Roman Diptych

Stephen Milne

1. Domus Livia

Sic transit gloria mundi

On the white walls of the Palatine
Livia in her blue dress
wakes to the fluted birds

Lizards like emerald blades
laze in the fluttering sun

Under thirty pines the Emperor walks
Augustus and his son      cold spring waters
rush by at their marble feet

Slave girls from Umbria
string pearls at her throat      plait tresses with silver
lay out the Roman style

Down there in the terrible arena
bearded prophets and martyrs come
from Galilee to the temple of Mars

awake the dead with their vows
torment the crowds      with their Christ
whose golden blood meanders in the dust

of Cybele and Diana      of Tuscan gardens
where Christians run      to see the saffron dawn
fretted with gospel fire

Torn limb from limb      from Antioch or Athens
past Livia’s house and the senate
past market stalls and tombs

to the crumbling Colosseum
where a white dove falls and gladiators die
drenched in the passing world

2. For the Unknown Martyrs of Rome

“I am his wheat, ground fine by the lions’ teeth
to be made purest bread for Christ”
St Ignatius of Antioch

I came here       amongst jackals and wolves
to the green marble of the fountains
the aquiline gossip of the emperors

their wives       pale-faced daughters of the tribune
plan my funeral       their well-dressed feet
hurry past grey-blue pools       under snaking pines

At the Colosseum doors
I am offered wine and vinegar       a sharp stick
berries mixed with thorns

at the alabaster steps       Livia waits
her tears like bright beads in the dark
where chains glitter and burn

I came here for Christ
his resurrection body rolled back from the earth
The crowd bays       in love with death

at whose door I enter
upon whose hills the wild thyme grows
and my Master walks

Palatine Hill, Rome
April 2010