Lives of the Necromancers, Part V: Liars and Legends in Ancient Rome
“Numa met the goddess Egeria from time to time in a cave; and by her was instructed in the institutions he should give to the Romans.”
Anthony Comegna, PhD
Assistant Editor for Intellectual History
In our fifth set of selections, Godwin shifts from ancient Greece to ancient Rome. The eighth century bce remains famous in both contexts–for Greece, it was the period in which the polis proliferated and replaced Dark Age kings; for Rome, it was the traditional era of her foundation by Romulus and Remus. Then, Rome existed at the fringes of the civilized world, barely over the edge of barbarism. The ignorant early Romans stood in religious and civic awe of their new kings. Legend held that Romulus was swept by a spontaneous storm into the heavens. Following such an unexpected turn of events, an influential senator assured the populace that their king had been summoned to live amongst the gods. Rome’s second king, Numa, built upon Romulus’ elaborate example in showmanship by disappearing into a cave to commune with the goddess Egeria. He emerged from the caves with new legal codes and institutional arrangements that his subjects accepted as the divine will. Not quite so lucky in his attempts at political performance art, Tullus Hostilius attempted to conjure the god Jupiter Elicius, but invoked the god’s lightening against himself. He died in a house fire, the true causes of which, one can only guess.
In his discussion of the Christian era in Roman history, our author juxtaposes the spiritual magic of the apostles and even Christ himself to the more physical and sensational magic of the pagans. Though Jesus clearly claimed the ability to cast out demons, the career of Simon Magus, for example, is far more magical. Yes, yes, Jesus may have offered the only real salvation from sin, Godwin hints, but Magus could reportedly fly through the air, pass through miles of matter at a time, make himself invisible; he could shapeshift, transfigure matter, bring statues to life, and bid defiance to all locks. He was also–and I stress–apparently fire‐proof. Not all proper magicians of the period were simple fraudsters, however, nor idealistic carpenters, for that matter. Apollonius of Tyana was a rough contemporary of Jesus born in Asia Minor. After spending years in the Pythagorean cult, he researched a trail across the world, all the way to India. He learned everything he could about the variety of magical traditions each culture offered, eventually synthesizing his knowledge into good deeds for the people of Tyana. Whether magician or mere philosopher, the word “fraudster” simply does not fit well with such a beneficent figure. In fact, as the odd case of the writer Apuleius shows, the individual often has little to do with their own legend. In Apuleius’ case, his transcendental literature was mistaken for literal, magical manipulations of Nature. Godwin corrects the record, rescuing Apuleius from the condemnation of the ages.
By William Godwin. London: Frederick J. Mason, 1834.
Lives of the Necromancers: Or an Account of the Most Eminent Persons in Successive Ages, Who Have Claimed for Themselves, or to Whom Has Been Imputed by Others, the Exercise of Magical Power (Excerpts)
The early history of Rome is, as might be expected, interspersed with prodigies. Romulus himself, the founder, after a prosperous reign of many years, disappeared at last by a miracle. The king assembled his army to a general review, when suddenly, in the midst of the ceremony, a tempest arose, with vivid lightnings and tremendous crashes of thunder. Romulus became enveloped in a cloud, and, when, shortly after, a clear sky and serene heavens succeeded, the king was no more seen, and the throne upon which he had sat appeared vacant. The people were somewhat dissatisfied with the event, and appear to have suspected foul play. But the next day Julius Proculus, a senator of the highest character, shewed himself in the general assembly, and assured them, that, with the first dawn of the morning, Romulus had stood before him, and certified to him that the Gods had taken him up to their celestial abodes, authorising him withal to declare to his citizens, that their arms should be for ever successful against all their enemies.
Numa was the second king of Rome: and, the object of Romulus having been to render his people soldiers and invincible in war, Numa, an old man and a philosopher, made it his purpose to civilise them, and deeply to imbue them with sentiments of religion. He appears to have imagined the thing best calculated to accomplish this purpose, was to lead them by prodigies and the persuasion of an intercourse with the invisible world. A shield fell from heaven in his time, which he caused to be carefully kept and consecrated to the Gods; and he conceived no means so likely to be effectual to this end, as to make eleven other shields exactly like the one which had descended by miracle, so that, if an accident happened to any one, the Romans might believe that the one given to them by the divinity was still in their possession.
Numa gave to his people civil statutes, and a code of observances in matters of religion; and these also were inforced with a divine sanction. Numa met the goddess Egeria from time to time in a cave; and by her was instructed in the institutions he should give to the Romans: and this barbarous people, awed by the venerable appearance of their king, by the sanctity of his manners, and still more by the divine favour which was so signally imparted to him, received his mandates with exemplary reverence, and ever after implicitly conformed themselves to all that he had suggested.
