Persians: Pliny on the dissemination of Magian skill to the peoples of the world (first century CE)

Citation with stable link: Philip A. Harland, 'Persians: Pliny on the dissemination of Magian skill to the peoples of the world (first century CE),' Ethnic Relations and Migration in the Ancient World, last modified April 8, 2024,

Ancient authors: Various authors discussed in Pliny the Elder, Natural History, parts of books 24, 28, 30, and 37 (link).

Comments: There was a tendency among some Greek (and less so Roman) intellectuals to portray the Persian Magians (Magi in Latin or Magoi in Greek) as a source of deep wisdom (see Magians and Persians under category four on wise “barbarians”). But alongside such Greeks are those who disparage the Magians and just about everything the Magians do. Pliny the Elder (first century CE) – who characterizes Magians as promulgators of “shocking lies” – is firmly in the latter camp. While on these two quite different evaluations of the Persian Magians – one positive ringing of the wise barbarian and the other starkly negative with suggestions of dangerous foreign practices – it is worth noting that both occur within the documents that ended up in the New Testament (on which go to this link).

In fact, this member of the higher echelons of the Roman imperial elites (Pliny filled several positions including procuratorships) provides an instance of why the term Magian ultimately became our negative word “magic”, although the term magic is quite anachronistic in this era and misses the “foreign” (Persian or Zoroastrian) ambiance that is clearly so important to Pliny (on which also see the post on the Suda‘s entry on goēteia at this link). For this reason, I use the term “Magian skill” in the translation below with overtones of Zoroastrian and Persian throughout this post. Unfortunately, much scholarship continues to use the category “magic” and “magician” in a problematic and anachronistic way that misses precisely this ethnographic framework. This situation is much like the scholarly use of the problematic (for the ancient world, at least) category of “religion,” which is often used by scholarship in juxtaposition to “magic,” with “religion” being supposedly appropriate practices, say of the elites, and “magic” (with close relations to the ancient Roman elite concept of superstitio) being practices of the populace. Sometimes lurking in the background of this is a scholarly tendency to favour the ancient elites (at least the ones in the “canon”) or ancient elite perspectives as well. Anyways, there’s no space to deal with all those scholarly issues, even if it’s important to state the problem at the outset and avoid anachronistic terms like “magic” and “religion” when dealing with the ancient world. You will not find such terms on this website.

There are two types of material from Pliny regarding the Magians that are presented below. On the one hand, Pliny’s entire work on Natural History is concerned with the properties or characteristics of various natural phenemona, including stones, plants, and animals (see sections from books 24, 28, and 37 below). Along with this is Pliny’s focus on the medicinal value of such naturally occurring things. In book twenty-four, Pliny claims that works attributed to Pythagoras (sixth century BCE) and Demokritos (fifth century BCE) indicate the transmission of Magian knowledge of medicinal plants to the Greeks (but here he does not speak negatively about Magian medical traditions). In the midst of his subsequent discussions (books 28 and 37), however, Pliny turns to things like gem stones and animals but also notices how often he encounters what he considers dangerous nonsense in the “Magian” traditions regarding these same phenomena. So Pliny decides to weave into his discussion an ongoing refutation of the supposed Magian liars. Persians and those associated with their arcane knowledge therefore come out stereotyped as deceptive, to say the least, but also superstitious (in the Latin sense of superstitio), of course. He finishes that thread with a swipe at barbarians generally, suggesting that anything with a barbarian name is worthless.

