it came from, who the practitioners were, and lists magical medicinal practices for physical afflictions. Chapter 2 describes the origins of magic, and in it, readers can attain a sense of Pliny’s largely negative feelings toward magic as a practice in addition to its practitioners.

Pliny asserts that magic originated from Persia, known to the Romans as “the East”, where the contemporary and respectably old society thrived and likely held ancient knowledge, magic included. The Roman opinion of Persians was low due to their rivalry, and Pliny’s commentary shows this disdain, claiming people as practitioners of magic was a Roman way of “othering” and attacking people they disliked. Pliny then describes the spread of magic from Persia to the Greeks, whom the Romans also disliked, yet they associated the Greeks with medicine, a practice everyone needed. Notably, Pliny states magic and medicine developed alongside each other. So, he makes clear the foreign, deep un-Roman origins of magic, but in practice, the Romans themselves practiced magic as well, in the context of religious rituals and medicine. The Natural History is full of remedies that are magical in nature, particularly in the sections focused on medicine, but the Romans did not consider it as magic, as to them, magic was what other people did that was “bad”.

In tracing this “bad” practice, Pliny highlights the problematic and inefficient transmission method of the information he has collected in his research, which reveals not only his contempt for the sources, but also his skepticism regarding the reliability of the foreign sources over time. He describes the main Persian sources and then goes on to list a multitude of Greek sources in including many writers, philosophers, and other people of great intellect. It is a surprise to Pliny that the traditions of magic have been passed on to so many people over time, and therefore he questions the reliability of the information, including Homer’s seeming lack of reference in his work to magic – however, Pliny suggests that Homer does reference sorcery. There is an apparent sense of difficulty for Pliny in finding information on magic, and the fact that he is concerned with “hearsay” attests to the hardships of gathering knowledge on topics that are taboo and un-Roman in Roman society.

During the Roman Empire, as they were throughout most of Rome’s history, Roman people were experimenting with and pushing Roman culture and customs. Elite Romans were curious people, and intellectuals in particular liked to travel and explore other cultures and mysterious, taboo subjects like magic. Pliny makes reference to people like Pythagoras and Plato seeking out knowledge about magic, and this corroborates the popularity of un-Roman activities that Romans were interested in. As this set of encyclopaedic volumes was dedicated to the emperor Titus, who is supposed to represent the ultimate Roman man, perhaps Pliny included these facts to inform him of this un-Roman Roman interest in magic.

There is no doubt that this art [magic] originated in Persia,[3] under Zoroaster,[4] this being a point upon which authors are generally agreed; but whether there was only one Zoroaster, or whether in later times there was a second person of that name, is a matter which still remains undecided. Eudoxus,[5] who has endeavoured to show that of all branches of philosophy the magic art is the most illustrious and the most beneficial, informs us that this Zoroaster existed six thousand years before the death of Plato an assertion in which he is supported by Aristotle. Hermippus[6] again, an author who has written with the greatest precision on everyting connected with this art, and has commented upon the two millions of verses left by Zoroaster, besides completing indexes to his several works, has left a statement, that Agonaces was the name of the master from whom Zoroaster derived his doctrines, and that he lived five thousand years before the time of the Trojan War.[7] The first thing, however, that must strike us with surprise, is the fact that this art, and the traditions connected with it, should have survived for so many ages, while all written commentaries perished in the meanwhile; and this, too, when there was no continuous succession of experts, no notable teachers, to ensure their transmission.

