In this section you will learn about
- what we know of the most famous female mime actresses, Cytheris
- how she was seen as an erotic and alluring person and as someone who was acceptable to perform literature that was highly valued as Roman
- her power and position at the end of the Roman Republic and her lasting reputation
CYTHERIS THE MIME
Most actors were men, as they played both male and female roles in masks, as was traditional in Greece and Rome. The one exception was a form of unmasked mime where female actresses were allowed. Women, however, were acrobats, dancers and musicians and were essential parts of theatrical troops, though we tend to know less about their careers than we do of famous male mime actors, who held immense power over their fans. One exception is Volumnia Cytheris, an actress of the first century BCE, who was the freedwoman of Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus, a Roman aristocrat, and friend of Mark Antony. She was also the mistress of Brutus, the assassin of Caesar and Mark Antony. As such she was often held up as a symbol of excess, particularly in her relationship with Antony, where she was labelled as basically a whore who should not be respected. As such she was represented as not worthy of the respect accorded to a ‘decent’ Roman woman.
However, there is another side to the presentation of Cytheris and that is as a highly educated woman, who read widely and was a superb performer of Virgil’s poetry, which she did in public to great applause, including apparently praise by Virgil himself.. In a poem to her boyfriend, the aristocrat Gallus, the poet Virgil refers to her reading poetry with a range of complex poetic references (he uses the pseudonym Lycoris):
I will send you a few verses, my Gallus, like those Lycoris might read
Virgil, Eclogues/Buccolics 10.2-3
As said, she performed Virgil’s poetry, and apparently performed it very well:
It is said that [Eclogue VI] was recited to such huge applause, that, when Cytheris (whom Virgil calls Lycoris in the final Eclogue), sang it in the theatre Cicero was blown away and asked whose the poem was.
, On Eclogue 6.11
FREEDOM AND WEALTH
Even after Cytheris managed to obtain her freedom, she spent time with Volumnius, to whom she most likely owed acting services as a condition of gaining her freedom. She was also his mistress, though how consensual their relationship was given that she had been his slave is another matter. The rather stuffy orator once had dinner with the two of them, much to his rather embarrassed excitement – though he made sure to write in detail about it in a letter from Rome to a friend, Lucius Papirius Paetus.
I have just laid down to dinner at three o’clock, when I scribble a copy of this note to you in my notebook. You will ask, “Where are you?” With Volumnius Eutrapelus. One place above me is , one below Verrius, both friends of yours. Do you wonder that our slavery is so pleasant? Well, what am I to do? I ask your advice as the pupil of a philosopher. Am I to be miserable, to be tormented? What would I get by that? And when would be the end? “You should live among your books,” you say. Well, do you suppose that I do anything else? Or could live, had I not lived with my books? But even to them there is, I don’t say a surfeit, but a certain limit. When I have left them, though I care very little about my dinner—the one problem which you put before the philosopher Dion—still, what better to do with my time before taking myself off to bed I cannot discover.
Now listen to the rest. Below Eutrapelus lay Cytheris. At such a party as that, say you, was the famous Cicero, “To whom all looked with reverence, on whose face Greeks turned their eyes with wonder?” To tell you the truth, I had no idea that she would be there. But, after all, even the Socratic Aristippus himself did not blush when he was taunted with having Lais as his mistress: “Yes,” he said, “Lais is my mistress, but not my master.” It is better in Greek; you must make a translation yourself, if you want one. As for myself, the fact is that that sort of thing never had any attraction for me when I was a young man, much less now I am an old one. I like a dinner party. I talk freely there, whatever is the theme, as the phrase is, and change my moans into wide smiles and laughter. Did you behave better in jeering at a philosopher and saying, when he invited anyone to put any question he chose, that the question you asked the first thing in the morning was: “Where shall I dine?” The moron thought that you were going to inquire whether there was one heaven or an infinite number! What did you care about that? “Well, but, in heaven’s name—you will say to me—”was a dinner a great thing to you, and there of all places ?”
Well then, my course of life is this. Every day I read or write something: then, not to be completely rude to my friends, I dine with them, not only without exceeding the law, but even within it, and that by a good deal. So you have no reason to be terrified at the idea of my arrival. You will receive a guest of moderate appetite, but filled with jokes.
