Witches In Roman Britain (1st-5th century)

Reading Time: 3 minutes

The Influence of Greek Mythology on Roman Witchcraft Beliefs

Witches in Roman Britain were subject to the same laws and beliefs as they were throughout the Empire, and these were, in turn, often further influenced by local customs and possibly pragmatic decisions about local beliefs.

Nevertheless, while known for their own eclectic religious practices, the Romans were significantly influenced by Greek mythology in their views of witchcraft and magic. The integration of Greek deities and myths into Roman culture led to a blend of beliefs and rituals. This cultural fusion saw the Roman adaptation of the Greek practices and beliefs. For example, the concept of a witch in Roman culture had similarities to the Greek concept of a “pharmakis” (sorceress) or “goes” (sorcerer).

Roman Magical Practices and Daily Life

Magic in Roman culture, referred to as “magia” in Latin, was intricately woven into the fabric of daily life. Romans commonly engaged in magical practices for protection, love, and healing. Amulets, household rituals, and divinatory practices were widespread, reflecting a society where magic was interlaced with the mundane.

The Romans believed in a range of supernatural forces and beings, including gods, spirits, and other entities. Magic was often seen as a means to harness these forces, either for beneficial purposes (like healing or divination) or for harmful ones (like curses or love spells).

Intersection of Magic and Medicine in Ancient Rome

The Romans often blurred the lines between magic and medicine. Healing rituals and herbal remedies were steeped in both medicinal knowledge and magical beliefs. This intersection illustrates how the Romans perceived health and illness through a combined lens of science (such as it existed at the time) and superstition.

Alongside the Roman belief in a range of supernatural forces and beings, including gods, spirits, and other entities, magic was often seen as a means to harness these forces, either for beneficial purposes (like healing or divination) or for harmful ones (like curses or love spells).

Although magic practices could be beneficial, over time the empire’s relationship with these beliefs soured, and later Emperor’s enacted harsher laws to control the perceived effect and ability of harmful magic.

Roman literature provides us with insights into how they perceived witches. Witches, often portrayed as old women or enchantresses, were featured in works by authors like Horace, Ovid, and especially Virgil. In Virgil’s “Aeneid,” the witch-queen Dido performs a curse ritual, and in his “Eclogues,” a character named Simaetha, abandoned by her lover, resorts to magical practices.

Much like other ancient cultures, the Romans feared malevolent magic. They believed that curses (defixiones) could bring harm to individuals and were often inscribed on lead tablets. The practice of binding curses was taken seriously and was considered a form of black magic.

Roman law, as codified in the Twelve Tables and later imperial decrees, addressed the practice of magic, differentiating between socially accepted religious practices and prohibited magical acts. The Twelve Tables, Rome’s earliest set of laws compiled in the 5th century BC, included provisions against harmful magic.

Later, during the Roman Empire, laws became more stringent. Emperors like Augustus and Tiberius enacted laws against certain forms of magic, particularly those seen as threatening to individuals or the state. Unlike the later European witch trials, Roman prosecutions for magic were not as widespread. However, there were instances where individuals were tried and executed for practicing harmful magic, especially if it was believed to threaten the emperor or the state’s stability. 

Christianity’s Transformation of Roman Witchcraft Beliefs

As Christianity spread throughout the Roman Empire in the early part of the first millennium, Christian views on witchcraft began to influence Roman beliefs. Early Christians viewed pagan practices, including some forms of magic, as heretical, and this influenced later medieval and Early Modern Christian attitudes towards witchcraft.

The Roman Empire’s gradual conversion to Christianity also had a lasting impact. As Christianity spread throughout the Roman world, it brought with it new religious perspectives on pagan practices, including those considered magical or supernatural. This Christian viewpoint, which saw pagan practices as heretical, eventually played a significant role in shaping medieval and Early Modern European attitudes towards witchcraft.

How Roman views of witchcraft shaped British beliefs

Roman views on witchcraft and magic may not have directly shaped later British views in a straightforward manner, they still contributed to a cultural and legal foundation that influenced the development of British beliefs and practices regarding witchcraft. This influence was part of a broader tapestry of cultural, religious, and historical factors that evolved over the centuries into the distinct form of witchcraft beliefs that characterized the Early Modern period in Britain.

The fusion of Greek, Roman, Celtic, European, and Christian beliefs laid the foundation for Britain’s new arrivals, who would bring their own beliefs to these strange shores. These groups brought their own beliefs and practices, which added new threads to the cultural tapestry of belief in the supernatural and in witches.