Curses!! All of us have our favorite candidate for the "Curse of Rome". To many, it is the "motorini" -- their noise, smog, and disregard for rules of civilized driving. To some of us who habitually walk the city in sandals, it is the dog owners and what they allow their dogs to "do" on the sidewalk. Ancient Romans, who themselves were obsessively clean, probably thought that the unwashed foreigners were the curse of Rome.

But there were other Ancient Roman curses, maledictions (maledizioni in Italian, defixiones in Latin) of the most serious kind. They probably most often were spoken, as they are today, but it is the written versions that have come down to us. They were scrawled on walls, written in ink on papyrus or parchment, inscribed on lead, silver, or gold. Most were short, but a few longer, more complex examples have survived.

Writing down the curse was important. A spoken curse quickly dissipated. Written curses lasted as long as the material used. As long as the ink didn't fade the curse held. Curses incised in metal had an even longed shelf life, and the more precious the metal, the more likely the curse would work. But precious metals invited thieves -- if somebody melted down your golden curse, your enemy had nothing to worry about.

Once your curse was ready you had to have help to enforce it, and the best place to find it was in a cemetery. There you could find the angry ghosts of folks who had met untimely or violent deaths. Such nekudaimwn (do you see the word demon in there?) could be compelled by the words you had written to inflict your curse on an enemy -- financial ruin, unwilling love, speechlessness in court, a broken axle on an opposing racing team's chariot. The only other requirement was that the ghost shouldn't have to go too far. There was a limit on how far a ghost could stretch its spirit from its corporal remains, and that was determined by how mad the ghost was to start with. And you didnât want to pick a ghost that would be happy about doing your task: it had to be angry enough to do its dirty deed.

So you take your curse to the cemetery closest to where you want it to take effect and shove it down the hole that was thoughtfully left at the gravesite to pour in liquid offerings. Or you lift the lid on a cremation urn and just deposited the curse. Check it out, of course to see that your ghost isn't too busy with previous curses. A fully packed urn might indicate an effective ghost, but she/he might take a while to get to your curse. If you're in a hurry, look elsewhere. Also be on guard for lurking relatives. They might want a bribe before you can make use of their late uncle Psuedolus.

Curses could be proactive or retroactive: get my creepy neighbor out of my hair next week, or punish the creep that stole my clothes last week at the bath and made me rush home draped only in borrowed towels. (Thievery at some baths was so common that pre-printed curses were available along with cheap replacement clothes. The management had to be involved.) And there were unscrupulous curse salesmen and women out there, who might immediately go to your intended victim and sell an antidote or counter-curse. Then they'd expect you back, too, to get a stronger curse when the first one didn't work.

If you really meant business, you could make or buy a pupa (kolossos in Greek). The Romans had learned about voodoo dolls from the Greeks and thought they were quite effective. They worked just like their Caribbean cousins -- pins and needles, fire, immersion in water or dung, and removal of important body parts were all among the favorite things to do to the pupa. Or you could tie strings to it and walk it through actions the cursed one didn't want to do -- yes, that's where the word "puppet" came from.

It was better if your enemy knew or suspected the doll existed, but you didn't want him or her to get his hands on it -- he could pull out the pins, repair the damage, or, worst of all, give it a new name: yours! Bend, spindle, and mutilate that doll, and then bury it deep where nobody will find it for centuries, until intrepid archeologists dig it up. Don't worry about the archeologists. They will scrupulously preserve the artifact and with it the curse.

There were limits to what you would want to do with your curse. You didn't really want to kill the victim and become his first and most meaningful target from beyond the grave. (You might, however, use your curse to make your victim kill somebody else, preferably a close relative. That would expose your victim to a constant serious haunt, and you could just be on your way.) Other curses to avoid were fairly obvious: fire could spread and literally backfire on you. The same with contagious diseases. Floods were to be avoided if you lived in the same low-lying neighborhood. Etc.

Christians, when they took over, claimed they had suppressed cursing and the little dolls, but there is always a little old lady somewhere in the neighborhood who can help you out with an appropriate curse or artifact. Ask around in your outdoor vegetable market -- she's usually there at least one day a week. You can also get charms in the market to ward off what your neighbors are trying to do to you.

Internet links: -- Maledizioni (with pictures) -- Circus Curses -- Magical Traditions -- Aggressive Magic -- Construction and Use of ancient Greek Poppets (with pictures)