The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Roman History

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)

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.

Caracalla’s Wrath

Two years before his death in 217AD (see my previous entry), the Roman emperor Caracalla had perpetrated an act of extreme savagery against the citizens of ancient Alexandria in revenge for their satires about him. In particular, the Alexandrians were said to be making gibes about the fact that Caracalla had murdered his brother – and then co-emperor – Geta in front of their own mother whom, it was rumoured, he then planned to marry. Caracalla’s revenge was not only brutal but, according to surviving accounts by ancient historians Dio Cassius and Herodian, reveals many chilling similarities with the actions of more modern despots. For instance, Caracalla’s duplicity and delight in tricking the Alexandrians into watching the massacre of all of the city’s young men, his lack of remorse at his bloodthirsty actions, his pretensions to culture, and his subsequent ‘walling-in’ of Alexandrian neighbourhoods, like an ancient version of the Warsaw Ghetto, all seem terrifyingly recognizable today. The poem appears in my collection, The Paths of Survival.

Caracalla’s Wrath

(Alexandria, A.D. 215)

We’d heard the rumours, knew his bad report,
still we welcomed him with music, torches,
threw petals under his feet as he walked:
the emperor known as ‘cut-price Oedipus’
(he’d killed his brother to marry mother)  –
we Alexandrians love gossip, satire.

Now he styled himself the new Achilles,
summoned our young men as his own phalanx.
We sneered in secret at his vanities,
as they lined for parade, dug trench on trench.
Yet still we watched in pride, picked out our own –
a flash of hair or cloak as they worked on.

Slumped over Aeschylus’s Myrmidons
I have heard so many insolent threats –
Caracalla skulked in the Serapeum.
And then scent of earth became stench of flesh.

From afar he gave the signal to slay
our sons. Then we knew; they’d dug their own graves.

and so had we. From afar we saw dead
packed on dead, rising in burial mounds,
some pushed in alive, crushed, suffocated.
Back in our gates, he placed armed guards around
each quarter, walled us up in our own streets,
burned our books, destroyed our academies.

How many slain I neither care nor know –
only that each last one deserved to die,

his wrote in his dispatches back to Rome.
For now the city has been purified.
He sacrificed cows to our temple gods

as he’d sacrificed us to his own wrath.

The jokes were over. We renamed him ‘the Beast’ –
a title he earned, role he revelled in.
We had thought we were such sophisticates,
shielded by our wit, our erudition,
safe in our city’s shining walls, aloof.
He dyed them black with the blood of our youth.

Josephine Balmer

Caracalla’s Slash

This week in 217 AD, the Roman emperor Caracalla was murdered by one of his guards as he crouched to urinate by the side of the road near Carrhae in Mesopotamia during a journey to visit the temple of the moon goddess Selene. It was an ignominious end for a tyrannical ruler. Even by the standards of later emperors, Caracalla seems particularly blood-thirsty, at least according to ancient sources; for instance, the  historian Herodian reports how, two years earlier, aggrieved by reports that he was being mocked by the citizens of Alexandria, Caracalla had slaughtered all the young men of serviceable age in the city, until the plains of the Nile and even the sea itself, ran with blood. In today’s climate, with recent events in the Middle East coming to mind in particular, Caracalla’s fate serves as a warning to all tyrants – wherever they are, whatever they might be doing, justice is on its way…

Caracalla’s Slash

(Mesopotamia, April, 217 AD)

The night he halted our convoy –
the night I turned assassin –
a huge moon hung above us
as if there were no distance
between earth and inked sky.

At his nod the Praetorians
withdrew, deferent, polite,
leaving him to his own ablutions
and I to my one wild chance
(I knew he would not fight).

I smiled at him as if summoned,
an intimate to watch him piss:
I stroked the tiny, jewelled dagger
hidden in the crease of my palm
like a secret sign or betrayer’s kiss –

revenge for my wronged brothers,
for 20,000 fallen in Alexandria.
He’d thought he was a hero, god.
As the blade sunk into his shoulder
he was just another slain dictator.

This is how tyrants meet their end:
arse down, cock out, hunched
by the side of a dirt-track, shrunk
to their own size like all other men.

Josephine Balmer



%d bloggers like this: