The epigrams of Julia Balbilla on the Memnon Colossus have received little scholarly attention since the 1990s, but are a thought-provoking case study for discussions of “lesbianism before sexuality.” In November of 130 CE, Balbilla accompanied Hadrian and his wife Sabina to Egyptian Thebes where she composed four epigrams, predominantly in Aeolic dialect, recording the group’s encounter with the colossus. Balbilla’s erotic descriptions of Sabina and her use of Sapphic language led M.L. West to argue that the two women had a homoerotic relationship, yet in the most recent discussion of Balbilla, Patricia Rosenmeyer has argued against the idea of such a relationship. In this paper, I reconsider contemporary depictions of Sabina, the reception of Sappho in the imperial period, and specific Sapphic intertexts in Balbilla’s epigrams to argue that Balbilla’s poems about Sabina are most productively read through a queer lens.
To understand the nuances of Balbilla’s Sapphic language, I first consider contemporary visual and textual representations of Sabina. Imperially sanctioned depictions in statuary and on coins presented the empress as a symbol of imperial piety, fecundity, and harmony, often likening her to the goddesses Vesta, Ceres, and Concordia (Brennan, Fejfer). Literary representations similarly focused on her title “Augusta,” her connection to goddesses (e.g. νεάν Δήμητρα, IG, VII, 73 and νέᾳ Ἡρᾳ, TAM, II 2, 560), and her marriage to Hadrian, rather than personal or physical attributes (Carandini). Though this information leads us to expect a certain level of deference in treatments of Sabina at this time, I will show that this is not the case.
I next examine how Sappho was received in the imperial period and whether the homoerotic undertones of her poetry would have been pertinent to Balbilla’s contemporary audience in their reading of her epigrams. From the time of Ovid up to the Oxyrynchus Papyrus, Roman authors seem to have been invested in Sappho’s sexuality, specifically presenting it as homoerotic or exhibiting anxiety over its homoerotic undertones (Auanger). The continued cultural consciousness of a homosexual Sappho necessarily speaks to Balbilla’s poetry: intertexts to Sappho would certainly have marked Balbilla’s poetry as homoerotic. Where Balbilla could have used less erotically-charged language to describe Sabina, she purposely incorporated eroticized Sapphic elements.
Balbilla’s last two epigrams (Bernand 30 and 31) describe Sabina with phrases like κάλα τυῖδε Σάβιννα, ἐράτα μόρφα, and ἐράται βασιλήιδι τυῖδε Σαβίννᾳ, epithets uniquely related to Sappho’s descriptions of beautiful women (Brennan, Rosenmeyer). The structural similarities between Balbilla’s epigram 30 and the love triangle of Sappho fr. 31, where the poetess watches a male figure interact with a female love interest from afar, are particularly striking. I draw on the poetic trope of “passive contrast figure” vs. active lover (Marcovich, Race) to argue that Balbilla casts herself as the active lover (Sappho) and Memnon as the passive contrast figure (“that man” in fr. 31). I also show how Balbilla actively excludes Hadrian from the love narrative until the end of epigram 30, undercutting his involvement with Sabina.
This paper argues that given these poetic maneuvers, Balbilla’s poetry necessitates a queer reading. Such a reading recognizes threads of resistance against dominant ideologies and thereby allows us to accept and explore the sexual complications Balbilla presents, rather than attempting to explain them away. Scholarship on Balbilla has taken a firm stance against the presence of homoeroticism specifically as a response to clumsy claims of an actual lesbian relationship between poetess and empress and not as a response to the poetry itself. Nevertheless, a heteroerotic reading of Balbilla’s poetry misses the mark as much as prior claims of a genuine homosexual relationship.
Lesbianism Before Sexuality