The next female divine figure to be examined in this series is Julia Balbilla, one of the Ekklesía Antínoou’s Sanctae, and among my favorite such figures. She was closely connected to the Empress Sabina, and like Sabina, we have almost no information about her, her exact date or year of birth, nor her exact date or year of death.
The article on Julia Balbilla on Wikipedia is, I announce with some happiness, actually really good in terms of its thoroughness. She was related to the Commagene kings, and thus to the Seleucid dynasty, as well as the Ptolemaic dynasty. Her relatives had served as prefects of Egypt during the first century, and were noted for their accomplishments in astrology. Her brother was “King” Philopappus of Athens, to whom she erected a monument, and she was also related to Herodes Attikos, and to C. Julius Eurycles Herculanus, who built a temple to Antinous in Mantineia. She certainly knew the emperor Trajan, and it was probably originally Athenian connections through Trajan that introduced her to Hadrian and his associates.
Balbilla was called “the Sappho of Hadrian’s court,” mainly because she wrote in the archaic Aeolic dialect in which Sappho’s poetry was written. (Sappho is also a Sancta of the Ekklesía Antínoou.) However, it is often wondered whether there was “more” to this title than just a poetic reference. The term “lesbian” for women who engaged in homoeroticism in the ancient world meant just what it does now because Sappho was from the island of Lesbos. It is known that Julia Balbilla was married to a Roman senator, but even his name is uncertain, and is not recorded in any records we currently have on Julia Balbilla, thus we are left to wonder about the relationship. The very attractive suggestion has been made that perhaps Balbilla was an intimate friend and perhaps even lover of the Empress Sabina, to match Hadrian’s love for Antinous.
However, what is very certain about Balbilla is that she was in the imperial entourage when the tour of the eastern empire took place, very likely from the time they arrived in Athens in c. 128 CE onwards. The four poems Julia Balbilla wrote on the Colossoi of Memnon are her only surviving works, and they speak very flatteringly of the Empress Sabina.
Erynn Rowan Laurie, CR practitioner, Luperca, and Mystes Antínoou, has written a piece in Women’s Voices in Magic talking about Diva Sabina, Julia Balbilla, and Diva Matidia as a sort of triad of divinized women, almost along the lines of the Wiccan idea of “maiden, mother, crone,” and yet not at all, because the “maiden” is Julia and is the “mother” Sabina’s possible lover; the “mother” as Sabina is childless; and the “crone” Matidia died rather young. I highly recommend this essay as an excellent piece of creative and gender-affirmative/inclusive theological reasoning within the modern Ekklesía Antínoou, and there are a number of other excellent pieces in the book as well.
Since the only dates about which we are certain in Julia Balbilla’s life are the dates on which she wrote her poems at the Colossoi of Memnon, on November 19-21, 130 CE, those are the dates when we celebrate Julia and Sabina together. I have translated one of these poems in The Phillupic Hymns.
Ave Julia Balbilla Sancta! Ave Antinoe!