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The Story of Cytheris / Lycoris – or How to Make it Big as an Actress in Ancient Rome

It was around 70 BC and the Roman Republic was getting ready for its dying years when a new type of theatrical representation gathered popularity in the city: the mime. It was a show that included singing, dancing, acting, mythological references, bathroom humor, striptease, political jokes and a lot of improvisation – so pretty much throw in anything short of the kitchen sink, and you've got a show. Another thing about these mimes was that they allowed female actresses – the mimae – as opposed to the classic tragedies and comedies, where all the parts were played by men.

Troubled times bring new opportunities for those who know where to look, and the success of the mimes brought a shiny new career path for women in ancient Rome – especially since there were very few opportunities for them anyway.

At about that time a slave girl was born in the house of the Roman knight Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus. Years later, she became a famous mima, and when she was freed, she took the name of Volumnia, after her master, and the Hellenized cognomen of Cytheris – hinting to the Greek Aphrodite, the goddess of Cythera. However, Roman freed slaves were not actually free to go seek their fortunes as they pleased; they remained in the service of their master – so freeing an actress slave like Cytheris was not an act of gratuitous kindness. There surely was a hidden reason for it.

Hidden, and no so much – as shortly after Cytheris embarked in a passionate love affair with Mark Anthony (the one of Anthony and Cleopatra and “Brutus is an honorable man” fame). See, Anthony was a senator, and it wasn't proper for a senator to be seen with somebody else's slave all day long. It wasn't proper for a senator to be seen with an actress, either, but Anthony was quite famous for doing only improper things – and an actress was somewhat more acceptable than a slave.

And Eutrapelus? Well, there were troubled times, and power shifted overnight. It was important to have someone close to the power players of the day, and Cytheris and Mark Anthony could not have been closer. And the scandal erupted.

Political opponents made fun of Mark Anthony calling him Cytherius – Cytheris's man – and the self-righteous Cicero fumbled, pointing out that Anthony's entourage called the woman Volumnia – which would have been the name of the daughter of Volumnius of the equestrian order – instead of Cytheris – the cognomen which clearly placed her among freed slaves. Cicero's life was filled with such matters of the utmost importance, which is why nobody could blame Anthony for killing him several years later.

Anthony, sexy as always

Anthony made a fool of himself, as he usually did with ladies, but Caesar, still alive and very much in power at the time, would have none of it: so he ordered the love birds to break it off, which they quickly did.

After that, Cytheris had a short-lived affair with Brutus (of the “Brutus was an honorable man” fame), but that didn't last, mostly on account of Brutus being a fugitive soon to be dead traitor. It was also around that time that Cicero, somewhat reconciled with Cytheris now that Anthony was out of the picture, went to see her play, and was so impressed he wrote a letter on how moved he was by each verse she recited. Which, of course, was too little too late and he'd still wind up dead.

Things were on fast forward in those days, and soon Caesar was dead, Brutus was dead, Cicero was dead and Anthony was with Cleopatra and neither was feeling very well. The new man in the town was Octavian, and Cytheris decided (or rather, Eutrapelus decided for her) it was time to stay close to somebody from the new political elite, and that somebody was Gaius Cornelius Gallus, politician and poet (deadly combination), who had just taken the newly created position of prefect of Egypt.

Ancient Rome's Chelsea Girls

Gallus was supposed to be one of Rome's greatest poets, and he wrote four volumes of elegies to honor his beloved Cytheris, now poetically renamed Lycoris (following the Clodia – Lesbia tradition. Speaking of which, Gallus also complains of how cold and heartless his lover was to him, which we know cannot be true, so it must have been a poetic convention of the time, and this throws a whole new light on Catullus.)

So, Gallus was supposed to be this great poet and Cytheris now Lycoris was his muse – and we know that because Virgil, Ovid, and Martial all say so, and it's not wise to mess with the entire battalion of Roman poetry at once. It wasn't until 1978 that a few lines by Gallus were discovered on a papyrus in Egypt, and indeed they reference Lycoris. They're also crappy poetry.

After writing his four volumes of what we now know to be crappy poetry, Gallus did something stupid and Octavian had him killed. Cytheris found consolation in the arms of an army officer, and went on with him to endure the not-so-harsh life in a Roman fort. That's where we lose her. Ever since, the mimae all over the empire took the stage names of Cytheris and Lycoris in her honor, and this makes it very difficult to trace where she went after she left Rome.

The romantic version of the story says that her former master finally let her go for good, and she married the said soldier and lived happily ever after as a family, with the one child she had with Mark Anthony. That's probably not true. So who cares? A couple of millennia later, I think of Cytheris and Anthony, Brutus and Gallus as a sort of weird mirroring of Nico and Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Iggy Pop. Oh, and Caesar as Andy Warhol.

This post first appeared on Ancient Links, please read the originial post: here

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The Story of Cytheris / Lycoris – or How to Make it Big as an Actress in Ancient Rome


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