The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Latin Poetry

Keepsake: An Inscribed Stylus from Roman London

In the early 2010s, a tiny writing stylus was discovered at Walbrook in the City of London, during excavations for the Bloomberg European headquarters. Remarkably, this stylus, which dates to c.70 CE, was engraved on all of its four sides with a minuscule inscription.  

photograph © MOLA

Such finds are very rare. Its message was later painstakingly deciphered and transcribed by Dr Roger Tomlin of the University of Oxford, as you can find on a Museum of London Archaeology blog. As Dr Tomlin notes, the stylus appears to be a souvenir, a cheap gift to remind the recipient of its sender, with a message along the lines of our modern ‘I went to Rome and all I got you was this pen’.

 In the autumn of 2019, the stylus was exhibited for the first time as part of  the Oxford Ashmolean museum’s Last Supper in Pompeii exhibition where I was delighted to have an opportunity to see it. While scholarly attention was quite rightly focused on the message of the stylus and its possible recipient, when I began to write about it, I found myself wondering about its sender. Again, any find which illustrates literacy in the empire, particularly in the then new province of Britain, is bound to raise discussion about officials, soldiers or even traders – the male population of the island. But the voice that came to me was that of a woman with her own reasons to feel short-changed…:



From Rome,  a keepsake to bring you pleasure –
a pointed gift so you will always remember;
I wish I could have given you so much more
but the journey is long and funds are short.

I’m sure he threw it in the stream. London,
I’d heard, was in ferment, packed with pleasure:
fine wines, sweet ale, and most of all women,
its frost-edged dusk a lure to warm the bones.

My message, sharpened, in miniature,
would go unread, unmarked. He didn’t know
there was a further present still to come
from that brief, jasmined night he’d forgotten –
those pared hours we shared before he embarked –

but I relived by day; how the moon grazed
the sea at Ostia like a polished blade
as each serrated kiss cut time in half.
A keepsake to bring you pleasure. Ten days
old. Her father in replica. As sharp.

Josephine Balmer
(This poem first appeared in ARTEMISpoetry journal, 24, May 2020)

Let Go Fear: Future Virgils

Creusa & AeneasTomorrow marks the eighth anniversary of my mother’s death. As anyone who has suffered a similar loss will know, this time has passed so slowly and at the same time so quickly too. Last year I published a sequence of thirty sonnets, Letting Go, which traced the process of bereavement after a sudden death, from the first days of dazed disbelief to some kind of final acceptance, both of which will clearly be different for everyone. Last month I wrote the Afterword for a vast new study, Virgil and his Translators, edited by the endlessly patient Susanna Braund and Zara Torlone, in which I discussed a few of the sonnets in Letting Go I had written out of passages from Virgil’s Aeneid.

One of these, ‘Let Go’, which comes towards the end of the sequence, is based on a passage from Virgil, Aeneid, 2.768-94. Here, as Aeneas desperately searches Troy for his missing wife Creusa, her ghost appears to him, telling him to move on to Rome without her. The sonnet is based on a real dream I had in a Bed and Breakfast in Norwich after speaking at a seminar at the University of East Anglia – the sort of dislocation, the waking in strange beds that those who travel often for work will recognise – in which my mum did appear to me, suddenly, out of crowds on a street. In ‘Let Go’ I voiced my narrative through Aeneas’s first person account. This was because I was looking to transgress/transcend gender, but also because I wanted Creusa’s ghost to become my mother’s – which, inevitably, then cast me, in turn, as Aeneas. I also liked the device of turning Creusa’s somewhat dark message into a hopeful, warm one as this reminded me so much of the sort of thing my mother would do – the sort of thing she would want to say to me if she could (if not necessarily encouraging me to found a city empire …). As I wrote in my Afterword for Virgil and his Translators it ‘seemed a fitting memorial to my mother’s always unwavering support of my ambitions’:


Let Go 

after Virgil

Those nights I called her name in vain again
and again, filled ruined cities with tears.
I dreamt I reached familiar streets, my fear
fixing tongue to roof of mouth, hair on end;
again she came to me through parted crowds,
smarter than ever in weathershield mac,
blood red lipstick and jaunty, matching hat
like a warrior plume. ‘I can’t stay long now,’
she said, ‘yet am always here. Remember
to hold your hopes close, guard your ambition.
Love. Travel. Most of all, let go anger
or this exile of grief will be too long.’
I tried and tried and tried to embrace her
but, like a thought on waking, she was gone.

