Wednesday, October 31, 2018


Christopher A. Faraone, The Transformation of Greek Amulets in Roman Imperial Times. Empire and after. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2018. Pp. xvi, 486. ISBN 9780812249354. $89.95.

Reviewed by Michael Zellmann-Rohrer, Oxford (

Version at BMCR home site


The implication of figures of no less stature than Pericles and Galen in the use of amulets may, but should not, come as a surprise to Classicists. Despite some initial distaste over their superstitious and decadent associations, the study of amulets and their texts in Greek civilization has been gaining a more solid foundation in the form of substrate-specific surveys and corpora. We now have the work of Campbell Bonner, Attilio Mastrocinque, and Simone Michel for inscribed gems1 and Roy Kotansky for metal sheets (lamellae);2 for Graeco-Roman Egypt, surviving texts on papyrus, whose counterparts will have circulated more widely in the Greek world, as well as metal objects are collected in the well-known corpora on magical papyri.3 An authoritative synthesis on ancient amulets remains to be written, however — if it ever manages to tempt one or more scholars as a manageable undertaking. For now, students of ancient cult will be pleased to have a more selective study of a no less broad swathe of the amuletic tradition in the latest work of a scholar who has served the undertaking well in a course of publications spanning more than 30 years.

In this richly illustrated volume, which draws on an impressive range of sources including literary works, plastic art, grave goods, gems, and papyri, Faraone defines an amulet as "any object—plant, animal, or mineral; natural or manmade, image or text—that the Greeks placed on their bodies, domestic animals, homes, ships, vineyards, or cities in the hope of protecting themselves, of curing some illness, or of gaining some benefit, usually understood in the abstract—for example, charisma, prosperity, or victory" (5). The central argument of the books is against past perceptions of a sudden appearance of amulets in the Roman Imperial period, and furthermore of this perceived introduction as a product of oriental influence or decay of earlier rationality. Instead, we should speak of an increase in the visibility of an amuletic tradition already long extant in the Greek world, which is owed to the addition of texts to amuletic objects that would not otherwise have been marked as such. Consequently there is a call for re-evaluation of the extent of this earlier, less visible phase of the tradition.

The book is divided into three parts, each considering a different type of amulet, or rather, means by which amulets may be identified. The first, "Archaeology," looks back to the period before the transformation proposed by Faraone, as far as Classical Greece. Over three chapters abundant evidence from representational art and the archaeological record is adduced for a greater presence of amulets in this period. Special attention is paid to significant shapes, such as "weapons, seashells, and animals, as well as those that take the form of human body parts," and to media, in particular certain metals and stones. Throughout, two evidentiary problems are in constant sight, the limited survival of organic substances, the substrates for many amulets, and the fact that surviving objects may have been amuletic but elude conclusive identification due to the lack of inscriptions or other explicit internal identification. The testimony of literary texts on amuletic properties of various substances goes some way to filling this gap, and supports the identification of specific, surviving artifacts as amulets.

The second part turns similar attention upon images. A chapter entitled "Action Figures" shows already an addition to traditional amulets of scenes of armed conflict or struggle, serving as analogies for the desired protection. Another is devoted to the miniaturization of statues of household divinities as amulets. Faraone also focuses explicitly on Egyptian traditions in a chapter on "Pharaonic and Ptolemaic Gods." The appearance on amulets of those of the latter category, the "Isiac" deities Isis, Sarapis, and Harpocrates, can be seen as a creation of the Ptolemaic period, propagated particularly with Greek in mind.

The third part constitutes the strongest, or at least the most transparent evidence for a transformation, in the form of the addition of inscribed texts, in particular to objects that might have sufficed as amulets on their own. Frequently the texts themselves refer explicitly to amuletic functions. These are divided along a usefully defined typology as "prayers" (chapter 7), "incantations" (chapter 8), and "framing speech acts" (chapter 9), the last involving the new application of exorcism and narrative analogy (historiola) as frames for simpler utterances, such as ordering a noxious entity to depart.

Among the "further trajectories" for future work mapped out in the concluding chapter, noteworthy are further nuances for the typology of amulets with respect to context of deployment and personnel involved in production and circulation. In the former, Faraone suggests gradations with respect to physical locales — places of work, landed property, houses and parts thereof — and parts of the human body. In the latter, attention is called, inter alia, to evidence in the accuracy of text copied on amulets for literacy, or lack thereof, among professional amulet-makers. To close, there is a tantalizing introduction to a kind of reception of the amuletic tradition, in the form of re-purposing of amulets themselves as well as their motifs in the Middle Ages, which would richly repay the further attention of Classicists and could claim a place alongside better-known receptions of literary texts and monumental art and architecture.