Cicero, Letters to his Friends 9.26
In the letter above Cicero refers to slavery, a commentary on the fact that as it was written Rome was under the rule of Julius Caesar. Cicero and Caesar were on opposing sides in politics and, later, in civil war. He went to join the Senatorial forces (eventually and reluctantly), which placed his wife and daughter, Terentia and Tullia, in great danger as they were stuck in Rome as Caesar marched on it. After Pompey’s defeat in Greece Cicero came back to Italy but had to wait in the port of Brundisium until he knew if Caesar was willing for him to return to his own properties. Cytheris, being the mistress of Antony, and thus very influential, was seen as someone who could protect them, and so they approached her for help. We only have Cicero’s response to their news about this, and it seems she did act, but not in a way Cicero thought was sufficient.
To Terentia at Rome from , 4 January, 46 BCE
If you are well, I am well. I am well. Though as things are now, I have no reason to expect a letter from you or anything to tell you myself, yet somehow or another I do look for letters from you all, and do write to you when I have anyone to carry a letter. Volumnia ought to have been more attentive to you than she has been, and even what she has done she might have done with more diligently and cautiously.
Cicero, Letters to his Family 14.16
Because Cytheris was infamis she was not seen as worthy (at least by Cicero and other conservatives) as worthy of the public respect accorded someone’s wife. That did not mean that others did not place her in positions where other Romans came and paid their respects to her in a way that enraged some. Mark Antony was fond of many things, but especially drinking and mimes, in whose company he spent considerable time:
We are told, at any rate, that Antony once feasted at the wedding of Hippias the mime, drank all night, and then, early in the morning, when the people summoned him to the forum, came before them still stuffed with food and vomited into his toga, which one of his friends held out to help. Sergius the mime also was one of those who had the greatest influence with him, and Cytheris, a woman from the same school of acting, was also a great favourite – he took her with him in a litter on his visits to the cities and her litter was followed by as many attendants as that of his mother.
Plutarch, Antony 9.4
The reference to Cytheris tour in a litter is to a tour of Italy that Antony took in an official role (which meant that people had to come out and greet him on the roads and be extremely polite) in 49 BCE, after Julius Caesar had won the Civil War against the Senate. Antony took Cytheris along with him, as well as his mother, in an act that Cicero saw as a deliberate act of disrespect to the almost fallen Roman Republic and its values:
The Tribune of the Plebs was borne along in a chariot, lictors crowned with laurel preceded him; and in the middle of these, on an open litter, was carried an actress; whom honorable men, citizens of the different municipalities, coming out from their towns under compulsion to meet him, saluted not by the name by which she was well known on the stage, but by that of Volumnia. A carriage followed full of pimps; then a lot of debauched companions; and then his mother, utterly neglected, followed the mistress of her profligate son, as if she were her daughter-in-law. O the disastrous fecundity of that miserable woman! That man stamped every municipality, and prefecture and, in short, the whole of Italy with the marks of such wickedness as this.
Cicero, Philippics 2.58
Even worse, claimed Cicero, was that Antony brought her with him into military camp.
You came to Brundusium, to the bosom and embraces of your actress. What is the matter? Am I speaking falsely? How miserable is it not to be able to deny a fact which you are ashamed to confess! If you had no shame before the municipal towns, had you none even before your veteran army? For what soldier was there who did not see her at Brundusium? Who was there who did not know that she had come so many days’ journey to congratulate you? who was there who did not grieve that he was so late in finding out how worthless a man he had been following? 62. And again you made a tour through Italy, with that same actress as your companion!
Cicero, Philippics 2.61-62.
Cicero also mentioned this event in a number of letters to his friend Atticus (Letters to Atticus 10.10.5 & 10.16.5), so it seems he did actually find it deeply shocking that Antony would abandon social mores to such a degree, especially as Antony was then the most powerful man in Italy and representing the power and authority of Julius Caesar.
Cytheris’ life then shows the complex situation that figures like mimes found themselves in: although they were seen as disgraceful in that they sold their bodies for a living by putting them on show (and also in other ways) and held low legal status, they still were deeply connected to the fabric of elite life and took part in it in many ways. We should be wary of taking our sources as honest in how they depict these people as shameful figures to many Romans, who seemed to have no problems associating with and being devoted fans of. However, this does not mean that we should not realize how vulnerable many of these people were as slaves and freed; they frequently relied on powerful individuals to protect them, and they did not get to tell their own life stories – we have nothing at all from Cytheris to say what she felt about being at the apex of her profession or so famed and desired.
