Ancient Roman Actresses and the Dark Side of Beauty

In 534 BC, a Greek performer named Thespis took the stage, he became the first known person to speak as a character in a play or story (i.e., an actor). Before that, Ancient Greek legends were only told through songs, dances, and third-person stories.

After Thespis became the first known actor, the words “actor” and “thespian” were only used to describe men for hundreds of years. Women in the theatre have always been more of an exception than the rule.

People didn’t think it was proper for women to be on stage because women were thought to belong in the home, and theatre is done in very public places. This is ironic because ancient Greek theatre came from the worship of Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, whose rites were mostly done by women singing and dancing in very public places.

Dancing Bacchante with Amour, terracotta sculpture by Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1785, Honolulu Museum of Art
Dancing Bacchante with Amour, terracotta sculpture by Claude Michel (called Clodion), 1785, Honolulu Museum of Art

Pope Clement XI said, A beautiful woman who sings on stage and stays pure is like a man who jumps into the Tiber and keeps his feet dry,” and in his book Work and Days, Hesiod wrote “Marry a virgin so that you can teach her how to live right.” So, a woman who wasn’t a virgin was thought to be wild and barbaric unless she was married and lived with her husband.

Thus the Greeks put a ban on women being on stage, and the Christians added to it because they were worried about women’s chastity. This rule stayed in place until the 17th century, when female singers started to appear in operas. On the English stage, it was against the law for women to act until 1660, when King Charles II said that all female roles had to be played by women.

Portrait of Hughes, often credited as the first professional actress on the English stage, by Sir Peter Lely, 1672
Portrait of Hughes, often credited as the first professional actress on the English stage, by Sir Peter Lely, 1672

On the English stage, it was against the law for women to act until 1660, when King Charles II said that all female roles had to be played by women.

Still, the ancient Greeks loved the theatre, and their actors were highly regarded. In Ancient Rome, however, people loved entertainment and drama, but theatre performers were mostly looked down upon by the upper classes and thought to be immoral. So, even though the Roman Empire valued the performing arts, it also saw the theatre as a sign of society’s decline and the people’s steadfast loyalty to it as the Empire’s worst social plague. As you might expect, it would have been hard to make a living as an actor in ancient Rome. Even more so if the person was a woman.

Escaping the Bright Lights of the Theatre

In ancient Rome, if life was hard for the average male actor, it was even harder for the average female actor. In a society where women didn’t have a lot of freedom to begin with, being an actress would have given them even less freedom than other Roman women at the time.

Cicero said that “our ancestors, in their wisdom, thought that all women should have guardians because they are weak by nature.” This way of thinking was not good for women in ancient Rome. Women couldn’t act in religious plays, and husbands kissed their wives to see if they were drunk, which could lead to a divorce or death.

This led to things getting even worse for actresses. Since women weren’t allowed to act in religious dramas, they would have had to stick to plays that were more popular. Most of the women in these plays were prostitutes, because the realness of the plays required that sex acts be done on stage.  

At the end of Emperor Nero’s life, it was an actress who ensured his proper burial.

There are, however, some actresses who managed to leave the profession. Some of them are:

Alexandre Dumas, "Atte", novels of the 19th century, Mondadori 1934.
Alexandre Dumas, “Atte”, novels of the 19th century, Mondadori 1934., By Aleardo Terzi – Archivi Mondadori, CC BY-SA 4.0
  • Claudia Acte. Acte was an actress who “had been bought as a slave in Asia”. Nero’s great-uncle Emperor Claudius most likely took her in and set her free.  After about 62 AD, Acte was no longer seen in the palace. Either Nero sent her away because she became a Christian, or she left on her own.  Six years later Nero killed himself. By this time he was so hated in Rome that none of his family or friends would claim his body. Later, it was Acte who claimed Nero’s body. She seemed to be wealthy enough paid the funeral cost if  200,000 sesterces to dress the body in white robes with gold embroidery. Acte, with two of Nero’s childhood nurses, buried his ashes after his body was burned on the pyre. At the end of Emperor Nero’s life, it was an actress who ensured his proper burial.
  • Saint Pelagia of Antioch. She was a rich mime actress who became a Christian after hearing a sermon and giving away everything she owned. She disappeared, but she came back years later when it was found that a man living as a hermit in Jerusalem was actually a woman who used to be an actress.
  • Theodora. Theodora, a mime actress from the sixth century, became famous for miming a mythological story in which Zeus raped Leda while he was dressed as a swan. She lay on her back while people sprinkled barley on her groyne so that geese could eat it. Theodora later married Emperor Justinian and became the powerful Empress of the East.
St. Pelagia of Antioch, Cretan workshop, second half of 16th century, By Sharon Mollerus
St. Pelagia of Antioch, Cretan workshop, second half of 16th century, By Sharon Mollerus – St. Pelagia, CC BY 2.0,

Embracing the Fame: Elite Actresses of Ancient Rome

In Ancient Roman theatre, unlike Ancient Greek theatre, women were allowed to act. However, this may not have seemed like much of a change, since most actresses were not given speaking parts and were instead cast as dancing girls in the background.

A small number of actresses did become rich, famous, and well-known for their work, but many prestigious theatres still didn’t let women act, and most actresses performed on smaller stages as mimae, which included singers, dancers, and actresses. This wasn’t considered a respectable job, so slaves or freedwomen often did it. Some of these actresses also made the Societae Mimae, which is a group of actresses who work together.

