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Roman Jokers

Illustration by John Leech from The Comic History of Rome, 1852

In 1984 the American satirist Veronica Geng was asked to introduce a reprint of Dwight Macdonald’s Parodies: An Anthology from Chaucer to Beerbohm—and After. Rather than writing a conventional preface, she decided to depict the authors in the anthology as characters from the Travis McGee mysteries of John D. MacDonald—or rather, from their jacket blurbs: “Cyril Connolly—whose bait box harbored a poisonous cargo”; “Robert Benchley—the Vietnam vet who drifted freely between the glittering cabanas of the Fun Coast and the oil-stained walkways of a derelict marina”; “Jane Austen—bright, petite, blonde, suntanned—she couldn’t get a license to open her health spa, but she didn’t need a license to kill.”

Why is this piece funny? The answer, according to one popular theory, is that humor is grounded in incongruity. Certainly a good part of the fun here lies in encountering familiar figures in an unfamiliar light: H.L. Mencken as ill-fated condo salesman, or Ring Lardner as “human flotsam” churned up by the “Colombia drug-smuggling underground.” And of course the whole piece rests on a basic crossing of verbal wires (what if Dwight Macdonald were John D. MacDonald?).

A rival explanation holds that laughter springs from a feeling of superiority—a “suddaine Conception of some Eminency in our selves,” as Hobbes put it, “by Comparison with the Infirmityes of others.” Geng’s squib might seem to offer less support for this theory. But look again. Obviously the piece requires some generic familiarity with hard-boiled detective novels and their blurbs. But it also helps to know something about the individual authors. For the descriptions are not as arbitrary as they may appear. “Petite, blonde” Jane Austen’s unlicensed “health spa” is Bath transported to the Gulf Coast. The real Cyril Connolly’s bait box really did harbor a poisonous cargo. Benchley was adrift in his later years, his talent drained by Hollywood (“the Fun Coast”) and the bottle (the “derelict marina”).

In Geng’s alternate reality, “Raymond Queneau” is a charming and cynical freighter captain (one can almost see the Gauloise dangling from his lower lip) who learns that “it took more than charm to commit a multiple murder that spanned an ocean.” Is this a comment on the slight but charming Exercises In Style? Or even on Geng’s own, rather Queneauvian oeuvre? Surely part of our enjoyment here derives from our hard-won membership in the Club of Those Who Get It: the old lady from Dubuque would not see the joke.

Yet another view would consider laughter as a displacement or release of emotional or psychological tension. Here it is worth glancing at Geng’s own disarming account of the piece’s origins. She was up against a deadline, and casting about for ideas. A friend had idly floated the Macdonald/MacDonald premise, which in turn had reminded her of the Gulf Coast. “My brother and I had just sold our father’s house there; I missed Florida and wanted to write about it.” Geng’s father comes across in her brother Steve’s memoir as a real piece of work: a hard-drinking bully who, as one reviewer says, “remained unimpressed with his daughter’s talent and intelligence her whole life.” One wonders if he doesn’t underlie Geng/Macdonald’s William Wordsworth (“the copper-haired corpse who seemed to float up on the beach after every hurricane”) or James Gould Cozzens (“only the buried past knew the ugly secret of why he died…—twice”). Even a simple comic device can land us in deep water, psychologically speaking.

What, if anything, does Geng’s piece have in common with the movie Police Academy 2: Their First Assignment? What does either have in common with knock-knock jokes, or with Gilbert Gottfried’s famous performance of “The Aristocrats” a few weeks after September 11? These are not easy questions to answer, even for a culture we know from the inside. And the difficulties only multiply when we confront the humor of another time and language. It is that challenge that Mary Beard sets herself in Laughter in Ancient Rome, the printed version of her lectures as the 2008–2009 Sather Professor at Berkeley.

