The complexity of the ancient practice of book burning is nowhere more evident than in the burning of the texts of magicians, astrologers, diviners, and other practitioners of pseudo-religious disciplines in the Roman world. Occult religious texts were among the earliest sacred or ritual texts subjected to destruction on religious grounds and they continued to be sought out and were purged perhaps more frequently than almost any other religious literature in the Mediterranean world in the period from the Republic through the late Empire. In addition to the frequency and wide geographic dispersal of   this phenomenon, the immolators themselves represent a much wider spectrum of society than the often quite specific perpetrators and contexts in which other types of sacred or religious texts were destroyed. This chapter explores the polysemous nature of burning occult religious books in the Roman world. The earliest incidents in which these types of books were burned are discussed in Part 2.1. During the Republic and early empire, the writings of itinerant diviners, ritual experts, astrologers, and prophets came to be forcibly rounded up and, at times, burned by the state. The public destruction of these writings, like public execution, was an event designed to assert the power of the authorities in whose name the action was carried out and the manner in which it occurred expressed clear religious and social messages. The destruction of these banned writings was, however, sporadic and never became systematic. They were temporary measures enacted by individuals and parties with genuine religious concerns to meet specific religious circumstances. In the Republic and early Empire, these individuals were representatives of the state acting in their capacity as officers of state.

Part 2.2 presents a brief discussion of the historical development of magical, astrological, and other occult practices in the Greco-Roman world with special interest in their textualization. Forms of magic, astrology, and other occult practices were indigenous to virtually every Mediterranean people. During the Hellenistic period and following, purveyors of textualized magic and astrology from the East began to spread throughout the Roman world and to intermingle with the existing religious fringe of   Roman society. Because of their similarity (in methods and goals) to other secret religious practices that had been prohibited in earlier periods, these practices came to be assimilated to each other from the perspective of Roman authorities and suppressed by the same methods. Following these analyses of occult bookburnings in the Republic and early Empire, and the growth in the textualization of these practices, further developments to the burning of these books in the later Empire are discussed in Part 2.3. The right to wield the power to burn prohibited occult books, making a highly visible and memorable statement within a public discourse whose audience responded to symbols and stylization, devolved to individuals beyond the apparatus of the state. Members of the Church hierarchy, as well as private individuals who were eager to assert their personal spiritual authority, which granted them the parrhesia to speak out in the symbolic language of spectacle, also burned the texts of magicians, astrologers, and similar occult practitioners. Many pious individuals considered acts of “holy violence” to be beneficial for Christians to take part in, and, this particular form religiously-motivated violence, burning books of sorcery and other occult practices, came to epitomize Christianity’s triumph over the ignorance of idolatry, magic, and heresy.

PART 2.1:


In the simplest terms, there existed in Roman religion and Roman society a tension between two forces in opposition. On the one hand, the Romans revered what they took to be the traditions and customs of their ancestors and strongly believed that their fortunes as a people had been, and continued to be, a result of upholding and preserving these traditions. On the other, the Romans were open to innovations and adjustments to their religious practices throughout their history, particularly during periods when conflicts and crises seemed poised to rupture the stability and prosperity of Roman society. As we shall come to see, the forces of change, modification, and innovation were irresistible, especially as Rome developed from an undistinguished settlement on the Tiber River into a vast empire, and thus conflicts did arise over religious issues. The origins of bookburning in Roman society lay in the friction between these two opposing forces.

Tradition and Innovation in Roman Religion Early ancient sources that provide evidence concerning the religion of the Romans, such as the work of the Greek historian Polybius (ca. 200–ca. 118 B.C.E.), leave no doubt as to its central importance to all aspects of civic life.2 Religion, in the shape of public rites, ceremonies, and festivals, held Roman society together. Although the religious system of the Romans seems to have come into being by about the time of the foundation of the Republic in the late sixth century B.C.E., there is a wide gap in our evidence between these foundations and the period when it began to be set down in writing, at least three centuries later.3 Concerning the third and second centuries B.C.E., the historical record of the Republic has been preserved in the works of first century C.E. authors such as Livy and Dionysios of Halikarnassos, allowing a glimpse at Roman society in the period when it was first growing into an empire. This section will, therefore, be concerned primarily with this period, the middle Republic (ca. 264–133 B.C.E.).

