VOCES POPVLI: preparing a multilingual touring exhibition on multilingualism

By Alex Mullen


Preparing our European tour has been much harder work than I could ever have imagined! However, the tour has already proved rewarding, and it hasn’t even begun yet. Our first event is in Pamplona on the 16th September.

Even choosing the name of the tour was tricky. We needed something that would work across all 6 countries (Spain, France, Switzerland, Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands) without having to be translated, that captured the essence of what we are attempting to do, that was catchy… We opted for a simple Latin phrase on the grounds that in itself it made a point about how successful that language had become: not only is it the base of all the Romance languages, but is used in non-Romance speaking areas in vocabulary that has been borrowed or coined over the millennia, including the present day. VOCES POPVLI evokes the multiple voices of the Roman world – voces – and pushes the populations of that world to the fore – populi (and avoids the political connotations of the singular Vox Populi). As the strap line emphasises – Life and languages in the Roman West – we are interested in what happens when Latin rubs up against all the local languages in the context of the lived experiences of real people.

Preroman Labels (WGS84) JPG
Map of pre-Roman languages in the LatinNow research area. Languages in bold are written, though not all at the same time.

Given the project’s focus on sociolinguistic sensitivity and bi- and multilingualism we realised early on that we had to deliver the tour multilingually. In the end we opted for English, Spanish, Catalan, French, German and Dutch – offering the main language of each of the stops on the tour, plus English as a possible lingua franca for some visitors. It just so happens that with such a large and international team we had native speakers for every language we needed. Even with a fantastic and very patient group of translators, however, making multilingual versions of the display texts, activity worksheets, handling menus, object menus, posters and advertising materials etc. was a MASSIVE undertaking. Whenever a change had to be made to content, it had VP-Poster-Barcelonato be made 6 times… We often think that we share alphabets in western Europe but there are all sorts of subtle differences, such as the punt volat in Catalan or the inverted punctuation marks in Spanish. Although it was fiddly, the translation process actually helped us to improve the display. When a formulation resisted translation we realised, for example, that it may have been ambiguous or too technical in the English and we went back to the drawing board. We hope that the visitors to the exhibition will appreciate the choice of languages and may find it interesting to compare them side-by-side. These regional differences we see in the linguistic landscape of western Europe are exactly the same kinds of phenomena our project explores in the Roman world: the regional varieties of Latin and the local languages which persisted and visitor languages which appeared through migration made the Roman soundscape complex and fascinating.

At all our stops we are offering hand-on activities. We have a special VOCES POPVLI guitar case full of Roman writing equipment and inscribed objects for handling and we are offering military message decoding and the opportunity to ‘curse like a Roman’ and to put sparkly curses into our Sulis shrine. We’re showing people how to recognize andhandling case (2) write their own Old Roman Cursive messages (the form of handwriting used until the third century AD) in whichever language they chose. At two of our tour stops, Millau and Bruges, we are focusing on schools groups only, at most we are open to the general public for at least part of our stay and our pop-up and activities are free and open to all (though some of the museums charge entrance fees). LatinNow team experts will be on hand to enthuse about the objects and our research.

This tour is, of course, intimately linked to our research, and we are delighted that through it we have opened various new research opportunities and linked our researchers with collections and local experts. At Heerlen in the Netherlands, for example, LatinNow has joined a research collaboration, and will be collaborating with local experts to read the epigraphy from the area and to work on the evidence for literacy, including writing equipment. Indeed the staff at Heerlen’s Thermenmuseum have prepared their own display on epigraphy and literacy to sit alongside our pop-up. We’d like to express our gratitude to all the contacts in the universities, museums and schools involved in the tour for all their efforts and to Claire Venables from Giraffe Corner making our multilingual materials look so wonderful. You can find out more about the tour objects and our experiences at the tour stops as the tour progresses in future blogs.

LatinNow Post-doc Pieter Houten at Heerlen’s Thermenmuseum

Pieter at Heerlen

Please do visit us at one of our tour locations, if you can! Details can be found in the Touring Exhibition tab and on our LatinNow Facebook page.

FIEC-CA 2019 and the unveiling!