Josephine Balmer

See also Letting Go: head versus heart, Mother’s Day and Family Histories
Agenda Letting Go coverVirgil and his translators



Family Histories

330px-Gela_Painter_-_Black-Figure__Pinax__(Plaque)_-_Walters_48225As I explored previously in my 2004 collection, Chasing Catullus (and my subsequent study Piecing Together the Fragments), ancient, classical texts have long provided us with a means to articulate present grief. Five years ago this month, in November 2010, my mother died very suddenly of a heart attack. It took a long time to be able to write about this and even then, as with Chasing Catullus, I found I could do so only through the resonant echo of classical voices.

AgendaFamilyHistoriesfrontcoverJust published in the latest edition of Agenda, Family Histories, the following sonnet is based around lines from Aeneid 2 (735-55), in which Aeneas, escaping from a burning Troy with his family, realises to his horror that his wife Creusa is no longer with them.

(The full sequence, Letting Go, is published by Agenda Editions in July 2017)

(after Aeneid 2.735-55)

Up to that point, I was still in the dark.
I was retracing steps, staring down paths
I saw as ours, not knowing she had been
ripped from us already, had slipped unseen
as she sat down to rest. We’d just spoken –
I heard her laughing, hanging up the phone –
but when next we gathered, friends, family,
one of us would be missing, tricked away.
I bargained with gods I did not worship;
I blamed, I begged ambulance men, medics.
Reaching home, I tried to put on armour,
convincing myself that they had saved her,
that they had been in time, they had, they had…
In response there was only silence, dread.

Josephine Balmer


Parallel Griefs, Ancient and Modern

chocolate hill, suvla bayNext Saturday, on Anzac Day, Australians and New Zealanders around the world will gather at Anzac Cove on the Gallipoli peninsula, Turkey, to remember, one hundred years on, their compatriots who landed here in April 1915 during the bloody – and ill-fated – First World War campaign. But less well-known is the involvement of British soldiers, landing at Helles to the south of the peninsular and later, in August 1915, at Suvla to the north.

Strangely, perhaps, I stumbled on the stories of these British soldiers while working on Ovid’s Tristia, the verses written after the Roman poet’s sudden and mysterious exile from Rome to the Black Sea in AD 8. For my translations, I was using Perseus, Tufts University’s excellent online FullSizeRenderclassical library and lexica, when a sudden electrical storm required me to log off from the internet. Instead, I took down an old second-hand Latin dictionary I had bought at a village fair as a student. Here, as if for the first time, I noticed a name inked faintly on its fly-leaf, with a date, January 1900. A few internet searches revealed that my dictionary’s original owner had later fought with the Royal Gloucester Hussars at Suvla on Gallipoli, near to Ovid’s own place of exile on the Black Sea.

ovid in exile at hellespontMy subsequent poetry collection The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2009), interspersed versions of Tristia with original poems tracing the story of my old second-hand dictionary being used to translate them. Presenting Ovid’s story in parallel with that of the Gallipoli soldiers, as well as narrating my own progress as I uncovered the past like a detective, seemed to provide a new way to approach the perhaps over-familiar subject of the First World War; to celebrate the sometimes surprising ties of grief we all share, whether we live at the beginning of the first, the twentieth or the twenty-first century AD.

Here are two poems from the collection; in the first, based around contemporary eye-witness accounts and regimental war diaries, the RGH land at Suvla on August 18th 1915.  In the second, the exiled and despairing Ovid dreams of Rome.

