Magic in Roman North Africa

I. Introduction

When Apuleius of Madaura was put on trial for magic in the year 158 C.E., at several points during his defense speech he discussed the traditions of magic in Greek and Roman societies as if magic were a distant phenomenon. What he did not mention was that what we call "magic" was everywhere a fact of daily life, inevitably encountered at some point by everyone who was present, from the judge Claudius Maximus to the lowest slaves brought in as witnesses. Although relatively little evidence of magical practices in Roman North Africa survives, magic certainly was a part of life for many. That Apuleius was charged with using magic testifies not only to the concern many felt over this phenomenon, but also that inhabitants of the region took it for granted that people who used magic could be right in their midst, and that they could come from any level of society.[[1]]

Throughout the Roman Empire, magic and experts in its use were visible parts of society. Potentially, some form of magic could be encountered at every turn. If one visited a marketplace, there might be an astrologer willing to sell his interpretations of the heavenly bodies; nearby, an expert in potent herbs and incantations that would magnify plants' healing powers might be selling the fruits of recent forays through the fields and woods; in an adjacent building, an official such as a clerk or scribe, moonlighting by offering his writing skills, could be approached and asked to prepare a metal curse tablet. If one were to pay any of those professionals for their services, at least during the reign of the Emperor Augustus, one might pay with a coin featuring the Emperor's horoscope -- an image reproduced as a sure sign that Augustus's death was years away, and that those with designs on succeeding him ought to delay or abandon their plans. After leaving the market, one would notice that several houses and buildings had stone figurines and mosaics designed to ward off harm of all sorts. Continuing down the street, one might greet a friend or stranger, and notice that he or she was wearing a necklace or ring bearing a protective amulet. These and other manifestations of magic may have been quite common; and, that we have no evidence of routine prosecutions for such practices would seem to indicate that they were generally viewed as normal.

Though magic could not have been always present in people's minds, it was never that far away. Magic was enough of a commonplace that some in society could believe themselves to be a victim of another's magic, and blame tragedies and their own failures on a magic curse. Those who wished to employ magic, either as a retardant against an opponent's curse or in order to affect someone's actions by means of a binding spell, knew whom to see in order to commission a magic tablet or amulet -- the wealth of archaeological evidence proves that the identities of professional magicians were no secret. Some individuals, however, owned their own handbooks for magic, and could attempt to handle by themselves a problem that required a magical solution.

That there were different sorts of magic-users calls into question how we use the seemingly simple word "magician." A professional who sought out clients should certainly be called by this name. However, a person who on one occasion had employed magic to seduce someone or to protect himself from accusers during a court case should not similarly be labeled a magician. Perhaps the term "magic-user" is more apt in such cases. Similarly, one can differentiate between professionals who sold their services and those individuals who attempted to undertake magical practices on their own, perhaps following the instructions of one of the magical handbooks that were apparently popular in antiquity.

Compared to other parts of the Mediterranean region, especially Egypt, North Africa during the Roman period does not appear to have been a hotbed of magical activities. There are not numerous literary references among Roman authors to North Africa as a center for magicians, as there are for Egypt. However, enough archaeological and literary evidence does exist to show that magic was certainly present, and we can use this evidence to reconstruct partially the role of magic in the society of Roman North Africa at the time of Apuleius's trial. This is discussed in the following sections:

II. Literary Evidence

III. Buyers and Sellers

III(a) True Professionals

III(b) Diviners

III(c) Charlatans and Frauds

IV. The North African Finds

V. Magic at Eye Level

VI. Society vs. Magic


II. Literary Evidence

Magic in Roman North Africa is hardly mentioned in surviving literature; indeed, the only significant piece of literary evidence is Apuleius's defense speech, which is more about attitudes towards magic than actual practices. Only a tiny fraction of surviving Greek and Latin literature focuses on the North African provinces, so that references to magic in the region are negligible, especially from the period before Apuleius's lifetime. Roughly twenty years after the trial, though, another young African of some standing in the community -- and one more politically ambitious than Apuleius -- is said to have consulted an astrologer out of concern for his future. The year was 175 C.E., and Avidius Cassius had rebelled in the East against the emperor Marcus Aurelius. This and other events must have been cause for concern for many officials, and this one, a newly-minted tribune named Septimius Severus, was no different. According to a later source,

About this time, also, being worried about the future, [Septimius Severus] had recourse to an astrologer (mathematicus) in a certain city of Africa. The astrologer, when he had cast the horoscope, saw high destinies in store for him, but added: "Tell me your own nativity and not that of another man." And when Severus swore an oath that it was really his, the astrologer revealed to him all the things that did later come to pass." (SHA Septimius Severus II.8-9; Loeb trans.)

Severus did indeed become emperor, in the year 193 C.E. This story makes him one of many emperors from the Early Principate who were linked to stories of similar predictions of power: every young aristocrat probably could have found an astrologer willing to confirm his dearest hopes in exchange for money; those who actually became emperor could recount these stories to add to their legitimacy; incorrect predictions were wisely kept secret, and are lost to us. The work in which this passage is found, the Historia Augusta, is generally considered spurious and untrustworthy, perhaps even a work of forgery. Although the source is worthy of skepticism, there is little doubt that Severus believed in astrology, prophetic dreams, omens, and other forms of divination, for it is testified to by a more reputable historian, as well as in several other passages in the Historia Augusta.[[2]]

For our purposes, what is important about the life of Septimius Severus is that he was an important native of North Africa, well-educated, who believed that knowing the future was possible and consulted those who claimed they could share it with him. According to the Historia Augusta, he may even have dabbled in learning what Apuleius had called "the science of the stars," which was later described as "a study in which, like most Africans, [Severus] was very proficient."[[3]] Although calling most North Africans astrologers must have been an exaggeration, it does indicate that they were acquainted with astrology, and very probably other forms of divination and perhaps magic as well. Most of the literary evidence for this, however, is found in the writings of Christian writers who lived in subsequent centuries.

The most famous of the Church Fathers from North Africa, St. Augustine, consulted astrologers in his early days, but he refused to involve himself in any magical practices. In his autobiographical work Confessions, Augustine reports that he was once approached by a professional magician who offered to help him win a poetry recital contest he was entering. Augustine refused the help of this individual, who presumably had intended to prepare a curse tablet that would bind the tongues of Augustine's opponents and thus enable Augustine to outperform them. Augustine also had encounters with diviners and clairvoyants, whose abilities impressed him but whose services he never sought.[[4]]

Although such literary references to magic in Roman North Africa are scarce, the archaeological evidence for magic leaves no doubt that it was indeed present in society. Such evidence -- along with Septimius Severus's consultation, a similar prophecy regarding the imperial power four decades later, Augustine's encounter, and Apuleius's contention that Rufinus had consulted Chaldaean diviners[[5]] -- demonstrates that magic was important enough to form a small industry, with buyers and sellers finding one another and doing business involving magical goods and services.