Delivering the Sathers is one of the most honorific prizes in classical studies. Scholarly distinction is a given, but the ideal lecturer will also be able to communicate with an audience beyond the field, and on a topic of wider relevance. From this perspective Mary Beard must have seemed a natural choice. Professor of classics at Cambridge, Beard is the author or coauthor of academic books on Roman religion and the Roman triumph, as well as more popularizing (but no less solid) ones on the Colosseum and Pompeii. She is a consulting editor of the Times Literary Supplement, a frequent presenter on the BBC, and writes one of Britain’s leading academic blogs, A Don’s Life. She is about as close to a public intellectual as the field of Roman studies currently has.

Various as they are, Beard’s previous publications show some common threads. One of her persistent obsessions is how we know—or can know—anything at all about the Roman world. Her 2007 study of the Roman triumph showed how fragile are many of the familiar “facts” about this ritual: the fixed route, the execution of prisoners, the general’s face reddened with cinnabar, the slave who whispers “remember that you are mortal”—all dissolve or at least grow fuzzy on closer inspection. In The Fires of Vesuvius (2008) she delighted in pointing out how much of our “Pompeii” has been shaped by dubious inference and hopeful restoration. (The frescoes at the Villa of the Mysteries are an unsung masterpiece of early-twentieth-century art.)

The problem is not just a shortage of reliable evidence, although that’s part of it. It also stems from the nature of human social practices. For some scholars ancient institutions are like artichokes: if we could just peel away extraneous accretions we could get back to their “original” significance—the “true meaning of Christmas,” as it were—which is what we’re really interested in. For Beard, by contrast, ancient institutions are like onions: the extraneous layers are the whole thing. If we could somehow conjure up actual Romans and ask them what the triumph ritual “meant,” they might have an answer for us, but it would never be the answer, only a debatable and contested interpretation.

Beard’s title in this study is not a metaphor. Her book has a good deal to say about humor and comedy but it is even more fundamentally about laughter. As she notes, the history of laughter is as fraught with problems as the history of sex, and for many of the same reasons. Laughter can be set off by physical stimuli like tickling or nitrous oxide. But it is also generated by sights, sounds, and catchphrases, which vary from age to age and culture to culture. Elizabethans joked about cuckoldry and venereal disease. Roman audiences laughed at crucifixion jokes, bald men, and dwarves. The epigrams of the early imperial poet Martial circle back again and again to sniggering innuendos about bad breath and oral sex (“the old wearisome indecency,” sighed A.E. Housman, “ever fresh and entertaining to Martial and his public”). The rules for what is laughable are not always consistent or predictable even within a particular society; twenty-first-century Americans who would never dream of mocking physical handicaps can joke casually about prison rape.

One of Beard’s aims in looking at Roman laughter is confessedly “to make it a messier rather than a tidier subject.” This comes through even in individual sentences. One passage from an ancient author is “frustratingly hard to make full sense of.” Another is “more puzzling than it seems,” a third “more puzzling…than my quotations suggest.” She is distrustful of one-size-fits-all explanations, and briskly skeptical of the monolithic modern theories (incongruity, superiority, displacement) alluded to above. All of these might account for some laughter, which can be variously aggressive, absurdist, and nervous, but none is all-embracing. And of course a lot of laughter is really a second-order response, triggered merely by the setting (we laugh at sitcoms because the studio audience is laughing) or by pleasure at the closing of a familiar circuit (in Soviet Russia, joke tell you).

Beard has always had a nose for the scholarly equivalent of urban legends—much-cited factoids that crumble when one asks what exactly the evidence for them is. One small example here is a claim about pygmies, regularly trotted out to show the cultural variability of laughing. When pygmies are amused, authorities tell us, they throw themselves on the ground, kicking their tiny feet in paroxysms of laughter. As it turns out, all invocations of this “fact” can be traced back to a single passage in Colin Turnbull’s The Forest People, a work often criticized (like his later work on the Ugandan Ik) for naiveté, misunderstanding, and projection.

