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

Introduction: cicrus and court, sex and stealing

Greek curses of the 5th and 4th centuries BC are usually short, often comprising only names. Over time however curse texts become lengthier and more complex. By the late Roman period many tablets include formulae to bind the victim and appeal to a wide company of deities and spirits to enact the curse. They also add magical terms, characters and drawings to the text (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic). The longer texts fall into several categories. Curses directed against legal opponents in court or commercial competitors are well represented in Classical and Hellenistic Attica. Common in the later Roman world are curses aimed at participants in spectacles and games, including actors and athletes and especially chariot teams. A curse found from a grave near the circus in Carthage (see Creating the curse - plumbing the depths) expresses typical sentiments:

'...Bind the horses whose names and images/likeness on this implement I entrust to you: of the Red (team)... of the Blues... Bind their running, their power, their soul, their onrush, their speed. Take away their victory, entangle their feet, hinder them, hobble them, so that tomorrow morning in the hippodrome they are not able to run or walk about, or win or go out of the starting gates, or advance on the racecourse or track, but may they fall down with their drivers...'

                  (trans. Gager, curse tablets 9)

Many curses of the Roman period were written for erotic motives, to drive a person desired away from their current lover, husband or wife and to direct their love towards the commissioner of the tablet. The culmination of the process was often envisaged as everlasting sex, as this excerpt from a curse found inside a wax figurine in Upper Egypt illustrates.

'...Rouse yourselves, you daimones who lie here and seek out Euphêmia, to whom Dôrothea gave birth, for Thêon, to whom Proechia gave birth. Let her not be able to sleep for the entire night, but lead her until she comes to his feet, loving him with a frenzied love, with affection and with sexual intercourse. For I have bound her brain and hands and viscera and genitals and heart for the love of me, Thêon...'

                  (trans. Gager)

In comparison, the only erotic text from Britain (Old Harlow, Essex) is mild mannered:

'To the god Mercury, I entrust to you my affair with Eterna and her own self, and may Timotneus feel no jealousy of me at the risk of his life-blood'

                  (trans. M. Hassall)

Where the reason for cursing is recorded, almost all the curse tablets found in Britain were directed against punishing thieves and recovering stolen property (see People, goods and gods - stolen goods and justice). If the subjects of tablets are a fair guide to ancient preoccupations, then Roman Britons were interested less in sex or spectacles than in crime. Such motives are rarely documented as prompting curses in other provinces.

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