III. Buyers and Sellers

Early in Apuleius's novel The Golden Ass, also named Metamorphoses, his hero Lucius describes a recent experience that was a familiar one for many throughout the ancient Mediterranean world: an encounter with a professional diviner who was making himself available for consultations. As Lucius tells it,

At Corinth [in Greece] where I live, there is a Chaldaean visitor right now throwing the whole city everywhere into an uproar with his marvelous oracular responses, collecting donations for his public announcements of fate's secrets. He tells what day will make marriage-bonds strong or wall-foundations lasting, which day is advantageous for the businessman, illustrious for the traveler, or seasonable for sailing. When I asked him about the outcome of this trip of mine, he gave several strange and quite contradictory responses: on the one hand my reputation will really flourish, but on the other I will become a long story, an unbelievable tale, a book in several volumes. (Apuleius, Metamorphoses 2.12ff.; Loeb trans.)

In the case of this Chaldaean prognosticator, whose name Diophanes stems from "Zeus" and "enlightenment," it soon becomes apparent that he is not all that skilled or honest, and the episode quickly takes a comic turn.

Despite Apuleius's constant need to be playful and lightly mocking in his novel, his description rings true in a number of ways. Throughout the Mediterranean world, such figures did exist and were indeed asked such questions. Hundreds of astrological texts survive, preserved in Byzantine codices and buried papyrus scraps, and they often pertain to such matters as the optimal times to begin a journey, plan a wedding, or complete a business transaction. Astrology, which was in part the art of picking the most auspicious moment for any activity, was a specialty of marketplace prognosticators, many of whom assumed the exotic identity of a Chaldaean magos because the original Chaldaeans, a sect of Babylonian priests, were credited with having developed astrology hundreds -- some said thousands -- of years before. Such diviners could act as oracles for the masses and were quite popular -- after all, why go to a mountaintop oracle, when an oracle would soon come to you? -- and as such, they played a part in the unofficial religious life of the community.

In addition to astrology, these prophetic figures could be skilled in any of a number of forms of divination, including interpreting dreams, reading the entrails of animals, or drawing meaning from the flights of birds. Some took their role seriously and had studied hard to acquire their arcane knowledge; those who were especially learned gained clients among the upper classes and were presumably better compensated. Others, however, were undoubtedly frauds, clothing their prophecies in tricks and charlatanry so as to impress their audience and separate the gullible from their money. But divination and prophecy were not the only forms of magic available on the market. Other sorts of professionals made their skills in magic available for a price -- witness the individual who approached St. Augustine[[6]] -- or hawked magical goods such as protective charms or natural items to which were attributed magical healing properties, such as herbs or parts of animals.

Archaeological and literary evidence from Roman times leave no doubt that there were flourishing markets for all sorts of magical goods and services. Since not everyone was skilled in these arts, usually a person who wished to apply magic to a problem had need to consult an expert. In some cases, that person would encounter a professional who took his craft seriously; in other cases, he risked being fooled and defrauded by a charlatan who might use various forms of hocus-pocus to satisfy his customers that they were receiving quality service.


III(a). True Professionals

In The Acts of the Apostles, it is written that Paul of Tarsus arrived in Ephesus, on the western coast of Asia Minor, and spent two years preaching the gospel and working healing miracles. Word of his power, as well as that of Jesus, spread, and certain "itinerant Jewish exorcists" attempted to usurp their powers by exorcising in Jesus's name. A dramatic failure on the part of several prominent exorcists became well known,

And a number of those who practiced magic arts brought their books together and burned them in the sight of all; and they counted the value of them and found it came to fifty thousand pieces of silver.(Acts 19:1-19; verse 19 quoted.)

Although included in Acts as one of many examples of conversion by those confronted with the gospel, the incident shows that ownership of instruction manuals for magic was commonplace someplace other than Egypt. In all likelihood, the contents of these burned books were quite similar to the texts of the "magic papyri" unearthed in Egypt, which largely deal with healing and medical magic.[[7]] It is quite probable that such works were present in some households throughout the Mediterranean region, just as today many families have at least one medical reference book. However, some forms of magic, such as divination, binding and cursing, and preparing special amulets -- which are also represented in the magic papyri - might have been better left to experts. Certain professionals could be found in public centers; others had to be sought out; and, apparently, some even went door-to-door seeking customers, as was done in Plato's time.[[8]]

In Roman North Africa, as was the case everywhere else, astrologers and other diviners must have been quite visible and easily available for consultations. Prefabricated generic amulets and charms, as well as those specially commissioned, were probably sold out in the open to those seeking to prevent illness, just as potent herbs and drugs were available to those in need of a cure. And for special circumstances, such as cursing an opponent or preparing an amulet to protect against a specific disease or even consulting a god or spirit for an oracle, it was necessary to find an expert and commission his services. These professionals had access to traditions of magical knowledge, often contained in professional handbooks that were too complex for most laymen to use, and for a fee could provide whatever was required - a curse tablet, an engraved gem, a paper amulet, or an oracular revelation from a god or spirit.[[9]] Although for some these fees were a chief means o f support, it seems likely that others had ordinary jobs, such as scribe or craftsman, and merely moonlighted by preparing objects of magical power. Such persons do not conform to our widely-held conceptualizations of magicians and sorcerers, and yet they were the ones who dabbled in magic while their clients could remain somewhat aloof from the process.

The weather in North Africa, unlike Egypt, has not been conducive to preserving papyrus, so, with one exception,[[10]] the only archaeological finds that indicate the popularity of magic in Roman North Africa are curse tablets, or defixiones, and amulets and talismans that have been found in Carthage, Hadrumetum, and other parts of North Africa (discussed later in The African Finds and Magic at Eye Level). There is little doubt that these items were mostly produced by professionals. The 120 metal curse tablets from North Africa in particular yield abundant clues that they were professionally made.[[11]] In general, producing a curse tablet was not a simple process, but rather a complex one that required prayers, invocations, purifications, and other rituals -- in addition to the basic act of writing, which was a skill that not everyone possessed.[[12]] Although it might have been possible for an individual to come up with his own version of a defixio, it probably made more sense to go to a professional who possessed secret knowledge and knew methods that had been "proven" over many centuries: if something was worth doing, it was worth having done well. The involvement of these professionals in preparing curse tablets is actually indicated by several patterns that can be detected in the finds from North Africa and elsewhere in the Mediterranean region. These patterns demonstrate that a definite magical tradition was known to those who had produced them, judging from the physical nature of the curse tablets, where they were deposited, and what was written upon them.

Most of the curse tablets found in Roman North Africa are lead sheets, and this conforms to the tradition of using lead or a lead alloy for curse tablets, which dates back at least as far as classical Athens. The use of lead in defixiones was probably common knowledge, but it was also testified to in at least one magical handbook:

An excellent spell for silencing, for subjecting, and for restraining: Take lead from a cold-water pipe and make a lamella and inscribe it with a bronze stylus, as shown below, and set it with a person who has died prematurely... (P.G.M. VII.396-404; trans. R.H. Hock in H.D. Betz (1986))

Although such metals as gold, silver and bronze were available -- indeed, they were commonly used for amulets -- lead was the most popular for curse tablets. A major reason for this must have been that it was far cheaper, and therefore made curse tablets more affordable; or, as the above spell makes clear, one could even steal lead from the public plumbing system. In addition, though, there may have been a spiritual significance, for some lead curse tablets compare the coldness of the lead to the cold lifelessness of the corpse whose spirit is invoked by the spell. After the lead strip had been inscribed, it was folded up and often pierced with a nail, the symbolism of which is lost to us. Occasionally hair or clothing of the intended victim -- or even a tiny wax or lead figurine -- was enclosed before it was sealed; this was intended to give power over the victim, and may also have been meant as the equivalent to giving a bloodhound the scent of his quarry. Lead defixiones and magical papyri have elsewhere been found encasing hair, though not in North Africa; however, several defixiones pierced by nails have been found in Carthage.[[13]] Although the use of nails in this manner may well have been common knowledge, its frequent use in North Africa shows an adherence to tradition that could be expected of professionals.

