Sunday, October 18, 2015


Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up. Sather classical lectures, 71. Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 2014. Pp. x, 319. ISBN 9780520277168. $29.95.

Reviewed by Kristina Milnor, Barnard College (

Version at BMCR home site


I should begin this review by confessing that I have never liked scholarship on humor, ancient or otherwise. For me, the pleasure of understanding why I (or anyone) laughed is far outweighed by the pleasure of the laugh itself; I would rather enjoy the living joke than admire its dissected body. Fortunately, Mary Beard is sympathetic to this position, and opens her book with a clearly articulated and measured analysis of why we should — indeed, must — care about the nature of Roman laughter. One of the primary reasons is that the Romans themselves cared. They were, as it turns out, a very funny people, and it worried some of them. Primary among these worriers was Cicero, whose On the Orator, in Beard's formulation, turns out to contain the closest thing we have to a systematic "theory of laughter" from antiquity — ingenious reconstructions of the lost second book of Aristotle's Poetics notwithstanding. Another reason we should care about Roman laughter is that it is curiously resistant to interpretation: first, because it seems to exist at the nexus of a "natural", bodily reaction — akin, as Pliny the Elder has it, to belching — and a social or cultural gesture; second, because that which provokes it sometimes seems very close to what we find funny in the modern West. In this sense, laughter masquerades as a phenomenon without a history. Beard, again, handles both of these issues with characteristic directness and aplomb, neither skirting their difficulty nor allowing them to overwhelm the book. Ultimately, this is a very sensible, readable, and useful volume, and although I might wish she had pushed her argument further in places, Beard's delineation of what she terms the "laughterhood" of ancient Rome sheds a great deal of light on a very slippery subject.

The book begins with an introduction which lays out both the chronological sweep of the study — from the second century BCE to the second century CE — and some of its basic questions: about the relationship between laughter and social hierarchy; how laughter functions in particular literary genres and as part of authorial self-representation; and the complicated roles that both the funny and the unfunny can play in stirring an audience to laugh. She does this through a close analysis of two episodes, one in which the historian Dio describes his stifled laughter in the face of the Emperor Commodus' theatrics, and one in which Terence actually scripts laughter into one of his plays (the Eunuch). Here Beard displays one of the skills that makes reading this book such a pleasure, her ability to ground even the most theoretical discussion in a close, clever, textual analysis. The book then proceeds to a first section, in which three chapters explore the bigger questions that lay the groundwork for more focused studies later on. First, Beard looks at theories of laughter, both ancient and modern. She (probably rightly) steers clear of modern neurological explanations of humor, but does delve into some ancient ideas about laughter's physiology in Pliny the Elder and Galen. As noted above, she then proceeds to critique with success the scholarly over-reliance on Aristotle's Poetics 2, lost and not easily or well reconstructed. She then turns to the most popular modern theories of laughter, from Freud to Victor Raskin, highlighting both their utility and their limitations. She rightly observes that there is no theory that convincingly explains all modern instances of laughter, and therefore it is far too much to expect one which explains all ancient ones. From theory, she turns to history and questions both why and how we might be able to gain access to laughter in the past. Here she moves deftly from Keith Thomas to Mikhail Bakhtin, again highlighting both their contributions and their debilities. Prominent among the ideas borrowed from Bakhtin is that certain times and places (most critically for her, the Romans on the Saturnalia) derive laughter from the reversal of social conventions, or the celebration of the rude and the bawdy. Beard correctly observes that we, in the same way as the Romans, are invested in the idea that "the past" was a time of bawdy, carnivalesque jocularity, which is gradually tamed or lost with the growing "sophistication" of culture. This model fits neatly with the general Roman romanticisation of a lost, earthier and therefore more authentic, past. She encourages us to be as wary of this idea in the present as we are when we encounter it in ancient authors, and proposes therefore to write a history of Roman laughter that emphasizes both similarities and differences between the ancient world and the present.

The final chapter in this first section looks at the relationship between Greek and Roman laughter, focusing mainly on language. It is here that she presents an idea which, I suspect, many readers will find peculiar, if not a bit dubious: the Romans did not smile. This is, of course, tremendously difficult to prove, and we might rather say less provocatively, and possibly more accurately, that they had no word which specifically designates a curvature of the lips to denote pleasure or amusement. Language, as I am sure Beard herself would agree, is a problematic lens through which to observe a social reality, although I take her point that the common translation of ridere and its cognates as "smile" rather than "laugh" in English is misleading. Indeed, it is really this idea that she is trying to underscore, the larger "the Romans did not smile" being a bit of provocative overreach. She concludes this chapter with a broader discussion of the interrelated cultures of "Greek" and "Roman" laughter cultures in the Roman Empire, which existed in conversation with one another —although she also reminds us how much of what we know about (e.g.) "Attic salt" is a construction of our Roman sources.

