This is a bonus blog post for the series “A Slave, but Now I’m Free.” Unfortunately, there just isn’t enough available information on Cytheris for her to get her own episode, so no audio on this one.
As with so many slaves, we do not know her birth name. Or her birth place or even the reasons behind her enslavement. The name “Cytheris” is Greek, and probably she was Greek. But by the 1st century BCE, Greece’s glory days were over. They were part of Rome now and among the spoils of war were the women.
Her owner was a wealthy Roman named Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus, and he had her trained for the stage. She is often called a mime actress, but that’s misleading to modern audiences because the style of acting was not silent. One of the Romans to mention her said that when she “sang in the theatre Cicero was blown away and asked whose the poem was.” It was Virgil’s. She probably also danced and improvised.
All of this made her famous, but not respected. The stage was a very low-class profession in Rome. We do not have the details on when or why Publius freed her, but it is generally accepted that it wasn’t out of any modern love of liberty or feminism. He had political ambitions and friends in high places. As a slave, Cytheris could legally entertain, but not seduce these friends. As a freed woman, the situation was different. Much of Roman society depended on a patronage system, even for those who had never been slaves. Cytheris was free in a legal sense, but Publius was still her patron. He looked out for her. She would even have taken a version of his name, becoming Volumnia Cytheris. In return, she would help him with her exceptional beauty and entertainer of all sorts.
There is no doubt that she was very good at her job. Her name appears linked with multiple high-ranking Roman men. Cornelius Gallus wrote four volumes of love poetry about her, which sadly do not survive. Following Roman tradition, he used a pseudonym for her, which is why she is sometimes referred to as Lycoris, but it was an open secret who inspired these poems. Cicero and his circle enjoyed her company at at least one party. Ovid and Virgil both mention her. Mark Antony enjoyed her company so much he included her in his official processions in a way that scandalized observers (like Cicero) who believed such honors rightly belonged to respectable Roman women, not foreign, formerly enslaved prostitutes.
As usual, what is missing in the record is any sense of what Cytheris herself thought about any of this? Was she proud of her beauty and skill? Or hurt and angry at her enslavement and the conditions of her manumission? The references to her are simply too scanty for us to know. Likewise, we can only speculate about her later years and her death. The records do not record that.
Much of my information (including the quote) comes from the British Columbia Pressbooks article on her. I also consulted Alison Keith’s article, “Lycoris Galli/Volumnia Cytheris: a Greek Courtesan in Rome” and Maggie McNeill’s blog. The feature image is of an anonymous woman at a Roman villa, found on Wikimedia Commons.