There are only a few, in fact, who know anything, even by report, about the only professors of this art whose names have come down to us, Apusorus[8] and Zaratus of Media, Marmarus and Arabantiphocus of Babylonia, and Tarmoendas of Assyria, men who have left not the slightest records of their existence. But the most surprising thing of all is, that Homer should be totally silent upon this art in his account of the Trojan War, while in his story of the wanderings of Ulysses,[9] so much of the work should be taken up with it, that we may justly conclude that the poem is based upon nothing else; if, indeed, we are willing to grant that his accounts of Proteus[10] and of the songs of the Sirens are to be understood in this sense, and that the stories of Circe[11] and of the summoning up of the shades below, bear reference solely to the practices of sorcerers. And then, too, to come to more recent times, no one has told us how the art of sorcery reached Telmessus, a city devoted to all the services of religion, or at what period it came over and reached the matronae of Thessaly; whose name[12] has long passed, in our part of the world, as the appellation of those who practise an art, originally introduced among themselves even, from foreign lands.[13] For in the days of the Trojan War, Thessaly was still contented with such remedies as she owed to the skill of Chiron,[14] and her only lightnings were the lightnings hurled by Mars.[15] Indeed, for my own part, I am surprised that the imputation of magical practices should have so strongly attached to the people once under the sway of Achilles,[16] that Menander[17] even, a man unrivalled for perception in literary knowledge, has entitled one of his Comedies “The Thessalian Matron,” and described there the devices practised by the females of that country in bringing down the moon from the heavens. I should have been inclined to think that Orpheus had been the first to introduce into a country so near his own, certain magical superstitions based upon the practice of medicine, were it not the fact that Thrace, set along the northern part of the Aegean Sea his native land, was at that time did not know at all the magic art.

The first person, so far as I can ascertain, who wrote upon magic, and whose works are still in existence, was Osthanes,[18] who accompanied Xerxes, the Persian king, in his expedition against Greece. It was he who first spread, as it were, the seeds of this monstrous art, and tainted therewith all parts of the world through which the Persians passed. Authors who have made diligent inquiries into this subject, mention a second Zoroaster, a native of Proconnesus, as living a little before the time of Osthanes. That it was this same Osthanes that especially inspired the Greeks, not with just with fondness, but a passion, for the art of magic, is a fact beyond all doubt: though at the same time I would mention, that in the most ancient times, and indeed almost invariably, it was in this branch of science, that was sought the highest point of celebrity and of literary renown.[19] At all events, Pythagoras,[20] we find, Empedocles,[21] Democritus,[22] and Plato, crossed the seas, in order to attain a knowledge thereof, submitting, to speak the truth, more to the evils of exile[23] than to the mere inconveniences of travel. Returning home, it was upon the praises of this art that they expatiated—it was this that they held as one of their grandest mysteries. It was Democritus, too, who first drew attention to Apollobeches[24] of Coptos, to Dardanus,[25] and to Phoenix: the works of Dardanus he sought in the tomb of that personage, and his own were composed in accordance with the doctrines there found. That these doctrines should have been received by any portion of mankind, and transmitted to us by the aid of memory, is to me surprising beyond anything I can conceive. All the particulars there found are so utterly incredible, so utterly revolting,[26] that those even who admire Democritus in other respects, are strong in their denial that these works were really written by him. Their denial, however, is in vain; for it was he, beyond all doubt, who had the greatest share in fascinating men’s minds with these attractive chimeras.[27]

There is also a marvellous coincidence, in the fact that the two arts—medicine, I mean, and magic—were developed simultaneously: medicine by the writings of Hippocrates,[28] and magic by the works of Democritus, about the period of tile Peloponnesian War, which was waged in Greece in the year of the City of Rome 300.[29]

There is another sect, also, of experts in the magic art, who derive their origin from Moses,[30]  Jannes,[31] and Lotapea, Jews by birth, but many thousand years before Zoroaster: and as much more recent, again, is the branch of magic cultivated in Cyprus.[32] In the time, too, of Alexander the Great, this profession received no small accession to its credit from the influence of a second Osthanes, who had the honour of accompanying that prince in his expeditions, and who, evidently, beyond all doubt, travelled over every part of the world.

Pliny the Elder, Natural History 30.2

File:Greco-Roman Set.jpg

The deity Set portrayed in the Greek Magical Papyri


If you are interested in reading more about the depiction of women as witches see here.


To read our only defense speech written against a charge of magic by Apuleius go here.


Citations and Further Reading:

Oxford Bibliographies, s.v. “Pliny the Elder,” by Aude Doody, accessed April 10, 2019, http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780195389661/obo-9780195389661-0194.xml

Oxford Classical Dictionary, s.v. “Pliny (1) the Elder, 23/24-79 CE,” by Nicholas Purcell, accessed April 10, 2019, http://oxfordre.com/classics/view/10.1093/acrefore/9780199381135.001.0001/acrefore-9780199381135-e-5133?rskey=TEiaR1&result=1

Beagon, Mary. Roman Nature: The Thought of Pliny the Elder. New York: Oxford University Press, 1992.

