The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Poems

Thumbs-Up: A Woman Gladiator in Roman London?

Image Copyright: Guildhall Library

In 1996, a 2nd-3rd century CE Roman grave was discovered in Southwark London containing some fascinating grave goods of eight clay lamps, one of which shows a fallen gladiator. Three more depict Anubis, the Egyptian god of the dead in the Isis cult, who accompanied souls on their journey to the underworld and was often associated with gladiators (all are now on display in the Museum of London). So was this the grave of a professional gladiator? Possibly. But there was one further piece of the puzzle. This was the grave of a woman.

Female gladiators are known from imperial Rome and great excitement followed, particularly in the press, about the idea of one being buried in London. Archaeologists, as they are apt, were rather more wary. Some suggested that the woman could have been simply a devotee of the Games (Juvenal’s Satires reveal that many Roman women followed them avidly). Others concluded that the grave goods suggested a more general belief in the afterlife and the possibility of resurrection, represented by gladiatorial conquests and, in particular, their missio or respite after being defeated: the thumbs-up. In my poem from Ghost Passage, inspired by the grave, I wanted to admit to both possibilities. To keep things open, as poetry can do perhaps more easily than scholarship. The eerily atmospheric remains of London’s Roman Amphitheatre, hidden away beneath the Guildhall in the City of London, also provided inspiration.

Thumbs Up

Gladiator grave lamps, Southwark, London, 220 CE

Even as a girl I was besotted, mesmerised.
For my tenth birthday my father sent me
to the Games. He told me we were Isaics,
Syrians, who honoured the boundaries

between passing worlds, this and the next.
We did not come, he warned, to watch men die
but to rehearse our own, approaching deaths.
I learnt that we all stare through the cracks

of the Underworld. Gladiators report back.
That day I understood how it feels to breathe
by common lungs; how our fear pulses
through a shared vein, a spider’s thread spun

across from warrior to warrior to spectator.
Time passed. Once, somewhere, I gave birth;
my first kill was on account. The rest
without remorse. Thrust by thrust, lunge

by lunge, roar by roar, I matched the men
in battle lust. Now my own death is here.
I light its rusted path with lamps for Anubis
keeper of secrets, weigher of souls. I wait

at his trembling threshold to beg for missio
and redemption. Thumbs up. As I hesitate
in that closing light, I hear the hushed slow
hum of blood. And then walk with courage

from arena into gore-sluiced darkness.

Ghost Passage: Poetry as Archaeology

Today is the publication day of my new collection, Ghost Passage, from Shearsman Books. These poems are inspired by writing that stands outside the usual preconceptions of literature: inscriptions, graffitied household objects, and a cache of Roman writing tablets recently excavated at the Bloomberg site in the City of London. From these incomplete and fragmentary remnants of everyday life, I have teased out the stories of those who might have written them, extrapolating outwards to fill the space and silence that surrounds them. To explore history – and poetry – from the ground up.

This is where the ‘objectivity’ of archaeology and the ‘subjectivity’ of poetry overlap. Like poets, archaeologists seek to uncover lost fragments of human existence, the detritus we leave behind, whether physical or emotional. They forge connections between past and present, inevitably and inescapably reading that past in terms of our present. And where archaeology excavates beautiful, lost objects, long-buried in the accumulating silt of history, poetry excavates language, particularly image and metaphor, from the dusty inspiration of time and place. Both meticulously brush away the dirt to restore the colour and vibrancy to long-forgotten or discarded artefacts. Above all, both seek to reconstruct the tattered fragments, to rebuild the fallen cities, to give breath to the silent voices.

The following sonnet from the collection, “New Roman”, is based on Bloomberg Writing Tablet 79. This is scored simply with a Roman alphabet and apparently used for teaching letters. It probably dates from c.61/2 CE, just after London’s destruction by Boudicca. My inspiration here  was the rebuilding of a city after war, especially as I was working on the poem after watching news reports on children in Syrian refugee camps, desperate to return to school:

New Roman

Walbrook, London 61 CE


In a charred shack we learn our lessons.

