In this dissertation, I examine the magical practices of Roman farmers, primarily through the Latin farming manuals; topics include the magical practices which the Roman agronomists recommend to farmers, the relationship of this material to other genres of magic such as curses and amulets, and how its inclusion in technical handbooks is part of the authors’ personas as upper-class landowners.
The first chapter introduces the problem of identifying magic in the Latin agronomists; the authors are uneasy with obviously supernatural action and prefer to describe it as cultic ritual or ordinary technical activity. This chapter also considers the effects of genre and the double audience of landowners and slaves on how they present agricultural magic. Subsequent chapters examine particular types of magic on the farm with an eye towards how the agronomists’ personas determine the way they approach popular folklore; and how magic, technology, and cult interact despite being loosely constructed as opposing spheres in ancient thought.
Chapter two deals with weather magic, particularly the intellectual background which makes weather prediction a type of divination and thus a fraught subject; it is a topic with literary cachet but is also dangerously associated with occult knowledge. Chapter three covers magic for crops and animals, in which cultic approaches are prevalent. In the fourth chapter, I discuss magic dealing with noxious animals and weeds; here cultic approaches are few, scientific magic fills the resulting gap, and a special group of charms treat pests as social entities.
Chapter five examines the agronomists’ anxieties over controlling ritual on their farms, and their social and natural-historical justifications for their possession of ritual authority over the familia. Considered in the context of ancient magical traditions and anthropological theory, agricultural ritual emerges not as irrational superstition but as an integral part of rural life; and the Latin agronomists offer a new perspective on the effects of genre and social context on, in particular, traditions of learned magic.
PhD Dissertation, University of Michigan, 2010