Dark Secrets of the Oracle Monger

Article excerpt


I'm Daniel, the Editor of JUNIOR SKEPTIC. In this issue, we'll look at a mystery From almost 2000 years ago!

As you probably know, not every person who claims to have special powers is honest. For example, some people pretend to be able to see into the Future when they really use trickery instead. That's true today, and it was in the time of the ancient Roman Empire. How did such tricks work then--and has anything changed?

Let's Find Out


The Roman Empire was one of the greatest civilizations ever to exist. It was an empire so vast that it included lands all around the Mediterranean Sea and beyond, from North Africa to England--what are now the countries of Spain, France, Italy, Greece, Israel, and Egypt (among others). It lasted centuries.

During the and Century C.E. (a hundred-year period that began about 1,900 years ago) the Roman Empire was at the height of its power. Protected by its mighty armies, millions of people lived within the Empire's far-flung borders. For many of those people, it was a time of peace and prosperity.

But there were problems then, as there are now--for we are all human. There were rich Romans and poor. Without modern medicine, all Romans lived in terrible fear of dangerous diseases. And although the Empire had laws and courts, thieves and other criminals still managed to prey on people (just as they do today).

Some of these criminals used violence or threats to get what they wanted; others used stealth; and still others used clever trickery.

One especially slippery customer was Alexander of Abonoteichus--a scammer who set himself up as the head of a new religion in order to make money. According to a critical biography by a skeptical writer named Lucian of Samosata, Alexander was almost too low-down a criminal to immortalize in a book, even if the book was meant to expose his tricks. In Lucian's opinion, Alexander "does not deserve to have polite people read about him, but rather to have the motley crowd in a vast amphitheatre see him being torn to pieces by foxes or apes." (Romans used some awfully gruesome punishments.) Nonetheless, Lucian did write about Alexander--and we can learn a lot from that story of sly and wicked deeds.



Alexander shared a name with the famous conquerer Alexander the Great, who lived in an earlier age. But according to Lucian, the scheming Alexander he tangled with in his own day "was as great in villainy as the other in heroism." Lucian paints a portrait of a classic con artist (a person who uses trickery to cheat other people out of their money or possessions): Alexander was good-looking, clever, and utterly ruthless.

Lucian described him as "tall and handsome in appearance, and really godlike; his skin was fair, his beard not very thick ... his voice was at once very sweet and very clear.... " Indeed, so dazzling was his physical appearance that "no fault could be found with him in any respect as far as all that went." Nor was he just another handsome face: Alexander was also brilliant.

   In understanding, quick-wittedness, and penetration he
   was far beyond everyone else; and activity of mind,
   readiness to learn, retentiveness, natural aptitude for
   studies--all these qualities were his, in every case to the
   full. But he made the worst possible use of them, and
   with these noble instruments at his service soon became
   the most perfect rascal of all those who have
   been notorious far and wide for villainy...."

Alexander may have been ruthless on the inside, with a personality "made up of lying, trickery, perjury, and malice," but that isn't how he came across to other people. Like any good con artist, he seemed very trustworthy. (The "con" in con artist stands for the abilty to inspire "confindence" in other people that you can be trusted. …