LatinNow books!

Over the Christmas period we are celebrating the publication of two books in the LatinNow trilogy. The project has produced or supported the production of several books, including our Manual of Roman everyday writing (vol. 1 and vol. 2), but the three volumes which are being published in the Oxford Studies in Ancient Documents series by Oxford University Press represent, with our Open Access web GIS, the core research output of our project. They are the result of a huge effort of the LatinNow team but also the expertise of a wide network of colleagues across Europe and beyond.

The two appearing in December are the result of workshops held in Autumn 2018 and Spring 2019. Virtually none of the chapters look much like the papers delivered, since we used those thought-provoking workshops as the beginning of a long process of collaboration, which entailed debates, revisions, translations, and reworking. This required patience, especially through the pandemic, and we’re so grateful for the dedication of the contributors. We are delighted that all the books are Open Access, funded by the European Research Council.

The first to appear will be Social Factors in the Latinization of the Roman West. To our knowledge it is the first English-language edited volume devoted to Latinization, which, oddly enough, is a relatively overlooked topic. Historians have noted it has been ‘taken for granted’ and viewed as an unremarkable by-product of ‘Romanization’, despite its central importance for understanding the Roman provincial world, its life, and languages. This volume aims to fill the gap in our scholarship. We took a multi-disciplinary and thematic approach to the vast subject, tackling administration, army, economy, law, mobility, religion (local and imperial religions and Christianity), social status, and urbanism. The contributors situate the phenomena of Latinization, literacy, and bi- and multilingualism within local and broader social developments and draw together materials and arguments that have not before been coordinated in a single volume.

The result, we hope, is a comprehensive guide to the topic, which offers a mix of some more familiar syntheses and more experimental work. The sociolinguistic, historical, and archaeological contributions reinforce, expand, and sometimes challenge our vision of Latinization and lay the foundations for future explorations. We don’t agree with all of the arguments in the volume, notably that on the lack of influence of the auxiliaries of the Roman army in Latinization, but we present our different perspective in the introduction (and in much more detail in the final book of the trilogy). We hope that the volume will act as both a state-of-the-art of the subject and the starting point for further debate and research.

The next book to appear will be Languages and Communities in the Late-Roman and Post-Imperial Western Provinces. Our scoping of the international academic activity on later Roman and post-imperial sociolinguistic histories and our subsequent workshop demonstrated that the subject is still comparatively understudied and that there was even further potential for progress on sociolinguistics and interdisciplinary collaboration than we had assumed. A deeper understanding is crucial to any reconstruction of the broader story of linguistic continuity and change in Europe and the Mediterranean, as well as to the history of the communities who wrote, read, and spoke Latin and other languages, and it clearly had significance for the LatinNow project in terms of understanding the embeddedness, or not, of Latin socially and regionally. The volume offers a study of the main developments, key features and debates of the later-Roman and post-imperial linguistic environment, focusing on the Iberian Peninsula, North Africa, Gaul, the Germanies, Britain and Ireland. The chapters collected in this volume help us to consider (socio)linguistic variegation, bi-/multi-lingualism, and attitudes towards languages, and to confront the complex role of language in the communities, identities, and cultures of the later- and post-imperial Roman western world.

Perhaps even more than the Social Factors volume, we see this volume as a starting point for further research. The introduction sets out some of the key areas on which we think there is scope for further developments and why we think the sociolinguistic and interdisciplinary analyses of the medieval period have not advanced quite as far as for ancient world studies. I couldn’t have brought this volume together without the erudition and support of my colleague at Nottingham, George Woudhuysen.

We will be bringing the third book of the LatinNow trilogy into the world next year. This final volume, co-edited with the wonderful Anna Willi, is more ‘team-written’ than a traditional edited volume and will encapsulate our thoughts on how we can best explore life and language in the Roman west and will present the latest research on Latinization, local languages, and literacies in the provinces in all their regional complexity. It was supposed to be the volume that appeared first, but various parts had to be put off until our data were ‘finalized’ and we have been battling our perfectionist tendencies… It will be last major publication of the LatinNow project, and we hope it will be worth the wait.  

“Excuse me sir, do you want to put a curse on someone?”