The locations where these defixiones were deposited also followed a specific pattern that indicates a knowledge of magical traditions. Curse tablets were meant to be placed in a hidden location, either buried in a tomb or submerged in a body of water, such as a spring or river, or a man-made well. It has been speculated that curse tablets were disposed of in this manner so that their target would be unlikely to encounter them and take defensive measures; of course, there may well have been a spiritual significance.[[14]] A very large number of the tablets from Carthage and elsewhere in North Africa were placed in tombs and were addressed to the residing corpse-spirit, often with the same or similar forms of address. Some tablets, however, were placed very close to their targets: erotic curse tablets could be placed at the home of the object of desire, while in the case of Carthage, some of the defixiones meant to affect the outcome of horse-races were concealed within the circus near the starting gate. What archaeological discoveries cannot tell us is whether curse tablets were deposited by the people who had commissioned them or by those who prepared them. Dropping one in a spring or well was quite simple, but violating a grave site or sneaking into a racecourse was a much more difficult matter, and it is possible that the fee paid by the client for preparation of the tablet also covered this service.[[15]]

The inscribed texts also often reveal themselves to be the work of professionals, both in their writing style and content. The most obvious clue that a tablet was initially prepared by someone other than the user is that some tablets have been found which feature the name of the victim squeezed into a space that was left for it. Such "fill in the blank" tablets clearly are the work of experts, who would have supplied the preinscribed lead sheet and completed it using information provided by the client.[[16]] The ability to write was far from universal among Romans and, although many people possessed this skill, scribes and others who made their living from writing had especially fine handwriting. Curse tablets written by a practiced hand, therefore, can be assumed to have been produced by someone with training, such as a scribe or government clerk, who took advantage of his writing skills to earn extra income. Some of the curse tablets found in North Africa do show such evidence of professional involvement, since they appear to have been written by trained hands. In some cases, it is clear that the preparer was better trained in penmanship than magic, since the text is legible but unclear, as if copied from a handbook by one who did not fully understand what he was writing.[[17]] Archaeologists have even found examples from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region of different curse tablets having been written in the same hand, which strongly indicates that they were the work of a professional who was serving different clients.[[18]]

In addition to physical clues that tablets were prepared by professionals, the wording of the texts often indicates that certain tablets were made by either the same person or by different persons who had copied their spells from the same magic handbooks.[[19]] The magical divine names and mystical words featured on the tablets, as well as the formulaic styles in which instructions to the divinity were given, indicate that wording a curse tablet was an art based on a tradition. That these magical phrases and names which appear on curse tablets throughout the Mediterranean region match those contained in the surviving copies of handbooks for magic shows that this tradition was learned in part from such instructional texts, which must have been widely circulated. These handbooks, which were only preserved in Egypt, provide numerous examples of magical formulas and words that were to be spoken or written. Thus, when curse tablets from an area have similar texts, this cannot be a coincidence: they could only have been based on the same or similar sources, and were quite possibly prepared by the same person.[[20]] Since many curse tablets from North Africa feature very similar magical words and phrases, as well as phrases that match those in the Egyptian texts, it is evident that the same handbooks were used by many different people, most likely professionals who shared and maintained the traditions contained in these works. In addition, several curse tablets from North Africa featured texts that formed a triangle, with the top lines the longest and the remaining lines becoming shorter until the last line, which had but one word. Having the words of a written spell form a shape was common practice throughout the Mediterranean region, and once again demonstrates the handiwork of an expert. (Click here for an example.)

Although the metal sheet, text, and placement of defixiones are the only aspects of their preparation that we can still observe, it is known that there was more work involved than just inscribing, folding, and depositing a tablet. The magic papyri which give instructions for curse tablets make it clear that prayers and rituals were often just as much a part of the preparation of a defixio as inscribing the text; in fact, scholars believe that earlier curse tablets had most of their text spoken, and that only over time did more detailed instructions to the divinities invoked become written rather than spoken. This conclusion is supported by one of the more curious finds, a group of tablets from France that were found rolled and nailed but with no texts, as if the binding spells had been spoken aloud and the tablets were merely punctuation.[[21]]

A magical papyrus text from Egypt, part of the same papyrus quoted earlier, demonstrates that inscribing the text was only a single step in the complex process of preparing a curse tablet; furthermore, the very complexity of these instructions is good indication that they were written by professionals and for professionals to perform, and that amateurs trying to save money by creating their own defixiones would usually have been unable to match the performance of a skilled and trained expert. Though from Egypt, the papyrus text in question, P.G.M. VII.429-58, is appropriate for this discussion in part because it gives instructions for invoking the help of a god -- in this case, the Egyptian deity Osiris, who is mentioned in at least one curse tablet from North Africa -- and other divinities in order to prevent a chariot team from winning, and such restraining spells against chariot teams represents the most common form of North African defixio. Described as "a restraining [rite] for anything" that "works even on chariots" but can cause sickness and harm to anyone, the instructions call for taking lead from a plumbing system, making it into a sheet, and inscribing upon it magical words and names followed by what one wishes to happen. Then, rather than simply tossing the tablet down the shaft of a nearby well, it was necessary to consecrate the tablet with "bitter aromatics," wrap it with cord or thread, and bury or sink it in a "river or land or sea or stream or coffin or in a well." If one chose to use black thread, it was necessary to repeat a formula while tying 365 knots; the spell would last so long as the formula was repeated daily over the spot where the tablet was deposited. Similarly elaborate systems may well have been used for many of the defixiones discovered in North Africa, even if the magical tradition in the region was but a fraction as rich and complex as that of Egypt. For an amateur, such an elaborate performance might be daunting, and could require the assistance of one with experience to ensure successful completion of the process.

Just as tablets with binding spells and curses were often commissioned for a fee and prepared by a professional, so, too, were protective charms of all sorts. As was the case with defixiones, creating quality amulets and talismans often required expertise. For an amulet on papyrus or a metal strip (lamella), there would be the same need for someone who was able to write; in the cases of magic gems, a skilled engraver was needed to fashion the rough stone into the polished likeness of a god. Just as Apuleius visited Cornelius Saturninus in order to have his Mercury charm carved, countless others throughout the Mediterranean world must have visited craftsmen with similar requests. Some of these artisans may have only carved the figurine or engraved the image, but others, being more adept in magical practices, would have known the proper words to engrave or even recite over their work in order to consecrate it. Similarly, many of the amulets with text, such as those written on papyrus or lamellae, feature magical names and formulaic phrases that indicate that they were worded by people with significant knowledge of magic. Further evidence for professional involvement in preparing amulets comes from a papyrus message uncovered in Egypt, which instructs:

The amulet against tonsillitis for the gold plate, send it to Sarmates, having copied it on a slip of papyrus word for word. (Suppl. Mag. no. 5 (= P.Oxy. XLII, no. 3068)) (Click here for a photograph of the papyrus.)

