Curse Tablet of the Month #8: October 2014

All of the curses I have featured on this blog have been fairly wordy affairs, some with inscriptions almost 20 lines long. I am concious that this could be giving the impression that making a curse tablet involved nothing more than scratching words onto a flat piece of lead and then dumping it into a hole in the ground. With this in mind, this month we’re going back to Mainz for our featured curse, to look at a tablet that is much more than just the words written on it.

For those of you playing along at home, the tablet is DTM 21 in Blänsdorf (2012) Die Defixionum Tabellae Des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums, and it looks like this:

DTM 21

DTM 21

The words on the tablet are as follows:

Trutmo Florus Clitmonis filius

Trutmo Florus, son of Clitmo.

That’s it. Just one line, naming one individual and identifying him by his father’s name. No petition to a god, no sympathetic magical formula, no gruesome punishment for some heinous crime. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of curse tablets like this one, with nothing written on them but one or more names of intended victims. The assumption is that there must have been an oral component to the cursing ritual that specified why the person(s) was being cursed, and the punishments expected. Of course these spoken elements are now lost to us, and we are left scratching our heads as to their original purpose.

With this specific curse, however, we have a little more to go on. Tablet 21 was not found in the same deposit as most of the other tablets from the temple of Mater Magna and Isis, but off to the side on its own. In the same archaeological context, the excavators also found an oil lamp, a broken pot, some unburned fruit pips and a clay figurine.

The figurine found with DTM 21

The figurine found with DTM 21, now in the Römmerpassage Museum in Mainz.

The figurine was intentionally broken in half, along the line you can see in the above photo. When deposited it was intentionally twisted, with the head facing up and the phallus facing downwards. It has also been pierced in several places – the neck, chest, stomach, hips, back and anus.

At this point, I am willing to bet that a word has popped into the mind of at least some of you. It begins with a V, and has a long history of misconception and misrepresentation in the popular ideas about magic. I have come to realise that it’s a somewhat lazy comparison, but one that even the most serious and sensible Roman historians have been guilty of making, myself included. The truth is that sticking pins in dolls was probably not as prominent as the popular image of Voodoo (or Voudou as it is variously spelled) would have us believe, and anyway, it is a system of beliefs and practices that came out of the African diaspora in the 18th through 20th centuries so has little relevance as an interpretation for ancient Greek or Roman practices.

Far better, I think, is staying much closer to the finds themselves, rather than scooting to the other side of the Atlantic almost 2000 years later. These dolls are not uncommon in the ancient world, but are found much more frequently in the eastern Mediterranean than in the north-west. Mainz seems to be the exception to this, however, as two more were also found in the excavation of this temple. We can probably assume that the figurine is a representation of the victim, judging by the clear gendering of the model. Several other curses from Mainz list body parts to be cursed. Most focus on the limbs and marrow, but one mentions the neck, and another the heart and liver. It could be that this doll is a physical representation of those written formulas, accompanied by a spoken list of parts to be affected.

The person who conducted this particular cursing ritual did it in ways that were unique for their location. At Mainz the general pattern of cursing rituals seems to have involved longer, more detailed, written curses which were then deposited behind the statue of Mater Magna, occasionally after being melted or burned. The person who cursed Trutmo Florus decided to forgo this pattern, in favour of a largely spoken curse, accompanied by the mutilation of a clay doll as well as offerings of a pot, lamp and fruit. The motivation behind the curse remains a mystery unfortunately. The majority of curses from Mainz concern theft, so it’s probable that Trutmo had stolen something. Whatever he did, the petitioner sought justice from the gods by combining established and novel approaches.


A Year in Review

As of this month, both my PhD and this blog are a year old – hurrah!

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I'm sure there's a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere...

This is a Roman statue of a child holding (strangling?) a duck. I’m sure there’s a metaphor for a PhD in it somewhere…

In celebration of my first anniversary as a PhD student and blogger I thought I would write a little retrospective of the last year: of the things that went well, the things I’ve learned and the things I need to improve as I look forward to second and third year.

