This is a story of two men, and two monuments. This is also a tale about identity and elitism; assimilation and difference; royalty and revolution. At its heart is a swashbuckling adventure that would be at home in the most pumped-up of Hollywood movies; on its peripheries is an encapsulation of how the political apparatus of an Italian city state adapted itself to rule a vast Mediterranean empire.
The contrast between the two monuments could not be more stark. The first is a familiar sight to anyone who has glanced at the Athenian skyline. It is the imposing remains of the so-called Philopappou Monument: a 30-foot engraved marble mausoleum, sitting atop of 10-foot plinth, prominently located on the top of a hill facing the Acropolis. The Greek Ministry of Culture lovingly preserves the site, and it is listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
Philopappou Monument, Athens
The second monument is a blunt contrast. It is an inscribed plinth for a (now missing) statue, standing only a few feet tall and lined up alongside many others in the courtyard of an erstwhile temple of Jupiter in the modern Lebanese city of Baalbek.
Epitaph of Gaius Velius Rufus, Baalbek
The disparity between these two monuments in many ways suitably maps out the differences between the men they respectively commemorate. The first was erected by the family of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos, honouring the memory of an exceptionally well-connected aristocrat and philanthropic benefactor to the city of Athens, a one-time holder of the Consulship at Rome and a long-time friend of the Emperor Hadrian. Far from this grandeur, the second stone commemorates a solider, Gaius Velius Rufus, a man who had served with distinction as a Centurion under (at least) three successive emperors and across (at least) a half-dozen provinces.
For all their apparent differences, however, the lives of these two men were fundamentally entwined, on both a personal and structural level. Telling the story of how these two lives came to dovetail together will take us from the walls of Jerusalem to the inner sanctum of the imperial palace; from the gleaming splendour of Athens to the roaring might of the Euphrates.
Although a mouthful to say, the name Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos is the key to understanding this story. This complicated nomenclature is more than just a name, it’s a biography. The first part of his name (the praenomen and nomen), Gaius Julius, denotes the legal element of the man’s identity. It signals that he is a Roman citizen, and moreover it shows that his citizenship can be traced back to a grant given to his family by the Emperor himself (in this case, the Emperor Tiberius, himself an adopted member of the gens Julia). The next part of his name is made up of two cognomina, which trace his paternal ancestry: Antiochus is the name of his grandfather, and Epiphanes is the name of his father. The final part of his name (his agnomen) is the most personal of all, it is used to denote some personal characteristic that defines his identity. Philopappos (Φιλόπαππος) is a combination of two Greek words: ‘philo’ (lover of, devotee of; cf. philosopher – lover of wisdom) and ‘pappos’ (grandfather). So who was this grandfather to whom Philopappos was so devoted that he was named after this fact?
As it happens, we are relatively well-informed about Philopappos’ grandfather. Antiochus, or (to give him his regnal title) Antiochus IV of Commagene, was royalty. The kingdom he inherited comprised of a small area in modern Turkey, salvaged from the disintegration of the Seleucid empire in the second century BC by his ancestor Ptolemaeus. Even as Roman hegemony swept through Asia Minor in the late Republic and early Empire, the rulers of Commagene preserved the independence of their kingdom. They achieved this by allying themselves closely to Roman interests in the region, serving as a useful buffer between Rome and the Parthian empire, proving more reliable than their eastern-facing neighbours Osrhoene and Sophene.
The Syrian Kingdoms
Commagene’s independence as an ally rather than a subject of Rome was, however, fragile. Upon the death of Antiochus IV’s father in 17 AD, the kingdom was briefly incorporated into the Roman province of Syria by the emperor Tiberius (at which point the royal family were rewarded for their loyalty with Roman citizenship). This, however, was reversed twenty years later by Tiberius’ successor Caligula, who returned Antiochus IV to the throne and restored Commagene’s independence.
The story of how Antiochus IV came to be the last king of Commagene can be pieced together from Tacitus and the Jewish historian Josephus. They locate the Fall of the House of Antiochus to the period of the Great Jewish Revolt against Rome (66-73 AD). Although this revolt took place far from the borders of Antiochus’ kingdom, he nonetheless demonstrated the pro-Roman loyalty that was characteristic of his ancestry.
Tacitus’ record of the year 69 AD notes the aid Antiochus IV gave to Vespasian, the general entrusted with the task of crushing the revolt:
Before 15th July the whole of Syria had sworn allegiance. The party also gained the support of Sohaemus, with all the resources of his kingdom and a considerable force, and of Antiochus, the richest of the subject princes, who owed his importance to his ancestral treasures.