On the other hand, Pliny sets aside the beginning of his thirtieth book as a space to define and outline the origins and dissemination of Magian skill from its Persian origins (in connection with Zoroaster) and out into the rest of the Mediterranean world. For Pliny, Magian skill is a combination of three things: medicine, conscientious concern about ritual obligation (religio), and astrology. In this section, it becomes painfully clear that Pliny feels in the minority in condemning Magians as tricky liars. He has to admit that many Greek philosophers (Pythagoras and Demokritos, he believes) and other Greek authors respect Magian wisdom (on which, again, compare category four to your right). In fact, Pliny draws a picture of rampant respect for Magians and Magian skill among many Mediterranean peoples (including dangerous infiltrations into Rome itself) and proposes that varying traditions developed further among different peoples, including Judeans for instance. Pliny is of course generalizing here in a way that does not really capture what is different about the rituals and medicinal traditions of Greeks, Judeans, Italians, Celts, and Britons. He taints them all as “Magian,” and it starts to feel like he will label as “Magian” any arcane healing theory he does not like. Nonetheless, he still imagines all of this as in some sense deriving from Zoroaster and the Persian Magians, the dangerous barbarians.

One more thing to note about all of this is that Pliny is characterizing the Romans (at least the Roman elites to which he belonged) as the only ones who effectively tried to eliminate such supposedly dangerous and superstitious foreign practices by outlawing or criminalizing them On this, see Apuleius’ defence against the accusation of engaging in “Magian skill” (link).

Further reading: J.B. Rives, “Magus and Its Cognates in Classical Latin,” in Magical Practice in the Latin West, ed. F.M. Simón and R. Gordon (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 51–77.

Source of the translation: H. Rackham, W.H.S. Jones, and D.E. Eichholz, Pliny: Natural History, 10 volumes, LCL (Cambridge, MA: HUP, 1938-1962), public domain (Rackham passed away in 1944, Jones passed away in 1963, copyright not renewed as well), adapted by Harland.


[Overview on medicine as locally available with no need of foreign Magian skill]

(24.5) . . . Such things [natural materials] alone had Nature decreed should be our remedies, provided everywhere, easy to discover and costing nothing. In fact, these are the things that support our life. Later on, the deceit of men and cunning profiteering led to the invention of laboratories, in which each customer is promised a new lease of his own life at a price. At once compound prescriptions and mysterious mixtures are glibly repeated, Arabia and India are judged to be warehouses of remedies, and a small sore is charged with the cost of a medicine from the Red Sea, even though the genuine remedies form the daily meal of even the very poorest people. But if remedies were to be looked for in the garden or a plant or a shrub were to be procured from that garden, none of the skills would become cheaper than medicine. It is perfectly true that, owing to their greatness, the Roman people have lost their practices, and through conquering we have been conquered. We are the subjects of foreigners [i.e. Persian Magians likely in mind], and in one of the skills they have mastered even their masters. But of this more elsewhere.

[Pythagoras and Demokritos as transmitters of Magian medical knowledge to the Greeks]

(24.156-167) My proposed task of discussing amazing plants suggests that I also say a few words about those that are Magian. For what plants are more amazing than those? These were first brought to the notice of our part of the world by Pythagoras and Demokritos, who followed as their authority the Magians. Pythagoras declares that water is congealed by the plants coracesia and calicia; but I find no mention of them in other authorities, nor does Pythagoras tell us anything else about them. The same authority [Pythagoras] gives the name of minyas, or corinthia, to a plant of which, he says, the decocted juice, used as a fomentation, immediately heals the bites of serpents. He adds that if it is poured on the grass and a person happens to tread on it, or if by chance it is sprinkled on the body, inevitable death ensues; so the poison of this plant is absolutely monstrous, with the exception that it counteracts other poisons. The same Pythagoras calls aproxis a plant whose root catches fire at a distance like naphtha. I have spoken about this in my section on the marvels of the earth. He also informs us that the symptoms of diseases which have attacked the human body when the cabbage is in blossom – even though the patient has been cured – are felt to recur every time this plant blossoms. He speaks of a similar peculiarity following diseases which have attacked when wheat, hemlock or the violet is in flower. I am aware that this book of his is ascribed by some to the physician Kleemporos, but an ancient and unbroken tradition assigns it to Pythagoras. Were the author anyone else, the mere fact that he has considered the result of his labour worthy of that great thinker enhances the authority of a book. But who would believe that Kleemporos acted so, since he published other works, and that under his own name?

