I attended a talk at the British Museum today about Ancient Rome. It was given by one of the curators of the Greece & Rome department so -as you might imagine- this chap knew his stuff. ‘One of the world’s leading authorities’ level knew his stuff.
If you’re trying to picture it just think of Giles from Buffy The Vampire Slayer. But with less tweed.
Anyway, he made a point that hadn’t occurred to me before. Basically, the year 146 BC was one of the most important years in the history of Western Civilisation.
And when the Romans destroyed, they really destroyed. Carthage was taken down brick by brick. (Salting the earth may have been a modern fabrication, however.)
This left the Republic in a situation it hadn’t really prepared for. Not only was it the world’s first superpower, it was the only superpower.
All Roads Lead To Rome
Now they really did… At least metaphorically.
From Greece, the Romans took architects, philosophers, mathematicians and mosaic artists. Rome didn’t actually invent any of the architectural or engineering marvels they are known for today. It absorbed them. From everywhere.
That wasn’t all it absorbed. It also absorbed ideas. From everywhere. And here is where we find the magic angle.
Prior to 146 BC, there were a number of options when it came to choosing the great city you would live in if you were a philosopher, spiritual seeker, magician, etc. This decision was based on factors such as where you were from, what languages you spoke, etc. This was a pretty big call, because there wasn’t all that much in the way of movement of ideas before 146 BC. There was a gradual diffusion of them, sure. But not a dynamic interchange.
After 146 BC there was only one option. Everyone came to Rome. Everyone. There were druids in Rome.
Prior to this, there was very little movement of ideas around the world. So, for example, Chaldean astrologers had no access to Welsh bards. The works of Greek philosophers hadn’t really spread beyond Greece’s borders. (They were known, but they were not absorbed.)
Spiritual knowledge was localised… Tribal, essentially.
But now, ideas could get from one side of Rome’s territories to another in two weeks. There were now only two official languages. Greek and Latin. The druid could finally talk to the astrologer.
The efficiency that lay at the heart of the the success of Rome as a city now extended across dozens of lands. Europe began to be Romanised but -more importantly from a magical point of view- Rome had an insatiable appetite for foreign spiritual ideas. Rome was ‘Europised’.
Wealthy Roman matrons even took to wearing clothing adorned with sacred Egyptian symbols. Being global was fashionable.
And what Rome did, the rest of her territories followed. So this new ‘magical idea soup’ was pushed out all across Europe and the Near East. Incidentally, this was how Catholicism was so successful. Change Rome and you change the world… But magic did it first!
Within a century, there were temples to Isis on France’s north coast and (wealthy) schoolboys in York reading Aristotle.
The Missing Link
If you consider the corpus of ‘Western Magic’ -whatever that is- to broadly consist of
- Hermeticism (Egyptian)
- Greek philosophy (Plato and Aristotle, principally)
- Astrology (Near East)
- Groupings of nature spirits (Germanic)
Then it was in this moment when they first all plugged together. Spiritual concepts -for the first time ever- could be analysed comparatively on an equal footing.
The resulting analysis; the resulting dialogues; then had the means to travel all over the known world and be absorbed and built upon by others.
Sure, some (most) of the ideas that form the basis of modern Western Magic predate 146 BC. That’s not why it’s ground zero.
146 BC is ground zero for Western Magic because this was the year when all these disparate practices and schools of thought all got to sit down at the same table and say “whaddaya got?”
Anyway, so it’s definitely food for thought. It certainly illuminated for me a little-celebrated moment in magical history; namely the very beginning of thinking about it under the broad umbrella ‘Western’. (Though this came much later during the Renaissance.)
Above are some phone photos I took in the museum. Don’t judge them on the quality. I suspected I might have be too laden with shopping bags to lug around my DSLR for the day.
The suspicion was founded.