"Empress Theodora" by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)
“Empress Theodora” by Jean-Joseph Benjamin-Constant (1887)

Licinia Eucharis

Licinia Eucharis was an actress in the first century BC. She was one of only a few Roman Republic actresses who are known today. Licinia was a Roman slave who was born in Greece. She was freed because of how good she was on stage, and she went on to become one of the few actresses in ancient Rome who could perform in prestigious theatres and make a living solely from acting. Licinia seems to have become well-known and respected enough that she was given speaking parts and played roles in classic Greek plays in front of wealthy people.

Dionysia

Dionysia, a dancer and actress, was also one of the few women who worked on stage in ancient Rome and made a lot of money. She was well-known enough that people talked about her name and how much money she made. In a speech he gave in support of actor Quintus Roscius (ca. 126–62 BC) in 66 BC, Cicero said that the famous dancer Dionysia makes two hundred thousand sestertius, which he seems to assume is a well-known fact (“for he certainly could have and would have made three hundred thousand sesterces if Dionysia can earn two hundred thousand…”).

In 62 BC, a critic of the orator Hortensius made fun of his movements by saying they were like those of Dionysia. Hortensius replied softly, “Dionysia! I, on the other hand, would rather be Dionysia than what you are.”

Choregos and actors, Roman mosaic.
Choregos and actors, Roman mosaic.

Galeria Copiola

Pliny talks about the actress and dancer Galeria Copiola (96 BC–around 9 AD) in his book Natural History. Copiola lived from about 96 BC to around 9 AD. Pliny’s observation makes Galeria one of the few ancient performers whose career high points can be dated to the day. Roman girls went through puberty between the ages of 12 and 14, which seems to be when entertainers started their careers.

During the rule of Sulla in 82 BC, Galeria made her stage debut when she was 13 or 14. It was a play put on by the plebeian aedile Marcus Pomponius. Galeria was known for its “embolimon,” or “insert,” which was a musical number performed between the acts of a play.

Galeria Copiola is one of only four embolia performers whose names have been found. The others are Sophe Theorobathylliana, whose name was written on a bone tablet found in Rome and called “Chief Embolaria,” Phoebe Vocontia, and Oppius, who is the only male embolarius recorded.

Photo by Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881) - "Pompeii. The Tragical (roofed) theatre"
Photo by Giacomo Brogi (1822-1881) – “Pompeii. The Tragical (roofed) theatre”

Galeria was so well-known that when the huge Theatre of Pompey was opened in 55 BC, she was brought out of retirement to perform. Several famous actors from the past were there, like the old actor Aesopus, whose performance didn’t live up to the reputation he had when he was younger.

Cicero, who was there, said that the older entertainers should have rested on their laurels, but he didn’t name Galeria. At the time, Galeria was about 40 years old. She was still physically able to do her job and in good enough health to live to an old age, so she may have retired on her own terms, which was made possible by the money she made. Pliny says that Galeria’s last public appearance was in the year 9 AD, when she was 104 years old and took part in games to honour Emperor Augustus.

Large theater in Pompeii, 1910, watecolor by Luigi Bazzani
Large theater in Pompeii, 1910, watecolor by Luigi Bazzani

Fabia Arete

Fabia Arete was a freedwoman, which was common for women who went on stage in Ancient Rome. She became a dancer, an actress, and a singer. She was called an archimima, which was the name for the leading lady in a Roman theatre, and a diurna, which meant she toured as a guest actress in different theatres and theatre companies. Both showed how famous and well-known she was because of her stage work.

Fabia was probably one of the few Roman actresses hired to do speaking roles at a time when most women on stage were hired to dance or sing in the choir. She made enough money to be able to afford a grand tombstone for herself and her husband.

Volumnia Cytheris

Volumnia Cytheris was a dancer and actress who lived around the year 100 BC. She was a slave who was set free, but she may have been better known for being the mistress of several well-known Romans. In Ancient Rome, she had affairs with Brutus and Mark Antony, which got a lot of attention. She often went to social events with her aristocratic lovers, when the presence of a courtesan was shocking and unusual.

Because she was close to Cornelius Gallus, who was one of the most intelligent people of his time (Ovid, in his Tristia, called Gallus the first elegiac poet of Rome), he wrote about her as the character Lycoris in his four books of elegies. Cytheris is also one of the few free and powerful Roman courtesans mentioned by her contemporaries, along with Praecia, a professional courtesan known for her wide network of high-profile clients among the political elite, and Chelidon, who was known for her political influence during the rule of Gaius Verres, a Roman magistrate who was known for mismanaging Sicily.

Actor playing a slave and wearing a comic mask. Bronze statuette, early 3rd century CE. From the Piazza Madonna dei Monti, 1973.
Actor playing a slave and wearing a comic mask. Bronze statuette, early 3rd century CE. From the Piazza Madonna dei Monti, 1973.

The Dark Side of the Theatre

On the other side of an ancient Roman actress’s fame and glory was the more common situation she would find herself in.

In 54 BC, one of the most powerful people in Rome was Gnaeus Plancius. But he was on trial for corruption and bribery. His enemies had found dirt from his past that showed him sexually assaulting a young actress in a violent way. This made the charges against him stronger.

Even though the corruption and bribery charges were serious, the rape charge was seen by the men in the courtroom (women were not allowed) as nothing more than a harmless mistake. In fact, maybe half of the men in the room were guilty of doing the same thing.

To show this, Cicero, who was Plancius’s lawyer, did not seem to bother to deny this charge. Instead, he made a fake flourish with his arms and said, “Oh, how elegantly he must have spent his youth!” “The only thing that is held against him is something that wasn’t that bad,” he said, assuring his audience that raping an actress was just following “a well-established tradition at staged events” and wasn’t much of a crime.

The case moved along quickly, and the actress was never mentioned again. Cicero’s speech is the only thing that makes us think she existed.

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