I, Balbilla, heard, when he sang from the stone,
The divine voice of Memnon or Phamenoth.
I had come here with my beloved queen Sabina;
The sun was holding its course for the first hour.
In the fifteenth year of Emperor Hadrian,
When Hathyr was in his twenty-fourth day.
On the twenty-fifth day of Hathyr.
-Julia Balbilla, poem 4, 130 CE, Egypt
Julia Balbilla (d. after 130 CE), exiled Hellenistic princess and friend of the Roman Empress Vibia Sabina, is someone we mostly know from her poetry. She was the granddaughter of both King Antiochos IV of Commagene,* who was accused of conspiring against the Romans in 72 CE and was subsequently deprived of his kingdom and forced to move to Rome. Her other grandfather was Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, astrologer and Prefect of Egypt.
Julia was born shortly after the move. Her poetry shows that she was probably extremely well educated and had access to pretty much any luxury she might desire. This may have been when she first met the future Empress Sabina. It is likely that after the death of her grandfather she moved first to Athens and then to Alexandria with her mother, Claudia Capitolina. At some point in her life, perhaps later on, she visited Sparta to dedicate a monument to her cousin Herculanus who had died there.
In 129-130, she accompanied Hadrian, Sabina, and Hadrian’s lover Antinous in their travels through Egypt. It was during this time that she wrote the four poems we have of hers. In late 130** the company visited the statue of Memnon near Thebes. Julia’s poetry can still be seen inscribed there, three on the right, the fourth on the left. In them, she praises Hadrian, Sabina, her own ancestors, and by extension, herself.
There are several significant things about these poems. First, the lines about Hadrian in the first poem suggest that Hadrian commissioned her to write them. Second, all four are written in Aeolic Greek, the same dialect used by Sappho, suggesting that Julia took the earlier poet as inspiration. Third, the ways she talks about the Empress suggests a close relationship between the two of them. How close the relationship might have been or what it’s nature was remains unknown, but her use of Sappho as a model is suggestive.
*Located in what is now south central Turkey.
**Only about a month after Antinous drowned.
Plant, Ian Michael, ed. Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology. Oklahoma: Oklahoma University Press, 2004. [Note: this book may be found on Google Books here.]
Pomeroy, Sarah B. Spartan Women. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002.
Julia Balbilla - Wikipedia