That Demokritos was the author of the book called Handmade Materials (Cheirokmēta) is a well-attested tradition. Yet in this book this most enthusiastic student of the Magians, next to Pythagoras, has told us of far more amazing phenomena. For example, the plant aglaophotis, which received its name from men’s amazement at its magnificent colour, being native, he says, to the marble quarries of Arabia on the Persian side, is therefore also called marmaritis. The Magians use it, he tells us, when they wish to call up gods. The achaemenis, he reports, is of an amber colour, leafless and found among the Taradastilians of India. According to Demokritos, if criminals drink it in wine, they confess all their crimes because they suffer tortures from diverse phantoms of spirits that haunt them. He also called it hippophobas, because mares have an intense aversion to it. The theombrotion grows, says Demokritos, thirty land-measures (schoinoi) from the Choaspes, being like a peacock in its colourings and of a very fine scent. He goes on to state that the kings of Persia take it in drink for all bodily disorders and for instability of intellect and of the sense of justice, and that it is also called semnion from the majesty of its power. Demokritos goes on to mention another plant, the adamantis, a native of Armenia and Cappadocia. He says that if this plant is placed near lions, they lie on their backs and wearily yawn. The reason for the name is because the plant cannot be crushed, Ariana is given as the home of the arianis, a plant of the colour of fire. It is gathered, he says, when the sun is in Leo, and pieces of wood soaked in oil catch fire at its touch. Demokritos says that the therionarca, growing in Cappadocia and Mysia, makes all wild beasts become torpid, and that they cannot be revived unless sprinkled with the urine of a hyena. He tells us that the aethiopis grows in Meroh, that therefore its other name is the merois, that it has the leaf of the lettuce and that it is very beneficial for dropsy if taken in honey wine. The ophiusa he speaks of as growing in Elephantine, which also belongs to Ethiopia, a plant livid in colour and revolting to look at, to take which in drink causes such terrible visions of threatening serpents that fear of them causes suicide; wherefore those guilty of sacrilege are forced to drink it. An antidote is palm wine. The thalassaegle we are told is found along the river Indus, and is therefore also called potamaugis. To drink this causes men to rave, while weird visions beset their minds. The theangelis, Demokritos says, grows on mount Lebanon in Syria, on mount Dicte in Crete, and in Babylon and Susa in Persia. The Magians take it in drink to gain power to divine. The gelotophyllis grows in Baktria and along the Borysthenes. If it is taken in myrrh and wine, all kinds of phantoms appear in the mind, causing laughter which persists until the kernels of pine-nuts are taken with pepper and honey in palm wine. According to the same authority the hestiateris is a Persian plant, so named from its promotion of good fellowship, because it makes the company happy. It is also called protomediap from its use to gain the highest position at court; called casignete, because it grows only in company with its own species, and not with any other plants; and, also called dionysonymphas, because it goes wonderfully well with wine. Helianthes is the name given to a plant with leaves like those of the myrtle, growing in the district of Themiskyra and on the mountains along the coasts of Cilicia. A decoction of it in lion’s fat, with saffron and palm wine added, is used, he says, as an ointment by the Magians and the Persian kings to give to the body a pleasing appearance, and therefore it is also called heliocallis. The same authority gives the name hermesias to a means of procreating children who will be handsome and good. It is not a plant, but a compound of ground kernels of pine nuts with honey, myrrh, saffron and palm wine, with the later addition of theombrotion and milk. He prescribes a drink of it to those who are about to become parents, after conception, and to nursing mothers. This, he says, results in children exceedingly fair in mind and body, as well as good. Of all these plants he adds also the Magian names.

