The Paths of Survival

– the poetry of history –

Tag: Roman Britain

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.

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

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…:

 

Keepsake

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 First Eastern European Immigrant

As Article 50 is triggered, let us remember just how long European immigrants have been in Britain…

 

Colchester inscriptionNigel Farage might have been concerned about Romanians moving in next door but, as an inscription from Roman Colchester reveals, eastern European immigrants have been part of the British landscape since the first century A.D.

In 1928 workmen building new garages on the site of the main Roman cemetery in the town uncovered the fragmented funeral stele of Longinus ‘Sdapezematygus’, an auxiliaryman from Sardica, the modern Bulgarian city of Sofia. Remarkably the figure’s missing face – possibly hacked off during the revolt of Boudicca in 60/1 – was then discovered over seventy years later in 1996 during a dig by the Colchester Archaeology Group. One of the earliest Roman tombs in Britain, Longinus must have died between the invasion of Claudius in A.D. 43, who established Colchester (Camulodonum) as his initial legionary capital, but before the legion withdrew in 49.

Longinus (3)In his funerary sculpture, Longinus is depicted on his horse with his cavalry chain mail tunic and small round shield, brandishing his spear while a defeated British tribesman cowers beneath his horse’s hooves. The damaged text of the tomb’s inscription translates literally as follows: Longinus, Sdapeze s[on of] Matygus, duplicarius, of the 1st cavalry squadron of Thracians from the district of Sardica, aged 40, with 15 years service, lies here. His heirs erected this under his will.

Here we learn that Longinus, presumably his adopted Latin name, was a dulpicarius, a ‘double pay’ junior officer, such as a standard bearer or centurion’s deputy; by birth he is from Thrace, a region which covered northern Greece, Turkey and a large part of Bulgaria.

In the following poem, Longinus’s brief inscription has become a fourteen-line sonnet which incorporates other source material about early Roman Britain such as the prized British Agassian hunting dogs described by many ancient sources, as well as the island’s reputation for good quality wool – and oysters. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many classical writers also had much to say about the new province’s disappointing weather.

A Thracian Auxiliaryman at Colchester

They never managed to pronounce my name;
as I’m tall, I was always just ‘Longinus’
though my father was Sdapezematygus,
a Thracian, from Sofia. Can’t complain:
I was on double time. The days were dank
but the oysters were good. I bought a cloak
plus a new hunting bitch, Agassia,
with squat little legs, sharp teeth and soft paws
(the wife and kids back home would have loved her).
Fifteen years I served with the cavalry
across the east – Syria, Scythia –
at forty it ends here. Remember me:
I was part of the advance, one of the first.
Your ancestor. My bones still feed this earth.

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