Picture by Alan Sorrell
For the most part we think of classical texts as "high" art, a canon of complex works written for an elite, highly educated audience. In my newly completed collection, Ghost Passage, I was interested more in non-literary classical texts from Roman Britain, the writing that stands outside the usual preconceptions of literature: inscriptions, graffitied household objects, stamped beer barrels and medical potions, even spells written on pewter amulets.
The first three poems here, for example, were inspired by a cache of Roman writing tablets – the earliest known written texts in the capital – recently excavated at Walbrook in the City of London during the building of the new Bloomberg Headquarters. The tablets contain the accounts and affairs of the city's ordinary inhabitants, articulating the fragmented, everyday voices of the past, so often overlooked, to offer history, and poetry, from the ground up. The fourth poem, discovered in 1989 on what would have been the Roman foreshore of the Thames, is based on an amulet inscribed with a Greek magical spell. Incredibly, its strange verse incantation is quoted by other ancient writers as a popular charm used against the Antonine plague which ravaged the empire in 165-170 CE. Most of all they illustrate how Londoners have always written themselves in to the landscape of their city.
The three writing tablet poems were originally written as part of a 2019 Being Human Festival of the Arts and Humanities event at the Bloomberg Space at the London Mithraeum museum where many of the writing tablets are now displayed, This was curated by the indefatigable Dr Charlotte Parkyn of the University of Notre Dame (US) London Centre, whose students performed the poems on the night under the direction of drama tutor Jay Skelton. Sincere thanks are due to all at Notre Dame as well as to Helen Chiles of Bloomberg Space.
Writer [?], London
Writing tablets, Walbrook, London, 70 CE
It seemed a slip, a novice error,
marked, as if crossed through.
A word no one could read. Or knew.
But I am the first. It holds my fear
and my life, the heart-knot terror
of a letter misplaced, misconstrued.
I breathe only through its lungs –
my bone, my blood, my sinew;
the hours of training at my letters.
This usury of borrowed tongues.
And all those others yet to come.
In 2,000 years fold back our leaves
to trace the fossil trail we'll make;
the crumbling walls, the shored gates,
each half-breath catching in the dust,
the lines we send like emerald moths
to brush your doorstep as you sleep:
We bear witness in our own hand
that debts owed shall be paid later...
We have seen our city shrunk to sand
so we scratch wood to soothe the ache –
diminished words we leave behind
to score these shuddering, ghosted streets
back into form and place: London writer.
Then hand them on for you to shape.
(i) Crispus’s Account
Writing tablet, Walbrook, London, 82 CE
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 fast
as one emptied we'd fill yet more firkins
until our streets brimmed with swaying legions
waiting on their orders (by all reports
our brash 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.
(ii) The Cavalry
Writing tablet, Walbrook, London, 84 CE
[insert name here] received a loan
Longinus, troop of Marinus
Agrippa, troop of Silvanus
Verecundus, troop of Silvanus
We're the lucky ones who made it back
unscathed, still able to give a signature
and remember (just) who we once were:
Longinus had wanted to open a smithy
but could no longer keep his hand steady.
Agrippa fancied leather or metal-working
but cowered at any sudden flash or bang.
I, Verecundus, dreamt of marriage, a son.
But what woman on earth would put up
with a temper that was no longer my own?
We knew we could not forget Caledonia
but all of us were agreed: we would never
speak of it again. Once we were The Cavalry.
Now we bear witness only to those in need
of a hand, a loan. Our price for getting home.
God Help Demetrios
Pewter amulet, Upper Thames Street, London,169 CE
away all heart-
spare us its men-
...protect me, dispel
the darkening, cloud-
When the Watch turned him over he was rashed,
mottled with sores. The same plague (and fifth corpse)
we'd seen that day, each clutching amulets
for protection. Their Greek was chalked on doors
to stem pestilence with prayer, gibberish –
the pus-filled promise of charlatans' charms.
And yet those same houses reeked most of death
as if enchantments inflamed infection.
Demetrios fed our pits. His talisman
we tipped in the Thames. Maybe it cost him
but the pewter was not worth salvaging
for fear of fresh taint, contamination.
All hearts stopped as he twitched. We'd been disarmed.
And we'd been wrong: poetry might save one.
Josephine Balmer is a poet and classical translator. Her translations of Sappho have been continuously in print since 1984 and in 1989 were shortlisted for the inaugural US Lambda Literary Awards. In 2018, they were reissued in an expanded edition to include newly-discovered fragments (Bloodaxe Books). Her recent collection, The Paths of Survival (Shearsman), was shortlisted for the 2017 London Hellenic Prize. Other works include Letting Go (Agenda Editions, 2017), The Word for Sorrow (Salt, 2007), Chasing Catullus (Bloodaxe, 2004), Catullus: Poems of Love and Hate (Bloodaxe, 2004) and Classical Women Poets (Bloodaxe, 1996). She has also published a study of classical translation and versioning, Piecing Together the Fragments (OUP, 2013).