ESSWE6 Conference Wrap-Up


As many of you know, the ESSWE conference is held every two years. Having attended the one in Gothenburg (Sweden) in 2013, I was excited to attend this year’s conference in Erfurt (Germany). I was doubly thrilled as I co-organized two panels on esotericism in antiquity with Dylan M. Burns (Freie Universität Berlin) and I presented a paper at the conference.

The conference was organized by Bernd-Christian Otto of the University of Erfurt. Rather than hosting the conference at the university proper, Otto arranged for the ESSWE to meet at the AugustinerKloister, the place where Martin Luther (yes, that Martin Luther) took his vows to become a monk. Not only was the site well-suited for an academic conference, it was nice to not be holed up in university chambers all day. Also, the conference site was extremely well-organized, which I could certainly appreciate.

With the Mainz Curse tablets.
With the Mainz curse tablets.

As part of the NSEA panel on Magic and Alchemy, I presented a modified version of my forthcoming paper on the curse tablets at Mainz. This paper deconstructed three scholarly frameworks for studying cursing in antiquity and then offered a new way of looking at the tablets. I would say more about this, but you can read the results in the journal Magic, Ritual, and Witchcraft when the article comes out!

Kloisters 2The NSEA panels demonstrated the variety of topics being studied under the NSEA banner. We had a presentation on alchemy from Olivier Dufault (Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München). Trevor Luke (Florida State University) gave a paper on Pliny’s construction of deviance. Dylan M. Burns and April DeConick (Rice University) both presented on Gnosticism, and Alberto Alfredo Winterberg (Freie Universität Berlin) looked at the reception of gnosticism in modern esotericism. This being the first ESSWE conference with NSEA organized sessions, I was very happy with the breadth of topics, our speakers, and our ability to avoid the dreaded manel.

The rest of the conference was lively and insightful. As always, I find that I am able to learn something useful even if the topic at hand doesn’t apply directly to antiquity. Nevertheless, there was plenty of material for those who study antiquity. In addition to the two NSEA panels, Richard Gordon gave a key note address that provided a longitudinal view of magic in antiquity and Jörg Rüpke also gave a key note lecture on the work being done in his group at the University of Erfurt.

The next ESSWE conference will be held in Amsterdam in 2019. I for one am looking forward to it!

(Photos of the Augustinerkloister and Mainz courtesy of Jimi Veale.)

NSEA Panels at the 6th International ESSWE Conference

NSEA(This post is partially cross-posted from

The preliminary schedule for the 6th International ESSWE Conference in Erfurt is out!

I am happy to report that the Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity has two panels scheduled, both on the first day of the conference (Thursday, June 1st).

I will be speaking about the curses form the temple of Magna Mater and Isis in Mainz at the first panel, Magic and Alchemy.

For your convenience, the NSEA panel schedule is below.

Esotericism and Deviance in Antiquity 1: Magic and Alchemy
Chair: Dylan Burns
Thursday, June 1st, 11:30 – 13:30

  • Spiritual Forgery: Late Antique Gold-makers, Theologians, Imposters and the Beginnings of the Alchemical
    Olivier DuFault
    Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München
  • Defixiones and the Temple Locus: Illicit Practices, Religious Agencies
    Sarah L. Veale
    University of Toronto
  • Constructing the Canon of Deviance in Pliny the Elder
    Trevor Luke
    Florida State University
  • From illegibility and secrecy to a ritual writing system? The use of Charakteres in Coptic sources
    Kirsten Dzwiza
    University of Erfurt

Esotericism and Deviance in Antiquity 2: Gnosticism
Chair: Sarah L. Veale
Thursday, June 1st, 14:30 – 16:30

  • Ancient Gnostic Sex Magick: Status Quaestonis and New Developments
    Dylan M. Burns
    Freie Universität Berlin
  • A Secret Way to the Divine: The Two Books of Ieou and the Nomina Barbara
    Anna Van den Kerchove
    Institut protestant de théologie – Faculté de Paris
  • Deviant Christians: Resistance to Accommodation Among Esoteric Groups in Antiquity
    April DeConick
    Rice University
  • Remembering “the Gnostics: From mnemohistorical stereotype appropriation to the attempt of reconstruction in Neo-Gnostic Catholicism
    Alberto Alfredo Winterberg
    Freie Universitat Berlin

The conference takes place June 1st through 3rd, 2017. For more information, please see the ESSWE website. I hope to see you in Erfurt!