Neither the writer nor addressee is identified, but the papyrus seems to be a prescription for an amulet. Although obscurely worded, the message appears to have instructed an individual to copy the text for an amulet so that the amulet could later be prepared by Sarmates.[[22]] It should be noted, however, that not all amulets were prepared with such care and professionalism: some appear to have nonsense words that were perhaps intended to be perceived as exotic and magical, and it is also highly doubtful that each amulet-maker would have performed the elaborate rites that were often required to invest the amulets with power.[[23]] Furthermore, many amulets were apparently made by individuals without help from professionals. Evidently, some amulets were simple enough that an individual could make one himself: one Roman consul, for example, is reported to have written the Greek letters *P*A on a papyrus strip and worn it as a necklace in order to cure opthalmia.[[24]]

The surviving amulets from Roman North Africa, being few in number, shed little light on the matter of professional involvement. Of the inscribed texts on lamellae, the most relevant example is an erotic charm found in Tunisia. Written on a gold sheet, the spell is in the form of a magic "sword," such as the one described in a magic papyrus from Egypt known as "The Sword of Dardanos".[[2 5]] Measuring 7.0 by 4.3 centimeters, the sheet features a depiction of a sword which is surrounded by magical symbols and words, and inside of which are more magic symbols and the command, "May she go mad [with desire]." Such elaborateness clearly draws on a magical tradition. Some of the magic words link this item to the known foreign traditions: the first seven lines of magical words and symbols are very close to those of an amulet for victory found in Bostra, Jordan; furthermore, Oistrael, an angel of sexual frenzy whose name appears in this "sword" spell, is also alluded to in the "Sword of Dardanos" spell. These three factors indicate that this gold lamella from Tunisia must have been done by someone with access to highly specialized knowledge of magic. The other amulets from North Africa, including another lamella and several magic gems that have been published, feature mostly names of gods, angels and spirits of magic, with little elaboration and, though most likely the majority were created by experts, they show no strong links to arcane practices.

Of the phylacteries that once guarded the properties and buildings of Roman North Africa, one in particular stands out as an indication of specialized knowledge. Set in a field 120 kilometers southwest of Carthage was a small stone monument with an inscription calling upon certain magical beings to protect the surrounding crops from hail, locusts, rust and wind. Beginning with the invocation of the spirits or gods and then proceeding to their instructions, the nature of the text is clearly akin to curse tablets and written amulets, and it was probably written by someone with knowledge of such matters. Indeed, several of the magical words of the first three lines occur in defixiones and other magical materials from elsewhere in the Mediterranean region as well as North Africa. That the inscription was written in Greek rather than Latin is another sign that it was worded by an expert, since Greek was quite rare in the region but was prominent in defixiones and amulets because most magical reference books were in Greek.[[26]] Not all phylacteries need have been prepared by magicians. The numerous mosaic decorations and phrases meant to repel the Evil Eye, for example, give no indication whatsoever that they were based on any arcane knowledge or tradition.

The roughly 150 curse tablets, amulets and talismans from North Africa that have been studied generally show a high level of magical sophistication that is most likely to have come from experts with access to knowledge that had been circulating throughout the Mediterranean region and who had the necessary writing skills to produce such items. Clearly, there was a strong market for magical goods and services for both protective and aggressive magic. In addition, although archaeological evidence does not show it and we have only brief testimonies in the works of a handful of authors, there were undoubtedly numerous diviners trading on their abilities to predict the future -- or make clients think they could.


III(b). Divination, Astrology and Prophecy in Roman Society

In both Greek and Roman society, it was an accepted fact to most that the future could be learned through various means. In Greece, oracles were often consulted about both major and mundane matters; the pronouncements of the Oracle of Delphi, the most famous oracular site, are scattered throughout the works of the Greek historians. In Rome, during some state ceremonies the entrails of animals would be read so that Rome's leaders could make key decisions or so that the Roman citizens would retain confidence in these officials. Just as governments wished to make decisions based on a knowledge of the future, so, too did many individuals. Those with decisions to make could, of course, go to a temple to consult an oracle or, perhaps, receive an instructive dream from a god or goddess. However, it was more convenient to find a professional diviner and pay for a consultation. In the Roman period, all manners of diviners could be found, including star-studiers, gut-gazers, bird-flight-readers, dream-interpreters, and even those who sought to receive direct revelations from deities or the spirits of the dead. And, despite the skepticism of some, such as Cicero, their skills were in demand at all levels of society.

Unfortunately, our literary sources on the various diviners, astrologers and magicians who peddled their skills were all written by upper-class, educated Greek and Roman authors -- none from Roman North Africa, other than St. Augustine and other Christian writers -- many of whom had contempt for the religious practices of the lower classes and foreigners, or who were somewhat skeptical of the efficacy of magic and divination. Thus writers such as Plato and Cicero disparaged these professionals, and treated them all as frauds: "I wonder," Cicero quoted Cato as saying, "that a soothsayer doesn't laugh when he sees another soothsayer."[[27]] Similarly, Christian writers treated all such persons with great scorn: "Certain men have led astray the uneducated, pretending to know the future, and when they chance to divine one thing aright are not ashamed of their many failures, but make a boast of their one success."[[28]]

Some diviners did indeed seek to take advantage of the uneducated and the gullible; others, however, believed in their craft and practiced it with good intentions. Astrology especially was treated very seriously by many of its practitioners, for reading the stars was viewed as a science, and expertise in astrology came only to those who trained and studied. Thus Vettius Valens, the author of a massive work on astrology, attacked those pretenders who gave astrology a bad name.[[29]] Among the most famous astrologers was Thrasyllus, a very learned man who is credited with having arranged the writings of Plato into the corpus that we have today. In addition, Thrasyllus was a highly-reputed astrologer who became an adviser to the emperors Augustus and Tiberius. Although we have no way of knowing for certain, it is likely that in making major decisions the two rulers on occasion relied on Thrasyllus. Later emperors had court astrologers and are reported to have consulted other diviners; some, such as Septimius Severus and Hadrian, are reported to have learned astrology themselves.[[30]]

With a belief in astrology and other forms of divination to be found at the highest level of Roman society, it should be no surprise that others among the aristocracy routinely consulted experts about their own futures. This phenomenon grew rapidly beginning in the first century B.C.E., having already taken root among the slaves and lower classes when astrologers from the East began to appear in Rome in the century before. Cicero mentions that Appius Claudius, a colleague of his in the augural college, consulted "fortune-tellers," "necromancers," and "mediums."[[31]] The extent to which some people depended on astrological information to make decisions is exaggeratedly illustrated by the poet Juvenal, whose pointed verses mock women especially for their reliance on the stars. Such faith could at times be exploited by the unscrupulous. An example is given by Pliny the Younger, who described how a legacy-hunter named Regulus sought to insinuate his way into yet another aristocrat's will by preying on a bedridden widow's belief in astrology. Regulus himself, however, was a believer in divination, for he would "never fail to consult the soothsayers on the result of his [court] case."[[32]]

Members of the lower classes, too, often consulted diviners about their futures. But since most Roman authors concerned themselves with the lives of their fellow aristocrats, we do not have any detailed accounts of divination among the merchants, freedmen, slaves and foreigners who were at the bottom rungs of Roman society. And when these authors did see fit to mention attitudes toward divination among the lower classes, their references were usually skeptical and disparaging. In some cases, this may have been unfair, but in other cases it was accurate, for mixed in among the legitimate diviners were numerous charlatans.


