Roman Agricultural Magic


Jan van der Crabben
by Britta K. Ager
published on 19 April 2012

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.

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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

Editorial Review This Article has been reviewed for accuracy, reliability and adherence to academic standards prior to publication.

Written by Britta K. Ager, linked by Jan van der Crabben, published 19 April 2012. Source URL:

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Cite This Work

APA Style

Ager, B. K. (2012, April 19). Roman Agricultural Magic. Ancient History Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

Chicago Style

Ager, Britta K. "Roman Agricultural Magic." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Last modified April 19, 2012.

MLA Style

Ager, Britta K. "Roman Agricultural Magic." Ancient History Encyclopedia. Ancient History Encyclopedia, 19 Apr 2012. Web. 16 Feb 2019.

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