A publication of the Archaeological Institute of America
Servandus, a Roman who lived in Britain around 1,700 years ago, was unhappy about having his cloak stolen. So he asked a god to destroy the culprit. This ancient case of petty larceny has now been reopened by archaeologists excavating in Leicester, England, where they uncovered a Latin "curse tablet" that targets the thief.
The thin, rectangular sheet of lead, dating to the second or third century A.D. and measuring 7 by 3 inches, bears the inscription:
To the god Maglus, I give the wrongdoer who stole the cloak of Servandus. . . . that he destroy him before the ninth day, the person who stole the cloak of Servandus.
The inscription includes the names of 18 or 19 possible suspects. Not much is known about the god Maglus, but the name might derive from a Celtic word for "prince."
The University of Leicester Archaeological Services found the tablet during digging at the site of a planned downtown development. Over the past two years the team has also unearthed a substantial Roman townhouse, Roman public buildings, and sections of the city's ancient walls.
Whether the cloak thief was ever punished will remain a mystery, but perhaps Servandus was not alone. Among the thousands of pieces of pottery, animal bones, coins, and other small objects uncovered in Leicester was a second curse tablet. It has yet to be translated.
Jason Urbanus is a doctoral candidate at the Joukowsky Institute for Archaeology and the Ancient World at Brown University.