Ancient Magic – Part 1: Students Run Amok!

Time & Location: Byzantine Beirut.

Culprits: Law Students.

The Crime: Black Magic.

Motive: Crazed Passion.

From the 3rd to the 6th c. AD, Berytus was a renowned centre of legal studies. Its famous school of law attracted students from various parts of the Empire (as you will notice through the individuals mentioned below) who were ambitious for social, professional, and political advancement.

A lot of what we know about the law school comes from ancient textual sources that also provide insight into the lives of students and professors in the city. One of these sources is the work of Zacharias Scholasticus (later Bishop of Mytilene, Greece), who wrote the biography of his friend, Severus of Sozopolis (later patriarch of Antioch). The book is titled the Life of Severus and includes passages that recount the time both Severus and Zacharias spent in Beirut as law students in the late 5th c. AD.

Initiation Rituals

The first nugget of information on the life of students in Berytus is that first-year students, the dupendii, were regularly picked on by older students. This, according to the latter, was supposedly a rite of passage for their younger peers. However, the initiation rites could get so harmful that legal measures had to be taken to outlaw some of the activities that were practised.

Zacharias recounts that when he arrived to Beirut, he was concerned about being subjected to such acts by those older than him, including Severus who had enrolled at the school a year earlier. Luckily, Severus did not follow in the path of his peers and Zacharias was also spared harassment by other older students.

Black Magic

At the time when Zacharias and Severus lived, Christianity had already become the official religion of the Empire (since 380 AD). Paganism, however, was still extant and practised in Roman Beirut by students and professors alike.

Zacharias and Severus, however, were both Christians. During their time in the city, they regularly prayed at the Anastasis church in the centre of Berytus, which some archaeologists hypothesize lies beneath the modern Greek Orthodox cathedral. They were also deeply involved in Christian religious thought and worked towards the abolition of pagan and impious practices. Zacharias’ work contains references to their efforts in Beirut towards the latter end, the most serious of which is recounted here below:

Berytus in antiquity was a city that offered many temptations to the young, including the seemingly disciplined law students. As Severus himself put it, “[he] live[d] in a city that [was] a fountain of pleasure”. Some of the main distractions included horse races, contests with wild beasts, the theatre, heavy drinking, and women. Religious authorities were highly critical of participation in such activities, and early Christian writers condemned the “corrupt” decisions some of the students made.

The most alarming incident, however, was when a group of students took up the practice of black magic and sacrificial ritual. Zacharias identifies some of the students within this group as George of Thessalonika, Illyria (western part of the Balkan peninsula), Chrysaorius of Tralles (Asia Minor), Asclepiodotus of Heliopolis, Egypt, and an Armenian whose name is not mentioned. This group was led by a certain John of Thebes from Egypt and they were known for their impious activity, so much so that people around them anticipated that they would one day commit a heinous crime. That apprehension came to pass when the reckless youth set out to sacrifice a slave belonging to John.

According to John’s confession following the incident, the reason behind it all was that he was madly in love with a woman who had refused his advances, and the only way he saw to forcibly satisfy his passions was to call on the help of a particular demon. He and his peers thus decided to sacrifice his slave in order to invoke the evil spirit and ask it to accomplish their plan. They deceivingly conducted the slave outside the city walls and to the hippodrome, where they planned to murder him. Fortunately, just as they were about to commit the crime, other people happened to pass in the vicinity. The students at this point got frightened and fled the scene, as did the slave who luckily escaped a brutal end.

The slave confided his ordeal to a close friend of John’s who was a believer. This latter, concerned about his friend’s spiritual salvation, sought a Christian intervention to rescue him from the clutches of dark magic. He resorted to Zacharias and other peers in the legal world and in faith. Together, they decided to visit John in order to persuade him to abandon his blasphemous ways. They also wanted to rid him of the books on magic that were still in his possession.

When asked to hand over those books, John resorted to providing works that were on display in his house but which contained no objectionable content. Little did the intervening group know that the books they sought to confiscate and destroy were actually hidden in a secret compartment beneath the seat of John’s chair. It was the slave, who was almost sacrificed, that alerted them to this secret hiding place.

As soon as the books were retrieved, John broke down and pleaded not to be handed over to the legal authorities. He was reassured that the group only desired his spiritual well-being and repentance, and was made to burn the books himself in the hopes of severing his attachment to magical practices. John is said to have truly repented and he maintained the company of his helpers by joining them in their visits to the holy churches of the city. He also aided the intervening group in identifying other individuals with similar books. Surely enough, George of Thessalonika was caught attempting to make copies of a book on magic. He, along with the other law students mentioned above, as well as a certain Leontios – who was particularly active in such practices and also in divination – were referred to John, the Bishop of the city, who along with members of his clergy and high officials, dealt with their case. The books on magic were gathered in the centre of the city, in front of the Church of the Virgin Mary by the port, and were burnt in public. The scandal garnered widespread attention and the students were shamed for devoting their time to the study of magic instead of law.

While students today no longer practice black magic (I hope!), it is interesting to note that some aspects of university life have not changed greatly. Initiation ceremonies are still retained in some university student groups, clubs and societies, and every so often, we read news reports of universities clamping down on such activity and heavily criticizing the degree of hazing and humiliation new members are subjected to.

Berytus in a way also features as a character of its own in Zacharias’ writings, and in many ways is reminiscent of modern Beirut: a city home to renowned universities in the region, a city that offers ample opportunity for entertainment and distraction, and a city that never sleeps. While Beirut today is facing serious setbacks and difficulties, let’s hope that in the not too distant future, it returns to its true nature – and better – once more.   

~ * ~ * ~ * ~ * ~

There’s much to be explored still in the city’s past, including more magical practices. Part II of this series will take us back to the Roman Hippodrome, where a different type of magic was enacted …


Zacharie le Scholastique. “Vie de Sévère”. Translated by Kugener, M.A.(1904; 1993[reprint]) in Sévère, Patriarche d’Antioch (512-518), Première Partie. Patrologia Orientalis. Tome II: Fascicule 1, No. 6. Brepols.

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