More centrally, Beard demolishes the notion, popular with many theorists of humor, that there was an overarching “classical theory of laughter,” attributable to Aristotle and laid out in the (conveniently lost) second book of his Poetics. Readers of Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose will recall the crucial part that work plays in the novel, and Eco was hardly the first to invest it with such numinous significance. Yet there is little sign that it had much influence in antiquity. And Beard is probably right to think that if we had “Aristotle on comedy” it would not prove a master key to anything, but would be as frustrating, cryptic, and unhelpful as…well, as Aristotle on tragedy.

A more recent target is the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin. In his first and best-known book, Rabelais and His World, Bakhtin celebrated a carnivalesque earthy humor progressively repressed (if never quite successfully) by sophisticated elites. Bakhtin was not principally concerned with antiquity, but many classicists have found his theories seductive. In particular, he is ultimately responsible for a misrepresentation of the Saturnalia, which Beard calls “one of the least understood but most confidently talked about” of Roman festivals. For the Bakhtinians it was a feast of appetites and carnivalistic inversion in which slaves, led by a lord of misrule, triumphed over their masters. Looking at the ancient evidence, Beard sees a rather “prim” festival (dining, a bit of dice-playing) in which the emphasis lay on the temporary leveling of social distinctions, rather than their inversion.

Part of Bakhtin’s appeal, as Beard suggests, is that he plays into the Romans’ constant tendency, shared by many modern scholars, to primitivize their own past. There seems never to have been a time when Rome was not looking back wistfully to the sturdy peasant simplicity of its ancestors, in the good old days before one of several historical events had led to modern corruption. The bawdy Fescennine verses sung at Roman weddings or the ribald songs chanted by the troops at triumphs can be explained as vestigial survivals of this earlier unruliness, somehow fossilized in the age of Cicero and Caesar. Beard is rightly skeptical of this reconstruction, and of what one might call the Whig view of humor that it presupposes. As she observes, “no culture…claims to laugh more coarsely or more cruelly than its predecessors. Earthy is only ever a retrospective designation.” Yet it is not the Middle Ages that gave us the movie Pink Flamingos or The Ultimate Dead Baby Joke Book.

Beard has less to say than one might expect about the comedies of Plautus and Terence, or the satires of Horace. In contrast, some may be surprised by the space she allots to Cicero. Often represented nowadays as an egotistical windbag, he is in fact one of the funniest of Latin authors. The Romans thought so too: his witty sayings were collected in three volumes by his freedman and secretary Tiro. (Tiro’s collection does not survive, although a smaller collection of one-liners is preserved by the fifth-century antiquarian Macrobius.) But Cicero is important for theory as well as practice. His treatise On the Orator is, Beard writes, “the most substantial, sustained, and challenging discussion of laughter…to have survived” from antiquity.

For the orator, laughter is a tool for isolating one’s opponent (think of Lloyd Bentsen’s memorable put-down of Dan Quayle). For the Romans it could be a profoundly conservative force, one that enforced social norms by identifying the target with an out-group: physically deformed, self-indulgent, effeminate. But there are also risks to this strategy. The elite orator, delivering a rehearsed text, making dramatic gestures, and expressing emotions he may not feel, always courts confusion with figures at the bottom of the social scale: the play-actor (mimus) or the buffoon (scurra).

In late 63 BC, for example, Cicero defended his successor-elect as consul, Lucius Murena, on a charge of electoral bribery. His defense included a notable attack on the younger Cato, one of the prosecutors. As Cicero had the crowd in stitches, Cato is supposed to have leaned over to a friend and murmured, “What a comic consul we have.” The anecdote survives only in Greek, so we do not know what Latin word Cato used, but, as Beard suggests, it may well have been ridiculus, which can mean both “witty” and “laughable.”

For Beard this ambiguity is always potentially present, and a potent source of anxiety. She sees another illustration of it in Apuleius’ novel The Golden Ass. Prior to his transformation into a donkey, the book’s hero, Lucius, is suddenly arrested and charged with murder. Delivering what he thinks is an impressive speech in his own defense, he is dismayed to hear the audience howling with amusement. In the event, all ends more or less happily; it emerges that the whole thing is part of a (fictional) festival of laughter and that Lucius’ supposed “victims” were three magically animated wineskins. Yet the scene, narrated from Lucius’ viewpoint, has an unsettling feel, not wholly dissipated by its happy ending.

