BMCR 2002.05.09

Magic in the Roman World. Pagans, Jews and Christians

, Magic in the Roman world : pagans, Jews, and Christians. Religion in the first Christian centuries. New York: Routledge, 2001. xiii, 145 pages ; 23 cm.. ISBN 041520206X. $24.95.

The latest volume in the Routledge series Religion in the First Christian Centuries is envisaged by its author as a ‘short introduction to a bewildering topic’ (p. ix). Janowitz argues that the use of the word ‘magic’ and accusations of ‘magic’ were employed as polemical attacks on enemies of the religious or political establishment. She suggests that such charges ‘reveal social tensions, internecine battles, competition for power, and fear that other people have special powers’ (p.1). Drawing attention to the lack of the term ‘magic’ or ‘magician’ as a form of self-definition, Janowitz attempts to rehabilitate the ancient magician, to demonstrate that the practices which ancient writers called magic were little different from acceptable religious or ritual practice.

The introduction (pp. 1-8) could have done more to define the limits for this study. Janowitz avoids an in-depth discussion of modern scholarly literature and eschews technical vocabulary: for example, the terms ’emic’ and ‘etic’ do not occur. This might have been felt suitable for the ‘lively and accessible work’ promised by the publicity but Janowitz fails to present a clear picture of the relationship of this book to the vast body of research in this field.

Chapter One: ‘Greco-Roman, Christian and Jewish concepts of “magic”‘ (pp. 9-26) surveys the use of the terms mageia and magos in a variety of Roman, Christian and Rabbinic sources. The charge of ‘magic’ is seen as an elusive category even in a Roman legal context, and Janowitz usefully draws attention to the difficulties faced by Christian and Jewish sources in defending their position against suspect practices which seemed barely different from their own rites. Those familiar with Graf’s more exhaustive investigation of the terminology will find the chapter something of a disappointment. At times more attention needed to be paid to the course of the argument. It is not immediately clear what relevance fourth century BC Greek sources have to do with approaches of the first three centuries AD (Plato, p. 11; Hippocrates, p.16). More could have been made of the connection between magic and superstitio (p. 26) where Theophrastus Characters 16 is used to explain the Latin term. Janowitz misses an opportunity to make the association earlier in the chapter when she refers to the Greco-Roman denounciation of Jewish practices as ‘magic’ (p. 17). Tacitus refers to those same practices as superstitio (Tac. Hist. 5.8.2; 5.13.1). Grodzynski’s article (Grodzynski, D. ‘ superstitio,’ REA 76, (1974), 36-60), which remains the best discussion of the historical development of the term in the Roman world, could have been usefully employed and should have appeared in the bibliography.

In Chapter Two, ‘Daimons and angels and the world of exorcism’ (pp. 27-46), J. warns against the dangers of attempting to systematise daimonology when different views or theories may exist in the same author (pp. 34-35). Daimons are intrinsically associated with possession of the human body, and it is during the first through third centuries AD that the essential vocabulary of exorcism is established. Exorcism is seen an integral feature of the late antique world, where the human body had become a battleground for conflicts between human and supernatural forces (p. 46). J. argues, therefore, that exorcism rituals have little to do with magic until they are labelled as such in the modern world. The suggestions made in this chapter are some of the more valuable ones she makes, but it desperately needed a clearer exposition of the rise of angelology and daimonology. Again sources are indiscriminately mingled (on pp. 32-33 Hesiod rubs shoulders with Josephus and Tertullian, Plutarch with Homer). An addition to the bibliography, given the intended readership, should have been Valerie Flint’s contribution to Ankarloo and Clark’s collection of papers (B. Ankerloo and S. Clark (eds.) (1999) Witchcraft and Magic in Europe Philadelphia), ‘The demonisation of magic and sorcery’, which offers a useful guide to the development of the concept of daimon and the appropriation of ‘demonic’ powers for specifically Christian purposes.

The title of the third chapter, ‘Ancient rites for gaining lovers’ (pp. 47-58), suggests a more restricted discussion than it contains. The chapter begins with a brief discussion of two texts, one Hebrew and one Greek, on how to make a woman fall in love with a man. J. critiques modern views that have imputed the term magic to the texts (in the case of the Hebrew text she notes, significantly, that terms for magic occur nowhere in The Book of Secrets). The remainder of the chapter attempts to demonstrate that the suspect goals — material gain, cursing, condemning and generally thwarting enemies — that are associated with magical texts, were also a feature of ancient religious ritual. Furthermore, the use of ‘voodoo’ dolls and amulets mediated between the divine forces and the human realm in the same way as cult icons functioned in more conventional rituals. Following this argument, love rituals are viewed as a ‘special type of cultural activity’ (p. 55) which fit into ‘contemporary notions of cause and effect’ (p. 58).

