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 sound of laughter in almost exactly the same alphabetic or phonetic form. Whereas Albanian dogs apparently go “ham ham” rather than “woof woof,” and Hungarian pigs go “rof rof rof,” not “oink oink,” there are few language communities in the world that do not represent the sound of laughter with some variant on “ha ha” or “hee hee.”

It even extends to primates. Charles Darwin was one of the first to recognize that Aristotle had been wrong to claim that human beings were the only animals to laugh. And since then many scholarly hours have been profitably spent tickling the underarms of chimps, and watching them at play, to confirm that they do indeed laugh exactly like Homo sapiens. Or very nearly so. The sound of human laughter is made only as we exhale. Chimp laughter occurs also as they inhale. The difference may (or, of course, may not) be crucially significant.

Yet things look very different when we go beyond such physical stimuli to reflect on jokes, cartoons, pictures, and performances that provoke laughter. Never mind what we may share with the primates; it is often hard for the English to share a joke with their neighbors across the Channel, or to respond to cartoons penned a century ago. It is all very well for comedians to claim that “the old ones are the best,” but anyone who has picked up a nineteenth-century copy of a comic magazine such as Punch is almost bound to have been disappointed. Even when they are not referring to the minutiae of some now forgotten political crisis, the vast majority of the cartoons simply don’t make you laugh. It is sometimes easy enough, on a few moments’ reflection, to get the joke and to see why it might once have seemed funny; but that is a very long way from feeling the remotest temptation to laugh oneself. In that sense laughter does not travel across space, time, or even necessarily—as any encounter with a group of under-fifteens will tell us—between different age groups in a single community.


So how do we reconcile these two sides of laughter—the biological universal and the intensely culturally specific? Theorists and scientists have worked on the problem from both ends. On the one hand, they have shown that laughter from tickling is not quite the reflex response we often assume it to be. For a start, it is next to impossible to raise a laugh by tickling yourself (whereas you can easily make your own leg jerk by striking your patella with a hammer). It is also the case that when tickling happens in threatening rather than friendly circumstances, it doesn’t produce laughter, but screams or tears. Hence the conclusion that—while there may be some purely biological prompts to laughter (though not the misnamed “laughing gas,” which only produces euphoria)—the link between tickling and laughing is largely a social one, not a reflex at all. From this stems a range of theories that go on to explain laughter as the result of evolutionary adaptation within early society. One idea is that laughing functioned as a “false alarm” device. It was a sign to primitive hominids that despite all the rumpus that other hominids were creating, this was no enemy attack but friendly knockabout.

On the other hand, there are all those more familiar theories of the role, function, and philosophy of the joke. These attempt to show that despite the seemingly baffling variety of all the other, nonphysical, stimuli to laughter, there is underneath a common point and rationale to joking and laughing. In Stop Me If You’ve Heard This (a book about jokes which has the rare distinction of being at times quite funny—most are deathly serious) Jim Holt takes a wry look at the main theories, and finds them not entirely up to the task. Or rather, most theories fit some jokes rather well, but suit others hardly at all.

Most ancient theorists, from Plato and Aristotle on, saw jokes as an expression of superiority, humor as “mockery and derision,” and laughter, therefore, as “a slightly spiritualized snarl.” This is fine, argues Holt, for a range of unpleasant jokes at the expense of the other races and religions, of the poor or otherwise unfortunate (“How did Helen Keller burn her fingers? She tried to read a waffle iron”). It also works for the kind of temporary triumph we might feel if we saw “Bill Gates get hit in the face with a custard pie.” It does not seem up to the task of explaining why we might laugh at puns, for example. You might conceivably argue that we are there enjoying a sense of superiority over language itself. “But now,” as Holt observes, “the superiority theory has become elastic to the point of meaninglessness.”

More popular among modern theorists is the “incongruity theory” of joking, which sees humor and laughter stemming from the inappropriate mixing of categories or registers of meaning (“Work is the curse of the drinking classes,” as Oscar Wilde quipped). Or, as Kant put it more opaquely in the Critique of Judgment, a joke arises “from the sudden transformation of a strained expectation into nothing.” Kant’s own example of this was a story of an Indian who looked astonished when an Englishman opened a bottle of beer and the contents frothed out. When asked why he was so surprised, the Indian replied, “I’m not surprised at its getting out, but at how you ever managed to get it all in.” The problem here is not that jokes trade on incongruity, for almost all of them in some way do. It is why incongruity should give us pleasure, and why some sorts of incongruity prompt laughter and others (such as Oedipus’ parenthood) do not. Besides, as Holt goes on to ask, why should the reaction either to incongruity or to a feeling of superiority be “a bout of cackling and chest heaving”?