Through the smoke I can smell sorrel, ramsons,
blackthorn blossom drifting across like ash
as the shouts of soldiers shatter our hush
and wagons of the dead still roll on past.

We do not want this world, the old language:
destruction, put to fire, revolt, flight, death.
Our task is to etch a new alphabet –
new letters, new tools to rebuild our homes,
gardens for us children, games to play, schools.
We’ll smooth the jagged edge of dialect
and salve its gaping wounds in majuscule.

A-B-C: the scorched march of New Roman
turning blackened wood into cold white stone.

Josephine Balmer

For other poems from the collection on this blog, see here, here and here.

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)

Destruction Horizon

romanboudicaIn 60 CE, nearly twenty years after the Roman emperor Claudius had annexed Britain, British tribes led by the Iceni Queen Boudica revolted against their Roman conquerors. In his account of the rebellion, the Roman historian Tacitus describes how the British first turned their attention to the city of Camulodunum, modern Colchester, razing it to the ground, before marching on Londinium or London.

Perhaps surprisingly, in the face of this threat, the then governor of Britain, Suetonius Paulinus, decided to retreat from the city and leave London to its fate; as the Roman historian Tacitus explains, he “abandoned a city to save the province”. With nothing standing in the way of her forces, Boudica’s sack of London was so savage that even now archaeologists refer to her ‘destruction horizon’ a layer of earth containing ash, soot and burnt artefacts denoting that past, catastrophic event.

boudica-town-hall-stain-glass-window-320-458The following poem, first published in the New Statesman earlier this year (18th April) is written in the voice of Suetonius Paulinus. It follows firstly Greek historian Cassius Dio’s description (63) of the portents that preceded Boudica’s attack and then Tacitus’s own account in his Annals (14.33) which pinpoints the human cost of Suetonius’s decision:


Destruction Horizon

Walbrook, London, 60 CE

On the streets, priests spoke of omens,
babbling voices in the lock-down Basilica,
laughter rattling out from empty theatres,
a twin city reflected in the rising Thames.

I didn’t waver. We didn’t have the numbers.
I gave the command to march on. Some came.
Most were trapped by age or sex, a strange
allegiance to this border post, a tenderness
for hovels they somehow held as home.
They saw the dust storm spinning nearer,
carrying their own deaths – and the British.
A tally of thousands for that bitch Boudica.

But we left them a marker in memorial,
our destruction horizon: impacted soil,
a trickle of red ash like dried-up blood.
Dig down. Dig deep. It’s soaked in the mud.

                         Josephine Balmer

destruction Horizon (2)

The Monastery’s Treasure

A tiny yet passionate fragment of Aeschylus’s lost drama Myrmidons is discovered in a surprising place…


zavordaIn 1959, a previously unknown edition of the ninth century Lexicon of Photius  was discovered at the remote Greek Orthodox Monastery of Zavorda in Macedonia, northern Greece (you can find an account of this by Roger Pearse here). This edition included some pages that were not available in other known editions of the Lexicon, all based on the Codex Galeanus, a 12th century parchment ms. of 149 leaves. Although the Zavorda manuscript is later than the Codex Galeanus, dating from the 13th-14th century, it is the only complete surviving manuscript of the text, containing additional pages and entries absent from other editions, including words beginning with alpha (άβ to άγ).

I was taken with the fact that these new extra pages include the Greek word abdeluktos which, as previously discussed,  Photius tells us means ‘without stain’ or ‘absolved of blame’. Unlike other, later sources, he also notes that it originates in a line from Aeschylus’s lost play Myrmidons, almost certainly as the grieving hero Achilles embraces the corpse of his slain lover Patroclus, exclaiming that such an act is not an abomination ‘because I love him’.

b15f7f0c9bf1b615d0536e1586c85870Photius’ Lexicon is not alone in surviving in the library of a Greek monastery; many works were taken to such safe places following political and religious upheavals in the east, for example after the sack of Constantinople by western soldiers during the so-called Fourth Crusade in 1204, as explored in an earlier post here. As well as marvelling at the tiny miracles and random happenstance at the heart of such textual survivals, I also wondered how the monks would have felt had they known that, for centuries, they had been custodians of evidence of such a passionate, later forbidden love.


