Bryn Mawr Classical Review

BMCR 2012.11.16 on the BMCR blog

Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2012.11.16

Amalia Margherita Cirio, Gli Epigrammi di Giulia Balbilla (ricordi di una dama di corte) e altri testi al femminile sul Colosso di Memnone. Satura, 9.   Lecce:  Pensa MultiMedia, 2011.  Pp. 177.  ISBN 9788882328863.  €18.00 (pb).  


Reviewed by Alexander Sens (sensa@georgetown.edu)

This volume is a critical edition of the Greek epigrams composed by Julia Balbilla, a courtier of Hadrian, to commemorate her visits to the so-called Colossus of Memnon in the Valley of the Kings in November 130 CE. This statue was famed for emitting a sound at sunrise, and its supposed ability to “speak” turned it into a destination for tourists and pilgrims. Over the course of several days, Balbilla visited the statue with the emperor and his wife in the hope of hearing the noise. Cirio’s book, the first critical edition in many years of the four epigrams Balbilla composed in a literary Aeolic dialect and had inscribed on the statue, comes as a welcome and valuable contribution to the growing bibliography on Balbilla’s epigrams, though it leaves work to be done.

The introduction treats the ancient testimonia (with Italian translation) for the monument, which was alternatively identified in antiquity as a representation of Memnon or of Amenhotep III. In addition to the question of its identification, Cirio discusses the sonic phenomenon (which is first mentioned by Strabo and seems to have ceased after the monument was restored by Septimius Severus) and the religious and sacral context in which Hadrian made his voyage and Julia left her commemorations, before turning to the epigrams themselves. She briefly treats the status of the text, the constitution of which is complicated by its dialect. Cirio summarizes some basic features of the historical and cultural context, including Hadrian’s own philhellenic literary activities and Balbilla’s background as a descendent of two politically powerful families of the Roman East (including Egypt); here the editor briefly canvasses some approaches to Balbilla’s appropriation of a Sapphic voice. Finally, she discusses the chronology of the individual epigrams; the conventions by which Balbilla and others who composed inscriptions for the Colossus identified their authorship; and the editorial conventions used in the volume.

As a whole, the introduction contains useful information and discussion, albeit with some overlap and repetition among the sections. More important, there is room to regret the absence of a detailed treatment of the epigrams as literary texts. Cirio briefly discusses the vexed question of the character of Balbilla’s Aeolic, but although she follows recent scholarship in seeing in the dialect a means by which Balbilla affiliates herself with the Aeolic poetry of Sappho, a fuller synthesis of the linguistic and dialectal evidence of the basic textual and interpretive difficulties it raises would have been particularly welcome. Moreover, apart from the discussion of titles, the introduction makes little attempt to locate the poems against the backdrop of the broader epigrammatic tradition and its conventions.

In the main body of the book, Cirio presents a text of the epigrams followed by an Italian translation; an apparatus offering a substantial accounting of the texts printed in earlier editions; and a commentary. The text, which relies on the collations of earlier editions, including the autopsy of Peek and Bernand, differs from its predecessors on a few matters of orthography and epigraphical convention. Thus, for example, at 1.12, Cirio prints φίλ(ει)σι, which reflects the implicit view that ΦΙΛΙΣΙ of the inscription (adopted unchanged as φίλισι by Peek and Bernand, among others; φίλ[ε]ισι Franz) represents an itacising error rather than a viable Aeolic form. In some places, the apparatus is simultaneously quite full (partly as a consequence of Cirio’s practice of listing the readings of almost all prior editors, whether or not one is dependent on another, rather than focusing only on the originators of a given reading) and less clear than one might want: although Cirio occasionally offers some epigraphic explanation in the apparatus, there are places where I would have liked to learn more from the apparatus (or commentary) about the epigraphical details (e.g. 1.11, where the last two editors to autopsy the epigrams differ on whether one or two letters are missing).

The commentary on the epigrams that follows the text and translation is particularly focused, and strong, on issues of dialect; Cirio’s linguistic discussions are generally full and useful, but here, too, there are sometimes grounds for wishing that matters of textual constitution and of culture and context were taken up more fully than they are. Thus for example, at 1.6 Cirio prints [ε]ἰν (.ΝΙ lapis) but offers no comment on this or the other suggestions recorded in the apparatus. Similarly, at 4.6, where Cirio prints the widely accepted conjecture <φῶτ>α δ᾽ἔχεσκε(ν) Ἄθυρ εἴκοσι καὶ πέσυρα [ΑΔΕΧΕΣΧΕΔ κτλ. lapis], the commentary provides a substantial note on the dialectology and morphology of the word for “four,” but no discussion of the text, or any comment on either the Egyptian calendar or its use in this and comparable contexts. Although Cirio occasionally refers to the broader literary issues raised by Balbilla’s diction, there are places where more could be said (e.g. on pp. 79–80, the view that the word παμβασιλεύς constitutes a specific Alcaic allusion warrants further discussion), and readers will have to look elsewhere for a full and sustained consideration of Balbilla’s engagement with a literary tradition tracing back to Sappho and Homer (e.g., on 2.3, Cirio notes that ἐνέποισιν is an epic word applied in an erudite way to the identification of the statue as Amenothep III; given this, it might have been worth noting that the word is used of priests described in the next verse as “learned in the ancient stories [μύθων τῶν παλάων ἴδριες],” and that their identification of the statue as the non-epic Egyptian alternative, Amenhotep, rather than as Memnon, who was prominant in the epic tradition, might be understood as a reversal of expectation).

There are two appendices. The first is a very useful collection of inscriptions associated with female visitors to the Colossus, including Damo, Caecilia Trebulla, and Vibia Sabina herself. The second is a brief essay on the iconography of Vibia Sabina, culminating in the speculation that an unidentified head from the Villa of Hadrian could be connected to Balbilla.

The volume concludes with an index of passages cited and an index of modern scholars mentioned. Typographical errors in the Greek are few and trivial (p. 83 ἧχε, εἷχε > ἦχε, εἶχε; p. 137, Σιμωνίδη > Σιμωνίδης in the citation of Pollux 5.47, which is the source for but not equivalent to FGE LXIX). There are photographs of the monument and the epigrams, as well as a picture of the above-mentioned female head and a family tree for Balbilla.

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