III(c). Charlatans and Frauds

Since it was an accepted fact of life among most individuals that reading the future was possible, many of them were desperate to learn what their futures held or to get advice on matters of immediate concern. This tremendous demand was satisfied not only by expert professionals who took their craft seriously, but also by a stratum of con-artists who were practiced more in the arts of deception than divination. Some, such as Apuleius's character Diophanes, simply presented themselves as experts but did not use the time-honored and lengthy methods that more learned astrologers and diviners used; others, though, went to great lengths to impress their clients with demonstrations of power and supernatural authority, so that the clients would gladly pay for their prophecies and pronouncements. Such charlatanry usually harmed only the fools who had parted with their money, but sometimes it did great harm to society.

We have very little information about what it was like to consult a diviner or magician. Apparently, such people could be found in public and questioned in broad daylight, either with witnesses present or, more likely, a discrete distance away from other people so as to assure confidentiality. In some cases, though, it appears that one would have to visit the professional wherever he had set up shop. Then, if the diviner were a fake, one would be at the mercy of the unscrupulous practitioner, for he could use all manner of tricks and illusions to demonstrate his powers and skills and thus gain a hefty commission for his magical services. In his Refutation of All Heresies, one of the more interesting texts concerning magic to come down to us, Hippolytus, a third-century bishop of Rome, sought to expose magicians' tricks so that his readers "by learning them will be protected and the very magicians, corrupters of life as they are, will be ashamed to practice the art."[[33]] Warning his readers that "These and ten thousand such are the works of the magicians, which, by the suitableness of the verses and of the belief-inspiring acts performed, beguile the fancy of the thoughtless,"[[34]] Hippolytus, writing sometime between 222 C.E. and his rumored martyrdom roughly thirteen years later, then launched into several detailed descriptions of just how charlatans could fool people.[[35]] Although it is unlikely that these elaborate tricks were perpetrated by the majority of fraudulent diviners, they do illustrate how some went to great lengths to gain the confidence of their clients.

In one of his more detailed discourses, Hippolytus described the many steps used to fool a client into believing that the magician had the ability to summon the god Asclepius for the purpose of divination. With the help of a hidden assistant, the magician could perform a quasi-magical, quasi-religious ritual during which a series of minor miracles would culminate in the appearance of the god as well as a vision of the underworld goddess Hecate flying through the air ablaze. According to Hippolytus, the magician would begin with awe-inspiring feats of his own power, including: plunging his hands into a cauldron of burning pitch and treading barefoot upon the burning coals; making a pyramid of stones seem to catch fire; and, placing burning coals on a linen cloth which fails to ignite. Having done this, he would utter a magical prayer, whereupon a "fiery Asclepius" would appear on the floor. Next, a bowl of water having been placed on the floor -- bowls of water and also mirrors were commonly used for lecanomancy and catoptromancy, forms of divination in which the invoked deity would appear in the reflective surface of a bowl of water or mirror, respectively -- the client would be able to peer into the bowl, where his eyes would be greeted by the sight of divinities such as Artemis. When this miracle had sunk in, the magician would have "a fiery [goddess] Hecate" fly through the darkened room and intone a prayer while his client in terror covered his eyes and threw himself to the ground. Such incredible occurrences would have left no doubt in the mind of the client that he had truly consulted the god -- even though the voice of the god was produced by the magician's hidden accomplice -- but these feats could all be achieved by the rather sophisticated tricks which Hippolytus describes.

In another case, Hippolytus tells how, once again with the help of an assistant, fake oracles and prophecies could seem to come from a skull: mold an imitation skull out of wax and gypsum, and then insert the "windpipe of a crane or some such long-necked bird" in such a way that a hidden assistant could speak into the other end and make the skull appear to speak. And, as a further sign of the magician's power, the skull could then be made to disappear:

And when he wants it to vanish, he appears to offer incense and, putting round it a quantity of coals, the wax, receiving their heat, melts, and thus the skull is thought to have become invisible. (Hippolytus, Refutation of All Heresies 4.4.14; trans. F. Legge)

Hippolytus also sought to expose the false prodigies that some magicians might have used. For example, the sound of the heavens thundering the gods' response could be achieved by rolling stones so that they would fall upon sheets of brass. Another trick involved creating a discolored egg, most likely in order to make it seem an omen. Holes were to be bored at each end, the albumen extracted and replaced with red ink or dye, and then the holes stopped up with eggshell paste so that they would appear untainted. An even more bizarre trick involved getting a sheep to commit suicide by decapitating itself against a sword.[[36]] As with the ox skull trick, the success of such deceptions depended largely on the client's willingness to believe; of course, a client who had sought out a professional magician for help in consulting the gods expected a supernatural encounter, and thus could be easily taken in.

Although such chicanery was in the general scheme harmless, every so often charlatans would have a significant impact on society.[[37]] For example, in the early second century B.C.E., a slave war broke out in Sicily when a Syrian slave named Eunus, who passed himself off as a miracle-worker and confidant of the gods, pronounced to his fellow slaves that if they revolted they would gain their freedom. Eunus's success in instigating the revolt owed partly to the act that the slaves in Sicily were overripe for revolt; however, that he could so quickly muster a reported 20,000 fellow slaves was due to their belief that he was destined for kingship and had extraordinary powers. He had long encouraged such views by behaving as one divinely inspired, but also by using tricks to persuade others of his superhuman powers. For example, he would sometimes produce oracles as smoke and fire came from his mouth. This awesome feat was actually quite simply achieved: by hollowing out a nut and putting sulfur inside, he could ignite the sulfur and then conceal the nut inside his mouth, and thus appear to speak in tongues of smoke and flame. The Sicilian slave revolt, one of the most violent in history, led to unnumbered deaths and incalculable destruction before a large Roman army put down the revolt and captured Eunus, who died in captivity. In addition, slaves in Rome, Attica, Delos and other places had likewise been inspired to revolt when word reached them of the uprising in Sicily. This story was preserved by Roman historians as an example of what could happen when slaves threw off their yokes, but it also showed the harm that could be done by one charismatic figure pretending to have divine powers.

Whether duping individuals or causing unrest, deceitful diviners and false prophets formed a definite presence in Roman society, so much so that they were the butt of many popular jokes and often the focus of scenes in literature like the one about Diophanes in Apuleius's The Golden Ass. In a world in which even the emperor often had his own personal astrologer, consultations to learn the future were a routine matter. The major decision was in choosing whom to consult, and this had to be done wisely, since there were evidently many who would take advantage of the gullible by using an "art" that was "relative to the folly of the persons who are deceived." [[38]] However, we can only infer the existence of such people in North Africa, since the literary evidence does not mention diviners who were clearly charlatans, and there is certainly no archaeological evidence.


IV. The North African Finds

Although there might be a paucity of literary references to magic in Roman North Africa, archaeological discoveries make clear that magic was indeed implemented in a number of situations. The evidence, of course, is somewhat skewed, since items such as curse tablets have survived, whereas protective amulets and talismans written on paper strips have not. Still, the many curse tablets and handful of protective charms that have thus far been unearthed and published give us many insights into for what purposes magic was used and what role it played in Roman North African society. (Examples of protective magic in Roman North Africa will be discussed in the next section, Magic at Eye Level.)

