As an ancient historian, one aspect of recent debates about gender-based violence that has surprised me more than it should have, and this is the discovery that some men seem not to be aware how disturbing male aggression is to women. (It may well be disturbing to other men, too!) Similarly, it seems that many men aren’t really aware of how often women glimpse the potential for violence and brutality in male-female relationships. Most men make every effort to behave in a civilised way. Yet the number of those who fail – or weren’t trying in the first place – is large enough to mean to mean that women must always be vigilant, and the disbelief of well-intentioned men is sometimes part of the problem. Not having to know how easily the balance can tip from unpleasantness to terror is one of the benefits of male entitlement.
All of this naturally turned my thoughts toward one of the classic problems that haunts ancient historians who study women and the family. It is about ancient love magic. The question is, why is the magic so violent?
The archaeological remains of ancient magic offer an unusually ‘raw’ source for the historian, since the individuals who turned to a magician for help were often desperate and willing, it seems, to reveal their innermost thoughts. A body of fascinating and disturbing source material survives in the form of ‘curse tablets’ written on lead and other durable materials. Those written on metal were often folded up and either hidden in or near the home of the intended victim, or else deposited in a sacred place. Many of the British curse tablets were found in the sacred spring of Sulis Minerva at Bath, in what is now Somerset.
In studying these objects, one has the feeling of looking into a window, to perceive the relationship between ancient men and women in the most disturbing light. What we want to think of as ‘love’ turns out to be about frustration and anger, humiliation and control – with violence simmering always ready to bubble up.
Greek and Roman society in fact put emphasis on the importance of male self-control: men who lacked it were perceived to be unreliable and a threat to the well-being of both women and men. So it is a bitter tonic to the imagination to see the rawer emotions in action. It is also a reminder that the efforts of men and women to behave toward one another in a gentle and civilised way are a comparatively fragile element of human civilization.
An example from Roman London, now in the British Museum, offers a good starting point. It is from Roman Britain (1st-4th century AD) and was found in Telegraph Street, Moorgate, London. The curse was scratched on a fragment of lead sheet, which was then folded up and stabbed a number of times – whether the stabbing was to increase the power of the curse or to mimic a stabbing action against the curse’s intended victim is unclear.
The text reads as follows:
‘I curse Tretia Maria and her life and mind and memory and liver and lungs mixed up together, and her words, thoughts and memory; thus may she be unable to speak what things are concealed, nor be able…’.
I have begun with Tretia Maria because her curse is so physically striking with its stab-holes, but it is possible that the curse was made by an enemy or rival rather than a lover.
But in other cases, the connection between lust and violence is more direct. A spell from Egypt in the second or third century AD by a man called Ammion against a woman called Theodotis is quite explicit about wanting to control her. (I have omitted some of the more disturbing language from this spell.)
‘I bind you, Theodotis, daughter of Eus, by the tail of the snake, the mouth of the crocodile, the horns of the ram, the poison of the asp, the hairs of the cat, and the penis of the god so that you may never be able to sleep with any other man…. Make use of this binding spell, employed by Isis, so that Theodotis, daughter of Eus, may no longer try anything with any other man but me alone, Ammonion, and may be subservient, obedient, eager…’ (Source: John G. Gager, ed., Curse Tablets and Binding Spells from the Ancient World [Oxford, 1992])
Disturbingly, the curse tablets and binding spells written by women are deeply interested in the dangerous ‘burning’ of male sexual frustration. A hostile love spell from ancient Carthage (in what is now Tunisia) records the angry yearning of Septima for Sextilius.
I ask… that at the moment when I have composed this, Sextilius, son of Dionysia, will sleep no more, that he burn up and be made mad, and that he neither sleep nor be able to sit nor speak, but that he has me in his mind, Septima, daughter of Amoena, that he is consumed, mad with love and desire for me….that his spirit and body be burned up and every part of the entire body of Sextilius, son of Dionysia.<1>
One has to remember, with ancient curses and spells, that the individual protagonists paid professional magicians to inscribe them, and the consultation with the magician may have involved a conversation framed in very different terms than those of the spell itself. Part of the emotional value of magic may have been in confiding a problem to a specialist, who could offer charged and dramatic language to capture the grievance. Individuals did not call on the gods lightly – or on the powers of the underworld, who are often invoked in these spells. They had probably already tried more ‘reasonable’ solutions to their troubles.
And it is also possible that the keepers of magical lore steered their clients toward the more violent language. This could have been because so much of their ‘staple’ business was in spells against rivals in business, or against a team in the chariot-races against whom the client had bet. For the most part, these spells involved wishing harm – often vivid and dramatic harm – to the target. In other words, it may have been professional habit rather than psychological catharsis that led ancient magicians to steer their clients toward violent language. Or it may have been that they felt that the passionate cries of malevolent longing would be heard more clearly by the gods if they were expressed in violent terms.
Whatever the reason, ancient magicians earned their living from their ability to channel primal human emotions into vivid and memorable forms, and to find the connection between the supposedly ‘positive’ emotions of love and desire and the more destructive emotions of anger, rivalry, and malevolent obsession. In all likelihood, we have something to learn from their efforts, though what they have to tell us has yet to be understood.
<1>Trans. David Soren, Aïcha Ben Abed Ben Khader, and Hédi Slim, Carthage: Uncovering the Mysteries and Splendors of Ancient Tunisia (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1990), 245.