Tullus Hostilius, the third king of Rome, restored again the policy of Romulus. In his time, Alba, the parent state, was subdued and united to its more flourishing colony. In the mean time Tullus, who during the greater part of his reign had been distinguished by martial achievements, in the latter part became the victim of superstitions. A shower of stones fell from heaven, in the manner, as Livy tells us, of a hail‐storm. A plague speedily succeeded to this prodigy. Tullus, awed by these events, gave his whole attention to the rites of religion. Among other things he found in the sacred books of Numa an account of a certain ceremony, by which, if rightly performed, the appearance of a God, named Jupiter Elicius, would be conjured up. But Tullus, who had spent his best days in the ensanguined field, proved inadequate to this new undertaking. Some defects having occurred in his performance of the magical ceremony, not only no God appeared at his bidding, but, the anger of heaven being awakened, a thunderbolt fell on the palace, and the king, and the place of his abode were consumed together…
Casting Out Devils.
We are now brought down to the era of the Christian religion; and there is repeated mention of sorcery in the books of the New Testament.
One of the most frequent miracles recorded of Jesus Christ is called the “casting out devils.” The Pharisees in the Evangelist, for the purpose of depreciating this evidence of his divine mission, are recorded to have said, “this fellow doth not cast out devils, but by Beelzebub, the prince of devils.” Jesus, among other remarks in refutation of this opprobrium, rejoins upon them, “If I by Beelzebub cast out devils, by whom do your children cast them out?” Here then we have a plain insinuation of sorcery from the lips of Christ himself, at the same time that he appears to admit that his adversaries produced supernatural achievements similar to his own.
But the most remarkable passage in the New Testament on the subject of sorcery, is one which describes the proceedings of Simon Magus, as follows.
“Then Philip went down to the city of Samaria, and preached Christ unto them. But there was a certain man, called Simon, which before time in the same city used sorcery, and bewitched the people of Samaria, giving out that himself was some great one. To whom they all gave heed, from the least to the greatest, saying, ‘This man is the great power of God.’ And to him they had regard, because that of long time he had bewitched them with sorceries. But, when they believed Philip, preaching the things concerning the kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ, they were baptized both men and women. Then Simon himself believed also. And, when he was baptized, he continued with Philip, and wondered, beholding the miracles and signs which were done.
“Now, when the apostles which were at Jerusalem heard that Samaria had received the word of God, they sent unto them Peter and John. Who, when they were come down, prayed for them, that they might receive the Holy Ghost. For as yet he was fallen upon none of them: only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. Then laid they their hands on them, and they received the Holy Ghost.
“And, when Simon saw that, through the laying on of the apostles’ hands, the Holy Ghost was given, he offered them money, saying, Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands he may receive the Holy Ghost. But Peter said unto him, ‘Thy money perish with thee! because thou hast thought that the gift of God might be purchased with money. Thou hast neither part nor lot in this matter: for thy heart is not right in the sight of God. Repent therefore of this thy wickedness, and pray God, if perhaps the thought of thy heart may be forgiven thee: for I perceive that thou art in the gall of bitterness, and in the bond of iniquity.’ Then answered Simon, and said, ‘Pray ye to the Lord for me, that none of these things which ye have spoken come upon me.’ ”
This passage of the New Testament leaves us in considerable uncertainty as to the nature of the sorceries, by which “of a long time Simon had bewitched the people of Samaria.” But the fathers of the church, Clemens Romanus and Anastasius Sinaita, have presented us with a detail of the wonders he actually performed. When and to whom he pleased he made himself invisible; he created a man out of air; he passed through rocks and mountains without encountering an obstacle; he threw himself from a precipice uninjured; he flew along in the air; he flung himself in the fire without being burned. Bolts and chains were impotent to detain him. He animated statues, so that they appeared to every beholder to be men and women; he made all the furniture of the house and the table to change places as required, without a visible mover; he metamorphosed his countenance and visage into that of another person; he could make himself into a sheep, or a goat, or a serpent; he walked through the streets attended with a multitude of strange figures, which he affirmed to be the souls of the departed; he made trees and branches of trees suddenly to spring up where he pleased; he set up and deposed kings at will; he caused a sickle to go into a field of corn, which unassisted would mow twice as fast as the most industrious reaper.
Thus endowed, it is difficult to imagine what he thought he would have gained by purchasing from the apostles their gift of working miracles. But Clemens Romanus informs us that he complained that, in his sorceries, he was obliged to employ tedious ceremonies and incantations; whereas the apostles appeared to effect their wonders without difficulty and effort, by barely speaking a word.
Elymas, the Sorcerer.
But Simon Magus is not the only magician spoken of in the New Testament. When the apostle Paul came to Paphos in the isle of Cyprus, he found the Roman governor divided in his preference between Paul and Elymas, the sorcerer, who before the governor withstood Paul to his face. Then Paul, prompted by his indignation, said, “Oh, full of all subtlety and mischief, child of the devil, enemy of all righteousness, wilt thou not cease to pervert the right ways of the Lord? And now, behold, the hand of the Lord is upon thee, and thou shalt be blind, not seeing the sun for a season.” What wonders Elymas effected to deceive the Roman governor we are not told: but “immediately there fell on him a mist and a darkness; and he went about, seeking some to lead him by the hand.”
In another instance we find certain vagabond Jews, exorcists, who pretended to cast out devils from the possessed. But they came to the apostle, and “confessed, and shewed their deeds. Many of them also which used curious arts, brought their books together, and burned them before all. And they counted the price of them, and found it fifty thousand pieces of silver.”
