10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of

Natasha sheldon - March 30, 2018

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
The remains of the basilica in Sabratha where Apuleius was tried. Picture credit: Natasha Sheldon

The Trial of Apuleius

Second-century Roman author Apuleius is most famous for his novel The Metamorphosis, otherwise known as The Golden Ass. Apuleius came from a prominent family in Numidia where his father held the post of magistrate. Apuleius’s family was wealthy, enabling him to study in Carthage, Athens and finally Rome where he practiced as an advocate for a time. His travels and studies made him an expert on philosophy- and the beliefs and practice of magic. Somewhat ironically, in 158 AD, Apuleius was tried for practicing magic himself.

After his time in Rome, Apuleius returned to Numidia but continued to travel and study. On one journey to Alexandria in Egypt, he fell ill, in the town of Oea- modern-day Tripoli. As luck would have it, a friend from his student days in Athens lived nearby. This friend, Sicinius Pontianus agreed to allow Apuleius to stay with him while he recovered. It was during this time that Apuleius met Prudentilla, Pontianus’s mother, and a very wealthy widow.

Apuleius and Prudentilla began to grow close. For whatever reason, Pontianus encouraged the relationship between his mother and friend and gave his consent when Apuleius wished to marry her. However, Pontianus’s father in law, Herennius Rufinus was so not happy. A new marriage meant that Prudentilla’s wealth would now pass out of the family. So, Rufinus stirred up Pontianus, his younger brother, Sicinius Pudens and their paternal Uncle into such a pitch that eventually they united and had Apuleius impeached on the charge of seducing Prudentilla by using charms and magic.

The case was heard in the city of Sabratha, on the Libyan coast, before Claudius Maximus, the proconsul of Africa. Apuleius wittily and cleverly deflected the arguments of his accusers. He pointed out he was a wealthy man in his own right, having inherited nearly a million sesterces from his father- so why would he marry Prudentilla for her money? As for his accuser’s attempts to portray him as a dandy, Apuleius turned their argument upon them. He agreed he was much younger than his wife and yes; maybe he was good looking although he couldn’t comment on that. However, wasn’t it more usual for widows to bewitch younger handsome men- not the other way round?

The court acquitted Apuleius on all charges. However, what is interesting is that the details of the trial, preserved in Apuleius’s Discourse on Magic make it clear that Apuleius’s magical knowledge was extensive. Apuleius was aware that the origins of the term magician lay within the priesthood of the Persians. He was also familiar with various methods of divination, including the use of mirrors magical statues. None of this knowledge weighed against him. In later ages, however, even the religious was becoming magical.

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
A depiction of Constantius II. Wikimedia Commons

The Temple of Besa

The Roman world of the fourth century was in a state of flux. Although the empire had not yet officially split into east and west, power was being shared between the emperor and his deputy-now know as the Augustus and Caesar. In fights and intrigue was the order of the day and in the space of the fifty-eight years between the end of the reign of Constantine and the division of the empire, there were no less than seventeen emperors.

Religion was also changing. With the Edict of the Council of Milan in 313AD, Christianity now had lawful status. Christian officials such as Lactantius, tutor of Constantine’s son, quickly achieved positions of influence. At the same time, subtle changes began to seep into legislation. Aside from harsher, more biblical sounding punishments for certain offenses (deserters now lost a foot, and those who desecrated public buildings lost a hand), the fourth-century Codex Theodosianus contains no less that twelve new laws related to magic.

Seven of these laws made it clear that magic and divination were now inseparable- even if the divination in question had previously been part of legitimate religious activity. Sure enough, in 359AD, accusations of treason were made surrounding a temple to the god Besa in the small town of Abydum in Egypt. The temple had long been a place of oracular activity, where people would turn up in person or send their questions about the future in parchment letters. It was temple policy to retain these letters. However, someone now maliciously selected request that were open to interpretation and sent them to the Emperor Constantius II.

Constantius was already paranoid. The last years of his reign saw him beset with threats from every side-not least from his cousin Julian who the following year would replace him. Consequently, he was susceptible, or ‘softer than an earlobe” to any perceived threat of treason, no matter how obscure its source. So Constantius immediately sent his secretary of state, Paulus to Abydum. Paulus was a vicious man “skilled in the work of bloodshed”- and keen on it too. Constantius gave him free reign to deal with the matter surrounding the temple of Besa.