By Francesca Cotugno

Obsecro, domne, nonne tua interest aliquem defigere? This was probably a sentence which might have been said multiple times, all around the Roman Empire. In order to curse someone in the Roman Empire a curse table was probably a quick and readily available option.

Curse tablets are inscribed pieces of metal, usually in the form of small, thin sheets, intended to influence, by supernatural means, the actions or welfare of persons or animals against their will (Jordan 1985: 151). This might mean subjecting a thief to a nasty fate or making someone fall in love with you. As Roger Tomlin put it in his presentation of the Bath curse tablets they were the “loser’s last resort” (Tomlin 1988: 60).

But not all the surviving curse tablets are similar and this is one of the things that intrigues the LatinNow team. We are trying to understand these documents, which sometimes contain the innermost desires of people: how are they differently distributed around the provinces and how did they adapt the feature of cursing someone with a lead tablet to their own culture and language, often creating something new and unique?

These curses are usually called lead tablets but, actually, this is not the only metal that was used for this purpose, as we also find other soft metals like pewter and tin. In general, the tablets are rectangular sheets which were 6-12cm long and 4-8cm wide when unrolled in order to provide a writing surface which was inscribed with a sharp point like a stylus. As you can see from the picture (figure 1), the LatinNow team is producing replicas of these tablets for the forthcoming Touring Exhibition in September and October 2019 (

Figure 1. The Vilbia curse tablet replica in progress.

Curse tablets have been found in different provinces of the Roman Empire, but they belong to different periods and to different linguistic areas and backgrounds. Whereas the Romans spread the habit of written curses, indigenous communities coloured them with their own distinctive features, which may reflect, in some cases, ancient oral practices. This is perhaps evident in the case of the curse tablets from Roman Britain, where the writers adopted the practice of the curses with special concern for theft. In Britain, the richest site for curse tablets is Bath, ancient Aquae Sulis, where they were deposited in the hot spring between the second and fourth centuries AD. Here the writers used a lot of formulaic language, like the form si mulier, si baro (e.g. Tab. Sulis 44), which appears to indicate Germanic influence.

In places such as Germania Superior, among others, theft, as far as we can tell, was not such a major topic for cursing someone. In Mainz, people were cursed in the first and second century AD at the sanctuary of Isis and Magna Mater because the writer was holding a personal grudge and not necessarily because he or she was asking revenge for a stolen good. DTM 1 is one of the few curses in which the curser is asking for a punishment against a thief (in this case, a certain Gemella allegedly stole a fibula). The majority of curses here are invocations expressed in a quite plain language which did not have to be learnt by heart or copied from magic books, but they also include some more formal terminology, and stylistic elements of artificial or popular rhetoric.

Taking into account two different curses, one from Bath, and another one from Mainz, it is possible to note some similarities and divergences.

Tab. Sulis 4 is also known as the theft of Vilbiam. Whether this curse was about a kidnap or a robbery has been discussed by Paul Russell (2006).

Latin – transposed version Translation
ELL[…] M[. 2-3.]TA QVI EAM [……-]
May he who has stolen Vilbia become as liquid as water ..who has stolen it (or her) Velvinna, Exsupereus, Verianus, Severinus, Augustalis, Comitianus, Minianus, Catus, Germanilla, Jovina.


Why is Vilbia not a woman? It is difficult to understand this word as a personal name: firstly, it is not attested elsewhere, and no other British curse tablet is prompted by the theft of a woman. We have curses prompted, for example, by the theft of silver coins (Tab. Sulis 4) or for the theft of a pan (Tab. Sulis 60). I agree with Paul Russell that it is not really likely that it refers to a woman. He suggests that the form may be related to Middle Welsh gwlf, and may refer to some sort of pointed object. Tomlin suggested that Vilbia was perhaps a form of fibula (“a brooch”). In the curse tablets from Bath we have also other curses concerning this kind of item, such as Tab. Sul. 15 made for the theft of a bracelet.

One of the most interesting curses from Mainz is DTM 15: the curse of Aemilia Prima, where this woman is doomed to never bloom again like the sheet (charta) used for cursing her. This curse is probably against Narcissus’ lover, but like in other curses from Mainz, the real motive of the curse is not explicit.