(I never knew blood smelt so strong…)

For a prize of dirt, few square yards of scrub,
they fought like gods as soil soaked red,
shallows curdled, stagnant with corpse-shoals. 

Across Suvla plain, Geoffrey’s men marched out,
without maps, with no idea where to attack,
a storm-spray of chalk and dust and blood – 

too dense, too dark to tell if theirs or ours.
They crawled back like ghosts, skin singed,
clothes in tatters, tongues burnt black, 

press-ganged workers after abattoir nightshift;
some spoke only in whimpers, others cried
for comrades mown down by unseen scythe, 

smouldering khaki all that marked the spot.
Now the dried salt lake brimmed with body parts
as if netted by fishermen’s bumper catch: 

Englishmen. Dead Englishmen. Hundreds of them.
We’d never seen a corpse before and here they were,
stacked like logs or mackerel on moon-blanched shore, 

mouths open, eyes wide, all just staring back,
our horror reflected in each gasping, glassy face.
We thought of home. It seemed a happy place. 


Naso Off the Shelf
from  Ovid Tristia, 3.1)

I dreamt my book went home again,
transformed, reformed, shuddering
like Proteus on the turn, changing shape;
no longer versed in youth’s green passion
but old age’s brown and shrivelled hate,
bound in sadness, grief’s dark script.
And I walked with it through my city’s
empty squares, footsteps soft as leaf-
fall on glittering autumn streets,
unfolding the faded map of my past life:
the Forum, the Sacred Way, the Palatine,
statues, temples, stacked libraries,
where all great works, ancient or modern,
can be read by any who might seek.
Now my book, too, tried to enter
as a guard blocked its dragging feet.
On tip-toe, noses pressed on misted pane,
we saw the touch of smoothing hand
but not for us – these lines are banned.
We heard the hush of unrolled volumes
but not of ours – by far the worst exile for them:
The shame is mine, of my Ars amatoria;
it stains each new page, sins of their father.

I talked too long of love, that was my ‘crime’
yet my ‘error’ was to see and not speak out.
And so my book is closed, my heart has died.
Poetry must, poetry can only tell the truth.
In life we have to lie to stay alive.

 Josephine Balmer

Find out more about The Word for Sorrow here 1844712931book.qxd

Classical Versioning and the Articulation of Grief

DP114272In this second taster extract from ‘Piecing Together the Fragments’, I examine the writing of my first collection, Chasing Catullus, published by Bloodaxe Books in 2004, a work which employed classical texts and versioning as a means of approaching family bereavement and grief. It is also a memorial to my niece Rachel as this week sees the seventeenth anniversary of her death. She would have been twenty-five next month.

                 Speaking Through A Text: Ovid’s Many-Headed Hydra
At the same time as exploring new ways of approaching translation and versioning, I was also grasping for a way to deal with personal grief. Just after I finished Classical Women Poets and had began to work on Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, my sister’s then six-year-old daughter was diagnosed with aggressive stomach cancer, a period which ended tragically with my niece’s death in August 1996. I had recorded these experiences in a notebook as a means of exorcism but had put these writings aside, too painful even for myself to read. But gradually through the dark fog of bereavement, I began to write again in the only way I found that I could: through the prism of classical literature – and its translation. Similarly, it is interesting that classical scholar Thomas Van Nortwick has recorded how his study of Greek literature, particularly Homer, helped him to come to terms with the early death of a beloved nephew. As he asks himself: ‘What can Greek literature teach me about the role of gifts in the life of a spirit?’