Paulus wasted no time. He did not limit himself to those in a position to benefit from a plot against the emperor but indiscriminately, rounding up anyone associate with the temple“noble and obscure alike”. Several local politicians were tortured on the basis they had enquiring after their career prospects. They were then simply exiled. However, others, such as a local philosopher called Demetrius were charged not with treason but simply offering sacrifice to Besa. Then people began to be arrested, charged and executed simply for wearing protective magic amulets. What had started as a search for treason ended up as a full-scale witch-hunt within a pagan community.

Just a decade later, people were on trial in Rome itself- to satisfy the ambitions of one man.

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Coin of Valentinian I. Wikimedia commons

Maximinus’s Reign of Terror

By 369AD, the empire had not yet split but was being governed in two separate halves. In the east, in Constantinople, the Emperor Valens ruled. However, in the west, the imperial court under Valentinian had abandoned Rome, preferring instead to move between the other great imperial cities of Paris and Milan. Rome was left instead in the hands of the old, entrenched senatorial elite. It was no place for an ambitious, new man such as Maximinus of Valeria to find himself.

Maximinus came from a humble background in Pannonia. His father was a local accountant, and Maximinus managed to acquire sufficient education to become a local advocate “without acquiring distinction. “However, he had ambition in spades and using this, he propelled himself upwards, becoming Governor of Corsica, Sardinia, and Tuscia. Finally, he reached Rome as its deputy praetor. However, Maximinus could not have felt this was any particular advantage. He was far from the imperial court and surrounded by men who outclassed and outranked him in wealth, education and pedigree.

In 369AD, a former deputy governor called Chilo, complained to the prefect of Rome, Olybrius that a group of men was conspiring to poison him. Amongst those he accused was a soothsayer called Campensis. Olybrius however was ill and could not attend to the affair. So Maximinus took over instead. Sensing an opportunity, He tortured the witnesses who immediately began to tell of “certain nobles” who had made use of maleficium. Maleficium was magic. So Maximinus decided to make the most of what he had and approach the emperor, reporting that Rome was a hotbed of magical intrigue.

Too far away to know any better, Valentinian believed him. He promoted Maximinus to the acting prefect of Rome and empowered him to act as he saw fit. Anyone convicted of magic was also to be convicted of treason. It was the opportunity for which Maximinus had been waiting. He began to target those ‘conspicuous by their rank and birth, ” impeaching them for magic.

Numerous individuals were executed for poisoning, immorality and the black arts. Maximinus even executed the teenage son of an ex-prefect on the pretense that he had written a book on “the destructive magic arts”. Maximinus also used fear of impeachment to terrify a wealthy widow into falsifying her husband’s will so he inherited half the estate. Not satisfied with this, he also demanded the widow’s share of the inheritance- and her daughter in marriage. Maximinus managed to decimate the Roman aristocracy. There were two trials in particular that set the ball rolling.

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
A Roman Curse tablet. Google Images

The Trials of Hymetius and Marinus

There were two trials in particular which “sounded the signal for the murder of citizens” under Maximinus. Both were of high-ranking men which the prefect used to test the water to see exactly how much he could safely get away with. The first case was that of Marinus in 371AD. Marinus was a public advocate who was accused of having used the ‘forbidden arts’ to gain a woman called Hispanilla as his wife. Maximinus made a pretense of examining the evidence and then immediately condemned him to death. This sentence left people in no doubt that truth and the legal niceties were not Maximinus’s top priority.

Having secured the removal of such a highly placed man, Maximinus moved on. The second case note was of Hymetius, a former Proconsul of Africa. Hymetius already had a black mark against his name. When Proconsul, he had sold grain intended for the Roman people to the Carthaginians who were short of food. However, he also ensured the grain was replaced once the harvest was in and placed all the profits from the sale straight in the imperial treasury. However, Emperor Valentinian believed Hymetius had shortchanged him. So he fined him part of his property and left him under a cloud.

