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Magic of ancient Romans

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering Cup Ulysses
John William Waterhouse, Circe Offering Cup Ulysses

Greco-Roman magic, otherwise known as ancient magic, developed in the Greco-Roman culture, i.e. as it is assumed in the period from the 1st BCE to the 5th century CE. All its manifestations, such as magic papyri, metal plates with engraved spells, amulets such as ornaments and jewellery come from this time.

Magic was everywhere in those days. It was practised by people of all classes and professions with more or less faith. Fortune tellers, astrologers selling their skills and messages, it was an everyday sight. Experts on magic herbs and spells were also common. It was also always possible to hire a writer who wrote an appropriate magic formula on, say, papyrus. Often there were buildings decorated with mosaics or statues or paintings with a magical theme, which were to protect the house and its inhabitants from danger. People wore jewellery or ornaments treated as amulets or with ornaments with magical symbolism.

In the first century CE Pliny admitted with admiration and concern the omnipresence of magic in the world in which he lived. He wrote:

That it first originated in medicine, no one entertains a doubt; or that, under the plausible guise of promoting health, it insinuated itself among mankind, as a higher and more holy branch of the medical art. Then, in the next place, to promises the most seductive and the most flattering, it has added all the resources of religion, a subject upon which, at the present day, man is still entirely in the dark. Last of all, to complete its universal sway, it has incorporated with itself the astrological art; there being no man who is not desirous to know his future destiny, or who is not ready to believe that this knowledge may with the greatest certainty be obtained, by observing the face of the heavens. The senses of men being thus enthralled by a three-fold bond, the art of magic has attained an influence so mighty, that at the present day even, it holds sway throughout a great part of the world, and rules the kings of kings in the East.

Pliny the Elder, Natural history, XXX.1

Of course, it was realized that magic did not work at all at times. Then, however, the disappointed client simply turned to another magician. So the mage was to blame for the failure, not the magic as a system. Sometimes the magician himself justified himself by referring to the mysterious will of the gods, while the spell was a kind of prayer and, like all prayers, it could go unanswered.

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