Tac. Hist. 2.81
Antiochus’ choice to throw in his lot with Vespasian looked amply perspicacious once his military successes in Judaea had elevated the general to the principate amidst the chaos of the Year of the Four Emperors. Indeed, Vespasian’s coronation seems to have increased the king’s zeal for aiding the Roman forces in his backyard. To such an extent, in fact, that in 70 AD he sent his eldest son Epiphanes to fight alongside the troops Vespasian had left to storm Jerusalem under the command of his own son, the future Emperor Titus. Josephus takes up the tale:
Meanwhile there appeared on the scene Antiochus Epiphanes, bringing with him, besides numerous other forces, a bodyguard calling themselves “Macedonians,” all of the same age, tall, just emerged from adolescence, and armed and trained in the Macedonian fashion, from which circumstance indeed they took their title, most of them lacking any claim to belong to that race. For of all the monarchs owing allegiance to Rome, the king of Commagene enjoyed the highest prosperity, before he experienced reverse; but he too proved in old age how no man should be pronounced happy before his death. However, the father’s fortunes were at their zenith at the time when his son arrived and expressed his surprise that a Roman army should hesitate to attack the ramparts; something of a warrior himself, he was of an adventurous nature and withal so robust that his daring was seldom unsuccessful.
Jos. BJ V.460-463
Contained within Josephus’ description of Epiphanes’ valiance, however, is a cryptic nod in the direction of the future troubles that lay in wait for the kingdom of Commagene.
The Last King of Commagene
For all his conspicuous loyalty towards the emperor, his heir, the senate and the people of Rome, Antiochus IV’s rule over Commagene was not destined to survive Vespasian’s reorganization of Rome’s eastern provinces. Having elevated himself to the throne through the military grip he had accrued over the eastern portion of the Empire, Vespasian set about dismantling any existing arrangements that could allow somebody else to do the same.
In 72 AD, under the pretence of fearing the friendliness of the king’s relationship with the Parthian empire, Vespasian sent a legion into Commagene to inform Antiochus IV that his rule had been terminated, and that his kingdom was to be integrated once again into the Roman province of Syria. The calculation behind this is easy enough to discern. Commagene occupied a large fertile plain and controlled Samosata, a key crossing-point over the Euphrates. Such a strategically vital position provided whoever controlled Commagene with an enormous amount of power over Rome’s security. If the king of Commagene’s loyalties were to be captured by a thrusting general who had eyes on the principate, then the emperor would suddenly find himself in hot water.
Bridge Over Troubled Water, Samosata, Commagene
Josephus records that neither the Commagenian populace nor King Antiochus put up any resistance to the arrival of the Roman Sixth Legion Ferrata:
Their invasion was unopposed, not a man throughout the country wishing to lift a hand against them. Antiochus, confronted with the unexpected tidings, never entertained a moment’s thought of a war with Rome, but decided to quit the realm, leaving everything as it was, and to abscond in a chariot with his wife and children, hoping thus to clear himself in the eyes of the Romans of the charge under which he lay.
Jos. BJ VII.227-229
Although Josephus depicts the annexation of Commagene proceeding with an air of calm but firm resolution, both on the part of the invaders and their victims, it just so happens that a near contemporary document survives from this region, presenting a somewhat different picture.
The earliest extant piece of Syriac literature, the Letter of Mara bar Serapion, preserved as an early Christian text, gives a very different picture of how occupation was greeted by some of those Commagenians who did not wish to live under Roman rule.
You have heard, moreover, concerning our companions, that, when they were leaving Samosata, they were distressed about it, and, as if complaining of the time in which their lot was cast, said thus: ‘We are now far removed from our home, and we cannot return again to our city, or behold our people, or offer to our gods the greeting of praise!’ Wise was it that that day should be called a day of lamentation, because one heavy grief possessed them all alike. For they wept as they remembered their fathers, and they thought of their mothers with sobs, and they were distressed for their brethren, and grieved for their betrothed whom they had left behind…
But, if the Romans shall permit us to go back to our own country, as called upon by justice and righteousness to do, they will be acting like humane men, and will earn the name of good and righteous, and at the same time will have a peaceful country in which to dwell: for they will exhibit their greatness when they leave us free men, and we shall be obedient to the sovereign power which the time has allotted to us. But let them not like tyrants, drive us as though we were slaves. Yet, if it has already been determined what shall be done, we shall receive nothing more dreadful than the peaceful death which lie in store for us.
For all Josephus’ emphasis on a willing and loyal Commagenian populace, this letter provides a far darker picture – one suggesting that there was at least a section of the community unwilling to contemplate life under Roman rule, a section of the populace who exiled themselves to Parthian territory and whom the occupying Romans forcefully barred from returning.
In spite of this contradiction, Mara bar Serapion’s evidence of dissatisfaction with Roman rule actually helps to make sense of the rest of Josephus’ presentation of the Roman occupation of Commagene. For all his claims of peaceful acceptance on the part of Antiochus IV and the populace, the King’s sons Epiphanes and Callinicus did not relinquish their patrimony with the same equanimity once shown by a younger Antiochus IV when his kingdom was absorbed into the Roman Empire upon the death of his father more than half a century earlier:
Even in these straits, however, the king could not be induced to take any hostile action against the Romans, but lamenting his lot was content to submit to whatever suffering might be in store for him. His sons, on the contrary, with the advantages of youth, military experience, and unusual physical strength, could not lightly brook this calamity without a struggle; Epiphanes and Callinicus, accordingly, had resort to arms. In the fierce contest which ensued, lasting the whole day, the princes displayed conspicuous gallantry, and their troops had sustained no diminution of strength when night parted the combatants. Yet, even after such an issue of the conflict, Antiochus could not bring himself to remain, but accompanied by his wife and daughters fled to Cilicia, thereby breaking the spirits of his own troops; for, regarding him as having pronounced sentence on his realm, they mutinied and went over to the Romans, and despair was manifest on all faces.