Movin’ On Up: The History PhD At York University

York University

I am happy to announce that I will be pursuing a PhD in History at York University starting in September!

Those of you in academia already know the sort of effort that goes into the PhD application process—the research proposals, personal statements, transcripts, and reference letters that comprise a successful application. My process was no different. At the end of the day, I applied to two programs that offered the best fit for what I do, University of Toronto Classics and York University History.

I was very fortunate to receive offers from both programs! The decision wasn’t easy by any means. But let’s face it, being able to choose between two strong PhD offers is a “high-class problem.”

I chose York because it offers the sort of innovative and interdisciplinary framework I believe is so essential for doing scholarship in an interconnected world. I can’t give you a run-down of all the ways York is a top-ranked school, or how prestigious the program is. York gets a bad reputation that isn’t made any better by botched promotional efforts (like this ad campaign that misspelled “engineering”) or York’s unofficial slogan, “If you can hold a fork, you can go to York.” What I can say is that York is stacked with amazing faculty who are doing important research despite the dodgy optics.

My PhD research will focus on questions of death and religiosity in Roman antiquity. Although we have a lot of work on epitaphs, graves, and burial in antiquity, we tend not to have too much in-depth research on the religious concerns that might have informed these burial practices. Focusing on death also allows me to continue to dip my toes into areas like cursing and magic—two areas which tend to take up the bulk of my research time, despite my efforts to do more “serious” scholarship!

In many ways, this is a return to form for me. My first degree had a concentration in history, albeit the modern political sort. (If you want to talk détente, rapprochement, or the two Germanies, come at me! Actually—don’t! It’s been awhile!) I am excited to be joining York’s History Department for my PhD and look forward to doing some serious history on Roman antiquity over the next several years.

Curses at the 6th International ESSWE Conference

DTM 250

Regular readers of the blog will already be familiar with the ESSWE, aka the European Society for the Study of Western Esotericism, as well as the thematic network that I am co-director of, the NSEA (Network for the Study of Esotericism in Antiquity).

(If you aren’t familiar, do yourself a favour and get acquainted!)

In June, the University of Erfurt will be hosting the Sixth International ESSWE Conference. This year’s theme is Western esotericism and deviance. As part of the conference, the NSEA is organizing two panels, one on Gnosticism and another on Magic & Alchemy. While a more formal announcement of the panels will be forthcoming, I wanted to provide a brief heads up that, in addition to facilitating one of the NSEA panels, I will also be presenting at ESSWE6!

My paper will be on a topic which I’ve been working on for a few years now: curses. Specifically, I will be talking about the lead tables found at the Sanctuary of Magna Mater and Isis in Germany. In addition to translating some curses from Latin that have yet to be made available in English, I hope to offer a solid re-think of the categories that we use to talk about curses and demonstrate that our conceptualization of “magic” in antiquity is not as clear-cut as it is often portrayed.

I look forward to seeing everyone at the conference in June!

Refutatio Romana Wins the CSSR MA Essay Prize

Judean CoinEach year the Canadian Society for the Study of Religion (CSSR) awards three essay prizes: one at the undergraduate level, one at the M.A. level, and one at the Ph.D. level. The contest is open to anyone who is brave enough to submit their work, and persons from all of the various sub-disciplines of religion compete with each other for the top honour.

I am happy to announce that my essay submission was the prize-winning essay at the Master’s level for 2016! It won by unanimous decision. By now, many of you will be familiar with this paper, “Refutatio Romana:  The Political Dimensions of Religious Alterity in Tacitus’ Histories 5,” as I recently presented a version of it at the CLARE conference in Calgary (which, by the way, was a wonderful experience!). As I mentioned previously, this paper investigates Tacitus’ sudden shift on foreign religion from one of acceptance (e.g. in the case of the Germans or the Brits) to one of rejection in the case of the Judeans. Since I study Dionysiac cult, I analysed this disjunction through Tacitus’ discussion of the Roman wine god Liber and the Judean ritual of Sukkot.

Here is what the committee had to say about my essay:

The writer exhibits strong research and writing skills and a mastery of numerous contexts, literature and cultures in an examination of Roman and Judean understandings of religious and cultural identities, treatment of “the other,” and worship of the divine. Using primary and secondary sources on Plutarch’s and Tacitus’ writings, a strong methodological approach emerges that displays a breadth and depth of anthropological, postcolonial and literary analyses. Bringing ancient texts forward to contemporary relevancy in an engaging and well-constructed argument is accomplished with a good degree of self-awareness in terms of methodology, theory and self-location. This paper emphasises the ongoing need for strong textual analysis within the realm of Religious Studies.

