Introduction | Curses from Greece and Rome | Circus and court, sex and stealing | Curses in Roman Britain

Introduction: curses in Roman Britain

Of the provinces of the former Roman empire, Britain is among the most fertile in curse tablets. At least 250 of the known 500+ Latin tablets have been found in Britain and more continue to be recovered. The two most important groups are the 100+ recovered in the sacred spring at Bath and the 87 documented from the rural shrine of Uley, Gloucestershire (see Uley introduction). From such substantial groups of documents, written or at least deposited in the same place, we can recover much information about the traditions of writing curse tablets (see Creating the curse - writing the curse), the rituals that accompanied the inscribing of curses and the context in which people thought it appropriate to create their curses, potentially a stigmatised activity because of its magical associations (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic).

The majority of tablets have come to light in southern Britain around the Severn estuary, but they have also been found in London and Kent, on the Hamble estuary in Hampshire to the south and in the east Midlands and East Anglia. They have been found in towns with cosmopolitan populations, for example London and Bath, and at remote shrines, for example Brean Down, perched on a peninsula projecting into the Bristol Channel (see Brean Down introduction). To judge from the dating evidence of their scripts (see Curses and cursive - scripts), tablets were written throughout the period of the Roman presence in Britain, but the predominance of ‘Old Roman Cursive’ among the dated tablets suggest a peak in the second and third centuries AD.

The distribution of curse tablets is very different from that of other written documents in Britain. Stone inscriptions are mostly found at places associated with the Roman army, especially garrisons of forts and fortresses on Britain’s northern frontier. Most wooden writing tablets too have been found during excavations of military sites, especially Vindolanda and Carlisle, as well as from London. Curse tablets by contrast are a precious source of evidence for the words and wishes of the town and country people of Roman Britain, albeit expressed in a very particular form. To judge from the names of those who commissioned or wrote them and the items that they seek to recover, the authors of curses are of relatively modest status (see People, goods and gods - victims and wrongdoers).

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