‘Using natural forces for divine goals: Maria the Jewess and early alchemy’ (pp. 59-69) disputes the modern tendency to characterise alchemy as ‘magic’. This chapter has a useful descriptive section on the specific contribution of Maria to the field of science. Rightly J. argues that early alchemy represents the beginnings of scientific enquiry and an attempt to harness the natural energy of the cosmos to human ends, an aim that could easily be regarded with scepticism by external viewers. However, interesting though the character of Maria may be, a greater range of examples should have supported the central thesis.

Chapter Five, ‘Divine power, human hands. Becoming gods in the first centuries’ (pp. 70-85), considers Jewish and Greco-Roman concepts of divinisation (pp. 72-78), deification techniques in early Christian texts (pp.78-80) and finally the standardisation of ascent techniques (pp. 80-85). J. tries to demonstrate that the emphasis on ritual to gain access to the higher realm does not differentiate the magical act from the religious. However, I was unsure whether the chapter was about the figure of the magician (as stated on p. 70) or about the technique of divinisation (p. 85, comparing the rituals in the Greek Magical Papyri) which is the main focus of the chapter.

The final chapter, ‘”Even the decent women practice witchcraft.” Magic and gender in late antiquity’ (pp. 86-96), discusses the over-representation of women in the history of accusations of magic. The power of women, especially through the significance of their menstrual cycle, makes them ultimately suspect. What is regarded as ‘magic’ in Greco-Roman and Biblical literature is often simply the continuation of religious rituals ‘in the face of social and theological change’ (p. 94). This, of course, is how some Roman sources viewed superstitio. The discussion of the continuation of Greco-Roman and Biblical anxieties in rabbinic literature is very successful. In rabbinic literature charges of magic sometimes conceal the social role of women in providing medical cures and acting as midwives. For Janowitz the rabbinic literature is indicative of the hostile imagination of the literary sources. Its women are unclean and dangerous, and every woman is a potential witch (p. 96). Unfortunately, this chapter sits uneasily with those that precede it since it is not concerned primarily with ritual acts.

In the conclusion Janowitz points to the importance of the first three centuries AD for the development of ideas regarding magic. Importantly, she argues that the point of her study is not simply that magic is another term for religion but that there are parallels between magic and religious ritual which make it much more difficult to separate out the normative from the heretical (p. 99). I can find no fault with this conclusion, and Janowitz has stuck to her task, albeit erratically, in arriving there.

All of this Janowitz covers in just 100 pages (45 are devoted to notes, bibliography and indices). I am not convinced that, in this brief excursus, J. has done justice to the subject matter, the lengthy bibliography (pp. 117-128), or extensive primary sources (pp. 129-142).

In her attempts to rehabilitate magical practices and their practitioners, Janowitz plays down the mystical, esoteric and arcane nature of rites that took place outside the regulated control of religious authorities, whether Greco-Roman, Christian or Jewish. Yet this work is useful for its introduction to the Jewish and Rabbinic sources (set against a Roman backdrop), many of which will be new to the non-expert in Jewish studies. However, those expecting to find a clear analysis of the kinds of rituals found in the Greek Magical Papyri or the magicians and witches of the classical literary sources would be better served by consulting Dickie’s recent volume. Janowitz does not go far enough in outlining the essential debates on the relationship between magic and religion. The chapters are uneven and the path towards her sound conclusion not always clearly marked. I fear that the newcomer looking for a comprehensive introduction to the world of ancient magic in the first Christian centuries will need greater assistance in coming to an understanding of the nature of the source material and the character of this bewildering topic than is offered by this volume.

I have a few minor quibbles. On p. 59 Cicero’s friend Nigidius Figulus has a name change to Nigidus Filigus. The brief reference to his works (grammar, theology and the natural sciences) fails to do justice to their esoteric range. Moreover, the surviving fragments of his ‘lost’ work are usefully collated by Swoboda (Swoboda, A. P. Nigidii Figuli Operum Reliquiae Amsterdam, 1964). There is a major secondary source on Nigidius Figulus by della Casa [A. della Casa, Nigidio Figulo. Rome, 1962). His use and knowledge of magic is discussed by M. Dickie in Jordan, Montgomery and Thomassen (1999), pp. 168-172 and now more recently in Magic and Magicians in the Greco-Roman World London, 2001, ch.7). Caesar’s divinisation might have been elucidated by references to S. Weinstock, (1971) Divus Iulius Oxford and, more recently, J. T. Ramsey, and A. Lewis Licht (1997) The Comet of 44 B.C. and Caesar’s Funeral Games Atlanta. More specifically, the conclusions of Faraone’s important contribution to Greek love magic (C.A. Faraone, (1999) Ancient Greek Love Magic Camb. Mass.) would have better informed Janowitz’ arguments in chapters Three and Six. This is especially true where she chooses to comment on literary portrayals such as the witch in Theocritus Second Idyll or Medea.