This essay was written as part of a course at the University of Toronto on the Roman historian Tacitus, and I am grateful to my professor for providing the opportunity to prepare what has unwittingly become a quite well-traveled paper. I am also grateful to everyone who has, at one point or another, provided feedback on ways my argument could be improved and for additional angles to consider. Of course, I offer my sincerest thanks to the CSSR and the committee for this award.

Book Review: The Final Pagan Generation

I am happy to announce that I have a new book review in publication! The review is in the Journal of Late Antiquity and looks at Edward J. Watt’s The Final Pagan Generation, which examines how Christianity snuck into the Roman elite consciousness unbeknownst to the Roman elites.

Here is a snippet of the review:

“While much scholarship has been devoted to the Christianization of Rome in the fourth century ce, the lives and experiences of those who were not swept up in religious changes are often overlooked. Watts seeks to correct this imbalance with The Final Pagan Generation. A natural development from his previous work on social interaction in the Roman academy and the roots of religious dissent which culminated in riots in fifth century Alexandria, The Final Pagan Generation captures the religious timbre of the late Roman Empire, filtering historical and religious change through the eyes of those born in the early fourth century, when Roman institutions seemed unshakeable and Christianity was a marginal force in Roman life. Watts problematizes the view that the triumph of Christianity was inevitable, arguing instead that the changes of the fourth century, although writ large in hindsight, were incomprehensible to those living through them. Instead, he suggests a generational divide existed which isolated the final pagan generation from a younger cohort which sought new social and religious possibilities in a changing empire.”

Those of you with access to an online journal database or through your university library can read the full review here.

Of course, I offer my sincerest thanks to the editorial team at the Journal for Late Antiquity for helping to make this happen and being wonderful to work with!


The Island of Sacred Deer

Sacred Deer

The Temple of Artemis in Ephesus (Asia Minor, now Turkey) was a massive cult site which served a variety of community functions. Moreover, like other temples in antiquity, the physical space of the Temple of Artemis was designated as sacred. Nevertheless, such spaces weren’t always used for sacred purposes. For example, sacred land could be rented out to farmers, and sacred ponds could be accessed by fishermen for a fee (Dignas, 175-177). In other words, the goddess was a landlord.

According to Beate Dignas, the temple of Artemis also owned an island which teemed with sacred deer (Dignas, 176). Here’s what the geographer Strabo had to say about this island:

μετὰ δὲ Κολοφῶνα ὄρος Κοράκιον καὶ νησίον ἱερὸν Ἀρτέμιδος, εἰς ὃ διανηχομένας τίκτειν τὰς ἐλάφους πεπιστεύκασιν.

After Colophon and Mt. Coracius, there is a sacred island of Artemis; they believe that her deer enter [the island] for the purpose of giving birth.

(Strabo 14.1.29, translation mine)

I teased you a bit here. We don’t actually have too much information about the sacred deer. Making matters worse, this passage can be interpreted in several ways. Maybe these deer are just garden variety deer. Maybe they belong to the goddess and are used in her rituals or processions.

Dignas seems to interpret this passage as meaning that the island is used for raising sacred deer and that these special animals reside on the island (176). Although this meaning is not entirely clear, I tend to agree with her due to the use of the article τὰς. Such an article is not necessary (see how Strabo omits it when referring to Colophon and Mt. Coracius). Moreover, when the article is used, it can denote emphasis or possession. I am going with the latter use here and taking this as a possessive which gives a nod to Artemis, who is mentioned in the previous clause. Of course, that deer were sacred to Artemis is something that also bolsters this interpretation.

Careful readers of this blog will notice a theme emerging: the connection between sacred animals and sacred spaces which are kept pure of mortal interference. Indeed, we saw this earlier with the prophetic horses of the Germans, which were kept in a sacred grove that wasn’t contaminated by mortal concerns. If this interpretation of Strabo is correct, a case is slowly building for the quartering of sacred animals in similarly sacred spaces. This would make sense within the ancient context. Just as persons might be subject to strict purity regulations when participating in some rituals, it seems such places might have served a similar function for holy animals. The deer of Artemis being one such example.


