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The way genre influences ancient discussions of magic has been understudied. Poetic depictions of magicians have been given too much credit for accuracy, while the restrictions on what prose genres treat assuitable for discussion have been passed over. (Gordon 1987 and Graf 1997 are exceptions). How ancient authors of fiction and nonfiction, prose and poetry discuss magic has usually been treated as a basic worldview which remains constant throughout their works, rather than as something which changes in different contexts.However, genre can strongly influence the stance which ancient authors take on what magic is, how and why it works, and how morally suspect it is. In this paper, I examine one of the clearest cases of a single author’s understanding of magic shifting between genres, and how this affects our understanding of him as a source.

Most of Columella’s agricultural handbook De re rustica is prose. However,he composed book 10, on garden plants, in hexameters as a continuation of Vergil’s Georgics. Columella twice describes a magical remedy for ridding a garden of destructive caterpillars:once in prose (11.3.63-64) and once (10.357-68) in poetry. The procedure is the same in both passages. A menstruating woman is sent to walk in a circle three times around the plants, whereupon the pests, according to Columella, will immediately curl up and die. However, the tone of the two passages is quite different. In prose, Columella attributes this charm to the philosopher Democritus, who had a reputation as a magician by the imperial period;specifically, Columella says the charm comes from Democritus’ On Antipathies. The theory of sympathies and antipathies, inborn affinities and incompatibilities between particular substances and living things, was used by natural philosophers to explain“magic”; in this example, the natural antipathy between a menstruating woman and caterpillars is strong enough to kill the caterpillars. By citing a work on antipathies, Columella presents the charm as a fundamentally natural phenomenon, susceptible to scientific explanation, even if the uneducated identify it as magic. The line between science and magic was hazy in the imperial period, as Democritus’ reputation shows, and magic could be scientific and yet remain magical. In his poetic description, by contrast, Columella presents the caterpillar charm in more overtly magical terms. He compares it to the spells Medea used to subdue the dragon guarding the golden fleece, setting it in a mythological rather than scientific context. He also focuses on details not in his prose description such as the woman’s virginity, youth, and that it is her first menstrual cycle. This is typical of Roman poets, who usually focus on a smaller body of canonical magical practices (potions, the iunx, chanted spells) than prose authors, and who appreciate vivid details. Columella’s caterpillar charms suggests that genre is a more important factor in how people describe and explain magic than is typically realized. When writing technical prose, authors largely discuss contemporary magic, and treat it as a natural phenomenon which can be explained without reference to gods or spirits, part of a scientific and philosophical tradition to which figures like Democritus belong. It is a serious topic, and authors aiming at literary and social respectability are wary of discussing magic too lightly or approvingly. They gloss over many of the details which belonged to magic in the popular imagination. Poets, on the other hand, deal with magic as part of a largely mythological world in which gods, heroes, and ghosts operate. Magic is the subject of gleefully lurid poetic descriptions, since literary tradition and the distance of the mythological universe from the everyday allowed poets to discuss magic more openly and in more approving terms than prose authors. They draw on contemporary scientific and philosophical literature about magic, but hide it under a mythological veneer, focusing on the involvement of the supernatural and on a body of especially picturesque details.


  • Gordon, Richard L.“Aelian’s peony: the location of magic in Greco-Roman tradition.” Comparative Criticism 9 (1987): 59-95.
  • Graf, Fritz. Magic in the Ancient World.Cambridge, Mass., 1997.