Just over halfway up the Column of Marcus Aurelius in Rome is a memorable, and unsettling, scene. Although practically invisible from ground level, and almost crowded out by the images of violent conflict between Roman legions and German tribes which spiral up the shaft, it has often caught the attention of archaeologists. For it shows a young child being torn from the arms of his German mother by a Roman soldier—and still reaching out to her, as he is roughly hauled away.
Most commentators have interpreted this as a stark reminder of the horrors of warfare. The Column of Marcus, erected at the end of the second century AD, offers a much less civilized and genial picture of military combat than the more famous Column of Trajan of some seventy years earlier. Here we see bodies skewered, women abducted and dragged by their hair, native villages sacked and torched. The seizure of the helpless infant seems to sum up the grim message of the column as a whole.
It comes as a surprise, then, to discover that Eugen Petersen, director of the German Archaeological Institute in Rome in the closing years of the nineteenth century and author of what remains even now the most meticulous publication on the column, took a very different view. He thought that this scene would have made the Romans laugh, and that it was in fact a joke (ein Scherz). Though hardly a man renowned for his sense of humor, Petersen nevertheless saw here not the horror of abduction but fun and games, or light relief, among the battle lines.
Of course, we cannot now know how any Roman would have reacted to the scene, even supposing that they could clearly have made it out from the ground below. But either way, this is a classic example of the problem of studying laughter or humor—the two categories overlap but are not identical—in any historical period, and especially in one as far distant as ancient Rome. It is hard not to suspect that Petersen had fallen into the common trap of imposing his own eccentric idea of what might be funny or humorous on the visual images of the second century AD. Or alternatively he was using humor as a convenient explanation for something he found hard to understand. For like “religion” or “ritual,” “humor” has often proved a useful label to pin onto those objects or images from the ancient world which otherwise seem to defy explanation. If we cannot make sense of it, perhaps it was religious, or perhaps it was a joke. So the logic goes.
Laughter is one of the most treacherous of all fields of history. Like sex and eating, it is an absolutely universal human phenomenon, and at the same time something that is highly culturally and chronologically specific. Every human society in the world laughs, and whatever their race or language, people make almost exactly the same sound in doing so. Not only that, but they represent the…
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