These new poems form a diary sequence, comprising Chasing Catullus’s second, central section, which follows, both directly or obliquely, the course of my niece’s illness, its most private or difficult events articulated through the voices of classical myth and literary reference, the vocabulary through which I could begin to the unsayable. As Sullivan notes of Pound’s various literary ventriloquisms: ‘[he] realized that what he wanted to express could only be expressed in that particular way.’ In addition, Elizabeth Dodd has argued that American women poets such as H.D., Elizabeth Bishop and Louise Glück, have worked in a form of ‘personal classicism’, a means to become a woman poet in a male, literary world but at the same time to avoid the confessional tone of Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath…

…The sequence also made use of embedded quotes from classical texts – the quotes Stephen Harrison has termed ‘appropriated’ – in order to articulate a dialogue between source text and original poem. For example, the poem, ‘Cutting the Hydra’, a proverbial expression in classical Greek for attempting an impossible task, addresses a surgeon’s initially confident but, tragically, ultimately unsuccessful attempt to remove my niece’s tumour. Here, the poem’s first stanza is based on Ovid’s account of Hercules’s slaying of the monstrous many-headed serpent, the Hydra (Metamorphoses 9. 67-78). As Hercules’ heroic confidence is deflated, its second stanza returns to my own narrative voice, referencing the later myth of Hercules, killed by his wife Deianira, who gave him a shirt dipped in the Hydra’s poisonous blood:

Cutting the Hydra

He said: “It’s child’s play, the cradle work of Junior days,
labours I’ve performed since I was little more than boy;
so if you think we can be beaten by some snake in grass,
remember, of this seething coil, you are one small part:
true, it breeds on its own death; hack away a head, any
of its many hundred necks, and two improved grow back,
fed on evil, foul branches of the serpent’s tree
but I’m its master – and what I master I destroy.”

Afterwards he couldn’t even look us in the face.
I saw him going home to his own Deianira,
tucking into cutlets, mash, one more gin with bitters,
white coat deflated on its peg, buff suit skinned and shed.

As we have seen, for Pound, such adopted selves were masks or personae, a means of speaking through another text. And in these poems, too, as in many others in the sequence, appropriating these different, classical selves allowed me to communicate the horror of the situation without directly narrating it, providing ‘the profound place to hide’ that Charles Rowan Beye has seen in the field; a slippage of self-construction and self-image, affording a means to be of myself and yet out of the self. As I noted in a 2006 paper for the ‘Self and Identity in Translation’ conference at the University of East Anglia, I needed a form that would allow me to practise deception, if not self-deception, a self-protective mechanism which could shield me from the horror of the experience described. All in all, the reality was too painful, too shocking, and ultimately too private, to be portrayed any other way except through the shifting filter of classical literature, weeding out what was or wasn’t acceptable, what might or might not be palatable, not just for the writer but for the reader too.
                                                                                                                                      Josephine Balmer

You can find more details on Piecing Together the Fragments on the OUP website here. Or pre order it on Amazon here. T51BWqT1tOsLhere is also a small article about it in the current OUP Classical Studies catalogue which you can find here.

Next time: a discussion of the issues surrounding the use of personal experience in art – and how speaking through classical texts might help us to resolve them.

A Saturnalia Prank


The Roman festival of Saturnalia began on 17th December, a day on which jokes were played and gifts were given, and is thought to be the origin of our own custom of Christmas gift-giving and merry-making. In the following poem (Catullus 14), first published in Bloodaxe Books’ Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate, the first century BC Roman poet Catullus receives a joke-present of a collection of bad poetry from his friend, the renowned lawyer, Licinius Calvus. Here, Catullus pretends to assume, as a wilful tease, that the verse must have been sent to Calvus as payment by one of his disreputable criminal clients; in particular, the poem mentions Vatinius, a notorious associate of Julius Caesar whom Calvus had unsuccessfully prosecuted in 54 BC (according to Seneca, during Calvus’s speech Vatinius had leapt up and protested: ‘Should I be condemned because he is so eloquent?’). Poetic jokes often seemed to have flown between Catullus and Calvus and in this poem, Catullus vows to repay Calvus’s ‘gift’ in full by sending him some worse poetry back – the doggerel versifiers Catullus singles out for mention, Caesius, Aquinus and Suffenus, are not otherwise known although Suffenus reappears in another of Catullus’s poems (22) as a writer so deluded that he buys the finest paper and high quality writing materials on which to write his execrable verse

