BMCR 2022.10.38

Sylloge of defixiones from the Roman west

, Sylloge of defixiones from the Roman west: a comprehensive collection of curse tablets from the fourth century BCE to the fifth century CE. BAR international series, 3077. Oxford: BAR Publishing, 2022. 2 vols., pp. xv, vii, 575. ISBN 9781407315324 £126.00.

Among the more exciting archaeological discoveries of the past half century have been many Latin curse tablets, that is documents (usually written on lead) attempting to cause harm by supernatural means. Curse tablets inform us not only about ancient magical rituals, but also about what deities people worshipped, what varieties of which language(s) they spoke, and what their concerns were. Such information is particularly valuable from the Western Empire, for which other documentary texts are less abundant than in the papyrus-rich East, and the discoveries have been followed by a surge of scholarship. In fact two other large collections of Latin curse tablets have recently been published, that of Kropp in 2008[1] and the appendix to Urbanová’s 2018 study,[2] but this book offers many more tablets and much more information per tablet.[3]

The bulk of this work consists of 535 entries on individual tablets. These usually provide a text of the words on the tablet, a drawing, a translation, a set of basic information (provenance, date, material, current location, dimensions, previous publications), and discussion focussing on material and archaeological features. Most entries are about a (large) page long, so the amount of information is generous compared to other comprehensive collections of curse tablets—but of course less than in most site-specific corpora[4] or publications focussing on smaller sets of tablets. Drawings and translations, both of which tend to be good, are taken from previous publications (appropriately credited, and in the case of translations sometimes improved but occasionally marred by typographical errors) and are therefore often omitted if not produced by previous editors (and sometimes even when they had been produced, e.g. entry 38). Such omissions are a pity, and especially in cases where the editor of this volume clearly saw a tablet herself and has thought about what it means, one cannot help feeling that she should have drawn and translated it. On the other hand, the production of this work was clearly an enormous effort, and maybe we should be grateful to have what we’ve got.

The texts are good, but not completely unproblematic.[5] Their format is a compromise between diplomatic transcription and comprehensible text: words are separated, names are capitalised, and writing is arranged left-to-right if the original direction was different.[6] But there is no modern punctuation, and therefore the texts are more difficult to understand than those presented by many other editions.[7] A system of dots and brackets (mostly adhering to the Leiden conventions familiar to epigraphers and papyrologists) makes clear how much is actually visible on the original.[8] These symbols are used with much better accuracy and consistency than in many other editions of curse tablets; often brackets have been altered compared to earlier editions, and when part of a traditionally bracketed letter is in fact visible on a photograph or drawing, the letter has been removed from brackets. Other aspects of readings and supplements have also been rethought and in many cases improved, either by incorporating ideas presented in recent literature or by the editor’s own re-inspection of the tablet. Here, however, a major problem arises: there is no apparatus, and disputes about readings are rarely mentioned in the discussions.[9] Therefore unusual readings are not properly credited, disputed points are not flagged, and typographical errors are not easily distinguishable from deliberate improvements. For example, entry 491 line B14 reads TAMAQVANIV where the original editor read TAMQVANIVS; one needs a certain familiarity with Roman handwriting to establish from the drawing that this edition’s omission of S is accidental (like the insertion of an extra N in line A17 of the same entry) but its addition of A probably intentional. In this case one could also work out the intended reading by consulting Urbanová’s corpus, which has TAMAQVANIVS, but overall Urbanová’s and Kropp’s readings seem to be wrong more often than the ones in this volume.[10] Sometimes I am unable to determine the reason for a different reading.[11]

The factual and bibliographic information provided in the headings is very useful; it is more extensive and generally more accurate than in most other collections, though not error-free. Particularly notable is the effort to provide a date for each text; not only have the dates been carefully thought out, but often their justifications (archaeological, palaeographic, or prosopographic) are mentioned in the discussions. Even here, however, things can go wrong: entries 146 and 147 have fifth/sixth century dates in the headings but justifications of fourth/fifth century dates in the discussions.

The discussions (called ‘commentaries’ but not in commentary format and not focussing on the topics normally treated in commentaries) are interesting but sometimes problematic. Readers interested primarily in material aspects of the tablets will probably find them excellent, but those with linguistic interests will be frustrated. Curse tablets are often written in non-standard Latin, for which they are an important source of information, and the extensive scholarship on this aspect is important not only for linguists but for anyone wanting to understand what the tablets actually say. Such scholarship is only occasionally mentioned here, and, although linguistic oddities are sporadically noted, often apparently unintelligible forms that have been well explained elsewhere are passed over in silence. Occasionally (e.g. entry 491) the discussion and translation assume different interpretations of the Latin.

The ordering of entries is unfortunate. The principle (p. 83) is that sites within each province and entries within each site are both arranged in chronological order of first publication, so that e.g. entry 206, the Bath curse tablet now generally known as Tabellae Sulis 4, appears first among the Bath tablets because it was discovered earlier than the others, which are arranged in the palaeography-based order of Tabellae Sulis. But this principle is not consistently applied, so that entry 454 (the sole curse tablet from Silchester, published in 2009) comes before 455 (from Farley Heath in Surrey, published in 2004). The concordance (pp. 497–508) is not as much help here as it should be, because it includes only a small minority of previous publications[12] and because it is arranged in the same order as this volume, meaning that a reader who comes armed with a reference to a different collection will have difficulty locating that reference even if it is actually present.