Photo by Kev Chapman.

Divination by Horses


Divination in the ancient world took many forms. We’ve already talked about hepatoscopy, divination by means of the liver, as well as the fumes at Delphi. Most people are also familiar with augury, a popular form of divination which interpreted the calls and flights of birds. In the ancient world, nearly anything could be a source of prophecy. Hence, in addition to reading entrails and sussing out omens in the sky, we also have things like turomancy (τυρομάντεια), or divination by cheese, an especially delicious form of prophecy, if there ever was one.

As cultures encountered each other in the ancient world, divination could be used to distinguish the religious practices of one peoples from another. Case in point: the Germans, whose divination practices were seen (by Romans) as different from those of the Romans. I’ll be drawing here off the work of Tacitus, who provides a thorough (if biased) source on the Germanic tribes in his book Germany (a.k.a. de Origine et Situ Germanorum). Tacitus has a lot to say about the religious practices of the Germans. Sometimes they are similar to Roman beliefs and practices (e.g. the worship of Castor and Pollux in section 43), other times they are different (for example, the human sacrifice of the Semnones in section 39). Tacitus reports that divination with lots (e.g. runes) was the chief and most authoritative form of Germanic divination (Germany 10). But the Germans also seemed to have a method of divination that was peculiar to them (at least in the eyes of the Tacitus). They divined with horses.

Now, these were not just any horses, but sacred horses who lived in a sacred grove and were paid for by the Germans, who sought their pronouncement on important matters. Here’s what Tacitus has to say about it:

proprium gentis equorum quoque praesagia ac monitus experiri. publice aluntur isdem nemoribus ac lucis, candidi et nullo mortali opere contacti; quos pressos sacro curru sacerdos ac rex vel princeps civitatis comitantur hinnitusque ac fremitus observant. nec ulli auspicio maior fides, non solum apud plebem, sed apud proceres, apud sacerdotes; se enim ministros deorum, illos conscios putant.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10

Peculiar to this race is that prophecies and warnings are learned from horses. These horses are raised in sacred groves and forests by public expense. The horses are white and have been in contact with no mortal deed; when the horses have been burdened with the sacred chariot, the priest or king or chief of the city follows the horses and they observe their neighing and snorts. There is no truth greater than this sort of divination, not only for the general population, but also for the noble men and the priests. For they believe that they are ministers of the gods and the horses are the god’s witnesses.

– Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum, 10 (translation mine)

Tacitus seems to view divination by horse (a.k.a. hippomancy) as a practice that is a bit out of the ordinary—at least for Romans. Moreover, he attaches a significant importance to the ritual and prophecy of the horses, noting that the neighs of the horses hold supreme authority not just for the German people in general, but it is also important to those who would be seen by Tacitus as most able to judge the validity of a particular religious ritual: the noblemen and priests.

The discussion of hippomancy occurs during a discussion of Germanic divination practices in which Tacitus escalates the peculiarity of Germanic divination. First, he discusses the casting of lots, then the horses, and finally he describes a ritual used to divine the outcomes of wars which, like hippomancy, is portrayed as strange. By couching hippomancy among other strange and foreign practices, Tacitus highlights the peculiar nature of German divination. Nevertheless, he can’t fully dismiss divination with horses. It’s a practice that it has widespread support, and is taken as veridical by the Germanic priestly and upper-classes.

Although Roman historiographic/ethnographic writing often is laced with the views of their authors, records such as Tacitus’ can give us insight into the religious customs and practices of peoples outside of Rome. Like the Romans, the Germans had a complex body of divinatory ritual, and like the Romans, these methods were used to gauge the intents of the gods and goddesses on mortal affairs. Divination by horse, while just another of the many forms of divination which existed in the ancient world, is one that appears to be particular to the Germans, both in its composition and importance.

Cornelius Tacitus, de Origine et Situ Germanorum

Photo by Stanza.

Why Does Juvenal Hate Trumpets?

Trumpet PlayerRoman satirist Juvenal was not one to pull his punches. He skewered Roman society, taking aim at his fellow Romans (and fellow non-Romans) in ways that are, to the modern reader, shocking and offensive. Read enough Juvenal and one quickly picks up his personal pet peeves: women, foreigners, and trumpets.

Trumpets? Yes, Trumpets.

