Did People in Classical Antiquity Believe in Magic?

There is lots of evidence that magic was practised in antiquity, but is there any indication that people ever doubted the powers of sorcery?

Magic is a curious word to define. In antiquity, the term was bandied about between critics and apologists of opposed ideological traditions as, basically, anything practised by alternative groups, which is either unrecognisable from ones own practices, or perhaps too closely recognisable for comfort.

For practical terms, however, we might define it as any ritualistic practice which is designed to invoke a supernatural response – remaining aware that this definition heavily overlaps with religion. In the Graeco-Roman world, such ritualistic practices were commonplace. Papyrological finds, archaeological remains and literary accounts attest to a thriving culture of magic and supernatural manipulation.

Scholarly analyses of such subjects tend to focus on the exact nature of magical practices and their origins – but to what extent was the power of magic accepted as a reality by the society which practised it?

The power of disbelief

Plato mentions that those who believed they could create magical effects had difficulty persuading other people that “they really could do so” (Laws 11.933a), reflecting the probability that magical powers were commonly doubted, at least in Classical Athens. But doubting individual cases does not necessarily equate to believing something universally impossible.

Pliny, famous for polemically dismissing magicians as “deceptive” (Natural History 30.1), elsewhere promotes the use of amulets (22.9) and irrational cures which seem superstitious nowadays (e.g. 30.31, curing oedemata using dog vomit). The Hippocratic text On the Sacred Disease describes “conjurers, purificators, mountebanks and charlatans” as “excessively religious” – seemingly sceptical – but later advocates the benefits of “sacrificing and praying”.

Disbelief, then, was much less rigorous than today.

Laws about magic

But what of the wider public belief? Some signs of the general perception of magic can be seen in laws which proscribe sorcery. If magic was not held to be a realistic threat, then a society might not be likely to refer to it in its instituted laws. What is the point of forbidding something which people do not believe exists? Superstition in legislation is not uncommon even in modern Britain, where “blasphemy” was a defined offence until 2008 (Section 79 Criminal Justice and Immigration Act 2008), reflecting the sensitivities of significant segments of the population.

The fragmentarily known Law of the Twelve Tables, which collated the laws of the Roman Republic, included laws which inhibited magical practice. Anybody who paralysed or sickened another person using magical curses was to be executed (7.14), and anybody who prevented somebodys crops from growing, using magic, was to be sacrificed to Ceres (7.3). Oozing from these laws is genuine paranoia, and, of course, wide potential to be applied without evidence. This would certainly suggest that a strong belief in (and fear of) magic existed in Republican Rome.

These laws only punish extreme effects supposedly attributable to magic, however. Through the imperial period, superstition increased to the extent that anybody successfully accused of practising magic (regardless of specific effects) or even simply possessing magical texts could be “thrown to the wild beasts”, crucified, or publicly burnt (Paulus Opinions 5.23.17-18). Nonetheless, the inclusion of laws relating to superstitions does not mean that everybody shared the same beliefs.

Effective doubt

Nothing from antiquity better shows the specific scepticism of laws against magic than Apuleius argument defending himself when accused of practising wizardry to seduce his wife, who was older than he and had been a widow. Numerous ridiculous forms of evidence of sorcery were thrown against Apuleius, including that he had purchased fish (Defence 2.29), written verse (1.9), and did not have enough slaves (1.17), all of which were supposed to prove his guilt, and all of which he rejected as proving nothing and being totally unrelated to the crime.

Particularly telling is the prosecutions evidence that a “boy fell to the ground in Apuleius presence”, cited as proof of sorcery, which Apuleius argues was really the random effect of the “sudden stroke of disease” or even slipperiness of the ground (2.27).

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