On 18 February AD 121, Titus Haterius Nepos, the prefect of Egypt, visited the Colossus of Memnon at the Theban necropolis and heard the statue sing. Nepos immortalised his encounter by inscribing his name upon the right leg of the statue.
In a five-line text written in Latin, Nepos attests that he heard Memnon an hour and a half after sunrise, on the twelfth day before the kalends of March, in the fifth year of Emperor Hadrian. The date is 18 February AD 121.
anno V Hadriani
Imp(eratoris) n(ostri) T(itus) Haterius
Nepos praef(ectus) Aeg(ypti)
XII K(alendas) Mart(ias) hora (prima et dimidia)
In the fifth year of Hadrian
our emperor, Titus Haterius
Nepos, prefect of Egypt,
on the twelfth day before the kalends of March, at the first hour and a half.
By the time of Nepos’ visit, the Colossus of Memnon had become a major tourist attraction in Egypt. Greeks and upper-class Roman travellers who visited the land of the Pharaohs would flock to Thebes to hear the famous statue speak and witness the miracle. Hearing Memnon was said to bring luck to those who heard it, and many visitors left their impressions on the statue itself. The phenomenon began a century before Nepos’ visit when a powerful earthquake badly damaged the northernmost of the colossi in 27 BC (Strabo 17.1.46). Its upper part collapsed, and the remaining lower half started to produce an eerie musical sound every morning at dawn that early Greek travellers interpreted as the mythical Ethiopian king Memnon calling out to his mother Eos, goddess of the dawn.
The twin statues, known today as the Colossi of Memnon, are actually representations of the defied Pharaoh Amenhotep III who ruled during the 18th Dynasty, and originally stood at the entrance of his mortuary temple. Erected in the fourteenth century BC, the Memnon Colossi are two massive stone statues made of quartzite sandstone, each towering about 18 m (60 ft) in height. Amenhotep III is depicted in a seated position, his hands resting on his knees, and his face turned east towards the rising sun (since the Pharaoh revered the sun god Amun). Smaller figures carved into the front throne alongside his legs represent his wife Tiye, his mother Mutemwiya and the Nile god Hapi.
Amenhotep’s mortuary temple included three pylons that led, along an east-west axis, to a peristyle courtyard. All three pylons once featured colossal statues of Amenhotep III flanking the northern and southern sides of the processional pathway. However, only the colossi seated at the First Pylon gate have survived upright since Antiquity, the so-called Colossi of Memnon.
When the violent earthquake hit Egypt in the late Ptolemaic era, the northern colossus lost much of its upper part and soon began to make this mysterious noise at dawn. The sound is now understood to have been caused by the heat of the rising sun warming the stone base, and intensified by the presence of a large crack as noted in 1743 by English clergyman and amateur archaeologist Richard Pococke who recorded the first modern descriptions of the Theban Colossi (see here).
The story of the vocal Memnon travelled around the world and visitors came from distant lands to hear the song. The earliest known witness of the singing statue phenomenon is the Greek geographer and historian Strabo around 24 BC who visited Thebes in the company of the Prefect of Egypt. He confessed that he heard a sound like “a slight blow” but could not explain it and though it might be a hoax.
and I too, when I was present at the places with Aelius Gallus and his crowd of associates, both friends and soldiers, heard the noise at about the first hour, but whether it came from the base or from the colossus, or whether the noise was made on purpose by one of the men who were standing all round and near to the base, I am unable positively to assert; for on account of the uncertainty of the cause I am induced to believe anything rather than that the sound issued from stones thus fixed. Strabo, Geography 17.1.46
However, Pausanias, over a century later, was quite impressed by the singing statue. He compared the sound to “the string of a lyre” breaking and said that the sound came from the monolith’s surviving part at sunrise.
The colossus in Egypt made me marvel far more than anything else. In Egyptian Thebes, on crossing the Nile to the so called Pipes, I saw a statue, still sitting, which gave out a sound… every day at the rising of the sun it makes a noise, and the sound one could best liken to that of a harp or lyre when a string has been broken. Pausanias, Description of Greece 1.62.3
Distinguished visitors like Germanicus in AD 19 (Tac. Ann. 2.61.1) and high-ranking military and administrative officers, poets, prefects, and emperors came to bear witness to the miracle. However, not all pilgrims were gratified with the expected voice. On many mornings Memnon remained obstinately silent. When the sound could be heard, the lucky visitor, like our Nepos, would engrave on the statue their gratification. A total of one hundred and seven texts have been read and transcribed (including eleven written by four women), of which sixty-one are in Greek, forty-five in Latin, and one bilingual (Rosenmeyer 2018). They were all inscribed at various times during the first three centuries AD (the earliest graffito is dated to ca. AD 20).