Apollodoros, a follower of Demokritos, added to these plants one that he called aeschynomene, because on the approach of a hand it contracts its leaves, and another called crocis, whose touch, he declares, kills poisonous spiders. Krateuas added the onothuris, by the sprinkling of which in wine he asserted that the fierceness of all animals is calmed. A little while ago a well-known grammarian added anacampseros, by the mere touch of which, he said, love was restored, even though the lovers parted in hatred. These few remarks are quite enough to have been said for the present about the amazing powers ascribed to plants by the Magians, since I will discuss them again on a more fitting occasion.


[Context of Pliny’s discussion of medicinal properties and refuting Magian lies]

[Properties of lion fat]

(28.89-104) Lion fat with rose oil preserves fairness of complexion and keeps the face free from spots; it also cures frostbite and swollen joints. The lying (vanitas) of the Magians (Magians) promises that those rubbed with this fat will readily be popular with peoples and with kings, especially when the fat is that between the brows, where no fat can be. Similar promises are made about the possession of a tooth, especially one from the right side, and of the tuft beneath the muzzle [of the lion]. The gall, used with the addition of water as a salve, improves vision, and if lion fat is added, a slight taste cures epilepsy, provided that those who have taken it runs at once to aid its digestion. The heart taken as a food cures quartans; the fat with rose oil cures quotidians. Wild beasts run away from those smeared with it, and it is supposed to even protect against treachery. . . . [other medicinal properties omitted].

[Properties of the hyena]

The Magians have held the hyena in the highest admiration among all animals, seeing that they have attributed even to an animal Magian knowledge (magicus) and power (vim), by which it takes away the senses and attracts men to itself. I have spoken of the hyena’s yearly change of sex and its other weird characteristics [8.105]. Now I am going to discuss everything that is reported about its medicinal properties. It is said to be a terror to panthers in particular, so that a panther does not even attempt to resist an hyena. It is said that a person carrying anything made of hyena leather is not attacked and, amazing to relate, if the skins of each are hung up opposite to one another, the hairs of the panther fall off. When an hyena is running away from the hunter, any swerve it makes to the fight has for its object stepping in the man’s tracks as he now goes in front. If it succeeds, the man is deranged and even falls off his horse. Should however the hyena swerve to the left, it is a sign of failing strength and a speedy capture; this will be easier however if the hunter ties his belt with seven knots, and seven in the whip with which he controls his horse.

