Witches, Warlocks, and Magic

15 Warlocks and Wizards

Siobhán McElduff

Learning Objectives

In this chapter you will learn about

  • How the Romans portrayed wizard and warlocks as outsiders;
  • How that portrayal differed in intensity from that of witches;
  • The words and language the Romans use to describe wizards and other male magic users;
  • The close connections between magic and other areas of Roman life.

The Romans had a whole list of words for male magicians, of which one of the chief was magus,[1] a word borrowed from Persian, via Greek (which used the term magos). The use of this word shows how the Romans visualized the wrong sort of magic as unRoman and as arising from outsiders from the East, as no good Roman would surely engage in such things.

Of course, there were other words for male magic users, some of which were masculine versions of the feminine forms such as veneficus and sagus. Older Latin terms included hariolus and superstitiosus; you might be able to guess what the last refers to because of its closeness to the English word superstition. A Hariolus is a fortune teller, soothseer, or prophet. Cato the Elder, who wrote in the second century BC said that a slave overseer of a villa should not consult a fortune-teller (haruspicem), or prophet (augurem), or diviner (hariolum), or astrologer (Chaldaeum). The sort of haruspices he is talking about are not to be confused with the officials employed by the Roman state to tell the future from entrails of specially selected and ritually slaughtered animals; these were travelling ones, and not respectable. The same goes for the augurs, who in the Roman state, interpreted bird signs. Only the last term, Chaldean/astrologer is a non-Roman loan word, used to refer to a range of astrologers whether they came from Chaldea, an ancient region along the Persian gulf. Despite the tendency to portray magic as unRoman, magic was mentioned in Rome’s earliest law code, the Twelve Tables, which forbids enchanting away crops from others fields as well as mandating the death penalty ‘if anyone sings or composes an incantation that can cause dishonor or disgrace to another.’

What we know of men accused of magic doing in the mid Republic isn’t a lot, but the evidence suggests that people who were seen as less Roman than others might be accused of witchcraft. Pliny the Elder tells the following story about ‘ancient history’, most likely 191 BCE. Notice that the accused was a freedman, and judging from his name ‘Chresimus’, Greek.

C. Furius Chresimus, a freedman who was able to grow far larger harvests with only a very small piece of land than his neighbours could from the largest farms, became the object of very these neighbours’ considerable jealousy, and was accordingly accused of enticing away the crops of others by the practice of sorcery.[2] Upon this, a day was named by Spurius Calvinus, the curule aedile, for his appearance. Afraid of being condemned, the case was about to be voted on by the tribes, he had all his farm tools brought into the Forum, together with his farm slaves, strong, well-built, and well-dressed people, Piso says. The iron tools were of first-rate quality, the mattocks[3] were sturdy and strong, the ploughshares heavy and substantial, and the oxen sleek and in prime condition. When all this had been done, he said, “Here, Romans are my magic tools; but it is impossible for me to show you, or to bring into the Forum, my midnight labour, my early risings, sweat, and exhaustion.” At this, he was immediately acquitted by the unanimous voice of the people. Agriculture, in fact, depends upon the expenditure of labour and exertion; and hence it is that the ancients were in the habit of saying, that it is the eye of the master that does more towards fertilizing a field than anything else.

Natural History 5.7


Slaves, like women, were often thought to be prone to using love potions, which could in fact be dangerous. The great Roman general of the Late Republic, Licinius Lucullus, was said to have been driven mad by a freedman’s love potion:

Cornelius Nepos says that Lucullus lost his mind not from old age, and not even from disease, but that he was disabled by drugs administered to him by one of his freedmen, Callisthenes; 2 that the drugs were given him by Callisthenes in order to win more of his love, in the belief that they had such a power, but they drove him mad and overwhelmed his reason, so that even while he was still alive, his brother managed his property.

Plutarch, Life of Lucullus

Despite stories like this, we do not find the flood of poetry attacking male magicians as disgusting and vile that we do about witches, which is not to say there is none. But if you look at the personal attacks on Apuleius in the next chapter, although they focus on his ethnic background, class, appearance (he has, according to his accusers ‘pimplike’ hair) and so on, they do not reach the heights of hysteria that we see in the descriptions of witches.