Jos. BJ VII.231-236
His sons’ decision to commit to battle with Roman troops removed any certainty that Antiochus IV might have had about returning to the carefree existence he had enjoyed as a Roman citizen in his youth.
His (performative) decision, however, to enter the nearest Roman garrison in chains in the company of his wife and sister (the same person), and his daughter was a smart one – when news of his degraded state was conveyed to Vespasian, the Emperor insisted that his old ally be treated with the dignity and respect he had enjoyed as king, and that he be conveyed to Greece to enjoy a life of luxury at the expense of the new Flavian court.
That, then, is the story of the grandfather so beloved by Philopappos. A man born heir to a kingdom, raised a Roman citizen, unexpectedly made king in his youth, only to be returned to Rome in his old age. There is, though, a loose thread to this part of the tale. Although Antiochus had taken as much of his family with him as he could, there was still the question of his two sons, Epiphanes and Callinicus – the young men who had attacked the Roman legion sent in to take possession of the kingdom they had hoped to inherit.
The boys, despairing of their futures, had no intention of following their father’s example and entrusting themselves to Rome’s mercy. He, after all, had surrendered himself immediately to the authorities; they had taken up arms against Roman imperium; they had made themselves hostes, enemies of the state. Fearing for their safety, Epiphanes and Callinicus fled east. Crossing the Euphrates, they fled past the site of Crassus’ famous defeat at Carrhae seeking the protection of the Parthian Empire.
Fighting for Distinction
This is the point in the story at which we introduce our friend from the second monument. Gaius Velius Rufus was in all likelihood a native of the town in which his funerary monument was erected – Heliopolis, a Roman colony founded by the emperor Augustus in what is now Lebanon.
The epitaph attached to the plinth described above serves as Rufus’ Curriculum Vitae:
To Gaius Velius Rufus, son of Salvius, who served as:
primus pilus [Lieutenant Colonel of the Twelfth Legion Fulminata;
prefect of a vexillatio [task force] of nine legions I Adiutrix, II Adiutrix, II Augusta, VIII Augusta, VIIII Hispana, XIIII Gemina, XX Victrix, XXI Rapax;
tribune of the Thirteenth Urban Cohort;
leader of an army created in Africa and Mauritania to suppress the nations that live in Mauretania;
and was given rewards by Imperator Vespasian and Imperator Titus during the Jewish War – a wall crown, torques, phalerae, armillae;
and also given rewards – a mural crown, two spears, two banners;
and again given, during the war against the Marcomanni, Quadi, and Sarmati – against whom he conducted an operation across the realm of Decebalus, king of the Dacians – a mural crown, two spears and two banners;
and who acted as Procurator [non-senatorial governor] of the emperor Caesar Augustus Domitian in the Pannonian and Dalmatian provinces;
and as Procurator and highest penal authority in Raetia.
He was sent on a military mission into Parthia and brought to the emperor Vespasian Epiphanes and Callinicus, the sons of king Antiochus, and a large band of men liable for tribute.
To this man has Marcus Alfius Fabia Olympiacus, son of Marcus, aquilifer [carrier of the eagle] and veteran of the Fifteenth Legion Apollinaris, erected this monument.
Epitaph of Gaius Velius Rufus
As impressive Rufus’ list of appointments was, this monument to his life nonetheless separated one achievement out of its chronological order and placed it in a grammatically separate clause. His claim to fame, the bedrock of status, was his leadership of a mission into enemy territory to find the refugee princes of Commagene and reunite them with Antiochus IV and the rest of the royal family in Roman territory.
How did Rufus find himself in the position of being asked to undertake such a dangerous and unusual assignment? A clue is supplied an earlier part of the inscription:
He was given rewards by Imperator Vespasian and Imperator Titus during the Jewish War – a wall crown, torques, phalerae, armillae.
Rufus’ selection, then, was not a random choice. Vespasian and Titus’ crushing of the Jewish Revolt brought numerous opportunities for brave and skilled soldiers to demonstrate their abilities and rise through the ranks. Judging by the number of awards Rufus received in the course of this conflict, he seems to have seized this opportunity with eager hands.
