by Josephine Balmer
The Roman Sensualist and the Derbyshire Peak Village
A year or so ago, while on holiday in the Derbyshire Peak District, my husband bought me a pair of blue john earrings from one of the many jewellers in the village of Castleton. Castleton is extremely proud of its blue john, and is the only place in the country where the stone occurs, so we were also presented with a leaflet about its history. This claimed blue john had first been mined by the Romans and even mentioned by the ancient historians Pliny and Tacitus. These, we read, record how the first century AD Roman writer and sensualist, Petronius, author of the Satyricon, one of the earliest novels in literature, had owned a precious chalice made of the Derbyshire stone.
Intrigued, I tracked down the passages in both authors (Tacitus Annals, 17.18-19 & Pliny Natural History 37.7) who both recounted how, before comitting suicide after an accusation of treason, Petronius had destroyed his valuable cup so that the emperor Nero could not subsequently possess it. Of course, as it so often the case with anecdotal evidence, scholarship was more sceptical that Petronius’s cup was made of blue john; for while the Romans undoubtedly mined British metals and stone – some of the resources that first drew them to the island – Pliny’s description of the chalice as ‘myrrhinam’ has been taken to refer to an imported Chinese porcelain, hence its high value. But for the purposes of poetry rather than scholarship, this connection between a sophisticated, urbane writer and courtier at the very centre of the Roman empire and a tiny Peakland outpost on its northerly British edge seemed too fascinating to eschew, as the following poem explores. First published in Agenda (45.2.), its first three stanzas follow Tacitus’s account, in particular, fairly closely, while the fourth and final stanza is an addendum of my own.
He had devoted his life to feasts, sensual pleasure.
Nights were his days not as dissolute but voluptuary.
His chalice, they say, worth 300,000 sesterces,
was cast of blue john, mined only in Britannia –
that rare and precious stone all drunkards pray for,
since the more you supped, the more you sobered.
It seemed he knew it was waiting, Nero’s ultimatum:
arrest, disgrace, or flick of knife on opened vein.
He lay down calmly as his life blood ebbed,
entertained his loyal friends, hospitable as ever,
talked not of the world to come or of philosophy
but gossiped, joked, read from his ribald Satyricon.
Sometimes he slept, rehearsing the hush of death
but made no will, refused to weep or beg or flatter,
listed, instead, Nero’s lovers: Male. Female. Other.
And so his enemy could not claim or pollute them,
he destroyed his signet ring and prized possessions,
took one last sip then let his rare chalice shatter.
In every shard now he saw the shrouded Peaks
and shivering myrrhine mountains: Mam Tor
flecked with flinty rain, sharp as arrow shafts;
the corroding course of lime-washed streams,
jagged like a heart-line, life about to splinter,
fading away beneath in half-remembered dream.
He walked towards it, that soft northern pass.