This little nostalgia trip was partly inspired by my trip up to Milton Keynes last week. The Open University Arts Faculty invited me and two other second-years to talk to this year’s intake of new PhD students, and the questions they asked reminded me of the concerns I had at the same time 12 months earlier. What is probation like? How do you organise such a huge project? Where do I even start? Obviously, everyone’s PhD is completely different to everyone else’s, but there are some things that are common to us all, and we tried our best to put the new students at ease. The main thing I kept repeating was that they should be enjoying their research. There is no point in committing three years of your life to something that you hate, and thankfully I have a topic that I really, genuinely enjoy researching.

One of the new students asked us something perceptive, and on reflection I think my answer says a lot about me. He asked if we could go back and do our first year again, what is the one thing we would change. I initially joked that I might work faster, but in the end I said that I wouldn’t change anything, because the mistakes I made have helped me grow as a researcher, and I think I’m better for having made them. The example I gave to show this was the week I spent around November last year reading psychology literature, something that I thought would be useful but ended up being a bit of a dead-end. Although it was a week I could have better spent on more relevent literature, the experience has helped me to identify other areas that at first seem interesting but ultimately don’t contribute much to my project. My answer to his question is a symptom of the optimism that I try to make my default position on everything. Things go wrong, and we can’t help that – we’re only human after all – but what we can do is put our mistakes down to experience and try not to repeat them.

I have done plenty of good things though, which far outweigh the mistakes. My research has come on really well, with a finished database and a solid theoretical base. I have had some presentation experience, at the OU and at Cirencester Museum, which will stand me in great stead when I start speaking at academic conferences this year (hopefully more on that in a later blog). I have also been teaching with the Brilliant Club, which has given me a fantastic opportunity to introduce students at three secondary schools to the ancient world – something I didn’t get the chance to study at my own school. Teaching students aged between 11 and 18 has given me a new perspective on the material I study, and has forced me to think about Roman religion in new ways. It has also been great fun, and I’d recommend any PhD student get in contact with the Brilliant Club and give it a go!

Last, but not least, I count this blog as one of my successes. I hope you have enjoyed reading it, because writing it has certainly helped me clear up some of my ideas about ancient cursing. It will continue to post as reguarly as possible, and I’d love your feedback too! If you have any suggestions, comments or questions about what I post, about Brilliant Club teaching, about doing a PhD or anything else, feel free to drop me a message through the contact page or send me a tweet.

Here’s to the next two years!

I'll try!


I am quite a lucky person. That’s true of many facts of my life, but it’s one particular aspect that I’ve been immensely thankful for over the first year of my PhD research. I have techno-joy. The idea comes from Eddie Izzard, who splits people into two camps – techno-fear and techno-joy. Those of us with joy will gleefully sit in front of new tech and click away, experimenting with shiny new buttons until we get the right result or accidentally delete the internet – usually the former.

Techno-joy effects non-humans too.

My techno-joy has helped me learn a host of new things that have become vital to my research, from organising my bibliography with EndNote to making detailed distribution maps of curse tablet find sites on Adobe Illustrator. It’s also been instrumental in getting me used to writing blogs, and I’m now really happy getting these posts to look as good as possible whilst still communicating information I hope people will want to read!

This is all great, but the most important thing I’ve been able to do is create a database of every curse tablet from my study area. Unfortunately, curses have been somewhat neglected by historians and archaeologists over the past century or so, meaning that the places they get published tend to be either old and hard to come by, or in such obscure journals that few libraries have them in their collections. Thanks to wonderful modern tech however, whenever I have managed to track a publication down I have entered all the information onto my digital database so it’s there for my constant reference. As I mentioned in my last post, I’m about finished digging in library basements, and the final total for curses from Roman Gaul, Germany and Britain stands at just over 300 – many fragmentary or unreadable, but a good number with texts long enough to get some juicy social and religious information about the people who were making them.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

A screen shot from my database, made in MS Access 2010.

Having all the curses on a single database means I can quickly see patterns, and trends, like how the theft of clothing is the most common motive for cursing at Bath, but virtually non-existent in Mainz. I am getting useful data about gender, ethnicity and social status too, which will form the core of my social interpretations of the curses.

I still have a lot to learn, and I’m slowly making my way through books and online courses about the finer points of database creation and management. If you are a database wizard, I would love to hear your top tips – send me a message or write in the comments section below. Equally, if you’re just dipping your toe in the wonderful world of digital humanities for the first time and want some advice, get in touch and I’ll see what I can do!

