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.

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