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
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.