The most informative evidence we have are the curse tablets, more than a hundred of which have been published. These appear to have been used by ordinary people, including slaves, judging from the personal names that appear in the texts.[[39]] The majority of defixiones from Roman North Africa have been found in Carthage and appear to date from the third century C.E., though many others have been found in Hadrumetum (modern Sousse), a seaport lying 60 mile s south of Carthage, and a few have been unearthed in other former Roman cities. Their texts are representative of the various types of binding spells that were commonly entrusted to lead tablets. Of the 120 published tablets from North Africa, the majority involve athletic competition, especially chariot races (54) and gladiatorial contests (9); to a lesser extent, there are several tablets used for erotic magic (20) and spells meant to bind the tongues of opponents in legal proceedings (17); additionally, there are two that perhaps deal with competition in the workplace, and twenty miscellaneous or unidentifiable spells.[[40]] (Click here for the Catalog of Published Curse Tablets from North Africa.)

One of the most common uses for binding spells was erotic magic. Such spells occur repeatedly in the corpus of magical papyri; and of the 1500 or so published curse tablets, a quarter are erotic in nature,[[41]] and the tablets uncovered in North Africa roughly match that figure. The erotic tablets from Carthage are a mixed bag, and not nearly as interesting or sexy as those from Egypt, or even Hadrumetum. A quite intriguing spell, found in a cemetery, is written in Latin but with Greek letters, as were several defixiones from Carthage. Unfortunately, the tablet, written in the name of an individual named Martial, has been damaged and pieces of the text are missing, including a cryptic reference to a "king." Also lost among these missing fragments is the name of Martial's target, whom he wishes to spend "every womanly hour (omni muliebri(h)ora)" of her life thinking about him. Another tablet, found in yet another sepulcher, bears a text more reminiscent of the surviving spells from Egypt. Although the name of both the man and his target are missing, the text is generally intact. The spell calls upon five Egyptian spirits to trouble the woman and rob her of sleep until she is taken from her parents and brought to him "to have intercourse with me." The other erotic tablets from Carthage, unfortunately, are rather unremarkable.

Hadrumetum has also been a source for erotic defixiones. A tablet that is largely intact contains a rather interesting spell in which a man named Felix calls upon the infernal spirits to fill Vettia with desire for him so that she cannot sleep or take down food, and so that her love makes her forget her parents, relatives and friends and have none but Felix in her mind. A rather curious curse tablet is one which appears to feature both an "attraction" spell and a "separation" spell but may simply be a dual-purpose tablet. The first part of the text binds Victoria so that she will burn with passion for the unnamed man responsible for the tablet, and not be able to sleep until she comes to him. In the second part, he commands that the charioteer "not be able to come before me (ne possit a(n)te me venire)" -- perhaps because the magic-user was a rival charioteer, or maybe this simply asks that Ballincus not outstrip him in the race for Victoria's affections. Then, he returns to his original theme, that the invoked spirit compel her to come to him. Two rather long texts have survived that feature women trying to gain husbands and lovers through magic; evidently, turnaround was fair play. In one case, Septima invokes magical names in order that all of Sextilius's mind and body will desire her; if anything less is accomplished by the infernal powers, she threatens that she will descend to the secret realms of the great Egyptian god Osiris, shatter his coffin and let it be carried off by a river. This spell touches upon many magical traditions, including that of assuming the identity of a great god or spirit -- in this case, Achrammachalala[.]e, very likely a corrupted form of the name of the magical divinity Akrammachammarei, which appears in several healing and erotic spells from Egypt, as well as at least one other curse tablet from North Africa[[42]] -- and using threats to get a divinity to do one's bidding. In a very long, repetitive spell from a Roman cemetery that was addressed to the corpse-spirit residing within as well as the Jewish God -- who in magic often appears as "IAO," which was a corruption of the Tetragrammaton -- Domitiana required that one Urbanus become "sleepless with love and desire" until he "beg her to return to his house and become his wife." This is somewhat different from the spells in which the focus is sex and seduction, and possibly gives all sorts of insights into relations between men and women and the role of marriage.[[43]] Most of the other erotic binding spells found in Hadrumetum are unremarkable or incomplete, and often both.

Another common use for binding and restraining spells was to silence the tongues of opponents and accusers, both in court and in other situations in which one had to rely on oral abilities in a competitive setting. As discussed elsewhere, more than two centuries after Apuleius's death, a young Augustine was assured by a professional magician that he would win a theatrical competition if he paid that individual to perform magic rites on his behalf.[[44]] Apuleius himself may well have been tempted to use such a spell on Pudens and Aemilianus;- perhaps he did. Although there is no evidence that either side in Apuleius's trial used magic to affect the outcome, and at one point Apuleius even scoffs at the idea, their case does illustrate the possible uses for such binding spells. In the Roman Empire, lawsuits were common over such issues as property rights, inheritances, theft, contracts, and so on; indeed, the litigiousness of Roman society has only been matched by that of our own. If an individual were named as a defendant in a case, he might feel threatened and, in addition to finding a good advocate, take extra precautions to assure victory, such as commissioning a binding spell that would silence his attackers. However, in cases in which there was no clear defendant -- usually disputes over property rights or inheritances -- either side might see the need to petition for supernatural assistance. These defixiones were most likely meant to be prepared before the trial began, although it cannot be ruled out that they were prepared once the trial was underway.[[45]] In a case such as Apuleius's trial at Sabratha, either side might have been tempted to employ magic in order to assure a favorable outcome. If the true cause of the trial was indeed an accusation of malefic magic, Apuleius might have wished to bind the tongues of his in-laws so that they would be speechless and dumb when the time came to appear as witnesses. Conversely, Aemilianus and Pudens might have wished to stifle Apuleius's notable rhetorical skills in an attempt to level the field of competition. Or, if some scholars are right and the case was at heart a dispute over property rights and a wealthy matron's will, it would have been an appropriate situation for either side to have a defixio prepared.

Of the hundred or so judicial curse tablets published thus far, more than a dozen are from Carthage. They all fit the same general pattern as one rather simple tablet, which was found in the grave of an imperial official. The top part of the text is missing, and what survives begins with several names of opponents or witnesses -- including someone named Pudens -- followed by the command: "Bind up the tongues of those who are listed above, that they not answer (respondere) against me. "[[46]] Written along the three surviving edges of the tablet are Greek letters reminiscent of the magical words and phrases that are sometimes written in a pattern around the spell itself on various tablets, magic papyri and gems. Other judicial curse tablets from Carthage tend to be longer, and also more mutilated, but they all have the same general theme: the person responsible for the tablet invokes supernatural powers in order to render mute certain individuals and thus prevent them from speaking against him.[[47]]