On Beard’s telling, ancient laughter is generally associated with unease, especially the unease generated by differences of status and power. In the Life of Aesop, jokes articulate the power relationship of master and slave. Roman comedies feature a recurrent character, the parasite, whose “job” is to laugh at his patron’s jokes—and, when the patron’s back is turned, at the patron. Laughter shapes the relationship between ruler and subject. The murderous pranks of Caligula, Commodus, or Heliogabalus contrast with the “good” emperor’s tolerance of quips, or his willingness to make fun of himself. (“Oh dear,” the dying Vespasian is supposed to have said, “I think I’m about to become a god.”)

Laughter for Beard is also a sign of cracks or fissures in the smooth surface of human identity. The ancients thought of “man” as a category bounded by animals at one end and gods at the other. For Aristotle, man is the only animal that laughs (if lions could understand our jokes they would not find them funny). Laughter links us with the divine, but not always in pleasant ways; in Ovid’s Metamorphoses the gods laugh last, best, and usually at the human characters’ expense. For men, in turn, Beard observes, the most perfectly laughable animal was the monkey: a creature striving to be human but not quite succeeding, like our cheezburger-craving cats or poker-playing dogs. Almost as hilarious was the donkey, particularly when eating; Apuleius’ novel invokes this apparently familiar joke. Yet the donkey’s bray (Latin rudere) is uncomfortably close to the human laugh (ridere). Do they have more in common than we like to think?

Beard’s final chapter deals with a text known as the Philogelos. It is usually described as the only surviving ancient joke book, although (as she points out) it is really a modern scholarly creation drawn from a half-dozen manuscripts, no two of which contain exactly the same set of witticisms. The label Philogelos (The Laughter-Lover) is found in two of them. It is unclear whether it is a title or a suppositious author. There are several references to joke books in the comedies of Plautus, and Beard inclines to see them as a distinctively Roman form. The Romans, she suggests, may have “invented the joke” by treating it for the first time as a commodity, a thing to be collected, sold, swapped, hoarded, or bequeathed. She finds it significant that Latin has only one basic verb for “laugh” (ridere), but many nouns meaning “joke,” while in Greek the opposite is true. Greeks cackled, chortled, giggled, and guffawed; Romans told jokes.

Beard is often sharp on classicists’ fondness for reconstructing lost works rather than looking closely at the ones we have. But most of ancient literature really has been lost, and ephemeral texts like the Philogelos were particularly vulnerable; that no surviving joke book predates the Roman period is no proof that none existed. And apart from a few references to Roman money, there is little about the Philogelos that is clearly Roman, except in a purely chronological sense. The text, after all, is in Greek, and a number of the jokes target citizens of the Greek cities of Abdera, Sidon, and Kyme—evidently the ancient equivalents of Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Chelm. The character most frequently encountered, however, is the scholastikos: not quite an absent-minded professor, but an intellectual with no common sense, prone to overliteralism and misapplied logic. (Beard, following an earlier translator of the work, calls him the “egghead.”) He is clearly a generic figure, attracting into his orbit some stories recorded elsewhere of historical individuals.

The Philogelos does reflect some characteristic features of ancient society: the dangers of shipwreck, say, or high infant mortality. And a few of the jokes might be explained in Beard’s terms as signaling “areas of disruption or anxiety.” Here’s one example (not treated by Beard): a scholastikos is on a voyage when a storm comes up, and his slaves wail with terror. “Don’t wail,” he tells them, “I’ve freed you all in my will!” Here the joke is the misalignment between two identities: the slaves are crying qua people, while the scholastikos assumes they’re crying qua slaves.