By Pieter Houten


Curmi in London
Curmisagios, our tour mascot

July started with a bang as the team met for FIEC-CA 2019 in London. Now teams meeting is not really a big thing, but the LatinNow team is spread across five countries on two continents. Moreover, the team has expanded rapidly this year: as you may have seen in the earlier blogs, five new members started earlier this year. And we’re not including Curmisagios as a team member, although we probably should. So London provided a great backdrop for introductions and research discussions.


UCL pic team
The LatinNow team at FIEC/CA 2019

In addition to the team meetings, London provided something else, the reason for gathering in London: FIEC-CA 2019. The LatinNow team organised a panel on Ancient Sociolinguistics: Exploring Latinization in the Roman West. Alex opened the panel with a paper introducing our project and then zooming in on the ways we can investigate Latinization and literacy in Britannia. Thereafter our collaborators from Spain, María José Estarán and Noemí Moncunill, explained the different processes of Latinization of the Palaeohispanic-speaking communities by looking into the history of literacy of the different regions and the uptake of Latin. Francesca Cotungo showed how to use theonyms and linguistic analysis of dedications to discern the origin of gods and dedicants. Morgane Andrieu argued that archaeologists are needed to add a whole new layer to understand literacy and Latinization in Gaul. By revisiting the boxes of ceramic in archives, she has found hundreds of new graffiti from Southern Gaul and is now working with LatinNow on the graffiti of Lugdunum (Lyon). All in all, we had an inspiring panel: after it was closed for a coffee break the discussions continued for quite some time in our coffee-less room.

caistor Mullen
Alex introduces the panel and then tackles Britannia
MJ Froehner
María José on one of the marvellous Celtiberian tesserae hospitales (tokens of guest friendship). This one, in the shape of a hand, is also in our tour display!

Last, but definitely not least, we had an unveiling of our Touring Exhibition. The process up to this unveiling has been a lengthy one: planning a European tour, thinking about the objects, creating the replicas and the display. But what must have been the most challenging is the fact that the display, labels and communications have been made in six different languages (English, Castilian, Catalan, Dutch, French, German). One cannot have a project on multilingualism and then tour Europe with all the information in English. Nonetheless, all came together for the first time in London.



Sunday morning at 9h00 all the items of the Touring Exhibition arrived at the Publishers and coffee corner in the Institute of Education. Despite never having done it before, the team had set up the 15m2 display (table, backdrop and ca. 60 objects) in merely half an hour. After this small feat it was time to step back and take a look. And it was rather exciting to see it for the first time and no one could quite believe it had all arrived in the back of Alex Mullen’s car. Quickly apprehension kicked in – ‘How would the audience respond?’. During the first coffee break it quickly became clear that the exhibition was well received. In no time we were having interesting discussions with people on the Latinization of the Northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire. But the cherry on the cake must have been the response of the only child present: ‘WOW, look at all the ancient things!’ We hope to hear this in six different languages this autumn.

New digital approaches to ancient texts

By Simona Stoyanova

Digitext workshop posterThe LatinNow summer started with a training session for the Faculty of Arts at the University of Nottingham and our team on Digital techniques and resources for textual research. Led by Dr Gabriel Bodard (Institute for Classical Studies, London) and me, the DigiText workshop introduced our colleagues to four major digital approaches to humanities research: digital philology, text encoding, linked open data and linguistic annotation. The topics we covered included introduction to online resources, imaging techniques for cultural heritage, methods in digital palaeography, EpiDoc XML markup, LOD annotation, treebanking and translation alignment. While most of our examples were taken from the ancient Mediterranean, the principles and practices applied to all disciplines and cultures represented in the audience – from Scandinavian studies to modern languages translation studies. Our colleagues enjoyed a good amount of practice, starting with marking up modern gravestones in EpiDoc (the more errors and erasures the better), annotating and disambiguating place names in Recogito and aligning translations in Ugarit. Our aim was to showcase these major topics and what progress has been made in digital classics, as well as to highlight the applicability of these approaches and methodologies to virtually all textual research. We had fruitful discussions and quite a few ideas for future collaboration, both national and international – watch this space!

