by Josephine Balmer
Marriage Breakdown, Roman Style
In his Letters (3.16), Pliny tells the story of the first century AD Roman matron Arria, whose husband and young son both fell gravely ill at the same time. When her son died, Pliny records, Arria did not tell her husband, Caecina Paetus, concerned that the news would be detrimental to his own recovery, instead mourning the loss of her son alone. But the real story comes some years later when Paetus took part in a failed revolt against the emperor Claudius. Apparently he then hesitated before taking the honourable way out, suicide. Arria was not so cowardly. As Pliny recounts, she plunged the sword in her own breast first, reassuring her wavering husband that it would be painless – words that later seem to have become proverbial in Latin. For Pliny, Arria is a dutiful Roman wife, heroically standing by her husband no matter what. The following poem, first published in Modern Poetry in Translation (3.13), presents Arria’s own version of events:
When the boy became ill I became a liar.
Paetus was busy – politics, affairs of state –
as he slowly became prey to his own fever.
And somehow, on my own, it was easier,
words I didn’t have to form, excuses make;
sweat of night, fly-blown stench of day,
the heart-stop, breath-theft, hammer-blow
of putrid blood dripping into cupping bowl.
I begged Juno, Mother, Hermes, Healer,
if they could save one, make it my son.
But what the gods sent instead for answer
was the scent of my own flesh on bier.
Even then I still couldn’t face the truth:
I’d say the boy was better, asking for food,
take up sweetmeats to his shuttered room,
sit down alone on the stripped-back bed,
eat them, in a dream, one by one myself,
run a finger on his dusty toy centurions
as Paetus, in his own sick room, plotted on,
turned a life-sized army to dust and bone.
And when defeat came, the emperor’s decree,
they say I was brave, that I snatched the sword,
plunged it, hilt-deep, in my own chest first –
Paete, non dolet: See, Paetus, it doesn’t hurt.
Of course it didn’t. By then I had no heart.