Gaius Velius Rufus had served in Judaea with distinction first under Vespasian, and then under Titus, showing himself to be an exceptionally gifted and talented soldier. He was born and bred in the Fertile Crescent, and so could claim a degree of local knowledge that would have been exceptionally rare for a Roman citizen soldier. It is even possible that he had served alongside Epiphanes and his so-called ‘Macedonians’ in the latter stages of the Jewish War. His epitaph’s reference to his service in the Urban Cohort may even suggest that he was sufficiently well-connected with the Flavians that he had been brought back to Rome to serve in the new Emperor’s Praetorian Guard.
Instead of this, however, he was entrusted with a specific and dangerous mission, to bring the princes Epiphanes and Callinicus back to their father. Vespasian’s reasons for taking such care in choosing the right man for this mission was not simply a matter of him being overwhelmed with tender fatherly feelings. There was a strong element of Realpolitik involved in ensuring that two young men with a legitimate claim to a vital piece of Roman territory were not in a position to be used by a hostile power with a strong interest in creating instability on Rome’s eastern border.
Josephus’ account of the situation runs as follows:
Ten horsemen, in fact, were all that crossed the Euphrates with the two brothers; thence they proceeded unmolested to Vologeses, king of Parthia, by whom they were treated not with disdain, as fugitives, but with every mark of respect, as though still enjoying their ancient prosperity.
Jos. BJ VII.236-237
Vologeses’ decision to treat the Princes in a manner suggesting that he acknowledged the validity of their claim to throne of Commagene was a cause for immediate concern. Confusion, however, was created by the next report to reach Rome from Parthia indicating that in spite of his initial demonstration of favour, the king was content for the princes to be reunited with their father. Under these conditions of uncertainty, it is no surprise that the man chosen for the task was a tried and tested, capable solider, a man with strong links to the local area, and one personally known both to the emperor and to the princes.
When he accepted the mission, Gaius Velius Rufus can have had no idea whether Vologeses would have changed his mind by the time he reached the palace, nor whether the princes would show any inclination to leave their new Parthian home. The only thing he could be sure of was the fact that he would be alone, cut off from contact with his superiors, and forced to act on his own initiative far beyond the frontiers of the Roman empire.
Heart of Darkness
Although Rome and Parthia were at peace when Rufus was sent on this mission, he was going into Parthian territory less than ten years after Rome had struck a humiliating peace treaty ending five years of bloody warfare – battles fought over the very terrain he was to set to traverse. He had no way of knowing how long this treaty would last, and in the event of it breaking down while he on the other side of the border, he would be left to his own devices in the company of two princes for whom such an anti-Roman conflict could prove very beneficial.
Precisely how Rufus carried out his mission is unknown to us: neither Josephus nor his epitaph provide much in the way of detail. We can, though sketch an outline of what such a mission would entail, and show just how arduous such a mission would have been.
Before he could even see Parthian territory, Rufus was faced with a three to four-week journey to reach Commagene, depending on whether he was travelling from Rome as a praetorian, or whether he was still a centurion in Judaea. Aside from the fact that Commagene offered Rome’s best crossing-point over the Euphrates into Parthian territory, this starting point also offered the opportunity for Rufus to speak with those who had seen the princes last, offering a rare opportunity to gain some independent verification of the state of mind in which he could expect to find Epiphanes and Callinicus. How were they likely to react to the appearance of Roman Centurion? Would they flee? Would they put up a fight?
Once he had gathered intelligence and crossed the Euphrates, leaving Commagene and Roman territory behind him, Rufus was reliant on Parthian sources to reach Vologeses and the princes. This was not necessarily an easy task: the Parthian empire was vast, stretching from the borders of modern Turkey as far as eastern Iran. Josephus does not inform us of whereabouts in Parthian territory Vologeses was keeping his guests.
Our best clue lies in the fact that Rufus’ epitaph makes clear that his mission took him into Parthia, not just to its borders (his mission was ‘in Parthiam’ rather than ‘in Parthia’). This implies that the boys were not brought to any of the neutral border states that served as a buffer between Roman and Parthian territory. A second clue can be found in Josephus’ claim that the boys were kept in a manner befitting their royal status, which could suggest their presence in one of the royal capitals, where it would be easiest to keep them in the manner to which they were accustomed.
If this idea is incorrect and the princes were with Vologeses as he travelled around his empire, then we should imagine Rufus travelling along the old Royal Road built by Persian kings of old, scanning the horizon for bandits and following news of the ever moving location of the king’s military entourage. If, however, the princes were with Vologeses in the capital Ctesiphon, then our picture suddenly takes on more than a shade of Heart of Darkness or Apocalypse Now.
The easiest route to Ctesiphon from Roman territory was to travel by boat down the Euphrates. Progress was slow and only safely attempted during daylight hours. Estimates vary, but on a very good day Rufus may have managed to travel 75 km downriver. Between Samosata and Ctesiphon, the Euphrates flows for over 1,000 km.
Gaius Velius Rufus in Action
A month of travelling down the Euphrates as it snaked its way through Parthia in the company of a picked band of fellow soldiers and a native guide was at least a journey that only risked Rufus’ own life. Making the return journey upstream in the conspicuous company of two royal youths was another matter. As well as their boat’s pace slowing to a crawl as they fought against the river’s natural inclination to run to the sea, this leg presented a number of potential human problems as well.
