Travels with Hadrian: Julia Balbilla, Her Poetry, and Ancient Tourism

[Bust of an unknown Roman woman (2nd/3rd century CE)]

In my entry about the two(?) Sulpicias, I said that she/them were the only Roman women poets that we have a record of—but that’s not strictly true. We have one more, the equally sketchily-known Julia Balbilla (72 – after 130 CE), but perhaps what we can mean is that the Sulpicias are the only Italian Roman women poets we know of. Because while the Sulpicias are emblematic of their time at the very birth of the empire, as (likely in Sulpicia Caleni’s case) native-born Roman noblewomen, Julia Balbilla, born a generation later, is representative of what the empire would become: a multicultural melting pot where the talented and lucky could rise to the very pinnacles of imperial power. So this week, I want to take a look at this third poet and her milieu, who despite some of the vagueness of her historical record, offers a fascinating glimpse of what was possible in the rising Roman Empire for even a person ostensibly constricted by gender and the expectations of Roman womanhood.

Though it probably helped that Julia Balbilla was many things by birth, but being ethnically Roman was not one of them. Despite her Roman name, Julia’s cultural heritage lay in the steppes of Anatolia rather than the seven hills of the Eternal City. She was also royalty. Julia was a princess of the royal house of the Kingdom of Commagene (163 BCE – 72 CE), one of the constellation of buffer states that existed between Rome and the Parthian Empire on the Turkish peninsula at the turn of the millennium. The Commagenes were originally Hellenized Iranians whose founder, Ptolemaeus, was the local satrap who overthrew Seleucid dynastic control of the area in 164 BCE. Like many ruling clans in this part of the world, multiethnic intermarriage was a large part of the Commagenes’ power consolidation, so by the 1st century CE, members of the royal family represented a broad mixture of Iranian, Armenian, Median, Syrian, and Greek bloodlines, while maintaining a vibrant Greco-Persian cultural typical of many of the Anatolian kingdoms of the period. Roman influence was added to this as the empire began to establish its presence in the region.

[The kingdom of Commagene in relation to the other Anatolian kingdoms]

Initially Rome was content to maintain Commagene as a client kingdom to hedge against Parthia’s borders, but eventually Tiberius would make it a full province in 17 CE. The Commagenes, Antiochus III and his sister-wife Iopata, would move their family to Rome, where their children, also named Antiochus and Iopata, would grow up in the sprawling household of Tiberius’ step-cousin, Antonia Minor (my exuberant Anni). This is how Antiochus IV would become a close confederate of Anni’s grandson, Gaius, aka Caligula. This friendship would lead Caligula to reverse Tiberius’ decision in 38 CE, when, as emperor, he gave his friend Antiochus IV his hereditary throne back and restored the independent kingdom of Commagene. But our mad lad, being himself, of course almost immediately changed his mind about it and deposed Antiochus, who would again be restored for realsies by Claudius a few years later in 41 CE. The Commagenes would remain in charge of their kingdom for another thirty years until Vespasian definitively annexed the kingdom into the empire in 72 CE after rumors of disloyalty reached Rome.

As compensation for depriving them (again again) of their land and because there was never confirmation of the supposed Commagene treachery, Vespasian invited Antiochus and his family to return to Italy and live in Rome on a generous imperial stipend. Antiochus, in true Diadochi style, had married his full sister Iopata (his parents had been full siblings too, for the record 😳), and the royal couple brought their sons and their families (which were mercifully not with their one sister, who was married to the ruler of Cetis in Cilicia) with them. This is how Antiochus IV and Iopata’s grandchildren, of whom Julia was one, would end up having the same sort of cosmopolitan Greco-Roman upbringing their grandparents had enjoyed under Antonia Minor’s wing. This is shown in the family names, where Julia would have a fully Romanized name and her brother, as befitting his position as a male Commagene heir, would have a long Greco-Roman blended name (Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos). All of the Commagenes would or had already adopted Gaius Julius/Julia as part of their names to advertise their strong ties to the imperial family, whichever dynasty that was at the time.

[Commagene coins of Antiochus IV and Iopata, Julia Balbilla’s paternal grandparents]

Julia and her brother (usually called Philopappos for brevity by historians), were the children of Antiochus IV’s eldest son and theoretical crown prince, Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes, and his wife, Claudia Capitolina, a Greek Alexandrian with a lineage almost as interesting as that of the Commagenes and just as entangled with them and the Julio-Claudians. Claudia was the daughter of Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, noted scholar and court astrologer for Claudius, Nero, and Vespasian, and her mother was likely a distantly-related princess from somewhere in the circular Commagene family tree. Balbilus himself was the son of our old friend Thrasyllus (d. 36 CE), famed Greco-Egyptian astrologer and mathematician in the court of Tiberius. Thrasyllus also had married a Commagene cousin princess, but like her father Balbilus, Claudia was raised in the west rather than the east. She was born and raised in Alexandria during Balbilus’ tenure as praefect of Egypt, and would not connect with her matrilineal heritage until her marriage to Antiochus Epiphanes, when she would move to Antiochus IV’s court in Commagene until the kingdom’s annexation. But in light of the fact that when her husband died, Claudia returned to Alexandria, she seems to have always been a Greek Egyptian at heart.