The reason for employing defixiones was always to ensure a favorable outcome in situations where everything was black or white -- one either seduced a maiden or fended off a lawsuit, or failed. At the chariot races, the outcome of each competition was never black or white -- it was always Red, Blue, Green or White, the colors of the four principal "factions." Chariot-racing was an extremely popular form of entertainment in the Roman Empire and, later, the Byzantine Empire. In those cities with race courses, each of the four factions attracted wildly devoted followings, and races were major events which drew enormous crowds from throughout the region. As one might expect, races provided an opportunity for gambling. Those who intended to place a bet might first wish to learn before the race who would win. This could be done by consulting the "astrologers who haunt the circus grounds," as the poet Ennius wrote.[[48]] In fact, we are fortunate to have some surviving astrological texts concerning the outcomes of chariot races. But for those who wished the outcome to be certain -- be they gamblers, or fans, or even members of the chariot factions themselves -- a trusted way of ensuring victory for their preferred faction was to use a defixio against the horses and riders of the opposing teams. Such curse tablets have been found elsewhere in the Roman Empire, especially Syria and to a lesser extent Rome itself, and there is even a magic papyrus from Egypt with instructions on preparing such an item. However, no province has yielded more of these defixiones than Proconsular Africa, where more than fifty have been found in Hadrumetum and Carthage, either in tombs or at the racetrack itself.[[49]]

These curse tablets, regardless of where they come from, all are closely similar in form and purpose. They tend to list the horses of a specific faction and sometimes the charioteers as well, and then suggest to the spirits how to keep them from victory. One tablet from Hadrumetum, for example, simply instructs the spirit, "Bind them... so that they cannot run tomorrow and the day after tomorrow, and so that at every hour they collapse in the circus."[[50]] Other tablets, however, were considerably more graphic. One from Beirut, for example, commands,

Now attack, bind, overturn, cut up, chop into pieces the horses and the charioteers of the Blue colors.... Bind and damage(?) the hands, feet, sinews, of the horses and charioteers of the Blue colors. (Trans. J. Gager (1992), no. 5)

In a case like this, it is unclear whether the person responsible for the tablet actually wished to cause lasting harm to the Blue faction -- a distinct possibility, knowing the keen enmities among the various factions and their zealous fans -- or simply used such strong terms to impart a proper sense of urgency to the invoked spirit. Tablets from Carthage could be equally fierce:

...bind every limb, every sinew, the shoulders, the wrists, and the ankles of the charioteers of the Red Team: Olympos, Olympianos, Scorteus, and Iuvencus. Torture their thoughts, their minds, and their senses so that they do not know what they are doing. Pluck out their eyes so that they cannot see, neither they nor their horses which they are about to drive... (D.T. 242; trans. J. Gager (1992), no. 10. Click here for full text.)

A similar command targeted horses:

...Bind their legs, their onrush, their bounding, and their running; blind their eyes so that they cannot see and twist their soul and heart so that they cannot breathe. (D.T. 241; trans. J. Gager (1992), no. 12. Click here for full text.)

Another curse tablet, apparently prepared the night before a big race, sought to ensure at several stages in the course that the Red and Blue teams' horses would fail their drivers:

Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win, or go out of the starting gates, or advance either on the racecourse, or circle around the turning point; but may they fall with their drivers, Euprepes, son of Telesphoros, and Gentius and Felix, and Dionysius "the biter" and Lamuros.

This same tablet also targeted the charioteers in order to ensure a disaster for the Red Team:

Bind their hands, take away their victory, their exit, their sight, so that they are unable to see their rival charioteers, but rather snatch them up from their chariots and twist them to the ground so that they alone fall, dragged along all over the hippodrome, especially at the turning points, with damage to their body, with the horses whom they drive. (D.T. 237; trans. J. Gager (1992), no. 9. Click here for full text.)

Judging from the popularity of such defixiones, they were believed to work or, at the very least, were too tempting to ignore for those who were looking for any edge they could get.

The majority of surviving curse tablets aimed at affecting athletic events targeted charioteers and their horses. However, other forms of competition were also the subjects of curses, such as wrestling and foot-racing, as well as non-athletic events such as poetry recitals, choral competitions, and pantomime performances. In North Africa, tablets have not yet been found which were applied to these types of events, although Augustine's experience before a poetry recital reveals their presence. However, Carthage's Amphitheater has produced nine curse tablets aimed at venatores, gladiators who fought wild animals in the arena.[[51]] This sport was extremely popular in Rome especially, where animals brought from Africa were used in various spectacles. Fights between gladiators and beasts were evidently quite popular as well in Carthage, for not only do we have the only major find of defixiones against venatores, but also several mosaics depicting scenes from these events.[[52]] Since venatores often belonged to professional teams, it is likely that spectators gambled on their fights just as they did with cha riot races, and therefore had motive to try to affect the outcomes. The defixiones sought to affect the fights both by protecting the animals from harm and by binding or otherwise hindering the gladiators so that they would be less effective and therefore more easily mauled. Thus, one of the tablets calls upon the spirits to "kill, drive off, wound Gallicus, whom Prima bore, in this very hour in the circle of the amphitheater," and later shields the animals from his attacks:

Bind Gallicus, whom Prima bore, so that he will not be able to kill a bear or a bull with a single blow, nor with two blows at a time shall he kill, nor with three blows will he will able to kill a bull or bear. (D.T. 247)

This batch of tablets was among the most violent, since they largely seek the wounding and even killing of the gladiators. Another, for example, seeks to bind three sons of one Aemilianus so that they will be wounded in the arena on one of two specified days during which spectacles and shows were to take place.[[53]] And in another case, the spirits are called upon to lead the venator Maurussus to "the infernal dwelling" (ad domus infernas) and the underworld within seven days.[[54]]

Another area of society in which one person might seek any means available for a competitive edge against another was in commerce, and several curse tablets have been found which seek to affect a business's success either by targeting the owner or in some way hindering his laborers, products and income. The businesses involved were small operations in which any problem -- an injury to a key craftsman, for example -- could be devastating.[[55]] The majority of these tablets come from classical Greece and target such manufacturing operations as helmet-makers, net-makers, carpenters, and bronze-workers, as well as taverns and shops. Thus far, North Africa has divulged only two tablets which appear to be of this genre. A pair of Latin defixiones from a fountain in Carthage, found together with four curse tablets aimed at chariot factions, seek to keep people from going to the "Falernian baths." These two tablets, which have almost identical texts, may have been commissioned by a rival bathhouse owner, although it has also been suggested that "Falernian Baths" may simply have been the name of a nearby tavern, since Falernian was a well known type of wine.[[56]]


In addition to these forms of aggressive magic, the inhabitants of Roman North Africa maintained a strong tradition of employing various instruments of protective magic, both for themselves and their property. Whereas curse tablets were meant to be hidden deep in the ground or a body of water, protective charms of all sorts were exhibited quite openly. Such items, often called upon to counteract some of the nefarious effects of the defixiones described above as well as other ill forces, were a very visible reminder of the presence of magic in Roman North African Society.


V. Magic at Eye Level

Even when those marketing their magical skills were not afoot, many proofs of belief in magic and the supernatural remained visible. The most readily apparent traces of magic would have been amulets, portable charms that were openly worn on necklaces and rings in order to bring success or protect against sickness, oppressive supernatural forces, or enemies' magic spells. (Click here for artwork showing people wearing amulets.) Indeed, protective magic was extremely popular in Roman North Africa both before and during Roman times, just as it was throughout the ancient world.[[57]] This popularity is demonstrated by discoveries not only of amulets, but also of phylacteries such as mosaic images meant to ward off evil. In addition, two inscriptions, both of very different natures, further illustrate the willingness among Roman North Africans to use protective magic. Such items as remain are testimony to what was commonly feared or wished for, and prove that magic was indeed a part of daily life in Roman North Africa.