The historian Tacitus wrote an account of the death of Germanicus, the Emperor Tiberius’ heir, which is useful to read as an outsider account of a how a member of the Roman elite might be portrayed when accused of killing a very popular man (according to Tacitus, who is not a neutral observer) by means of witchcraft.

This is a very famous historical event, but you only need to know these historical and literary basics

a. Tacitus hates Tiberius, and portrays him as a devious criminal mastermind

b. Suetonius is a an enormous fan of Germanicus, and not one of Tiberius.

c. Germanicus was the adopted son of Tiberius; he was the child of his brother, whom Tiberius seems to have loved. The adoption took place in 4 CE, long before Tiberius became emperor

d. Germanicus liked to be at war, and at one point he had command of 8 legions, a huge part of the Roman army. He fought in Germany, received a triumph for his work in avenging a great Roman defeat there

e. He was then transferred to the province of Syria where he and the governor, Gnaeus Piso, came instantly into conflict.

f. Piso’s wife was called Plancia, and Germanicus’ wife Agrippina. His son was the later Emperor Caligula.

(If you want to read the account in its entirety you can find it here in an English translation we have adapted for this reader.)

Tacitus begins his account with a damming portrayal of Piso and his wife and their arrival to the city of Athens; pay attention to the different ways the different people involved in this event are described, and the treatment of provincial subjects.

 55.1 Meanwhile Gnaeus Piso, racing to start his plans, first got Athens in an uproar by his furious arrival, then gave out to them in a virulent speech, which included an indirect attack on Germanicus for “compromising the dignity of the Roman name by his exaggerated civilities, not to the Athenians (whose repeated disasters had extinguished the breed) but to the present cosmopolitan rabble. For these were the men who had leagued themselves with Mithridates against Sulla, with Antony against the deified Augustus!”[4] He criticized them using their own ancient history; their unlucky rebellions against Macedonia and their violence towards their own fellow citizens. Private resentment, also, embittered him against the town, as the authorities refused to give up at his request a certain Theophilus, whom the verdict of the Areopagus[5] had declared guilty of forgery. After this, quick sailing by a short route through the Cyclades meant he caught up with Germanicus at Rhodes. He was aware of the invectives with which he had been attacked, but he behaved with such mildness that, when a rising storm swept Piso toward the rock-bound coast, and the destruction of his enemy could have been attributed to accident, he sent warships to help in extricating him from his predicament. Even so, Piso was not mollified and, after reluctantly submitting to the loss of a single day, he left Germanicus and completed the journey first. Then, the moment he reached Syria and the legions, he made himself called in the language of the rabble ‘Father of the Legion’ because he corrupted all around him by handouts and by bribery, by attention to the lowest private, by dismissing  the veteran centurions and the stricter commanding officers, whom he replaced by dependents of his own or by men of the worst character; by permitting  laziness in the camp, wild behaviour in the towns, and soldiers to wander  in the country as madly as they wished,  Nor could Plancina keep herself within the limits of female decorum: she attended cavalry exercises and infantry training; she sneered at Agrippina or Germanicus, and even some of the loyal troops were ready to yield her a disloyal obedience; for a whispered rumour was gaining ground that these doings were not unacceptable to the emperor. Germanicus knew all this, but his more immediate anxiety was to reach Armenia first.

Annals 2.55

Tacitus then goes into detail about Germanicus’ doings in Armenia and the character of the Armenian people, and how Germanicus mistakenly made a trip up the Nile in defiance of Tiberius’ wishes. We pick up the story with Germanicus’ return from Egypt; please be aware that we have cut a great deal that, while historically interesting and quite fun to read if you are into imperial shenanigans, is not relevant to the issue of magic and witchcraft.

69 1 On the way from Egypt, Germanicus learned that all orders issued by him to the legions or the cities had been rescinded or reversed. And so he made insulting references to Piso: nor were the retorts directed by him against him less bitter. Then Piso determined to leave Syria. Checked almost immediately by the ill-health of Germanicus, then hearing that he had rallied and that the vows made for his recovery were already being paid,[6] he took his lictors and swept the streets clear of the victims at the altars, the apparatus of sacrifice, and the festive populace of Antioch. After this, he left for Seleucia, awaiting the outcome of the illness which had again attacked Germanicus. The cruel virulence of the  disease was intensified by the patient’s belief that Piso had given him poison; and it is a fact that explorations in the floor and walls 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 of witchcraft by which it is believed the living soul can be handed over to the powers of the grave. At the same time, messengers from Piso were accused of keeping a too inquisitive watch upon the ravages of the disease.

