The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire

Mckie, Stuart (2017). The Social Significance of Curse Tablets in the North-Western Provinces of the Roman Empire. PhD thesis The Open University.



The use of curse tablets was an important method for ancient people to cope with life, as shown by the increasing number of tablets found across the Graeco-Roman world. They could address a variety of problems and crises, including sexual relationships, crime, legal trials and economic competition. The study of these enigmatic objects by archaeologists and ancient historians has been dominated by the evidence from the Graeco-Egyptian traditions of magic, as well as their value for linguistics and philology as evidence for vulgar and vernacular language. In contrast, this study focuses on the importance of cursing as a contextually embedded ritual within the everyday lives of people living in the Roman north-western provinces.

To achieve this aim, the present study had examined curse tablets through the lens of a number of theoretical models and discussions that have been developed by other scholars, both within archaeology and in other related fields. Phenomenological thinking has played a particularly significant role, as the reconfiguring of humans as embedded beings-in-the-world has allowed a much greater understanding of cursing as a creative ritual process. This thesis also looks at similar ritual practices in modern social contexts that have been observed by anthropologists and ethnographers, and uses them to ask new questions of the ancient evidence, particularly with regard to the motives and motivations behind the curses. By thinking in these new ways, this study has moved the scholarly discussions on curse tablets beyond the preoccupations about categorization. I have also brought curse tablets into contact with ongoing scholarly discussions about identity and agency in the Roman provinces, and have shown that these objects have great potential for informing these debates, despite their relative neglect by archaeologists and historians.

Viewing alternatives

Download history


Public Attention

Altmetrics from Altmetric

Number of Citations

Citations from Dimensions

Item Actions