So clever with evasions in lying (vanitas) are the Magians that they go on to recommend that the hyena should be captured when the moon is passing through the constellation of the Twins, without, if possible, the loss of a single hair. They add that the skin of its head if tied on relieves headache, and that the gall if applied to the forehead cures eye-disease (ophthalmia), preventing it altogether if an ointment is made of gall boiled down with three cyathi of Attic honey and one ounce of saffron, and that the same prescription disperses film and cataract. They say that clear vision is secured better if the medicine is kept till old, but it must be in a box of copper. The same thing is a cure for argema, scabbiness, excrescences and scars on the eyes, but opaqueness needs an ointment made with gravy from fresh roasted liver added to skimmed honey. They add that hyena’s teeth relieve toothache by the touch of the corresponding tooth, or by using it as an amulet, and the shoulders relieve pains of the shoulders and arm muscles; and, that the animal’s teeth (but they must be from the left side of the muzzle), wrapped in sheep skin or goat skin, are good for severe pains in the stomach, the lungs taken as food for coeliac disease, and their ash, applied with oil, for pain in the belly; that sinews are soothed by its spinal marrow with its gall and old oil, quartan fevers relieved by three tastes of the liver before the attacks, gout by the ash of the spine, with the tongue and right foot of a seal added to bull’s gall, all being boiled together and applied on hyena skin. In the same disease the gall of the hyena (so they say) with the stone of Assos beneficial. They add that those afflicted with tremors, spasms, jumpiness, and palpitation should eat a piece of the heart boiled, but the rest must be reduced to ash and hyena’s brain added to make an ointment; that an application of this mixture or of the gall by itself removes hairs, those not wanted to grow again must first be pulled out; that by this method unwanted eyelashes are removed; that for pains in the loins flesh of an hyena’s loins should be eaten and used us an ointment with oil; and, that barrenness in women is cured by an eye taken in food with liquorice and dill, conception being guaranteed within three days. For night terrors and fear of ghosts one of the large teeth tied on with thread as an amulet is said to be a help. They recommend fumigation with such a tooth for delirium, and to tie one round in front of the patient’s chest, adding fat from the kidneys, or a piece of liver, or of skin. A woman is guaranteed never to miscarry if, tied around her neck in gazelle leather, she wears white flesh from a hyena’s breast, seven hyena’s hairs, and the genital organ of a stag. A hyena’s genitals taken in honey stimulate desire for their own sex, even when men hate intercourse with women. Rather, the peace of the whole household is assured by keeping in the home these genitals and a vertebra with the hide still adhering to them. This vertebra or joint they call the Atlas joint; it is the first. They consider it too to be one of the remedies for epilepsy. They add that burning hyena fat keeps serpents away; and, that the jawbone, pounded in anise and taken in food, relieves fits of shivering, and that fumigation with it is an emmenagogue. They lie so much that declare that, if an upper tooth from the right side of the muzzle is tied to the arm of a man, his javelin will never miss its mark. They also say that the palate of a hyena, dried, and warmed with Egyptian alum, cures foul breath and ulcers in the month, if the mixture is renewed three times; that those however who carry a hyena’s tongue in their shoe under the foot never have dogs bark at them; that if a part of the left side of the brain is smeared on patients’ nostrils dangerous diseases are relieved, whether of man or quadruped; that the hide of the forehead averts the evil eye, and the flesh of the neck, whether eaten, or dried and taken in drink, is good for lumbago; that sinews from the back and shoulders should be used for fumigating painful sinews; that hairs from the muzzle, applied to a woman’s lips, act as a love-charm; and, that the liver given in drink cures colic and stone in the bladder. But they add that the heart, taken either in food or in drink, gives relief from all pains of the body, the spleen from those of the spleen, the caul with oil from inflamed ulcers, and the marrow from pains of the spine and of tired sinews; that the kidney sinews taken with frankincense in wine restore fertility lost through sorcery; that the uterus with the rind of a sweet pomegranate given in drink is good for the uterus of women; that the fat from the loins, used in fumigation, gives even immediate delivery to women in difficult labour; that the spinal marrow used as an amulet is a help against hallucinations, and fumigation with the male organ against spasms, as well as ophthalmia; that for ruptures and inflammations a help is the touch of an hyena’s feet, which are kept for the purpose, of the left foot for affections on the right side, and of the right foot for affections on the left side; and, that the left foot, drawn across a woman in labour, causes death, but the right foot laid on her easy delivery. The Magians say that the membrane enclosing the gall, taken in wine or in the food, is of use in cardiac affections; that the bladder taken in wine relieves incontinence of urine, and the urine found in the bladder, drunk with oil, sesame, and honey added, relieves chronic acidity of the stomach; that the first or eighth rib, used in fumigation, is curative for ruptures, but the spinal bones are so for women in labour; that the blood taken with pearl barley is good for colic, and if the doorposts are everywhere touched with this blood, the tricks (artes) of the Magians are made ineffective, for they can neither call down the gods nor speak with them, whether they try lamps, bowl, water, globe, or any other means; and, that to eat the flesh neutralizes the bites of a mad dog, the liver being still more efficacious. . . . [remainder of hyena’s healing powers omitted].


