Bargaining with the Gods

Votives and value in Roman religion (Defixiones, Part 4)

In the spring of 1830, French farmer Prosper Taurin was preparing his field for planting near the hamlet of Villeret, Normandy, when his plowshare grated against what turned out to be a Roman tile about six inches below the surface. When he borrowed a pickaxe and pried the tile up, he found beneath it a hastily buried cache of silver and silver-gilt objects. These hundred-odd items all dated from the first or second century and came from a sanctuary dedicated to a Gallo-Roman version of the god Mercury. Here I’d like to point out that if someone had used Latin-descended words meaning “lucky bull” to make up the name of a plowman who stumbled across a Roman treasure, we would scoff at them for being so on the nose.

This hoard, known as the Berthouville Treasure, belongs to Paris’ Bibliothèque nationale, but was eventually sent to the Getty Villa for five years of study and conservation, after which it went on the road, visiting the Legion of Honor where I was able to see it a few years ago as an exhibition called “Ancient Luxury and the Roman Silver Treasure from Berthouville”.

Of course, I have brought up this collection as a way of talking about another aspect of Roman religion. Scholars of ancient religion and magic, Richard Gordon and Francisco Marco Simón, note while the cost of votive items such as these might seem like a side effect, it’s actually an important element of the offering:¹

Investment in an expensive gem attracts divine benevolence in special measure.

Many of the precious Berthouville objects bear the initialism VSLM, which is to be read as:

V[otum] S[olvit] L[ibens] M[erito]

He/ she fulfills [his/ her] vow willingly [and] deservedly.

The term votum, in particular, is key. Cognate in English is our word vow, which is exactly what this is—specifically a promise made to a deity. If you were thinking of vote as a cognate for votum, you’re not wrong: this is what’s called a doublet—a reborrowed word with a different form and meaning. Vota are intended as gifts for the helping figure, but also as a testimony for later visitors to the shrine of the help received. This particular type of votum is known as an ex-voto from the phrase:

ex voto suscepto

from the vow made

In fact, this latter term also appears nearly verbatim in inscriptions on the items from the sanctuary of Mercurius Canetonensis in Normandy. Nine of the most luxurious Berthouville objects come from one patron in particular, a Quintus Domitius Tutus. One of his cups bears the text:²


To August Mercury from Quintus Domitius Tutus, as vowed.

Thus we can see vota as reflecting a contractual nature of Roman religion. According to classicist professor Georg Luck, writing specifically about magic, which as we’ve seen is an aspect of worship:³

Magic is, in a way, a business transaction between the practitioner and the client. The client wants results, and he wants them here and now. He pays for the service, and he may not be inclined to submit to any spiritual discipline. To a certain extent, ancient religion also has a business-like aspect—the do ut des principle. But in magic, this is carried to an extreme.

This bargaining aspect of religion is expressed in the term Luck raises:

do ut des

I give that you might give.

If you think this concept sounds similar to quid pro quo (lit. “something for something”), you’re again, not wrong. Actually, the latter phrase has only fairly recently supplanted do ut des, which also carried the same connotations in a legal setting. Quid pro quo originally meant to substitute one thing for another, particularly ingredients in the field of medicine.

Turning back to the vota, one can imagine Quintus, in some sort of dire straits and feeling in need of divine aid, swearing something like, “Mercury, help me now, and I’ll give five librae (Roman pounds) of silver to your sanctuary.” And later, as he felt he had received the aid requested, he dutifully made the donation he had promised.

Possibly the most famous and dramatic votum was the ver sacrum affirmed in a vote by the entire citizenry of Rome during the darkest days of Hannibal’s invasion of the Italic Peninsula during the Second Punic War. The text of the vow included this detail:⁴

[P]opulus Romanus Quiritium, quod ver attulerit ex suillo ovillo caprino bovillo grege quaeque profana erunt, Iovi fieri, ex qua die senatus populusque iusserit.

[T]he Roman people of Quirites [i.e. citizens] will give as gift what the spring will bring forth out of the swine, sheep, goat and cattle herds, and which are not consecrated elsewhere, to be sacrificed to Jove, from that day the Senate and people will have decreed.

To be clear, ver sacrum, literally “sacred spring”, is a sacrifice of all animals born in a given spring, and in this case, across the entirety of Rome—they really needed Jupiter to help them out.

