Roman Rhetoric VI
by: M. Horatius Piscinus

Pars VI : The other players; defixiones

As in any courtroom drama, we have been focusing on the leading orators. Behind any Patronus, that is the orator who offered to speak at a trial, there were a number of advocati. Often these were litigants themselves, otherwise they were the representatives of litigants, who sought out witnesses, documents, made trial arrangements, and hired an orator to act as the Patronus. The advocati did not speak at trials themselves. There would also be a number of scribae engaged for any trial. These other players in a Roman trial can be compared to a modern legal staff with its secretaries, legal assistants, and paralegals who do the foot work and paperwork needed to bring about court proceedings.

Unlike modern litigation there was another player, for whom we do not have a name. In preparation for a trial often, apparently in most trials, a person was hired "to fix" the members and witnesses of the opposing side. What they did was provide their customers with magical charms - lead tablets, figurines, or animals - defixiones, or "curse tablets." These would be inscribed with the name of the defendant, and the witnesses, advocati, and patronus of the opposing side, sometimes but not always, asking that the minds and tongues of the opponents be bound by the spirits of the dead. The lead tablet was then usually folded and nailed, then dropped into a well or more frequently into a grave.

One example dated to 78 CE comes from Emporia in the eastern foothills of the Pyrenees of Spain. Three tablets were found in separate funerary vases. One read "Marturus procurator Augusti : patronus legati (id est) patronus legati Indicetanii : (advocatus) Indicetanii" and on the other side, "Olossitani : Titus Aurelius Fulvus legatus Augusti : Rufus legatus Augusti." The procurator Augusti Marius Maturus is known from Tacitus' "Histories" 2.12.5-6, 3.42.2-4, and 3.43.2.

Another example is from Aquitania, two tablets found near a grave marker, along with a coin from the reign of Marcus Aurelius, dating it to 172 CE. With these were also the remains of a puppy used as a sacrifice and mentioned in the tablets. The tablets read, I denounce the persons written below, Lentinus and Tasgillus, in order that they may depart from here for Pluto and Proserpina. Just as this puppy harmed no one, so may they harm no one and may they not be able to win this suit; just as the mother of this puppy cannot defend it, so may their advocati be unable to defend them, (and so may) those opponents be turned back from this suit; just as this puppy is (turned) on its back and is unable to rise, so neither (may) they; they are pierced through, just as this is; just as in this tomb animalia have been transformed and silenced and cannot rise up, and they not...."

These curse tablets may seem a little odd to our modern sensabilities, but it must be remembered that they were very real and their use very prevelent in Roman trials. There is some evidence from Athens that it was the scribae who provised these defixiones to clients, a normal service provided by a legal team, and that everyone involved in a trial was well aware that such were being used. Cicero mentions a case where one orator forgot which case he was pleading in midspeach, blaming it on "veneficiis et cantionibus" (Brutus 217). Libanius (Oratio I) tells his own tale of how he was inflicted, unable to speak, due to a defixio made of a lizard with its forepaw tied across its mouth. The defixiones was an element in all Roman trials, not only blamed for poor performances, but often effecting poor performnace as the litigators and orators involved knew they were having spells cast against them.
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