Julia Balbilla (Greek: ἡ Ἰουλία Βαλβίλλα, 72 CE – after 130 CE) was a Roman noble woman and poet. Whilst in Thebes, touring Egypt as part of the imperial court of Hadrian, she inscribed four epigrams which have survived.
Family and early life
Balbilla's family were well-connected members of the royal family of the Kingdom of Commagene, a principality in what is now Turkey which was annexed by the Roman Empire. Balbilla was the second child of Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes and Claudia Capitolina, a Greek woman born in Alexandria. Her older brother was Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos. As well as Egyptian and Greek elements, Balbilla's ancestry included Armenian, Median, Syrian and Seleucian lines.
Balbilla’s parents were distant cousins. Claudia Capitolina's paternal grandmother was Aka II of Commagene. Aka II was the great granddaughter of Antiochus I Theos of Commagene. Balbilla's father, was the first born child of Antiochus IV of Commagene and Julia Iotapa of Commagene. Both Antiochus IV and Iotapa were descendants of Antiochus I Theos.
Balbilla's maternal grandfather, after whom she was named, was Tiberius Claudius Balbilus. Balbilus was a Greek of Egyptian descent. He was an astrologer and a learned scholar. He became one of the highest ranking magistrates of the Equestrian order and was Prefect of Egypt from 55 to 59 CE. Balbilus and his father, Thrasyllus of Mendes (Tiberius Claudius Thrasyllus), a grammarian and astrologer were friends of the first Roman emperors including Tiberius, Claudius and Vespasian.
Balbilla's paternal grandparents, Antiochus IV of Commagene and Queen Julia Iotapa were puppet rulers under Rome. Balbilla was born and raised in Rome in the household of her paternal grandfather, Antiochus IV. Prior to Balbilla's birth, Vespasian, had ordered Antiochus IV to abdicate the thrown of Commagene because of his alleged disloyalty to Rome. Antiochus IV and his brother, Callinicus, were accused of colluding with the Kingdom of Parthia against Rome. It is unknown whether these accusations were true. Vespasian gave Antiochus IV sufficient revenue for a luxurious life in Rome. This afforded Balbilla and her brother a traditional Greek education.
The family later moved to Athens where Balbilla’s father, Epiphanes, died at 92 years of age of unknown causes. Capitolina then returned to Alexandria where she married Marcus Junius Rufus, a Roman politician. Capitolina spent her remaining years in Alexandria. Balbilla lived with her for a time then returned to the home of her brother,Philopappos, in Athens.
Despite her aristocratic life, Balbilla's status in Rome may not have been secure as her father was not a senator. However, Philopappos did become a senator, serving as a consul until 109 CE. This afforded Balbilla connections with Trajan and Hadrian. When Philopappos died in 116 CE, Balbilla built for him a burial monument, the Philopappos Monument, on Musaios Hill, south-west of the Acropolis in Athens. Later, Balbilla married an aristocrat in Athens with no issue.
The four epigrammata
Balbilla was a court poet and friend of Hadrian and companion or lady in waiting to his wife, Vibia Sabina. In 129 CE, she accompanied them to the Valley of the Kings in Ancient Egypt. Balbilla was commissioned to record the party's return visit from 19 to 21 November 130 CE. Balbilla inscribed four epigrams in Aeolic Greek, known as 'epigrammata', on the legs of the Colossi of Memnon. The statue reminded Balbilla of the sculptures on Mount Nemrut and the mausoleum of her ancestor, Antiochus I Theos of Commagene. Although the epigrammata were approved public inscriptions they are somewhat akin to graffiti. They have elements of wit, history and mythology written in an Homeric tone. The poems display good use of metaphors, verbal and sound echoes. Inspired by Sappho, Balbilla also used traditional lyric themes: the love of songs and a liking for the Muses.
The first and second epigrams tell the story of a mythical king of Ethiopia Memnon, killed by Achilles at Troy and whom the God Zeus made immortal. Balbilla is not addressing Memnon but is flattering Hadrian and Sabina.
When the August Hadrian Heard Memnon
Memnon the Egyptian I learnt, when warned by the rays of the sun,
speaks from Theban stone.
When he saw Hadrian, the king of all, before rays of the sun,
he greeted him - as far as he was able.
But when the Titan driving through the heavens with his steeds of white,
brought into shadow the second measure of hours,
like ringing bronze Memnon again sent out his voice.
Sharp-toned, he sent out his greeting and for a third time a mighty roar.
The emperor Hadrian then himself bid welcome to
Memnon and left on stone for generations to come.
This inscription recounting all that he saw and all that he heard.
It was clear to all that the gods love him.
When with the August Sabina I Stood Before Memnon
Memnon, son of Aurors and holy Tithon,
seated before Thebes, city of Zeus,
or Amenoth, Egyptian King, as learned.
Priests recount from ancient stories,
greetings, and singing, welcome her kindly,
the August wife of the emperor Hadrian.
A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears:
Impious Cambyses; but he paid the penalty,
with a wretched death struck by the same sword point
with which pitiless he slew the divine Apis.
But I do not believe that this statue of yours will perish,
I saved your immortal spirit forever with my mind.
For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers,
the wise Balbillus and Antiochus the king.
The third epigram, Demo is a dedication to the Muses, Balbilla's suggestion that her work is divinely favoured. She explains that Memnon has shown her special respect. In return, Demo offers her the gift for poetry, as a gift to the hero. At the end of this epigram, she addresses Memnon, highlighting his divine status by recalling his strength and holiness.
Son of Aurora, I greet you. For you addressed me kindly,
Memnon, for the sake of the Pierides, who care for me,
song-loving Demo. And bearing a pleasant gift,
my lyre will always sing of your strength, holy one.
Balbilla dedicates the fourth epigram to her parents and grandfathers and to her noble bloodline.
For pious were my parents and grandfathers:
Balbillus the Wise and King Antiochus;
Balbillus, the father of my mother of royal blood and King Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble blood,
and these verses are mine, pious Balbilla.
After her poetry, no more is known about Balbilla.
|Ancestors of Julia Balbilla|
- The Emperor by Georg Ebers (1880).
- Opus Gemini (part of the Romanike series) by Codex Regious (2014).
- The Glass Ball Game radio play (part of the Caesar! series by Mike Walker.