A statue of M. Nonius Balbus

A look at the equestrian statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus that is currently on display at the archaeological museum of Naples.

Josho Brouwers

As you explore the National Archaeological Museum of Naples, sooner or later you will happen upon a marble equestrian statue. The little plaque fixed to the (modern) base of the statue states simply that it is a portrait of Marcus Nonius Balbus, and that it was found in the Forum area at Herculaneum. For some reason, the plaque adds that the statue was originally donated by the inhabitants of Nuceria (today Nocera Inferiore near Naples), but this isn’t correct, as you will see in a moment.

But before I turn to the statue itself, perhaps a brief word on the man’s name. “Balbus” is a common cognomen in Roman times and literally means “stammerer”. Perhaps the man indeed had a stammer, or had stammered at some point in his life, but more likely it was a nickname that he had simply inherited, in the same manner that Roman emperors would sport the cognomen “Caesar”.

Evidence from inscriptions reveal further information about the man. Originally from Nuceria, he had settled in Herculaneum, where he had become a popular benefactor, partially funding the construction of a basilica. He was praetor, consul, and proconsul of the provinces of Crete and Cyrene in the time of Octavian/Augustus, becoming a tribune in 32 BC, and must have been very wealthy. People from Nuceria, as well as from the Cretan cities of Gortyn and Knossos, dedicated statues to the man in Herculaneum:

The equestrian statue of Marcus Nonius Balbus.

His funerary altar, which marked the place where he was cremated and was erected as a special honour, features an inscription that provides details about the equestrian statue (Année Epigraphique 1976 no. 144). Marcus Ofillius Celer, who was then duumvir for the second time, ordered that the good deeds of M. Nonius Balbus should be honoured by placing an equestrian statue of the man in the busiest place of Herculaneum, paid for at public expense. Interestingly, this inscription also includes the full text that was to be inscribed in the base of the statue, which specified that the council of the people of Herculaneum had set it up.

In antiquity, it was expected that wealthy people contributed to the community of their own volition. Marcus Nonius Balbus was probably not exceptional in this regard. What is exceptional, though, is that Balbus is the only person from antiquity for which we have this “unusual amount of documentation, with evidence of benefactions, honours during a man’s lifetime, and his burial, in one and the same place”, as per Werner Eck in Beryl Rawon & Paul Weaver (eds), The Roman Family in Italy: Status, Sentiment, Space (1999), page 94.