Latin – transposed version Translation (Blänsdorf)
Prima Aemilia Narcissi agat, quidquid conabitur, quidquid aget, omnia illi inversum sit.

Amentita surgat amentita suas res agat.

Quidquid surget omnia interversum surgat Prima Narcissi aga<t>: como haec carta nuncquam florescet sic illa nuncquam quicquam florescat

(Whatever) Aemilia Prima, (the lover?) of Narcissus may do, whatever she attempts, whatever she does, let it all go wrong. May she get up (out of bed) out of her senses, may she go about her work out of her senses. Whatever she strives after, may her striving in all things be reversed. May this befall Prima, (the lover?) of Narcissus: just as this letter never shall bloom, so she shall never bloom in any way

An interesting feature of this curse is that the text uses a magical orientation of the script since it is partially written in a spiral counter-clockwise, creating a “verbal box”.


Figure 2. DTM 15 (from Blänsdorf et al. 2012)

We must take into account the converging and diverging features of so-called ‘curse tablets’. On the one hand, both of these two documents share an grudge towards someone, expressed through formulae that echoed the juridical style, as if the writer were making a contract with some superior being, in order to curse someone. On the other, the details are quite different: the one who stole vilbia is doomed to become liquid as water while Prima Aemilia will wither and never bloom. In one case we are dealing with a theft, in the second perhaps a bitter lover. Also, there are linguistic features which are rare and we must try to interpret, like the use of amentita that appears as a neologism, in Mainz, or vilbiam, in Roman Britain.


Blänsdorf, J., Lambert, P., & Witteyer, M. (2012). Die defixionum tabellae des Mainzer Isis- und Mater Magna-Heiligtums: Defixionum tabellae Mogontiacenses (DTM). Mainz.

Tomlin, R. S. O. in Cunliffe, B., Davenport, P., Care, V., & Tomlin, R. (1985). The temple of Sulis Minerva at Bath (Tab. Sulis). Oxford.

Jordan, D. R. (1985) ‘Defixiones from a well near the Southwest corner of the Athenian Agora.’  Hesperia 54.3, 205–255.

Russell, P. (2006). VILBIAM (RIB 154): Kidnap or Robbery? Britannia 37, 363-367.



LatinNow is Spellbound at the Ashmolean

Janie Masseglia 

Friday 26th October saw the LatinNow team in their smart new project shirts, offering a curse-writing activity to visitors at the Ashmolean Museum’s late-night ‘Spellbound’ event. While we’ve played host to some large crowds before, the event broke all records for our Public Engagement activities to-date, as we dealt directly with more than 300 people in 2 hours – more than one person every 30 seconds!

Alex, Janie, Michael, Francesca and guest-LatinNow-er Dr Lydia Matthews offered the ‘Curses, Curses!’ activity so that visitors could try their hand and reading and writing Old Roman Cursive, with those at the back deciphering our mock lead tablets while they waited, those in the middle ranks planning their own curses on our new worksheets, and those lucky enough to have secured seats inscribing their chosen texts onto our popular metallic scratch paper. Once completed, visitors were invited to dedicate their rolled-up curses in our new and much-improved shine.

Inspired the temple of Sulis at Bath, our miniature shrine featured a sculpted ‘gorgon’ head (made for us by Anthony Harden of Harden Plaques) mounted inside a naiskos-style nympheum. In the low light of the Ashmolean’s Reading and Writing Gallery and lit from inside with electric candles, we were very pleased with the final result. The new shrine features several improvements on the cardboard prototype used in our early Schools visits: now in durable wood, the plinth hides a series of slopes which send the deposited curse tablet into one of two niches: one signalling that Sulis will answer their petition, the other that she has declined. As well as giving the final act of dedication a bit more pizzazz than simply dropping it into a box, we also found that this method (drawing on attested practices of ‘lot’ divination elsewhere, but not an authentic part of the experience of Roman visitors to Bath) allowed us to return the curse tablet to the visitors, letting them take the fruits of their labours home.

Huge thanks to Ashmolean for looking after us – especially Sarah Doherty and Bettina Zagortis for giving us such a great space in the Reading & Writing gallery. Our thanks too to the Oxford museum visitors who really threw themselves into producing Old Roman Cursive, and came up with some fantastic (and often entertainingly political) curses. More photos can be seen on our Twitter account @LatinNowERC.