[Pliny’s history of Magian skills and their widespread dissemination]

[Most fraudulent of all skills]

(30.1-20) In the previous part of my work I have often, in fact, refuted the frequent lies of the Magians, whenever the subject and the occasion required it, and I will continue to expose them. In several respects, however, the theme deserves further expansion, if only because this most fraudulent (fraudulentissima) of all skills (artes) has held complete sway throughout the world for many ages. Nobody should be surprised at the greatness of its influence, since alone among skills it has embraced three others that hold supreme dominion over the human mind, and made them subject to itself alone. Nobody will doubt that it first arose from [1] medicine, and that professing to promote health it insidiously advanced under the disguise of a higher and holier system; that to the most seductive and welcome promises it added the powers of a [2] sense of ritual obligation (religio), about which even today humanity is quite in the dark; and, that again meeting with success it made a further addition of [3] astrological skills (artes mathematica), because there is nobody who is not eager to learn his destiny, or who does not believe that the truest account of one’s destiny is gained by watching the skies. Accordingly, holding men’s emotions in a threefold bond, Magian skill rose to such a height that even today it has sway over a great part of humankind, and in the east commands the Kings of Kings.

[Persian and Zoroastrian origins]

Without doubt it [Magian skill] arose in Persia with Zoroaster. On this our authorities are agreed. But it is not clear whether Zoroaster was the only one by that name, or whether there was also someone else with the same name afterwards. Eudoxos, who wished it [Magian skill] to be acknowledged as the most wise and most useful of the sects of philosophy, declared that this Zoroaster lived six thousand years before Plato’s death, and Aristotle agrees with him. Hermippos, a most studious writer about every aspect of this skill and an exponent of two million verses composed by Zoroaster, added summaries to his rolls and identified Agonakes as his teacher, assigning to Zoroaster a date five thousand years before the Trojan War. What especially is surprising is the survival, through so long a period, of the skill and its tradition. There is a lack of books on the topic and besides there is no line of distinguished or continuous successors to keep alive their memory. For how few know anything, even by hearsay, about those who have merely left their names without any other memory about them – Apusoros and Zaratos of Media, Marmaros and Arabantiphokos of Babylon, or Tarmoindas of Assyria?

The most surprising thing, however, is the complete silence of Homer about the skill [i.e. still Magian skill] in his poem on the Trojan War. Yet so much of his work in the wanderings of Odysseus (Ulysses in Latin) is so occupied with it that it alone forms the backbone of the entire work, if it is to be understood that Proteas and the Sirens are understood to be singing with him and especially with Circe and of the calling up of the dead from Hades, of which evocation is the sole theme. And in later times nobody has explained how it ever reached Telmesos, a city that is excessively scrupulous, or explained when it passed over to the Thessalian matrons, whose surname was long proverbial in our part of the world. This is the case even though it was a skill repugnant to the Thessalian descent group (gens), who were content, at any rate in the Trojan period, with the medicines of Chiron, and with the war god as the only wielder of the thunderbolt. I am indeed surprised that the people over whom Achilles once ruled had a reputation for it [Magian skill] so lasting that actually Menander, a man with an unrivalled gift for sound literary taste, gave the name ‘Thessala‘ to his comedy, which deals fully with the tricks of the women for calling down the moon. I would believe that Orpheus was the first to carry the skill to his near neighbours, and that his superstition (superstitio) grew from medicine, if all of Thrace, the home of Orpheus, had not been untainted by Magian knowledge (magice).

[Dissemination of Magian skill to other peoples]

As far as I can discover, the first person to write a work (that is still extant) specifically on it was Osthanes, who accompanied the Persian king Xerxes [reigning 486-465 BCE] in his invasion of Greece, and sowed what I may call the seeds of this monstrous skill, infecting the whole world by the way at every stage of their travels. The more careful investigators place another Zoroaster, a native of Prokonnesos, just before Osthanes. One thing is certain: it was this Osthanes who mainly awakened madness among the Greek peoples (populi) for this body of knowledge (scientia), rather than an eager appetite.

