Marcus Nonius Balbus
Marcus Nonius Balbus was Herculaneum’s principle civic benefactor. During his lifetime, he embellished the town with civic monuments and public facilities, earning the gratitude of Herculaneum’s council. They erected statues of Balbus in all of Herculaneum’s major municipal areas and voted to name the basilica Balbus had financed the Basilica Nonius. The basilica’s interior was filled not with statues of the gods or imperial family but Balbus’s family: his parents, his wife and children and Balbus himself. It was an expression of fawning gratitude that may have gone some way to soothing Balbus’s thwarted ambitions.
Marcus Nonius Balbus was not a native citizen of Herculaneum. He originally came from the town of Nuceria, near Pompeii. However, Balbus had his eye on a political career in Rome. He was the first member of the family to hold public office there, and at the time of Julius Caesar’s death, he held the position of tribune. After Caesar’s murder, Balbus proved himself a canny judge of the political situation, choosing to side with the future Emperor, Augustus against Mark Anthony.
Balbus’s support of Augustus earned him a reference in Cassius Dio’s History of Rome and Augustus himself rewarded Balbus with more political positions. According to the honorific descriptions on his statues, Balbus was a praetor and proconsul of Rome. Augustus also appointed him governor of Crete and Cyrene. However, despite growing wealth and the advantages of imperial patronage, Balbus’s Roman political career stalled. Sensing he was doomed to be only a footnote of Roman history, he decided to choose a smaller stage on which to become a key player. So he headed to the Campanian coast and Herculaneum.
In Roman society, the way to political influence was through civic beneficence. Herculaneum was just a small seaside resort, although highly favored by the Roman elite as a summer retreat. It was the perfect place for Balbus to make his mark. Perhaps he believed he could use Herculaneum as a way of showcasing himself back into power. Or maybe he reasoned it was better to be a big fish in a small pond rather than a minnow in the sea. Either way, Balbus began to transform Herculaneum, embellishing it with civic monuments worthy of a much more significant place that a small coastal town.
Besides the basilica, Balbus built the town’s walls and its new suburban baths in the cliffs top terraces overlooking the sea. The Baths were visually stunning. Before reaching the bath suite, visitors passed through an ornate entrance hall and a colonnaded vaulted vestibule, complete with a fountain in the form of a bust of the god Apollo. The Baths contain one feature which shows Balbus believed he had bought Herculaneum with his beneficence: a private entrance connecting the Suburban baths to Balbus’s luxurious, home next door. For Balbus’s house did not have a Bath Suite- suggesting that, while Balbus had nominally made a gift of the Suburban Baths to Herculaneum, he regarded them, and the rest of the town as his own.
Pompeii also had its benefactors- local men who not only won the city’s gratitude but succeeded where Balbus failed and won the favor of Rome.