However keen Josephus might be to suggest that the princes were eager to be reunited with their father, there was no way for Rufus to know whether or not the princes considered themselves (not without cause) to be the victims of a Roman state determined to punish them for attacking the legion sent to deprive them of their kingdom. Every morning Rufus woke up on the banks of the Euphrates to find that Epiphanes and Callinicus had neither fled the scene nor slit his throat was a minor victory.
An accompanying problem, of course, was the loss of anonymity that went hand-in-hand with transporting Epiphanes and Callinicus. While a Roman Centurion in Parthia could never hope to blend in completely with the local scene, he stood a far greater chance of doing so when he was not accompanied by two young royals who would fetch a more than ample ransom for an enterprising group of bandits prepared to ambush this small party as it crawled along towards the frontier.
Josephus informs us that Rufus wisely foreshortened his journey home by not taking the potentially volatile step of bringing the princes back through their now former kingdom of Commagene – a region they would never step foot in again. The city of Zeugma offered a sensible alternative location for Rufus disembark his royal consignment. From there an easy route could be taken via Antioch back to the capital.
Josephus is on hand to round off the tale with a happy ending:
Caesar having then graciously granted them safe conduct, they [Epiphanes and Callinicus] came to Rome, where they were promptly joined by their father [Antiochus IV] from Sparta; and there they took up their abode, treated with every mark of honour.
Jos. BJ VII.243
Reward and Rehabilitation
Such is the tale of Gaius Velius Rufus’ dashing extraction of the Commagenian princes from the heart of the Parthian empire. But this is more than just a story taken from a particular moment in a particular part of the Roman empire. So often in the history of the ancient world, these tantalizing snapshots of interesting lives disappear leaving us to guess at their endings. However, thanks to the survival of the funerary monuments described above, we are fortunate enough to be able to trace the rest of the stories of Gaius Velius Rufus and the princes of Commagene.
The success of Rufus’ mission proved that Vespasian’s confidence in his soldier was well-placed, and it proved to be a stepping stone for a magnificent career, as detailed on his funerary monument. Shortly after his return, he was elevated to the position of primus pilus (first spear) in the Twelfth Legion Fulminata (a rough equivalent of a modern Lieutenant Colonel), making him the highest ranking Centurion in the legion, as well as its ninth most senior overall.
From this point of distinction, he continued to rise at an extraordinary rate of knots. As his epitaph makes clear, he was present at almost every major theatre of war in the reigns of Vespasian and his two sons, being decorated every step of the way for his valour and bravery. This eventually culminated in Rufus being made procurator (administrator) of three provinces under Domitian – a supreme achievement for a man whose career had begun as a common soldier.
A sign of how great Rufus’ achievement was can be seen in the fact that many successful procurators found themselves adlected into the senate by the emperor as a reward for their service. The brutal end of Domitian’s reign could well be the reason why Rufus never achieved this mark of distinction himself. But even if he never personally donned the senatorial latus clavus (a toga decorated with a broad purple band), we can see from the funerary monuments that flank his own in Baalbek that his homonymous son did receive this honour and that his family was further ennobled in the next generation with the consulship.
Such was the life of Gaius Velius Rufus, what of the royal family of Commagene? By the time he was reunited with his sons, Antiochus IV could see his life stretched out gloriously behind him. Josephus tells us that he and his sister/wife lived out their remaining years in a manner befitting their formerly royal status. But what of their children?
Antiochus’ daughter Iotapa, whom he took with him to Rome when he fled Commagene to seek Vespasian’s pardon, suffered no great disruption to her life of royalty – she was married in Rome to the heir to the new Armenian king Tigranes, a man with the strikingly un-Armenian name Gaius Julius Alexander. A subtle means by which Rome could keep some control over a kingdom that it had ceded to Parthia in their latest peace treaty.
Unlike their royal sister, however, the fugitive princes, now returned to Roman territory, had to learn how to live as citizens. The younger brother Callinicus immediately disappears from our records, but Epiphanes’ adaption to Roman life is rather more fully-known, and can tell us a great deal about how status was negotiated in the upper echelons of the Roman elite.
Epiphanes swiftly accrued fame and status through his royal father and his personal place of favour in the court of Vespasian. This immediately marked him out as a suitable connubial match for anyone seeking to burnish their credentials as an up-and-coming member of the Roman elite. Ultimately he did not end up marrying the scion of a Roman senatorial family, but rather a Roman of Alexandrian extraction, Claudia Capitolina, whose family had never stepped foot in the senate house.
What was the claim to fame of this thrusting new non-senatorial dynasty to which Epiphanes was lending his royal blood? What made Claudia Capitolina a suitable match for Commagenian royalty? Prince Epiphanes’ new father-in-law was, in fact, a procurator; a man named Tiberius Claudius Balbillus who, just like our friend Gaius Velius Rufus, had proved his mettle rising through the ranks of the army and been entrusted with a series of important administrative positions under successive emperors.
