Leicester's roman history

Thu 28 Feb 2019

The Castle group discovered the Roman history hidden in Leicester city centre, including the ‘curse’ tablets.

One of the largest townhouses found in Leicester was a courtyard house excavated at Vine Street in 2004-06 (now beneath the John Lewis multi-storey car park). Built in the early 3rd century, this spacious home measured 40m by 40m, with four ranges of rooms linked by corridors surrounding a central courtyard. Built of stone and roofed with diamond-shaped slates, it had at least 26 rooms, many of which were furnished with painted walls and concrete floors or mosaic pavements, whilst some rooms were heated underfloor through hypocausts.

Roman Curse Tablet

A lead ‘curse tablet’ describing the theft of a cloak from a man called Servandus, from a slave quarters, was found near the courtyard house. Nineteen suspects are listed, probably representing a unique roll-call of slaves from a single household, most likely from the Vine Street courtyard house.

The Curse Tablets

A ‘curse’ tablet is typically a small sheet of lead inscribed with a message to a god or spirit asking them to take action on the writer’s behalf. Such action usually included harming named individuals who had caused offence to the writer. The tablets were often thrown into a sacred pool, interred with the dead or else hidden in the fabric of a building. The Vine Street curse tablets were found in rubble from the demolition of the courtyard house and one still had mortar adhering to it, suggesting that it had originally been placed in a wall. Both tablets bear a style of script which was commonly used for everyday documents and letters, and the style of the language suggests that they were written between AD 150 and AD 250, at least 1,750 years ago.

The Servandus Tablet (named after its writer) refers to a Celtic god, Maglus, and lists the names of nineteen suspects of a theft, thought to be the household slaves from the courtyard house.

‘I give to the god Maglus him who did wrong from the slave-quarters; I give him who did theft the cloak from the slave-quarters; who stole the cloak of Servandus; Silvester, Rigomandus, Senilis, Venustinus, Vorvena, Calaminus, Felicianus, Rufaedo, Vendicina, Ingenuinus, Iuventius, Alocus, Cennosus, Germanus, Senedo, Cunovendus, Regalis, Nigella, Senicianus. I give that the god Maglus before the ninth day take away him who stole the cloak of Servandus.’

Listen to a Castle group member reading the tablet here:

The tablet contains a number of significant pieces of information, including the first known reference to a god called Maglus, possibly a corruption of the celtic maglos, meaning prince. The twenty named people on the tablet are the single largest group of people known to have once lived in Roman Leicester. As the cloak was stolen from a slave-quarters, the list is probably a unique roll-call of household slaves. Amongst them are people with a mixture of Latin (e.g. Silvester), Greek (Alocus) and Celtic (Cunovendus) names, as well as seventeen men and three women, Vorvena, Vendicina and Nigella. The cloak itself was a sagum, a square cloak often worn by soldiers and their servants.

Curiously, Servandus, or the scribe writing the curse on Servandus’s behalf, crosses out the last name on the list, Senicianus. Was this the thief, identified after the curse was written? Or did Senicianus manage to prove his innocence? Sadly, we will never know.