Sunday, May 19, 2013


Grazia Maria Masselli, Riflessi di magia: virtù e virtuosismi della parola in Roma antica. Studi latini, 81. Napoli: Loffredo, 2012. Pp. 166. ISBN 9788875645571. €15.00 (pb).

Reviewed by Ortal-Paz Saar, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton (

Version at BMCR home site

Grazia Maria Masselli's new book comprises six essays and an appendix by Giovanni Cipriani. The first three essays have previously been published in Italian journals (Aufidus, Annali della Facoltà di Lettere e Filosofia dell'Università degli Studi di Bari, Materiali e Discussioni), while the last three are newly edited. Masselli's work focuses on reflections of magical practices in Latin literature, touching upon a variety of authors, such as Cicero, Livy, Ovid, Pliny and Apuleius.

The first essay, "La leggenda dei Decii: un percorso fra storia, religione e magia," begins with Livy's story of the self-sacrifice of the consul Publius Decius Mus, performed in order to save the Roman army. Masselli examines the magico-religious content of the story, focusing on the ritual aspects of the devotio, e.g. the hero covering his head, standing over a spear and touching his chin with one hand.

The second essay, "Apuleio 'mago' e l''incanto' della parola," deals with the much-discussed trial of Apuleius, in which he was accused of performing magical acts. Masselli attempts to place the rhetorical techniques used by Apuleius in a literary context, showing how they relate to works such as Cicero's De oratore and Quintilian's Institutio oratoria. The rhetorical devices discussed by these authors (humor, irony, surprise) are said to have been skillfully employed by Apuleius in his defense speech.

Apuleius' Apology is also the focus of the third essay, "Apuleio, apol. 30-35, e le 'trappole' dell'eufemismo." One of the accusations brought against Apuleius was the use of specific marine creatures, bearing sexually-allusive names, in order to incite Pudentilla's love. Here Masselli discusses the predilection of Roman society for euphemisms, and how terms that were considered indecent and offensive could be avoided by orators. She suggests that in the passages under consideration, Apuleius managed to overturn the use of euphemisms against his accusers.

The fourth essay, titled "Coda d'amore: il medico, la lucertola e l'amplesso negato," discusses magical practices for preventing intercourse that employ a lizard tail as materia magica. Masselli starts from a magical recipe included in De medicamentis of Marcellus Empiricus and moves to a wider discussion of the lexical and conceptual affinities between "tail" and the male sexual organ. She then considers briefly the topic of impotence in Latin literary sources, chiefly the Satyricon of Petronius and Ovid's Amores.

In the fifth essay, "Da azione ad atto: il viaggio della metafora. A proposito del senex Aeson e di un vetus stipes," Masselli touches upon the theme of youth and its restoration through magical means, a topic which forms also the focus of the appendix by Giovanni Cipriani. The frame of this essay is a passage from Ovid's Metamorphoses in which Medea rejuvenates her father-in-law, Aeson. The author discusses concepts of youth and old age as expressed, sometimes metaphorically, in literary sources. She then suggests a connection between the literary use of metaphors and magical practices based on analogy, like the one portrayed by Ovid.

The last essay in the volume, titled "La potenza dei carmina tra poesia e magia," returns to the story of Medea and Aeson, coupled with other literary depictions of magical incantations (carmina), like those found in Virgil's Aeneid and Eighth Eclogue. Next, Masselli discusses carmina in the context of Latin poetry, employing a passage from Virgil in which the poet expresses his hope that verses may eternally preserve the memory of two youths (Nisus and Euryalus in Aeneid 9.447). The essay suggests a link between the two meanings of carmina, the magical and the poetical, both of which aim to alter reality.

The book ends with a concise appendix by Giovanni Cipriani, titled "In nome del padre. Giasone, Medea, la magia e il riscatto degli anni". Cipriani discusses the theme of renouncing a part of one's years so as to prolong the life of a loved person. The concept is mentioned in several Latin sources, among which is Ovid's story of Jason willing to shorten his own life in order to prevent his father's death. Cipriani maintains this concept to be merely a manner of speech, as suggested by Seneca in his De brevitate vitae.

The volume touches upon many interesting topics, yet displays several shortcomings. All the essays lack proper introductory paragraphs. Masselli does not express her intentions at the start (e.g. "the purpose of this essay is to show…"). This makes it difficult to understand what are the theses and the arguments she wishes to put forward, and consequently, what her conclusions are. At times, Masselli employs outdated terms or concepts, such as 'black magic' (magia nera, p. 84), or an accusatory tone versus Marcellus because, as a medical professional, he provided recipes designed to ensure the physical fidelity of a woman (pp. 84-87). Most of the Latin passages are left untranslated, but occasionally translations are provided in footnotes (e.g. pp. 91, 94, 99), when the same essay also contains long untranslated parts. This choice appears stylistically odd.

It is not entirely clear who the intended audience of the book is. The volume is obviously not aimed at the general educated public, given its long untranslated Latin quotations and overly copious footnotes. On the other hand, scholars of Latin literature or ancient magic will find little new information and few novel ideas between its pages. Nonetheless, the rich bibliography at the end of the volume provides a useful starting point for scholars interested in an up-to-date list of sources on magic in Latin literature.

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