The main difference between ex-voto offerings and ones like the ver sacrum and defixiones, is the former category are repayments for a service the gods have already provided, while the latter category are payments in advance for prodigies yet unrealized.

In the British Museum, there is a lamella of soft metal slightly wider than an inch and about two and a half inches tall. Found in plow soil in the south of Oxfordshire in 2007, it is incised on the first three lines with 12 magical charakteres, followed by the main text reading:⁵

ΤΙΑ ΜΗΤΗΡ [αιει] ΟΝΟ[-]

Make with your holy names that Fabia whom Terentia her mother bore, being in full fitness and health, shall master the unborn child and bring it to birth; the name of the Lord and Great God being everlasting.

A few things are worth noting here: first it is written in Latinate Greek, that is by someone who was literate in Latin, but somewhat less so in Greek—C is used rather than Σ throughout, for example. Second, a specific god is not named, and some think it may even have been devoted to the Christian God rather than a Romano-British one, in which case it would demonstrate the conversion to this new religion did nothing to dispel these practices.

This votive also seems similar in form to a defixio in many ways, but seeks a blessing rather than a curse, and is uncoincidentally inscribed on gold rather than lead. It fits the pattern we have seen where the votive object itself can have value.

It may seem a defixio made of lead is a comparatively cheap offering, but it’s important to understand the tablet is just one component of the ritual. Most scholars suggest a prayer, possibly the text of the tablet, would be spoken out loud, and it can also be seen from inscriptions like the defixio to Nodens and the following one, there was a separate donation:⁶

Basilia donat in templum Martis anilum argenteum, si ser[v]us si liber medius fuerit vel aliquid de hoc nouerit ut […] configatur.

Basilia gives to the temple of Mars (her) silver ring, that so long as (someone), whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed […].

Additionally, there is a general notion that an unbinding costs twice as much as a curse, and Jürgen Blänsdorf notes of a defixio from the sanctuary of Isis in Mainz:⁷

The writer demands the women [being cursed] may not even redeem themselves by “sacrifices bearing wool” [… which] simply means “sheep”, [… nor] by means of lead (i.e. defixiones), gold or silver […].

We see here the do ut des principle of trading material wealth for supernatural acts pervades Roman religious practice. Incorporated within this is a bankerly sense of fungibility among commodities such as precious stones and metals, currency, and livestock; I’ve already discussed the substitution of coins for defixiones. We also find once again curses conform completely with this context and indeed are entirely integral to them. There is a clear implication that better curses cost more and therefore cost more to undo.

Some have wondered why in ancient times the Berthouville Treasure was hastily buried rather than melted down for a more portable source of wealth. The reason is simple: the silver did not belong to the priests, but to Mercurius Canetonensis and so wasn’t theirs to take but only to attempt to preserve in that god’s name.

A folkloric sense that such wealth bore a stamp of otherworldliness long outlived the Romans, lasting even into the 19th century: Taurin refused to touch the silver objects, instead pushing them into a sack with the borrowed pickaxe and irreparably damaging several of the priceless items.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef

Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy

Part 7: The Punic Curse Trail

Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism

Read Previous Articles in This Series

Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis

Part 2: Malefic Traditional

Part 3: Sympathy for Sauron


  1. Richard Gordon & Francisco Marco Simón, “Introduction”, ”Magical Practice in the Latin West, Papers from the International Conference Held at the University of Zaragoza, 30 Sept.–1 Oct. 2005, 2010.
  2. Dedicatory inscription from Berthouville/ Lugdunensis, HD068147, Heidelberg Epigraphic Database, emphasis mine.
  3. Georg Luck, Arcana Mundi: Magic and the Occult in the Greek and Roman Worlds, 1985.
  4. Titus Livius (Livy), Ab urbe condita (From the Founding of the City), 22.10, 27–9 BCE.
  5. Amulet 2009,8042.1, British Museum, ca. 100–300, Roger Simon Ouin Tomlin’s translation.
  6. Sulis 97.
  7. Jürgen Blänsdorf, “The Curse-tablets from the Sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz”, Magical Practice in the Latin West, Papers from the International Conference Held at the University of Zaragoza, Gordon & Simón, eds., 2005.

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