Cursing in context

This is just a super quick post to point out that I’ve uploaded the presentation I gave to the Classical Studies Work in Progress seminar onto my page. The link is here if you are interested! It was a 20 minute paper entitled “Cursing in Context: the Case of Bath” and was a quick run-down of some of my initial thoughts about the experience of making a curse tablet at the site, and how the architecture of the temple space contributed to the ritual actions.

If you have any comments, suggestions or questions about what you read, get in touch!


Roman Bath

Curse of the month #5: July 2014

As promised in my post last week, here is an in-depth look at one of the tablets from Audollent’s 1904 collection.

The drawing of the tablet in the CIL.

Audollent no. 101; CIL


This tablet is one of many found in a first-century AD cemetery in what is now the German town of Kreuznach, not far from the legionary base at Mainz.

inimici et inimici / Caranta[n]i Abilius Iu(v)enis / Sabinus ap[p]aritor Arria Dardisa Optatus / Silonis Privatu[s Se]veri Cossus Maesi / Marcus aerari[.us] Atta Marci uxsor / Camula uxso[r] Gamati Ambiti Val[erius]/ Ciri Atticinus [Am]monis Terentius Atti/so Iulia Attisonis Narcis(s)us Caliphon(t)is / Cali[pu]nti[s e]t Pudentis et Pudens / [. . .]ssia[. . .]us Albus Vicinus/[. . .]nsi[. . .]// (left margin) sic te morbo a(d)dicant dii m[anes]// (right margin) [. . .]dii inferi. . .sunt


The enemies and enemies of Carantanus: Abilius Iuvenis, Sabinus the clerk of the court, Arria Dardisa, Optatus Silonis, Privatus Severus, Cossus Maesi, Marcus the aerarius, Atta the wife of Marcus, Camula the wife of Gambatus Ambitus, Valerius Ciri, Atticinus Ammonis, Terentius Attiso, Julia Attisonis, Narcissus Caliphontis, Calipuntis and Pudentus and Pudens… Albus Vicinus… thus will the gods of the dead sentence you to sickness. … the infernal gods are…


The appearance of an apparitor, or court clerk, on the curse suggest that it it relates to a legal trial, and if this is true then the other names would be the opponents of the petitioner and their witnesses. We can’t tell which side is the prosecution or defence of the case, but the sheer numbers involved suggest it must have been a dramatic one that impacted men and women alike. Interestingly, some of the names appear on another curse tablet from the same cemetery, namely Optatus Silonis, Atticus Ammonis and Terentius Attiso. The other tablet seems to be a legal curse too, but whether they relate to the same trial or not is impossible to say.


From the handwriting on the curse it seems that the petitioner didn’t anticipate how much room all those names would take up. His writing gets more and more cramped as the curse goes on, and he was forced to squeeze the last two lines into the left and right margins. Despite this lack of forward planning the handwriting is confident and clear, suggesting it was written by someone with a good level of education, and this is supported by the motive. Access to the Roman legal system would have been limited to the wealthy by the sheer cost involved, so we can assume that the petitioner was not particularly poor.


Our tablet was deposited in a grave, so it comes as no surprise to see the spirits of the restless dead coerced into plaguing the curse’s victims with sickness. The Romans (and the Greeks before them) firmly believed in the power of the dead to influence to world of the living, and many petitioners on curse tablets from across the Graeco-Roman world redirect the malign intents of these spirits for their own gains.


In first-century Kreuznach, not too long after the Roman conquest of the region, the inhabitants appear to have had a well-developed culture of cursing connected to their legal system, and influenced by wider trends in Graeco-Roman magic. The community is mixed, including people with Roman, Celtic and Greek names. Although legal curses are common in the cemetery of this Roman town, they are almost totally absent from the rest of the north-western provinces, suggesting that perhaps they were only briefly popular among a restricted group of well-off residents of this small area. Again, we have another example of curses fitting into the social and cultural contexts of the places they are used, fulfilling a need for people in a specific time and place.

Back to the Books

After what has felt like months of writing my probation report, preparing presentations and stressing over my upgrade mini-viva I have finally got back to what I love most about doing a PhD – researching!

