Bryn Mawr Classical Review

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2002.02.26

Matthew W. Dickie, Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World.   London:  Routledge, 2001.  Pp. 380 + viii.  ISBN 0-415-24982-1.  $90.00.  

Reviewed by David Frankfurter, Dept. of History, University of New Hampshire (
Word count: 3324 words

Dickie's volume will probably be the most exhaustive account of magic in the ancient world for some time to come. Organized diachronically, rather than thematically (like Fritz Graf's recent Magic in the Ancient World [Paris 1994; Cambridge, MA 1997]), Dickie summarizes practically all the references to ritual procedures customarily labelled magical from the fifth century BCE through the seventh century AD: not only curse-tablets and spells from the Greek Magical Papyri corpus but, most of all, literary sources like Aristophanes, Plato, Lucian, and Zachariah of Mytilene. His goal is not to analyze the changing cultural constructions of subversive ritual or the slipperiness or legal semantics of the word mageia or historical caricatures of foreigners as wizards but rather to find out who was practicing magic, a quest that for him requires a considerably less critical view of ancient literary texts than previous scholars have demonstrated. Indeed, Dickie is not interested in -- and in fact shuns utterly -- the social theories about magic and its cultural construction that have largely dominated the study over the last century. A classicist of the old school, Dickie sees ancient literature as a window into ancient societies, translucent but for a few spots that are easily wiped away.

The volume is organized in ten chapters and an Introduction, each helpfully subdivided. The Introduction explains the uselessness of comparative or theoretical approaches to magic -- those of Graf, Versnel, Winkler, and others -- in order to justify an approach based purely on the classical sources, whose literary representations of magicians, he maintains, are basically accurate rather than products of caricature or fantasy. Dickie associates this approach to magic with the method of ethnographic interpretation often called emic, which strives to understand such categories from the natives' point of view, as it were. (The contrasting approach, called etic, allows the definition of magic or divination, for example, as scholarly heuristic constructs in order to make critical sense of data.) The strictly emic approach views terms like magic entirely as cultural constructs with shifting meanings: e.g., magic as a subversive realm of ritual involving exotic and ambiguous powers or as rituals practiced alone or with a demon's help. It is a method normally chosen in order to avoid anachronistic theoretical assumptions, which have long ruled the interpretation of religious phenomena: magic as a form of pseudo-religious deception, for example, or as something that people do in lieu of proper religious piety. However, the strictly emic approach to magic requires rigorous attention to the precise language and perspectives of the culture one is considering. One cannot, for example, call a magos a witch or allow mageia to embrace healing rites or divination if the culture does not so view it at a particular time. But in this book Dickie allows -- indeed, asserts -- that the English terms magic, sorcery, and witchcraft can indiscriminately cover a huge range of ancient ritual activities, from divination to healing to curses and beyond.

Chapter 1, "The formation and nature of the Greek concept of magic", argues that the terms mageia and magos in the most ancient classical sources -- Homer, Hippocrates, Aeschylus, Sophocles, Aristophanes -- were fluid categories for classifying actions not deemed properly cultic, associated with subaltern elements of society and with the East. Dickie takes these texts as evidence of "a spontaneous and ever evolving creation" of the culture as a whole, not of a literate elite's ongoing attempt to shape public experience. And, while scholars of religion normally assume that 2500-year-old cultures will hold essentially different world-views from our own, Dickie claims that the ancient texts show "the emergence in the fifth century of a concept with a close resemblance to our [own] concept of magic" (27; cf. 39-40).

Chapter 2, "Sorcerers in the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC", proceeds from a discussion of the lead curse-tablets found in ancient Athens, which prompt numerous questions about practice, expertise, and the social location of subversive rites, to a study of "the legal position of the magician in Athens", which uses materials from Demosthenes, Aesop, Josephus, Euripides, and Plato to construct the sorcerer from the point of view of jurisprudence. Dickie assumes that the legal cases address identifiable social phenomena, however, rather than attempting to lay order on an inherently messy realm of common practices. And thus he turns to the question of what kinds of people did magic in classical Athens: holy men (itinerant manteis, agyrtai, and chresmologoi); a type of literate book-owner; and miracle-workers. Dickie concludes that "it is virtually impossible to point to men who were magicians and magicians only" (76); rather, magic-working extended from these other social roles. It is, of course, questionable how holy man and miracle worker could have constituted more defined social roles than magician. Dickie seems to be simply equating one shifting category with others.