Despite the life offered to them in Rome, Antiochus Epiphanes and Claudia would at some point after 72 CE (probably once Philopappos had completed his education) move their family to Athens, where all of them lived until Epiphanes’ death in 92 CE. Philopappos would remain in Athens, while Claudia and Julia would move to Alexandria. At some point though, Julia would return to Athens and live with her brother. We don’t know exactly when she did this, but perhaps it was after her mother decided to remarry. Claudia married the current Roman praefect of Egypt, Marcus Junius Rufus, sometime around 94 CE, and maybe the twenty-two year old Julia wasn’t interested in living under the thumb of a stepfather. Or maybe it was an amicable decision and Julia just decided she missed Greece—we don’t know. But either way, she was well-protected returning to her brother’s household in Athens. Philopappos was a prominent man in Athens whose royal lineage even the democratic Athenians respected, as evidenced by him being awarded city citizenship in addition to his Roman citizenship. He served as an archon (chief magistrate) and was popular with the city’s intellectual class, including Plutarch, who knew him personally and described him as “very generous and magnificent in his rewards,” as well as “good-humored and eager for instruction.” But Philopappos was also popular with Rome’s ruling elite, especially falling in with Trajan, and by association, Trajan’s second cousin and heir, Hadrian. Trajan would appoint Philopappos to the Praetorian Guard and eventually raise him to senatorial rank, despite Philopappos obviously not having the usually requisite familial background (a father or paternal grandfather of that rank). In 109 CE, Philopappos would even serve as a consul.

[The Philopappos Monument]

All signs point to Philopappos and Julia being very close. They seem to have lived together for years, and while it is possible Philopappos married and had children, we have no record of them—somewhat strange for a man so prominent in his time. If he did not, though, it might explain why his sister remained unmarried and in his household, much like the spinster-sister housekeeper of the Victorian age. When Philopappos died in 116 CE, Julia had a large, two-story monument built in his honor on Mouseion Hill (southwest of the Acropolis). The so-called Philopappos Monument, built of Pentelic and Hymettian marble, depicts Philopappos both in triumph as a Roman consul and as a Commagene king surrounded by his royal ancestors. It is thought that Julia might have married an Athenian aristocrat sometime after her brother’s death, but as she was then in her forties, she and her supposed husband had no children, and it seems likely that if such a marriage took place, this was a union she contracted so as not to be socially adrift in patriarchal Athens rather than from a great desire to be married. This is further corroborated by the fact that the next time Julia pops up in the historical record, she’s not even in Athens, but rather in the imperial entourage of the now emperor Hadrian.

Although we don’t have the specific details, it is no doubt through her brother’s friendship with the emperor that Julia comes into Hadrian’s orbit. By the late 120s CE, Julia seems to serving as a companion and lady in waiting to Hadrian’s wife, Vibia Sabina (83-136/7 CE). And admittedly, Vibia Sabina probably could have used a friend. Ancient sources are divided on how acrimonious the imperial marriage was, but even the more positive accounts describe Hadrian’s emotions toward Vibia Sabina as respectful rather than romantic. Which is understandable, given that Hadrian was almost certainly gay. That said, I’m skeptical of sources that depict their relationship as openly hostile. Vibia Sabina was the most visible and honored living empress since Livia, and Hadrian had her awarded with the title of Augusta during her lifetime, as well as placed her image on the regular imperial coinage. More to the point for our purposes, Hadrian spent most of his reign away from Rome on lengthy tours of the empire and Vibia Sabina accompanied him the vast majority of the time, making her not only the most traveled empress up until that point, but one of the most well-traveled women of the age. She was also well-educated, having been raised in her great-uncle Trajan’s household, so Vibia Sabina was in dire need of an intelligent, equally urbane traveling buddy while her husband mainly occupied himself with his young favorite Antinous, the Patroclus to his Achilles. Enter our Julia Balbilla, who could easily fit into hellenophile Hadrian’s globetrotting court.