More surprising are the omissions of the collections of articles in B. Ankerloo and S. Clark (eds.) (1999) Witchcraft and Magic in Europe Philadelphia and D. Jordan, H. Montogomery and E. Thomassen (eds.) (1999) The World of Ancient Magic, Papers from the first International Samson Eitrem Seminar at the Norwegian Institute at Athens, 4-8 May 1997, Bergen. In the case of the latter the papers by Braarvig and Thomassen discuss exactly the kinds of issues addressed by Janowitz. Thomassen’s conclusion could have provided J. with a clarification of her own views as to the status of magic in the first Christian centuries.1

Finally, the volume is not assisted by patchy copy editing and errors of consistency, particularly with regard to abbreviations (most of which do not conform to the established norms) and to Greek citations.2


1. ‘Magic is the appropriation of ritual power for personal ends, offsetting the balance between the individual and the collective which forms the sanctioned norm of ritual practice in societies. Magic depends on normal ritual and relates dialectically to it, by combining features which are the same as the ones performed in normal rituals — hymns, prayers, invocations, sacrifices etc. — with features which are deliberately different from it. A kind of intertextuality thus operates between magic and the official religious ritual forms. This suggests that the most fruitful approach is neither to make an absolute distinction between religious ritual and magical practices, nor to pretend there is no difference. Historically, religious rites and magic have always existed side by side — there is never one without the other. Theoretically, too, the mutual relationship and interdependence of the two should be more basically interesting than religion and magic studied separately’ (Thomassen p.65).

2. P. xi has various problems: titles are not all capitalised (for example, in Apuleius, On the God of Socrates or Cicero, De Republica or ‘In Defense of Cluentius’; oddly De Divinatione is not translated in keeping with other titles and some titles have both the English translation and the Latin or Greek title (Learned Banquet/Deipnosophists; The Republic/De Republica; the works of Clement of Alexandria; De Imperio Cn. Pompei is oddly translated as ‘Speech for Pompey’ and the In Vatinio becomes ‘About Vatinius’ instead of ‘Against Vatinius’; ‘Paedigogicus’ may be a typographical error; Diodorus: Siculus should read ‘Diodorus Siculus:’; Sacred Diseases, On the Sacred Disease as it is translated at p. 16 later; p. xii has minor errors: no space at Civil War and misspellings of Decalogue and Timaeus. There is reiteration on pp. 3-4 and n.7 on the shortcomings of earlier approaches to magic; on p. 11 with n. 15, the Cod. Theod. refers not to Roman augurs but particularly to haruspices and is therefore an injunction, as the text makes clear, against sacrifices and not bird watching; p. 12 ‘ veneficium were poisons’ should read veneficii; the capital Φ in Φάρμακον should be φ; p. 16 the translation of ἀλαζόνες as ‘humbugs’ does not adequately convey the force of ‘charlatan’ that the word contains; p. 19 delete , after Disc; . after CC; p. 25 ‘lead’ should be ‘led’; pp. 25-26 this sentence has become over-generalised; p.38 ἐχορκίδζω, delete the ‘ δ‘; p. 40. n. 46, these Greek words are not in Pliny, NH 28.6 which in any case should probably be 28.11; p. 46 there is exact repetition from the previous paragraph of ‘battle against evil was fought one body at a time’; p. 50 παρεδρος should read πάρεδρος; ὀρκιχω should be ὀρκίζω; p.54 ‘Harlicarnusses’ should be ‘Halicarnassus’; p. 55 the first king of Rome was not Numa; p. 64 I am not certain that ιοσις is correct, in any case it is missing the appropriate breathing and accent; p.65 ‘Apicus’ should be ‘Apicius’; p. 66 for ἐκφνσαω read ἐκφυσάω; Θευγι has me stumped but it also is missing an accent; p. 75 for ἀπόθέωσις read ἀποθέωσις; p. 77 ἀπαθανατίχω should be ἀπαθανατίζω; p.79 εἷναι should be εἶναι; insert an ‘i’ into ‘Stromates’; p. 80 read ‘lead’ for ‘led’; ἄνοδος for ἀνοδος; p. 82 ‘Since divination … is a sort of domestication’ is a convoluted and confusing sentence; p. 90 repeats, in very similar terms, p. 24 regarding the necessity for Sanhedrin members to be skilled in magic; p. 98 an ‘r’ to be inserted into ‘gounding’; p. 105, n.29 and also p.118, I do not understand why InPlatRemp is used as an abbreviation instead of InPlatRep; p. 111, n. 50 there is no Latin word drastike, this is presumably meant to read ‘Greek word’; p. 112, n.11 άπαθανατιχω should read ἀπαθανατίζω; p. 112, n. 23 read ‘Polybius’ for ‘Polyibus’; p. 113, n.26 ‘Getea’ should be ‘Getae’; p. 118 Ecloga Chronogrphia should be Chronographia; l’etude should be l’étude; p. 123 insert ‘st’ after ‘Again’ in the Knivelson reference.