The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Roman Britain

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

ABCDEFGHIKL
MNOPQRST…

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.

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