Now, to me, this would be perfectly understandable if Juvenal simply hated the sound of trumpets. For example, I have a strong hate-on for “Jazz Flute” and flutes in rock music (looking at you Black Keys). Flutes are like nails on a chalkboard for me. I try to be open-minded, but I just can’t with the flutes.

Juvenal’s irritation isn’t quite the same as mine, but he certainly hates trumpets. Although he is frequently complaining about trumpets, his complaints mask a deeper concern: foreigners, and women and men who participate in “foreign” activities.

Let’s look at a few example passages to see exactly what Juvenal is up to.

He says the following with respect to women and the rites of Magna Mater:

Sed more sinistro exagitata procul non intrat femina limen: solis ara deae maribus patet. “Ite, profane,” clamatur, “nullo gemit hic tibicina cornu.”

But, according to their perverse custom, the woman who has disturbed their threshold is kept far away and cannot enter: The altar of the Goddess lies open for men only. “Go away, profane, woman!” is shouted, “No Trumpetess will make noise with her horn in this place!”

Juvenal, Satires 2.87-90 (Translation mine)

Juvenal seems to kill two birds with one stone here. First, he is offering a critique of the male priests of Magna Mater. These were foreign men who, to Juvenal, were excessively feminine and participated in strange rituals such as castration. Heads up: For an elite Roman male, castration was pretty much the worst thing you could ever do. So we have that dynamic going on.

But Juvenal also seems to be critiquing women, perhaps also followers of Magna Mater who were not allowed in the more sacred places which were permitted for her male priests to inhabit. We do know that the rituals of Magna Mater were very loud and musical events, and here we have indication that women played the trumpets in their celebrations. Whatever the situation, Juvenal does not approve.

Let’s look at another example:

Quadringenta dedit Gracchus sestertii dotem cornicini… O proceres, censore opus est an haruspice nobis?

Gracchus gave four hundred sesterce as a dowry to a horn-player…Oh Noble men! Do we have need of a censer or haruspex?

Juvenal Satires 2.117-121 (Translation Mine)

This passage critiques the marriage of a Roman woman to a horn player who is also a devotee of a foreign cult—he is later described as adopting feminine dress at the wedding. It is no surprise that Juvenal disparages his religious affiliations. While Juvenal is critiquing the corruption of Roman values by so-called new religions, it is clear that he is developing a handy short-hand for this sub-group of Roman society: They are often described as trumpet players.

One more. This time Juvenal is critiquing the state of Rome. In this passage, the city is described as overrun with foreigners by a man named Umbricius who intends to leave the city. This is what he says:

Cedamus patria. Vivant Artorius istic et Catulus, maneant qui nigrum in candida vertunt, quis facile est aedem conducere, flumina, portus, siccanden eluviem, portandum ad busta cadaver…these Quondam hi cornicines and municipalis harenae perpetui comites.

Let us leave the fatherland! Let Artorius and Catulus live in that place. Let the ones who turn black into white remain there, the one who is easily able to take on work at a temple, or at rivers and ports, who can dry up overflows of water, who are able to carry a corpse to the funeral pyres…At a former time, these men were horn players and the constant companions of the local arenas.

Juvenal Satires 3.29-35 (Translation mine)

Here Juvenal seems to say that Rome has become a place where only persons of low status should live. He signals this by listing a slew of jobs which would be unfit for a proper Roman and then demotes these individuals even further by saying that their original status was as entertainment in the arenas (gladiators, perhaps) and as carnival entertainers, aka trumpeters.

We can see that Juvenal not only dislikes foreigners (and Romans who act like foreigners), but that he connects them to the musical instrument of the trumpet. Juvenal does not seem to hate trumpets so much as he does the people who play trumpets—women, Romans corrupted by foreign ways, and foreigners. The trumpet becomes a shorthand way of signalling a whole host of ideas for Juvenal, including the state of Rome and, quite frankly, his raging xenophobia. Does Juvenal hate horns? Maybe. We can certainly say that his trumpet-rage signals the real target of his critiques.

Tacitus in Calgary

Although blog posts have been sparse as of late, it’s not without good reason: I’ve been working hard on my grad school courses. Needless to say, this takes a lot of time and attention!

Luckily, the hard work appears to be paying off and 2016 is off to a good start! I am happy to announce that I will be presenting a paper at this year’s Religion & History Graduate Student Conference which is held by the Department of Classics & Religion at the University of Calgary. The conference takes place on April 14th and 15th.

