The Roman Empire was famous for many things, but did you know they were also famous for their curse tablets? These tablets, called defixiones by researchers, were a way for ancient Romans to express their displeasure for others. Individuals known as curse writers would inscribe the curses onto tablets made of metal, stone, or pottery for Romans in desperate need. These Romans believed that the curse would come true as long as a curse writer inscribed it onto a tablet.
There have been over 1,500 curse tablets discovered by archaeologists throughout Europe. Inscribed in either Greek or Latin, the curses on these tablets range from deeply disturbing to absolutely hilarious. Below are eight of the funniest curses discovered from the ancient world.
1.If They Break Up With You, Destroy Their “Sacred Organ”
This curse was designated for Plotius, a slave of Avonia. This curse described the recipient as having each of his body parts (both internal and external) destroyed over time, in such a way as to avoid him ever discovering where his pain was coming from. The curse was designed to refuse to allow its recipient to sleep thanks to the amount of pain experienced. Though dark, the most curious aspect of this curse lay in its specific instruction to destroy the recipient’s “sacred organ” so he “cannot urinate.” The wording of this curse heavily implies that it was written by someone who was left heartbroken after the downfall of a romantic relationship. The lesson? Don’t break up with someone unless you want your “sacred organ” destroyed.
Roman curse tablet discovered at Temple Courtyard at the Roman baths in Bath. (Mike Peel / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
2.Declare Them “Putrid Gore”
The recipient of this curse, Tacita, must have seriously peeved someone off. The curse tablet claimed that “Tacita, hereby accursed, is labeled old like putrid gore.” This curse could have been insulting toward their age or by comparing them to diseased wounds or illnesses. An interesting fact about this curse was that it was written backward, which likely made the curse “stronger.”
3.Stole My Gloves? Lose Your Mind and Your Vision
The author of this curse, Docimedis, found himself in an unfortunate situation when someone stole his gloves while he was at a Roman bath . In retaliation, he cursed the thief by asking that they “lost their minds and eyes in the goddess’s temple.” Those gloves must’ve been special for such a steep punishment. Yikes!
After the theft of his gloves, Docimedis asked that the thief lose their minds and eyes, like The Blinded Samson by Lovis Corinth. ( Public domain )
4.Steal My Girl and Get Dissolved
The author of this curse must have been facing some serious heartbreak. In the curse he states, “May he who carried off Vilbia from me become as liquid as water.” Clearly, Vilbia must have been an incredible woman for her ex-lover to wish for her new lover to be dissolved into liquid.
“Lady Nemesis, if you retrieve my stolen cloak and boots I will dedicate them to you. Let the thief who took them pay for them with his blood.”
Roman ‘defixio’ lead curse tablet, excavated in Caerleon amphitheatre in 1926, National Museum Wales. pic.twitter.com/UK4saAejXZ
— Gareth Harney (@OptimoPrincipi) July 29, 2021
5.Thieves Deserve Maggots, Worms, and Cancer
Verio and Docimedis both had something in common – they had their belongings stolen. In Verio’s case, his cloak and other accessories were stolen by an unknown culprit. In response, Verio claimed that the thief should be “bereft of his mind and memory” and that “the worms, cancer, and maggots [should] penetrate his hands, head, feet, as well as his limbs and marrows.” Based on these curses, we can determine that theft was not taken lightly in ancient times (at least not by Verio!). Note to self: never take a man’s cloak.
6.Sports Fans Kill Horses
In the 3rd century, chariot races were a major source of entertainment for the Romans. This curse states, “I implore you, spirit, whoever you are, and I command you to torment and kill the horses of the green and white teams from this hour on, from this day on, and to kill Clarus, Felix, Primulus, and Romanus, the charioteers…” Clearly authored by someone with an intense passion for chariot races, the goal was to eliminate the opposing teams at any cost – even by killing them and their horses. At least modern-day sports fans don’t go this far for their favorite teams – for the most part.
Roman curse tablet created in response to the theft of a cloak and bathing tunic. (Mike Peel / CC BY-SA 4.0 )
7.May Your Joke Fall Flat
Sosio, a Roman comedic actor , had this hilarious curse put on him. Apparently, the author was a much bigger fan of Eumolpos, a local mime. The curse states, “Sosio must never do better than the mime Eumolpos. He must not be able to play the role of a married woman in a fit of drunkenness on a young horse.” This role was a common joke in 3rd-century Rome, so the author essentially wants Sosio’s comedy routine to fall flat. Talk about a tough crowd.
8.Lose All Your Bears
Vincenzus Zarizo was a gladiator and bear hunter in the 2nd century. A curse against him discovered in North Africa states that he should lose all the bears he captures and be unable to kill any bear he encounters. This could be symbolism for losing to all his enemies, though it is more likely that the author wanted Zarizo to fail in an upcoming gladiator match. Rather than having a personal vengeance against Zarizo, historians believe this curse could have simply been the result of a poor man betting money that the gladiator would lose.
— Tickle (@MrTickle3) April 7, 2016
May Your Future Not Be Cursed
Though most curses are no joke, we can at least get some humor out of some of them. The prevalence of curses slowed significantly after the 7th century, but most were created in the 5th century. It makes you wonder just what happened around the 5th century that made everyone want to curse each other. Amongst so many curse tablets , it’s no wonder that some of them were more humorous than others. The next time you make an enemy, hope they don’t wish for you to get dissolved or lose your bears!
Top image: Inscribed lead Roman curse tablet. Source: British Museum / CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
By Lex Leigh