In antiquity, apart from thieves, tombs were also damaged by people of low economic conditions. While thieves damaged tombs for burial gifts and the clothing of the dead, some people opened tombs of strangers to bury members of their own families or dismantled them in order to use pieces to make a new tomb. Grave monuments were also damaged to make milestones and to use in constructing walls, especially in late antiquity. There were two ways in antiquity to prevent violations of graves: fining and cursing.
To discourage people from violating tombs, fines were determined to be paid to the treasury of the city. To enhance the discouragement, the amount would be high, and it was legally determined to pay a part of it to the informer who reported the culprit to the authorities.
On the other hand, curses were common maledictions used by the public, addressing the person with the potential of damaging the tomb, warning the violator of the misfortunes that would happen to him. These curses were added to the end of the grave inscriptions by the owner of the tomb. Protecting graves via curses has a long history in the Near East and Anatolia. According to the religious beliefs of Anatolians on death and the afterlife, the body of the dead person that has said good bye to this world physically continued to live in the other world, and for his feelings and desires which continue also in this afterlife he needs a refuge that he would not want to share with others.
In the curses it is wished that the wraith of the gods should be directed onto the violator through disasters such as painful or untimely death, living pain because of family perishing, the house perishing as a result of fire, the children becoming orphans, epidemics, blindness, becoming disabled, etc. The power of the mechanism of punishment that starts after the violation is committed is hidden in the words incised on the grave monument.
Inv. 1225 T from the Istanbul Archaeological Museums reads:
“Nicephoros, son of Moschion (made) (this grave) for his wife Glyconis and in his own memory while still alive: if anyone buries another body (here) without my permission, he will pay 2500 denarii to the city and will be responsible for the crime of grave robbery.”
(GRAVE STELE OF NICEPHOROS AND GLYCONIS, Marble, Conane (Gonen, Bahkesir), Roman Period, end of 2nd , beginning of 3rd C AD)
When we geographically proportion the grave inscriptions with curses, it is observed that the majority are from Phrygia, especially in the provincial areas of the region, where Phrygians, who had been away from the influence of Hellenization, lived. Comparing Phrygia with the other areas of Anatolia, it is observed that such curses diminish in number in those areas.
As a result of the hardships felt in the lives of the public through the crises of the 3rd century AD and in relation with the decrease in the trust for the establishment of justice because of these crises, especially effected Anatolian villages had an increased need for grave curses under this negative socio-economic condition. It is observed that curses on the grave stelae and sarcophagi with rich and large decorations were mostly used by people who had affluence in society, especially Roman citizens. Rather insignificant in number, there are also a few examples belonging to slaves and intellectuals. Such protective precautions of pagan origin have also been adopted by Christian and Jewish communities and found place on their grave stelae as well.
(Thank you to Istanbul Archaeological Museum for input and photos on recent expedition)
- A Roman Curse Tablet from Kent (and a Phylactery from West Deeping) (rogueclassicism.com)
- Roman Curse Scroll Unearthed (socyberty.com)
- Roman Curses Appear on Ancient Tablet (news.discovery.com)
- Roman Curse Tablet from Kent Followup (rogueclassicism.com)
- Roman Curses Appear on Ancient Tablet (sott.net)