Did Magic Matter? The Saliency of Magic in the Early Roman Empire
Published November 2013
Magic is usually assumed to have been ubiquitous and culturally significant in the early Roman Empire, something exemplified by Pliny the Elder’s claim that “there is no one who does not fear to be spell-bound by curse tablets” (Nat. 28.4.19). A variety of written and material evidence is commonly taken to be indicative of both the regular use of magic and widespread anxiety about its deployment.
However, this paper argues that if we attempt, having determined a contextually appropriate definition of magic, to gauge the prevalence and significance of magic in this period, it can be seen to have had little cultural salience. Not only is evidence for its presence more equivocal than usually presumed, but magic is found to be strikingly absent from major popular cultural sources that shed light on the presuppositions and preoccupations of most of the empire’s inhabitants, and to have had little explanatory or symbolic utility.
The paper then proceeds to suggest possible reasons for magic’s lack of salience in the early Empire, including the role of various sceptical discourses concerned with the supernatural in general and magic in particular, and the consequence of the largely agonistic context of its use on the limited occasions that it was employed.
Find out more about the article - on the De Gruyter website