But most of the jokes are less culturally specific. Here’s another: a scholastikos, a barber, and a bald man go on a journey and take turns keeping watch during the night. While on watch, the barber amuses himself by shaving the sleeping scholastikos’ head. When the latter is roused for his shift, he claps his hand to his skull and exclaims, “That idiot barber! He’s gone and woken the bald man instead of me.”

Beard tries to connect this joke to supposed Roman “uncertainties about the self” in a society where “formal proofs of identity were minimal.” This seems pretty implausible; after all, the joke’s gears still turn smoothly in a world of passports and Social Security numbers. If the joke is about identity, it is human, not Roman, identity. Beard gets in some good digs at classicists’ penchant for explaining things by labeling them “liminal” or “apotropaic,” but her view of humor as reflecting “debates, uncertainties, and contestations” sometimes seems equally procrustean.

In studying other cultures we are trapped, as the anthropologist Clifford Geertz once put it, between “the consoling piety that we are all like to one another and…the worrying suspicion that we are not.” When it comes to laughter, Beard has no doubt which side of the divide we are on. For her, “cultural differences…trump whatever cultural or biological universals it might be reassuring to fall back on.” It is perhaps this emphasis on foreignness that leads Beard to one of her most striking claims. English translators are used to rendering the Latin ridere, “laugh,” as “smile” when the passage seems to call for it. As Latinists say, the verb “takes its color from its context,” just as it can in English (“‘Goodness!’ she laughed”). Beard takes a harder line. Ridere, she insists, always means “laugh,” as does its compound subridere (“laugh quietly”). As for the verb renidere, which means “glow” and is commonly rendered “beam,” that describes a whole-face phenomenon, not just a turning-up of the corners of the mouth. Beard argues, in fact, that the Romans did not smile—or, more precisely, that the expression we perceive as smiling played no major role in Roman facial semiotics.

We should not take it for granted that our own facial expressions are universal. But the linguistic fundamentalism applied here—one word, one thing—seems no less dangerous. (Some nineteenth-century scholars, noting that Latin writers use caeruleus, “blue,” of things that do not seem blue to us, concluded that the Romans must all have been colorblind.) Beard is willing to grant that the Greek verb meidiao, famously applied to the gods in Homer, does mean “smile.” When Vergil imitates the Homeric phrase in Latin he uses subridere, and that verb’s Italian and French derivatives (sorridere and sourire) unambiguously mean “smile” (as Beard herself acknowledges). It seems reasonable to conclude that that sense was already present in subridere, and potentially in ridere too.

Beard finds it “crucially important” that no Roman author anticipates Lord Chesterfield in distinguishing the (gentlemanly) smile from the (vulgar) laugh and takes this as evidence that Romans only did the latter. A simpler explanation is that the Romans did not share Chesterfield’s prissiness on this point. By contrast, if Beard is right that Greeks smiled but Romans did not, it is odd that no surviving ancient authority comments on the fact. It may well be that Romans did not smile, as we do, to indicate greeting or willingness to serve. But the smile of amusement, pleasure, or approval is probably as Roman as gladiators and stuffed dormice.

Few things are more tiresome than seeing a joke analyzed. (“The story I have told you is full of humor,” says Peter Ustinov’s German diplomat. “When I have finished laughing at it, I will explain it point by point.”) Beard’s book avoids pedantry but also its opposite, the archness that preens itself on “not taking humor too seriously” and signals inane wordplays with “pun intended!”

More importantly, her treatment makes one look with new eyes (and, sometimes, new puzzlement) even at works she does not herself discuss. Consider the close of Seneca’s Phaedra, for example. In this scene, Theseus is brought the remains of his son Hippolytus, killed in a chariot accident brought on by his deluded father’s curse. Grief-stricken and remorseful, Theseus begins to reconstruct the mangled body of his son: right hand, left hand, left side…and then some other, less identifiable chunk: “What part it be, I know not, but some part for sure.” Did Roman readers laugh, as many modern ones have, at this preposterous moment of Grand Guignol? Were they intended to? And if they did laugh, what sort of laughter would it have been? Beard’s stimulating book does not quite answer such questions but it helps us begin to ask them.

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