Curse Tablet of the Month #7: September 2014

Over the summer I have been focussed on one main goal: to finish my database of curse tablets. As I’m almost done I will be writing another post about what I’ve learned during the process, but for now here’s one of the last tablets to be entered!

If you are a regular reader of this blog you will have noticed that all the curse I have featured have something in common – they are all written in Latin. This shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise – it was the official language in the west of the Roman Empire – but it was not the only language spoken in the regions that I am researching. The Roman conquest of Gaul and Britain did not totally stamp out the native languages of the people who lived there, and they continued to be spoken throughout the Roman period and long after, transforming into the modern languages of Welsh, Irish, Gaelic, Cornish, Breton and Manx. Although they continued to be spoken, written texts in the ancient Celtic languages are extremely rare, and where they exist are written in either the Greek or Latin alphabet. The existing texts are mostly inscriptions, and all have been collected in the Recueil des Inscriptions Gauloises (R.I.G.). Significantly for me, the two longest texts written in a Celtic language are both curse tablets, one from Larzac and another from Chamalières. It is the latter that I have chosen as the curse tablet of the month!

The tablet from Chamalieres

The tablet from Chamalieres

Now, a word of warning. I am not a Celticist, nor would I ever claim to be one. The translation of this text comes from the R.I.G., but has been the source of considerable debate among people far more qualified than me. I would be delighted to hear from anyone with more experience in the field if they think my interpretation is lacking in some way!

Original text

Andedion uediiumi diiiuion risun artiu Mapon Arueriiatin  lopites snieddic sos brixtia anderon C. Lucion Floron Nigrinon adgarion Aemilion Paterin(on) Claudion Legitumon Caelion  pelign(on) Claudio(n) pelign(on) Marcion Victorin(on) Asiaticon Ađđedilli etic se couitoncnaman tonc siiontio meion poncse sit bue tid ollon reguccambion exsops pissiiumi tsoc cantirtssu ison son bissiet luge dessummiiis luge dessumiis luge dessumiis luxe


In the name of the good strength of the underworld gods, I invoke Maponos of Arverion. Pursue… those with the magic of the infernals. Gaius Lucius Florus Nigrinus the accuser, Aemilius Paterinus, Claudius Legitumus, Caelius the stranger, Claudius the stranger, Marcus Victorinus, Asiaticus Ađđedillus and everyone who would… these enemies. If it is reduced it is full. I straighten what is crooked. I (still?) see blind… place to my right, place to my right, place to my right.


Even though this curse is not in Latin, it conforms to many of the conventions of Latin cursing. The underworld gods are invoked, it is written on lead and was deposited in the sacred spring of a god – in this case Maponos. The fact that the first victim is given the title ‘accuser’ makes us think that this relates to a legal case, a common motive in all ancient cursing. The thing I find most intriguing about this curse is that even though it was written in Gaulish the names of the victims are almost all good, solid Roman names. A couple of them are probably even citizens of the Empire. On top of this, the writer of the curse must have been familiar with Latin if (s)he was involved in the legal system.


The conclusion to be drawn from all of this is that the petitioner made a conscious, personal decision to communicate with Maponos – a Celtic river god – in the language people had been communicating with him for centuries before, even though the form of communication – a lead curse tablet – was a new introduction that had come with the Roman conquest. It is tempting to picture the people of the north-western provinces as either Asterix-type barbarians or fully-Romanized clones of people living in contemporary Italy. Here we have evidence for something completely different. The petitioner at Chamalières was probably bi-lingual, and comfortably accommodated aspects of both Roman and Celtic culture in their personal world-view, using both to make sense of their surroundings and to manipulate them for their own benefit.


Ceci n'est pas un Gaulois

Ceci n’est pas un Gaulois

Curse tablet of the month #6: August 2014

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.


Uley 72


Latin text

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)

Honoratus to the holy god Mercury. I complain to your divinity that I have lost two wheels and four cows and many small belongings from my house. I would ask the genius of your divinity that you do not allow health to the person who has done me wrong, nor allow him to lie or sit or eat or drink, whether he is man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free, unless he brings my property to me and is reconciled with me. With renewed prayers I ask your divinity that my petition may immediately make me vindicated by your majesty.
You have to feel sorry for Honoratus. The thieves have made of with a number of his personal belongings of presumably some sentimental or monetary value. To any farmer four cows would be worth quite a lot – not only as livestock for dairy, meat and leather, but potentially as draft animals too. The loss of wheels would have had a serious impact on productivity too, hampering any attempt to move heavy feed or produce around the farm or off to market. He would believe that he was justified then, in asking Mercury, the god of the temple at Uley, to inflict illness, restlessness, hunger and thirst on those who had caused him so much loss.
Probably not how the culprits made off with Honoratus' cows.

