by Craig Santangelo
Lycoris the mime was a freed slave that lived around the time of Caesar, Cicero, and Mark Antony in ancient Rome. Although there are not very many details known about her in terms of her appearance and personality, we can guess that she was a “beautiful, refined, and gifted actress, singer, and dancer” (Fraschetti 83). As a Roman mime, she would put on performances that required improvising and various skills. Because she was a freedwoman as well as a mime, she was not granted the same rights as a common Roman citizen. However, these boundaries were pushed as Lycoris had numerous love affairs with powerful, influential men of which she became well known for.
The compilation of writings that Augusto Fraschetti puts together in Roman Women gives two different points about Lycoris’s occupation as a mime. At first, it appears that the job of a mime is a decent respected profession. We are told of the talent one needs to be a mime and how this talent in this genre of theater was “appreciated by the ruling classes” (Fraschetti 83). The artistic ability of a mime is exemplified when Beare says, “Free from the obstacles of social status, technical traditions, and written texts, mime had no law other than itself” (Fraschetti 85). This is being compared to the less creative serious genre of theater, where improvising is not allowed. Despite the creative, talented, artistic side of the occupation, we are then made aware of the social attachments and what the common Roman thought of being a mime. Many believed that being a mime went hand-in-hand with prostitution. They would perform stripteases and their actions would be considered as tools of lust. Many Romans, including the extreme case of Cato the Younger, believed only in serious theater and would consider mime performances immoral. According to Roman law, anyone who acted in theater was branded with “infamis”, or a bad reputation. This would prohibit mimes as well as former slaves from being able to marry certain people and deny them from moving up in terms of social status.
A popular part of Lycoris’s story is the many love affairs that she had. The most popular love affair was with the famous Mark Antony. Lycoris was unable to marry him or any of the high-class men she was associated with because of the infamis brand. If they were to marry, Antony would also be labeled with infamis and lose his rank and political rights, adding to the limiting factor of being a mime. Although marriage was out of the question, Antony was labeled as Cytheris’s boyfriend and Lycoris was able to enjoy some of the benefits of a regular Roman woman. Antony’s political enemies scorned him and his treatment of Lycoris saying that he “treated her with the same dignity normally reserved for honest women” (Fraschetti 93). You can obviously see that the view toward Lycoris was not too accepting, especially when she was treated so well by high class men. Cicero also believed that Lycoris should not be treated with this much respect. He was appalled that she was even at the same social gathering as him and the other respected Romans. He also did not like the fact that people would call her by her real name Volumnia. This helps to see how the people viewed mimes and freed slaves during ancient times and allows us to put together evidence to support what an author like Diogenes Laertius would think of a person like Lycoris.
From Fraschetti’s Roman Women and other historical documents we can see that Ancient Romans recorded very little about women. They believed this to be improper and thought of women as incompetent. If we took away the fact that women were treated in such a way and pretended Romans thought of men and women as equals, then we would have to base the judgment of Lycoris by her profession. With the two different perspectives about mimes given by Fraschetti, it is a little difficult to determine how a biographer from that time would have thought of Lycoris and how one would have portrayed her in writing. On one hand you have the interesting life of a freed slave who became a mime with many creative, artistic abilities. On the other hand you have the common view of disdain toward the mime profession shared among Romans. When looking at Lycoris through the eyes of Diogenes Laertius, I think that Diogenes would have found her story to be interesting. From the Lives of Eminent Philosophers, we can see that Diogenes does have some care about social status. When his father was exhiled, Diogenes confessed to adulterating the coinage and “inquired, not whether he should falsify the coinage, but what he should do to gain the greatest reputation” (Diogenes 23). Although it seems as if Diogenes was not of the highest social stature himself, he does care about reputation. As pointed out earlier, Lycoris was a freed slave that was branded with bad reputation. From this, you would have to believe that Diogenes would not think too highly of Lycoris. However, Diogenes also states, “he used also to condemn those who praised honest men for being superior to money, while themselves envying the very rich” (Diogenes 31). Here it seems like Diogenes cares less about reputation, but is more focused on morality. Due to these passages, I think Diogenes would somewhat respect Lycoris for her life and occupation but still look down on her and possibly think of himself as a higher man. This would influence a hypothetical biography on Lycoris and give Diogenes a biased opinion. Nevertheless, I still think that Diogenes would find Lycoris to be a clever woman, sleeping with very powerful men and reaping all of the benefits of a matron, or honest woman.
The writing of a biography on Lycoris by Diogenes would be . Through his writing, I feel that Diogenes would give off a tone that would look down on Lycoris. I think he would get this across to the reader through various anecdotes that he uses frequently in Lives of Eminent Philosophers. For example, a possible anecdote would be about how the mime profession often meant being a courtesan and taking part in prostitution. Even though these stories would make the reader think less of her, I think that the main theme would be how Lycoris was clever enough to use her limited resources to the best of her ability. As Fraschetti states, “she made the most of the slim possibilities open to a woman of her status within the rigid social structure of Roman society” (Fraschetti 99). In Roman Women, Fraschetti tells of Lycoris’s life through a compilation of short essays. These essays gave vague details about personal facts but told of her reputation through the accounts of other men. A biography by Diogenes would not take on this form, but would provide us with details of her beauty and talent as a mime and give us many examples through anecdotes. This is the style in which Diogenes would write the biography.
Through Fraschetti’s depiction of Lycoris, we can map out how an author like Diogenes would portray Lycoris in a biography. Taking out the fact that Roman women were not given the same liberties as men, we can imagine a biography by Diogenes based only on her life as a mime. This would contain a slight amount of contempt for Lycoris’s occupation as a mime but also with a hint of admiration for leading the life she did under her circumstances. Although Lycoris was limited as a mime that was a freed slave, she did use what she had to the best of her ability.
Diogenes, Laertius, and Robert Drew. Hicks. Lives of Eminent Philosophers. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1925.
Fraschetti, Augusto. "Lycoris the Mime." Roman Women. Chicago: University of Chicago, 2001. 82-99.