The rhetoric of pleas for justice (Defixiones, Part 5)
If you know something about defixiones—Roman curse tablets—you probably think of them as essentially preemptive; asking a god to injure a victim without presenting any particular reason for doing so. Those found at Aquae Sulis (modern Bath), however, are of an entirely different character as they are backward looking, based on some offence that has already been given, and appealing to a god with a so-called plea for justice. They generally cite thefts, typically by persons unknown as the reason for the punishment requested. Gordon and Simón summarize the type thus:¹
Such curses are […] similar to the world of real litigation they skirt or duck, with rhetorical skill far outweighing the establishment of facts in deciding the outcome or judgement.
These are not unique to Roman Britain, other examples have been found including in Greece, as well as more recently in the sanctuary of Isis and Mater Magna in Mainz. One in particular from Veldidena, now Wilten, a neighborhood in Innsbruck, is worth taking a closer look at as an exemplar. John Gager says it’s written in “unsophisticated Latin”² but I hope to show that the form and content are actually brilliant:
Secundina Mercurio et
Moltino mandat, ut siquis XIIII
sive draucus duos sustulit, ut
eum sive fortunas eius infi-
dus Cacus sic auferat quo-
modi ill[a]e ablatum est id quod
vobis delegat, ut persecuatis
vobisque deligat, ut
persicuatis et eum
aversum a fortunis[s]u-
is avertatis et a suis prox-
simis et ab eis quos caris-
simos abeat, oc vobis
mandat, vos [e]um cor[ipi]a-
Secundina commands of Mercurius and Moltinus that whoever has stolen two cows worth 14 denarii, that the untrustworthy Cacus carry off him and his possessions, just as hers were taken, the very things that she gives to you to track down. And she also assigns you to persecute him and separate him from his fortune and from his family and from those dearest to him. She commands this; you must catch him.
I should note that this defixio is often translated as being about a pair stolen necklaces rather than cows. The word draucus is the cause of this uncertainty: a Greek-borrowed δραύκιον gives the item of jewelry, but others have pointed to a Gaulish word referring to cattle instead. Given that both options are equally difficult to verify and the location of this find in an area where the Celtic language would have been spoken alongside Latin, and very likely not Greek, as well as the fact that everything else in this defixio refers to cattle, as do several others from the site, as we shall see, I have gone with cows.
Proceeding with the text, we see Mercury being called upon. He is, among many other things, the god of thieves, having himself rustled the herd of Apollo early in his career. Just as he is the god of disease and also healing, it makes sense to call on him to catch a thief, particularly of cattle.
As for Moltinus, he is a little-attested Gaulish god who seems to have been syncretized with Mercury, so we might suppose Secundina is just covering her bases, except that unlike Mercury, this guy is a chthonian deity although, certainly there is also Mercury’s role as psychopomp on that side), just the sort to communicate with via defixiones, rather than with ex vota we’ve seen done for Mercury before. Finally, his name is cognate with English mutton, and he seems to be a god of cattle. The common motif of Mercury riding a ram is a likely reason for the syncretization of the two deities.
Calling upon the mythical monster, Cacus, is also quite clever: first, his name simply means “bad”, but this son of Vulcan was known as a thief, particularly of Hercules’ cattle, dragging them by the tails into his cave, and so leaving behind a misleading trail. This is the sort of deviousness Secundina hopes Mercury and Moltinus can unravel in order to bring the thief to justice.
There is yet another aspect to the language of the prayer that is revealed here, and which I’ve not yet discussed. It’s embodied in the phrase, “infidus Cacus”. Let’s seemingly abruptly veer into the world of Greek drama; Eva Stehle notes:³
Speaking is dangerously performative in the world of Aeschylus. The prime example is Oresteia: Kassandra’s prophecies and visions of the curse in Agamemnon, the raising of the dead in Choephoroi, the Furies’ “Binding Song” in Eumenides.
This “dangerously performative” nature of speech is neither limited to this playwright nor even the stage, rather the play reflects the culture’s norms and beliefs; in this case the operative one being words have power. The tradition of wearing masks and assuming personae assures that the catastrophes the actors conjure do not befall them personally—in effect they hide their real selves from the gods.
Dysphemia (δυσφημία: “ill-omened speech”), of which the invocation of Cacus is an example, is easiest defined by what it is not—naturally, euphemia (ευφημία):⁴
[T]hose charged with prayer or song must speak words welcome to the gods and avoid any repellent to them. […] Euphemia along with its nonverbal corollaries of pleasing motion, music, and a beautiful visual scene constituted a human offering of charis to the gods. Charis, pleasure given or received, governs relations between humans and gods: it attracts the gods to prayer and celebration, honoring and delighting them, while suggesting that benefactions should be given in return.
The idea of charis (χάρις) of course gets back to the exchange of value I’ve discussed previously, putting it into this larger context. The amulet I cited in Part 4 skillfully uses euphemia, in its use of terms like “holy” (ἁγῖοις, lit. devoted to the gods), “everlasting” (ἀεί), “full fitness” (ὁλοκλήρουςα, completeness, perfection), and “health” (ὑγιαῖνούςα).
In curses, while the value exchange is still there, as we’ve seen, dysphemia is used to engender godly anger toward the intended victim in those called upon instead, consisting of elements like,⁵
[R]eferences to polluting realities such as death, cries of pain or grief, insulting language, and expectation of disaster.
In addition to being directive as to what Secundia wishes to befall whoever has wronged her, the punishments mentioned also act as dysphemia, falling into the final category of the above list.
According to Stehle, even the meter of the language used can be eu– or dysphemic: strophic language presents a steady, repetitive rhythm, fitting with the “pleasing motion” aspect of euphemia, while anastrophic language, with uneven and abrupt rhythms obviously is the opposite. My Latin is honestly not good enough for me to get a sense of whether anastrophe is also woven into this defixio, but perhaps one day I’ll attempt such a breakdown.
The loss of two cows or indeed anything worth 14 denarii would be a pretty tough one for almost anyone to simply accept and move past; one denarius is typically thought of as a skilled laborer’s daily wage. As such, Secundina’s seeking of divine intervention seems entirely the correct course. And she, or a magical practitioner working on her behalf, has performed the task admirably. The thieves are unknown, and there is no evidence apart from the missing cattle, so we turn to rhetoric in favor of their punishment instead. Elements pertinent to thievery, cattle, and punishment are invoked, with a dash of dysphemia thrown in to rouse the gods’ anger against the guilty party.
Personally, I hope if she didn’t get her cattle back, at least the thief was brought to justice.
Read Subsequent Articles in This Series
Part 6: More Than Money Can Buy
Part 8: Hellenism Schmellenism
Read Previous Articles in This Series
Part 1: The Curses of Aquae Sulis
Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods
- “Introduction”, Magical Practice in the Latin West, Gordon and Simón, 2005.
- Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World, Gager, 1992.
- “Prayer and Curse in Aeschylus’ Seven Against Thebes”, Classical Philology, Eva Stehle, 2005.
- Ibid, emphasis mine.