Panel 1.2: Magic and the Supernatural

This panel was chaired by Devon Allen and included papers from Chris Mowat, Leonardo Costantini, and Joely Black, the abstracts, powerpoints, handouts , and audio of which are shown below.

Chris Mowat, The University of Newcastle

Title: Calpurnia and the Disruption of the Roman State.

The assassination of Julius Caesar, on the Ides of March 44 BCE, is one of the most famous events the Roman Republic, symbolising its end and the dawn of the new Imperial era. Caesar’s wife Calpurnia, immortalised by the ancient sources and beyond, prophetically saw the fall of the man in a dream the night before, and begged him not to go to his fate. But her husband did not believe her, and marched on to the senate house, where he was stabbed repeatedly by conspiring senators. This paper will ask what Calpurnia’s dream, and the response it provoked, tells us about the Roman understanding of prophetic dreaming.

The interpretation of dreams as symbolically foreshadowing future events had a long tradition in the ancient world, effecting both political and private action as far back as Herodotus (fifth century BCE), and the tradition continued throughout the Republican period of Rome. Women, interestingly, were ‘allowed’ to dream as prophetically and influentially as men, and yet Calpurnia’s fears were dismissed as being nothing more than “womanish superstition”. Even the ancient authors relating the event do not doubt Calpurnia’s dream, so why is it so easily cast aside by her husband?

What did the Romans expect from dreams? Who was allowed to dream?  Through the case study of Calpurnia, I shall look at the ‘response’ she received and what the sources are telling us about this expectation. Were other influential dreamers treated differently from Calpurnia? Importantly, was gender the driving factor in the credibility of dreams? The conclusion of this paper shall be to question the extent of gender as an aspect of the Roman understanding of prophetic dreaming, and whether we can, and should, define the story of Calpurnia as nothing more than “the dreams of a woman”.



Audio –

Leonardo Costantini, The University of Leeds

Title: Dynamics of Laughter: The Metamorphosis into Magos in Lucian’s Menippus.

In the comic dialogue known as Menippus or Necyomanteia (‘The Oracle of the Dead’), the Epicurean sophist Lucian of Samosata describes the attempt of the Cynic philosopher Menippus of Gadara to consult the spirit of the prophet Tiresias in the netherworld.

To descend into Hades, Menippus needs the guidance of Mithrobarzanes, a Babylonian Chaldean and a disciple of Zoroaster at the same time (Nec. 6). After a rite of initiation (Nec. 7), Menippus prepares himself for the katabasis by means of a comic disguise: he has, in fact, to wear a woollen hat and hold a lyre, and gear himself with the lion skin to pass off as the demigods Orpheus and Herakles, who both travelled unharmed to Hades. Menippus’ satirical costume notwithstanding, Mithrobarzanes wears the proper garments of a magos, this is the ‘magic stole’ of the Medians (Nec. 8); but if Mithrobarzanes is a real magos, then his costume would not present any comic subversion.

Alternatively, if this character is considered as a Chaldean from Babylon disguising himself as Magian with Median robes, then a different reading of the episode can be proposed.

In order to shed light on the meaning of this comic disguise, a brief excursus on the terms magos and mageia is required. By means of the emic approach, first proposed by Bremmer to analyse Greco-Roman magic, I will briefly discuss the ancient sources showing that the terms were subject to a twofold interpretation: on the one hand, mageia was the pious religion of the Magians, a venerable source of the Eastern wisdom; on the other hand, it was deemed as the wicked and occult art of the goetes (‘enchanters’). This latter connotation occurs in authors associate the Magians with the Chaldeans, holding both religious sects with contempt.

This study aims to show, by virtue of the emic analysis, the authentic meaning of Mithrobarzanes’ hilarious metamorphoses into real magos, enabling us to fully appreciate the importance of this carnivalesque symbolism in Lucian’s Menippus.

Audio –

Joely Black, The University of Manchester

Title: Making Magic: How Symbols Transformed Objects into Magic in the Ancient World. 

Roman and Greek curse tablets are amongst the most intriguing archaeological magical finds from the Classical World, and have attracted increasing interest in recent years for their puzzling language, symbols and forms. Early tablets only featured a name or two, perhaps indicating that an oral ritual was more important to the practice of magic than objects like tablets and wax dolls. However, by the end of the fourth century BCE, these tablets were covered with symbols, pictures and writing of increasing complexity. These took various forms, including a magical or supernatural script, pictures of demons or deities from various religions, or particular animals and shapes. This incomprehensible script was seen as vital for communicating with the supernatural and calling spirits to one’s aid. They also gave rings and amulets the power to protect users from illness and the dark magic of others. Magical papyri similarly feature frequent references to drawing certain symbols onto magical artefacts intended to either heal or harm. This paper examines how symbols were used to transform plain lead alloy and other artefacts into powerful magical objects. It also looks at what symbols were needed to make an object a healing or a harmful one, and examines how magi might have imagined symbols worked to turn everyday objects into magical ones with special powers.


Audio –


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