The Earliest London Pub

Some of the most important inhabitants of Roman London – at least for its new citizens – were those involved in the brewing, distribution and selling of alcohol. A recently-discovered writing tablet, excavated during the building of the new Bloomberg Headquarters in the City of London, contains the fragmentary accounts of one Crispus, a brewer or innkeeper (or both), detailing the consumption of rather large amounts of beer (WT.72).

The tablet dates from any time between c. 65-80 CE. For this poem (first published in New Statesman) from my forthcoming collection, Ghost Passage, I chose to situate it towards the end of this period, during the governorship of Agricola, father-in-law of the historian Tacitus. Tacitus recounts how Agricola expanded Roman territory into the far, wild north of Britain, and then on into Scotland or Caledonia – a time when his soldiers would surely have needed a few drinks to see them through…

Account

Supplied to Crispus’s tavern:
Beer,   5 denarii [1000 pints]
           7 denarii [1400 pints]

Night after night we had the thankless task
of keeping the city watered. As soon
as one emptied we’d fill another cask
until our streets brimmed with swaying legions
waiting on their orders (by all reports
our rash new governor, that ambitious
arsewipe Agricola, would now march north).

I didn’t blame them. As a veteran
I knew those roads, the rigid, bone-strewn paths
that level worlds while names, careers, are built.
This was Caledonia: dark, unmapped,
uncrossed, its tarns as deep as hidden guilt,
its forests trembling like a long-planned trap.
Every drop they drained would soon be spilt
.

Josephine Balmer