The Unexplained: Roman Curses for the Dead

A Roman curse carved on a lead scroll. Photo:

The strange Roman Curses written inside metallic cylinders have usually been found in old graves or in excavated burial sites.

Strange artifacts have been uncovered in recent years.  Historians and archaeologists have been finding little rolled-up metallic cylinders, usually lead or pewter, in areas of Britain that were once occupied by ancient Romans.  What were these mysterious items?  They were all over, usually in old graves or in excavated burial sites.  The strange cylinders have also been found in other countries occupied by ancient Romans.

Taking great care, archaeologists have been able to unroll and flatten out the metal cylinders. There are handwritten messages on them.  Most of the tablets were inscribed in the second to fourth century AD.  They were written in Latin, but one was written in British Celtic.  They have been translated, and here is what one of them, found in London, says:  “I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her work, thoughts, and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed.”

Oh my—what a wish upon a dead person.  Most of these little rolled-up metal tablets were carefully engraved with curses toward departed beings that left some Roman on the earthly side angry.

Sara Marie Hogg

Sometimes the curse was written and directed at a definite person, named.  Other times the curses were directed at the gods, one of these:  Pluto, Charon, Hecate, or Persephone, asking the god to rain down curses named in the tablet.  Many of the tablets were thought to be more effective if they had hair enfolded in the cylinder.  It boggles the mind to wonder how the curser collected the hair of the cursed.

The most improbable aspect of these curse tablets is that there were Romans in the actual business of making the tablets for paying customers.  These were inscribed with a sort of generic curse—a blank space was left to fill in the name of the person being cursed.  I guess this service was for people that just did not have time in their busy lives to make their own curse tablet for the object of their wrath.

     Though the little tablets were mostly buried in graves or tombs, some were sometimes nailed up in a temple or placed in the nooks and crannies of sanctuaries.  Besides hair, the tablets sometimes had scraps of clothing, or tiny dolls, with bound limbs, representing the cursed person.  Sometimes a nail pierced the tiny figurine—a precursor to voodoo dolls?

Occasionally love of the living might be the purpose of the cylinder. In these instances, the curse became a spell.  Love spells were inscribed on the tablet.  These tablets often held pieces of hair, also.

In some instances of curses, it has been able to get more information about the type of person being cursed—through careful translation.  Often the cursed was a thief, a sporting rival, or a romantic rival.  Some curses are directed at persons going before a court.  These curses were included in the text:  “wishing that he would get dizzy, or botch his testimonial, or forget his legitimate excuse.”

Voces Mysticae are words that cannot be recognized as part of any known language.  Some of the curse tablets have portions of text in Voces Mysticae.  It is believed that these mysterious parts can only be understood by the gods.

A regular language was not good enough for the gods.

Something special—a special code—was required.

Sara Marie Hogg is author of the mystery, The Scavenger’s Song. Please click HERE to find the book on Amazon.

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