Dr Kathryn Piquette setting up the RTI highlight kit

Our second trip to Nottingham’s leafy University Park campus was for a training session in Reflectance Transformation Imaging (RTI), led by the fabulous Dr Kathryn Piquette. We were joined by a couple of colleagues all the way from Vindolanda who pulled all the stops with their multispectral filters. In two days we learnt how to put up and dismantle the RTI highlight setup, how not to drop a £2000 camera on a museum object, how to use a transmitter and how to hold one’s hand steady at 60°, 45°, 20° and 15° with no wrist tilting. The training covered the theory and physics behind RTI, followed by lots of practice. On the second day we processed the images we had taken the day before and produced our finished RTI images. The fortuitous incident of a foot just slightly nudging the board holding the object being imaged during one session showcased how/what things could go wrong, what to keep an eye out for and how to attempt fixes. We discussed various image-enhancing techniques and tools, tried one on a newly-imaged tablet from Roman Vindolanda and confirmed the reading of a stamp on a terra sigillata mould sherd from the University of Nottingham Museum collection. It was a whirlwind of a training, we learnt a great deal and are massively grateful to Kathryn!

A sherd of a mould from the University of Nottingham Museum collection being RTI-ed. It turns out that LEGO is ideal for holding the spheres!







Voices from Lugdunum (ancient Lyon): LatinNow supports an exciting new project in France

By Morgane Andrieu

Morgane in the lab with some graffiti ©photo : Milène Jallais / Lugdunum 

For a month now, I have been working with the LatinNow team and leading a new research project in Lyon, the capital of Gallia Lugdunensis. The systematic census of the inscriptions (graffiti) found on the ceramic tableware of the ancient city is an essential component to complete Lyon’s epigraphic collection of Latin and Gaulish inscriptions. Their interest primarily lies in the fact that they are the main and perhaps the only written testimonials of daily life, most of the other perishable supports having disappeared. This documentation, studied for the first time ever as a whole, is a precious source of knowledge for archaeology and epigraphy. While we mainly know well the writing of the elites in the official and funeral texts of the city, this corpus – destined to become one of the world’s largest Roman graffiti corpora – will allow us new perspectives, not only on the writing of everyday life (giving us Gaulish and Latin names, dedications, prices, provenance and content indications, etc.), but also on the penetration of Latin and its diffusion in the different contexts (domestic, religious, commercial, etc.).

A Roman colony founded in 43 BC, Lugdunum (Lyon) became the capital of the province of Gallia Lugdunensis, the seat of imperial power for the three Gallic provinces (Belgica, Aquitania, Lugdunensis) and Caput Galliarum, or “Capital of Gaul”. Located at a strategic junction, at the confluence of the river Saône and the Rhône, this Gallo-Roman city quickly became an important port and the centre of the Gallic road network. In contact with the whole Empire, Lyon was a commercial hub, welcoming visiting emperors and hosting a long-lasting centre for the production of imperial coinage from the late first century BC. Being a bustling place of passage and mixing, it is expected that the city will deliver many epigraphic testimonials, far more numerous than those currently recorded.

The project first consists of identifying all the graffiti from the collections, followed by their identification, their analysis and the creation of an illustrated catalogue (drawing and photography) as well as an open access database.

Graffiti on Roman pottery, Lugdunum Collection, musée et theatres romains, num. inv. : 2008.2.39, 2008.2.40 ©photo : Milène Jallais / Lugdunum

This material, largely ignored until now, allows us to ask new questions. How does Latin express itself in the different contexts of the city? What role did it play in this effervescent environment? The recording of the graffiti will help us to understand the effects of Latinization and exposure to Roman culture on the population of the capital, the core of which was originally Gaulish-speaking. But this case study does not only benefit our knowledge of ancient Lyon. Its importance applies to different levels of analysis employed in the LatinNow project, and beyond, including comparison with other settlements, detailed sociolinguistic analysis and the exploration of the nature of literacies across the north-western provinces. It may also serve as an example for conducting the same investigations elsewhere and will allow us to broaden our knowledge of languages and writing in the Empire.

As an associate researcher to the ArAr laboratory, Archéologie et Archéomètrie, based in Lyon (UMR 5138), I am benefiting from the experience of several senior archaeologists and researchers such as Michel Feugère, Armand Desbat and Cécile Batigne (Director of the laboratory) as well as working with other scientific members from the Lugdunum museum, the archaeological service of Lyon (SAVL), INRAP, Eveha and Archeodunum which have all been responsible for archaeological operations in the city.

