Cursing, Roman Style August 26, 2012Author: Beach Combing | in : Ancient , trackback
***Dedicated to Mac, Invisible and Southern Man who sent the latest British curse tablet in***
The Romans were, as is well known, good at everything. They could start land wars in Asia and win; they could sell their soul for the fruits of the known world and enjoy said fruits; they could sail to southern India, Somalia and into the Baltic coming back to tell the tale. But, less well known, is the fact that they were also talented cursers… The Roman method for cursing was simple. You bought a thin lead sheet and had your curse scratched on the lead. (In some cases the curse tablet was pre-prepared and it was necessary only to fill in the name.) The defixio, or lead sheet would then be buried in a strategic place, sometimes even in a grave or at a temple site. Anything to get the gods or demons on your side.
Targets were of almost every conceivable type and included thieves (we visited a cursed ring-stealer before on this blog), sports rivals (one interesting Greek example was made against enemy circus factions), opponents in legal processes, lovers and the simply irritating. Victims might be bound: kept in a place. They might have a temporary problem: the inability to talk properly in court say. Or the curser might let Hades loose on his or her enemies: ‘liquefy their guts’ is one of the choicer requests sent by lead telegram to the underworld.
One curse that Beach particularly likes is this third-century (AD) Italian example in Greek found in a grave outside the Ardeatine Gate: along with an erotic love curse (naturally).
Hold back Artemidoros a doctor of the Third Praetorian Cohort. The brother of the dead Demetrios is his servant, who now wants to go out to his homeland. Therefore do not let him [hold the curser?], but restrain Italy, breaking down the gates of the Romans. Restrain Artemidorus the son of Artemidoros the doctor. Eulamon, Laimella, Omelieus, Axeieus, Areieus and Lathos and Thambos, restrain!
Demetrios is the curser’s dead brother who is being asked to work magic on the curser’s behalf. The dead are interceding with powerful supernatural forces here: or at least so the curser hopes. The curser wants to return home but cannot. His act of revenge or his attempt to get home involves, for reasons that are unclear, the binding of Artemidoros. To hold Artemidoros he talks of restraining all of Italy and the city of Rome: it is pretty ambitious stuff and we have to hope that Demetrios had very good contacts among the hosts of hell. Those final names are the sprites and half gods expected to do the cursers work.
Any other ancient curses? drbeachcombing AT yahoo DOT com
31 August 2012: PP writes ‘A few years ago, HBO produced a series called ‘Rome’ during which two instances of cursing were depicted, both by the same woman. In the 1st, Servilia of the Junii (mother of Brutus & mistress of Caesar) uses inscribed lead tablets and incantations said over them to curse JC, who has forsaken her, and her rival Atia of the Julii, who has arranged said forsaking. Each gets a lead tablet secreted in the wall of their house. Sacrifice seems to have been a necessary element in these deals with the gods. Here, instead of killing an animal, Servilia offers the victims’ explicitly named parts, “…his breath, his liver, his stomach, his penis….” But it’s the second curse of Atia by Servilia that I wonder about. Having lost everything due to Atia’s further machinations, Servilia kneels outside Atia’s door, incessantly calling for attention while covering herself with ashes. Finally Atia comes out. Before a gathered crowd of passersby, Servilia curses Atia, then seals the curse with the ultimate sacrifice, followed dutifully by her body slave. (A truly awful and sorrowful scene.) I wonder: was such self-sacrifice in payment for a curse actually practiced?’ Thanks PP!