[Greeks: philosophers travelling to learn Magian skill]

And yet I notice that since the old days – in fact almost always – the highest literary distinction and renown have been sought from that body of knowledge. Certainly Pythagoras, Empedokles, Demokritos and Plato went overseas to learn it, going into exile rather than on a journey, taught it openly on their return, and considered it one of their most treasured secrets. Demokritos expounded Apollobex the Egyptian (Copt) and Dardanos the Phoenician, entering the latter’s tomb to obtain his works and basing his own on their doctrines. That these were accepted by any human beings and transmitted by memory is the most extraordinary phenomenon in history. These are so utterly lacking in credibility and decency that those who like the other works of Demokritos deny that these books are his. But it is all to no purpose, for it is certain that Demokritos especially instilled into men’s minds the sweets of it [Magian skill]. Another extraordinary thing is that both these skills – I mean medicine and Magian skill – flourished together, Demokritos expounding Magian skill in the same age as Hippokrates expounded medicine (about the time of the Peloponnesian war, which was waged in Greece from the three-hundredth year of our city).


There is yet another sect (factio) of Magian knowledgel (magice) which is derived from Moses, Jannes [an Egyptian figure in legends building on Exodus 7:10-12], Lotapes [Iotape = Yahweh], and the Judeans, but living many thousand years after Zoroaster. So much more recent is the branch in Cyprus. In the time too of Alexander the Great, no slight addition was made to the influence of the profession by a second Osthanes, who, honoured by his attendance on Alexander, travelled certainly without the slightest doubt all over the world.

[Italic peoples]

Among Italian descent groups (gentes) there also still certainly exist traces in the Twelve Tables, as is proved by my own evidence and the other evidence presented in an earlier Book [28.17]. It was not until the six hundred and fifty-seventh year of the city [Rome; i.e. 97 BCE] that in the consulship of Gnaeus Cornelius Lentulus and Publius Licinius Crassus there was passed a resolution of the Senate forbidding human sacrifice. So up until that date it is clear that such abominable rites were practised.

[Gauls / Celts and Britons, and the Romans’ actions against Magian skill]

The two Gallic provinces certainly possessed it [Magian skill], and that continues in living memory. For the principate of Tiberius Caesar [14-37 CE] did away with their Druids, this group (genus) of prophets and medicine men. But why should I speak of these things when the skill has even crossed the Ocean and reached the empty voids of Nature? Even today Britannia practises it in awe with such grand ceremonies that it might seem that Britannia gave it to the Persians. It is so universal throughout the world, even though the peoples disagree or are unknown to each other. It is beyond calculation how great is the debt owed to the Romans, who swept away these monstrous things, in which to kill a man was the highest obligation (religio) and for a man to be eaten a passport to good health.

[Different forms of Magian skill and their fraudulent character]

As Osthanes said, there are several types. He professes to make predictions from water, globes, air, stars, lamps, basins and axes, and by many other methods, including to converse with ghosts and those in the underworld. In our generation, the emperor Nero discovered all of these to be lies and frauds. In fact his passion for the lyre and tragic song was no greater than his passion for it [Magian skill]. His elevation to the greatest height of human fortune aroused desire in the vicious depths of his mind. His greatest wish was to issue commands to the gods, and he could rise to no nobler ambition. No other skills ever had a more enthusiastic patron. Every means were his to gratify his desire, wealth, strength, and aptitude for learning, and what else did the world not allow! That the skill is a fraud there could be no greater or more indisputable proof than that Nero abandoned it. However, it would have been better if he had consulted the power of those in the undeworld and any other gods whatsoever about his suspicions, instead of entrusting these researches to pimps and prostitutes. Certainly it is true that any sacred practices – savage and barbaric though the rites may be – would have been gentler than Nero’s thoughts. Behaving more cruelly than anyone, Nero filled up our Rome with ghosts.

[Tricks and lies of the Magians that make the techniques seem effective]

The Magians have certain things they can hide behind. For example, there is that the gods neither obey those with freckles nor are seen by them. Was this perhaps their objection to Nero? But his body was without blemish. He was free to choose the fixed days, could easily obtain perfectly black sheep, and, as for human sacrifice, he took the greatest delight in it.