It is an honour to be part of LatinNow which provides the opportunity for interdisciplinary exchanges of knowledge and results at an international level. It is also a great opportunity for the old civitas capital to contribute to our better understanding of the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces. This new research project has the potential to launch a scientific dynamic in favour of the systematic study of all forms of writing whatever the size or value of their material support. The graffiti not only reflect life in Lugdunum and beyond, but carry the voices of the inhabitants of one of the largest and most important cities of the Empire, the capital of Gaul.



Pieter Houten joins LatinNow

By Pieter Houten

The multicultural and multilingual nature of the Iberian Peninsula is intriguing. As Díaz-Abdreu and Keay once put it: “Iberia is Europe in microcosm. It represents a juxtaposition of north, south, east and west and mirrors a heterogeneous multicultural, multilingual Europe.” (Díaz-Andreu & Keay 1997, 1). It is indeed interesting to realise how diverse the peninsula has been and still is. Despite its nature as one of the meeting places for many Mediterranean cultures, historians define it as finis terrae: the end of the world.

TMA 2018
Pieter giving a paper on urban centres

This ambiguity has intrigued me from the very beginning of my studies into this part of the Mediterranean. As a masters student at Utrecht University, I embarked my journey into the fascinating ancient history of the Iberian Peninsula. It is at this time I first encountered its languages and scripts. They seemed too difficult to understand and at that point, I thought, not directly relevant for my studies, which focussed on the Celtiberian cities. Following my MA thesis, I started my PhD research within the ERC-project: “An Empire of 2000 Cities” at Leiden University. The principal aims of my thesis Civitates Hispaniae are to provide a comprehensive reconstruction of the urban systems of the Iberian Peninsula during the High Empire and to explain why these systems looked the way they did. Key themes include continuities and discontinuities between pre-Roman and Roman settlement patterns, the geographical distribution of cities, and the role of cities as nodes in road systems and maritime networks. In addition, I argue that a considerable number of self-governing communities in Roman Spain and Portugal were polycentric rather based on a single urban centre.


Iesso 2016
Pieter on fieldwork in Spain

As part of the research into the nature of urbanism in the High Empire, I had my first encounters with epigraphy and numismatics as sources. Again, the complexity of the pre-Roman languages and their continuity in the republican period grabbed my attention. In order to understand the development of urbanism in the different parts of the peninsula I studied the different peoples and their urban development and realised that their languages, often studied by a different group of scholars, needed to become part of my research world.

CIL II 3061 Cantaber Elguismiqum
CIL II 3061

I had to respond when the opportunity rose to study the socio-linguistic kaleidoscope of the Iberian Peninsula in its historical context. As the LatinNow-project collaborates with two experienced linguists studying the Palaeohispanic languages up to the Late Republican period, I will focus on the period of the High Empire. My research will focus on the who, how, why, and where of learning, or not, to speak and write Latin in the diverse communities of the imperial-period Peninsula. As part of this investigation I will be exploring the scarce remnants of the Palaeohispanic languages in Latin epigraphy, for instance the local genitive plural for the tribal affiliation in Latin inscriptions, as found in the votive to Mars by Cantaber of the Elguismicos (CIL II 3061): Cantaber / Elguism/iq(um) · Luci · f(ilius) / Marti / Magno / v(otum) · s(olvit) · a(nimo) · l(ibens) · How long did these mixed forms and names continue? Moreover, can we establish specific areas with conservative naming practices? And what does this tell us about the people giving these names to their children? In order to answer these questions we have to step out of our comfort zone and use insights from across the Roman world and from other fields such as modern sociolinguistics.

Another dimension important for LatinNow is the assessment and exploitation, where possible, of not just all forms of written remains, but also writing equipment, to think about Latinization and literacy. I’m interested in exploring writing equipment to investigate the urban/rural and literate/illiterate dichotomies. Following the standard ideas on these dichotomies, we should find literate people in urban areas. On the Iberian Peninsula, we expect to find more evidence for literacy in the valleys of the Ebro and Guadalquivir as these are the urban cores of the Hispaniae. However, the often-considered non- or less urbanised regions such as the three north-western conventus, have an urban epigraphic habit following the standard practices in the major centres. This less clear distinction between urban and rural begs the question of whether the literacy dichotomy might also be false.

I look forward to studying the Latinization of the Iberian Peninsula and working with our Spanish colleagues and the LatinNow team to expand our understanding of the spread of Latin in this historically highly multilingual region and its similarities and differences with the rest of the Roman west.