That is what Freud’s famous “relief theory” of jokes accounts for much better. For here we find a direct connection between the bodily release of laughter and the release, by the joke, of inhibited thoughts and feelings. Holt gives a simple, lighthearted, but sympathetic account of the Freudian theory that jokes allow the expression of otherwise forbidden impulses—including not only sex and aggression but, in the case of nonsense jokes, the impulse to “play” which adults, unlike children, tend to repress. So far, so good. But Holt finds himself unconvinced here too. Never mind whether all jokes release what is repressed (which is, after all, as unfalsifiable a claim as you could make); the logic of Freud’s position ought to mean that those “who laugh the hardest at lewd jokes should be the ones who are the most sexually repressed.” That is the reverse of what we observe. Other studies have shown—what most amateurs have observed anyway—that it is the least inhibited who enjoy dirty jokes the most.


In the end Holt remains a witty and engaging agnostic on the theory of jokes. An insider in the world of humor and a self-proclaimed collector of jokes (whatever exactly that involves), he tests out those who would theorize about his trade, and finds them interesting but wanting. For Holt, laughter is both simpler and more complicated than its best-known theorists would have it. It also has a history stretching back to the ancient world, which he breezes through in the first part of the Stop Me If You’ve Heard This.

This is a very funny tale and it produces some marvelous and unlikely heroes: Nat Schmulowitz, famous more widely for successfully defending Fatty Arbuckle on a murder charge, but for Holt best known as a “heroic collector” of joking ephemera; Poggio Bracciolini, superstar fifteenth-century humanist and compiler of the first modern Western joke book; and best of all, Gershon Legman, the inventor of the slogan “Make Love, Not War” (or so he claimed), book-sourcer for Alfred Kinsey, and author of Rationale of the Dirty Joke and its companion, dirtier, volume, No Laughing Matter. Holt tends, however, to be reticent on the ancient history of joking. With just a walk-on part for Palamedes, the mythical inventor of the joke (as well as of the alphabet, the lighthouse, dice, and a number of other essentials of human civilization), and another for the Philogelos (“Laughter-Lover”), a fourth- or fifth-century AD compilation of more than two hundred jokes, the laughter of Greece and Rome is covered in a few pages.

With good reason. The problem here is not merely those various competing and vaguely unsatisfactory theories of laughter, or the difficulty of applying them to a culture of two thousand years ago. We have, in fact, only a very patchy knowledge of when, in what contexts, and (as the story of Eugen Peterson and the column illustrates) at what Greeks and Romans laughed. In the Roman world, I know of only one instance when we can follow in detail the story of a laugh, and share something of its physical experience.

The laugher in question is Dio Cassius, historian and Roman senator. During the reign of the emperor Commodus (180–192 AD), the terrible son of Marcus Aurelius, Dio attended the games in the Colosseum, where (not wholly unlike the scenes recreated in the movie Gladiator) the emperor himself was performing. He had scored a number of victories against animals (comparatively safely, since the particularly fierce ones were presented to him in nets), and had just succeeded in decapitating an ostrich. Dio himself was sitting with the other senators in the front row and gives an eyewitness account of what happened next:

He came up to where we were sitting, carrying the head in his left hand and in his right hand holding up his bloody sword. He spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our jaws we might conceal the fact that we were laughing.

Whatever theory of laughter we choose to adopt, the combination of fear, embarrassment, and almost irrepressible giggles is one that must be recognized by almost everyone, even across all those centuries. We can feel for, and with, Dio. We all have at some time in our lives bitten on the modern equivalent of laurel wreaths.

But this is a rare, more or less unique, case. Elsewhere it is much harder to tune in to Roman laughter. We do not know how much the Roman audience actually laughed at “comedies” on stage, or which lines were deemed the funniest. Most theater directors who have produced Roman comedy for a modern audience (or the Greek classics of Aristophanes for that matter) will explain what a lot of innuendo and staging devices they had to add to the bare text to elicit much laughter. And this is borne out by the experience of teaching. Although students may enjoy the wit of Ovid, or feel some satisfaction in reading the squibs of Martial, the only work of Latin literature that can be guaranteed to raise a laugh is the Apocolocyntosis (the “Pumpkinification of the emperor Claudius”). Sometimes attributed to the philosopher Seneca, this is a skit on the old and doddery Claudius, making his way up to heaven in his attempt to become a god.

It is an unusually modern piece of political satire—as well as a reassuring hint that some Romans, at least, found the whole idea of emperors becoming gods after their death as strange as we do. One particular favorite passage describes Claudius’ approach to the gates of heaven, shambling, muttering to himself, and wagging his gray head. The gods conclude that it is not a man but a monster, so dispatch Hercules, who at first mistakes the dead emperor for his thirteenth labor. Disaster is averted, however, when Hercules opens his mouth and speaks in Homeric Greek. Claudius instantly celebrates the fact that Mount Olympus appears to be populated by philologists.