Now Maximinus had his eye on the rest of that property. Hymetius was his perfect victim: wealthy and an already a marked man. It would not need much to take him down, thus lining Maximinus’s pockets and underlining his authority. A notorious soothsayer Amantius was suddenly and mysteriously betrayed because of some“secret evidence’ which implicated him and Hymetius in trying to bewitch the emperor. The evidence claimed that Hymetius had employed Amantius to perform a ritual to win back the emperor’s good opinion.

Amantius denied the charge, even under torture. In the meantime, his house was searched and papers were discovered reputedly in Hymetius’s writing. They begged Amantius to carry out a “solemn sacrifice” to “prevail upon the deity to make the emperors milder towards him.” Just in case the bewitchment of the emperor wasn’t enough, the papers finished off reproving Valentinian’ for his cruelty and greed. Amantius was executed and Hymetius only avoided death on a technicality by appealing to the emperor. Because of this, he was exiled instead. Both cases proved to Maximinus his methods would work- which eventually propelled him into the imperial court.

Similar opportunists in Valen’s eastern half of the Roman Empire swiftly copied these trials for their own ends.

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Two women and a witch. Mosaic from the Villa of Cicero, Pompeii. Wikimedia Commons

Treason and Magic in Constantinople

Between 371 and 372 AD, a spate of trials for magic began in Constantinople, following a very similar pattern of those instigated by Maximinus in the west. Even the catalyst of events was the same. In 371AD, Count Fortunatianus, a member of the court handed over two men to the Praetorian prefecture to be tried for attempting to kill him. One, Palladius was a poisoner, while the other, Heliodorus was an astrologer. The authorities began to torture the men but then halted events when Palladius claimed he had much more to confess to than a simple murder attempt.

Palladius revealed that a series of high-ranking officials had been attempting to discover the name of the emperor Valens’s successor via divination. The diviner was Euserius, “a man of remarkable learning and highly honored” who had named a court official called Theodorus as the next emperor. Theodorus was a man on the up. Capable and hardworking, he was also known for his long lineage, good education, sense, and integrity. The officials, Euserius and Theodorus, were rounded up and tortured. Whether they were genuinely guilty is not known, but all confessed to the charges.

Emperor Valens was incensed- especially on learning divination was involved. With the encouragement of his Praetorian prefect, Modestus, he decided to rout out all magical practitioners. Ammianus Marcellinus records how more and more people were arrested, ‘day and night”.The initial targets were “conspicuous for their rank and high birth.” Soon, so many had been arrested that the public dungeons and private houses were full to overflowing with prisoners.The trials were the perfect way for the unscrupulous to make a fortune since anyone found guilty of magic was stripped of their property.

However, amongst the prisoners were a number of supporters of the Emperor Julian. Julian had been reared Christian but reverted to paganism- and had attempted to take the empire back to its pagan heyday. This led to the relegation of many up and coming Christian officials. Valens magical trials were for them an opportunity for revenge. Maximus, Julian’s teacher, was charged with hearing an oracle and beheaded. Alypius, the former Vicarius of Britain, who had assisted Julian’s in attempting to restore the temple of Jerusalem, was charged with using magic. He escaped into exile with his life- but without his property.

The accusations now swept downwards through society. Anyone, no matter how poor or insignificant could now find themselves on trial for their lives on a charge of magic. Ammianus relates how one victim was a ‘simple mined old woman who was in the habit of curing intermittent fevers with a harmless charm.” Another was a young man who was seen to “touch alternatively the fingers of either hand to the marble of the public bathhouse, ‘and then to his breast’ as part of a folk cure for stomach ache. He like the old lady was tried, found guilty and put to death.

However, it was not just people who were on trial. Classical cultural heritage was also in danger, as the next trial shows.

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Eighteenth-century woodcut of Libanius. Wikimedia Commons


Christianity may have been the dominant religion of the empire. However, it was not until the Edict of Thessalonica in 380AD that it became the only authorized religion in the Roman Empire. Until then pre-Christian faiths were still legal- and so a threat to Christianity- especially as many Christians regarded classical learning as pathways back to the pagan past. Study of ancient philosophy and culture had already led one Christian raised Emperor, Julian, back to the old ways. This learning, preserved in the minds of pagan teachers and their books was regarded as a threat.

