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Laughter in Ancient Rome

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

Mary Beard
Copyright Date: 2014
Edition: 1
Pages: 326
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  • Book Info
    Laughter in Ancient Rome
    Book Description:

    What made the Romans laugh? Was ancient Rome a carnival, filled with practical jokes and hearty chuckles? Or was it a carefully regulated culture in which the uncontrollable excess of laughter was a force to fear-a world of wit, irony, and knowing smiles? How did Romans make sense of laughter? What role did it play in the world of the law courts, the imperial palace, or the spectacles of the arena?Laughter in Ancient Romeexplores one of the most intriguing, but also trickiest, of historical subjects. Drawing on a wide range of Roman writing-from essays on rhetoric to a surviving Roman joke book-Mary Beard tracks down the giggles, smirks, and guffaws of the ancient Romans themselves. From ancient "monkey business" to the role of a chuckle in a culture of tyranny, she explores Roman humor from the hilarious, to the momentous, to the surprising. But she also reflects on even bigger historical questions. What kind of history of laughter can we possibly tell? Can we ever really "get" the Romans' jokes?

    eISBN: 978-0-520-95820-3
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. CHAPTER 1 Introducing Roman Laughter: Dio’s “Giggle” and Gnatho’s Two Laughs
    (pp. 1-20)

    In 192 CE, a young Roman senator sitting in the front row of a show at the Colosseum in Rome could hardly restrain his laughter at what he saw. It was not a good moment to be caught laughing.

    The emperor Commodus himself was hosting the spectacles, to a presumably packed crowd of some fifty thousand people—senators, as was the rule, in the ringside seats with the best view, while the women and slaves were squashed at the very back, high up and hardly able to see the bloody conflicts playing out more than a hundred feet beneath them...


    • CHAPTER 2 Questions of Laughter, Ancient and Modern
      (pp. 23-48)

      Marcus Tullius Cicero—the Roman world’s most renowned orator (and also one of its most infamous jokesters)—was curious about the nature of laughter. “What is it?” he asked. “What provokes it? Why does it affect so many different parts of the body all at once? Why can’t we control it?” But he knew that the answers were elusive, and he was happy to profess his ignorance. “There is no shame,” he explained in his treatiseOn the Oratorin the mid-50s BCE, “in being ignorant of something which even the self-proclaimed experts do not really understand.”¹

      He was not...

    • CHAPTER 3 The History of Laughter
      (pp. 49-69)

      Human beings, we can safely say, have always laughed. But did people in the past laugh differently from us? And if so, how—and, just as important, how can we know? We have already glimpsed in chapter 1 the appeal and the frustrations of trying to understand a couple of outbursts of Roman laughter. In this chapter, I want to look harder at these issues, across a wider range of Roman material. We shall discover how scholars have ingeniously rewritten the texts of Roman jokes as they have come down to us, to make them funnier (in our terms). And...

    • CHAPTER 4 Roman Laughter in Latin and Greek
      (pp. 70-96)

      The study of Roman laughter is in some ways an impossible project. That is partly what makes it so intriguing, so special, so enlightening, and so worthwhile. As I hope I have made clear already (perhaps too clear for the tastes of some readers), the laughter of the past is always likely to frustrate our most determined efforts to systematize and control it. Anyone who—with a straight face—claims to be able to offer a clear account of why or how or when Romans laughed is bound to be oversimplifying. But in the inevitable confusion (in the mess left...

    • [Illustrations]
      (pp. None)

    • CHAPTER 5 The Orator
      (pp. 99-127)

      Let’s start this chapter with a puzzle. In the middle of his long discussion of the proper role of laughter in oratory—in the sixth book of his training handbook for would-be public speakers—Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (or Quintilian, as I have been calling him) turns to discuss double entendres. “Although there are numerous areas from which jokes [dicta ridicula, literally “laughable sayings”] may be drawn, I must stress again that they are not all suitable for orators, especially those that rest on double entendre [amphiboliain his Latinized Greek].” He proceeds to quote a couple of puns that do...

    • CHAPTER 6 From Emperor to Jester
      (pp. 128-155)

      The opening pages of this book featured an encounter between an emperor and a senator in the Colosseum, with laughter—in some form—on both sides: the senator and writer, Dio Cassius, chewing on his laurel leaf to disguise the fact that he was cracking up; the emperor, Commodus, reportedly grinning in a triumphant and threatening fashion. We have also briefly glimpsed some revealing stories of the laughter and two-edged jocularity of the emperor Elagabalus (see p. 77), who was on the throne some thirty years after Commodus, from 218 to 222 CE, gleefully recounted in his fantastical biography—more...

    • CHAPTER 7 Between Human and Animal—Especially Monkeys and Asses
      (pp. 156-184)

      This book has so far featured rather few Roman women. We have glimpsed the image of the laughing prostitute (pp. 3, 80). And we have seen Augustus’ daughter, Julia, as the butt of her father’s good-humored banter about gray hair and baldness (pp. 132–33). According to Roman tradition, Julia was not merely on the receiving end of jokes. Alongside the anecdote about her hair plucking, Macrobius’Saturnaliaincludes a number of memorable quips that she was said to have made herself, several engaging transgressively with the moral policy of her father’s regime.¹ One of the favorites for modern scholars...

    • CHAPTER 8 The Laughter Lover
      (pp. 185-210)

      This is number 56 in the ancient collection of some 265 jokes that goes under the titlePhilogelos, or “Laughter lover.”² Written in decidedly unstylish Greek, the collection is usually dated to the later Roman Empire (the fourth or fifth century CE is the favorite guess) and includes a wide range of gags—from jokes about ridiculous misers (“Heard the one about the mean old man who made himself the heir in his own will?”) to quips on bad breath (“How does a man with bad breath commit suicide? He puts a bag over his head and asphyxiates himself!”) and...

  7. Afterword
    (pp. 211-214)

    Toward the end of my time at Berkeley, I had a long coffee break in the Free Speech Movement Café on campus with Erich Gruen, a renowned Berkeley ancient historian whose work I have read, debated, and sometimes disagreed with since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s.

    We reflected on the themes of my Sather Lectures and on the distinctive features, sometimes strangeness, of Roman laughter. We talked about many of the topics that I have now written up in this book: the place of laughter on the boundary between human and animal, emperor and subject, gods and men;...

  8. Acknowledgments
    (pp. 215-216)
  9. Texts and Abbreviations
    (pp. 217-218)
  10. Notes
    (pp. 219-276)
  11. References
    (pp. 277-300)
  12. List of Illustrations and Credits
    (pp. 301-302)
  13. Index
    (pp. 303-319)