In addition to the entries and concordance, there is a 48-page appendix with (high-quality but still usually illegible) photographs of selected tablets, an (incomplete) bibliography and list of abbreviations, tables grouping tablets by various features (material, provenance, particular aspects of their content), brief indices, and a detailed Prolegomena (volume 1). The Prolegomena offers a wide-ranging discussion of many aspects of curse tablets: materials; drawings, symbols, unusual writing systems, and layout; folding, piercing, and other manipulations; contexts in which curses were deposited; types of curses including erotic, agonistic, and directed against thieves; deities invoked; geographical distribution. The discussion is interesting and the review of recent scholarship remarkably balanced, but some debateable assertions are not adequately supported, the presentation is frequently unclear (e.g. many unexplained technical terms, sometimes confusingly misspelled and perhaps not always well understood; untranslated quotations from numerous foreign languages; poor English; omitting information necessary for comprehension; incomprehensible references),[13] and Greek is sometimes misquoted.

Although the title suggests that all curse tablets from the Western half of the Empire are included, tablets written entirely in Greek are excluded regardless of their provenance, though ones in Oscan, Etruscan, and Celtic languages are included along with the Latin and bilingual Latin–Greek ones. North African texts are excluded regardless of language, because of difficulty accessing images (p. 83).

In sum, this work has both major strengths and significant weaknesses; although readers are likely to find the latter infuriating, the value of the former means that the book cannot be ignored.



[1] A. Kropp, Defixiones: ein aktuelles Corpus lateinischer Fluchtafeln (Speyer 2008); this is absent from the bibliography of the work reviewed here, though frequently cited. It is effectively a printout of a database providing texts, bibliography, and basic information for 382 curses.

[2] D. Urbanová, Latin Curse Tablets of the Roman Empire (Innsbruck 2018); the appendix gives texts and only minimal information for 309 curses, but much more information is provided in the study to which the appendix is attached.

[3] Two other large collections are also available, both including not only Latin but also the more numerous Greek tablets. A. Audollent, Defixionum Tabellae (Paris 1904) is severely out of date; it often includes good discussions, but rarely drawings or translations. The Thesaurus Defixionum database ( is the most comprehensive and up-to-date collection, with 1,755 tablets including 512 in Latin, but at the moment it does not seem to be fully functional.

[4] E.g. R. S. O. Tomlin, Tabellae Sulis: Roman inscribed tablets of tin and lead from the sacred spring at Bath (Oxford 1988); J. Bländsdorf, Die Defixionum Tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums: Defixionum Tabellae Mogontiacenses (Mainz 2012). In the work under review DTM (omitted from the list of abbreviations) refers to the latter.

[5] My evaluation of the texts is based on comparing selected earlier editions with a sample consisting of entries 1, 24, 38 (from Rome), 120, 122, 147 (from Spain), 206, 207, 241 (from Bath), 355, 361, 399 (from Uley), 491, 495, 499 (from Mainz).

[6] This happens in curses more often than one might expect.

[7] Kropp and many site-specific corpora offer both a diplomatic transcription and one following all modern conventions including punctuation, Urbanová only the latter.

[8] The symbols and their meanings are spelled out on p. 84; they are taken from CIL II2 and include the use of + rather than . for an illegible letter, which will not make everyone happy. Very occasionally (and very inconsistently) the symbol ‘(!)’ is used to mark linguistically non-standard forms; this is not explained and seems to be taken over from Kropp.

[9] Publications of curse tablets seem traditionally to lack apparatuses, and until recently that made sense because most texts had only been published once or twice. But by now there are so many publications of each text that it is high time editors of curse tablets joined those of inscriptions and papyri in providing a proper record of where their readings come from.

[10] E.g. in entry 120 the photograph in the appendix shows that this edition’s ignoro is right, but both Kropp and Urbanová have ignaro; in 120 and 206 Urbanová misdivides words correctly divided here. In 399 both Kropp and Urbanová give a false impression that there is only one word on the tablet, and Urbanová misspells it. In 355 a crossed-out word is correctly signalled here but not in Kropp or Urbanová. In 120 and 361 they have injudicious supplements avoided here. In 206 this edition has a better interpretation of vilbiam, but they handle liquat better.

[11] E.g. in 147 two readings differ from previous editions, and no image is provided; in 122 a supplement differs from other editions accessible to me.

[12] E.g. only one of four previous publications of 454. Even when a particular publication appears in the concordance, it may not appear for all the tablets it includes, giving a false impression that the remaining tablets are not in this volume: e.g. R. S. O. Tomlin, ‘The inscribed lead tablets: an interim report’ in A. Woodward and P. Leach, The Uley Shrines (London 1993) 113–30) is referenced for most of the tablets it only describes, but not for the ones it actually edits, which also appear in this volume (entries 355–9).

[13] E.g. n. 22 on p. 5 references ‘Philoxenus, Glosas, Lat II, 40’ for the lexicon of pseudo-Philoxenus edited by G. Goetz and G. Gundermann in Corpus Glossariorum Latinorum volume II (Leipzig 1888) p. 40 line 42.