stolen goods and justice | victims and wrongdoers | deities | the workings of magic

People, Goods and Gods: stolen goods and justice

Tablets bearing only names, whether of one (Uley 86) or many individuals (Leintwardine A) give no clue to motives. Reasons for cursing were perhaps instead revealed in the spoken accompaniment to making the tablet. Longer texts may describe the operation of the curse in greater detail but may also give no insight into motives, as in an example from London:

‘I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts, and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor...’ (RIB 7)

Where motives for curses are specified, obtaining redress against a thief is the commonest so far known from Britain (see Cursing in Roman Britain). The tablets from Bath often seek to recover portable items, especially clothing, jewellery and small sums of money, many probably stolen from bathers. Among the motives recorded at Uley is the theft of clothing (Uley 80) and of animals (Uley 72), perhaps not surprising in this rural context. One curse from the Pagans Hill temple (Pagans Hill 7) seeks to recover a large sum of money, 3,000 denarii. However this tablet was probably written in the first half of the third century, a period of high inflation and the real significance of this seemingly large amount is thus unclear.

What options were available to the victims of theft or other crime? In theory in Britain Roman law applied to Roman citizens and local laws to non-citizens, a distinction replaced after AD 212 by a division based on social status. However in an ‘under-policed’ society, it was necessary to use social or political connections to bring the law to bear. For those lacking such connections, divine patrons, appropriately addressed, were perhaps the only hope. The procedure of cursing in fact shows some connection to the legal process, for example in the ways in which stolen property and the material of which it is made are identified. The language of the curses also echoes legal terminology and formulae (see Curses and cursive - scribes). Perhaps tablets at least supplied the injured party with one outlet through which to vent their outrage. Performance of the curse at temples (see Creating the curse - plumbing the depths) potentially also brought the crime to the attention of communities, perhaps inducing shame in the perpetrator. Given the physical penalties (see Creating the curse - Writing the curse) prescribed by most curses, in a world where illness might represent punishment for misdeed these curses perhaps had room to work.

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