After serving with distinction in the emperor Claudius’ invasion of Britain in 44 AD (to the extent that he was rewarded with the hasta pura in Claudius’ triumph), Balbillus was sent to his native Egypt to practice his administrative skills as the director of the Great Library. Having proved himself there, he was promoted under Claudius to procurator of the grand province of Asia, after which the emperor Nero entrusted him with the most important position that could be held by a non-senator – the prefecture of Egypt.
Once the Julio-Claudians had been swept away and replaced by Vespasian’s Flavian court, Balbillus returned to Rome with his daughter to ingratiate himself with the empire’s new masters. Against this background, both Epiphanes and Balbillus found it to be in their interests to merge their families via a dynastic marriage of the dashing young prince and Balbillus’ daughter.
The Man Who Would Be King
At this point it would be sensible to leap forward in time to the monument with which we began, the extraordinary mausoleum erected over 40 years later in 116 AD to honour the memory of Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos.
The Philopappos Monument, Athens
Even in its partially collapsed state, Philopappos’ monument is an impressive display. Moreover, it remains easy enough to read and interpret.
The monument’s artistic vision unites the past and the present of its honorand. The frieze running along the bottom commemorates the status Philopappos reached in life. He did not simply live the quiet life of luxury that might befit a king without a kingdom, he maintained and exercised power through a series of magistracies both in Rome and throughout the empire: a trip up the cursus honorum that culminated in his elevation to the consulship in 109 AD. The commemorative frieze depicts the grand procession which marked his assumption of this office:
Consular Frieze on Philopappos’ Monument
Philopappos can be seen riding a four-horse chariot towards a group of senators, who expectantly await his arrival.
The Latin inscription confirms Philopappos’ pride in his civic achievements:
C. ∙ Iulius C. f. Fab(ia) ∙ Antiochus ∙ Philopappus ∙ cos., frater ∙ Arvalis ∙ allectus ∙ inter praetorios ∙ ab ∙ Imp(eratore) ∙ Caesare Nerva ∙ Traiano ∙ Optumo ∙ Augusto ∙ Germanico∙ Dacico
Gaius Julius Antiochus Philopappus, son of Gaius, of the Fabian tribe, consul, and Arval brother, admitted to the praetorian rank by the emperor Caesar Nerva Trajan Optimus Augustus Germanicus Dacicus.
But as important as his civic achievements were, this monument tells the viewer that Philopappos remained proudest of his royal blood.
Towering over the frieze and its accompanying inscription once stood three giant statues, depicting three significant members of Philopappos’ family. Only two currently remain, but the monument can be confidently reconstructed:
Reconstruction of Philopappos’ Monument
Seated in the centre, of course, is Philopappos himself, the man whose life is commemorated by this mausoleum. Flanking him on either side are two other figures, denoting a claim to elite status that transcends what he achieved in his life as a Roman magistrate. On his right-hand side sits a man we are already familiar with – his paternal grandfather, Antiochus IV, the last king of Commagene. On his left sits another figure. Not his civilian father, as one might expect, or even his own heir, but rather an august historicl figure: Seleucus I Nicator, successor of Alexander the Great, founder of the Seleucid dynasty, and ultimate fount of Philopappos’ royal blood.
Although it is now missing, a 15th Century traveller to Athens recorded the inscription that once crowned the monument – an inscription that underlines the respective importance of Philopappos’ royal and civic claims to elite status. In enormous lettering, glaring across the Attic landscape at the Acropolis, it read:
βασιλεὺς Ἀντίοχος Φιλόπαππος.
King Antiochos Philopappos.
The mausoleum’s message is clear: this is not just a monument dedicated to the memory to one of the many great men produced in Rome and sent out to rule the empire. This monument commemorates something altogether rarer and more awe-inspirer: a king.
View of Philopappos’ Monument from the Acropolis
But for all Philopappos’ pride in his royal heritage, he did not see fit to pass over his more Roman marks of distinction in silence. Even for a man descended from Macedonian royalty, a man who proclaimed himself a basileus (king), Philopappos’ claim to elite status still shared a support with that of the descendant of the simple soldier who was sent into Parthia to retrieve his fugitive father: the claims of both men to elite status depended on their services to the state.
Philopappos’ Monument stands as a testimony in stone to the competing marks of distinction that elevated one to the elite in the Roman empire. Placed side-by-side with the modest funerary monument of Gaius Velius Rufus we can see two competing narratives of how one became elite in the Roman empire; or, to put it another way, how one narrated one’s elite status in the Roman empire.
For Rufus, membership of the elite was something that was achieved by rising up a hierarchical ladder, carrying out a series of services on behalf of the emperor and being appropriately awarded with tokens of distinction at each stage. Reaching the very top may not be possible in one lifetime, but an advanced status could be handed down the generations, ensuring that one’s sons and grandsons all started the journey a few rungs closer to the top. It is a route to elite status that would have been instantly recognizable to Cicero a century earlier, or Cato the Elder a century before that.
