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Lesbian Dialect and the Roman élite: Julia Balbilla and Neos Theophanes

Hugh J Mason

University of Toronto

Lesbian dialect is employed in Roman times in two different sets of documents:

  1. Poems in Sapphic metre, notably those by Julia Balbilla inscribed on the Colossus of Memnon in Egypt in 130, recently studied by Cirio;
  2. Inscriptions in Mytilene for Roman rulers and prominent citizens (Hodot 1990, MYT 026-039, 115-175, 199-219, 244), especially for Theophanes, Pompey’s associate (MYT 124 and 128), and his descendant M. Pompeius Macrinus Neos Theophanes, suff 115, PIR2  P 628 (MYT 209 = Hodot 1979)

Hodot (1990, 12) concludes that Balbilla’s dialect owes nothing to epigraphic Lesbian, but there are many connections between her and Neos Theophanes, named “Founder” of Mytilene for his benefactions after an earthquake in 148 (Aristid. 4, 38; Behr 1192; Mason 140). They were contemporaries (his proconsulate of Africa was in the year after her Egyptian visit), and related through marriage; his ancestor Pompeia Macrina married G. Iulius Argolicus (PIR2 I 174) of the Euryclid dynasty of Sparta; while her aunt married Argolicus’ brother Cratinus, (Birley 1997a, 243, note 232) or his nephew Laco (Spawforth 261). Both belonged to the “network of cousinhood” (Spawforth 259, stemma 261) among Greek and Anatolian magnates who entered the Senate in the early 2nd century. Balbilla, granddaughter of the last King of Commagene, was sister of Philopappus (PIR2 I 151, suff 109), honored by the great monument in Athens. Other powerful relatives include her Euryclid cousin Herculanus (PIR2 I 302), and Herodes Atticus (ord 142).

Theophanes had many opportunities to interact with these figures, and with Hadrian, his wife and her companion, both in Rome and during the Emperor’s travels, although it is not proven that Hadrian visited Mytilene (Birley 1997b, 167-8).  A statue base in Tegea (IG 5.2.151), listing Theophanes’ cursus up to the proconsulate of Africa (131/132), suggests that he owned property there inherited from Pompeia Macrina (Spawforth (255, note 49); his presence can be connected to the death in 136/7 of  Herculanus, the last male Euryclid, honored in Tegea and presumably also the owner of property there (IG 5.2.311; Spawforth 260, n. 78). Balbilla, Herculanus’ closest relative, commissioned the memorial to him in Sparta (IG 5. 1, 489 and 575: Spawforth, 252) and Theophanes, with some claim on the complex inheritance, must have been with her at that time.

The use of “restored” local dialects was typical of their circle; note an anecdote in Philostratus (VS 2.1 [584]) about the “pure” Attic used by a friend of Herodes, and the version of Lakonian used in the cult of Artemis Orthia in Sparta. But beyond the general linguistic archaism of their peers, I suggest that Balbilla and Neos Theophanes were very aware of each other’s use of Lesbian. Who influenced whom is less clear, but wide use of dialect by the Mytilenean élite, and Mytilene’s promotion of Sappho in a dialect form with psi, on its coinage (BMC Troas 200), suggest that Neos Theophanes was the originator.

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Epigraphy and History

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