It is easy to see however on which side the victory lay. The apostles by their devotion and the integrity of their proceedings triumphed; while those whose only motive was selfishness, the applause of the vulgar, or the admiration of the superficial, gained the honours of a day, and were then swept away into the gulf of general oblivion.
The arts of the magician are said to have been called into action by Nero upon occasion of the assassination of his mother, Agrippina. He was visited with occasional fits of the deepest remorse in the recollection of his enormity. Notwithstanding all the ostentatious applauses and congratulations which he obtained from the senate, the army and the people, he complained that he was perpetually haunted with the ghost of his mother, and pursued by the furies with flaming torches and whips. He therefore caused himself to be attended by magicians, who employed their arts to conjure up the shade of Agrippina, and to endeavour to obtain her forgiveness for the crime perpetrated by her son. We are not informed of the success of their evocations…
Apollonius of Tyana.
Apollonius of Tyana in Asia Minor was born nearly at the same time as Jesus Christ, and acquired great reputation while he lived, and for a considerable time after. He was born of wealthy parents, and seems early to have betrayed a passion for philosophy. His father, perceiving this, placed him at fourteen years of age under Euthydemus, a rhetorician of Tarsus; but the youth speedily became dissatisfied with the indolence and luxury of the citizens, and removed himself to Aegas, a neighbouring town, where was a temple of Aesculapius, and where the God was supposed sometimes to appear in person. Here he became professedly a disciple of the sect of Pythagoras. He refrained from animal food, and subsisted entirely on fruits and herbs. He went barefoot, and wore no article of clothing made from the skins of animals. He further imposed on himself a noviciate of five years silence. At the death of his father, he divided his patrimony equally with his brother; and, that brother having wasted his estate by prodigality, he again made an equal division with him of what remained. He travelled to Babylon and Susa in pursuit of knowledge, and even among the Brachmans of India, and appears particularly to have addicted himself to the study of magic. He was of a beautiful countenance and a commanding figure, and, by means of these things, combined with great knowledge, a composed and striking carriage, and much natural eloquence, appears to have won universal favour wherever he went. He is said to have professed the understanding of all languages without learning them, to read the thoughts of men, and to be able to interpret the language of animals. A power of working miracles attended him in all places…
One of the miracles of Apollonius consisted in raising the dead. A young woman of beautiful person was laid out upon a bier, and was in the act of being conveyed to the tomb. She was followed by a multitude of friends, weeping and lamenting, and among others by a young man, to whom she had been on the point to be married. Apollonius met the procession, and commanded those who bore it, to set down the bier. He exhorted the proposed bridegroom to dry up his tears. He enquired the name of the deceased, and, saluting her accordingly, took hold of her hand, and murmured over her certain mystical words. At this act the maiden raised herself on her seat, and presently returned home, whole and sound, to the house of her father…
Divine honours were paid to this philosopher, both during his life, and after his death. The inhabitants of Tyana built a temple to him, and his image was to be found in many other temples. The emperor Adrian collected his letters, and treated them as an invaluable relic. Alexander Severus placed his statue in his oratory, together with those of Jesus Christ, Abraham and Orpheus, to whom he was accustomed daily to perform the ceremonies of religion…
The publicity of Apollonius and his miracles has become considerably greater, from the circumstance of the early enemies of the Christian religion having instituted a comparison between the miracles of Christ and of this celebrated philosopher, for the obvious purpose of undermining one of the most considerable evidences of the truth of divine revelation. It was probably with an indirect view of this sort that Philostratus was incited by the empress Julia to compose his life of this philosopher; and Hierocles, a writer of the time of Dioclesian, appears to have penned an express treatise in the way of a parallel between the two, attempting to shew a decisive superiority in the miracles of Apollonius.
Apuleius of Madaura in Africa, who lived in the time of the Antonines, appears to have been more remarkable as an author, than for any thing that occurs in the history of his life. St. Augustine and Lactantius however have coupled him with Apollonius of Tyana, as one of those who for their pretended miracles were brought into competition with the author of the Christian religion. But this seems to have arisen from their misapprehension respecting his principal work, the Golden Ass, which is a romance detailing certain wonderful transformations, and which they appear to have thought was intended as an actual history of the life of the author.
The work however deserves to be cited in this place, as giving a curious representation of the ideas which were then prevalent on the subjects of magic and witchcraft. The author in the course of his narrative says: “When the day began to dawn, I chanced to awake, and became desirous to know and see some marvellous and strange things, remembering that I was now in the midst of Thessaly, where, by the common report of the world, sorceries and enchantments are most frequent. I viewed the situation of the place in which I was; nor was there any thing I saw, that I believed to be the same thing which it appeared. Insomuch that the very stones in the street I thought were men bewitched and turned into that figure, and the birds I heard chirping, the trees without the walls, and the running waters, were changed from human creatures into the appearances they wore. I persuaded myself that the statues and buildings could move, that the oxen and other brute beasts could speak and tell strange tidings, and that I should see and hear oracles from heaven, conveyed on the beams of the sun.”