Significance of Roman Curse Tablets recognised in Memory of the World Register
A collection of 130 ancient Roman curse tablets featuring gruesome messages of revenge has been added to the UNESCO Memory of the World register of outstanding documentary heritage. Found in the town of Bath, England, the tablets were dedicated to the Celtic and Roman goddess Sulis Minerva to address wrong doings. The tablets give an insight into the lives of ordinary people, seeking redress for wrongs that have befallen them and asking their deity to intervene on their behalf to bring this about.
The tablets are believed to range in date from the 2nd to the late 4th century AD. Most are written in Latin and a local version of the Roman language on copper and lead, however, one rare tablet is made up of Celtic words written in the Latin alphabet, the only known text of its kind to survive. Its meaning is not understood. Another curse tablet contains what is currently the earliest known reference to Christianity in Britain.
Many of the curses have been translated from their original Latin and reveal violent and gruesome wishes for revenge. They include wishes that thieves should go blind and mad, while cheaters become as 'liquid as the water’. One particularly gory curse about a stolen ring said: “…so long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in (his) blood, and eyes and every limb and even have all (his) intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring”
A Roman curse tablet. Credit: Roman Baths
The wishing of ill-health and death on a person is typical of many Roman curses. Typically, the curse would be inscribed on the tablet before being cast into the hot springs at Bath, where they were left for the goddess, who was worshiped by Celts and Romans, to dispense the justice. One reads:
“To Minerva the goddess Sulis I have given the thief who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether slave or free, whether man or woman. He is not to buy back this gift unless with his own blood.”
The Goddess Sulis Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, healing, the arts, strategy and magic. Celts worshiped Sulis, who was a sun god of fertility at the thermal spring of Bath -named Aquae Sulis in Latin. The two goddesses were gradually rolled into one so that British Romans came to worship Sulis Minerva. The lead tablets suggest that Sulis Minerva was life-giving but also adept at punishing wrong-doers as a goddess of justice.
The head of the statue of Sulis Minerva. Credit: Roman Baths
Some messages included magical words and symbols, or were written back to front to increase the curse's potency. Others were pierced with nails to achieve a similar result. Curses were sometimes rolled up and hidden under floors or in wall cavities.
The thermal spring baths, known as Aquae Sulis in Latin, was a religious site before the Romans arrived and the springs at bath are believed to have been used for more than 10,000 years. The Celts are thought to have built the first shrine there in 700BC, but it was the Romans who adorned the site with grand temples, altars and bath buildings complete with lead pipes to ensure a constant flow of water to the giant lead-lined pool.
Thermal springs, Bath, England. Credit: Roman Baths
The curse tablets are the only artefacts from Roman Britain to have been added to the register, which aims to raise awareness of some of the UK's exceptional documentary riches.
Featured image: A Roman curse tablet. Credit: Freia Turland / SWNS.com