Philopappos, by contrast, is engaged in a different game. A simplistic way of understanding his claim to elite status is to think in terms of a currency exchange. As a member of a Hellenistic royal family he has a cache of one form of elite status which he sought to convert into a Roman denomination. The awe his royal blood inspired granted him immediate access to the imperial family and swift elevation to various major Roman magistracies.
But this cannot be the whole story. As his monument makes abundantly clear, Philopappos did not simply replace his Hellenistic elite status with a Roman one: his complex memorial trumpets his dual claims to elite status. By becoming consul, Philopappos does not claim to be relinquishing his kingship. He is both Hellenistic and Roman; Gaius Julius and Antiochus; ultimately, he is king and consul.
What makes this monument so striking and so memorable is precisely Philopappos’ failure to properly synthesize both halves of his elite identity. The two sides of Philopappos’ claim to elite status do not add up to a coherent whole. The monument pulls in two separate directions. Certianly one cannot take this man to be anything other than a member of the elite, just as one cannot take Gaius Velius Rufus to be anything other than a member of that same elite. But while Rufus looks comfortable and at home in his elite status, Philopappos seems anything but.
The Sapphic Princess
To my mind, it is the left-hand plinth of Philopappos’ monument that makes him look most ill at ease with his hybrid elite identity. The presence of his paternal grandfather on his right only draws attention to the absence of his maternal grandfather on his left. How can one not miss the erasure of Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, the soldier who rose through the ranks until he was suitably elite to marry the one-time heir of the kingdom of Commagene? Did the knowledge of this arriviste’s equally important place in his family tree not sit comfortably with basileus Antiochos Philopappos?
By an intriguing quirk of fate, we can compare Philopappos’ presentation of his elite status with a very close analogue – someone who felt far more at home in the same hybrid elite status. And that is Philopappos’ little sister, Julia Balbilla.
Balbilla’s gender prevented her from expressing her elite identity through the cursus honorum of magistracies that was open to her brother and other male members of her family. She nevertheless seems to have had no trouble using other channels to assert herself as a distinguished member of elite society. Her skills as a poet and lady of letters allowed her to move gracefully through the courts of Trajan and Hadrian, eventually attaching herself as a companion (a sort of lady-in-waiting) to Vibia Sabina, the wife of the emperor Hadrian.
It was while she was accompanying the emperor and his wife on a tour of Egypt that Julia Balbilla left us with a memorial of her own perspective on the elite status she shared with her royal and consular brother. Twenty years after her brother had expressed the zenith of his Roman elite status in his tenure of the consulship, Balbilla found herself nestled in the imperial entourage visiting one of Egypt’s great wonders, the Colossi of Memnon:
The Colossi of Memnon, Luxor
The association of these two obviously Pharaonic statues with Memnon was a result of a miracle performed by one of them. In 27 BC, an earthquake split the northernmost colossus, which had hitherto stood more or less undamaged for 14 centuries, down the middle of its torso. A consequence of this damage was that every morning the air trapped in this gap heated up at a much slower rate than the air surrounding the statue. The subsequent imbalance in temperatures meant that when dawn arose over the valley, the statue would emit a sound that Pausanias compared to that of the string of a lyre breaking. As such, the colossi were named after Memnon, the child of the goddess of the Dawn.
In late November of 130 AD, as Hadrian, Vibia Sabina and the rest of the court marvelled at the wonder they had witnessed, Balbilla set about composing some Greek verses in Sappho’s Aeolic dialect which were then carved onto the legs of one of the statues. She wrote four poems in total commemorating what the imperial family had witnessed, and in the second she set about describing herself:
When in the company of august Sabina
I was beside Memnon.
Son of Dawn and reverend Tithonos, Memnon,
seated opposite Zeus’ Theban city,
or [should I call you] Amenoth, Egyptian king,
as the priests claim, learned in the ancient stories,
greetings! And speaking out, favorably welcome her too,
the noble wife of the emperor Hadrian.
A barbarian man cut off your tongue and ears,
the godless Kambyses. But surely, with his wretched death,
he paid the penalty, pierced by the same point of the sword
with which he, pitiless man, killed the divine Apis.
But I don’t think that this statue of you could ever perish,
and I sense in my heart a soul hereafter immortal.
For my parents and my grandparents were pious,
Balbillus the wise and Antiochus the king:
Balbillus was the father of my mother the queen,
and King Antiochus was my father’s father.
From their race, I, too, have obtained noble blood,
and these are my writings, Balbilla the pious.
The poem begins recounting the stories of ancient Egypt, known to us from Herodotus’ recollection of what he was told when he visited the region. Having traced these stories down to the present day (Hadrian’s visit obviously being the high point of the Valley of the Kings’ history), she turns to consider herself, and what has led to her being part of this entourage. To do this, she considers her lineage.
While her brother was content to erase his maternal ancestry from public record in his own monument, Julia Balbilla sees no contradiction in being simultaneously the scion of a Hellenistic Royal bloodline and the child of hard-grafting social-climbers.
