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.