The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Category: Women’s Poetry

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.

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)

Revisiting Sappho

Sappho coverAs a translator, revisiting a text or series of texts you first worked on many years ago is always a fascinating – and daunting – task. This week Bloodaxe Books publish a new, revised edition of my Sappho: Poems and Fragments, which initially appeared with Brilliance Books in 1984, followed in 1992 by its first Bloodaxe edition. The new volume contains translations of several recent discoveries of fragments by the Greek poet, some of which offer rewritings and re-readings of previously known fragmentary poems. Others provide tantalising glimpses of  hitherto unknown fragments.

One of the new fragments in this latter group, fragment 16a (No. 124 in Sappho: Poems and Fragments), derives from a series of papyri acquired by the private Green Collection in Oklahoma City, and later published by Sappho textual scholar Dirk Obbink in 2014.  Its sparse eight lines could represent the opening stanzas of a new poem that followed fragment 16, the Ode to Anactoria, in textual editions. Alternatively, in his latest textual edition of the new fragments, Obbink has argued that this new piece might instead constitute a continuation of fragment 16 itself, a poem many editors had previously thought complete.

Whatever the truth, the new fragment’s opening stanza appears to chime with the theme and concerns of much of Sappho’s love poetry; the nature of desire and the ways in which the lover might find happiness. As Obbink has noted, it also features a typically Sapphic progression from generalised experience (‘No, it is not possible for anyone/to be completely happy…’) to that of the individual, whether or not identified as the poet herself.

kairosThe fragment’s second stanza is far more incomplete but nevertheless contains some startling images. In line 6 of the fragment the words ep’akras, or literally ‘on the edges’, could refer to a Greek expression for ‘on tiptoes’. The following line appears to have an equally arresting reference to chion, in Homer used of fallen snow. This could evoke the figure of Kairos or ‘Opportunity’, the concept of acting at the correct time or seizing the day, which in Greek art and mythology was often portrayed as a young man running on tiptoes. But ep’akras was also used of being ‘on the edge’ of a changing season, particularly spring, which chimed with the later mention of (perhaps melting) snow. In addition, the verb which Obbink reads as ebas, or ‘you went’ echoes the eba (‘she went’) used of Helen’s desertion of Paris in fragment 16. And so I added in some conjectures here to include the image of a lover leaving like fleeting snow in the spring:


No, it is not possible for anyone
to be completely happy. And so we pray
that we might have our own small share. I myself
bear witness to this…                                                                       

[Seize the fleeting moment as it] comes to pass…  
… you went away on the brink [of spring]….
….[vanished like the melting] snow. But she…
…many things….




A New Fragment – And a New Translation: Sappho, The Cologne Fragment

220px-Tithonos_Eos_Louvre_G438_detailWhen a hitherto unknown Sappho papyrus was discovered at the University of Cologne in 2004 – and later published by Martin West in 2005 – there was huge media interest in the ‘new’ Sappho poem. However, as Sappho scholars soon recognised, most of this ‘new’ work was actually another piece of the puzzle from an existing piece of papyrus from Oxyrhynchus, fragment 58. With tattered, disputed text, scholars have had to become inured to the fact that not just their interpretation but their very content might constantly be shifting.

This means, of course, that the text we appear to have now is not the same one I translated for Sappho: Poems and Fragments thirty years ago. Nevertheless, when I was working on my, then much more incomplete poem, I felt a strong affinity to the fragment from the start; it became the one exception to my rule of not filling in the gaps, although I dutifully added a page note to the effect that ‘most of this translation is conjecture’.

Such conjecture was, of course, aided by the poem’s reference to the myth of Tithonus and Eös, the immortal Dawn who gave her lover eternal life but forgot to give him eternal youth until he was transformed into a shrivelled cicada:

…already old age is wrinkling my skin
and my hair is turning from black
to grey; my knees begin to tremble
and my legs no longer carry me…
oh, but once, once we were like young deer
…what can I do?…

                                    …it is not possible
to return to my youth; for even
Eös, the dawn, whose arms are roses,
who brings light to the end of the earth –
found that old age embraced Tithonus,
her immortal lover…
                                      …I know I must die
yet I love the intensity of life
and this, and desire, keep me here in
the brightness and beauty of the sun
[and not with Hades…]

When West’s new, more complete, text appeared in 2005, it was very gratifying to discover that, by coincidence, my conjectures followed this quite closely. If translation is an activity that occupies the realms of inspiration and creativity, as well as the pages of the dictionary, then it was also cheering to find that it embraced serendipity as well. For this reason, when I was recently asked by Peggy Reynolds to provide a version of the West’s new text for Poet in the City’s ‘Sappho…Fragments’ event at the Bloomsbury Theatre London on October 31st, so entwined were the two texts in my mind, they proved harder to disentangle than I might have thought.

