Cursing the Roman way

The Roman curse tablets from Bath Britain's earliest prayers. These tablets are inscribed on the UNESCO Memory of the World register of significant documentary heritage. They are the only documents from Roman Britain on that list. Complaint about theft of Vilbia - probably a woman. This curse includes a list of names of possible culprits. Perhaps Vilbia was a slave.

Roman curse tablet from Bath (Photo by  Mike Peel (www.mikepeel.net))

The wish to curse a rival, a rip-off merchant, or somebody who cuts us up on the motorway or pushes in front of us in the queue for the first life-saving coffee of the day, is an age old instinct. Nowadays, when we ‘go postal’, we give  a ‘load of verbal’, then calm down when something else distracts us.

Nothing so short term for the Romans. Swearing was one thing; cursing was an altogether different pot of garum.  They ‘went physical’ by using curse tablets, some of which have survived for 2,000 years.

Curse tablets (tabella defixionis) were used throughout the Graeco-Roman world. Originators would ask the gods, local spirits, or the deceased to bring down a specific disaster on on a person, group or object. For all their pragmatism the Romans were a superstitious bunch and believed the gods and spirits did control nature either directly or via oracles, soothsayers and those practising magic or religion.

Sometimes the writer would change the direction in which words or letters were written, or alternate lines, or write them  in mirror-image form, all to give an added magical effect. Some tablets seem to have been written in an arcane or secret language; did a tablet  written in a ‘sacred’ language carry more mystique and power with the gods it was addressed to? Tablets with blanks where the names should go have been found which suggests they were prepared in advance; perhaps professional curse writers kept handy stocks ready for the customer in need.

If a victim of a robbery by persons unknown was writing a curse, the target would be described as ‘whether man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free’, or ‘whether pagan or Christian’.

Lead Scroll Web

Lead scroll, measuring c. 6 cm long found at the East Farleigh (Photo Maidstone Area Archaeological Group)

Typically, the originator scratched his/her message in tiny letters on thin sheets of lead – physically and symbolically a dark, cold and heavy material –  usually under 10cm square, then often rolled, folded, or pierced it with nails. These bound tablets, were then usually placed beneath the ground: either buried in graves or tombs, thrown into wells or pools, underground sanctuaries, or nailed to the walls of temples.

Some texts don’t invoke any divine beings but merely listed the targets of the curse, their ‘crimes’ and the intended evil fate to befall them. Examples include cursing the opposing litigant by asking that he botch his performance in court, calling for an evil fate for tricksters who didn’t pay their debts, or wishes that thieves should go blind and mad, while cheaters become as ‘liquid as the water’. One particularly gory curse about a stolen ring said: “…so long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in (his) blood, and eyes and every limb and even have all (his) intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring”. A wonderful one found in London reads,”I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able.” (translation: British Museum)

Roman Bath

Roman Bath

The curse tablets found at Bath are considered to be the most important record of Romano-British religion yet published. They are especially useful as evidence of everyday speech (Vulgar Latin) used in Roman Britain. And the inscriptions illustrate popular attitudes to crime and the system of justice which don’t seem to have changed much over the centuries!

And the significance of the curse tablets today? In 2014, 130 Bath curse tablets were added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register of outstanding documentary heritage – the only documents from Roman Britain on that list. I wonder what the average Romano-Briton would have thought of that?

And, yes, curse tablets are still used in modern Roma Nova. When Aurelia first gets to know Plico the spymaster, he annoys her so much she thinks about “writing a curse tablet and sticking it in the boot of his car.’ (AURELIA p.153)

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Sources and further reading:
Curse tablets from Roman Britain  http://curses.csad.ox.ac.uk
Ancient Origins  http://www.ancient-origins.net/news-general/significance-roman-curse-tablets-recognised-memory-world-register-001804
Bath curse tablets  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bath_curse_tablets
Lead Scroll found at East Farleigh Roman Villa http://www.maag.btck.co.uk/ExcavationsatEastFarleigh/LeadScroll

 

Alison Morton is the author of Roma Nova thrillers, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO. The fourth book, AURELIA,  and the Roma Nova box set are now out.

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