Archive for May 22nd, 2012

Crush, kill, destroy Senator Fistus

Tuesday, May 22nd, 2012

Lead tablet cursing Senator FistusTwo 1,600-year-old lead curse tablets in the Museo Archeologico Civico di Bologna were recently deciphered, and one of them turns out to be the first known surviving curse directed at a Roman senator.

It’s a juicy one, too. It starts with a dramatic drawing of a snake-headed deity, possibly Hekate, underworld goddess of crossroads, sorcery and necromancy (among other things), with her arms crossed and a star carved over her groin. Although her name is not mentioned, the phrasing of the invocation is similar to other curses that enlist Hekate to their dark cause. The crossed arms symbolize the binding of the deity to the curse. The goddess will remain bound until its terms are fulfilled.

Drawing of the tablet cursing Senator FistusThe text is written mainly in Latin with Greek invocations, and it’s highly reminiscent of the killer android from Lost in Space.

The Latin expression for “crush” is used at least four times in the curse. “Crush, kill Fistus the senator,” part of the curse reads, “May Fistus dilute, languish, sink and may all his limbs dissolve …”

I bet there’s a “destroy” in there somewhere, but sadly the article doesn’t include the complete translation. This was probably more of a personal vendetta than a political one. In the late Roman empire, senators held no political power. Emperors had stopped bothering to have their accession ratified by the Senate since Carus in 282, and once Diocletian instituted his constitutional reforms in 300 AD, the Senate lost even the pathetic semblance of consent. The only powers still delegated to the Roman Senate were determining its own membership and control of the public games. So Fistus would have been a rich and prominent citizen, but not much more than that.

Lead tablet cursing PorcelloThe second curse tablet has a less august target, but is just as vigorously hateful. The cursed people are a veterinarian felicitously named Porcello and his wife Maurilla. It is directed towards the same snake-headed deity with crossed arms and the starred groin, but this time Porcello gets a drawing too. He is portrayed as a wrapped mummy with his arms crossed and his name written on both of them.

“Destroy, crush, kill, strangle Porcello and wife Maurilla. Their soul, heart, buttocks, liver …” part of it reads.

There’s the destroy we were looking for! I do love it when a pop culture meme shows up in the archaeological record.

Drawing of lead tablet cursing PorcelloDespite their commonalities, there’s no evidence the tablets were written by the same person. Unfortunately we don’t know where they came from. They were acquired by the museum in the 19th century, then forgotten until their rediscovery in 2009. The museum has no specific record of the acquisition and the tablets’ provenance. They could be from anywhere in the late Roman empire.

Doctoral student Celia Sánchez Natalías from the University of Zaragoza did the deciphering. Her findings were recently published in the Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik (the Journal for Papyrology and Epigraphy), which does not post issues more recent than 2008 online.

I leave you with this clip from HBO’s spectacular Rome in which Servilia Caepionis, mother of Brutus and jilted mistress of Julius Ceasar, shows us how to do a lead curse and mean it.

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