[Vibia Sabina, who might not have interested her husband much, but whom the super suss Historia Augusta swears the almost equally suss Suetonius loved enough for Hadrian to fire him as his secretary lol]

In 130 CE, Hadrian’s magical mystery tour arrived in Egypt just in time for the Opet Festival, the almost month-long Egyptian New Year celebration during the second month of Akhet, the Nile’s flooding season (roughly September). The emperor stopped in Pelusium to restore Pompey’s tomb there and offer a sacrifice to the Roman hero who had first conquered the east—a cunning bit of political theater for the empire’s more far-flung provinces that had been restless since his cousin Trajan’s reign. Hadrian and Antinous did some lion hunting in Libya, and then everybody did what Egyptian tourists have done for millennia—they took a long cruise down the Nile to see the sights. By October, the emperor’s flotilla had made it as far as Hermopolis, and they stopped to make the appropriate sacrifices at the Temple of Hermes (Thoth). But that was when disaster struck and Antinous drowned in the Nile under mysterious circumstances.

There are a plethora of theories as to the details of Antinous’ abrupt demise, and even at the time there were rumors across the empire that he was deliberately murdered. The intentional death theories fall into two categories, political and religious: either that it was some kind of court conspiracy to off the emperor’s favorite, or that Antinous was intentionally sacrificed to Osiris (whose festival was occurring at the time) in order to bring prosperity to Hadrian’s reign. The human sacrifice theory comes from Cassius Dio writing nearly a century later, but it’s probably untrue given Hadrian’s antipathy for human sacrifices and his specific strengthening of laws against it across the empire. As for the court intrigue theory, this is likely untrue as well, given that Antinous didn’t exercise any discernible political influence over Hadrian, so killing him wouldn’t have netted any power gains for anyone else.

[A classical group I follow put up this grid of Roman women’s hairstyles and I didn’t have the heart to tell them that there was an imposter among the ladies… (The bottommost right bust is of our lovely Antinous)]

On the other side of the theory coin are the more plausible accidental death theories. The most outlandish is that Antinous didn’t drown at all and was accidentally killed while undergoing a voluntary castration in order to keep his youth (and Hadrian’s interest). This is doubtful because Hadrian viewed genital modifications like castration and circumcision as abominations, so such a surgery was unlikely to entice him; and Antinous, while a young man (~18-20 years old), was already old enough that such an operation would have had negligible effects on halting his sexual maturity. The other two possibilities are that Antinous accidentally drowned in the Nile while intoxicated, or that Hadrian himself accidentally killed Antinous in a rage during an argument. The emperor’s violent outbursts are well-attested in ancient sources, though most modern scholars reject this theory, given Hadrian’s grief after the fact. But this could be remorse like one sees in similar historical figures like Alexander the Great. That said, Ockham’s razor seems like the way to go here and I think the drunken frat boy drowning during the Nile’s flood season is probably the real story, if not the most salacious.

At any rate, Hadrian was inconsolable. Contemporary sources describe him as weeping “like a woman,” and the emperor organized the local Egyptian priests to immediately establish a cult to deify the young man, a move that would garner him criticism in the Senate, where the imperial cult was still only barely tolerated. Hadrian got his way in this however, and Antinous would become a minor god worshipped not just in Egypt, but throughout the empire. In Egypt, especially at his cult city of Antinoöpolis that Hadrian would have constructed for him, Antinous was associated with Osiris because of the manner of his death and its occurrence during the god’s festival. But the Egyptians also associated him with Hermes/Mercury because of his death near Hermopolis, and other cultures seemed to have had little trouble adapting him to local gods or divine heroes. For example, the Germanic tribes seem to have equated him with the Celtic sun god Belenos. Despite its slightly weird origins as the very personal grief of one emperor, worship of Antinous would continue until the very end of legal pagan worship in the empire in 391 CE, and Antinous’ cult would be a significant bone of contention during the philosophical struggles between Christian and pagan religious figures that preceded emperor Theodosius’ edict.

[Cult bust of Antinous as Mercury (hence the wings)]

But all of this was in the future and the imperial entourage is still in Egypt trying to figure out what to do in the midst of this unexpected situation. It is thought that Antinous may have been embalmed and the long Egyptian mummification process (at least seventy days by the book) is why Hadrian remained in Egypt until the following spring. Either because of that or because somebody got Hadrian to pull himself together enough to think of the empire, it appears that it was decided to continue with the emperor’s tour of Egypt. By the end of November, the flotilla had reached Thebes and toured Egypt’s most famous and enduring necropolis, which is where our intrepid Julia Balbilla reenters our story.

