Curse tablets and magic spells are not entirely unknown, especially when it comes to the scope of the ancient world. The offended Greeks did it to tavern keepers, while the resentful Romans did it out of jealousy (and love). Well, this time around, we are witness to the earliest known evidence of Jewish ‘hexing’ in sports, pertaining to a rolled-up metal tablet dating from circa 5th – 6th century AD. Originally discovered in Antioch in the 1930s by Princeton University archaeologists, the 9×6 cm tablet was finally unrolled recently (after 1,500 long years). And to their surprise, the researchers came across Aramaic instead of the expected Greek language from ancient Antioch – a major trading hub of the Eastern Romans. Furthermore, the dialect of Aramaic used for the curse was more specific to the Jewish community living in the region.
The research was carried out by the collaborative effort of experts from the Tel Aviv University and the Leiden University, and the project in itself was conducted under the umbrella of a broader scholarly endeavor “Magica Levantina“. As for the hexing part, this particular curse was directed at the participants in ancient chariot racing. Now just to provide a context, chariot racing was a big deal in the Greco-Roman world – so much so that the highest paid athlete in all of history was probably a charioteer named Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who might have boasted a total prize money of around $15 billion (if adjusted to modern-day values).
Reverting to the tablet in question here, the object was made of lead – which in itself alludes to the ‘villainous’ purpose of its owner. Simply put, ancient gamblers, when calling upon gods to do their nefarious bidding, usually avoided precious metals like silver and gold in favor of the lowly lead. In this case, the owner went on to ‘reinforce’ his already elaborate curse by driving a nail into the tablet. His intent was probably to place the voodoo-like object beneath the race track, so as to supernaturally afflict the horses running over it.
Now historically, as we mentioned before, chariot racing was one of the most popular spectator sports in the Roman realm, which rather saw a period of resurgence during the early Eastern Roman epoch of 5th-6th century, due to the relegation of gladiatorial combats (that were perceived as ‘barbaric’ by the Christianized emperors). The surge in popularity of such sports could be attested by the fervent fans of two rival stables, the ‘Blues’ (Veneti) and the ‘Greens’ (Prasinoi) – many of whom led the disastrous Nika riots of 532 AD that possibly accounted for around 30,000 deaths.
Suffice it to say, with such ‘life-and-death’ credentials, gambling in these high-profile chariot racing events was rampant as was the existence of fervent support that often bordered on fanaticism – in spite of the tepid opposition from the church. Haaretz correspondent Ruth Schuster put forth her notion –
Justinian [the Eastern Roman emperor from 527 to 565 AD], incidentally, was a Blues supporter and a not particularly benevolent ruler to the Jews, known for imposing several legal restrictions on them. Assuming the scroll dated from his time, this may perhaps explain the hostility of one anonymous Jew from Antioch toward that team.