Ponza: island of history, and mystery

Off the coast of Italy, in the Tyrrhenian sea, there is a small archipelago: the Pontine Islands. They are Ponza, Ventotene, Zannone, Palmarola, Santo Stefano, and Gavi. The largest is Ponza. I first visited it in 1979, when the man who soon became, and still is, my husband planned a surprise trip there from the central Italian city where we lived.

I hesitate to tell what a magical place this is…..even to my small but loyal (!) readership. White volcanic cliffs, clear blue-green waters; pale-washed houses climbing the steep rocks, church with its cupola at the heart of the main town clustered round the harbour.

We returned many years later, along with two of our children, now almost grown up. On this second trip, I was looking at it differently. By then I was thinking about a book.

Ponza and Ventotene (then called Pontia and Pandateria) were, in Imperial Rome, places of exile, where emperors sent family members who annoyed them, or political enemies. Today, an island in the Mediterranean is a holiday dream, but in ancient Rome these were dreaded destinations. To be banished from the Empire's heart, in utter disgrace, living on a parched and primitive rock with fishermen, under supervision of soldiers, fearing every moment the emperor's assassins—this was a terrible fate. Augustus sent his daughter Julia to Ventotene; Caligula's mother Agrippina the Elder and his brother Nero (not the emperor) were exiled to Pandateria and Ponza respectively, and died on those islands, probably murdered or forced to starve themselves to death; and the list goes on. Among the names of famous exiles in the ancient world is that of Flavia Domitilla.

But there is confusion about Flavia Domitilla; ancient sources contradict each other. She is variously a mother of seven children sent to Ventotene, a young girl sent to Ponza, a Jew, a Christian; exiled for this reason, or for that. And from some kernel of historical truth there arose, over centuries, the hagiographical romance of Saint Domitilla, virgin martyr, one of Ponza's two patron saints, still celebrated with festival and flowers and the loyalty of the islanders. A loyalty that is recorded since at least the fourth century AD, and probably goes back to the first.

On Ponza, you can still see Roman ruins; parts of the old imperial villa, the remains of the fish-pools where the Romans raised fish (interconnected with sluice gates that could be dropped and lifted between the ponds), cellars that were once Roman houses, and Roman tunnels, including one that goes right under the island's rocky spine, at its wasp-waisted narrowest point, from one side of the island to the other.

Climbing the island's narrow paths, for it is a steep place with the main town clinging to the cliffside, I tried to imagine myself two thousand years ago, when Domitilla was sent here by an emperor who hated her, for reasons history has not made clear.

To walk down the Roman tunnel under the island's rocky mass, seeing on the tunnel walls the diamond-shaped traces of Roman brickwork, opus reticulata, reticulated or "net-like" work, is to dive back into the the past.

For years I traced the interconnected filaments. The book that came out of all this probes the places where history and hagiography meet, explores the gaps, and finds a way to reconcile the conflicting stories of the two exiled Domitillas. And from long ago emerges a companion for the exiled Roman girl, a woman with strange blue tattoos and unusual green eyes, a woman originally from distant Britannia. She has worked as a scribe (for there were some female scribes who took notes and acted as secretaries in ancient Rome.) On Ponza, in the heat and dryness of exile, she writes for comfort's sake, using parchment pages, an early version of the codex notebook.  And what she writes has survived…as the Nag Hammadi codices survived...or as the lists and letters written on thin wooden tablets were found two thousand years later in the mud of northern England at Vindolanda.

The scribe's parchment pages are read two thousand years later by a modern person, a woman who had also been to Ponza; a tiny scrap of land in the blue Mediterranean connecting them across the centuries. And as the modern woman reads the story of that long-ago scribe, she finds there is much more that links their lives. So much more that the voice from two thousand years ago has power to change her now.

A place can, sometimes, be a catalyst, even years later. One day I will go to Ponza again, and give thanks for the twisting paths—narrow, rocky and difficult, like those of the island itself—that finally led to a finished book, Inscription.