Iulia Balbilla was a member of the royal family of Commagene. She lived during the end of the 1st century and the 1st half of the 2nd century AD. Her parents were Gaius Iulius Antiochus Epiphanes and Claudia Capitolina, and her brother was Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappus. Her grandfather from her father’s side was Antiochus IV, last king of Commagene, whereas from the side of her mother Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, a scholar related to the Museum of Alexandria and prefect of Egypt.
After the submission of the small kingdom to the Romans in 72 AD, the family had to expatriate. Epiphanes and Philopappus settled in Greece, but this is not testified for the women of the family.
The traces of Balbilla are again found in Egypt, where her mother married for a second time Junius Rufus, the prefect of Egypt between the years 94 and 98 AD. However, it has been suggested that she was living with Philopappus in Athens and went to Egypt following Emperor Hadrian in 129 AD.1 During Hadrian’s visit to Egypt, she escorted him and Empress Sabina to the Valley of the Kings. In commemoration of their visit to the Colossi of Memnon2 on the 19th-21st November of 130 AD, Balbilla composed 4 elegies,3 in a peculiar dialect which imitates the Aeolian one. These texts, which bear her signature, laud the imperial couple4 but at the same time emphasise the poet's aristocratic descent. They are still preserved, inscribed on the lower parts of one of the Colossi.5
Iulia Balbilla was undoubtedly an enigmatic but interesting personality. A woman of aristocratic descent, who, although lived in exile, was never on the fringes of society. On the contrary, her activities, as well as her relation with emperor Hadrian prove that she had assumed an important position in the society of her new country, which is partly due to her noble origin. If the hypothesis of her stay in Athens is true, then she must have taken particular advantage of the influence of her brother Philopappus, who had a significant political and religious activity and bequeathed his splendid burial monument to the city.
It is not so much Balbilla’s artistic interests that are interesting, but the way they were expressed. Although her poetry is of no particular literary value, she declared her poetic identity by signing her name in the sacred Valley of the Kings, not neglecting to make a long reference to her aristocratic descend. The choice of this site is not arbitrary. According to a certain view, the Colossi of Memnon had a particular symbolic value, reminding her of the colossal sculptures of Nemrut Dag, the mausoleum of her ancestor Antiochus I in her distant native land.
1. Bowie, E.L., “Greek Poetry in the Antonine Age”, in Russel, D.A. (ed.), Antonine Literature (Oxford 1990), p. 62.
2. The Colossi of Memnon are sculptures of an enormous size which are dated to the 18th dynasty, circa 1360 BC. They represent Amenophis III and are located in the entrance of his burial monument, in the valley of Thebes.
3. Bernand, A. and E. , Les Inscriptions Grécques et Latines du Colosse de Mémnon (Institut Francais d’ Archéologie Oriental, Bibliothèque d’ Etude 31, Paris 1960), p. 80-98, no. 28-31.
4. The praising of beauty of the “beloved or lovable figure” of Sabina had led to the hypothesis that there was an erotic relation between the two women. See Bowie, E.L., “Greek Poetry in the Antonine Age”, in Russel, D.A. (ed.), Antonine Literature (Oxford 1990), p. 62.
5. Many other inscriptions on these enormous sculptures document an interesting habit of the Roman visitors to leave their signature at the holy valley.