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Love and Scorn: Lycoris the Mime

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By Griffin PhelanEdit


Ancient biographies, and for the most part modern ones also, are written not only to dictate the events of a person’s life but also to highlight values and describe problems; to either the person or the communities that they influenced that the author of the biography thought important for his/her readers. The following will examine the telling of the life of Lycoris the Mime through Augusto Fraschetti's Roman Women and compare the styles used to that of Diogenes Laertius in his biography Life of Diogenes.

Volumnia Cytheris, or Lycoris the MimeEdit

Lycoris the Mime was born a slave to the master Eutrapelus, Lycoris is in fact a pseudonym her real name being Valumnia Cytheris. Eventually, Lycoris was freed by her master and began her career as a mime. This did not mean that she was free from her master’s control; he in turn became her patron and still had vast control over her life. Miming in ancient Rome was not simply acting without speech, it was another form of theater altogether. Miming performances didn’t follow any of the conventional values and strict guidelines found in the established comedies and tragedies, but rather focused on everyday issues and current topics. Despite the rising popularity of these shows, mimes were legally treated as second class citizens with fewer rights and were branded infamis. In addition to miming, Lycoris, like many of her colleagues, became a courtesan for many of the knights and equestrian of Rome; Eutrapelus as her patron would choose who Lycoris slept with as he saw fit in his attempts to curry favor throughout Rome. Lycoris is an important figure to note, even from such lowly origins, because although her affairs were not social climbs (Fraschetti 89), she had some largely prominent lovers and may have influenced them in some way or another. Lycoris was as many other actress-courtesans, shown large disdain from many of the politicians of the era except for in the case of those in alliance with Caesar. One of these figures, who in turn became tribune while with Lycoris, was the famous Marc Antony. Her patron Eutrapelus and his freed slaves became part of Antony’s entourage and preformed both mime and other duties during this time. Antony would lavishly display Lycoris being carried about on a litter and in both his eyes and the eyes of Rome she was treated like his wife. It is said that many nobles began to call Lycoris, her nomen Valumnia rather than her cognomen as is traditional and that Lycoris may have even had the privilege of influencing Antony’s dealings, “Both Sergius and Lycoris, although infames, were intimate enough with the tribune to influence his relations with the public.”(92) Giving all that Antony gave to Lycoris was seen by other Roman nobles as a major transgression and as Antony rose in rank he eventually had to give Lycoris up for a more humble and traditional life. Although Lycoris continued to perform and also maintain courtesan duties for other knights she never regained the popularity and possible influence she possessed when with Antony. Lycoris the Mime curried favor with notables ranging from Marc Antony to Marcus Brutus, and Cornelius Gallus; Gallus of whose poetry we find the largest source of information about Lycoris. Lycoris is of import to ancient Roman history because she rose higher than any other mime or performer had before, and her life gives insight into the evolution of Roman society around the time of the revolution.

Biographical VariationsEdit

There are many different styles to writing a biography or historical detailing of an individual’s life. In Fraschetti’s Roman Women, the life of Lycoris the Mime is catered not just around the events in the life of Lycoris, but possibly even more so around Roman reaction to said events. Therefore, it would be interesting to consider if the life of Lycoris were to have been documented in the style of a biography from her own time, such as Life of Diogenes by the ancient historian Diogenes Laertius. If this mime’s life was written with the same motives as in the biography written by Laertius, the reader would still learn about the triumphs of Lycoris but quite possibly would learn far more about her personality and how it attributed to the events within her life. The style of writing in Life of Diogenes is unique in that it allows for a short allocation of historical background in how the subject began their life, but then jumps around their history to show certain events and instances in which the character was involved and how they reacted; thus giving the reader insight into both the personality of the subject through what they say and also their moral fiber and values through their actions.

Both Roman Women and Life of Diogenes start with the origin of their subject, but Life of Diogenes quickly shifts to mention some characteristics of Diogenes, “He was great at pouring scorn on his contemporaries.” (Diogenes Laertius 27) The reader is given not what the character did first, but instead what they would do first. Perhaps Lycoris became witty and sarcastic when in the company of fellow mimes; one wouldn’t know from the reading of Roman Women. The multiple glimpses into Diogenes personality through his oration and, although seemingly simple, daily life/occurrences allow for a deeper look into the mind of the individual in the biography. For example, “One day, observing a child drinking out of his hands, he [Diogenes] cast away the cup from his wallet with the words ‘A child has beaten me in plainness of living.’” (Laertius 39). From Roman Women it is unknown what Lycoris strove for as much as Diogenes strove for simplicity in life. In Fraschetti’s portrayal of the actress-courtesan, the biography is more focused on the effects that Lycoris’ presence had on society and how her presence in certain situations came about at all, “If we want to know more about the relationship between Antony and Lycoris, we must understand why Antony enjoyed having mimes around him” (Fraschetti 92). If the biography of Lycoris the Mime had been written instead by Diogenes Laertius the reader would learn of many events within the courtesan’s life, not necessarily in order or categorized in magnitude, but perchance would gain a greater understanding of the soul and spirit of Lycoris.


Despite the previous comparison in the styles of biography in which Lycoris the Mime could have been transcribed in, it is interesting to note that not many, if any, ancient philosophers would have believed the project would be worthy of their time. There are very few biographies of women in ancient times, especially in ancient Rome, and even these were not valued until far after they were released. The lack of demand for histories of women in Rome is strangely paralleled in Roman Women, in that Augusto Fraschetti is clearly more focused on the men of Rome and how Lycoris was able to rise above her rank, “But having an actress for a lover, treating her as an honest matron, and maybe giving her land in Campania as if she were a veteran-that was too much to bear.” (Fraschetti 93), it almost seems as if it's the author thinking that these actions are too much to bear, as he does not follow the statement saying that it was anyone but his own belief, and that he feels that there shouldn’t have been a scenario in which this was allowed to happen. There is a lot to learn from the biographies of figures from all aspects of society in ancient Roman times, and a lot left wondered on what more could have been learned had there been a more uniform structure on how said biographies were created.

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