Much of the earlier history of the Romans and their religious practices is shrouded in the mists of myth and legend; however, Rome’s second king, Numa Pompilius (who was said to have ruled from 715 to 673 B.C.E.), was regarded as something of a founding figure of Roman religion by later Romans.4 Even before assuming office, Numa took the auspices in emulation of his predecessor, Rome’s founder, Romulus, and more directly, for the purpose of determining the will of the gods.5 Throughout his reign Numa exhibited exemplary pietas, the ideal Roman attitude of duty and respect for the gods, by his attention to Rome’s state religion.6 As king Numa was credited with establishing the calendar that marked out the months and days, fixing some as holidays and others as suitable for conducting public business.7 Likewise, he came to found many of the principal Roman religious festivals to the gods, and the rites and ceremonies by which they were to be honored. He also established many of the major priesthoods who were responsible with overseeing public cult activities to ensure that they were conducted in the proper manner, including the flaminines, who were each assigned to the worship of a single specific deity, and the pontifices, who oversaw the sacrifices, festivals, and other ceremonies of the state cult. As with government officials, these priests would come to be drawn from Rome’s wealthy elites during the period of the Roman Republic.

In the conduct of their religion, the Romans placed tremendous emphasis on the correct performance of religious rituals.8 For animal sacrifice, perhaps the central act of Roman ritual, as for all rites, the rules and traditions particular to the god and the occasion had to be followed scrupulously by the sacrificer and other participants for the sacrifice to be acceptable. In this way, a line of communication was opened up between the gods and humankind. Interpreting this communication was the purpose of much of Rome’s public religion. To this end, the college of augurs (augures), Rome’s official diviners, specialized in the procedures for taking the auspices (auspicia, “watching the birds”), signs by which the gods expressed their consent or objection to a given course of public action. Just as Numa had done prior to becoming king, the auspices were taken before all public actions. Another group of divinatory experts employed by the Roman state were not Romans at all, but rather Etruscan diviners, or haruspices, members of the Etruscan aristocracy who were experts in the interpretation of lightning and other unusual occurrences that were presumed to be portents from the gods. When the need arose the Roman Senate could call on them to interpret these signs. Portents and prodigies (prodigia) were understood by the Romans to refer to the conditions of the state and served as indications that the pax deorum (“peace of the gods”) had been disrupted. 9

Whereas the augurs concerned themselves with determining the consent of the gods to present actions, the haruspices were concerned with the future. After almost every animal sacrifices, a haruspex performed extispicina (the examination of the exta, or entrails, especially the liver) to detect if the sacrifice was acceptable and to observe other signs that might be interpreted as divine messages for the sacrificer or the entire city if he were a magistrate.10 Thus, Roman religion was primarily public in terms of its intention, and was aimed at preserving the goodwill of the gods upon whom all Romans depended for their prosperity.11 The rites, sacrifices, ceremonies, and festivals were community affairs, and were performed for the benefit of the entire community. This was the essence of Roman state religion. However, as has already been noted, Roman religion did not remain static. A collection of oracles in Greek known as the Sibylline Books were one of a number of mechanisms by which the Romans came to legitimate importations and changes which could have been seen as deviations to traditional Roman religious customs. They were themselves a deviation from traditional religion.12 These writings were kept by another college of priests, the duoviri sacris faciundis (“two men for the performance of rites”), which was later increased to ten, and then fifteen members. At the command of the Senate, the members of this priesthood consulted these books. The Sibylline oracles appear to have contained sets of remedia, rites by which the Romans might avert threats signaled by prodigies and catastrophies. They also played a significant role in the invitations given to many foreign gods, especially Greek ones, to come to Rome.13 This practice, known as evocatio, occurred most commonly when the Romans offered vows to the gods of their enemies promising them that they would receive a new home and cult at Rome if they transferred their protection over to them.14 It also occurred during other crises. Change, in the form of new gods, temples, cults, and new or altered ceremonies and other aspects of Roman religious life, was a common feature during the early centuries of the Republic. In fact, the third century B.C.E. was conspicuous for Rome’s openness to gods and religious practices that were not native born.15 One notable  importation occurred in 293 B.C.E., when the Greek healing god Asklepios (Latin Aesculapius) was introduced into Rome during an epidemic. After consulting the Sibylline Books, the god, in the form of a snake, was brought from his famed cult center at Epidauros in the Peloponnesos and took up residence at a new cult center on the island in the Tiber.16 When the epidemic ended soon after, the Romans built the god a temple and Aesculapius came to be incorporated into Roman religious life.


