All the curses I’ve featured as CTOTM have been from urban sites – whether temples of graveyards associated with Roman towns. This month I’d like to take us out into the Romano-British countryside, to a temple near the modern village of Uley, Gloucestershire. Uley is only 20 miles or so from Bath, and archaeologists found almost 200 curses when they excavated the site in the 1970s, making the Severn valley region the most prolific area for ancient cursing outside of Athens – quite the claim to fame!
All of the Uley tablets are concerned with theft, just like Bath, but because of its rural environment, the items that people report as stolen are very different. I have chosen this month’s tablet as a great example of this.
Deo sancto Mercurio Honoratus conqueror numini tuo me perdidisse rotas duas et vaccas quattuor et resculas plurimas de hospitiolo meo rogaverim genium numinis tuui ut ei qui mihi fraudem fecerit sanitatem ei non permittas nec iacere nec sedere nec bibere nec manducare si baro si mulier si puer si puella si servus si liber nissi meam rem ad me pertulerit et meam concordiam habuerit iteratis praecibus rogo numen tuum ut petitio mea statim pariat me vindicatum esse a maiestate tua
English translation (R. Tomlin (1992) Inscriptions. Britannia 23: 311)
The Latin of the curse is of a good standard, with some errors common to Vulgar Latin (nissi for nisi, tuui for tui, etc). This, coupled with the confident handwriting, points to an author who was familiar with writing, so we should reject any image of uneducated, simple country folk. The curses from Uley and other rural sites in Roman Britain show that there was a surprising degree of literacy in rural areas, and people were probably bilingual in Latin and their native British Celtic language. Honoratus betrays his Celtic origins in his curse – despite his Latin name – by using the Celtic word ‘baro’ rather than the Latin vir when writing the common formula ‘whether man or woman.’ Whoever Honoratus was, he was aware of the correct ways to formulate a curse. The mutually exclusive alternatives of man or woman, boy or girl, slave or free are common throughout Romano-British cursing, as is some of the other language used. Nevertheless, this curse is not identical to any other, meaning that Honoratus didn’t copy from a manual or spell book, but composed it himself using what he knew about cursing from the culture in which he lived. Honoratus, like people across the north-western provinces, was able to adapt cursing rituals to suit his own purposes and circumstances.