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"I Ask that You Avenge Me": The Curse Tablets as Popular Practice

By Jessica Brustolim, Master's student in Social History, University of São Paulo.

Around 130 BCE, in the city of Mogontiacum (present-day Mainz, Germany), a widow asked the goddess Magna Mater to avenge her for her husband's goods:

Rogo te, domina Mater / Magna, ut tu me uindices / de bonis Flori coniugis mei. / qui me fraudavit Ulattius / Seuerus, quemadmod<um> / hoc ego auerse scribo, sic illi // omnia, quidquid agit, quidquid / aginat, omnia illi auersa fi ant. / ut sal et aqua illi eueniat. / quidquid mi abstulit de bonis / Flori coniugis mei, rogo te, / domina Mater Ma<g>na, ut tu / de eo me uindices. (AE 2005, 1122).

“I ask you, mistress Magna Mater, to avenge me for the goods of Florus, my husband, who Ulattius Severus defrauded me. Just as I write this in a hostile way, that everything, whatever he does, whatever he tries, everything goes wrong for him. As salt [melts in] water, let it happen to him. Whatever property of Florus, my husband, he took from me, I ask you, mistress Magna Mater, to take revenge on him”.

In the third century CE, in the province of Britannia, Solinus, a frequenter of the Roman baths at Bath (now England), had his bathing tunic and coat stolen. He then asked Sulis Minerva to punish the thief:

Deaesuliminiruesoli/ nusdononuminituoma /iestatipaxsabaearemet/ leumn<>ermitta<>mnum/ necsan..tem,eiquimihifru/ dem.ecitsiuirsifemi<.>. siseruus/ s<.>l..ernissi..eretegensistas/ s.eciesad..mplumtuumdetulerit /..beriesuiue lson sua.equi/ deg/ eiquoque xe/ mnumme /m n.. etrelinqu<.>.snissiad. <.>mplumtu/ umistasresretulerint. (R. Tomlin, The Curse Tablets, 1988, p. 150).

“From Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty my bathing tunic and my coat. Does not allow the person who has wronged me to sleep, or have health, whether man or woman, slave or free, unless he presents himself and brings these things to your temple... his children or his... and... that ... for him also ... sleep or <health> ... coat and the rest, unless they bring these things to thy temple"

A contemporary of Solinus, but in the city of Hadrumetum in North Africa, a fan of chariot racing summons an “ordinary demon” (demon quicunque) to kill the horses of the Green and White factions (ut equos prasini et albi crucies ocidas) and make the charioteers (agitatores) Clarus, Felix, Primulus and Romanus to fall and collide (et agitatores Clarum et Felice et Primullum et Romanum ocidas collida) (ILS 8753).

All of these requests are examples of one of the most common practices of antiquity: the defixionum tabellae, small curse tablets made of lead. According to Daniel Ogden, more than 1,600 curse tablets have been found throughout the territory of the Roman Empire, the oldest of which are dated to c. 500 before our era.

Curse tablets give researchers a privileged view of the common people of antiquity since, for the most part, they were made by the people themselves and demonstrate what was important to them, their emotions, passions and the way they dealt with problems and conflicts.

The curse tablet made by Solinus, for example, has an almost legal formulation so as not to leave loopholes through which the thief can escape. However, by donating the stolen goods to the goddess Sulis Minerva, he also changes his legal status, transforming an ordinary thief into a thief of sacred goods, which should attract almost immediate punishment from the goddess. In addition, it is also interesting to note which aspects of the thief's life are cursed by Solinus: his sleep and his health. In a 2004 study, Philip Kiernan surveyed the punishments demanded in the tablets of the province of Britannia and found that only a small fraction of them called for the death of evildoers. In all others, punishments such as insomnia, inability to eat, drink, defecate or bear children, lethargy and restlessness are asked for. The author concludes that, as all these punishments can be caused by psychosomatic illnesses, that is, illnesses caused by a psychological condition, there should be some kind of collective knowledge about curses and their effects.

In the tablet made by Florus's widow, it is possible to observe another aspect of the tablets: their use as a form of revenge. The widow does not ask for the restitution of her property, but for Ulattius Severus not to be able to carry out any of his daily activities. Again, the author of the defixio strives not to leave gaps through which Ulattius Severus can escape the curse. The two names on this tablet also provide an excellent example of the multiplicity of origins and status that could be found in a Roman province: Florus is a very common Roman name, both among free citizens and freedmen, whereas Ulattius Severus has a name of Celtic origin (Ullatius) and one of Roman origin (Severus), suggesting the Celtic origin of his family, but also that he possessed Roman citizenship.

The formulaic character of most curses allowed people with little instruction in Latin to write their own tablet, which is demonstrated by the number of spelling errors, incorrect abbreviations, omitted letters and the recurrent use of vulgar Latin, very different from the cultured norm used by the elites. But the tablets also allow researchers to observe the permanence of local languages after the Roman conquest, as is the case with several tablets from Gaul, dating from the first two centuries of our era, written in Celtic.

A winning charioteer with his horses. 4th century mosaic from Dougga, Tunisia. Bardo Museum, Tunis. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Finally, the so-called “circus curses” point to the importance of games for the ordinary inhabitants of the Empire. In the circus, the factions were organized by colour and the two main ones were the Greens and Blues, with the auxiliary colours being the Whites and Reds. The author of the curse was possibly a Blue fan seeking an advantage for his faction. For fans, or even for competitors, it was very simple, even commonplace, to write a curse and deposit it in the grave of people killed violently to gain some advantage over opponents.

The Romans believed in the power of the curse tablets as a given fact. Thus, it is not surprising that the people resorted to them to seek justice, to guard against wrongdoings or to obtain advantages. For those without elite privileges, obtaining protection or divine favours was a survival strategy, preserved, even after the rise of Christianity, in the collective memory of the lower classes for its effectiveness.

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