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Binding curses (katadesmoi/defixiones) are intensely personal and direct texts that can provide fascinating glimpses of magical practices and other facets of daily life in the ancient world. Despite their evidentiary value, however, they have until very recently been largely neglected in classical studies, with the exception of certain scholars working on Graeco-Roman magic (e.g., Faraone 1991; Graf 1997; Ogden 1999). Since most binding curses are the products of disputes and antagonism, it is not surprising that a large number of them deal with legal matters and attempt to recruit the assistance of supernatural forces in securing success in legal proceedings. This paper looks at the legal binding curses from classical Athens as a case study that illustrates the way in which judiciary defixiones can contribute to our assessment of legal systems, behaviors, and practices in the ancient world.

In classical Athens, the extensive and complex legal system was considered by many as a cornerstone of the city’s democracy. Structured on the principle of wide citizen participation, legal proceedings and especially the popular courts of classical Athens were the prime means of formal dispute resolution, and were a token of popular power. What happened in the courts had implications for politics, social relationships, and everyday life in general. With so much at stake, it is not surprising that litigants often recruited the support of a network of friends and associates and attempted to influence the outcome of litigation in numerous ways—including magic. Written legal binding curses were produced in Sicily starting in the early fifth century BCE or earlier (Jordan 1985, nos. 95, 99, 100, 108). In Athens, the earliest extant specimens date to the late fifth century, although oral legal binding curses were probably performed much earlier (Faraone 1985).

From the vantage point of social and legal history, judiciary binding curses provide valuable insights into technical procedural aspects of the law as well as into the social dynamics of Athenian litigation during the classical period (Eidinow 2007; Riess 2012). Prosopographical analysis of the targets of legal binding curses reveals that the practice was popular and widespread among Athenians of all social backgrounds (e.g., Wünsch 1897, no. 24; Wünsch 1897, no. 65; Costabile 1999, no. 2, 2 all seemingly refer to upper-class opponents in court, and see further Nisoli 2003; Wünsch 1897, no. 87 and Audollent 1904, no. 49 target tavern-keepers and butchers).

Moreover, the language and requests of the agents of curses are often at odds with the picture of litigant behavior and expectations as depicted in fourth-century Athenian forensic oratory. In the latter, litigants (whether plaintiffs or defendants) are depicted as largely restricted by the need to conform to civic standards of behavior, especially regarding their respect towards the law and their trust in the courts and the justice system in general (Christ 1998; Lanni 2006). By the same token, opponents are often portrayed as devious, manipulative and subversive towards the courts and the principles of the democracy.

Legal binding curses provide a corrective to the largely schematic portrayal of Athenian litigation depicted in forensic orations and shed further light on Athenians’ perspectives and objectives vis-à-vis their legal system. They suggest a template of Athenian litigation where both expediency and mistrust of civic institutions override the desire, professed by many litigants in court, to reach a fair resolution to disputes. Over all, Athenian legal binding curses suggest a legal system that, besides being an integral part of democratic Athenian society, was at the same time vulnerable to potential manipulation by litigants and other interested persons, who at times had little interest in justice, but sought instead to promote their personal or wider political agendas.