Praying to the Lusitanian goddesses and gods

By Noemí Moncunill Martí

In 2009 one of the nicest inscriptions showing the multilinguistic situation of the Iberian Peninsula at the beginning of our era was found in Viseu, in the province of Lusitania (in modern-day Portugal). The text was carved in elegant capital letters on an altar and, at first sight, and without paying close attention to its specific content, one would say this is just another Latin votive inscription concluding with the formula V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito). However, any Latinist who tries to read and understand the text will immediately become aware of its exceptionality: as a matter of fact, the inscription is not entirely in Latin, but half of it has been written in an indigenous language, Lusitanian. The inscription reads as follows:











Viseu image

Fig. 1. Votive inscription from Viseu (HEp, 17, 255). Image in Creative Commons, taken from Banco de Datos Hesperia (Palaeohispanica 2009).

The first part of the text, Deibabor igo deibobor Vissaieigobor, has been interpreted as an address, in dative plural, ‘to the goddesses and gods of Visseu’, which would be the indigenous adaptation of the common Latin formula Diis deabusque. Linguists actually consider that this indigenous declination in -BOR is likely to be a rhotacized form of an ancient ending *-bos (which would be much closer to the Latin –bus); note that Latin and Lusitanian show actually some resemblances, due, of course, to the fact that they are both Indo-European languages. What interests us more here is that, after this invocation to the divinity, the text suddenly switches to Latin in order to express the naming formula of the commissioner –Albinus Chaereae filius–, and the final formula: V(otum) S(olvit) L(ibens) M(erito).


Hesperia LusitanianFig. 2. Map of the Lusitanian inscriptions according to Hesperia Database.

This inscription from Viseu is the last find of a very small corpus of texts in Lusitanian language, which comprises, in total, only 6 inscriptions, all of them having a votive or sacrificial character. In addition to the direct sources, we also have access to a large number of place names, personal names and divinity names which survived in Latin epigraphy, and also to some other hybrid or mixed inscriptions, in which, interestingly, there is also a retention of the local declination to mention the indigenous gods, whereas the names of the commissioners and the votive formulae are, again, in perfect Latin. For instance: Deibabo Nemucelaegabo Fuscinus Fusci f(ilius) v(otum) l(ibens) a(nimo) s(olvit) (AE 1987, 562g). As for the inscription of Viseu, this could correspond to a residual or fossilized use of the indigenous language for religious purposes.

CIL Lusitanian

Fig. 3. One of the first known Lusitanian inscriptions as published in the first edition of Corpus Inscriptionum Latinarum devoted to Hispania (CIL II 738). E. Hübner, the editor of the corpus, considers that the inscription is not a fake, as it had been judged before, but a corrupt or barbarian text in Latin letters: « portentose corrupta an barbara habenda sint Latinis litteris scripta ».

Until the late 20th century the only two known Lusitanian inscriptions had been considered as local inventions, texts in bad Latin or just as fake documents. The latter discoveries, although scarce in number, have been of great importance in order to progress in the typological classification of this language and to recognize some of its specific features. Thanks to these new discoveries Lusitanian has aroused interest between linguists and historians and its documentation is today considered as a key element for the understanding of the very different ways in which the local populations integrated themselves into the Roman world.


Further reading :

D’Encarnação and A. Guerra, 2010: “The current state of research on local deities in Portugal”, in: J. A. Arenas (ed.), Celtic religion across space and time, Toledo 2010, pp. 95-112.

M. J. Estarán, Epigrafía bilingüe del Occidente romano. El latín y las lenguas locales en las inscriptionces bilingües y mixtas, Zaragoza 2016, pp. 250-281.

Hesperia Databank (Lusitanian):

J. Untermann, Monumenta Linguarum Hispanicarum Monumenta, vol. IV, Wiesbaden 1997.

M. Vallejo Ruiz, Antroponimia indígena de la Lusitania romana, Vitoria 2005.

M. Vallejo, “Hacia una definición del lusitano”, Palaeohispanica 13, 2013, pp. 273-291.

D. Wodko, Lusitanian. Language, writing, epigraphy, Zaragoza 2017.