Tiberius Claudius Balbilus

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Tiberius Claudius Balbillus Modestus (AD 3-79), more commonly known as Tiberius Claudius Balbilus, was a distinguished Ancient Roman scholar, politician and a court astrologer to the Roman emperors Claudius, Nero, and Vespasian. [1]


Forms of his name

Other forms of Balbilus's name include the Latin forms Tiberius Claudius Balbillus, [2] Barbillus, [2] Babilus, [3] Balbillus [4] and Balbillus the Wise, [5] Greek forms include Ancient Greek : Τιβέριος Κλαύδιος Βαλβίλλος ΜόδεστοςTibérios Klaúdios Balbíllos Módestos, modern Greek transliteration Tivérios Klávdios Valvíllos Módestos. [6]

Descent, family background and early life

It is assumed that the birthplace of Balbilus was Alexandria in Roman Egypt. [6] Balbilus was a Roman Egyptian nobleman mostly of Greek but partly of Armenian and Median descent. Balbilus was the son [1] [7] and the younger child born to Tiberius Claudius Thrasyllus. Thrasyllus was a grammarian, literary commentator, and court astrologer who became the personal friend of the Roman emperor Tiberius. [8]

Balbilus had one known sibling, an elder unnamed sister, who married the Eques Lucius Ennius. [9] [10] Through her, Balbilus was the maternal uncle of Ennia Thrasylla [10] who married the Praetorian prefect of the Praetorian Guard Naevius Sutorius Macro and perhaps, Lucius Ennius who was the father of Lucius Ennius Ferox, a Roman soldier who served during the reign of the Roman emperor Vespasian [11] from 69 until 79. Although Balbilus was born and raised in Egypt, he was of the Roman equestrian order. [5] Balbilus was a friend of Tiberius’ nephew, Claudius, [2] whom Balbilus knew from when they were children and had met at his father's house.

A surviving papyrus found in Theogonis in Egypt, dated 26 August 34, mentions Balbilus as one of the owners of a bathhouse located in the city and the Papyrus mentions the Lease of the Bathhouse and taxation paid from its revenue. [12] A second papyrus dated to his tenure in Egypt is a draft of a petition from tax collectors to excuse them from collecting the poll taxes for several villages where the inhabitants have either fled out of poverty or died without leaving heirs. [13] At some date in the reign of Caligula, Balbilus left Rome and returned to Alexandria.

Political career

Balbilus military and political career began when Claudius came to the imperial throne. [2] Following the assassination of Caligula (January 41), Balbilus returned to Rome to support Claudius. [14] Balbilus accompanied Claudius on his expedition to Britain in 43, serving as a military tribune in Legio XX Valeria Victrix and as the Commander of the Military Engineers. [14] [1] When Claudius returned with the Roman Legions from Britain to Rome, Balbilus was awarded a crown of honour.

According to Suetonius, Claudius awarded Balbilus a Hasta Pura and perhaps a corona aurea during the Triumph to celebrate the conquest of Britain in 44. [15] As Balbilus was a part of his retinue, it seems likely that his awards, as much as his military rank, were honorary. [16]

Balbilus was one of the highest ranking Equestrian Magistrates [5] who served in Rome. After Balbilus returned to Rome from the Roman conquest of Britain, he received an important post in Egypt. [1] While in Alexandria, Balbilus was appointed High Priest at the Temple of Hermes and Director of the Library, he split his time between Alexandria and Rome. Sometime later he served as a Procurator of the Asia province. [2] [14]

In October 54, Claudius died and was succeeded by Nero as Roman emperor. Under Nero, Balbilus was appointed Prefect of Egypt where he served from 55 until 59. [17] After his prefecture ended in Egypt, Balbilus continued to live in Alexandria.


Balbilus followed his father in developing skills in astrology. [18] He became a leading astrologer of his time in Rome. [19] He remained in Rome during Claudius’ reign as his advisor, after Claudius had passed an edict expelling all astrologers from the city. Balbilus foretold an eclipse which fell on one of the emperor's birthdays.

During the reign of Nero, Balbilus served as an astrological adviser to him and his mother, [2] Agrippina the Younger. A comet had passed across the sky in either 60 or 64, signalling the death of a great personage. Balbilus tried to calm Nero's fears by noting that the usual solution was to murder prominent citizens, thus appeasing the gods [2] and Nero agreed, killing many nobles. As Balbilus proved to be a capable (and wily) astrologer, he avoided the fatal end of many astrologers under Nero.

During the reign of Roman emperor Vespasian from 69 until 79, Balbilus returned to Rome from Alexandria and served as an astrologer to Vespasian.

Balbilus was a learned man. [5] Seneca the Younger describes him as ‘an excellent man of most rare learning in every branch of studies’. [20] He wrote an astrology treatise, titled Astrologumena, of which only fragments have survived. [14] The book was addressed to Hermogenes. [1]

Family and issue

The identity of the wife of Balbilus is unknown; most probably she was a Greek noblewoman from the aristocracy of the Roman Near East. There is a possibility that the wife of Balbilus may have been royalty, possibly Commagenian. [21] By his wife Balbilus had a daughter called Claudia Capitolina. [21] The nomen Claudia she inherited from her father's family while the Cognomen Capitolina, she may have inherited from her mother's family.