My life is made all the more awesome because I get to work in buildings like this.

Yesterday I went to the Bodleian library in Oxford to read a book that few other university libraries have – Auguste Audollent’s 1904 collection of curse tablets. It’s probably the founding work in my subject area, because it was one of the first attempts to collect together all the known curses in one volume so they could be easily interpreted as a whole body of evidence. He was the first to group curse tablets based on motive, and over 100 years later we still use his five categories of legal, erotic, competition, commercial and prayers for justice. He also organised his collection by geographical location, making it nice and easy for me to get to the ones from Germania, Gaul and Britannia.

In particular, I was looking for the curses found in a graveyard in Kreuznach in the 19th century, which haven’t really been published since these early scholars collected them together. This one in particular struck me, and will probably be curse tablet of the month this month!

Audollent 101Above is how it appears in Audollent – the text of the tablet as read by him. There are no images in his book, for those I cross-referenced with the CIL, which is another late 19th-early 20th century corpus of Latin inscriptions.

The drawing of the tablet in the CIL.

The drawing of the tablet in the CIL.


My ability to read cursive Latin is really improving, and I can mostly identify and agree with the words that those older scholars read. Of course, I’d love to read the original tablets, and I’m certainly planning to get some site visits in sometime this year to try to get my hands on the real things.

It felt great to be back in the library yesterday. I didn’t realise how much I had missed researching. Finding curses I haven’t seen before and giving myself new things to think about is still the real draw of this project for me, and it’s something I will have a hard time stopping when it comes time to start writing up! From what I’ve gathered from lecturers, post-docs and other PhD students, I’m not alone in this. There’s always something more to read, another avenue to explore or idea to think about. My reading list only gets bigger every time I finish a book, and yesterday was no exception. Audollent collected a few curses written in Celtic alongside the Latin ones, so I have a few books on my list of later academics who have translated and interpreted those. Going into the Celtic curses is a more daunting prospect for me because I have absolutely no knowledge of the language, unlike the Latin which I can just about translate for myself. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to getting started – on I go!

Making myself presentable

One of the most important things I always knew I’d be developing while doing my PhD was my ability to speak in public. It has been clear to me from the outset that if I can’t communicate my research then there’s no point in doing it, especially as one of my main reasons for choosing to research curse tablets was to raise their profile in the study of Roman history.

Over the past couple of months I’ve had plenty of opportunities to practice talking to a range of different people about what I’m doing, thankfully with generally positive results! I’ve also been experimenting with different presentation styles to try to find out what I’m most comfortable with.

In May I gave a 20 minute paper to the OU Classical Studies department at their work in progress seminar, which I scripted beforehand. That’s also how I planned the 1 hour talk I did at Corinium Museum in June. The Corinium talk was much more nerve-wracking, as it was the first time I’d spoken for that long, and also the first time I’d talked to an audience of paying customers! Both went really well, and there were some great discussions afterwards with people who seemed to be genuinely interested in what I had to say. At both I focused on the curses from Roman Britain, which is the material I know best at the moment, and so is what I feel most confident in talking about.

Me at CoriniumIn June I also spoke at the Arts Faculty postgraduate research student conference at the OU – once about my curse tablet database, and once about my work with the Brilliant Club. I didn’t script either of these short talks and I felt more comfortable delivering them because of it. My natural style of presenting is quite animated and familiar, which I feel I lose when I’m reading from a script.

The problem I have with talking from notes, rather than a script, is that I tend to go off on tangents and not stick to time. My enthusiasm gets the better of me, and I keep remembering more and more things I want to talk about. It might be a bit of a hangover from when I was a museum tour guide, when I remembered my tour by associating all the information with the objects in the collection and my route through the space. Just seeing things and their relationships to other objects would act as a trigger for the information I needed to remember. When this is translated to a formal presentation setting I think it can come across as chaotic or amateurish so even though the delivery might be less natural and comfortable, I think scripting my talks in future is the way forward.

I’m going to upload the work in progress and Corinium talks to my page at, so if you missed them you can still find out what I said!

If you have any presentation tips for me, or want any advice, leave a comment below 🙂