In Part 2 of the book, Beard turns to specific pieces of the Roman culture of laughing or Rome's "laughterhood", as she terms it. She begins with oratory, both (ancient) theoretical discussions of the place of laughter in speech-making, and specific instances of orators using jokes in their work. Most useful to me in this chapter is the section in which she critiques the standard reading of Roman oratorical humor which sees it as solely agonistic, entirely consumed with demonstrating the power of the speaker over the butt of the joke. This idea of "controlling laughter" (to quote the title of Anthony Corbeill's 1996 book) has been a useful one, but Beard brings salutary nuance to it, suggesting both that there are limits to what things constitute fair game for oratorical mockery, and that such mockery always runs the risk of rebounding on the mocker. Indeed, the danger involved in joking — as powerful a rhetorical tool as it certainly was — is a main theme of both Cicero's and Quintilian's discussions of laughter and oratory.

Chapter 6 continues to consider the role of laughter in power relations, beginning with its role in defining the relationship between emperor and subject. Again, we see that there are two sides to laughter: the good ruler is able to tolerate it as a form of honest communication with his subjects; the bad one insists on lying laughter, either by forcing his subjects to conceal it or by insisting that they produce it on command. This leads into a discussion of the scurra, whose jokes are "vulgar, imitative, unspontaneous" and who therefore epitomizes the figure of the bad humorist. Beard ends this chapter with the interesting (and unanswerable) question of whether, in non-elite contexts, there might have been those who embraced the role of scurra as a counter-cultural gesture. She cites as a possible example Prudentius' poem on the martyrdom of Saint Laurence, who rather famously went to his death joking. I suppose it is possible that this is an example of someone appropriating the scurra title for himself, although it is worth noting that it is the Roman prosecutor, and not the saint himself, who uses the word to describe Laurence.

The next chapter also works to delineate what was appropriate laughter-generating material for the Romans, focusing on why monkeys and donkeys were considered especially funny. Beard zeros in on the idea of imitation, which in a person's humor was a mark of shame, but in an animal could generate the most laughter. Thus, it was the proximity of monkeys and asses to human beings that made them the most laughable. I found this chapter unobjectionable but not terribly informative, although it does contain a welcome, although lamentably brief, discussion of Petronius.

The final chapter of the book considers the Philogelos, or "Laughter Lover", a collection of jokes from the later Roman Empire which survives in various manuscript traditions as the only preserved Roman jokebook. I knew little about the text before reading Beard's book, so the fact that she spends a good deal of time orienting the reader to its background is useful and welcome. It certainly is a fascinating work, and Beard does an excellent job of walking us through its significance, from a discussion of the social roles taken on by particular characters (the scholastikos is especially popular) to a consideration of to what use such a book might have been put. My only significant difficulty with this chapter is the fact that we have so little information about these jokes in practice, so that we have wandered here from the act of laughter, the expressed subject of the volume, to the thing that makes you laugh. The truth is, as Beard herself would acknowledge, we have no idea if the jokes in the Philogelos ever made anyone laugh. In this sense, I found it difficult to reconcile this chapter with the rest of the book, although the author concludes with another point which is difficult to prove but quite useful to think with. This is her idea that one reason we find much (although not all) of Roman humor funny in the modern West is that it was the Romans who invented "the joke" as we know it; it was they who commodified the object of laughter, to the point that a text like the Philogelos could be produced. Beard makes a compelling case for this idea, based both on what she has said in previous chapters about Roman laughterhood and a more general description of the practices of Roman culture. As I said, I cannot really imagine how one could prove this argument definitively, but as a way of articulating what is truly distinctive about Roman laughterhood, it certainly has merit.

My resistance to scholarship on humor notwithstanding, I found Beard's book useful, stimulating, and even, at times, funny. It does not claim to be comprehensive, so it would be churlish to complain about what it does not contain, although the complete absence of graffiti and their representation of popular humor seems odd. This may be attributed to Beard's interest in the act of laughing rather than the object of laughter for at least the majority of the book. One word or concept which I did feel was sorely missing was "play" or even "leisure", especially given the Romans' well-known obsession with the boundaries of the latter. Given laughter's prominence in oratory, it clearly could be seen as utilitarian in certain places, but elsewhere seems firmly situated in the world of otium. It seems to me that it would have been useful to consider why, and in what senses, it crosses this (notionally impermeable) boundary. On the other hand, one must say that Beard generally does an admirable job of pursuing her subject into its most unexpected hiding places, and has produced a valuable contribution to scholarship on a difficult topic.

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