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Roman History Reading Group

Roman Curse Tablets

On my trip to Germany, I visited the Römerhalle Museum in Bad Kreuznach and came across a vitrine displaying Fluchtäfelchen, curse tablets made of lead, found in the cemetery there. Here are examples:

Data nomina hoec ad inferos and  Nomina data legata ad inferos, per viru corripiant: Siloniam Secundum. Ille te sponsus procat, illum amo.

I had never heard of curse tablets, so I sent out an inquiry to groups and forums on the Internet towhich I belong.


This is what one of our reading group members sent me via e-mail:

“A terrific book that I have used to reference certain aspects of Roman history is called: As the Romans Did: A Sourcebook in Roman Social History by JoAnn Shelton. We did use this book, in particular, in the classes that I took, to go over certain aspects of Roman life...it's a great book, I suggest it highly!

“As for the Curse Tablets...well, they're a form of sympathetic magic...and I'll quote from JoAnn Shelton about them:

Curse Tablets:

“[Roman] people frequently put curses on their enemies and consecrated them to the spirits of the underworld. The procedure was to write the name of the intended victim on a tablet (usually a lead tablet), to make the consecration, and then stick a long nail through the name on the tablet. Sometimes a rough sketch of the hated person was also included on the tablet and was pierced by many long nails...These tablets were usually placed in tombs so that they might be close to the underworld spirits. The consecration found here (below), found at Minturna, was written in Latin but has many misspellings. It is probably the work of someone in the lower class, as is true of most curse tablets.

“411. Spirits of the underworld, I consecrate and hand over to you, if you have any power, Ticene of Carisius. Whatever she does, may it all turn out wrong. Spirits of the netherworld, I consecrate to you her limbs, her complexion, her figure, her head, her hair, her shadow, her brain, her forehead, her eyebrows, her mouth, her nose, her chin, her cheeks, her lips, her speech, her breath, her neck, her liver, her shoulders, her heart, her lungs, her intestines, her stomach, her arms, her fingers, her hands, her navel, her entrails, her thighs, her knees, her calves, her heels, her soles, her toes. Spirits of the netherworld, if I see her wasting away, I swear that I will be delighted to offer a sacrifice to you every year. Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum 10.8249.”

My thanks to Karen for this insight!


Another reply comes from the Ancient/Classical History Forum at About.com, Query Roman Cemetery Finds:

They are called curse tablets in English and defixio in Latin. These tablets were intended to curse enemies and consecrate them to the spirits of the underworld. Generally the name of the victim and sometimes a sketch of them were inscribed and then a nail or needle was driven through the name and picture of the cursed victim.

These curse tablets are also associated with chariot racers. Before a race a driver would put a curse on his opponents. Here is an example from curse tablet found in North Africa:

I call upon you, o demon. whoever you are, and ask that from this hour, from this day, you torture and kill the horses of the Green and White factions, and that you kill and crush completely the drivers Clarus, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, and that you leave not a breath in their bodies.

For further information, check these books:

As the Romans Did by JoAnn Shelton
Death and Burial in the Roman World by JMC Toynbee

#170.4:

I found two more references on curse tablets that might interest you:

Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World John Gager, Oxford University Press, 1992.

Tabellae Sulis: Roman Inscribed Tablets of Tin and Lead from the Sacred Spring at Bath, R.S.O. Tomlin. Oxford University Monograph, 1988.

Some random facts about curse tablets: More than 1500 curse tablets (defixiones) are now known. Two thirds of them are Greek; over half of the Latin tablets have been found in Britain.

Defixio is from the verb defigere, meaning: to fasten or fix, and hence ‘to curse’.

These tablets reside in a gray area between religion and magic. The motives for most curse tablets are to curse thieves, embezzlers, rivals in a lawsuit, rivals in love or to gain love, and to curse charioteers and their horses.

The same person later added an Internet link from Journal of Roman Archaeology to this: Heintz, F. Circus Curses and their Archaeological Contexts, JRA 11 (1998) 337-42. Comment March 2005: Unfortunately, the individual link has disappeared in cyberspace.

The Bath tablets are from the third and fourth centuries and are an important source of vulgar Latin, or spoken Latin from this period of the Empire.

My thanks to the author of these messages too!


By my calculation then, only about 500 Roman curse tablets are known so far, and about 250 of them in Britain. Since 75 (!) were found in Bad Kreuznach, Germany, the speculation that Vicus Crucianicum was a rather large settlement now rings a bit truer to me.

Irene, 1999


N.S. Gill, the editor of Ancient/Classical History at About.com last year visited Bath, England and wrote this:
Curse Tablets: Revenge on Bath Thieves by Sympathetic Magic

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