Curse Tablets: Magical Staples of the Roman Republic

Roman Curse Tablet

Magic was rife in the ancient world. As Stephen Skinner notes,* ancient magic practices were known for their enduring existence through multiple civilizations. Many spells, amulets, rituals, and other devices persisted through the:

1) Ancient Egyptians (2000 BCE), into

2) Early Greek civilizations, on to

3) Roman Republic, carrying over to

4) Roman Empire.

Were these ancient magicians slaves to tradition, or did they find them efficacious? To quote Skinner, “some apparent consistency of results was obtained.”

Curse tablets (defixiones) were popular magical devices, employed for a variety of purposes.

What are curse tablets, and how were they used? Say you wanted to summon a demon to exact revenge, or induce someone to fall in love with you. You might purchase a thin leaden sheet from a Roman marketplace vendor. The tablet would have a pre-inscribed curse/spell upon it, with a space left for the name of the intended target.

You would insert the name of the curse tablet target and roll up the tablet (easy, because it’s a thin sheet of lead). Then you’d place it where it would be most efficacious. For revenge, you might bury the tablet in a graveyard, hoping to summon a vengenful spirit or demon. To induce love, you would bury it near the beloved’s house. Other uses were to hinder a sports competitor, to bring rest to the dead, to protect the user from thievery.** There were even curse tablets to counter curses!

Hundreds of curse tablets have been unearthed in Rome, Bath, Pompeii and other sites. The tablets’ varied types of curses has enriched our knowledge about the private lives of ancient Romans.

In my latest book, The Noble Brute, a street vendor attempts to sell Rullianus a curse table for love. Rullianus rejects it, but the disappointed vendor spins the spell anyway. Does the tablet have any effect? Readers must judge for themselves!

* Skinner, Stephen. (2014) “What is Magic?” Techniques of Graeco-Egyptian Magic. Golden Hoard Press. P. 5.




Martin Tessmer is a retired university professor and military training consultant. He is the author of the best selling Scipio Africanus Saga series, which includes Scipio Rising, The Three Generals, Scipio's Dream, Scipio Risen, Scipio Rules, and Scipio's End. The Noble Brute is the first book in his new series about Quintus Fabius Maximus Rullianus.

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