Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, by Mary Beard

Did you hear the one about the headless ostrich? Amy Richlin is amused by a study of early gags

July 24, 2014

In a seminar on Plautus, I assigned a project: translate 10 lines and make them funny in English in the same way they’re funny in Latin. Student X raised a smile; student Y got a laugh; then spoke the deadpan student Z. Within seconds, I was laughing so hard that I could barely see the distorted face of the student across the table, as tears streamed down. I laughed so hard that I didn’t see that another student had fallen off his chair, laughing. Afterwards people asked us about the ruckus. “He used funny voices,” we explained feebly. “It was when he had one of the characters say, ‘In the words of Pablo Neruda…’ ”

Our group hysteria evokes the compelling and unsolved riddle of what makes people laugh out loud. Darwin had some ideas; Freud gave it a good try; Mary Douglas asked if dogs laugh. In Laughter in Ancient Rome, Mary Beard takes a shot at it by asking what made the Romans laugh, and whether we can really get their jokes. This teasing book prefers questions to answers, bounding away after yet another Snark. Conversational, clear and (appropriately) amusing, Beard wears her erudition lightly, as readers of her blog, A Don’s Life, will know. The general reader will enjoy Roman zingers alongside Freud’s favourite joke and the backstory of Joe Miller’s Jests: or, the Wits Vade-Mecum (1739), while the endnotes lead a fascinating life of their own, with expert bibliography that spans Greek and Latin literary history. Beard dissects theories of humour from the old and familiar (Freud, Bergson, Bakhtin) to the old and surprising (Hobbes) to the cutting-edge (Simon Critchley, Salvatore Attardo and Victor Raskin), even debunking the Saturnalia (which wasn’t really a carnival).

The book begins with two striking examples of Roman laughter: the senator Dio Cassius sitting in the audience at the Colosseum, confronted, along with his fellow senators, by the mad emperor Commodus waving the head of a freshly decapitated ostrich at them, as they all struggle not to laugh; and a scene in a Roman comedy where the playwright Terence has helpfully given a character the line “Hahahae!” These two explicit laughs launch Beard into a no-nonsense overview of ancient theories of humour, including an evaluation of the famously lost book of Aristotle’s Poetics on comedy (verdict: not that important) and a whole chapter on Cicero’s Orator. Cicero gets his due as the funniest Roman ever, which isn’t a part of his ancient reputation that shows up in the HBO television series Rome. The book is full of surprises, such as Pliny’s theory of tickling and Galen on why apes make people laugh, along with off-the-beaten-path texts such as the Historia Augusta (fantastical lives of the emperors, from the 4th century AD), or an “epistolary novella” on Democritus, the philosopher credited in antiquity as the leading theorist of laughter, or Philo’s account of the Jewish delegation to Caligula, or Prudentius on St Laurence, who was a comedian even on the gridiron.

The Romans were funny, they loved funny stories, and Beard knows a million of ’em: the tale of the pig imitator who cheated by hiding a real pig under his cloak; the origin of the whoopee cushion; the sad case of Seneca’s wife’s female clown; lots of bald-man jokes; stories of people who never laughed, straight out of Ripley’s Believe It Or Not. Beard is at her best in the triumphant final chapter on the ancient jokebook, Philogelos (“An egghead, a bald man and a barber were making a journey together…”), drawing the reader into a world where the barbershop is the prime place to have a laugh – the world of the scurra, the standup comic who jokes for a living, and the parasitus of the comic stage, who talks about his jokebooks as part of his capital. Pondering the commodification of jokes in Roman culture, she concludes with the provocative argument that the Romans invented the jokebook. Maybe not, but Beard, who revolutionised the study of the ancient letter-book, gives Philogelos the serious attention it deserves. As for Beard’s parting question on the historical specificity of jokes – “Could we ever see the funny side of a casual joke about crucifixion?” – I can but reply: “Always look on the bright side of life.”

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

By Mary Beard
University of California Press, 336pp, £19.95
ISBN 97805207168 and 0958203
Published 24 June 2014

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