The concept of magic in the Late Roman world is a complicated one. Black Magic, meaning magical practices aimed at hurting other individuals, was employed by all segments of the population, although ferociously stigmatized and condemned by society at large. While Roman society was profoundly religious and superstitious, magic and magical practices were often used for political purposes. In particular, accusations of practicing black magic were often aimed at political opponents.
This began after the advent of Christianity, when Late Roman emperors Constantine I and his son Constantius II increased the punishments for practicing black magic. Members of the imperial retinue (Comitatus), both Christian and pagan, were often scrutinized for the use of black magic, which was interpreted as a potential attack on the person of the emperor. With the central imperial authority increasing in the Late Roman period, inquests into black magic became stricter, often pairing the use of black magic to the capital crime of treason (lesa maiestas) or adultery. This paranoia permeated both the lower and higher strata of society, including senators, Curiales and imperial functionaries. With stricter laws came harsher punishments, like confiscation of land (mainly for senators), exile or death.
As far as we know, magic during the Late Roman period and the violence associated with it, is strictly interconnected to a mysterious and seemingly ruthless figure, that of Maximinus of Pannonia, a man who arguably terrorized the city through magic trials and torture.
Born in the frigid lands of Pannonia, modern day Hungary, Maximinus was the son of a Tabularius (archivist) of the provincial government. Incredibly ambitious, he dived into the study of law, a popular course undertook at the time by young men of modest origin. During his law courses, Maximinus is likely to have become acquainted with the new strict anti-magic legislations passed by Constantine and Constantius but also the brief “pagan revival” orchestrated by emperor Julian, a relative of Constantine I. Antiochene historian and author Ammianus Marcellinus criticizes the rising star of Maximinus and describes him as a lawyer of little forensic and rhetorical skill, though it has to be said that Ammianus saw most lawyers as social climbers looking for fame. Maximinus must have nonetheless shown some level of skill since he was promoted to “Praeses” (governor) of Corsica (365 AD), Sardinia (366) and Tuscia (366). As proof, bases for statues dedicated to him as governor of these regions were recovered by archaeologists. Thanks to the governorship of Tuscia (at the time held by men of senatorial rank), Maximinus managed to enter the Roman Senate. Having built himself the reputation as a strict and incorruptible governor, he was noticed by supposedly superstitious Pannonian emperor Valentian I, who shared with him his humble origins and needed a trusted man for his campaign against public corruption in Rome. Ha was also the man responsible for an inquest into a murder case involving pope Damasus in 367-368. Valentinian soon promoted Maximinus to the rank of Vicarius Annonae of Rome (responsible for the city’s grain supply), Maximinus later received the authority from the Praefectus Urbi to conduct investigations into magical practices and adultery allegations of the Roman aristocracy.
According to Ammianus Marcellinus, Maximinus established a “regime of terror” in the city, referring to a series of trials for magic and adultery led by the Pannonian Vicarius. Ammianus goes on to tell us that a good number of Roman aristocrats were even tortured during trials, a practice that went against old republican customs and laws which prohibited torture (tormenta) of patricians and high-ranking members of society. According to Ammianus, a lot of commoners were also tried and punished. We are aware that Maximinus had written to the emperor about this matter deeming it very serious, asking to use torture legally against all witchcraft suspects. With the emperor’s permission, Maximinus and his second in command, Gaul Dorifonianus, ruthlessly went after individual patricians, torturing and burning alive several members of important Roman families. The trials were mainly conducted at the Statio Annonae, the office of the Vicarius Annonae (located near the Tiber river next to the Cursus Maximus) with the help of Exceptores (assistants) and Servi Publici (public slaves). Ammianus tells us that a lot of commoners, both Christian and Pagan were also tried and punished by Maximinus. The pagan Antiochene goes on to call Maximinus “inquisitor tartareus”, implying that he had used these false allegations of witchcraft to enrich himself with confiscations of property and to gain notoriety in the eyes of the emperor. Ammianus goes on to call to call Maximinus a “brigand from Pannonia” who received accusations from citizens while cowardly cowering in his office.
The main enigma though is what motivated Maximinus to conduct Magic and adultery trials en masse in Rome. Ambition? Conservative upbringing back in Pannonia? Glory seeking? An attempt at going after the last pagan members of Old Rome’s aristocracy, most of which were supporters of defunct emperor Julian and possible enemies of Valentinian and his brother Valens? An attempt at moralizing the Late Roman society? We do not know for certain the motives that led to these trials and fear of magic, but we know that they shocked the upper classes, winning Maximinus a hated place in society, (hence his execution by Gratian, Valentinian I elder son, at the beginning of his reign at the request of Roman aristocrats) but a trusted relationship with the two brother emperors. The criticism by Ammianus also shows a certain level of special tensions between old pagan aristocracies and “new men”, mostly of humble Christian origins who used public hysteria (such as the one against dark magic) to advance themselves politically and dislodge the “old aristocratic ways” of virtue and service.
Since this field is a poorly researched one, we do not even know how magic use was perceived by the different fringes of late Roman society, resulting in a generalized view of the matter attached to what little information we have about Maximinus and his legal teams. What is clear however, is that the shakeup these trials caused for Roman society was significant, and that old societal values were being replaced by new ones, sometimes even brutally, therefore causing social tensions.