I’ve only just missed the chance for a Halloween special on this blog, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to feature one of my favourite curses from Roman Britain. It’s from a cemetery in the parish of Clothall, Hertfordshire, and evokes fantastically gory images, the sort of thing sadly missing from many of the more legalistic curses from Bath and Uley.
uetus / quomodo sanies / signeficatur / Tacita deficta
Tacita, hereby accursed, is labelled old like putrid gore.
Short and (not so) sweet, the curse consists of a single sentence, split over four lines. It was written backwards, right to left rather than left to right, and some of the letters are also upside down or sideways.
As can be seen from the drawing, the tablet was also pierced by at least four, probably five nails, and there are several smaller holes which apparently originally held lead wire, some of which survived.
Like the curse against Trutmo Florus that I featured last month, we do not know the exact motive that inspired this particular curse, but again we can assume that there was some spoken element to the ritual that made it clear what Tacita had done to deserve such a fate. In another similarity with the magic doll from Mainz, the physical manipulation of the object was key to the ritual. In this case it was the repeated driving of nails and wire into the already-inscribed tablet, which mirrored the intention of the words. The word defixa, which the petitioner erroneously wrote as deficta and which is translated here as to be cursed, literally means to fix down or to attach firmly, and that’s doubtless the intent behind such violent mutilation of the tablet. Tacita is to be driven down to the world of the dead by the combined force of the written words and the ritual actions.
To facilitate this curse, the petitioner deposited it into a grave with the intent that the spirit of the dead person would deliver it to some infernal power, who would then set about punishing Tacita. R. Wright’s (1952) translation of old like putrid gore for uetus quomodo sanies is grimly evocative of rotting corpses or diseased wounds, and is perfectly suited for the location of its deposition. It also matches the revulsion the Romans felt towards people who tampered with the dead, a feeling no doubt pressing on the mind of whoever dug down into the grave before committing this curse to the earth. There’s a twisting of the natural order in this too – with the dead ripped from their peaceful repose to disturb the world of the living. I think that’s one reason why the words were written in such a strange way – backwards and twisted around. By doing so, the writer has infused the written words with strange power, and through that power attempted to make the curse inescapable.
Collingwood, R. in Westall, P. (1931) A Romano-British Cemetery at Baldock, Herts.The Archaeological Journal 88: 247-301.
Wright, R. (1952) Roman Britain in 1951: Inscriptions. Journal of Roman Studies 42: 103
A few comments:
1. Tacita – not necessarily a name. It may well invoke a quality of the cursed – tacitus/-a is very common in the curse tablets. I’d be surprised if this is the actual name.
2. Deficta – hardly inscribed erroneously: a not altogether uncommon variant. Cf. e. g. Devotum defictum in AE 2005, 1125 or dedi de[f]ictas in AE 2002, 556.
3. The letters are not inscribed quite as randomly as it may at first appear. C, D, and S appear in their regular form (as if the text hadn’t been inscribed from right to left). I am unsure about the G of signeficatur – is that even a G, or is it, in fact, another C? The old drawing is not helpful in that regard.
And a question:
How is ‘you are old’ a curse? Could it mean ‘Like old putrid gore Tacita (or: tacita), cursed, be known’?
Hi Phormio, thanks for your comment!
1. You’re right, Tacita is not necessarily the name of the victim. However, it’s rare for curses not to include the victim’s name, either individually or part of a list, or occasionally a formula like “nomen furis.” I think that’s probably why Tacita is assumed to be a name, otherwise the curse has no obvious target. Also, where tacita is used to mean silenced or something similar, it is usually in connection to legal trials, where opponents are silenced from speaking in court. As there are no legal curses known from Roman Britain it is unlikely that that’s what is meant here.
2. I think I meant erroneous in terms of Classical Latin, but you’re right it is a common variant in Vulgar Latin.
3. There may be patterns in the way the letters are inscribed, and I think that probably strengthens my argument about the twisted writing intended to add strange power to the words. The writer may have planned the tablet in advance, or possibly just switched round the letters C, D and S as she was going, but either way there is intentional twisting of the words. Not all the D’s are regular – the D in deficta is backwards. As far as the reading goes, and this relates to all three of your points really, both the 1931 and 1952 publications consulted the original tablet – something I’ve been unable to do so far. As far as I know the reading has been unchallenged, so although the drawing may be unclear I think the reading is probably as accurate as I am likely to get. Also, as my wider research project has been concerned with the religious and social contexts of the curses, I’ve had less time than I would have liked to scrutinise the language of each one individually. That might have made my Latin a little worse, but I’m confident it has strengthened the rest of my research!
This feeds into your question a little. Yes, your suggestion could equally be as right as the original translation. In either case, the writer is still drawing connections between the victim and fairly horrific images of death and disease. A new reading of the text doesn’t really change that, nor does it change the (in my view) more significant actions of nailing and binding with wire that went on after the words were inscribed. Both translations could have been inspired by the intended location of deposition – a grave of someone who may have died a considerable time before the curse was written. We also don’t know how much of the curse was spoken out loud – there may have been some oral element that made ‘you are old’ a more threatening curse.
This has been a bit of a rambling answer to your points and question – I hope it is satisfactory!