Living and Cursing in the Roman West: curse tablets and society

Review by Charlotte Spence.

Stuart McKie’s reassessment of curse tablets sets itself up as a ‘paradigm shift’ in the scholarship and our understanding of these objects; and this is something he well achieves. The focuis on the examination of the tablets within the physical and social lived realities of the individuals who produced them, and the emphasis throughout the book is consistently on the actions of individuals and the objects they interacted with. There is very little of the detailed analysis of the written elements of the curses that has so often been seen in studies of curse tablets throughout the past century. However, he is careful to adduce linguistic discussions from the various works of A Kropp.

This approach is dubbed the Lived Religion Approach, a model first developed by J Rüpke (On Roman Religion: Lived Religion and the individual in Ancient Rome, 2016), which focuses on the idea that religion is inextricably based on the patterns of daily life rather than on abstract beliefs. McKie develops this approach by combining it with the work of E-J Graham (Reassembling Religion in Roman Italy, 2020) who suggests that individuals developed an understanding of how, why, and when to act through their experiences of performing religion, not by turning to a set religious doctrine. This approach works well for the study of curse tablets, as among our surviving tablets there is considerable variation, which well illustrates individual creativity and innovation.

Image: Mike Peel

Despite the large variation within our surviving evidence, McKie presents an extremely interesting overview of the physical experience of cursing, from the acquisition of a blank tablet through to its deposition. Some of the assertions appear obvious, but this clear and systematic laying out of steps, with the individual at their heart, is useful and helps to resituate this ritual within its lived reality. Throughout this, McKie brings in his own perceptions of the cursing ritual drawn from a sort of at-home experimental archaeology. He asserts that in previous scholarship the focus has been too strongly on just the written element of the curse and what this can illustrate about the impetus behind their creation, whereas a focus on the physicality of a curse tablet’s creation adds more nuance and understanding.

The highlight of the book is the analysis of the relationship between the individual who was responsible for the creation of the curse and the victim. McKie illustrates the importance of this relationship, which has often been overlooked in previous discussions. Because of the book’s focus on the social context of a curse’s creation, insights are possible into the pre-existing relationship between these two individuals, as well as into the impact that the creation of a curse tablet would have on this relationship.

The focus on the individuals behind the tablets entails a devaluing – perhaps too vigorous – of the deep, well-established, and far-reaching traditions that underpin the creation of curse tablets. There must have been some conception by the individual creating a curse tablet that they were engaging in a Mediterranean-wide tradition, and this knowledge would surely have encouraged them in doing it – you would not invest in a ritual without a proven pedigree. This is particularly true given, as McKie notes, the unusual nature of cursing as a ritual, and the fact that it would have been an irregular occurrence in an individual’s life.

Despite limiting his study to the Latin West, McKie includes all of the texts found in this region, which provides a good balance to some of our older scholarship, which has chosen only to focus on those in Latin script. Similarly, the analysis throughout and the catalogue presented in the appendix include texts from Roman North Africa, which have not been incorporated in other important recent publications. This ensures that the complexity of cursing in the Latin West is illustrated to its full extent.

Living and Cursing in the Roman West: curse tablets and society, Stuart McKie, Bloomsbury, £85, ISBN 978-1350102996.