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Wednesday, 7 August 2013

What can we Learn from the Curses?

The Romans were highly religious and truly believed in omnipotent Gods who had the power to influence everything in both the natural and human world.
The lack of popular welfare and the high levels of warfare in the Roman Empire made prayer and religion an everyday element of Roman life.

Although the Romans had designated guardian deities for most walks of life. It is notable that Gods were not restricted to acting as merciful guardians. The many curse tablets found here at the Roman Baths show that the Gods were also to be feared as vengeful bringers of justice and as omnipotent and often violent powers.

Curse tablets are interesting artefacts which can tell us a lot about religion and literacy in the Roman world. They were usually pieces of sheet lead which were inscribed with ‘curses’ in which the writer (often through a scribe) would appeal to a deity, in this case Sulis Minerva, to exact revenge on a person who had acted against them. They were then folded up and thrown into the spring for Sulis Minerva to read and act upon.


One of the unfolded curses






That curse tablets are found in both rural and urban areas shows that they were not exclusive to the military or elites. Although some people would have used scribes, the tablets also show that literacy was pervasive in Britain and that it was not only the elites who could read and write.
The language of the tablets firstly shows that a British dialect of Latin had emerged, and secondly, the presence of Celtic loanwords on the tablets shows that it was not only the Roman immigrants writing the tablets. This shows that native Britons were beginning to adopt Roman cultural practices and that cultural assimilation was taking place.




The Vilbia Curse




The tablets also reveal much about peoples’ relationships with the gods.
The tablets were written by victims of crime and were essentially appeals for justice. Most give detail about what happened but others just name lists of suspects and must have been accompanied by oral dedications.
In theory Roman or local law ought to have dealt with these complaints depending on status, but in an under policed society deities may have been most people’s only hope. That the tablets go so far as to suggest suspects and penalties suggest that deities were revered as a parallel to the judicial or legal system which could be appealed to directly by Roman citizens. It also suggests that gods were perceived to be just, and also protective of their worshippers.

Bethan,  Cardiff University

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