Well over a thousand gemstone, papyrus and inscribed metal amulets have been found throughout the Mediterranean basin. In North Africa, amulets were already in use before the Roman conquest, and others have been found with Christian influences that probably date to at least the third century, so there can be little doubt that traditional forms of protective magic were highly visible in Apuleius's day. Apuleius himself carried a figure of Mercury;[[58]] similarly, some among his countrymen must have carried such figurines, or worn rings or pendants featuring smaller versions of their gods carved onto gemstones or seals. Others, rather than carrying images of a divinity, could choose to wear necklaces with a pouch containing a rolled up written message to the divine powers. These manifestations of magic was perfectly ordinary and acceptable: before the Christian period, when concerned bishops would scoff at their use by pagans and lament their popularity among their own flock, the only ones who ever complained about amulets were a handful of scholarly skeptics.

So far, only forty or so amulets from Roman North Africa have been published, mostly from Carthage.[[59]] Roughly half have obvious Christian influences, and therefore were most likely produced after the second century. Many of these objects have very simple magical inscriptions which consist of one or two magical words or divine names and no images, so we cannot be certain whether these were generic charms or had specific purposes. In the more detailed amulets, one of the common themes is repulsion of the Evil Eye and other forces of supernatural ill will. A lead amulet from Ammaedara (modern Haidra), for example, bears on one side the image of an owl -- a bird of ill omen in Roman culture, and one sometimes associated with the Evil Eye -- and on the other side the phrase "Envious Ill Will, there is nothing for you to do against a soul pure and unstained" (Invidia invidiosa n(i)hil tibi ad anima(m) pura(m) et munda(m)). Apparently, the owl personifies the Evil Eye, and the person bearing the amulet will somehow find himself impervious to its effects.[[60]] Another amulet, a black stone that was originally in a private collection in Tunis, features the sun-god drawing his bow on one side, and on the back the phrase, "Don't touch me, Enviousness, for Helios is pursuing you" (*MH\ QI/GH|S MOU, *BASKOSU/NH, DIW/KEI SE *(/HLIOS).[[61]]

Just as individuals wore or carried their protective magical charms in the forms of rings and pendants, buildings, property, and even tombs were often guarded in a similar manner by protective inscriptions or images as well as guardian statues. Such phylacteries were popular throughout the ancient world, and many examples of protective magic have been discovered in North Africa.[[62]] In some cases, such as an inscription meant to protect crops which is discussed below, phylacteries targeted dangers that would not directly harm humans. In most cases, however, buildings and places were protected from the same afflictions which individuals faced, especially the Evil Eye (Invidus). And, it should also be noted that buildings, like people, often bore charms intended to bring favor, fortune, and success; there are many examples of this throughout North Africa, especially in the two centuries after Apuleius's death.

All over North Africa, archaeologists have found mosaic designs meant to keep the Evil Eye and its ill effects from breaching houses and public buildings such as bathhouses. Usually located at the threshold, these mosaics featured various apotropaic symbols and sometimes inscriptions addressing the Evil Eye directly. For example, a mosaic from near Hadrumetum represents the Evil Eye surrounded by two snakes and a phallus-like fish. Although no words are included, the purpose of the mosaic is clearly to ward of evil forces, as was the purpose of the numerous phallic bas-reliefs visible in the streets of Leptis Magna, for example.[[63]] Sometimes, words rather than symbols were used, as is the case with an ornamental mosaic from Lambiridi in Numidia, which bears the phrase: "Evil Eye, live and look so that you are able to see many things" (Invide vive et vide ut possis plura videre).[[64]] This does not necessarily mean anything in particular: mosaics and stone inscriptions addressed to the Invidus often featured wordplay involving related words such as videre ("to see") and invidia ("envy"). The occurrence of such mosaics in homes and other buildings indicates that oppressive forces were felt to be a significant factor in everyday life, but several inscriptions show that such forces were detected even before buildings had been completed -- and, in fact, that completion was achieved despite those forces. For example, an ornamental mosaic from private baths in Timgad addressed to the Evil Eye states, "The one who said Bonis Bene laughs, the one who was opposing has been vanquished" (B(onis) B(ene) qui dixit ridet qui negabat victus est).[[65]]

Although phylacteries were generally used to protect buildings and even entire cities, they had a role in country life as well. Farmers often encountered problems that were not faced by city-dwellers, and so their protective magic was intended toward off different hazards. One inscription on a limestone block from what used to be a 160-220-acre farm in Sidi Kaddou in the Bou Arada region of modern Tunisia, a town 120 kilometers southwest of Carthage, lists some of the major concerns of farmers everywhere: hail, rust, high winds, and locusts.[[66]] The inscription, dated to the late second or early third centuries, is a very detailed magical text, complete with magical names and a series of commands:

Oreobazagra Oreob[azagra] Abrasax Machar Semeseilam Stenachta Lorsachthe Koriauche Adonaie, sovereign gods, hinder, turn aside from this property and from what is growing on it -- in the vineyards, the olive-groves, in the seeding places -- hail over the produce, grain-rust, fury of Typhonian winds, a swarm of harmful locust, so that none of these pernicious things touch this field nor any of the produce in it; but guard them altogether unharmed and uncorrupt, as long as these stones engraved with your sacred names are here lying about the land. (A.E. 1984, no. 933.; trans. R. Kotansky (1994), 53)

This is reminiscent of two bronze phylacteries from France which were meant to be set up in a field and to compel certain gods to "divert from this property all hail and all snow, and whatever might injure the land."[[67]] Hail was a problem for farmers in both Gaul and North Africa especially, so such phylacteries and inscribed monuments were often placed throughout the fields of these regions.[[68]] The Sidi Kaddou inscription, surprisingly, is in Greek; this, combined with the fact that it features magical words and exotic divinities and demonstrates an understanding of magical formulas, would seem to indicate that the inscription was made by a professional with some knowledge of magic.[[69]] Still, although clearly similar in many ways to the texts of curse tablets, this inscription was displayed openly and might not have raised an eyebrow were a stranger to have seen it.

Another rather unusual object is a silver lamella from Thysdrus (modern El Jem, Tunisia) which simply invokes four divine names often featured in magical texts: Gabriel, the angel; Sabaoth, a form of addressing the Jewish god that was common in magic; El, another name for God which is used in the Hebrew Bible; and the angel Michael. Were this an amulet meant to be worn or carried it would be completely unremarkable. However, according to reports of its discovery, this lamella appears to have been displayed in the open, affixed to one of several monuments (stele) that had been dedicated to Saturn. The purpose is not clear, but it seems likely that this phylactery was intended to protect the sanctuary; perhaps Saturn was also meant to be invoked. According to a scholar who has written definitive works on magical lamellae, this is the only example we have of one being used in this manner.[[70]]


These various forms of protective magic all existed for a reason: people believed that they or their property could quite easily become the focus of malevolent, supernatural forces, including underworld powers that had been incited by an enemy using magic. They demonstrate that even though people could worship their gods dutifully and maintain cult practices, other supernatural forces were felt to be present that could not be appeased, only repelled. These amulets and talismans also provide a profound testimony to the fears North African Romans had of falling victim to others' magic, and give insights into why their society, like every other ancient Mediterranean society, was so opposed to magic.


VI. Society vs. Magic

This section is still under construction. It will feature a discussion of people who believed themselves to be the victims of magic as well as the reaction of Roman society to the magic-users in its midst. Please come back soon.



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