Saturday, August 13, 2016

A Thesis on Hippodrome Curses in Ancient Antioch Finally Surfaces

Many moons ago I wrote of Dr Florent Heintz's thesis on agonistic curses in the ancient Roman world. 

Agonistic Magic in the Late Antique Circus, PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 1999, Florent Heintz

A failed attempt at getting my hands on the original text via Interlibrary loans at the New York Public Library on Fifth Avenue yielded only a bunch of microfiche (yes..) that was impossible to work with as it could not be searched, nor copied nor printed.

Time has passed and now Dr Heintz's thesis has finally appeared on in a three volume posting.   

He starts with a reference to the 1959 film Ben Hur which is best remembered for its chariot race which was set in the hippodrome of Antioch. The start of the chariot scene involves the various competing charioteers using invocation to the gods (or curses) to advance their chances in the race.

On the specific parts of the thesis related to Antioch we can finally record verbatim here:

"During the 1934 and 1935 seasons of excavations in the Antioch hippodrome, the Princeton expedition uncovered five lead curse tablets in the area of the central barrier: 'There were drains along both sides of the spina and across both ends between it and the metae; these yielded a number of lead tabellae defixionum." Although their imminent publication was announced shortly after their discovery, at this point in time only two out of the five tablets have been fully unrolled, and only one deciphered. The inscription contains 61 lines of Greek, of which two-thirds are taken up by an unusually lengthy invocation to some chthonic aspects of otherwise Olympian deities (Zeus, Dionysos, Poseidon), and to Hecate in particular. The cursing formula is reduced to a minimum (three imperatives: καταδησ[ατε, ερημωσατε and καταστρεψατε) and is followed by a list of names of 41 "horses of the Blue faction" (-τουζ ιππουζ του καλλαινου), the same faction cursed in Beirut (C5) and Apamea (C6). 

Some of the cursive letter shapes clearly place the inscription within the Late Antique period (roughly 4th to mid 6th c.). Evidence for the presence of the Blues and Greens in Antioch appears only in the late 5th century with the report of a violent confrontation between circus factions under the reign of Zeno (490). It is possible that our tablet predates this riot and thus provides the first testimony for the presence of circus factions in Antioch. But it is equally possible that it post-dates the riot; in any case, the question will remain open until further work can be done on the Antioch excavations field-books so as to narrow down the date of the tablet based on archaeological evidence.
The three remaining tablets are heavily corroded and brittle and present such a daunting array of technical challenges that only one of them stands a chance of being unrolled without too much damage. One is pierced with an iron nail and will probably have to be left untouched. Two tablets appear to be made of unusually large sheets of lead which have been first rolled up very tight before being folded in two; both ends then seem to have been pressed together on a convex surface intentionally to form a more compact object. It is conceivable that the folding and pressing process had a ritual function similar to the piercing of other tablets with nails: to lock the spell in place and symbolically immobilize the target. 

C7.2. ANTIOCH (lead horse figurines). 

Also from Antioch comes a series of nine small horse figurines made of lead. Although they are not archaeologically documented like the curse tablets from the same site (they were brought to the museum by a local), they are still extremely interesting in that they seem to represent a three-dimensional counterpart to the figures of horses and charioteers engraved on some circus defixiones (C1.2; 2.3). Each horse figurine is engraved with either one or two names of horses. All together the names amount to a number of 12, which roughly coincides with the average number of horses cursed for each faction on circus tablets from necropoleis in Rome (C1.2) and Carthage (C2.4). It has been noted that the figurines show no trace of mutilation, piercing or binding, which could arguably speak against their magical function. But the nine pieces were probably part of a magical ensemble which included written curses and other implements (F7.3-4). In the absence of a documented context, one is left to wonder where the figurines were originally deposited, whether in the hippodrome itself or in a grave".