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Cytheris – Antony’s actress and lover

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Theatrical mask on the Roman mosaic
Theatrical mask on the Roman mosaic

One of the most interesting issues related to ancient Rome is the phenomenon of slavery and its very heterogeneous nature. How different was the life of a slave working in a quarry from, for example, Tyiro – a comprehensively educated slave and later liberator of Cicero, who is perhaps one of the most interesting figures of ancient Rome.

The phenomenon of slavery has been described extensively and in detail by historians, but what is often the most interesting for people is the fate of individual individuals. This is where the key problem arises – the characters of slaves are described in the sources, most often only occasionally, along with the biographies of their famous masters. We have random messages that leave blank spots in many places. Another problem is attributing to ancient people a modern way of thinking or motivating. One should be aware that the shape of culture, systems of customs and religion have a significant impact also on individual choices, decisions and thinking.

Several aspects of slavery can be illustrated by the fate of Cytheris (also Lycoris) – facial actress (mima), most often associated with Mark Antony, whom she was the lover of. Her biography, as well as other similar figures, was never written in her time, although at that time some of the actors could be considered contemporary “stars” or “celebrities”. The story of Cytheris is actually quite well known, but rather because of her presence with famous lovers, because she was also a courtesan. This allows us to follow the fate of a character that is quite marginal when it comes to history, but extremely interesting.

Cytheris was born a slave (around 70 BCE). The Romans loved Hellenic culture and theatre, but being an actor was a bit humiliating for a Roman, hence many Greek actors appeared in Rome. It is very likely, then, that she was Greek. Although actors were valued for their talent, they functioned on the margins of society. Theater included singing, dancing, playing, mythological references, striptease elements, political jokes and improvisation. Being an actor was a kind of win for slaves, ensuring a relatively high standard of living.

Lord of Cytheris was Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus. Cytheris is probably a nickname associated with Aphrodite (goddess of the island of Cytheris), and the later nickname Lycoris is associated with Apollo, also called Lycoreus. These nicknames can testify to the beauty and extraordinary acting, dancing and musical talent of our heroine. The performances with mimic actresses were often sensual, so we can expect how Cytheris could spark the imagination.

At one point, Cytheris was liberated and, according to Roman custom, she took the name of her former master – Volumnia Cytheris. Nevertheless, she still had to fulfil some kind of obligation to her patron – praestare opeam. We can therefore expect that her liberation did not have the character of a disinterested return of freedom, and there was probably a significant reason for it. Rather, this liberation can be understood as a transaction that was supposed to bring Eutrapelus some kind of profit. Cytheris as a slave was a beautiful and sought-after courtesan, but she could not be a companion for free, well-informed citizens. So her liberation made it possible to introduce her to “company”. Thanks to her freedom, she had new rights, but she was nevertheless a citizen of a different category. Liberation brought her into contact with another sphere, which was a certain ennoblement. We know that Cytheris possessed an extraordinary charm that she could use against Volumnius’ wealthy friends. Hence, her romances, including the most famous one with Antony, did not necessarily result from love, but rather from commitments. It is therefore wrong to think of Cytheris as a liberated woman in the modern sense. It was probably Eutrapelus who selected her related partners, so the space of her freedom was significantly limited. Of course, as far as possible, it made profits and benefits.

Mark Antony went down in history as a womanizer. His love conquests more than once became the topic of conversations not only of the elites but also of the Roman populace.

So she became the lover of Mark Antony (then a senator), which in the situation of the strong and growing position of Caesar could bring many benefits to Eutrapelus. The romance caused a lot of indignation. However, what was outrageous was not the mere fact of the affair, but that Antony treated her with all the dignity of a Roman matron. Scandalized Cicero mentioned her in his letters (when his attitude towards Antony was not yet clear-cut) and the Philippines (when he was already an open political enemy of Antony). He was particularly shocked by the fact that Antony travelled around the country with an actress, whom he treated as his wife. It was in the Philippines (which ultimately contributed to his undoing) that Cicero described a dignified retinue, headed by Cytheris escorted by lictors. It was outrageous to treat the actress as not only an entertainment provider but with respect worthy of a legal wife. It was also unacceptable that the local authorities on Antony’s route called her Volumnia, not Cytheris.

We know that the playboy Antony appreciated the company of the actors. It was forgivable, but the fact that he treated the actress as “wife” was scandalous. His enemies liked to point out this “pseudo-marriage” relationship. Certainly, Cytheris was important to Antony, as evidenced by the long duration of their relationship, perhaps even sincerely loved each other. However, love is love and politics is politics. At one point, Antony ended an affair. His increasingly stronger political position prevented him from leading an openly immoral life. Caesar knew about Antony’s weak point, which was precisely his attachment to the actress. After Caesar’s return to Italy (47 BCE), Antony, wanting to avoid a split with Caesar, decided to lead a more moderate, sober and at least seemingly more moral life. Cicero called for divorce from Cytheris. Cicero was also the author of the nickname Antony: Cytherius (Cytheris’s boyfriend), which stuck to him. No matter how enchanted Antony was a beautiful actress, there were some barriers in Roman society that could not be crossed. There was no room here for a happy ending to the fate of loving lovers. An unmarried relationship could not be legally recognized, and to marry a freed slave would have meant Antony’s loss of position.

A woman’s face on a Roman mosaic.

Nevertheless, Cytheris remained an important figure in the “dawn” of Eutrapelus, and her charms were appreciated by others as well. We know of her affair with Marcus Brutus (possibly fleeting). Rome, however, was then a place of rapid and significant political change. Soon they were dead: Caesar, Brutus and Cicero, and Antony were with Cleopatra in Egypt. So Eutrapelus decided that Cytheris would bond with new people, the followers of Octavian Augustus. Her new lover (probably around 43-41 BCE) was the newly appointed prefect of Egypt – Cornelius Gallus. It was probably he who named her Lycoris. Gallus was a soldier, politician, and poet. He was definitely fascinated by Lycoris because he had described his love for her in four volumes of poetry. This can also be a testimony to how special a woman she must have been. About 30 BCE, information about Lycoris ends. Gallus committed suicide after being dismissed from office by his inappropriate conduct.

Some sources mention that Cytheris became the mistress of another soldier. She could die abroad, she could also become an archimima – a senior actress with great influence and live to see her days in a relatively good financial and social situation. We know that many actresses have nicknamed themselves Cytheris and Lycoris to honour her. This makes it difficult to study her later fate. However, we can assume that she probably “squeezed” what she could out of the opportunities she had within Roman society.

Author: Alicja Czerwińska (translated from Polish: Jakub Jasiński)

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