Chapter 3, "Sorceresses in the Athens of the Fifth and Fourth Centuries BC", continues Dickie's endeavor (Classical Quarterly 50, 2 [2000]) to establish the prostitute as a principal purveyor of magic in ancient Mediterranean cultures. Using Aristophanes and other playwrights as well as orations, Dickie reveals a "demi-monde...of tavern-keepers, prostitutes and courtesans", often comprising slaves, in which pharmaka were habitually used to stifle competition and maintain clientele interest.

Chapter 4, "Sorcerers in the Greek World of the Hellenistic Period (300-1 BC)", uses Dickie's observations thus far of the social location of magic-working to argue against idealistic dichotomies between 'philosophical' and 'popular' classes, while also showing the continuity of many of the same activities up to the Roman period. Sections cover the magic of the prostitute "demi-monde" (exemplified by curse-tablets found in I BC Cnidus) and the increasing presence in literature of exotic "holy men and women from the East": some authorized priests, some diviners, some merely conjurers. For Dickie, the exotic lists of ritual experts provided by such authors as Theocritus, Megathenes, and Diodorus reflect the real situation and categories of the Hellenistic streets. But standing above all these figures is a new social category: the learned magician, who collects and disseminates spell-recipes in elaborate pseudepigraphical grimoires. The archetype of this magician is one Bolus of Mendes, an Egyptian priest of the late second century BC, who, Dickie argues, practically invented the grimoire genre -- the systematically arranged corpus of spells, the most well-known examples of which are the third- and fourth-century AD Greek and Demotic Magical Papyri. (Dickie covered Bolus in more detail in his contribution to the Eitrem Seminar volume The World of Ancient Magic [Bergen 1999].)

In Chapter 5, "Magic as a Distinctive Category in Roman Thought", Dickie argues that previous attempts to discriminate between Greek and Roman conceptions of magic are misplaced -- that the Greek conceptions flowed right into Rome through the practitioners themselves. Amulets, curse-tablets, and literary depictions of private ritual (Apuleius, Catullus, Horace, Virgil) all testify to Romans' thorough adoption of Greek magical practices. Clearly, a culture's conceptualization of a mageia, an exotic or subversive realm of ritual, is for Dickie simply a reflection of what is really going on rather than a complex attempt by elites to define -- at some historical moment -- center and periphery, purity and danger. Thus, when Romans begin in the first century BC to perceive "magic as an illicit and wicked activity that hides itself in the shadows" (136-37), they are not so much projecting a tableau of fears onto a murky social environment as responding to the actual "pretensions of magic to subvert the natural order" (140).

If Chapter 5 insists that Rome continued Greek attitudes, Chapter 6, "Constraints on Magicians in the Late Roman Republic and under the Empire", does admit the Romans' particular efforts to persecute magicians through a series of legal codes and edicts. Dickie summarizes the Twelve Tables (451 BC), the Lex Cornelia (81 BC), and the Mathesis of Firmicus Maternus (IV AD), along with various local purges like the edict against Egyptian oracular procedures in 198 AD (P. Coll. Youtie 30 = P.Yale 299). Dickie's method in discussing these legal materials is to assess the range of things proscribed rather than to delve into historical constructions of subversion and threat in the Roman period -- an important topic most recently tackled by Hans Kippenberg in Envisioning Magic: A Princeton Seminar and Symposium (Leiden 1997). Dickie assumes the general veracity of the codes' pictures of magic in the streets and fields. Indeed, one official's "motive in getting rid...of the magicians and astrologers had to do with the preservation of public order in Rome and with keeping it free of the hucksters and charlatans who preyed on its population" (155). Perhaps Rome was awash with such hucksters; but an edict against traditional temple-based cult practices, such as P. Coll. Youtie 30, involves quite different motivations and requires more serious scrutiny of Roman religious fears than Dickie provides, for these fears had the tendency to lump vast areas of ritual practice, both real and imaginary, both public and private, all together as equally subversive. (On P. Coll. Youtie 30 see, more usefully, Robert Ritner in ANRW II.18.5:3355-58.)

Chapter 7, "Sorcerers and Sorceresses in Rome in the Middle and Late Republic and Under the Early Empire", is supposed to provide a parallel survey to that of Chapters 2-3. Using the literary portraits of Plautus, Plutarch, and Cicero, Dickie locates magic among a religious fringe consisting of seers, dream-interpreters, and sacrificers associated with foreign religions, as well as prostitutes and local wise women. He also finds increasing evidence for learned magicians like Appius Claudius Pulcher (a consul), P. Nigidius Figulus, and Anaxilaus of Larissa, all of philosophical (Pythagorean) bent and all devoted to systematizing a "wisdom of the Magi". By the testimony of Horace, Ovid, and Petronius -- which Dickie takes as essentially accurate -- he finds women's magic still revolving around the competitive world of the brothel. He also brings in the evidence of the Apocryphal Acts of the Apostles, but he uses it to suggest, despite these materials' manifest fiction, that the imperial period saw a spate of foreigners coming to Rome with pretensions to divinity.