My paper focuses on Tacitus’ Histories, specifically book five, and the anti-Judean content in his discussion of the ritual of Sukkot. Here’s the abstract:

Refutatio Romana:
The Political Dimensions of Religious Difference in Tacitus’ Histories 5.5

The Roman historian Tacitus coined the phrase interpretatio Romana to describe his attempts to understand foreign religion within a Roman framework. This strategy of cultural translation, however, is abandoned in his discussion of the Judeans in book five of the Histories. Although Tacitus is confronted with several opportunities to bring Judean and Roman religion into sympathetic conversation, he instead draws an acrimonious picture of Judean ritual. This religious alterity is especially seen in his characterization of the celebration of Sukkot, a festival he describes as “absurd and filthy” in contrast with the joyous practices of the Roman god Liber. Using Sukkot as a lens for Tacitus’ discussion of the Judeans, this paper seeks to answer a significant, but often overlooked question implicit in Tacitus’ discussion: Why is Judean religion portrayed with such hostility? This paper argues that Tacitus’ rhetoric underscores the identity politics at work within this treatise, and moreover serves a larger political function which reflects unprecedented imperial goals in Judea. On the one hand, Tacitus’ rhetoric sits within a larger milieu of Roman discourse on the Judeans, but this discourse also held political possibilities: the unfavourable portrayal of the Judeans legitimated a uniquely religious conquest of the region as centered on the temple locus. By examining the historical context of religious alterity in the Histories we can better understand this puzzling turn in Tacitus’ portrayal of foreign religion.

I am eager to present this paper since it has a little bit of something for everyone. The event itself is free, so if you are in Calgary and want to lean a bit about Tacitus, feel free to stop by!

Photo courtesy the University of Calgary.

Ancient Curses Research Project: An Honourable Mention

Last year I undertook an independent research project on curses with Tony Burke at York University. (Learn more about this project at the Ancient Curses website!) While the course itself included curses from many different genres (Roman curse tablets? Yep. Biblical curses? Those too!), my major research project focused on Roman-era curse tablets, specifically those found in holy sites.

This paper was submitted to the York University Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition. The LAPS consists of 25,000 students, and recognizes eight papers every year for special recognition: One award at each educational level (first year, second year, third year, and fourth year), and four honorable mentions. Obviously, there were a lot of contenders here!

Here is how the award is judged:

“The jury judged the essays by the following criteria: clarity of presentation, coherence and cogency of argument, appropriateness of organization, felicity of expression, and ‘brilliance,’ which may manifest itself as wit, originality, persuasive power, or insight.”

With the other winners at the York University Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition award ceremony.
With the other winners at the Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Sciences essay competition award ceremony.

I am happy to report that my research paper received an honourable mention for research! This is really important since the paper itself was not only undertaken within a niche area of study (Greco-Roman religion), but it focused on an even more niche research topic (curses). These are two pretty specialized areas which are far removed from many fields of study, so it was nice to take my place amongst the other winners, whose essays tended to focused on more modern and accessible topics. Who says antiquity isn’t relevant!

Of course, my thanks to Professor Burke for undertaking this project in the first place and for nominating my essay for an award. In addition to finding the overall project fun, it’s an area which may come into play in my future research, and this project was a great introduction to the study of curses. In the meantime, however, I’ll content myself with this wonderful recognition.

Ancient Miracle Workers: The Emperor Vespasian

VespasianWhen we think about miracle workers in antiquity, holy men usually come to mind: historical figures who captured the imagination through their supernatural talents and their working of divine miracles. Although Roman emperors were deified, and thereby considered godlike by default, their special talents generally relate to success on the battle field or their ability to mobilize the public. The emperor Vespasian, however, is an exception. Indeed, before he became princeps, he was working miracles in Alexandria.

Let me step back and clarify—the miracles in question are disputed. Our report here is comes from the Roman historian Tacitus, who takes a skeptical view of Vespasian’s holy deeds. Of course, like any savvy politician, Tacitus knew that to win political power one must first win the hearts of the people. And this is exactly where we find Vespasian. A future leader who has yet to become emperor, he is laying low in Egypt during a time of civil strife.