In 64, Capitolina married her cousin, Gaius Julius Archelaus Antiochus Epiphanes, son of King Antiochus IV of Commagene, [5] and his sister-wife, Queen Iotapa. Capitolina bore Epiphanes one son, called Gaius Julius Antiochus Epiphanes Philopappos and one daughter, called Julia Balbilla. [5]

Balbilus has two further namesakes the Emesene Priests of the cult of El-Gebal in Rome, Tiberius Julius Balbillus and his relative, Titus Julius Balbillus [22] who lived in the second half of the 2nd century and the first half of the 3rd century. Like Balbilus, both were descendants of the King Antiochus I of Commagene, [23] through Balbilus’ maternal uncle Iotapa who married into the Emesene dynasty.

Posthumous honours

In his later years Balbilus lived in Ephesus. [24] Vespasian granted privileges to him and his city of Ephesus because of his proficiency as an astrologer. [24] Balbilus died in 79, possibly in June of that year. [25]

As Vespasian thought very highly of him, he dedicated and allowed Ephesians to institute games held in his honour. [21] These games became a sporting festival called the Balbillean Games. This festival was held at Ephesus from 79 well into the 3rd century. [25] An inscription in Ephesus honours Balbilus and his daughter. [25]

Balbilus was honoured by his granddaughter Julia Balbilla in two epigrams in Aeolic Greek which are dated to 130. The two epigrams are a part of four epigrams recorded which are inscribed and are preserved on the lower sections of one of the Colossi of Memnon. These are two massive stone statues built by the Egyptian Pharaoh Amenhotep III (flourished 14th century BC), to stand guard at the entrance of Amenhotep's memorial temple. Balbilla had lived in Egypt and was an escort to the Roman emperor Hadrian and his wife, Vibia Sabina when they visited the country. The inscriptions that Balbilla commissioned commemorated their visit to Egypt.

In the inscriptions on the Colossi of Memnon, Balbilla acknowledged and made reference to her royal and aristocratic descent. In the last two lines of the second epigram, she honours her family including Balbilus:

For my parents were noble, and my grandfathers,
The wise Balbillus and Antiochus the king.

The fourth and final epigram, Balbilla dedicates to her parents and grandfathers. This epigram is dedicated also to her noble and aristocratic blood. In the epigram, Balbilla mentions that Balbilus has royal lineage.

For pious were my parents and grandfathers: Balbillus the Wise and King
Antiochus; Balbillus, the father of my mother of royal blood and king
Antiochus, the father of my father. From their line I too draw my noble
blood, and these verses are mine, pious Balbilla.

Balbilus in fiction

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  1. 1 2 3 4 5 Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, p. 29
  2. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 Bunsen, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, p. 66
  3. Balbilus’ article at ancient library
  4. Willer Laale, Ephesus (Ephesos): An Abbreviated History from Androclus to Constantine XI (Google eBook)
  5. 1 2 3 4 5 6 Hemelrijk, Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, p. 170
  6. 1 2 Martin Gansten, "Balbillus and the Method of aphesis" (July 2012), p.587
  7. Beck, Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works With New Essays, p. 42-3
  8. Holden, A History of Horoscopic Astrology, p. 26
  9. Levick, Tiberius: The Politician, pp. 137, 230
  10. 1 2 Genealogy of daughter of Tiberius Claudius Thrasyllus & Aka II of Commagene at rootsweb
  11. Coleman-Norton, Ancient Roman Statutes, pp. 151–2
  12. P.Mich.inv. 639
  13. Papyrus Graux 2. English translation in A. S. Hunt and C.C. Edgar, Select Papyri, II. Non-literary Papyri. Public Documents (London: Loeb, 1932), pp. 266f no. 281
  14. 1 2 3 4 Hazel, Who's who in the Roman World, p. 35
  15. Suetonius, Claudius 28,1)
  16. See Maxfield 1981, pp. 160-161.
  17. G. Bastianini, "Lista dei prefetti d'Egitto dal 30a al 299p", Zeitschrift für Papyrologie und Epigraphik , 17 (1975), p. 273
  18. Thrasyllus’ article at ancient library Archived 2012-10-20 at the Wayback Machine
  19. Beck, Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works With New Essays, p. 42
  20. Hemelrijk, Matrona Docta: Educated Women in the Roman Élite from Cornelia to Julia Domna, p. 333
  21. 1 2 3 Beck, Beck on Mithraism: Collected Works With New Essays, p. 43
  22. Halsberghe, The Cult of Sol Invictus, p. 55
  23. Temporini, 2, Principat: 9, 2, p. 798
  24. 1 2 Bunsen, Encyclopedia of the Roman Empire, p. 52
  25. 1 2 3 Laale, Ephesus (Ephesos): An Abbreviated History from Androclus to Constantine Xi, p. 200
  26. See Claudius the God and his Wife Messalina. London: Arthur Barker, 1934; New York: Smith & Haas, 1935
  27. http://www.opus-gemini.de Archived 2016-10-08 at the Wayback Machine
  28. Emma Williams (2023-01-06). "Re-imagining the CLC with Caroline Bristow". The Latin Tutor (Podcast). Event occurs at 34:00. Retrieved 2023-02-20.
  29. As stated by Caroline Bristow, director of the Cambridge Schools Classics Project, in 2023. [28]


Political offices
Preceded by Prefect of Egypt
Succeeded by