RMO 2019
Pieter in the RMO in Leiden undertaking photogrammetry for our Touring Exhibition in Autumn 2019

Introducing Simona!

By Simona Stoyanova

Working with epigraphic material has always been an interdisciplinary endeavour – involving knowledge of language(s), history, archaeology, palaeography, and increasingly, in the last decade or so, a certain amount of awareness of developments in digital humanities. This is why, after a classical philology degree at Sofia University, I decided to combine further epigraphic practice with dedicated digital humanities training at King’s College London. I have worked on a number of digital epigraphy projects both in London and Leipzig, the main goal of which has been the publication of existing and new corpora of inscriptions, providing users with different pathways through the material, rich indexing and multifaceted browsing based on text encoding in EpiDoc XML. Part of this work has involved training and dissemination of the EpiDoc standard, publishing practices and project management strategies.


Simona teaching EpiDoc in Palermo

I am very happy to be joining the LatinNow team as a specialist in digital epigraphy. My main responsibility will be managing the epigraphic database assembled by the team, amounting to well over 180,000 files derived from the EAGLE-Europeana project and a range of other sources, including the expanded Roman Inscriptions of Britain online, which is currently having multiple epigraphic corpora added to it (e.g. the Vindolanda and Bloomberg tablets) by Scott Vanderbilt as part of LatinNow. All this epigraphic data will be leveraged for the specific research purposes of LatinNow and will be enhanced with new data produced by the researchers. We are looking to standardise vocabularies for metadata and indexing features, such as type of object, material and dating format, which vary in modern language and expression throughout the corpora we use. We will enrich the information available for local ancient languages and linguistic features, so that we can trace changes in literacy and language use more effectively and consistently. I will be working closely with our developer Scott Vanderbilt and will liaise frequently with the other team members to provide training, help and advice on working with the database. An integral part of my work will be supporting the team in adding sociolinguistic data to our material and facilitating their use of the database following user-experience feedback.


An entry from Scott’s Roman Inscriptions of Britain Online

A very exciting part of this process for me is the use, reuse and further enhancement of already existing digital epigraphic corpora. So far, I have worked on producing such resources rather than mining and manipulating data from them for new research. Reuse and repurposing of open access data forms a key part of sustainability of electronic resources, helps us avoid reinventing the wheel and ensures longevity and wider dissemination of  research. We are very grateful to our colleagues from a range of different projects (for example, EAGLE, Hesperia, AELAW) for their invaluable help and generosity.


Simona with the marmor Parium

In addition, being part of LatinNow will give me the opportunity to gain experience working on epigraphic material from the western provinces, as my own research and work to date has focused more on the eastern provinces. There are many parallels to be drawn in terms of multilingual competence of local populations, however I am curious to explore the differences and specific sociolinguistic factors in the changes of language use in the west.

Meet Anna Willi, LatinNow’s newest Research Fellow!

By Anna Willi

Interdisciplinary research can be daunting. It forces us to look beyond our expertise, to leave our comfort zone, to embrace those white areas on the map of our knowledge. But as new physical boundaries seem to be created all around us, it is more important than ever to keep an open mind, and interdisciplinary research forces us to do just that. It breaks up boundaries, opens up pathways to collaboration and renders shared features visible. Crucially, it can prove very fruitful for difficult research questions for which we rely on tricky evidence.

Deciphering a milestone inscription

Anna deciphering a milestone inscription

The potential of this kind of approach is what has always motivated my research questions. When I started studying Latin Literature and Linguistics at the University of Zürich (Switzerland), I soon felt that by studying texts alone I was missing something, so I chose Ancient History and Classical Archaeology as minors. Ever since, I have been convinced that combining written and material evidence opens up new perspectives and allows us to ask new and intriguing questions. LatinNow uses an interdisciplinary approach to ask a number of such questions, and I am excited to be joining the team as a Research Fellow for Germania superior.

Germania superior is my home province, as it were. I grew up in Switzerland where I studied and wrote my PhD-thesis at the University of Zürich. For my PhD-thesis, I combined literary, epigraphic, juridical and material evidence to investigate the use and performance of irrigation in Roman western Europe. This research has left me with a strong awareness of the way in which people shape their environment, and for social and economic factors in this process. It is however the second focus area of my work that has me particularly excited about working with LatinNow: Epigraphy. I have been lucky enough to collaborate in a number of epigraphic projects since being an undergrad, including fieldwork that took me as far as Bulgaria and Cyprus. Most recently, however, I have mainly worked on inscriptions in Germania superior, for the new edition of CIL XIII.

