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Empire of Magic: Imperial Historiography in Pliny the Elder's History of Magic

Trevor Stacy Luke

Florida State University

This paper examines Pliny the Elder's history of magic in Book 30 as imperial historiography. Ordinarily studied as an ancient forerunner of the encyclopedia, the Historia Naturalis is less often studied as historical literature. Nevertheless, Pliny, who first wrote an imperial history a fine Aufidii Bassi (Momigliano 1932), frequently comments on emperors in a manner that suggests the considered views, however idiosyncratic, of a historical thinker. The history of magic is no exception. In his history of magic, Pliny discusses Nero's unsuccessful experimentation with magic in connection with the emperor's spectacular ceremony for crowning Tiridates, the Arsacid appointee for the Armenian throne. Yet the story of Nero the failed magician is more than just an anecdote used to prove the inefficacy of magic (Saller 1980). Instead the figure of Nero the magician must be examined in the context of the entire history of magic, which builds to Nero's failure.

That context is a history of magic as an imperial power that rivals and threatens the imperium Romanum. According to Pliny's depiction, magic possesses the greatest influence (auctoritatem maximam) and has subjected the most commanding of the other arts to itself (alias imperiosissimas . . . in unam se redegit). Its power has even reached such a height that it commands the kings of kings (regum regibus imperet). Pliny's language paints a vision of the art of magic that mirrors the power, influence, and methods of Roman imperialism, including its sway over client kings in the East.

After tracking the development and transmission of magic in the East, Pliny shifts to Italy, where right away its apparent dominance and popularity elsewhere evaporates. The Twelve Tables contain only traces (vestigia) attesting to the former influence of magic in Italy (Dickie 2011). Not only does Pliny's image of magic change when his narrative reaches Italy, but his historiographical apparatus does too. His dating becomes more precise, soon conforming to the annalistic style. In the consulship of Gn. Cornelius Lentulus and P. Licinius Crassus (97 BCE), the Senate passes a decree banning human sacrifice, abominable rites Pliny sees as the epitome of magic's monstrous nature (Beagon 2005). This passage's form and content convey an image of Republican Rome's success against its dark imperial rival. In Pliny's view, the best of Roman imperialism is represented by its success in suppressing magic, a feat for which the world owes the greatest thanks to Rome.

It is against this background that Nero's role in the history must be interpreted. Pliny praises Nero for discovering, aetate nostra, the emptiness and falseness of magic, but that praise is quickly followed by a damning characterization of Nero himself. The contrast with his history of Rome's interaction with magic up to that point could not be starker. No opponent of the rule of emperors, Pliny nevertheless shows through Nero the peril of the Principate. So much depends on the character of the princeps and his advisors, and, had magic been equal to Rome, it might very well have destroyed the empire, thanks to Nero inviting it into the capital in the person of the Tiridates. Tendentious, dramatic, and rhetorically effective, Pliny's history of magic aims to persuade the Flavian regime of vital importance of the virtue of the princeps and of his choice of advisors.

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