The Bath curse tablets
are a collection of about 130 Roman era curse tablets (or defixiones in Latin) discovered in 1979/1980 in the English city of Bath.
The tablets invoke the intercession of the goddess Sulis Minerva in the return of stolen goods and to curse the perpetrators of the thefts. Inscribed mostly in British Latin, they have been used to attest to the everyday spoken vernacular of the Romano-
The Roman baths at Bath — the entire structure above the level of the pillar bases is post-
The Roman baths and temple dedicated to the goddess Sulis Minerva in the English city of Bath (founded by the Romans as Aquae Sulis) were excavated between 1978 and 1983 by a team led by Barry Cunliffe and Peter Davenport. In 1979/1980, around 130 tablets were discovered in an excavation of the "Sacred Spring" under the King's Bath. The spring had been temporarily diverted to facilitate the excavation, revealing a huge array of Roman era items including the tablets.
The tablets, some in a fragmentary state, were small and rectangular and initially were assumed to be made of lead, although subsequent metallurgical analysis revealed that they are, in fact, made of lead alloyed with tin, with occasional traces of copper. Some of the tablets were cast under pressure into thin, flexible sheets with a finish as smooth as paper whereas others appear to have been roughly hammered out from a molten lump. Most of the tablets were inscribed, either with Roman capitals or with cursive script, but the expertise of the lettering varied. Some of the tablets had markings that appear to be an illiterate imitation of lettering, for example repetitive lines of crosses or sevens, and some were completely blank.
The tablets were put on display in the Roman Baths Museum in Bath, where they continue to be available to be viewed by the public. The inscriptions on the tablets were published in full in 1988 by historian Roger Tomlin.
The tablets were identified as “curse tablets” dating from the second to fourth centuries A.D. Curse tablets are small metal sheets inscribed with curses against specific people and were used in popular magic throughout the Roman world.[
Most of the inscriptions are in colloquial Latin, and specifically in the Vulgar Latin of the Romano-
All but one of the 130 Bath curse tablets concern the restitution of stolen goods and are a type of curse tablet known as "prayers for justice". The complained of thefts are generally of personal possessions from the baths such as jewellery, gemstones, money, household goods and especially clothing. Theft from public baths appears to have been a common problem as it was a well-
The inscriptions generally follow the same formula, suggesting it was taken from a handbook: the stolen property is declared as having been transferred to a deity so that the loss becomes the deity’s loss; the suspect is named and, in 21 cases, so is the victim; the victim then asks the deity to visit afflictions on the thief (including death) not as a punishment but to induce the thief to hand the stolen items back. The deity whose help was invoked is Sulis, and the tablets were deposited by the victims in the spring that was sacred to her.
Gilt bronze head of Sulis Minerva, to whom the curse tablets were addressed, found at her temple in Bath.
A typical example reads:
"Solinus to the goddess Sulis Minerva. I give to your divinity and majesty [my] bathing tunic and cloak. Do not allow sleep or health to him who has done me wrong, whether man or woman or whether slave or free unless he reveals himself and brings those goods to your temple."
The formula "whether man or woman or whether slave or free" is typical, and the following example is unusual in two respects.
Firstly it adds the words "whether pagan or Christian" and secondly the text was written in reversed lettering:
"Whether pagan or Christian, whether man or woman, whether boy or girl, whether slave or free whoever has stolen from me, Annianus [son of] Matutina (?), six silver coins from my purse, you, Lady Goddess, are to exact [them] from him. If through some deceit he has given me...and do not give thus to him but reckon as (?) the blood of him who has invoked his upon me."
Many name the suspected thieves:
"I have given to the goddess Sulis the six silver coins which I have lost. It is for the goddess to exact [them] from the names written below: Senicianus and Saturninus and Anniola."
Some of the inscriptions are very specific in the afflictions requested and reveal the intensity of the victim's anger:
"Docimedis has lost two gloves and asks that the thief responsible should lose their minds [sic] and eyes in the goddess' temple."[
"May he who carried off Vilbia from me become liquid as the water. May she who so obscenely devoured her become dumb"
"..so long as someone, whether slave or free, keeps silent or knows anything about it, he may be accursed in (his) blood, and eyes and every limb and even have all (his) intestines quite eaten away if he has stolen the ring or been privy (to the theft)."
Complaint about theft of a woman's cape.
Complaint about theft of Vilbia -
Complaint about theft of a cloak and bathing tunic
A list of names
A text in British Celtic -
Gradually the virtues of the waters became more widely known through the writings of men like Dr William Turner who in 1562 published a book about the spas of Europe, in it deliberately praising Bath to encourage his readers to travel to the town to take a cure. It was a beginning. Other works followed in quick succession and by the end of the century the benefits of Bath were recognised. The visit of Queen Anne of Denmark, wife of James I, in 1613 and 1615 sealed its destiny as a place of fashion.
Gilmore’s map of 1694 was perhaps the first tourist guide to the city. It provided a brief introduction and history, an illustrated guide to the accommodation, showed important buildings, gave a list of the taverns and, not least, portrayed detailed plans of the various baths.
Before I took coach, I went to make a hoy dive in the King’s Bath -
Samuel Pepy’s Diary 1668
Thomas Johnson’s evocative drawing of 1675 showing life in the King’s and Queen’s Baths. Bathing was a popular spectator sport with onlookers leering at the bodies in the water below. Naked children can be seen poised to dive for a coin tossed in by a well-
. The baths at this time were still in a rather squalid medieval state as Johnson’s brilliant illustration shows. The arched recesses around the King’s Bath had been built in the twelfth century but the elegant balustrade over which the onlookers lounge, was donated by Sir Francis Stonor in 1624 in recognition of the cure of his gout. The smaller bath to the south, later known as the Queen’s Bath, had been added a century earlier in 1576. The huge ornamental feature in the centre of the King’s Bath was acquired two years later. The transformation was beginning.
The Roman Baths, Bath, 1890 .
The mineral waters of Bath led to the development of this exceptionally lovely Georgian town in the I Sth century. Under the direction of Beau Nash, the spa became the most fashionable in Britain. But it is the Roman Baths which are the focal point of the ancient historical roots of the city.
The Roman baths were not discovered until the 19th century, a little before this photograph was taken. The waters that fed the Pump Room and other parts of the Spa had also supplied water for the Roman baths, the largest of which was lead-
Kaerbadum or Caervaddon (Bath),
creating the hot springs there by the use of magic.
He dedicated the city to the goddess Athena or Minerva,
and in honour of her lit undying fires, whose flames turned to balls of stone as they grew low,
with new ones springing up in their stead: an embellishment of an account from the fourth-