In the end, to distinguish this new version from my earlier reconstruction, I decided to use rather more formal, less conversational semantics in English. But despite all efforts, I found it hard to keep to the six couplets of West’s reconstruction without writing prose lines. And so the text was transmuted into an almost-sonnet of fourteen lines. Nevertheless, thirty years – and two millennia later – it still felt as if Sappho was at my shoulder as I wrote:

The gifts of the Muses are violet-threaded,
rare: follow their path, my daughters, pursue
the lyre’s clear-voiced, enthralling song.
Once I, too, was in tender bud. Now old age
is wrinkling my skin and my hair is turning
from black to grey; my heart is weighted,
knees buckle where I danced like a deer.

Yet what else can I do but complain?
To be human is to grow old. They say
Eös, the rosy-fingered dawn, whispered,
of love to Tithonus, whirled him away
to the very edge of the world, beguiled
by his youth and beauty. Yet still he aged,
still he withered, despite his immortal wife.

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.

Translation and the Rehabilitation of Forgotten Ancient Poetry


My new book on translation and poetry, Piecing Together the Fragments: Translating Classical Verse, Creating Contemporary Poetry, will be published by Oxford University Press in September. Here is the first short taster, an extract from the section on my 1996 volume Classical Women Poets (published by Bloodaxe Books). This explores how, in conjunction with classical scholarship, translation can reanimate and rehabilitate lost fragments by forgotten ancient poets, here by Hedyle, a woman poet from Athens:


A Snatch of Sea Air: Hedyle’s ‘Scylla’
Hedyle, the only extant woman poet from Athens, was harder to track down, despite the city’s far more mainstream literary tradition. As Nancy Sorkin Rabinowitz has noted of classical Athens: ‘there were times and places more hospitable to women writers.’ Similarly, when collecting poets for her 1983 anthology, ‘Women Poets of the World’, Joanna Bankier discovered that women writers seem to flourish in ‘decentralised cultures’ but vanished under ‘a strong centralised power’ where poetry became a prestigious activity. Thought to date from the third century BC, a snatch of Hedyle’s mythological poem, ‘Scylla’, had originally been quoted by Athenaeus (7.297A) around AD 200.

But so obscure was the piece that Jane Synder’s indispensible ‘The Woman and the Lyre’ made only passing reference to it, although Diane Rayor included a literal translation in her 1991 anthology, ‘Sappho’s Lyre’, in which one Glaucus presents love gifts of ‘cockleshells from the Erythraian reef’ and ‘still unfledged halcyon chicks’ to a sea-nymph, Scylla. Through Rayor’s excellent referencing, I tracked down an edited text in ‘Supplementum Hellenisticum’. This points to a fascinating re-imagining of the myth of Homer’s six-headed sea-monster, Scylla, here seen in her youth as a beautiful girl, loved unrequitedly by the merman, Glaucus.

Hedyle’s approach appears to contrast starkly with Ovid’s version centuries later in his ‘Metamorphoses’, where Glaucus turns to the Homeric sorceress Circe for help but, falling in love with him herself, Circe jealously transforms her rival Scylla into a monster (13.904ff,14.66ff). But where Ovid’s Glaucus is overcome by sexual passion, wooing Scylla only with an account of his own troubles, Hedyle’s protagonist is tender and hesitant, furthering his suit with lover’s gifts. Meanwhile, in an engaging modern reimagining by Vicki Feaver for Michael Hofmann and James Lasdun’s influential 1994 project, ‘After Ovid: New Metamorphoses’, Scylla is a hapless bystander to Circe, who articulates her own revenge: ‘Because he wouldn’t enter me/I made her unenterable – Scylla/the nymph who fled from the god…/I wanted.’

If such texts were hard to come by, textual commentaries were practically non-existent, apart from Diane Rayor’s brief but helpful notes to her translation, in which she commented on the suitability of Glaucus’s sea-themed gifts. But, as I began to work on the piece, I found further artifice in Hedyle’s list; not just the sea imagery of corals and shells – also associated with Aphrodite, the goddess of love – but the kingfisher chicks, given by lovers in antiquity as symbols of undying love, after the myth of Alcyone who threw herself into the sea when her husband Ceyx was drowned (in the Scylla myth the rejected Glaucus also drowns himself). Kingfishers had other associations, too, namely the Greek-derived phrase ‘halcyon days’, the fourteen winter days when the birds built their nests in the calm before the storm. I incorporated this reading in to my version, stretching Hedyle’s sparse five and a half lines into two stanzas.

In the Greek, it is unclear who is the subject of the fragment’s opening lines. In my version, I transformed these into a first-person speech by Glaucus in order to foreground his lover’s emotion. This could then be contrasted to and distanced from the poet’s authorial voice which ends the extract. To me, the piece seemed a strange and beautiful fragment, concentrated, like the work of many of the women poets, around absence and loss. As I noted in my introductory comments in ‘Classical Women Poets’, in a few, brief tantalising lines, ‘Hedyle weaves a complex and ironic association of faith and betrayal, hope and disappointment, love and grief’:


‘I brought you shells, Scylla, from clear coral reefs
and kingfisher chicks still learning how to fly –
those halcyon days to come. All these I gave
without faith, without hope.’

                                             At Glaucus’s grief
Sirens wept, his fellow dwellers of the deep;
and they swam in sorrow from their rocky shore
by simmering Etna….

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

Next time: an exploration of the ways in which classical works and their translation can provide a voice through which a poet might say the unsayable.

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