70 1 Of all this Germanicus heard with at least as much anger as alarm:— “If his threshold was besieged, if he must surrender his breath under the eye of his enemies, what must the future hold in store for his unhappy wife — for his infant children? Poison was considered too slow; Piso was growing urgent — imperative — to be left alone with his province and his legions! But Germanicus had not fallen from himself so far, nor should the price of blood remain with the slayer!” He composed a letter renouncing his friendship: the general account adds that he ordered him to leave the province. Delaying no longer, Piso weighed anchor, and controlled his speed so that the return journey would be shorter, if Germanicus’ death opened the door in Syria.

71 1 For a moment Germanicus revived and there was hope: then his spirit faded, and, with the end near, he addressed his friends at his bedside to this way:[7]— “If I were dying by the course of nature, I should have a justified grievance against heaven itself for snatching me from parents, children,   and country, by a premature end in the prime of life. Now, cut off as I am by the villainy of Piso and Plancina, I leave my last prayers in the keeping of your breasts: report to my father and brother the agonies that wracked me, the treason that encompassed me, before I finished the most pitiable of lives by the vilest of deaths. If any were ever stirred by the hopes I inspired, by kindred blood, — even by envy of me while I lived, — they must shed a tear to think that the once happy survivor of so many wars has fallen by female treachery. You will have your opportunity to complain before the senate and to invoke the law. The prime duty of friends is not to follow their dead with passive laments, but to remember his wishes and carry out his commands. Strangers themselves will weep for Germanicus: you will avenge him — if you loved me, and not my fortune. Show to the Roman people the granddaughter of their deified Augustus, who was also my wife; mention her six children: pity will side with the accusers, and, if the murderers allege some infamous warrant, no one will believe them— or no forgiveness!” His friends touched the dying hand and swore to give up their lives sooner than revenge.

An account of Germanicus’ funeral and mourning for him follows, along with Agrippina’s departure to Rome with the urn with her husband’s ashes.Tacitus then does into various accounts of illegal goings on by Piso in Syria before moving back to Rome and the uproar there. Focus on how Tacitus portrays the common opinion and what it focuses on.

82 1 But at Rome, when the failure of Germanicus’ health became current knowledge, and every circumstance was reported with the aggravations usual in news that has travelled far, all was grief and indignation. A storm of complaints burst out:— “So for this he had been relegated to the ends of earth; for this Piso had received a province; and this had been the drift of Augusta’s colloquies with Plancina! It was the mere truth, as the elder men said of Drusus, that sons with democratic tempers were not pleasing to fathers on a throne; and both had been cut off for no other reason than because they designed to restore the age of freedom and take the Roman people into a partnership of equal rights.”The announcement of his death inflamed this popular gossip to such a degree that before any edict of the magistrates, before any resolution of the senate, civic life was suspended, the courts deserted, houses closed. It was a town of sighs and silences, with none of the studied advertisements of sorrow; and, while there was no abstention from the ordinary tokens of bereavement, the deeper mourning was carried at the heart. Accidentally, a party of merchants, who had left Syria while Germanicus was yet alive, brought a more cheerful account of his condition. It was instantly believed and instantly disseminated. No man met another without proclaiming his unauthenticated news; and by him it was passed to more, with additions suggested by their joy.

Various honours are awarded posthumously to Germanicus, but the story does not end; Agrippina returns to Rome, and Piso follows:

Book III

8 1 Meanwhile, Piso, sending his son in advance to the capital with a message designed to pacify the emperor, bent his way to Drusus; whom he hoped to find not so much angered at a brother’s death as reconciled to himself by the suppression of a rival. To make a display of impartiality, Tiberius gave the young envoy a civil reception, and treated him with the liberality he was in the habit of showing to the cadets of noble families. To the father, Drusus’ answer was that, “if the current allegations were true, his own resentment must rank foremost of all, but he preferred to believe they were false and unfounded, and that Germanicus’ death involved no capital offence.” The reply was given in public, all secrecy having been avoided; and no doubts were felt that the phrasing was dictated by Tiberius, when a youth, who had otherwise the simple and pliant character of his years, resorted for the nonce to the disingenuities of age.