Holt does not mention the Apocolocyntosis. And on the rest of the ancient material he is not just brief, but cautious. Even when he is discussing the Philogelos, he stops short of ever saying that the jokes in it are funny. They may be “spare and pointed” (“‘How shall I cut your hair?’ a talkative barber asked a wag. ‘In silence!'”). They may conjure up a wonderful cast of ancient characters, such as the “absent-minded professor,” the notoriously stupid people of the city of Abdera, or “the man with bad breath.” But the fact that the one he likes best has lost its punch line (it starts with an Abderite asking a eunuch how many children he has) probably indicates where Holt’s sympathies lie. Sadly he misses the one case where, for once, the old jokes really are the best. He quotes an “excellent” joke from Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious:

A royal personage was making a tour through his provinces and noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to his own exalted person. He beckoned to him and asked: “Was your mother at one time in service in the Palace?” “No, your Highness,” was the reply, “but my father was.”

Neither Freud nor Holt seem to have spotted that the first surviving version of this is to be found among a small collection of the jokes of the first emperor Augustus, in a chapter of Macrobius’ Saturnalia.

If ancient written humor is hard to grasp, visual humor—often with no written commentary at all—is even more tricky. We know that Greeks and Romans laughed at paintings. In fact, one anecdote had it that the fifth-century-BC Greek painter Zeuxis had actually died of laughing at one of his own pictures—of an old woman (a nice reflection, I suppose, both of ancient misogyny and of Zeuxis’ famous skill at realistic representation). But by and large, finding humor in ancient art comes down to trying to detect it in the images themselves. Hence the difficulties of Eugen Petersen.

John R. Clarke’s Looking at Laughter is a brave and sometimes brilliant attempt to do just the kind of detective work that is now rare. Clarke has a wonderful eye for the byways of Roman art and a passionate determination to get his readers to look beyond the mainstream of formal, official Roman image-making. Here he has resurrected all kinds of paintings and ceramics, mainly from Pompeii and Ostia, which do not usually find much of a place in the modern scholarly literature, even if in some cases they are tourist favorites.

These include, for example, a wonderful visual parody of gods and myths from the House of the Menander at Pompeii (in which a hunchback dwarf Theseus is dispatching the Minotaur, and a nastily misshapen Venus gets little Cupid to fire his arrows at Jupiter); scene after scene of cavorting pygmies (whether boating around the Nile, being eaten by a hippopotamus, or— in one strange incident—apparently reenacting the story of the Judgment of Solomon); and phalli in every imaginable, and some scarcely imaginable, size and form (perched over bread ovens, with bells and wings, in the act of turning into a dog, or being weighed against a large sack of gold). It would be almost impossible not to follow Clarke and to conclude that at least some of this was funny. We would surely be missing the joke if we treated it all as if there was no humorous intention behind it.

Clarke briefly surveys theories of laughter, choosing a somewhat different set from Holt. Here we learn not only of Freudian theory and the release inhibition (a rather more technical and nuanced account than Holt’s, it must be said). We read also of laughter as a social survival mechanism (“laughter saves the day in a host of social situations where confrontation threatens survival, sexual dominance, or status within the group”), of laughter as a mechanism to avert the “Evil Eye,” and of laughter as part of carnivalesque transgression, à la Mikhail Bakhtin (which is Clarke’s preferred model).

He also has a hilarious chapter on what modern scholars have done with images of this type—or, as he puts it, “the lengths to which a philologist or ancient historian might go to raise the brow from low to high.” Choosing a fresco from the façade of a Pompeian shop which depicts an ass mounting a lion and a figure of Victory crowning the triumphant ass, he reviews the various academic interpretations which, in their different ways, have managed to turn a blind eye to the ludicrous sexual topsy-turvy of the scene. One particularly opaque analysis relates it to a modern Sicilian folk tale about an ass and a lion trying to cross a river together. Another reads it as a visual metaphor for the victory at the Battle of Actium in 31 BC of Octavian, the ass, over Mark Antony, who had used the image of a lion on some of his coins—so transforming “an embarrassingly dirty sexual image into an almost clean allegory of a historical event.”

Clarke presents an extremely powerful case overall. But there still remains a gap between the recognition that some of these images would have prompted laughter, intentionally or not, and deciding exactly which ones were funny and with what effect. Very often the criteria we apply depend on our own prejudices, internal censors, and sense of humor rather than the Romans’. Like any enthusiast, Clarke does tend to find what he is looking for. I, for one, remain far from convinced (pace Bakhtin) that “transgressive” sexual acts are “therefore funny,” or that the sexual images in the changing rooms in the Suburban Baths at Pompeii were intended to provoke a laugh from the naked bather to dispel “the Evil Eye of the envious man who has been eying his handsome body.” And I still suspect that those famous Pompeiian mosaics of the “unswept floor” (showing left-over food, as if casually dropped) were intended to impress viewers with their realism as much as appeal to their sense of humor.

Looking at Laughter is, in other words, a wonderful book. But just occasionally I felt that I was in the company of a rather jollier version of Herr Petersen.