Presented in Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for
The Degree Doctor of Philosophy in the Graduate
School of The Ohio State University
Daniel Christopher Sarefield, M.A.


1 Although the dominant trend among classical scholars and historians of religion has been to discuss ancient religious texts, their authors, and the communities they represented with greater and greater specificity, and thereby avoid sweeping generalizations, for the purposes of the present study a wide spectrum of texts known to scholars and ancient peoples alike by such terms as Bacchic, Orphic, Pythagorean, magical, astrological, divinatory, as well as instructions for the performance of rituals, prayers, and prophecies, will be linked together under the broad category of occult religious books. This expression is, naturally, not one used by ancient Romans to refer to such texts and their readers (and is therefore an etic category), but is both useful and appropriate for present purposes. The term “occult” commonly suggests the notions of something hidden, concealed, secret, and beyond the range of ordinary understanding or knowledge, and all of the texts examined in this chapter make claims to contain such knowledge. Moreover, the term has been used since the early modern period to denote a range of ancient practices and disciplines founded on secret or mysterious knowledge, including many of the kinds of texts mentioned above. For our purposes, it is important to note that all of these texts and their readerships were viewed with suspicion by authorities at some time or other during antiquity on the grounds that they subverted or  threatened normative or traditional religious practices; many were consequently  forbidden and/or destroyed. On this issue, see below, Part 2.2.

2 Polybius, The Histories 6.56.6–11.

3 John A. North, Roman Religion, New Surveys in the Classics, no. 30. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000), 21.

4 On Numa, see Liv. 1.17.1–1.21.5; and Plutarch, Numa 10. On Numa’s importance as a founding figure of Roman religion, see, for example, Liv. 1.21.2, where Livy refers to  Numa as the “unique exemplar” (unici exempli) for the Roman people in his care for religious observances.

5 Liv. 1.18.6–10. On the auspices, see below, p. 36.

6 See Gary B. Miles, Livy: Reconstructing Early Rome (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1995), 122–23.

7 Liv. 1.19.6–7.

8Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998), 32; and see Charles King, “The Organization of Roman Religious Beliefs,” CA 22.2 (2003): 275–312, at 297–301.

9 “The keynote of Roman divination remains clear, however: it was a matter of establishing and maintaining the pax deorum (peace of the gods) in relation to the city.”See Tamsyn Barton, Power and Knowledge: Astrology, Physiognomics, and Medicine under the Roman Empire (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1994), 34.

10 The public haruspices had counterparts in the vicani haruspices, freelance diviners who examined the exta of sacrifices for private clients. See Cic. De div. 1.132, for his disparaging comments. And see A.T. Nice, “Ennius or Cicero? The Disreputable Diviners at Cic. De div. 1.132,” Acta Classica 44 (2001): 153–66.

11 Charles King, “The Organization of Roman Religious Belief,” 304–09.

12 According to legend, the Sibylline Books came to Rome during the reign of King Tarquinius (traditionally ruled 616–579 B.C.E.), who bought them from an old woman who claimed they were the writings of the Italian or Cumaean Sibyl, a mysterious  expositor of prophecies and oracles who received her inspiration from the Greek god Apollo. He entrusted their care and use to this priestly college. See Dionysios of Halikarnassos, Roman Antiquities, 4.62.

13 “It was in this context that the [Sibylline] Books suggested new cults and rituals, legitimating innovation by their very antiquity. . . . ” Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History, 62.

14 See, for example, the evocatio of the goddess Juno Regina from the Etruscan city of Veii in 396 B.C.E. at Liv. 5.21.1–7.

15 According to Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, the third century was the high point of religious innovation for the Romans, when numerous foreign cults and religious practices were welcomed into the city with no suggestion that they posed any threat to native traditions. See Mary Beard, John North, and Simon Price, Religions of Rome, Volume 1: A History, 79.

16 See Liv. 10.47.6–7; on the snake, see Ovid, Metamorphoses 15.736–44; Pliny, H.N. 29.16; 72; and Plutarch, Roman Questions 94.

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