The following poem, ‘Trespass’, from my collection, The Paths of Survival, explores that conundrum through the voice of an imaginary monk, forming a companion piece to Photius’s own voice in the poem ‘Gloss’.



(Monastery of Zavorda, Macedonia, 1959)

From the crag we watched as he drew
near, creeping closer like a contagion.
‘My son, we have been expecting you,’
our unsmiling abbot said in welcome.
From the cadence of his voice we knew
he was not talking of days or decades
but the dry passage of our centuries.
For weeks our guest rifled the libraries,
their rare treasures piled around him –
like a child’s toys or stored-up treats.

Now our abbot did not eat or sleep.
We saw the apprehension in his face
as if some half-recalled, splintered dream
had returned, long dreaded, to haunt him,
a fear he could barely form or elucidate.
Our guest found all he had come to seek:
a tattered codex wrapped round in rags
like some precious shard of brittle glass.
He put on his hat and coat, his work done,
a few more words for his literary canon:

Abdeluktos philo. Absolved because I loved him
Anathema. The taint of unconstrained sin –
a snatch of Aeschylus’s foul Myrmidons.
In its shadow we had held sacred homily,
called our brethren to vespers, benediction.
Now it was unleashed again, this heresy
we had guarded here without knowing
for so long. Unspeakable acts. Trespass.

We waited as he faded, a blur in the dark,
disappearing back into fold of river pass.

                                                  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

Articulating Grief II: Cavafy’s Things

cp-cavafyIn C.P. Cavafy’s 1919 poem ‘The Afternoon Sun’, the Greek Alexandrian poet revisits by chance a shabby room which he had once shared with a lover. As in so much of Cavafy’s verse, the poem recreates the past with an erotic intensity, imbuing everyday items – a chair, a jug, and, of course, a bed – with a sense of yearning. The poem had always been a favourite of mine but recently it took on a new significance; my husband and I had decided to buy a new dining table and so arranged for a local charity to collect the old one we had used for over twenty years to sell in their high street shop. Sometime later a cafe opened up next door to the shop and, on visiting it, we recognised our old table among its eclectic collection of furniture  at once.This, in itself, reminded me of the ‘worn-out old things’ in ‘The Afternoon Sun’. But the poem’s closing lines, in which Cavafy recalls his final meeting with his lover, also had a new, more personal resonance; my mother had died very suddenly and, by chance, Cavafy’s parting  also closely echoed the last time I had seen her. I had found it impossible to write about my grief in any way but, through a new version of Cavafy’s Greek text, I found myself able to articulate it for the first time. Now my father and I sit at our old table for coffee every Tuesday morning, and remember.

                                    Cavafy’s Things
            (after The Afternoon Sun and i.m. Darlene Balmer)

We knew it at once: the faded grooves
touched by the afternoon sun.
The crack where we’d left it too long
 in the window, splitting the wood in two.
The candle wax we’d scrubbed but not removed.

 Ah,  yes, this table, it was our family.

 We’d seen it last in the collection van,
shrouded by its upturned chairs.
Now here it was in the newly-opened café
(had it been an office for commercial affairs?
Or maybe a solicitors? No, the bakers…),
lined round in pine, tarnished, second-hand;
a resting-place for dust-blanched builders
slumped over strong tea, the full English,
as dark and heady as funeral incense.

They must be around somewhere,
those worn-out old things…

 On the other side, the place where she laughed
every birthday, all those festive lunches;
in the centre, the faint circle of a wine glass
set down to carry in warmed plates or dishes,
indelible now, an ever-bleeding blemish.

 That afternoon, at 4 o’clock, we said goodbye
for one week only….. I thought I’d see her.
And then that week became forever.

This poem was first published in Agenda, Vol 47,2, Spring 2013. For more information click here


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.

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