Julia Balbilla, Court Poet
Daughter of Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes and Claudia Capitolina
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About Julia Balbilla, Court Poet
Julia Balbilla (Greek: η Ιουλία Βαλβίλλα, 72 – after 130) was a noble Roman woman and a poet who lived between the 1st century and 2nd century in the Roman Empire.
Family & Early Life
Balbilla was a woman who came aristocratic and well-connected origins. She was a princess and a member of the exiled Royal Family who were from the Kingdom of Commagene. She was the daughter, second child and youngest one born to Greek prince of Commagene, Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes and an Egyptian Greek woman called Claudia Capitolina. The eldest brother and only sibling was the prominent Athenian Citizen and consul Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos.
Balbilla’s parents were distantly related. The paternal grandmother of Claudia Capitolina was Greek Princess Aka II of Commagene, who was a granddaughter or great, granddaughter of King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene. While her father was the first born son to King Antiochus IV of Commagene and his wife Queen Julia Iotapa of Commagene. Antiochus IV and Iotapa were direct descendants of Antiochus I Theos.
Her maternal grandparents were Tiberius Claudius Balbilus and an unnamed Greek woman. Balbilla was named in honor and was the namesake of her maternal grandfather. Balbilus was an Egyptian Greek and was one of the highest magistrates of Equestrian rank that served in Rome. Balbilus was an astrologer and a learned scholar, who was later Prefect of Egypt. Balbilus and his father, Egyptian Greek Grammarian and Astrologer called Thrasyllus of Mendes or Tiberius Claudius Thrasyllus, were friends to the first Roman Emperors, which included Tiberius, Claudius and Vespasian.
Her paternal grandparents were Roman Client Monarchs, King Antiochus IV of Commagene and Queen Julia Iotapa. Antiochus IV and Iotapa were husband, wife and full blooded-siblings. Balbilla was of Armenian, Greek and Medes descent. Through her both sets of grandparents, she was a direct descendant from the ruling Monarchs of the Greek Syrian Seleucid Empire and the Greek Egyptian Ptolemaic Kingdom. Balbilla was born and raised in Rome. Before Balbilla was born the Roman Emperor Vespasian, had given orders to Antiochus IV to terminate his rule over Commagene, because there were accusations made that Antiochus IV; her father and her paternal uncle prince Callinicus of disloyalty to the Emperor. They were planning to ally themselves to the Kingdom of Parthia and revolt against the Roman Empire. It is unknown whether these accusations were true or false.
While Balbilla lived in Rome, she was raised in the household of her paternal grandfather, Antiochus IV. In the household of the paternal grandfather lived Antiochus IV; prince Callinicus; her parents and her brother. Vespasian had given Antiochus IV, sufficient revenue for him and his family to live on. Her and her family had a glamorous life in Rome and were treated with great respect. With her brother, they had a traditional Greek education of the Wealthy Class.
After the deaths of her grandfathers, Epiphanes; Capitolina; Philopappos and Balbilla left Rome. The family moved and settled in Athens, Greece. Balbilla’s father Epiphanes died in Athens in 92 of unknown causes. After the death of Epiphanes, Capitolina returned to her birth city of Alexandria, Egypt where she married for the second time to the Roman Politician Marcus Junius Rufus. Capitolina spent her remaining years in her birth city and for a period of time Balbilla was with her mother and later returned to Philopappos in Athens. There is a possibility that Balbilla had an interest in astrology.
Although Balbilla belonged to the Roman Aristocracy, there is a possibility that she didn’t inherit any dignity from the Roman Senate. Her late father, was not of Senatorial Rank, but was brother became a Roman Senator, who served as a consul in 109. In 116 Philopappos died and as a dedicated to his memory, Balbilla bequeathed a splendid burial moment known as The Philopappos Monument, which is situated on the Musaios Hill, south west of the Acropolis in Athens. Through the influence, political and religious activity of Philopappos, she had met the Roman Emperor Trajan, Trajan’s heir and paternal second cousin Hadrian and also their families.
At some date in Athens, Balbilla married an unnamed Roman aristocrat. There is a possibility that her husband could have been of Senatorial Rank and through this marriage she inherited Senatorial Rank. Unfortunately there is no record of any children nor any descendants from this marriage, however her husband most probably died before 129.
Tour of Egypt & Her Poetry
During their travels throughout the Roman Empire, Roman Emperor Hadrian; his wife and Roman Empress Vibia Sabina were escorted by Balbilla, as they visited the Valley of the Kings in Ancient Egypt in 129. How Balbilla became their escort in Egypt is unknown.
During 19–21 November 130, in commemoration of their visit to the Valley of the Kings, Hadrian, Sabina and Balbilla returned again to the Valley of the Kings. Hadrian and Sabina, commissioned Balbilla to record their visit in 130 to the Valley of the Kings. Balbilla was a court-poetess and friend to Hadrian and Sabina. Hadrian and Sabina were her patrons while they were in Egypt, however she didn’t receive any privileges from them.
Balbilla inscribed four epigrams in Aeolic Greek, the language used by the great Greek Poet Sappho eight centuries earlier. Balbilla was inspired and influenced by the lyric poetry of Sappho. These four epigrams known as Epigrammata, were inscribed and are preserved on lower parts on one of the Colossi of Memnon. The Colossi of Memnon are two massive stone statues built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III (flourished 14th century BC), to stand guard at the entrance of Amenhotep’s memorial temple. (Colossi of Memnon and the Valley of the Kings are two separate archaeological sites that are both located on the west bank of (Thebes, Egypt). When Balbilla had seen the Colossi of Memnon, these stone statues reminded her of the colossal sculptures on Mount Nemrut and the mausoleum of her ancestor King Antiochus I Theos of Commagene. These four epigrams are considered by Modern Historians/Scholars as “graffiti” and Hadrian and Sabina approved them, they are considered as public inscriptions. These witty epigrams have a Homeric Tone and the epigrams are caught up between history and mythology. The poems display good use of metaphors, verbal and sound echoes. Balbilla in her epigrams demonstrates a traditional lyric poet: a lover for song and a liking for the Muses. These epigrams reveal the learned, interesting personality of Balbilla. However at the same time, these epigrams honors Hadrian, Sabina and honors Balbilla’s descent. Although these epigrams have no particular literary value, they reveal Balbilla as a poet identity and by Balbilla inscribing her name on the Colossi of Memnon, she is acknowledging and making reference to her royal and aristocratic descent.
The first and second epigram honors and tells the story of a mythical King of Ethiopia Memnon, who was killed by soldier Achilles at Troy and whom the God Zeus made immortal. Balbilla finds she is not addressing Memnon, but is flattering Hadrian and Sabina.
When the August Hadrian heard Memnon.
by Julia Balbilla 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, alluding her poetry to them, making her poetry as divinely favoured. She explains that Memnon has shown her special respect. Demo offers her in return her gift for poetry, as a gift to the hero. In the end of this epigram, she addresses Memnon highlighting his divine status in recalling his strength and holiness. Demo 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. The fourth and final epigram, Balbilla dedicates to her parents and grandfathers. This epigram is dedicated also to her noble and aristocratic blood. 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 on Balbilla.
- Rosenmeyer, Patricia (2010). Julia Balbilla. London: Routledge. ISBN 9780415430067.
Speller, Elizabeth (2003). Following Hadrian: a second-century journey through the Roman Empire. London: Review. ISBN 0-7472-6662-X.
- Yourcenar, Marguerite. Memoirs of Hadrian. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 0-374-52926-4.