Titus Haterius Nepos was an equestrian officer who held a number of imperial positions during Trajan and Hadrian’s reigns, culminating with the Egyptian prefecture for the years AD 120-124. His career is largely documented in an inscription from Fulginiae in Umbria. It shows that, before his appointment to Egypt, Nepos presumably had been praefectus cohortis, tribunus militum, praefectus equitum, Censitor Brittonum Anavionensium, procurator Augusti Armeniae maioris, ludi magni, hereditatium et a censibus, a libellis Augusti and praefectus uigilum. Nepos is also known from a writing tablet found at Vindolanda (Tab. Vindol. 611) in which he writes, probably in the 90s of the first century, to Flavius Genialis, a cohort prefect who served at Vindolanda, hoping that he would come to Coria (Corbridge).
In AD 119, when Hadrian’s celebrated his 43rd birthday with gladiatorial games, Nepos was the procurator of the ludus magnus and was in charge of training gladiators and organising public games for imperial occasions. Therefore, he must have been involved with organising the games in honour of Hadrian’s birthday (Birley 1997, see here).
Just a few days after Nepos, on 26 February, a man named Rufus, possibly a Roman soldier stationed in Egypt, had a more fortunate encounter as he recorded having heard Memnon speak no less than four times (Rosenmeyer 2018, Memnon 17).
In the fifth year of our emperor
Hadrian, on the fourth day before the kalends of March
With Titus Haterius Nepos, a total of eight Roman prefects of Egypt and one prefect’s wife (Memnon 8) commemorated their visits to Memnon with graffiti (Rosenmeyer 2018). By Nepos’ time, four of them had made visits up the Nile from Alexandria and recorded hearing Memnon’s voice.
- Tiberius Julius Lupus in AD 71/2 (Memnon 3) heard Memnon at the first hour.
- Marcus Mettius Rufus in AD 89-91 (Memnon 11) heard Memnon in the company of the poet Paion of Side.
- Titus Petronius Secundus in AD 92 (Memnon 13) records in a bilingual inscription that he distinctly heard the voice of Memnon three times at the first and second hours of the day.
- Gaius Vibius Maximus in AD 104 (Memnon 15) heard the statue twice at half-past seven in the morning of the 14 Kalends of May, in the seventh year of Trajan.
A fair share of the inscriptions, about 35 in total, were composed in the Hadrianic period when the Memnon colossus enjoyed considerable popularity. The last datable graffito is from ca. AD 205 (Rosenmeyer 2018). When the damages to the statue were repaired by Septimius Severus after AD 199, or, as suggested by G. W. Bowersock (1984), by the Palmyrene empress Zenobia, Memnon was silenced forever, and the inscriptions ceased.
None other than Hadrian himself would visit the singing Memnon while sailing up the Nile in late November AD 130 soon after the death of his favourite, Antinous. Julia Balbilla, an accomplished poet in Hadrian’s court and friend of Sabina, was to commemorate the imperial visit by inscribing four poems in the now-antiquated dialect of Sappho on the left leg and foot of Memnon, a prime spot where the rising sun would hit them first (Brennan 1988). In one of her poem she records that Memnon failed to perform for her mistress on her first day but made amends the following morning (Memnon 30).
When on the first day
We didn’t hear Memnon.
Yesterday Memnon received [Hadrian’s] wife in silence,
so that the beautiful Sabina might come back here again.
For the lovely form of our queen pleases you.
When she arrives, send forth a divine shout,
so the king won’t be angry with you. As it is now,
you’ve fearlessly detained for too long his noble wedded wife.
And Memnon, trembling at the power of great Hadrian,
suddenly spoke, and she rejoiced to hear it.
Buried for more than 3,000 years, the remains of the extraordinary Mortuary Temple of Amenhotep III have been rising from beneath the earth thanks to the conservation work done by The Colossi of Memnon and Amenhotep III Temple Conservation Project (link). The project aims to preserve the last remains of this once prestigious temple and present them in their original places. A new pair of seated royal colossi was recently raised at the Second Pylon. These colossi stand now 100m to the West of the Memnon Colossi.
Header image: David Roberts (1796 – 1864) / Louis Haghe (1806 – 1885). Plate 137 from the book: EGYPT AND NUBIA. The Colossal statues of Amenoph III. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel-com.
Sources & references:
- Rosenmeyer, Patricia A. “The language of ruins: Greek and Latin inscriptions on the Memnon colossus.” New York, NY : Oxford University Press (2018)
- Rosenmeyer, Patricia. “Greek Verse Inscriptions in Roman Egypt: Julia Balbilla’s Sapphic Voice.” Classical Antiquity 27, no. 2 (2008): 334-58.
- Bernand, A., and E. Bernand. Les inscriptions grecques et latines du colosse de Memnon. Paris, 1960.
- Griffith, R. Drew. “The Origin of Memnon.” Classical Antiquity 17, no. 2 (1998): 212-34.
- Bowersock, G. W. “The Miracle of Memnon.” The Bulletin of the American Society of Papyrologists 21, no. 1/4 (1984)
- Brennan, T. C. “The Poets Julia Balbilla and Damo at the Colossus of Memnon.” The Classical World 91, no. 4 (1998): 215-34.