To these considerations we may add that the question remains of why the transformation occurred, if, as Faraone persuasively argues, it is not mere superstition or an oriental fad. As far as texts are concerned, as simple an explanation as the permeation of the well-known Roman "epigraphic habit" is attractive, but one wonders about a certain tension between the core argument of the book and statements such as, "[A] simple incantation ... would have sufficed in earlier times, but in the Roman period, the Greeks need to add a powerful divinity as a kind of overseer" (221). Whence this need?

In nine appendices, Faraone offers valuable translated paraphrases of selections from relevant primary sources. These include papyrus handbooks from among the so-called Greek magical papyri; a version of the demonological Testament of Solomon; the treatise on precious stones attributed to Socrates and Dionysius; and the medical authors Aelius Promotus, Dioscorides, Marcellus Empiricus4 and Alexander of Tralles.

The volume is elegantly produced and, it bears repeating, painstakingly illustrated with the photographs and drawings that should be the basis of the study of these artifacts. It may be hoped that future work will follow this example. References may occasionally be supplemented: for the inscribed phallic Corinthian perfume jar with figure of Priapus or Silenus discussed at 76-77, add SEG XLIII 193, where H.W. Pleket has discerned ἡ καλή at the end of the inscription, perhaps marking the object as an amorous gift; for the gemstone said to come from Tunis (rather Sousse, ancient Hadrumetum) discussed at 211, the correct SEG reference is IX 818, where the proposal regarding βκσν as apotropaic distortion of βασκοσύνη is already recorded (it belongs to Louis Robert). At 211, an incantation for styes recorded by Marcellus (8.193) is translated "Flee, flee, [sty], a stronger one [i.e., a god] pursues you!" with an explanatory note following Heim in supposing that "the word krithê (sty) probably dropped out of the manuscript before the word kreiôn." The Greek text, in its garbled transmission in the two medieval Latin codices of this medical author that transmit the passage in question, runs ΦΕΥΓΕ ΦΥΓΕ ΚΡΙΘΕΙ ϹΕ ΑΙΩΚΕΙ, for which the proposal of Dilthey, not mentioned here but accepted in the edition of Niedermann (1916), seems preferable, φεῦγε φε⟨ῦ⟩γε, κριθή· ⟨κριθή⟩ σε ⟨δ⟩ιώκει by simple saut-de-même-au-même: "Flee, flee, sty: a barley-corn pursues you," especially as the accompanying directions set up an analogical pricking of the sty (κριθή rendered in Latin as hordeolus) with corns of barley (hordeum), translating and preserving the operative etymological relation between affliction and cure in the Greek κριθή. Regarding discussions of Byzantine treatises on veterinary medicine, which include some incantations from the ancient tradition, to the collection of Heim the more recent edition of Eugen Oder and Karl Hoppe, Corpus Hippiatricorum Graecorum, should be preferred. Errors are few and concern, as far as this reviewer has found, points tangential to the main argument: the commentary on Gregory of Nazianzus cited from PG 36:907 for definitions of amulets and incantations (7) is in fact anonymous, not to be attributed to a "tenth-century commentator Basilius" but only included as an appendix to selections from that author in the edition of Migne; at 213, a "Roman-era recipe" for the removal of throat obstructions is cited from the Testament of Solomon (18.20), which belongs instead to the early Byzantine author Aetius of Amida (Iatrica 8.54), and which hence, rather than "preceding the Christians," explicitly attributes its command to the obstruction ("Come up or go down!") to a martyr, Saint Blaise, who in fact cured a similar complaint according to his hagiographical biography and continues to this day to serve as patron saint of those suffering from throat ailments.

All that is left to offer is congratulations to the author on a book that will surely prove seminal for future study. And study of a topic whose neglect he has helped make ever less excusable.


1.   C. Bonner, Studies in Magical Amulets, Chiefly Graeco-Egyptian (Ann Arbor 1950), supplemented by the Campbell Bonner Magical Gems Database; A. Mastrocinque, Sylloge gemmarum gnosticarum (Rome 2004-2007), and Les intailles magiques du départment des Monnaies, Médailles et Antiques (Paris 2014); S. Michel, Die magischen Gemmen im Britischen Museum (London 2001), and Die magischen Gemmen: Zu Bildern und Zauberformeln auf geschnittenen Steinen der Antike und Neuzeit (Berlin 2004).
2.   R. Kotansky, Greek Magical Amulets: The Inscribed Gold, Silver, Copper, and Bronze Lamellae. Part I: Published Texts of Known Provenance (Opladen 1994).
3.   K. Preisendanz, Papyri Graecae Magicae, rev. A. Henrichs (Stuttgart 1973-1974); R.W. Daniel and F. Maltomini, Supplementum Magicum (Opladen 1990-1992).
4.   The epithet "of Bordeaux" is supported by convention but not historical fact: on the man and his work add a reference to M. Ewers, Marcellus Empiricus, De medicamentis: Christliche Abhandlung über Barmherzigkeit oder abergläubische Rezeptsammlung? (Trier 2009).

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