As the story goes, during this time, Vespasian was the subject of several miracles which indicated that the gods favoured him. The biggest indication came, however, from two men—one who was going blind and the other who was crippled in his hand. Each, thinking that Vespasian held divine power, accosted the would-be emperor and sought to be healed. One man by Vespasian’s spit, the other through the power of his footprints:

e plebe Alexandrina quidam oculorum tabe notus genua eius advolvitur, remedium caecitatis exposcens gemitu, monitu Serapidis dei,…precabaturque principem ut genas et oculorum orbis dignaretur respergere oris excremento. alius manum aeger eodem deo auctore ut pede ac vestigio Caesaris calcaretur orabat. Vespasianus primo inridere, aspernari; atque illis instantibus modo famam vanitatis metuere, modo obsecratione ipsorum et vocibus adulantium in spem induci.

Of the Alexandrian people, one man who learned that there was decay of his eyes fell at his [Vespasian’s] knees, imploring him with a groan for a remedy of his blindness, since he was advised by the god Serapis…he begged the princeps that his cheeks and circles of the eyes were deemed worthy to be sprinkled with his spit. Another man who was sick in his hand spoke to this same god and father [Serapis] with the result that his hand might be walked on by the Caesar’s foot and footprints. At first, Vespasian laughed and these requests were rejected. Through these instances, he feared that he would acquire a reputation for vanity, but he was finally led to hope by the entreaty of these very people and the cries of adulation.

Histories 4.81

Although initially unsure whether to attempt to heal these men, Vespasian is swayed by the crowd. But this dude is a cool cookie. He knows that, if things go right and the men are healed, he will be viewed as a god. But if the men are not healed, he will look impotent and foolish. So he does what any cunning politician would do—he takes a poll. Seeking out doctors, he assesses the chance that these men might be healed of their illnesses and how this might come about. Vespasian, you see, isn’t so much interested in working miracles, as he is in giving the appearance that he can work miracles:

postremo aestimari a medicis iubet an talis caecitas ac debilitas ope humana superabiles forent. medici varie disserere: huic non exesam vim luminis et redituram si pellerentur obstantia; illi elapsos in pravum artus, si salubris vis adhibeatur, posse integrari. denique patrati remedii gloriam penes Caesarem, inriti ludibrium penes miseros fore. igitur Vespasianus cuncta fortunae suae patere ratus nec quicquam ultra incredibile. laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

Finally, he ordered them to be checked out by some doctors or to learn if such a kinds of blindness or debility might be surmounted with human aid. The doctors talked in various ways: for the one man, the power of light was not gone and it would return if obstacles were removed; for the other man, his muscles slipped into a crooked form, but if he was held with good power, it was possible that he could be made whole….if the remedies were performed, there would be glory for Caeser. But if they were of no importance to the unfortunate men, there would be mockery. Therefore, Vespasian imagined that all fortune was available to him, and nothing could be more incredible.

Histories 4.81

As the crowd stood by with baited breath, Vespasian weighed the odds, concluding that it was possible to heal these men—not through his sorcerous spit or magic footprints, but through the application of medical techniques (which aren’t fully named beyond a bit of physiotherapy for the guy with the dodgy hand). Of course, Vespasian gambles a bit here, but decides that he’s been especially blessed by the gods lately, so why not give it a shot.

So how does it go? Vespasian is victorious! Moreover, he is victorious in front of an eager crowd, who eats up his flashy smile as he heals the men of their ailments.

laeto ipse vultu, erecta quae adstabat multitudine, iussa exequitur. statim conversa ad usum manus, ac caeco reluxit dies.

With a happy appearance, he stood among the multitude which had gathered, and he performed the prescriptions. Steadily, the hand turned to use and the day shown again for the blind man.

Histories 4.81

Tacitus, nevertheless, remains skeptical, although he claims that no one has anything to gain by repeating this story, and that fact alone is indicative of its veracity. The skepticism comes in the nature of the healing: although effected with the help of medical professionals, Vespasian indeed heals these men and perhaps that is enough of an indicator of divine favour.

Like other holy men in antiquity, Vespasian is portrayed as deriving his power from a divine source. He is noted as being especially favoured by the gods, and the success of his healing is framed as being a result of a divine providence (with a bit of rational calculation thrown in for insurance). But this holy man didn’t come from the fringes of society; he was a major player in Roman affairs and a future emperor. In this way, it is a bit surprising to see Vespasian in the role of divine holy man. Nonetheless, the events in Alexandria suggest that, like others in antiquity, emperors were able to perform miracles as agents as the divine.