More Than Money Can Buy

Honor culture and the cost of a curse (Defixiones, Part 6)

One of the many defixiones—lead curse tablets—found at the site of Aquae Sulis (modern Bath) is from one Docilianus. It’s famed for its Roman majuscules inscribed in a fine hand, though the text is fairly generic:¹

Docilianus Bruceri deae sanctissimae Suli devoveo eum qui caracellam meam involaverit si vir si femina si servus si liber ut […] dea Sulis maximo letum adigat nec ei somnum permittat nec natos nec nascentes donec caracallam ad templum sui numinis pertulerit.

Docilianus (son) of Brucerus to the most holy goddess Sulis. I curse him who has stolen my hooded cloak, whether man or woman, whether slave or free, that the goddess Sulis may afflict him with maximum death, and not allow him sleep or children now and in the future, until he has brought my hooded cloak to the temple of her divinity.

One does wonder what “maximum death” might refer to, but this and others from Roman Britain are of a different character from the more typical ones that seek to preventatively injure or constrain the target. By contrast, here:²

The overwhelming majority of curse tablets discovered […] were reactionary: an act or wrong had been done to the author and through the use of defixiones they sought to redress the matter.

Aquae Sulis in particular, is the find site for so many of this type of curse tablet; many theories were spawned about the possible reasons behind this:³

[T]he majority of thefts would have occurred at the baths, and at the hands of bathhouse thieves (fures balnearii), hence the large number of outer garments and coins lost. […] On the other hand, the loss may be due to careless and suspicious patrons of the baths misplacing such items, like rings, and instantly suspecting thieves.

The latter hypothesis is borne out by the fact that many incised gems found in the drain of the baths seem to have been lost when the adhesives with which they had been attached to rings were softened by the hot water, and appear among the “stolen” items complained of in the tablets.

Still, the fact that many of the defixiones from Aquae Sulis demand revenge for the thefts of only a few coins or inexpensive property stands in contrast to Uley, where:⁴

[T]he claims are of much greater value, with the greatest amount being of 100,000 denarii.

So of course the Aquae Sulis curse tablets raised speculation, such as that:⁵

[T]he majority of supplications were from individuals of a lower social standing, the victim not being able to afford a slave of his own, or to even pay one to mind his belongings while in the baths.

Or that:⁶

[A]fter the discovery of a theft while at the baths, the making of such incantations on curse tablets may have been a convenient method of exacting revenge at the height of the victim’s frustration.

But these are both unfounded. As we have seen, there is clearly a monetary component above and beyond that of the tablet itself. Rather, the cheapness of the defixio itself merely means there is a very low minimum threshold to that value. It is indeed the low value of the lead sheet itself that probably led to this element of the curse being discarded over time—as I’ve mentioned before, Aquae Sulis’ hoard of 12,000 coins attests this shift. Marina Pirinamonte cites the general decline in literacy as a reason for this, but as some defixiones are entirely pictorial, that’s clearly not the only factor at work.

An additional issue is that the settlement at Uley was rural and wealthy. Furthermore, the god worshiped there was Mercury Silvanus, syncretized with an unknown Celtic god, but perhaps similar to Moltinus, as the images of the deity here are notable for their horns. In any case, Mercury, as a god of commerce, cattle, and silver, would generally tend to have higher-class followers.

Sulis Minerva seems to have been less choosy—the baths were open to the public in a larger, urban setting. The goddess herself, with a Celtic name relating to the ideas of sight and light (cf. Old Irish súil, “eye”, Proto-Celtic *sūlos, “sun”), was perhaps a good choice to detect a thief, even of something small.

Returning to the curses, many describe the amount of money given to the god, typically some portion of the value of what was stolen, with one third being the lowest I’ve seen, for example in this quite businesslike message from Saturnina found at Uley, who may have been in the cloth trade:⁷

commonitorium deo
Mercurio Satur-
nina muliere de lintia-
mine quod amisit ut il-
le qui ho[c] circumvenit non
ante laxetur nissi quand[o]
res s(upra)dictas ad fanum s(upra)d[ic]
turn attul[e]rit si vir si [m]u-
lier si servus si liber
deo s(upra)dicto 
 [d]onat ita ut
exsigat istas res quae
s(upra)s(crip)ta sunt […].

A memorandum to the god Mercury from Saturnina, a woman, concerning the linen cloth which she has lost. (She asks) that he who has stolen it should not have rest until he brings the aforesaid property to the aforesaid temple, whether man or woman, whether slave or free. She gives a third part to the aforesaid god on condition that he exact this property which has been written above […].

The full value is also given sometimes, which seems strange, as, in effect, the curser is still losing that value.

In some cases, such as that of Basilia, which I presented in Part 4 or the one above, it seems the donation is to be made only if the property is recovered—in effect an ex voto. However, I think the evidence points in another direction: Just as Saturnina’s does, the word donat is nearly formulaically used in defixiones, which is, to be technical, the third-person singular present active indicative of dōnō, meaning “I give”. All of this means the best translation of donat is simply “(he/ she) gives”, leaving it unclear as to whether it is an action that has been or will be done.