9 1 After crossing the sea of Dalmatia, Piso left his vessels at Ancona, and, travelling through Picenum, then by the Flaminian Road, came up with a legion marching from Pannonia to Rome, to join later on the garrison in Africa:an incident which led to much gossip and discussion as to the manner in which he had kept showing himself to the soldiers on the march and by the wayside. From Narnia, either to avoid suspicion or because the plans of a frightened man are apt to be inconsistent, he sailed down the Nar, then down the Tiber, and added to the exasperation of the populace by bringing his vessel to shore at the mausoleum of the Caesars. It was a busy part of the day and of the river-side; yet he with a marching column of retainers, and Plancina with her escort of women, proceeded beaming on their way. There were other irritants also; among them, festal decorations upon his mansion looming above the forum; guests and a dinner; and, in that crowded quarter, full publicity for everything.

10 1 Next day, Fulcinius Trio applied to the consuls for authority to prosecute Piso He was opposed by Vitellius, Veranius, and the other members of Germanicus’ suite: Trio, they argued, had no standing in the case; nor were they themselves acting as accusers, but as deponents and witnesses to the facts, carrying out the instructions of the prince. Waiving the indictment on this head, Trio secured the right of arraigning Piso’s previous career, and the emperor was asked to take over the trial. To this even the defendant made no demur, as he distrusted the prepossessions of the people and senate; while Tiberius, he knew, had the strength of mind to despise scandal, and was involved in his mother’s accession to the plot. Besides, truth was more easily distinguished from accepted calumny by one judge; where there were more, odium and malevolence carried weight. The difficulties of the inquiry, and the rumours busy with his own character, were not lost upon Tiberius. Therefore with a few intimate friends for assessor, he heard the threats of the accusers, the prayers of the accused; and remitted the case in its integrity to the senate.

11 1 In the interval, Drusus returned from Illyricum. The Senate had voted him an ovation at his entry, in return for the submission of Maroboduus and his achievements of the preceding summer; but he postponed the honour and made his way into the capital privately. As his advocates the defendant now specified Lucius Arruntius, Publius Vinicius, Asinius Gallus, Marcellus Aeserninus and Sextus Pompeius. They declined on various pretexts, and Manius Lepidus, Lucius Piso, and Livineius Regulus came to his support. The whole nation was eagerly speculating upon the loyalty of Germanicus’ friends, the criminal’s grounds for confidence, the chances that Tiberius would be able to keep his sentiments effectively under lock and key. Never had the populace been more keenly on the alert: never had it shown more freedom of whispered criticism and suspicious silence towards the emperor.

12 1 On the day the senate met, the Caesar spoke with calculated moderation. “Piso,” he said, “had been his father’s lieutenant and friend; and he himself, at the instance of the senate, had assigned him to Germanicus as his coadjutor in the administration of the East. Whether, in that position, he had merely exasperated the youthful prince by perversity and contentiousness, and then betrayed pleasure at his death, or whether he had actually cut short his days by crime, was a question they must determine with open minds. For” (he proceeded) “if the case is one of a subordinate who, after ignoring the limits of his commission and the deference owed to his superior, has exulted over that superior’s death and my own sorrow, I shall renounce his friendship, banish him from my house, and redress my grievances as a man without invoking my powers as a sovereign. But if murder comes to light — and it would call for vengeance, were the victim the meanest of mankind — then you see to it that proper requital is made to the children of Germanicus and to us, his parents. At the same time, consider the following points:— Did Piso’s treatment of the armies make for disorder and sedition? Did he employ corrupt means to win the favour of the private soldiers? Did he levy war in order to repossess himself of the province? Or are these charges falsehoods, published with enlargements by the accusers; at whose zealous indiscretions I myself feel some justifiable anger? For what was the object in stripping the corpse naked and exposing it to the degrading contact of the vulgar gaze? Or in diffusing the report — and among foreigners — that he fell a victim to poison, if that is an issue still uncertain and in need of scrutiny? True, I lament my son, and shall lament him always. But far from hampering the defendant in adducing every circumstance which may tend to relieve his innocence or to convict Germanicus of injustice (if injustice there was), I beseech you that, even though the case is bound up with a personal sorrow of my own, you will not therefore receive the assertion of guilt as a proof of guilt. If kinship or a sense of loyalty has made some of you his advocates, then let each, with all the eloquence and devotion he can command, aid him in his hour of danger. To the accusers I commend a similar industry, a similar constancy. The only extra-legal concession we shall be found to have made to Germanicus is this, that the inquiry into his death is being held not in the Forum but in the Curia, not before a bench of judges but the senate. Let the rest of the proceedings show the like restraint: let none regard the tears of Drusus, none my own sadness, nor yet any fictions invented to our discredit.”

