The tribune of the people was being conveyed in an essedum, lictors with laurel preceded him; among whom, on an open litter, a mime actress was being carried; whom honorable men, citizens of the municipalities, coming out from their towns under compulsion to meet her, saluted not by the name by which she was notorious on the stage, but by that of Volumnia. A raeda followed full of pimps, thoroughly despicable companions; then his neglected mother was following the girlfriend of her filthy son as though she were a bride. – Cicero, Second Philippic
Cytheris was born a slave in the latter days of the Roman Republic, about 70 BCE. Her parents were probably Greek, and her name (deriving from Cytherea, one of Aphrodite’s bynames) may not be the one she was originally assigned at birth, but rather one she adopted (or was given) later when it became clear what her profession would be. She was the property of the wealthy and ambitious Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus, an enthusiastic patron of the theater, who had her trained as a mime and introduced her to the theater in her early teens. Roman mime was not the silent niche-art it is today, but rather a blend of singing, dancing and acting, much of it improvised; it is therefore more closely akin to vaudeville than to Mummenschanz or Marceau. As I mentioned in “Meretrices and Prostibulae”, most mimes – like most actresses for centuries before and millennia after – were also prostitutes, and Cytheris was probably in the group of mimes who in 55 BCE began the tradition of ending the Floralia with a striptease (the public sex was not added until imperial times).
Cytheris so excelled at both the public and private aspects of her art that her master freed her sometime in the late 50s, but his action was not motivated by altruism; though she was legally free she was still an actress and whore and thus could not hope to rise very high in stratified Roman society. Furthermore, she was bound to her patron by a restrictive contract which kept her from choosing her employment freely, and she was obligated to give him free performances (of both kinds) when asked. In other words he was no longer her master, but he was still her pimp; this is exactly why he freed her. No man of knightly or senatorial rank could associate with a slave-whore unless she belonged to him, but as an ostensibly free delicata she could be hired by the noble Romans Eutrapelus hoped to influence. Cytheris was no exploited victim, however; she remained extremely loyal to her patron for the rest of her life, and he treated her more like a modern businessman would treat an extremely valued assistant than like something out of a prohibitionist fantasy.
About 49 BCE Cytheris became involved with Mark Antony, who openly made her his mistress after Caesar appointed him Master of the Horse (second in command) in the summer of 48. Their relationship did not last much longer; he was forced to give her up by the end of 47 BCE, but the reason it ended is worthy of note because it reveals Antony’s two main personality flaws (politically speaking) and foreshadows his eventual downfall. Though his family connections predestined him to high office, his heart was never really in it; as a youth he was well-known for drinking, gambling and general partying, and even as a man he was well-known for being fond of the company of theater people, especially mimes. But the second flaw was the tragic one: Antony had the unfortunate tendency to fall in love with his mistresses, which of course led to his doom once he took up with Cleopatra only six years later.
Nobody in Rome cared if prominent citizens had affairs with courtesans or other women of lower social class, no matter how many patricians knew about it; what was important was that it be kept out of sight of the plebeians, and given no official recognition. But Antony seemed unable to maintain this necessary discretion, either with Cytheris or later with Cleopatra. Rather than treating his mistresses as a Roman statesman should, he acted like a young man in love who wants the world to know about his wonderful lady. While Caesar was off in Africa wiping out the last army loyal to Pompey, Antony made administrative rounds in Italy with the great procession the conservative Cicero (who knew Cytheris personally and disliked her intensely) describes in the epigram: he essentially treated a courtesan like a wife, even to the point of having her addressed by her nomen (inherited from her former master) as though she were a matron, rather than by the cognomen under which she was famous. When Caesar came back to Rome, he was extremely unhappy about this and insisted that Antony break off relations with her (Cicero mocks Antony by using the word “divorce”) and cultivate a more respectable image.
For the next four years Cytheris worked as a courtesan, being occasionally called upon to seduce one politician or another as her patron required; though he supported Antony until the end, he knew how to play politics and courted the favor of both Caesar’s party and the opposition. Only one of Cytheris’ regular clients from this period has a famous name: Marcus Junius Brutus, who later became one of Caesar’s assassins. Her next major conquest came around 43 or 42, when she took up with the soldier-politician Cornelius Gallus, who was also an accomplished poet; Gallus was so smitten with her that he eventually composed four books of poetry in her honor. It was the tradition in Roman love poetry for the poet to use a pseudonym for his lover; the name so chosen had to have the same number and stress pattern of syllables as the real woman’s name, and so Cytheris became “Lycoris”. The last of these books was written in 40 BCE, after she had left him; when Antony and Octavian began the first of several major quarrels Gallus supported the latter, so Eutrapelus reassigned her to Quintus Fufius Calenus, one of Antony’s generals.
By the time Octavian became Augustus and the Republic became an Empire, Cytheris (now in her early 40s) had largely vanished from history. Gallus’ poetry about her was both popular and highly regarded, thanks in part to Virgil’s tenth Eclogue (published about 38 BCE), which was on the subject of Gallus’ pining away for her. Though Virgil also called her “Lycoris” as Gallus had, her identity was an open secret and she was held in great honor among the mimae; both “Cytheris” and “Lycoris” were popular stage names for the next 300 years. Though we do not know how she spent her later years, we can hazard a guess: the new Imperator loved mime, so as one might expect it grew even more popular during his reign; once she grew too old to work as a delicata any longer, the former consort to a ruler probably returned to the stage, ending her days performing as an archimima (lead comedienne) to thunderous applause.