Although Dead Romans is fiction, one of the main characters was a real person. We only have a couple of sources that describe Panthea, the mistress of the Roman Emperor Lucius Verus. All of these sources influenced The Mistress’ Story, the second part of my book.
The Historia Augusta, while discussing Lucius Verus, says:
It is said, furthermore, that he shaved off his beard while in Syria to humour the whim of a low-born mistress, and because of this many things were said against him by the Syrians.
Historia Augusta, Lucius Verus, 7,10.
We have to be careful with the Historia Augusta, because its portrayal of Lucius Verus seems to be an attempt to place him in juxtaposition to Marcus Aurelius. Where Marcus is described as almost a perfect emperor, Lucius Verus is disparaged.
Still, while the writer tries to show Lucius Verus as a whipped weakling who obeys his low-class mistress, there is no reason to think the beard-cutting episode is untrue. I incorporated it into the story, but moved it to their first meeting in Smyrna for dramatic reasons.
The best description we have of Panthea comes from two works of Lucian. The first, Essays in Portraiture – sometimes called Images – is a panegyric. He praises her looks, her intelligence and her character. Thanks to Lucian, Panthea was considered as ‘the woman of perfect beauty,’ or ‘the most beautiful woman in the world.’ She very well might have been.
An interesting part of the work is how he compares her beauty with some of the most famous sculptures of antiquity. Historians believe we may have some found later reproductions of these statues Lucian talks about, so I have included images of them and what features he applied to Panthea.
Apparently Panthea read Lucian’s first work, complained that he was too generous with his admiration and asked him to re-write it. Unfortunately, Essays in Portraiture was already in circulation, so his only option was to have a sequel, Essays in Portraiture Defended. Not only does he defend his earlier praise, he increases it.
This sequel is interesting in that Lucian quotes Panthea, our only possible glimpse of her actual words. As an example:
In general, I do not care for people whose disposition inclines to flattery, but consider such persons deceivers and not at all generous in their natures. Above all, in the matter of compliments, when anyone in praising me employs vulgar and immoderate extravagances I blush and almost stop my ears, and the thing seems to me more like abuse than praise. For praise is endurable only as long as the person who is being praised recognises that everything which is said is appropriate to him. Whatever goes beyond that is alien and outright flattery.
Lucian, Essays in Portraiture Defended, 1.
Her reply is filled with metaphors and clever phrases and allusions to mythology. She appears to be intelligent, well-educated, and quite witty. I have no reason to believe she was anything other than that.
Lucian was a funny, biting satirist, so historians have often wondered if he was being serious or not. Think of him as an ancient Jon Stewart.
For the record, I think Lucian was entirely serious in his praise. The fact that it is so different from his normal ridicule gives credence to it. Also, simple logic comes into play. Generally speaking, I think the emperor of Rome would not pick a mistress that was not praiseworthy. Finally, Panthea is also praised by someone whose opinion is heavily valued: Marcus Aurelius himself.
I included the uncertainty about Lucian’s sincerity into the story, and it fits very well with how I portrayed Panthea as being extremely unsure of herself. I also use different bits that could be picked up from Essays in Portraiture, such as where she was born, how she looked, and how clever she could be.
My favourite source about Panthea comes from Lucius’ co-emperor Marcus Aurelius.
Are Panthea or Pergamos still keeping watch at the tomb of Verus?
Marcus Aurelius, Meditations, 8.37.
We can infer several things from this quote. He probably wrote it between 170 and 180, up to 11 years after Lucius Verus died in 169. The implication is that Panthea was extremely loyal to her paramour, and often visited his grave. Yet this loyalty only lasts for so long and does no good for either the deceased or the mourner. Marcus makes it sound absurd that she is still going to his tomb.
This quote has long fascinated me. Panthea is known to history only as the mistress of the emperor. Yet she was her own individual, her own person, and she had her own story. After her lover died she went on with her life. But what was her life? What was her story? In Dead Romans I gave her a story, one beyond simply being the emperor’s mistress.