Silk Road in the News #6: Caveat Venditor (Merchant Beware!)

“O thunder-and-lightning-hurling Iao, strike, bind, bind together Babylas the greengrocer . . . As you struck the chariot of Pharaoh, so strike Babylas’ offensiveness . . . O thunder—and-lightning-hurling Iao, as you cut down the firstborn of Egypt, cut down his livestock!”

Tablet with Grocer Curse

Caveat Venditor – Merchant Beware!  A charming if not a bit frightening artifact from everyday life in Roman Antioch has recently been deciphered to reveal a curse against a grocer.  On the lead tablet, written in Greek almost 1700 years ago, a person entreats God to strike the grocer Babylas. To make sure that the curse is directed against the appropriate grocer and not just any random merchant, the tablet details some aspects of the grocer’s geneology, such as the names of his mother.

Other tablets have been found entreating God to strike gladiators, charioteers or would-be lovers who rejected the curser, but this is the first tablet with the curse directed against an ordinary fruit and vegetable seller. The tablet was recovered in 1930, but left untranslated until this year when Alexander Hollman of the University of Washington accomplished the task. The tablet resides at the Princeton University Art Museum

Whether the curse was written because of a business rivalry or because of poor-quality goods purchased or high prices etc. is unknown. Its interesting to imagine cursing the manager at the local Safeway because a couple of potatoes in a bag were rotten – but that indeed could be the case. (Words by Laura Kelley. Photo by Alexander Hollman).