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

People, Goods and Gods: victims and wrongdoers

Many tablets are seemingly uninformative, bearing only names. However names in Roman documents are important sources of historical information. The structure of the name and its individual elements can reveal the status of the person(s) named, for example citizen or non-citizen, free or unfree. Two men cursed in a tablet from London both bear the ‘three names’ (tria nomina) of the Roman citizen, the praenomen, nomen (family name) and cognomen:

‘Titus Egnatius Tyrannus is cursed (defictus est) and Publius Cicereius Felix is cursed defictus est)’ (RIB 6, recto)

In almost all other curse tablets from Britain however only single names are recorded (Leintwardine A). These might therefore be names of non-citizens, but this depends on the date at which the tablet was written. With the grant of universal citizenship to the freeborn population in AD 212, the motive for indicating citizen status through the style of name disappeared.

Names may also reveal ethnic background, although in the Roman world such evidence must be used with caution. Names recorded in curses from Britain have 'Celtic' and 'Roman' origins. Male names with a Celtic etymology include Biccus (Uley 4) and Senorix (Leintwardine A 5), female names include Senebellena (Uley 33). Other names with a Celtic etymology have been given a Romanised form, for example Docilinus (Uley 43). Roman names include Lucilia (Uley 33) or Varianus (Uley 43). Greek names occur too, for example Diogenes (xref Chesterton tablet). Bearers of such names might have originated outside Britain, but many of these names are those which were adopted in the north-western provinces by individuals of local origin. In general the evidence of names recorded in curses suggests that the culture of writing to the gods in this way had certainly spread to the indigenous people of southern Britain.

Names also show that both sexes used curse magic, although many more men are recorded than women in the names of cursers and cursed. A strange feature of curse tablets is that they sometimes give the mother’s name, for example Minuassus, son of Senebellena (Uley 33), instead of the father’s, the normal documentary practice. This may be another instance of the ‘reversal’ of normal practice in the realm of magic (see People, goods and gods - the workings of magic) or perhaps the mother’s name was considered a more certain indicator of identity than the father’s for directing the curse at its target.

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