For ancient and modern travelers alike, one of the highlights of visiting Thebes is viewing the so-called Colossi of Memnon, two gigantic stone statues that sit in front of what was once the largest temple in the entire necropolis. Memnon was a legendary king of Ethiopia in Greek mythology, son of Eos, the goddess of dawn, and her mortal-turned-immortal lover, Tithonus (the one who gets immortal life but not youth and becomes a cicada—presumably Memnon is born before that), and the Greeks and Romans thought the statues were of him. Or at least some of them did, as even the 2nd century geographer Pausanias admitted that they probably really knew better: “The many call it Memnon, who they say from Aethiopia overran Egypt and as far as Susa. The Thebans, however, say that it is a statue, not of Memnon, but of a native named Phamenoph, and I have heard some say that it is Sesostris.” In fact, the statues are both of the great New Kingdom pharaoh Amenhotep III (r. circa 1391-1353), easily recognized by the attested portraits of both his equally famous queen Tiye and his mother Mutemwiya placed at the statues’ feet. The statues were famous in antiquity both for their impressive size and for the ability of the northern (rightmost, if you’re looking at them) statue to “sing.” Reports of what the colossus sounded like vary, but it was thought to vocalize around dawn and to hear the statue “speak” was thought to bring luck. While locals making sounds to drive the tourist trade might account for the cacophony of noises reported for millennia, it is also possible that any “true” noises the statues made could have come from rising morning temperatures evaporating dew within the porous quartzite sandstone that they are carved from, as singing rocks are infrequently reported at other Egyptian sites like Karnak.

[The Colossi of Memnon (the singing colossus on the right). The emperor Septimius Severus is believed to have partially reconstructed the statues during his reign and it is thought that the added weight of the new rock is why the statues do not make noise today.]

Anyway, hearing the voice of Memnon was already a rite of passage for traveling Greeks and Romans, and no group was more in need of a good omen than our mourning imperial vagabonds. But it seems that the gods smiled upon them and Hadrian supposedly did hear the statue vocalize, as did Vibia Sabina (after some coaxing), and likely on the urging of the poetry-loving emperor, it seems that erudite Julia Balbilla was asked to compose several epigrams to mark the occasion. Her efforts must have pleased the imperial couple, because the party left them carved in Greek upon the statue’s massive legs, where this ancient graffiti remains to be see to this day and perpetuates the legacy of the otherwise largely forgotten Julia Balbilla:

When the August Hadrian Heard Memnon
Memnon the Egyptian I learnt, when warmed
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 Aurora 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.
When on the first day
We didn't hear Memnon
Yesterday Memnon received
[Hadrian's] wife in silence,
so that the beautiful Sabina might come back here again.
For the lovely form of our queen pleases you.
When she arrives, send forth a divine shout, so the king won't be angry with you. As it is now,
you've fearlessly detained for too long his noble wedded wife.
And Memnon, trembling at the power of Hadrian,
suddenly spoke, and she rejoiced to hear it.
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.
[Julia Balbilla’s epigrams on the colossus]

It is hard to describe in translation, but Julia’s verses are considered high quality in their original Greek. Even in English one can see her deep knowledge of mythology, as well as Egyptian history. For example, the Cambyses verses are about the son of Cyrus the Great who completed the Persian conquest of Egypt in the 6th century BCE, and was reviled in antiquity for his alleged destruction of Egyptian temples and the impious killing of the Apis bull in Memphis. Her lyrical style is similar to that of Sappho and the Homeric hymns, and like the famed poet of Lesbos, there is a sly amount of wit that permeates the epigrams, like when she implies that the colossus kept his mouth shut in order to get Vibia Sabina to visit him twice.

But I think the most telling part of Julia’s epigrams is not the skillful courtier flattery she employs for her imperial patrons, but rather the amount of her verses she is permitted to deploy to tell us of herself. Just like the thirty-foot monument she erected in the middle of Athens to venerate her brother and their family, Julia uses words and stone to make sure that the world remembers the Commagenes. She might prettily promise Memnon that she will keep his memory alive in her mind, but she will make damn sure that the colossus will remember her by carving her lineage into his stony flesh. She might describe herself as “pious,” simply a good daughter, but the portrait of Julia Balbilla that emerges from this handful of poems is one of a woman who is as clever as the descendants of Thrysallus, as proud as the royal Commagenes, and as independent as her own self. She wrote these epigrams as a world-traveling woman of nearly sixty with no husband, no children, no close living family—none of the traditional markers of achievement for women in her time and station, yet nothing in her tone speaks of even a hint of remorse. Antinous might have become a god in Egypt, but the single-minded Julia Balbilla became a poet. One whose poems would endure beyond Rome’s religions and empires and beyond the supernatural voice of the colossus of Memnon himself. The statue still “speaks” today, but his only words are in the hieroglyphs of Amenhotep and the Greek of a disinherited princess from a world away. Daughter of kings, indeed.

[The colossus’ left leg bears a fourth epigram, which is sometimes also attributed to Julia Balbilla, but modern scholarship believes it was written by someone else fifty to sixty years after the Balbilla carvings. This poem reads: Demo (the poet’s nom de plume, a Greek epithet of Demeter) / 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.]
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