Tiridates the Magian had come to him bringing a retinue for the Armenian triumph over himself, thereby laying a heavy burden on the provinces. He had refused to travel by sea, for the Magians do not think it is right to spit into the sea or wrong that element by other necessary functions of mortal creatures. Tiridates had brought Magians with him, had initiated Nero into their banquets. Yet the man giving him a kingdom was unable to acquire from him Magian knowledge (magice). Therefore let us be convinced by this that it is detestable, pointless, and ineffective. Even though it has what I might call shadows of truth, their power comes from the skill of the poisoners (venefica), not of the Magians.

One might well ask what were the lies of the old Magians, when as a youth I saw Apion the grammarian [i.e. the same Apion attacked in Josephos, Against Apionlink]. He claimed that the herb cynocephalia, called in Egypt osiritis, was an instrument of divination and a protection from all kinds of sorcery, but that if it were uprooted altogether the digger would die at once. He told me that he had called up ghosts to inquire from Homer his native country and the name of his parents, but did not dare to repeat the answers which he said were given.

It should be unique evidence of fraud that, of all living creatures, they view the mole as the most amazing creature, although it is cursed by Nature with so many defects, being permanently blind, sunk in other darkness also, and resembling the buried dead. In no other entrails do they put such confidence, and to no other creature do they attribute more supernatural properties, so that if anyone eats its heart, fresh and still beating, they promise powers of divination and of divining the issue of matters in hand. They declare that a tooth, extracted from a living mole and attached as an amulet, cures toothache. The rest of their beliefs about this animal I will relate in the appropriate places. But of everything they say, nothing will be found more likely than that the mole is an antidote for the bite of the shrewmouse, seeing even earth compressed by wheels of carts is considered an antidote for that. . . . [remainder of book 30 omitted].


[Context of medicinal properties of gem stones for critiquing Magian views]

(37.54) Now I will discuss those kinds of gemstones that are acknowledged as such, beginning with the finest. And this will not be my only aim. Rather, to the greater profit of humankind, I will incidentally refute the shocking lies of the Magians, since in very many of their statements about gems they have gone far beyond providing an alluring substitute for medical cures with prophecies in their place. . . [omitted discussion of many gems, in part because the Magians are not as prominent in the discussion as Pliny here implies and Pliny may have added the refutation of Magians late in the process of composition].

(37.124) The Magians falsely claim that the amethyst prevents drunkenness, and that it is this property that has given it its name. Moreover, they say that, if amethysts are inscribed with the names of the sun and moon and are worn hanging from the neck along with baboons’ hairs and swallows’ feathers, they are a protection against spells. No matter how amethysts are used, Magians assert that amethysts will assist people who are about to approach a king as suppliants, and that they keep off hail and locusts if they are used in conjunction with an incantation which they prescribe. Moreover, they have made similar claims on behalf of the ‘smaragdus,’ provided that it is engraved with an eagle or a scarab beetle. I can only suppose that in committing these statements to writing they express a derisive contempt for humankind. . . [omitted discussion of other gem stones].

(37.155-156) . . . The ‘chelonia,’ Chelon, ‘tortoise-stone,’ is the eye of the Indian tortoise and, according to the false allegations of the Magians, is the most miraculous of all stones. For they claim that the stone, if it is placed on the tongue after the mouth has been rinsed with honey, confers powers of prophecy at full moon or new moon, during the whole of that day, when the moon is waning, before sunrise only, and at other times from dawn to noon.

There are also tortoise-stones which are the eyes of other tortoises and resemble the tortoise-stone previously mentioned. According to their guidance, the Magians often pronounce prophetic incantations in order to cause storms to subside. However, the type of tortoise-stone that is sprinkled with gold drops is said by them to generate storms if it is dropped into boiling water with a scarab beetle. . . [remainder of section omitted].

(37.192) . . . .There are many more stones that are even more Magian, and these have received barbarian names from men who have thereby betrayed the fact that they are ordinary, worthless stones, and not precious stones at all. But I will here remain content with having exposed the shocking lies of the Magians.

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