Much of Chapter 8, "Witches and Magicians in the Provinces of the Roman Empire Until the Time of Constantine", is devoted to the learned magician and the overlaps between priestly traditions, philosophical traditions, Gnosticism, and practices possibly to be labelled magic. He covers familiar sources like Lucian's Philopseudes, Iamblichus, the Chaldean Oracles, Apollonius of Tyana, Alexander of Abonoteichos, and Thessalos of Tralles, retelling their stories to show the range of "learned magic". The chapter also covers the dramatic array of itinerant magicians and sorceresses in the literature of the period.

It should be said that the meaning of magic becomes increasingly murky at this point in the volume: Philostratus is said to worry, for example, "lest the young men should move on from a form of magic that amounts to no more than playing tricks to more serious magic-working" (219), as if these two spheres were somehow self-evident analytic categories. The latter "serious magic" apparently covers the ruses by which a plague of Oriental Rasputins were insinuating themselves into the households of the rich and powerful, as Dickie describes by way of Alexander of Abonoteichos and images of Jewish wizards (Acta Apostorum, Origen, C. Celsum). But mageia also covers -- the chapter implies -- an immense variety of divination techniques, performative spectacles, exorcisms and healing rites, wise women and prostitutes of low class, and expatriate Egyptian priests real and pretend.

Chapter 9, "Constraints on Magicians Under a Christian Empire", covers materials from the Theodosian Edicts, Ammianus Marcellinus, church Canons, and ancient church historians like Zachariah of Mytilene that might reflect legal sanctions against magic, including both explicit inquisitions and book-burnings (Ammianus, Zachariah) and laws that address practices of a roughly magical or subversive character. Although these range from necromancy to traditional divination techniques and amulet production, Dickie is positive that proscriptions are aimed at practices with clearly (to him) malicious intent or, later, at practices that clearly (to him) lie apart from Christian teaching. The inquisitors and composers of edicts themselves were not nearly as certain as Dickie about the line between insidious and neutral practices, as their changing perspectives bear witness. Moreover, as Dickie himself admits (citing the Canons and in chapter 10), magic was part and parcel of Christian ecclesiastical culture, from the services of monks to the texts, liturgies, and amulets that lay at the heart of the Church. But Dickie sees the Church's motivations in more idealistic colors: far from a politically-motivated or confused assault on heathenism and devil-worship, ecclesiastical persecutions of magic showed their "primary concern [to be]...with the salvation of souls" (267).

Chapter 10, "Sorcerers and Sorceresses from Constantine to the End of the Seventh Century AD", demonstrates that the location of magic, hitherto learned men, whores, and swamis from the east, has extended to Christian priests and monks, plus folk amulet-makers claiming -- erroneously, Dickie insists -- to be operating under Christian aegis. He retells some particularly dramatic cases of bishops accused of wizardry before turning to the continuing magic of (in order): haruspices, Jews, charioteers, wrestlers, actors, and prostitutes -- the latter four because of competition and the general magical culture that (he asserts) they inhabited. The chapter concludes by illustrating the continuity of itinerant wizard, learned magician, and domestic wizard as social types in late antiquity through stories from Chrysostom, Athanasius, Augustine, Proclus, and Zachariah of Mytilene.

If Dickie's study is plagued by an overly credulous use of literary sources, the themes upon which he focuses his attention are actually of enormous significance. The question of who in society was associated with ritual expertise -- either by stereotype or by social location -- is an important way of cutting into this complex body of material, for magic by any definition involves performance, reputation, and authority -- features that the individual bears within a social landscape. Dickie may sometimes rely here on categories (miracle worker, holy man) no more precise than magician and may confuse stereotype (women, Jews, and Egyptians as magicians) and social location (priests, wise women, monks invariably offer varied ritual services), but the layout of social roles in general is extraordinarily fruitful.

Likewise, Dickie's attention to the role of literacy and textuality in the ritual expertise of the elite has important implications. While he is less interested in the charisma borne by the written word and its masters -- especially those literate in Hebrew, Egyptian Hieroglyphic, and Babylonian systems -- he offers an effective argument for linking the written spell with literate experts, against those scholars who have attributed materials like the curse-tablets to a broad popular culture. If his picture of grimoire-compilers and owners achieves no greater specificity than "learned magicians" (I have myself argued for an Egyptian priestly context for the extant Greek magical papyri: Archiv fhr Religionsgeschichte 2,2 [2000]), it nevertheless takes seriously the social context in which such spell-collections would have arisen and been maintained.