Looking at another curse from Uley, it runs thus:⁸

Biccus dat M-
ercurio quidquid
pe(r)d(id)it si vir si m-
ascel ne meiat
ne cacet ne loqua-
tur ne dormiat
n[e] vigilet nec s[a]-
[l]utem nec sa-
nitatem ne-
ss[i] in templo
Mercurii per-
tulerit ne co(n)-
scientiam de
pederat ness[i]
me interceden-

Biccus gives Mercury whatever he has lost (that the thief), whether man or male (sic), may not urinate nor defecate nor speak nor sleep nor stay awake nor [have] well-being or health, unless he brings (it) in the temple of Mercury; nor gain consciousness (sic) of (it) unless with my intervention.

The only conditions made here seem to relate to the would-be victim rather than to the god or what is given to him. Furthermore, as we saw in Part 2, coins were placed within lamps, apparently as a substitute for defixiones, indicating the ritual and monetary offerings were commonly given at the same time. Looked at in this light, the conditions seem only to reflect what is being asked for in exchange for the value being given.

Taken together, this would mean after losing some property the supplicant would cast a curse and give the god they were entreating to intervene even more money, which, especially given some items were misplaced and not stolen at all, seems a clear case of throwing good money after bad: Even if their property was returned, which was far from certain, they might still be out the same amount, and as much as double if not. Nonetheless, it seems the injustice suffered was more the point than the monetary value lost.

In order to illustrate the concept at work here, we’ll have to examine another of the constellation of terms relating to value in the Graeco-Roman world, in this case timé (τιμή), which also means “honor”. In The Iliad, it was the timé Agamemnon took from him that sent Achilles to his tent, allowing the Trojans the upper hand in the war for a time.

Achilles argues with Agamemnon, largely as to the few riches he receives for “fighting himself weary” (ἐπεί κε κάμω πολεμίζων), with his final statement summing up the issue:⁹

νῦν δ᾽ εἶμι Φθίην δ᾽, ἐπεὶ ἦ πολὺ φέρτερόν ἐστιν
οἴκαδ᾽ ἴμεν σὺν νηυσὶ κορωνίσιν, οὐδέ σ᾽ ὀΐω
ἄτιμος ἐὼν ἄφενος καὶ πλοῦτον ἀφύξειν.

Now I will go back to Phthia, since it is far better to return home with my beaked ships, nor do I intend while I am here dishonored to pile up riches and wealth for you.

It’s very relatable 3000 years later; who hasn’t had a boss like that? But note Achilles’ use of the term ἄτιμος (atimos), indicating clearly it is his honor that has been taken, also forming a parallel to riches and wealth. I won’t gloss over the rather brutal fact that the timé being discussed is a human being: Briseis (Βρισηΐς), a Trojan princess whom the Greeks abducted and enslaved as a concubine.

Regardless, Achilles has what he feels is a legitimate grievance, and appeals to the gods for justice. Since his mother, Thetis (Θέτις), is a goddess, he doesn’t need to resort to the use of a defixio, but the language he uses is not dissimilar and again, the concept of timé is raised as central:¹⁰

μῆτερ ἐπεί μ᾽ ἔτεκές γε μινυνθάδιόν περ ἐόντα,
τιμήν πέρ μοι ὄφελλεν Ὀλύμπιος ἐγγυαλίξαι
Ζεὺς ὑψιβρεμέτης […].

Mother, since you bore me, though to so brief a span of life, honor surely ought the Olympian to have given into my hands, Zeus who thunders on high […].

Note there is a touch of dysphemia here: Achilles mentions his own disastrous fate, and lays the ultimate blame for Agamemnon’s failure to accord him honor at Zeus’ door. This is indeed part of the formula; Zeus owes him value, and so should act on his behalf. And the god does as he is asked: things turn quite badly against the Greeks, and even when Agamemnon eventually tries to coax Achilles back by meeting the demands he originally made, he refuses them. Clearly, the material value is less important than that of his injured timé. Only his rage when his cousin/ lover Patroclus (Πάτροκλος) is killed brings him back into the war.

While the Romano-Britons perhaps latched onto a particular aspect of the religio-magical tradition of defixiones, it seems clear despite the continuing worship of their local deities syncretized with or alongside those of Rome, the major elements of the practice remained very much intact.

This continuity extends from ancient Near East cursing praxes, which eventually came to be expressed as inscribed lead sheets. These, in turn, developed a distinct culture that spread right across the Graeco-Roman world, including a consistent set of analogies for sympathetic magic, rhetoric used to address the gods, and the exchange of value between gods and mortals. The fact that honor is set above pragmatic concerns seems to be yet another piece of this tradition that spans the whole region.

Read Subsequent Articles in This Series

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

Part 4: Bargaining with the Gods

Part 5: Secundina’s Beef


  1. Tab. Sul. 10.
  2. Geoff W. Adams, “The Social and Cultural Implications of Curse Tablets [Defixiones] in Britain and on the Continent”, Studia Humaniora Tartuensia, 2006.
  3. Ibid, though the notion is attributed to Tomlin, Tabellae Sulis: Roman inscribed tablets of tin and lead from the sacred spring at Bath, 1988.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Uley 2, emphasis mine.
  8. Uley 4.
  9. The Iliad, Book 1, 168–71, A.T. Murray, trans., 1924, emphasis mine.
  10. Ibid, Book 1, 352–4, emphasis mine.

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