Piety or Poison?

As a whole, the more explicit and longer treatments of magical practices are framed by references or addresses to deities. In 2.28 the plea for the beloved’s life is framed entirely as a communication with named deities. In 3.24 and 25 (which, following Heyworth’s reconstruction of the hyparche- type П, I take together as a single poem), the dissolution of the bonds of love could not be produced by friends or a “Thessalian witch” (saga), but only by a deity such as Bona Mens (19—20). In book 4, it is Venus whom Propertius thanks for the death of a procuress who practiced magic (4.5). As we have seen in our analysis of 1.1, there is an opposition between magical and sacred ritual. Finally, in 2.28 the speaker opposes his own sacrum carmen to the magicum carmen that has ceased (43 vs. 35). Magic is an instrument that is present and powerful in love affairs and its application can extend to use of poison, but otherwise it is not employed in matters of life and death. After all, Propertius had another resort: poetry.

We need not dwell on the rhetorical qualities of magic in reading Propertius.[1] In the first poem of book 1 and the last poem of book 3, he clearly states his conviction that the creation and singing of poems is a technique superior to magic:

has tibi fatalis cecinit mea pagina diras: eventum formae disce timere tuae!

Such curses fraught with doom are the burden of my song for thee: learn to dread the end that awaits thy beauty! (3.25.17—18 = 3.24.37—38)

These are the last two lines of book 3, and they deliberately deploy the language of curses to put an end to his love for Cynthia.[2]

How, in conclusion, should we move from literary to historical considerations? Of course, the texts we have discussed offer no hard evidence of actual magic practices. They are part of a contemporary discourse on magic, a discourse that addressed both transregional and local features. I propose that we reflect on the pragmatics, the application of magic as imagined by the poet within that discourse. To this end, we should first recall the deliberately public stance of his poems, in particular those that introduce or terminate books.[3] Magic is an important—albeit not predominant—theme.

Propertius presupposes a set of techniques, characterized by their high degree of ritualization, e.g., by the use of instruments or ingredients that do not appear in common or daily praxis. These are termed “magic” and they are clearly distinguished from—and placed in semantic opposition to—the realm of the gods and such practices as are termed “sacred.” This separation is not born out by the evidence, which shows that gods were invoked in spells and that the continuum of verbal and visual devices in common ritual use ranged from spells to amulets such as gems.[4] Propertius, however, is evidently interested in a conceptual distinction. Such magical techniques as he mentions seem to have been readily available, but the group of possible activities so defined is relatively limited; in the texts analyzed above, cursing is not mentioned as a magical practice, though we can compare it both with magic and with communication with the gods in the form of vows or sacrifices.

In Propertius’s view, magical practices are genealogically, that is mythologically, related to the malicious use of poisons.[5] This aspect of magic is not a part of ordinary use; it is illustrated by mythical examples and is associated with far-distant mythical landscapes (Colchis, Thessaly). The use of magical herbs and instruments, unlike that of poisons, is not criminal, but confusion between the two is possible—and Propertius is always careful to keep this in mind. This should be interpreted as a commentary on contemporary, even legal, discourse: crimes might be punished, but this does not concern ordinary magic.

Only in his last book does Propertius clearly attribute magical knowledge and practices to a concrete (even if fictitious) person. The procuress of 4.5 is, however, a variously qualified specialist in love, and she is not reduced to a magician only.[6] In terms of agency, the status of the client or initiator and that of the specialist or contractor remains unspecified. Propertius does not participate in the creation of the Roman gothic image of the sorceress, which Daniel Ogden defines as a feature of Roman texts in general.[7]

Much clearer is the role of the object of magic: the victim is struck precisely; he or she suspects but does not know, and cannot defend himself or herself regardless of the attacker’s apparent inferiority (in terms of gender, status, and morals).

Magic—as one could conclude this short review of the Propertian literary representation—is potentially ubiquitous. Its presence is identified by behaviors or turns of events that are contrary to social expectation. Of course, the peripheral, even illegitimate sexual relationships, including prostitution, that are the frequent topics of Propertius’s poetry, are much less effectively regulated by social sanctions and expectations. However, Propertius is not interested in creating a specific subcategory of “erotic magic” as opposed to anything else. Despite the limited nature of the evidence, I will attempt a summary. For Propertius, magic is neither antisocial nor the “religion of the others.” The aims of magical practices might be reached by other techniques of sacralization, but magic is as legitimately open to him as it is to others.[8] However, the ingestion of potions is (according to the dominant sensualistic Roman worldview) the most plausible explanation for magic’s effects, and this is uncomfortably close to the crime of poisoning. One must, therefore, be wary of admitting responsibility for such magic, or of naming one’s contractors. Believing, practicing, remaining silent—these are exactly the conditions that are valid for all imperial practitioners and specialists of magic.[9]

For lived ancient religion, magic is an option. Given the existence of many alternatives (good manners, prayer and votives, poetry, and curses), it has an expressive value, often taking on the character of a last resort:[10] “I am fed up with how things normally work in the social and cultural patterns dominating daily life. Thus, I have recourse to the powers of nature and their specialists.” As a consequence, speaking about the use of magic is something that is usually done with polemical reference to others rather than in self-description. By contrast, votives and literary curses are public, or at least tend to be.[11] The former, too, are highly expressive, and they were selected with a view to specific situations and circumstances, as the previous chapter has shown. Struggling with social order and convention, with the preferences and dislikes of others, with changing moods and circumstances, the Propertian individual tests the limits of his ability to change or adapt to an ultimately uncontrollable environment. For this purpose, he needs and develops the full range of available cultural resources. Magic included.

  • [1] Cf. above, n. 5 (Zetzel 1996).
  • [2] Stressed by Fedeli 1985, 694.
  • [3] See Lyne 1998, 161 and 168 on 1.1 and 2.12.
  • [4] Gordon 2008, 715; 2011, 45.
  • [5] As clearly expressed in the term toxica (1.5.6); see Tupet 1976, 352—53.
  • [6] The accusation of verses 5—20 is not borne out by the advice Acanthis offers to the girl. See4.5.41—44 with O’Neill 1998, 61. In fact, the procuress is already dead, and it might be the maleaccuser who practices magic; ibid., 76.
  • [7] Ogden 2008.
  • [8] See, e.g., the list in Luck 2000, 204.
  • [9] Gordon 2013.
  • [10] Hubner 2008, 337.
  • [11] See on literary curses, e.g., Watson 1991.
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