One theme in Dickie's analysis that will provoke some interest is his elevation of the historical role of the sorceress. Whereas Chris Faraone portrayed the spells solicited and performed by ancient women as acts of desperation, attempting to hold onto their wayward menfolk (Ancient Greek Love Magic [Cambridge, MA 1999]), Dickie strives to unveil a demi-monde of predacious sorceresses and cut-throat courtesans, whose magic sought the collapse of households, the binding of innocent young men, and the elimination of competitors. It is a veritable Dickensian underworld that he envisions as the principal arena for magic, and aggressive women dominate it through displays of sorcery. Along with the insidious Madames who launch curses right and left around the Greek cities, we read about "the varied cast of holy women who made their way to the doors of rich women to prey on them" (133), the prophetesses who "wormed their way into the confidence of the famous and powerful and became part of their households" (166), and the "often impoverished old women who fought off the horrors of their existence with wine" (284) -- a cumulative portrait of phallic women that somewhat stretches the documentary evidence. It will be important for scholars of women in the Greek and Roman world to evaluate Dickie's and Faraone's contradictory models of women and private ritual.

Dickie's picture of the demi-monde and the hucksters and spell-mongers who emerged to prey on the innocent bears a startling resemblance to some older images of magic as an irrational soup of conflicting traditions that allowed unsavory elements to flourish and ultimately led the ancient world into intellectual darkness. Those who visited the temples and shrines of Roman Alexandria, for example, found not priests and traditional attendants but "mendicant holy men who lay in wait for their prey around the altars" (235). Unfortunately, by taking what was essentially an imperial Roman jurist's point of view on the place of magic in society, Dickie not only echoes the biases of Edward Gibbon and A. A. Barb but obscures the meaning of such ritual procedures -- procedures for healing, for negotiating life's exigencies, for locating power and aid in the world -- among their many practitioners across the social ladder. Empathy with one's subject should not be too much to ask of an historian, particularly since such gross judgements as Gibbon and Barb allowed themselves did nothing to enlighten their materials.

Eschewing both properly emic (subjectivist) and etic (heuristic) approaches to the subject of ancient magic, Dickie's work seems in many ways a step backward in the discussion of these materials. It harkens to a time when classicists applied terms of convenience to an antiquity they felt was not unlike their own times, imbuing these terms with personal judgments they believed followed from the evidence. Dickie is, to be sure, extraordinarily attentive to Greek and Latin terminology and to the idiosyncratic presentations of each literary work, and he makes the claim that magic should be understood in terms of the ancient authors who described it. Yet his use of ancient witnesses is remarkably uncritical, dispensing with any notion that misogynistic caricature, exotic stereotype, fear, or fantasy might have informed writers' perceptions of the world of mageia. And Dickie's own philological precision seems undermined as magic turns immediately from a delimited equivalent of mageia/magia in particular historical worlds into an umbrella term for all manner of ritual procedures over centuries of ancient history. Ritual practices both real and imagined like haruspices, necromancy, child-sacrifice, idolatry, and devil-worship become acceptable, rather than historically contextual, extensions of magic's conceptual field. And magic even comes to have a worldview of its own (and not just among its confused and prejudiced ancient observers): a pretense "to subvert the natural order...a way of bypassing or cheating the constraints that nature imposes" (140). Magic here becomes for Dickie -- not just his native informants -- an alternative, sub-scientific rationality, the error that James Frazer made a century ago in the Golden Bough. Despite generations of criticism by anthropologists (Malinowski, Evans Pritchard, Tambiah) and historians of ancient religion (Winkler, Graf, Versnel, Gager), this error seems to have continued among a certain stream of classicists, Barb and Luck being the most glaring examples. It is with regret that we see it woven into such a new and broad study as Dickie's.

Students of ancient history and religion will long be indebted to Matthew Dickie for arranging and retelling such an immense range of materials relevant to magic (widely defined), and those of theoretical bent will have much to consider in his discussions of social and gender roles. Those who consult this volume will need to pursue on their own the often voluminous prior scholarship on the texts he discusses, since Dickie's notes only rarely refer to these discussions. And it is to be hoped that Dickie's uncritical, if exhaustive, use of ancient literary representations and his vague, rather Roman use of the term 'magic' will convince future scholars of the value of social theory for confronting such perennially fraught categories.

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