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date: 29 January 2023

Volumnia Cytherisafree

Volumnia Cytherisafree

  • Marilyn B. Skinner

Subjects

  • Gender Studies
  • Roman History and Historiography

Biography

Volumnia Cytheris, a freedwoman of P. Volumnius Eutrapelus, was a celebrated mime actress (see mime, roman), notorious during the 40s bce for her affairs with prominent political figures. Her lovers included Mark Antony and C. Cornelius Gallus, the inventor of Roman love elegy, who celebrated her under the pseudonym “Lycoris” in four books of amatory verse (Serv. ad Verg. Ecl. 10.1 and 6). According to a late source (De vir. ill. 82.2) she was also the paramour of the tyrannicide M. Iunius Brutus (2). All three men were, like Eutrapelus, at one time adherents of C. Iulius Caesar (2), and her association with them may have furthered her former owner’s ambitions.1 While the name “Cytheris,” alluding to Venus’s birthplace, sexualizes its possessor and is thus a suitable appellation for a stage performer, “Lycoris,” reminiscent of a cult title of Apollo, transports her into the realm of literature.2

For her relations with Antony we have the contemporary testimony of Cicero. In a letter of May 3, 49 bce, he disgustedly informs his close friend T. Pomponius Atticus that Antony, while travelling in Italy, brings Cytheris along, conveyed in an open litter and treated like a second wife; they are accompanied by seven other litters containing “friends” of both sexes (Att. 10.10.5; cf. 10.16.5, where her litter is escorted by state attendants, lictores). Cicero’s cursory mention of her assumes Atticus’s prior knowledge of the liaison. Five years later in his Second Philippic the orator hyperbolically terms her Antony’s mime-actress wife (mima uxore, 20). Elaborating upon his previous remarks to Atticus, he claims that Antony compelled leading citizens of towns on his route to pay their respects to his companion, greeting her as “Volumnia,” her legal designation as a freedwoman rather than her stage name. Meanwhile Antony’s mother, also part of his retinue, followed behind, as though she were Cytheris’s mother-in-law (58; cf. Plut. Ant. 9.4). In 48 bce, Cicero alleges, she scandalized the Roman army at Brundisium (modern Brindisi) by openly keeping company with Antony, who was its deputy commander (61). Antony finally ended their affair in 47 or 46; in the speech his break with the actress is called a “divorce” (69) and explained as an effort to placate his third wife Fulvia (77). This sustained fiction of marriage ironically castigates Cytheris for aspiring to rise above her status as a member of a legally disgraced profession (see infamia). Even after the couple separated, Cicero could snidely refer to Antony as “Cytherius” (Att. 15.22.1).

Elsewhere in his letters Cicero mentions two actual contacts with her, one indirect and the other direct. In January of 47 bce, while he was in exile, his wife Terentia may have asked Cytheris for a favour, possibly to intercede with Antony for help in bringing about her husband’s return. Responding to a complaint Terentia has voiced (Fam. 14.16), Cicero observes that “Volumnia should have been more deferential (officiosior)” to her and could have acted “more scrupulously and tactfully (diligentius et cautius).” There is no good reason to doubt the identification of this Volumnia with the mime actress.3 Husband and wife seem agreed upon her inept handling of a delicate situation.

In November 46, Cicero encountered Cytheris in person when attending a dinner party at the home of Eutrapelus. During the meal, he drafted a note to his friend Paetus describing the gathering (Fam. 9.26.1–2). She is among the guests, he reports, sharing a dining couch with her host and patron; he himself had no idea she would be there (or else, presumably, he would not have come). Although he professes himself indifferent to her, he feels that the company of a non-respectable woman lessens his dignity, and his nervous jocularity may indicate that she makes him more uncomfortable than he is willing to admit.4

If Cytheris did form a connection with Brutus, it might have been in the mid-40s bce, after her association with Antony but before she became involved with Gallus.5

In his tenth eclogue, the poet Virgil places his friend Gallus in Arcadia, the quintessential pastoral landscape (see pastoral poetry, latin), grieving because Lycoris has deserted him to follow a soldier serving on the German frontier. Construing this detail as biographical fact, scholars have speculated about the identity of her newest lover.6 Servius in his commentary on the eclogue (ad 10.46) assigns to Gallus the lines in which Virgil’s character, speaking in his elegiac person, expresses tender concern for his beloved alone amid the Alpine snows. What Servius means when he says that the verses are “taken from his [i.e. Gallus’s] own poems” (de ipsius translati carminibus) is, however, not precisely certain.7

On chronological grounds, Servius’s further testimony (ad Ecl. 6.11) that Cytheris recited Virgil’s sixth eclogue onstage in a performance witnessed by Cicero is usually assumed to be a fabrication; the story can be treated, however, as evidence for Roman cultural assumptions.8

The surviving text of a papyrus fragment from Egypt published in 1979, which contains nine lines of Latin elegy grouped into quatrains, begins with a direct address to Lycoris in which the speaker accuses her of shamelessness (nequitia, 1). Subsequently he calls her his domina (7), a title applied by a slave to his mistress. Gallus thus introduces into the subsequent elegiac tradition two of its pervasive themes: the poet-lover’s reproach of immorality and the conceit of servitium amoris, love as emotional slavery. Like later poetic mistresses, Lycoris is characterized as the controlling partner in the affair, unworthy of the lover’s devotion but impossible to cast aside. We do not know how long she served as Gallus’s poetic subject, or what happened to her after that.

Bibliography

  • Anderson, R. D., Peter J. Parsons, and Robin G. M. Nisbet. “Elegiacs by Gallus from Qaṣr Ibrîm.” Journal of Roman Studies 69 (1979): 125–155.
  • Baca, Albert B. “The Identity of Gallus’ Lycoris.” Classical World 60, no. 2 (1966): 49–51.
  • Coleman, Robert, ed. Vergil: Eclogues. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1977.
  • Höschele, Regina. “From Ecloga the Mime to Vergil’s ‘Eclogues’ as Mimes: ‘Ein Gedankenspiel.’” Vergilius 59 (2013): 37–60.
  • James, Sharon L. “A Courtesan’s Choreography: Female Liberty and Male Anxiety at the Roman Dinner Party.” In Prostitutes and Courtesans in the Ancient World. Edited by Christopher Faraone and Laura McClure, 224–262. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2006.
  • Keith, Alison M.Lycoris Galli/Volumnia Cytheris: A Greek Courtesan in Rome.” Eugesta 1 (2011): 23–53.
  • Lada-Richards, Ismene. “On Taking Our Sources Seriously: Servius and the Theatrical Life of Vergil’s Eclogues.” Classical Antiquity 38 (2019): 91–140.
  • Mazzarino, Santo. “Contributo alla lettura del nuovo Gallus (JRS 1979 157 ss.) e alla storia della mima ‘Lycoris.’” Helikon 20–21 (1980–1981): 3–26.
  • Traina, Giusto. “Lycoris the Mime.” In Roman Women. Edited by Augusto Fraschetti and translated by Linda Lappen, 82–99. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2001.
  • Treggiari, Susan. “Libertine Ladies.” Classical World 64 (1971): 196–198.

Notes