Inside the Albarracin-Cella aqueduct

Anna inside the Albarracin-Cella aqueduct

Inscriptions will be central to my research for LatinNow, and in my opinion they are a particularly fascinating kind of evidence. They are at the same time textual and material, and because they have not been copied numerous times over the centuries, they provide a window into the past that feels very immediate. Unlike the literary texts we know from school, inscriptions also come in various shapes and size. We find them on stone altars, pieces of leather, wooden tablets, bronze votives, drinking cups, bread and brothel walls. They were incised, scribbled, scratched, stamped and painted, they were conceived and written by people from all walks of life – and they can to some extent betray the linguistic reality in which their writers lived.

In Germania superior, this reality must have been rather diverse. Covering parts of modern Germany, Switzerland and France, the province was established under the emperor Domitian to comprise areas that had previously been part of Gaul and under Roman rule for some time, but also a stretch of the very edge of the empire along the German limes, where military presence was strong. Its population included people with Italian, Germanic or Celtic heritage as well as soldiers from other parts of the empire. Various languages must have been spoken in the streets of Mogontiacum, Argentorate or Augusta Raurica. However, our written evidence hardly does this diversity justice: with a few exceptions, to our knowledge the language commonly used for writing was Latin (though it sometimes contains traces of other languages in it). This makes literacy an important factor in studying the spread and use of Latin in Germania superior, and this is where new insights can be expected from the combination of epigraphic evidence with material evidence of writing equipment such as styli or ink pots. One particularly exciting part of my work with LatinNow will be to contextualise such finds within the epigraphic landscape.


The inscription of Togirix

Grasping language use without being able to ask speakers about it is less than straightforward. We may never know why the owner of a 2nd century villa near Bern decided to adorn the walls of their cryptoporticus with inscriptions that contain Greek, Gaulish and Latin language material (AE 2004, 991-995), or which language a certain Togirix from Eburodunum, who has a Celtic name and set up a dedication for Mercurius, Apollo and Minerva in Latin, spoke with his parent Meta (CIL XIII 5055). But looking at social and other phenomena that define this part of the Roman empire, there are other questions that we can ask. What role did Latin play in this multilingual environment and how did it come to play this role? How did different kinds of settlements, the diverse population and military presence influence the spread and use of Latin? And how is it different from what we know about Roman Britain or Spain? I look forward to delving into such questions, and to breaking up boundaries, opening up pathways to collaboration and rendering common features visible as part of an international and interdisciplinary team, collaborating to investigate a part of complex history that we all share.


“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 (https://latinnow.eu/touring-exhibition/).

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.




LatinNow gets a helping hand from Cherwell School Students

From 8th-12th October, the Centre for the Study of Ancient Document in Oxford (HQ of the LatinNow Project) played host to two Year 11 students from the Cherwell School, with us as part of their Work Experience placements.  In this guest blog, Charlotte W and Finlay HC dish the dirt on what it’s really like to work in the LatinNow office…

Charlotte writes…

“I didn’t really know what to expect from a week’s work experience at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents. As a fifteen-year-old, you hear many terrifying rumours of what life was like before the internet. What I definitely didn’t expect was to be asked to help contribute to LatinNow, a huge EU-funded project investigating the Latinization of the north-western Roman provinces, or to help document original artefacts from Nottingham University Museum for the LatinNow exhibition around Europe, including over 2000 year old coins and pottery sherds!

It was amazing to see these relics from our ancient past up-close and to  begin to explore some of the stories they held. Dr Francesca Cotugno was kind enough to explain one of these objects, a replica of the tombstone of a Marcus Caelius, and I was very surprised to learn what a gruesome story it unlocked.

The story goes (and I hope I get this right…) that a German hostage of the Romans named Arminius managed to deceive everyone that he was loyal to the Romans. He gained Varus’s trust, a man highly respected by the Roman senate, then deliberately led him and the 3 Roman legions he commanded into a trap where they were slaughtered mercilessly by Germanic tribes. When the emperor Augustus found out about what happened he was so distraught, as Rome had never suffered a defeat like this ever before, he banged his head the wall shouting “Give me back my legions!”. Arminius was then killed by his own Germanic people as they decided the act he committed went too far and was too ruthless.

