Curse tablets were a feature of the ancient Greco-Roman world. Here we see the inscriptions from two, dating from the first or late second century B.C. – one in Phoenician script from near Carthago Nova (figure 1), one in archaic Latin from outside Veii (figure 2). In both artefacts the curse words are scratched into thin lead sheets, and they were discovered in ancient wells during 2016-17 excavations headed by Professor S.K. Nugae of the University of Rome. Both contain a curse of ‘Britannia’ (English translations provided below). Throwing curse tablets into wells was a common practice at the time (Schitt 2019).
Since 2016 a number of similar tablets cursing Britannia have been discovered, including in ancient wells in Tarentum and Lilybaeum. Professor Nugae (2020) suggests that, from the late second century B.C. onwards, Britannia starts to feature more prominently in curse tablets. While the reason for this is no doubt complex, Britannia’s reputed hostility to trading tin and iron with the Roman Republic is one likely cause.
Translation of texts:
(figure 1) MAY BRITANNIA’S RULER BE CURSED BY YOU, OH FIDES, GODDESS OF HONESTY. MAY HIS LOVERS DESERT HIM FOR SMALL DOGS, HIS TEA BE ALWAYS LUKEWARM, HE BE TRAMPLED BY A HERD OF STAMPEDING GAMMONS, HE BE TRAPPED FOREVER IN A CELL WITH A DEMON CALLED DOMINIK
(figure 2) MAY THE CULPRITS WHO STOLE BRITANNIA’S SANITY BE CURSED BY YOU, OH MINERVA, GODDESS OF WISDOM. MAY THEIR CRAVATS BE SOAKED IN COWPATS, THEIR WINE TASTE LIKE MULE PISS, THEIR FLAGS BE GNAWED BY BATS, THEIR STATUES BE TOSSED IN RIVERS, TEN THOUSAND MIGRANTS TRAMPLE ON THEIR TOES, BY IUPPITER, VEIOVIUS, AND SATURNINUS.
Nugae, S.K. (2020) ‘Cursing Britannia’, in Journal of Roman Archaeology, Volume 67, pp. 221-36.
Schitt, B.L. (2019) ‘Throwing Curse Tablets in Wells: Roman Magical Practices’, in Journal of European Archaeology, Volume 89, pp. 45-62.
Sascha Engel is the founder and editor of Strukturriss, an Ireland-based journal focusing on anarchic dissolutions of text. After teaching in U.S. higher education for a while, he now experiments with scripts archaic, computational, and illusory. Twitter: @ThinkContinuum
Katy Wimhurst’s first collection of short stories, Snapshots of the Apocalypse, will be published by Fly On The Wall Press in January 2022. Her visual poetry has appeared in various magazines including Babel Tower, Strukturriss, Ric Journal, Talking All The Time About Strawberries, Streetcake and Steel Incisors.