Bostock, John., M.D., F.R.S. H.T. Riley, Esq., B.A. The Natural History. Pliny the Elder. London. Taylor and Francis, Red Lion Court, Fleet Street. 1855. Accessed via Perseus online.

Henderson, Jeffrey. “A Brief History of Athenian Political Comedy (c. 440-c. 300).” Transactions of the American Philological Association (1974-2014) 143, no. 2 (2013): 249-62. http://www.jstor.org/stable/43830262.

Segal, Charles. “Circean Temptations: Homer, Vergil, Ovid.” Transactions and Proceedings of the American Philological Association 99 (1968): 419-42. doi:10.2307/2935855.

Shahbazi, A. Shapur. “The ‘Traditional Date of Zoroaster’ Explained.” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London 40, no. 1 (1977): 25-35. http://www.jstor.org/stable/615820.




  1. A later author, [pb_glossary id="1737"]Columella[/pb_glossary], expanded on this, writing " Soothsayers and witches, two sets of people who incite ignorant minds to spend through false superstition  and then to shameful practices, he must not admit inside. (On Farming 8.5)
  2. For the dedication and Pliny's introduction see the preface to the Natural History.
  3. Persia: More specifically, Bactriana, or Bactria, a historical-cultural region situated in modern Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and northern Afghanistan.
  4. Zoroaster: Also known as Zarathustra, a Persian prophet whose teachings inspired the religious movement, Zoroastrianism. His historical date remains embroiled in scholarly debate).
  5. An ancient Greek mathematician and astronomer who lived from 390-340 BCE.
  6. Hermippus: An Athenian comic writer who wrote during the 5th century BCE
  7. Trojan War: A legendary war between the Mycenaean Greeks and the Trojans of the city of Troy, initiated by the Greeks.
  8. This name and the following names have likely been all transmitted to us in corrupted forms due to time.
  9. Ulysses: The Roman name for Odysseus, a legendary ancient Greek hero
  10. A Greek sea god.
  11. Circe: A Greek legendary divine figure portrayed as a having the powers of a witch or sorcerer.
  12. Thessaly: Thessaly was a region of central Greece, and here Pliny the Elder is referring to the name of “Thessala”, which was used by the Romans to mean a witch, enchantress, or sorceress.
  13. Pliny is referring to lands of Eastern origin (John Bostock, The Natural History, Book 30, Chapter 2).
  14. Chiron: A wise centaur who fills the role of mentor for several legendary ancient Greek heroes, and is known for his medical knowledge.
  15. Mars: The Roman version of the Greek god of war, among other things, Ares.
  16. Achilles: Not the legendary hero, this is referring to a different person.
  17. Menander: An ancient Greek comic playwright who lived from 342-292 BCE (Jeffrey Carson, “Menander”, Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, 462).
  18. Like Zoroaster, his date and attachment to one historical person is debated.
  19. Celebrity interest in taboo subject of magic indicates the elite interest in a sphere they are supposed to keep away from, but like most taboo topics in Roman society, magic seems to be a popular thing.
  20. An ancient Greek philosopher and mathematician who lived in the 6th century BCE.
  21. An ancient Greek philosopher who lived from 492-432 BCE. [26] Democritus: Another ancient Greek philosopher.
  22. Democritus: Another ancient Greek philosopher.
  23. Exile for elite people allowed for relatively easy access to learning about magic (John Bostock, The Natural History, Book 30, Chapter 2).
  24. Nothing is known about this particular writer
  25. We are not sure who is being referred to here.
  26. Pliny makes his opinion of the magic arts known, in line with “othering” magic as he has asserted that it comes from the East, and Easterners are not Roman and do things like magic that are an affront to Roman society.
  27. Chimeras, or are Greek mythological monsters with the body parts of different animals.
  28. Hippocrates: An illustrious ancient Greek physician who lived from 460-370 BCE.
  29. Romans dated everything from the founding of the city. This war, which took place between Athens and Sparta, and their respective allies, occurred from 431-404 BCE.
  30. Pliny here refers to the Jewish people who were often associated with magic by the Romans
  31. Jannes is a magician mentioned in the Hebrew Bible, in the book of Exodus.
  32. Cyprus: An island located in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea (Michael Given, “Cyprus”, Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece, 196).


Icon for the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License

Roman perceptions of magic Copyright © by Serena So is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

Share This Book