Tombstone of Varus, who died in AD 9 at the Battle of Teutoburg Forest in Germania. 

This tombstone to Marcus Caelius is unusual as it explicitly says that he died in the Varian war. We don’t know much about his role in the war, but we know from his representation that he was a decorated soldier who must have been relatively wealthy as he is flanked by his freedmen.

I also, in the documenting process, came in contact (with gloves!) with several replicas of iron age coins. In the pictures we took, you can’t see exactly how small the coins were but they were tiny, smaller than a penny. And they were so intricately embossed.

Coinage was introduced  to Britain during the Iron age and inscribed coins . Earlier coins mostly just had symbolic animals on them so therefore if there appeared to be writing you could tell it was from a later time. There were also much bigger and chunkier coins from the Roman period, (these were originals so I was constantly holding my breath when getting them out of the bags) which had the name and carving of the Roman Emperors on them. I hope in the pictures you can see how ornate they all are and can get a sense of how incredible it was see things that have been used by our ancient ancestors.

So coming out the other end of this week, I’m relieved to report that Classics is not just some musty dusty academia for elderly scholars, I’ve found it to be entirely different. It’s exciting and very interesting for curious minds, and even though at the beginning of the week I didn’t have a clue what I was going into, I have really enjoyed myself. So thank you LatinNow!


Finlay writes:

 “On Monday the 8th of October I arrived at the Centre for the Study of Ancient Documents for work experience. In large part this involved looking at ancient writing equipment for the LatinNow Project. As part of this project to study the Latinization of the North-Western Roman Empire team is using ancient writing equipment as a means of demonstrating how Latin spread throughout Gaul (present day France and Belgium), the Iberian peninsula (present day Spain and Portugal), the Germanias and Britannia (present day Germany and Britain).

For the most part, my work involved summarising the data from British archaeological sites where Roman writing equipment had been found. The hope was to show to what extent Latin had caught on in Britain and compare it the rest of Roman Europe, and so better understand why different local cultures adapted to Roman rule differently. For example, in many of the British archaeological sites ancient Roman styli were found. A stylus, as I found out over the course of the week, was a sharp metal object used to scratch letters on a wooden tablet covered in beeswax. Some of the other artefacts I was looking for were inkwells, seal boxes (used to protect the seals that were used on papers or bags) and wax spatulas (these were used to scrape the wax back into place on a tablet for reuse). As these were methods of writing the Romans used and introduced to Europe, the amount of these objects found in an area could indicate literacy, as well as how common Roman culture was there. The notes and locations took the form of a grand database that I had the opportunity to help fill out.

Working with Charlotte, a fellow student from Cherwell school, we also had the chance to help in curating part of the touring exhibition that is part of the project. We were given a selection of ancient artefacts to measure, weigh and photograph and record in a table. Although we had to wear glove, handling the ancient pottery and coins, with my own hands was an especially interesting and unique experience. The coins in particular were extraordinary as you could see the dents and scratches of a lifetime’s use, without having to look through a glass display case. One coin was from the rule of Marcus Aurelius and you could see the wear and tear from its use throughout his 19 years as Emperor.

Coins in tray
Four Roman coins in the LatinNow Touring Exhibition, on loan from the University of Nottingham

The last part of my work on the LatinNow project involved looking at a database of archaeological sites in the Iberian Peninsula under the guidance of Dr Noemi Moncunill, and finding the coordinates of the sites to add to the table. For instance, Torre Alta in Cadiz was one of the sites and the coordinates were 36.52 by -6.149. The end goal of this part of the project was to use the coordinates to create a geomap of Roman writing equipment to visually demonstrate how Latin spread throughout the area. Comparing this to data found in Britain will demonstrate how Latinization uniquely affected native cultures and why people took Latin up – such as status, economic success, citizenship, or literacy.”

The LatinNow and CSAD teams are very grateful to both Charlotte and Finlay for all their hard work during their time with us, and for agreeing to be our guest bloggers this month. Thanks, both! 

Later this month, on 26th October, we’re appearing in the Ashmolean Museum’s LiveFriday event ‘Spellbound’. Come and find us in the Reading and Writing Gallery to learn how to put a Roman curse on your enemies. More on this in next month’s blog!