And how does she achieve this synthesis? While her brother noted the competing and ultimately incompatible masculine virtues striving on either side of his elite identity, Balbilla seeks to identify a quality present on either side of her bifurcated family tree that can unite them both. The virtue she lands upon is εὐσέβεια, pietas: a word signifying a combination devotion and obedience, praised as much in public life as it was in the private sphere.
For all Philopappos’ command of the Attic skyline might suggest that he was properly tuned into the vast empire that the Romans had spread across the Mediterranean and beyond, it was his little sister who best had the measure of what held it together. The reason her epitaph is coherent in a way her brother’s isn’t is ultimately down to the fact that his conception of elite virtue was far more anachronistic than hers.
Philopappos’ monument stresses the fact that he embodies historical aristocratic qualities. On the one hand he boasts of a virtue that derives from his unparalleled royal birth (eugeneia); on the other, he demonstrates his aristocratic credentials through his unmatched civic deeds (euergetism).
While these virtues never lost their value under the Roman empire, and, indeed, they never stopped propelling young men into the elite, the age in which they made up the sum total of what it meant to be a member of the elite had passed. Under the empire, it was never enough simply to be a well-born performer of great deeds – elite status ultimately depended upon the patronage of the emperor. All boasts of elite status achieved through eugeneia and euergetism were fundamentally passing over an vital and necessary component of what it meant to be an elite in the Roman Empire: your elite status had not been earnt, it had been granted.
Julia Balbilla’s epigram captures this feature of elite life in the empire perfectly. She acknowledges the fact that she had inherited many noble qualities from both sides of her family, as much from her royal father as from her arriviste mother. However, what truly ennobled her ancestors and what ennobles her was not the royal blood she inherited or the afterglow of her ancestors’ great deeds. What made them true members of the imperial elite was their eusebeia, their cultivation of and devotion to and power greater than their own – the power of the Emperor.
This, then, is not just the story of one family. It is a story that could be repeated across the empire, as kings and their families struggled and succeeded in making sense of how their royalty could be maintained alongside showing the correct level of deference to the superior power of the emperor. Although few royal scions are as well represented as Philopappos and Balbilla, we have no great shortage of evidence suggesting that similar strategies were employed by other royals.
In Judaea, we see Herod Agrippa, the grandson of Herod (of New Testament fame), negotiating the continuation of his family’s elite status within Roman society by marrying his daughter Drusilla to the procurator of the province. This was Antonius Felix, whom (according to the Acts of the Apostles) Drusilla would beside as he judged the case of St Paul in Caesarea. And this was the the same Drusilla who, Pliny tells us, later left Israel only to perish alongside her son in the eruption of Vesuvius. But in contracting this marriage, the king of Judaea was not just marrying off his daughter to a man who was not himself of royal blood; he was going one step further in his attempt to preserve his family’s elite status by grafting it onto a man who’s claim to greatness lay not in birth, but in service to the imperial household. Antonius Felix was not just any procurator and he was not just low-born – he had been born and brought up as a slave.
St Paul Pleading before Felix and Drusilla, Hogarth
To see another variation on this pattern we might turn away from the east and look north towards the perilous pitfalls of the Alps. There, as Hannah Cornwell has recently shown, we can read on a magnificent arch, high up on an Alpine pass, king Cottius’ attempt to preserve his royal identity alongside his new-found subordination to the emperor Augustus. Unlike the dynastic marriages undertaken by his royal cousins in the east, Cottius did not employ overtures of marriage to try to woo the imperial administrator sent in to oversee the emperor’s new domain. Instead, he boasts of having taken the job of prefect for himself!
Cottius’ Alpine Arch
It is no great novelty to suggest that the success of the Roman empire lay in the alacrity with which it incorporated its subjects into the citizen body. Routes to citizenship were readily available to slaves through manumission, and to the freeborn through service in the auxiliary corps. A parallel but rather more complex phenomenon, though is to be seen in how Rome dealt with those who had reason to think themselves to be above it all; those whose claims to status predated the growth of the Roman empire. How were these elites persuaded that they could maintain their status while submitting to the Roman yoke?
The twists and turns that these royals had to perform to express the duality of their elite identity is as close as we can get to a glimpse into the psyche of these complicated, fascinating and hubristic characters.
Men like Philopappos must have felt conflicting emotions about sharing the consulship with men like the descendants of his father’s rescuer, the soldier of fortune Gaius Velius Rufus.
Herod Agrippa too must have entertained some doubts as he walked hi royal daughter down the aisle to be married to an ex-slave.
Cottius must have wondered whether his royal father would have accepted a salary from Rome to collect a foreign tribute from his own people.
The fact, though, that ultimately all of these great royal families chose to play the game – to do what was necessary to plug themselves into the elite network that emanated from the court of the emperor – shows just how prestigious this Italian city state had become, and helps to explain why an enterprise that should have long ago collapsed under its own contradictions would prove to be so enduring.