Monday, July 25, 2005

Magic in Roman Law

by James B. Rives

As Book 4 of The Aeneid draws to its climax, Dido begins to make plans for her
self-immolation and enlists her sister?s help with the preparations. In order to hide
from Anna the true significance of her requests, she explains that she has found
a way either to get Aeneas back or to loosen the hold of love: a female sacerdos of
the Massylii can by means of carmina free her mind from cares. But before giving
Anna her instructions, Dido makes a short but emotional apology: ?Dear sister,
I call the gods to witness, and you and your sweet life, that unwillingly do I resort
to magical arts? (Aen. 4.492?93). An innocent reader might wonder why she
feels the need to apologize in this way.

The ancient commentator Servius, writingprobably in the early fifth century ??, provides a plausible answer: ?because, although the Romans adopted many rites (sacra), they always condemned those of magic (semper magica damnarunt); for that reason she excuses herself? (ad
Aen. 4.493). Since Servius was writing as an ancient grammaticus, concerned above all with the linguistic exposition of his text for young students, it is not surprising that his comment is somewhat lacking in nuance. It is not, however, inapposite: if we understand that both the author and his readers condemned magical rites, a character who was meant to appear sympathetic would naturally express shame at recourse to them.

Nor did Servius? observation lack historical basis. By using the verb damnare,
with its strong legal connotations, Servius almost certainly meant to suggest that
sacra magica were not merely improper but actually illegal. At the time that he
was writing, this was indeed the case.1 Moreover, Servius had good reason to
believe that it had in fact ?always? been the case, for he knew of a law from
the XII Tables, the ancient compilation of Roman laws written some eight and
a half centuries before, that concerned a specific magical rite. Commenting on the
second half of Vergil?s eighth Eclogue, a poem in which a young girl attempts
by ritual means to bring her lover back from town, he elucidates her claim that
certain herbae and venena can be used to transfer crops from one field to another
(Ecl. 8.99) by remarking that ?this came about by means of certain magical arts;
hence in the XII Tables there is the clause ?nor entice the crop of others.??2 It
was therefore with some justification that he could assert that the Romans had
?always? condemned magical rites.
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