Probably not how the culprits made off with Honoratus’ cows. You could never get four on that scooter for a start.


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.


We don't know whether Honoratus ever got his cows back, which is a shame.

We don’t know whether Honoratus ever got his cows back, which is a shame.



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 🙂

Curse of the month #4: June 2014

For the first time in the 10 months I’ve been doing this PhD I’m managing to post in two consecutive months – I might actually be getting better at this!

For this month I’ve got a tablet from Gaul, rounding out the three regions that my research is covering (Britain and Germany being the others). This curse is from an oppidum called Montfo, north of the modern French town of Beziers in what was the Roman province of Gallia Narbonensis. The tablet has been dated to around AD 50-60, so it is one of the earliest from my study area. As the southern parts of Gaul had a longer history of contact with Greek and Roman culture than the northern regions, this isn’t too surprising, and this curse shows some clear connections to Mediterranean cursing traditions. Having said that, there are some elements to the text that are overtly Celtic, which is incredibly interesting!

Reconstructed Latin text

quomodo hoc plumbu(m) non / paret decadet sic deca/dat aetas membra vita / bos gran<o>um mer(x) eoru(m) qui / mihi dolum malu fecerunt / Idem Asuetemeos / Secundina que illum tulit / et Verres Tearus // et Amarantis et / hoc omnia vobis Dii / interdico in omni/bus sortebus tam celebrare / Masitlatida concinere necra/cantum Col[. .]scantum et / omnes deos [. . . . . . . .]/ ta datus…
English translation

Just as this lead disappears and falls, thus falls their lifetime, limbs, life, ox, grain and goods, those who did me wrong, namely Asuetemeos who Secundina bore, and Verres Tearus // and Amarantis and all that is yours, oh gods, I forbid (them) by all spells to celebrate the Masitlatida and to sing the Necrocantus… and all gods… gave…
This curse starts with a sympathetic magical formula, which magically transfers actions done to the lead tablet onto the victims. We can assume that the victims are farmers, because the curse specifically targets their livestock and agricultural produce as a means to punish them for an unspecified crime.Taken as a list, the things that the petitioner curses are fairly random, and seem like things that came to their mind as they were writing rather than being pre-planned. This might explain the puzzling repetition in cursing their lifetime as well as their life.
One of the victims is identified by their mother’s name, a formula that is common in wider Graeco-Roman magic, probably because it was a more accurate way of targeting someone than using the father’s name (it doesn’t take a huge leap of imagination to realise why someone might not be 100% sure who their father was in this pre-Jeremy-Kyle-DNA-test world). Two victims bear names with Celtic elements, Asuetemeos and Verres Tearus, although the first’s mother has a Latin name and the second has the Latin Verres as part of his name. The mixing of Celtic and Latin names is something that we see in the tablets from Roman Britain too, but what is totally unique in this tablet is the last line.
We have no idea what the ‘Masitlatida’ is, nor the ‘Necrocantus’, although judging by its name the latter is probably some kind of song for the dead. Both of them are probably local rituals or festivals with some significance for people in the area. The petitioner explicitly bans the victims from celebrating the Masitlatida, thereby excluding them from the community, making them outcasts because of the crimes they have committed. In these rural communities the festivals of the religious calendar would have been important markers of the passing of time, and events at which community bonds could be formed and strengthened. So to be excluded from them could have serious consequences for the victims – they could miss a trade deal or a chance to secure a marriage proposal for one of their children. Their absence would probably be noted if the community was small enough, which may have had further negative consequences through gossip about certain people’s lack of respect for the gods. All of these imagined outcomes might have been going through the mind of the petitioner when they were writing the curse, and whether it actually worked or not is in some sense unimportant. The important thing for us to do as modern students of the material is to try to get into the heads of ancient people, to try to understand their concerns, their fears and the things that they considered essential to their lives as individuals within their communities. This one text brings home the very real contribution that the study of curse tablets can make to this endeavour, and helps us understand even more about the people living in the Roman Empire.