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Livy's Witch-hunts: A Study of Investigations into Veneficium found in Livy

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posted on 07.12.2021, 11:18 by Grandy, Liam

This thesis is an exploration of large scale incidents of veneficium as they are depicted in Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita. Livy’s earlier books include references to four quaestiones de veneficiis, investigations into poisoning, which resulted in the executions of thousands of people. This study attempts to understand what happened while hypothesising why they occurred.  Veneficium and its associated words have often been declared ambiguous, referring to poisons, potions, and, eventually, magic. However, this interpretation developed significantly later than the events seen in Livy and is anachronistic. This thesis explores this language and so we can understand what veneficium meant during the quaestiones de veneficiis of the fourth and second centuries BC and in Livy’s own time, and how it evolved to become magical and thus colour modern scholarships. Using this knowledge, we can review and reconsider Livy’s reports to gain a fresh understanding of what actually happened during the quaestiones and how the motifs and themes of these investigations reveal that they were in fact social responses to a period of rapid change to Roman life in the second century BC. This final point is reaffirmed when we engage with interdisciplinary theories from anthropology and sociology. By considering theories and models from these schools we can confidently say that, while venefici were not witches, their persecution was a type of witch-hunt.


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Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Grantor

Te Herenga Waka—Victoria University of Wellington

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Degree Name

Master of Arts

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Victoria University of Wellington Item Type

Awarded Research Masters Thesis



Victoria University of Wellington School

School of Art History, Classics and Religious Studies


Pomeroy, Arthur