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Abstract

Scholars have roundly criticized “magic” as a category for academic analysis in the social sciences and humanities for more than a century. Yet, despite these persistent criticisms, and especially for scholars of the ancient Mediterranean world, magic still enjoys wide currency and has even received renewed interest over the past few decades. Redescribing “Magic” engages these issues from two perspectives. First, from a theoretical and methodological perspective, this dissertation explores how and why scholars of the ancient Mediterranean world have justified continuing to use magic even in the face of a long tradition of criticism. In general, I argue that by confounding the distance between ancient, first-order descriptions and modern, second-order terms of analysis, scholars of antiquity can deflect criticisms of magic’s descriptive and analytic utility. They are thus able to (re)affirm the historical reality of magic in antiquity even without clearly delimiting its conceptual boundaries. I indicate the specific idioms in which this methodological confounding has operated, and the theoretical postulates that have underpinned its workings. Second, from a historical perspective, and to illustrate the above issues, I turn to ancient Roman literature from the Late Republic and Principate periods, especially those texts that classical scholars frequently construe as evidence in historical articulations of Greco-Roman magic. Specifically, I examine the use of Latin magia in these sources, endeavor to contextualize its ideological work, and offer critical redescriptions of these sources without appeal to magic as a substantive category. I argue that such texts can be more usefully read as an indication of the Roman ruling class’s broader preoccupation with construing, negotiating, and contesting religious alterity in the context of acquiring and managing a Mediterranean empire. The Latin term magia and its cognates thus became simply one of several indices with which Roman intellectuals dealt with the cultural diversity fostered by Rome’s own imperial ambitions.

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