Bibliography and further reading:
There is not really as much as you would expect on Cytheris, and most of it treats her as an mainly a sex object to be traded around, with no focus on her own possible ambitions or aims, so be prepared to learn about everyone else except her.
Höschele, R. (2013). From Ecologa the mime to Vergil’s ‘Eclogues’ as mime: “Ein GEDANKENSPIEL”. Vergilius 59: 37-60
Keith, Allison. 2011. “Lycoris Galli/Volumnia Cyteris: the life of a female courtesan in Rome.” European Netword on Gender Studies in Antquity 1: 23-52
- Eutrapelus was a nickname; it means 'witty' in Greek; Greek names like these were used for those who were seen as having an special fondness and familiarity with Greek culture. ↵
- We cannot be sure that any of these anecdotes happened quite as reported or at all. However, by having Virgil praise her she became marked also as a docta puella, a learned girl, for the sort that many poets used as their muses and audiences. While this did not make her necessarily respected by many of the elite, it does give an idea of her standing. Especially as we do not hear this about other female actors. ↵
- These were pastoral poems; this particular one, however, prophesied a golden age after the unrest of the Late Republic thanks to the birth of a magical child, whose identity is still argued over. (But it isn't Jesus, even if the Christians went with that interpretation; more likely the child of Mark Antony and Octavia, Augustus/Octavian's sister. ↵
- Because slave actors could make a great deal of money from their work, it cost them a great deal to buy their freedom and their owners might require them to return to perform acting duties for them in return for allowing them to buy their freedom. The law set some restrictions on these claims, however, and forbid people from stopping their freedpeople from earning a living by burdening them with too many demands. It also forbid anyone from demanding a person continue offering sexual services as a condition of their freedom. In other words, if you freed a prostitute, you could not demand that they had to offer their services to you or clients on your behalf. How often these laws were honoured is another question entirely. ↵
- Roman adults reclined, rather than sat, to eat. ↵
- A Greek philosopher, follower of Plato, and tyrant of Syracuse (Sicily). Lived 408-354 BCE. ↵
- Cicero was an egomaniac, but he was also very famous as an orator, politican, and author. ↵
-  Every once in a while the Romans would pass sumptuary laws that restricted how much people could spend on feasts and dinners. ↵
- Tullia was also married at the time to a supporter of Caesar, Dollabella; Cicero did not approve of the marriage and was worried about how much protection he could or would provide as he was not in the city. ↵
- There was no formal postal service in Rome for private individuals, so people generally sent letters with friends or others travelling towards specific places. ↵
- Using this name, rather than Cytheris, was an at of respect. ↵
- This happened and right while on the speaker's platform; it was not at all discrete. ↵
- We have no idea what his mother thought about this at all. It is hard to imagine though that she was not there willingly, though. ↵
- Antony was very popular with the army, who I suspect had no problems with him publicly going around with Cytheris in Brundisium. ↵
Cornelius Gallus was a supporter of Emperor Augustus and shared a teacher with Virgil. He rose very high in the Roman hierarchy, eventually becoming governor of the new province of Egypt. He, however, fell into disgrace there, and was forced to commit suicide in 26 BCE. He also wrote poetry, which was much praised, but of which we only have (not very good) fragments.
A Roman grammarian, which is to say someone who wrote on and taught literature to Romans. He wrote commentaries on a number of ancient Roman poets, including Virgil.
Marcus Tullius Cicero was a a leading politician and orator of the Late Republic who was also Rome’s greatest lawyer and public speaker. He was born in the town of Arpinum (modern Arpino), about 100km from Rome. Although his family held Roman citizenship and were provincial nobility, people sometimes called him a foreigner and an upstart because he was not from the traditional elite of Rome. He wrote a number of philosophical works, and a great many letters to family and friends, many of which we still have, and which provide a unique picture of social, political, and family life in the Late Republic. After the assassination of Julius Caesar in 44 he wrote a series of speeches attacking Mark Antony called the Philippics. He was murdered at the orders of Antony and his head and hands were displayed in the Forum.
Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero's best friend (and banker), was a leading intellectual and patron of the Late Republic.
Lais refers to the name of a famous Greek courtesan.
Brundisium, a port in Southern Italy, was the main port from which to leave or arrive from Greece.