The witch did not just appear in Medival Italy, but were persecuted throughout history. The records of Roman historians point to a period of more prolific witch-hunting in classical times.
The persecution of witches in Italy stretches back far beyond the Roman Inquisition and the Medieval purges. Even in pagan Roman times the practicing of black magic was punishable by death. The use of Magic was a part of everyday life in the Roman cities and the practice of sacrificing to gain the favour of various gods was commonplace. Famously, Cesar is told 'Beware the Ides of March', by an everyday 'soothsayer, in Shakespeare's 'Julius Cesar'. However when the practice pertained to the favour of gods, other than those of the Romans it was deemed illegal and damaging to the order of the state.
Essentially the Roman patrician classes ruled over the multitude and apart from a very forceful hand that the Romans used in forcing the local populations to pay taxes to the state and conscripting local men into their armies, probably the most effective weapon they had in fighting local rebellion was religion. Religion was law and the law was religion.
To the ruling classes in Rome the biggest threat to the rule of law was not from the rowdy physicality of the uncivilised, but from the oppressed and powerless sections of society; the slaves, common women and freed people were subject to governance by the sword, but the Romans understood that insurrection is like a snake that while cutting off its head, another will grow back again and again. Even in those days 'hearts and minds' were the battlefields that required considerable resources and represented as important a frontier as the battle lines in the north.
Roman ladies take council of a 'witch' in matters of love
According to numerous historical accounts the Roman cities swarmed with the practitioners of the dark arts – incantation and divination. The Romans of course, sought to impose their religion and their deities on the populations they conquered, which resulted in the continued practice of witchcraft in secret. It is thought too that the old religion was further fortified by slaves who escaped their Roman masters and fled to the forests where they lived in seclusion preserving the old traditions from modern influences.
The persecution of the 'witch' again is traced back to the oppression of women. The notion of a powerful woman was abhorrent to the Roman male and the stereotypical image of the malevolent female crone was encouraged resulting in women being stoned to death in the streets. Witches were believed to concoct poisons from the bones of children, to be able to affect the elements and weather and posses the ability to shape-shift into various animals, most commonly the owl.
An etching of a Greek witch from antiquity presiding over a company of wolves
In 331 BC, 170 women were executed for witchcraft for causing an epidemic illness, although this scale of execution was without precedent in ancient Rome, smaller scale witch-hunts were common. In 184 BC 2000 executions for witchcraft took place while 3000 were recorded between 182–180 BC, which on the face of it, relative to the much smaller population of Italy at that time, represents a far more prolific witch-hunting phase in history than the 'classical' witch-burning period of the Middle-Ages.
Horace the great Roman poet wrote of two witches in his work, Canidia and Sagana who dress in black, have pale skin, long nails and wild hair. They come to a graveyard at night when there is a full moon and pick herbs, tear apart a lamb and pour blood on graves to conjure up spirits. They bury a wolf’s beard and the fang of a spotted snake and burn a wax doll. Canidia has locks entwined with twisting vipers and Sagana’s hair stands on end like the bristles of a charging boar. They are about to kill a boy in order to make a love potion. Canidia wants to ensnare Varus and needs a powerful potion using the liver and marrow of a boy.
Tapping into one of the great fears, whether in ancient or modern times, that of losing children, is also central to these witches of Roman literature. A surviving inscription from the time suggests that child abduction did indeed take place in Rome, it reads: "While I was going into my fourth year I was stolen, when I could have been sweet to my mother and father a disreputable (or magical) hand stole me away, a hand which is cruel wherever it remains on (earth) the land and harms by its art, parents guard your children lest grief becomes fixed in your heart."
Even today, a missing child is so abhorrent, so inexplicable to ordinary people, that society is somewhat in the grip of fear for the safety of children. The media continues to voice the hysteria caused by this most terrible and shocking occurrences when they happen. In our modern media-saturated society we often watch these events unfold in real time, with often a conclusion (arrest or trial) providing 'natural' causes, (a sexual predator). Imagine how, in ancient times, without a media presence, how the disappearance of a child might completely paralyse a small community causing them to seek explanations in 'supernatural' causes?
By Hugo Mc Cafferty