So, pre Christian learning was demonized and many innocent philosophies and ideas became associated with magic. As this became apparent people began to burn “their entire libraries” to try to avoid impeachment. If they did not, after they were found guilty, the books would burn anyway. Ammianus Marcellinus described how “innumerable writings” belonging to the ‘guilty’. …were hauled out of various houses” and “burned in heaps as being unlawful…although the greater number were treatises on the liberal arts and on jurisprudence.”

As for those who studied and taught classical culture, they became a significant target for accusations of magic. Many were found guilty and executed. However, some were not. One of those who had not one but several lucky escapes was Libanius, a Greek teacher of rhetoric and noted intellectual and lifelong ‘pagan.’ Libanius had taught pagans and Christians alike, including Basil of Caesarea and John Chrysostom. Despite his paganism, he had also been well respected by the Emperor Constantius II. However, he had also been close friends with Emperor Julian. His friendship with the apostate emperor and his intellectual standing made him a target.

Libanius tells in his Autobiography how he almost fell victim to the hysteria of the trials. A jealous rival Bemarchius who Libanius had bested in public oratory accused him of using magic. He claimed Libanius knew an astrologer who “controlled the stars and through them could bring help or harm to men.” To support his accusations, Bermarchius rallied support from various “schoolmasters and professors” who were also jealous. Libanius was imprisoned. However, he managed to avoid the death when the governor “let it be known that…he intended to support the law and myself. Libanius was released and quickly accepted a post in Nicomedeia to avoid further repercussions.

However, not all those who were accused of magic in late antiquity were ‘pagans.’

10 Greek and Roman Trials for Magic and Witchcraft You Probably Haven’t Heard Of
Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria. Google Images

Athanasius, Patriarch of Alexandria

Early Christianity was by no means one unified religion. By the time of its acceptance by Constantine I in the early fourth century, several opposing doctrines were at large which created strife and tensions between the various factions. Trinitarianism or the belief that God was three consubstantial entities: the father, son and Holy Ghost, was one. Arianism, which maintained that Christ was a separate entity was another. These opposing doctrines led to bitter conflicts and even accusations of witchcraft.

Athanasius was Bishop of Alexandria for 45 years between 328 and 373AD- on and off. The Bishop was a confirmed Trinitarian and a firm adversary against what he viewed as the Arian heresy. Unfortunately for Athenasius, in 355AD, the emperor of the time Constantius II, did not share his views. Constantius was an ardent Arian and determined to promote his doctrine. This determination meant that all opposition had to be removed. In 355AD, Constantius decided he wanted the contentious Athenasius removed from his post in Alexandria. So, in direct opposition to the pope, he called a synod and accused Athenasius of witchcraft.

The Synod sat in Milan, composed of 300 bishops, mostly of Arian persuasion. Athenasius himself was absent. The charge put before the bishops was that Athenasius was guilty of divination. The Bishop of Alexandria was accused of using prophetic lots, reading omens through the flight of birds and generally “practices repugnant to the purposes of the religion over which he presided.” Without giving him any chance to defend himself, the committee found Athenasius guilty and removed him from his office.

Six days later, Athenasius was expelled from Alexandria. He withdrew into the desert where he remained for the next six years until he was once again reinstated. No one sincerely believed Athenasius was a magician, and it was widely recognized that his trial had been based upon doctrine rather divination. However, the Bishop of Alexandria retained a reputation as a seer for the rest of his life.


Where do we get this stuff? Here are our sources:

Against Aristogeiton, 25.79 Demosthenes, Perseus Digital Library.

Speeches, 19.28; Demosthenes, Perseus Digital Library.

On the false embassy, 19.281, Perseus Digital Library

The Annals of Imperial Rome, Tacitus 2017

Libanus’s Autobiography (Oration I) Trans A F Norman, University of Hull Publications

The History, Books 14-31, Ammianus Marcellinus (trans John C Rolfe), Loeb Classical Library

Roman Magic and Witchcraft in Late Antiquity, Natasha Sheldon, Flying Witch Publications, 1999

Who’s Who in the Roman World, John Hazel, Routledge, 2001

Magic and magicians in the Greco Roman World, Matthew W Dickie, Routledge, 2001

Magic, Witchcraft and Ghosts in the Greek and Roman world, Daniel Ogden, Oxford University Press, 2009.