Writing tablet, Walbrook, London, 81 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 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 soon 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.
And 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 is a poet, classical translator, research scholar and literary critic. This poem, which takes as its starting point a Roman writing tablet recently discovered in the City of London, is part of a new project entitled “Ghost Passage”.
[See also: The NS Poem: caries]