13 1 It was then resolved to allow two days for the formulation of the charges: after an interval of six days, the case for the defence would occupy another three. Fulcinius opened with an old and futile tale of intrigue and cupidity during Piso’s administration of Spain. The allegations, if established, could do the defendant no harm, should he dispel the more recent charge: if they were rebutted, there was still no acquittal, if he was found guilty of the graver delinquencies. Servaeus, Veranius, and Vitellius followed — with equal fervour; and Vitellius with considerable eloquence. “Through his hatred of Germanicus and his zeal for anarchy,” so ran the indictment, “Piso had, by relaxing discipline and permitting the maltreatment of the provincials, corrupted the common soldiers so much thatthe vilest of them called him ‘Father of the Legions’. On the other hand, he had been ruthless to the best men, especially the companions and friends of Germanicus, and at last, with the help of poison and the black arts, had destroyed the prince himself. Then had come the blasphemous rites and sacrifices of Plancina and himself, an armed assault on the commonwealth, and — in order that he might be put on his trial — defeat upon a stricken field.”

14 1 On all counts but one the defence wavered. There was no denying that he had tampered with the army, that he had abandoned the provinces to the mercies of every villain, that he had even insulted the commander-in‑chief. The single charge which he seemed to have dissipated was that of poisoning. It was, indeed, none too plausibly sustained by the accusers, who argued that, at a dinner given by Germanicus, Piso (who was seated above him) introduced the dose into his food. Certainly, it seemed folly to assume that he could have ventured the act among strange servants, under the eyes of so many bystanders, and in the presence of the victim himself: also, he offered his own slaves for torture, and insisted on its application to the attendants at the meal. For one reason or other, however, the judges were inexorable: the Caesar, because war had been levied on a province; the senate, because it could never quite believe that Germanicus had perished without foul play. . . . A demand for the correspondence was rejected as firmly by Tiberius as by Piso. At the same time, shouts were heard: it was the people at the senate-doors, crying that, if he escaped the decision of the Senate, they would take the law into their own hands. They had, in fact, dragged his images to the Gemonian Stairs, and were engaged in dismembering them, when they were rescued and replaced at the imperial command. He was therefore put in a litter and accompanied home by an officer of one of the praetorian cohorts; while rumour debated whether the escort was there for the preservation of his life or the enforcement of his death.


Citations and Further Reading:

Dickie, Matthew. 2010. “Magic in Roman law” in Richard Gordon and Francisco Simon. Magical Practise in the Roman West. Leiden: 79-104


Rives, James. 2003. “Magic in Roman Law: the reconstruction of a crime.” Classical Antiquity 22: 313-339.

  1. This word may possibly be familiar to you from the story of the Three Wise Men or Magi in the Christian gospels. Magus was a Persian term for priest/wise man, and it later became associated by others with magic.
  2. The Romans believed that you could enchant away crops from others' fields and have them appear in your own, however improbably that sounds.
  3. A hand tool that resembles a pick-axe.
  4. Athens was at this point a very reduced city from its classical greatness. Its population had plummeted and it had made a series of unfortunate choices about which Roman to back in various civil wars, so it had also been sacked a few times. However, it was still an important place to Romans, and somewhere the elite went to for education and culture, and even retired to.
  5. One of the courts of Athens.
  6. It someone got ill, you might promise a god that you would sacrifice an animal if they recovered.
  7. There is no way that Tacitus knew what Germanicus said on his deathbed. And I also suspect that Germanicus was in no condition to speak like this by this stage.


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