Catullus’s Saturnalia Gift

If I didn’t love you, sweet teasing Calvus,
far more than my own eyes, then for today’s gift
I’d hate you with the hate of Vatinius;
for what have I said or done to deserve it
that you’re killing me now with all these poets?
May the gods frown down on whichever client
settled accounts with this roll of miscreants
(unless, as I suspect, it’s that school-master
Sulla, writing off debts by setting these texts,
then I bear no hate, have no complaint to make:
at least your hard work receives due recompense).
God, here’s as cursed a verse as one might expect –
a book, I know, you sent to your Catullus
to finish him off, to floor and to bore us
on Saturnalia, our day for pleasure.
No, not so fast, you can’t escape, my false friend,
for if this long night of torment ever ends
I’m off to the bookshops to buy Caesius,
Aquinus and Suffenus, all poison pens,
to pay you back in full for your own torture.
Until then, goodbye, farewell, it’s time to quit:
let those bad feet limp away, lines and couplets,
disease of the age, unreadable poets.

(translated by Josephine Balmer)

Petronius’s Chalice

The Roman Sensualist and the Derbyshire Peak Village

goblet-13-05-04A year or so ago, while on holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District, my husband bought me a pair of blue john earrings from one of the many jewellers in the village of Castleton. Castleton is extremely proud of its blue john, and is the only place in the country where the stone occurs, so we were also presented with a leaflet about its history. This claimed blue john had first been mined by the Romans and even mentioned by the ancient historians Pliny and Tacitus. These, we read, record how the first century AD Roman writer and sensualist, Petronius, author of the Satyricon, one of the earliest novels in literature, had owned a precious chalice made of the Derbyshire stone.

Intrigued, I tracked down the passages in both authors (Tacitus Annals, 17.18-19 & Pliny Natural History 37.7) who both recounted how, before comitting suicide after an accusation of treason, Petronius had destroyed his valuable cup so that the emperor Nero could not subsequently possess it. Of course, as it so often the case with anecdotal evidence, scholarship was more sceptical that Petronius’s cup was made of blue john; for while the Romans undoubtedly mined British metals and stone – some of the resources that first drew them to the island – Pliny’s description of the chalice as ‘myrrhinam’ has been taken to refer to an imported Chinese porcelain, hence its high value. But for the purposes of poetry rather than scholarship, this connection between a sophisticated, urbane writer and courtier at the very centre of the Roman empire and a tiny Peakland outpost on its northerly British edge seemed too fascinating to eschew, as the following poem explores. First published in Agenda (45.2.), its first three stanzas follow Tacitus’s account, in particular, fairly closely, while the fourth and final stanza is an addendum of my own.

Petronius’s Chalice

He had devoted his life to feasts, sensual pleasure.
Nights were his days not as dissolute but voluptuary.
His chalice, they say, worth 300,000 sesterces,
was cast of blue john, mined only in Britannia –
that rare and precious stone all drunkards pray for, 
since the more you supped, the more you sobered.

It seemed he knew it was waiting, Nero’s ultimatum:
arrest, disgrace, or flick of knife on opened vein.
He lay down calmly as his life blood ebbed,
entertained his loyal friends, hospitable as ever,
talked not of the world to come or of philosophy
but gossiped, joked, read from his ribald Satyricon.

 Sometimes he slept, rehearsing the hush of death
but made no will, refused to weep or beg or flatter,
listed, instead, Nero’s lovers: Male. Female. Other.­
And so his enemy could not claim or pollute them,
he destroyed his signet ring and prized possessions,
took one last sip then let his rare chalice shatter.

 In every shard now he saw the shrouded Peaks
and shivering myrrhine mountains: Mam Tor
flecked with flinty rain, sharp as arrow shafts;
the corroding course of lime-washed streams,
jagged like a heart-line, life about to splinter,
fading away beneath in half-remembered dream.

 He walked towards it, that soft northern pass.

Arria’s Wound

Marriage Breakdown, Roman Style


Porcia_CatonisIn 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:


Arria’s Wound

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 doletSee, Paetus, it doesn’t hurt.
Of course it didn’t. By then I had no heart.

%d bloggers like this: