I.Memnon 29, Memnoneia, 20 November 130 CE

When I was present at Memnon with Empress Sabina.
Memnon, child of Dawn and old man Tithonos,
who sits opposite the Theban city of Zeus,
or Amenoth, Egyptian king, as the priests skilled in
the myths of old say -receive my greetings, and may you sound out and salute also her,
the noble wife of the emperor Hadrian.
A barbarous man, the godless Kambyses,
smote off your tongue and your ears.
Surely through his pitiful death,
he has paid the penalty, struck by the same point
of the sword by which he ruthlessly killed the divine Apis bull.
I do not expect your statue to perish, but, for the rest,
I have preserved through my intelligence your immortal soul.
Pious were my parents and my ancestors, both Balbillus the wise
and King Antiochos -Balbillus was the father of my royal mother,
while King Antiochos was the father of my father.
This is the lineage from which I draw my noble blood
and these are the verses I wrote, I, Balbilla the pious.

Trans: Rowlandson, Jane, ed. 1998. Women and Society in Greek and Roman Egypt. Cambridge.

Original Research Questions:

  1. Is graffiti used to describe this text the same as graffitithat we would normally think of today?
  2. Why is the writer explaining her lineage?
  3. Why is she concerned with preserving the immortal soul along with the statue of someone who has passed?
  4. What is the Apis Bull?
  5. Why is she quoting the “priests skilled in the myths of old”?

AKS: Regarding #1, there's a large collection of writings on these particular colossal statues of Memnon - like tourist graffiti on monuments today. Looking up some texts on Roman Egypt (see R. Cribiore) may help here, as well as general information about Egyptian religion.
Snyder's book on Women Writers may help for Balbilla herself.

At first glance the document is hard to decipher and can even appear incoherent. However, upon further inspection the document is actually quite simple. It is important to become familiar with the names and settings; therefore linking them to Wikipedia and Encyclopedia Britannica articles makes it easier to understand the context.
The author is a Roman noblewoman named Balbilla. Balbilla was a poet and when she produced this text she was an escort to the Roman Emperor Hadrian and his wife Sabina. The “graffiti” appear on the Colossi of Memnon and are epigrams, a brief clever statement, that were composed in a lyrical form similar to that of the poet Sappho. The negative stigma associated with graffiti does not apply in this case because the epigrams were approved of by the Emperor and his wife and for just cause. According to Ian Plant, the inscriptions were for the public and were common at the time. (Women Writers of Ancient Greece and Rome: An Anthology)
We learn a great deal about Roman society from Balbilla’s epigrams. History is bring shared with references to the myth of Memnon, Pausanais’ account on Cambyses’ attack on the statues, and the punishment he receives. We also see a relationship between the Greek myth of Memnon and the Egyptian myth of the Apis Bull. We also discover a bit about Balbilla’s beliefs when she asks the Colossi to “sound out and salute” Sabina. We know of musical sounds the colossi omitted when hit by rays from the sun. At the time people believed these sounds to be the voice of Memnon. Balbilla’s request also gives insight to the social aspects of Roman society.
The epigrams honor Hadrian and Sabina, which would have warranted approval of such inscriptions. Balbilla also references her lineage and her noble blood. She is honoring her bloodlines. T. C. Brennan argues the significance of Balbilla’s inscription for these reasons. He claims they give great insight to the “competitive ethos” of the Roman elite. As a whole the inscription provides insight to two areas of Roman life.

Remaining Questions
Knowing now that "graffiti" was common on such statues, why is Balbilla's better known?

Are the other examples more akin to the kinds of graffiti we see today?

Links to Other Documents

Marriage Contract
This document offers insight to the role of women in roman society. I did not touch upon Balbilla as a single woman, but her life is clearly very different from the life of a married woman. The marriage contract offers insight to women's power being associated with sex, which is a sharp contrast to Balbilla's claims of her noble lineage and pious roots.

Oath of allegiance
This document presents an inscription recording an oath of loyalty by a group of people to Augustus. This inscription plays a similar role as Balbilla's as a way to establish ethos of the elite or in this case the Emperor. It is also interesting to note the role the gods play in the lives of the elite and their favoring of the elite.

Officer's Memorial
This document relays information about a monument for a war-hero. Again we see the role of monuments and inscriptions as a way to establish the ethos of the elite. We also see the possibilities for social mobility based on skills and recognition of these skills. For example, war prowess or even poetry.

Works CIted