Balbilla (fl. 130 CE)

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Balbilla (fl. 130 ce)

Greco-Roman poet who accompanied Emperor Hadrian and Empress Sabina to the province of Egypt where several poems of hers were inscribed on the foot of the Colossus of Memnon in Thebes. Name variations: Iulia Balbilla; Julia Balbilla. Pronunciation: Bal-BILL-ah. Born around 100 ce; date of death unknown; daughter of C. Iulius Antiochus Epiphanes andClaudia Balbilla ; granddaughter of Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, prefect of Egypt under the Emperor Nero, and of Antiochus IV, king of Commagene. Visited Egypt as part of the imperial entourage, 130 ce.

We know Iulia Balbilla from the three or possibly four poems of hers that survive as inscriptions on the right foot of the Colossus of Memnon in the scared city of Thebes in Upper Egypt. They commemorate a pilgrimage she made there with Hadrian and Sabina on November 20, 130 ce. Of the 39 mostly Greek verse inscriptions on the Colossus, Balbilla's poems are significant for their literary and historical erudition.

Balbilla was descended from several generations of powerful and educated courtiers close to the ruling circles of the Roman Empire. In one poem she names her two famous grandfathers, Antiochus IV, king of Commagene, on her father's side and T. Claudius Balbillus on her mother's. Her father's family was among the Macedonian inheritors of Alexander the Great's conquests. They had ruled the small client-state of Commagene on the Euphrates river southeast of the Taurus mountains in modern Turkey probably from 162 bce until the Emperor Tiberius annexed it in 17 ce. The Emperor Caligula (Gaius) restored the kingdom in 38 to Balbilla's grandfather Antiochus IV as did Emperor Claudius again in 41. It is likely that this family was partly resident at Rome and familiar with the households of several emperors.

Balbilla's maternal grandfather Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, whom she calls "the Wise," was prefect of Egypt under the Emperor Nero from 55 to 59 ce. This Balbillus was therefore not of senatorial rank but of the second-highest, equestrian, rank. According to the Roman writer Seneca the Younger, Balbillus was a learned man "accomplished in every rare genre of literature."

When his granddaughter Balbilla traveled to Egypt with the Emperor Hadrian half a century later, it was predictable that the imperial company would visit the Colossus of Memnon. The Greeks and Romans believed the Colossus represented the hero Memnon, son of Tithonus (the brother of Priam, king of Troy) and Eos, goddess of the dawn. Achilles killed Memnon in the Trojan war. In actuality, the Colossus honored the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III. It was a tourist attraction in the Roman period because of the musical sounds it sometimes made in the early hours of the morning, when Memnon was said to be speaking to his mother. Most of the inscriptions on the Colossus, including Balbilla's, refer to these sounds.

It is clear from her poems that Balbilla is aware of a native, Egyptian tradition of the Colossus. But in keeping with a subject matter appropriate to imperial taste, she naturally writes from the Greek mythological perspective. Her poems use a highly literary Greek in which the Aeolic dialect—the dialect of the archaic Greek poet Sappho —predominates. One poem has been seen as apologizing for the carving of the inscription itself. Balbilla contrasts her own and her grandfathers' piety to the "godless barbarian Cambyses," the Persian conqueror of Egypt who defaced the Colossus and was later punished with death. She is clearly proud of the religious scruples of her family but does not fail to commemorate the piety of Hadrian and Sabina as well. Interestingly, she is not the only woman poet to have inscribed her poetry on the Colossus in ancient times: one Caecilia Trebulla of unknown date and provenance also left her poems there.

We have no details of Balbilla's personal life, but we can safely hazard that she was a Roman citizen of at least equestrian rank and that, like every Greek or Roman aristocrat, she owned slaves and derived an income from landed wealth.

Balbilla's very existence—as a woman of royal Macedonian descent who belonged to the circle of one of the most cultivated Roman emperors, and who wrote memorable Greek poetry in Egypt in respectful awareness of native traditions—indicates something about the inclusiveness of Roman imperial culture in its time.


Franz, L. Corpus Inscriptionum Graecorum. Vol. III, nos. 4725, 4727, 4729, 4730, 4731. Berlin, 1853.

suggested reading:

Bernand, André and Étienne. Les Inscriptions greques et latines du Colosse de Memnon. Cairo: Institut Franceais D'Archéologie Orientale, 1960.

Alexander Ingle , Research Associate, Institute for the Classical Tradition, Boston University