Tuesday, February 27, 2018


Margaret Alexiou, Douglas Cairns (ed.), Greek Laughter and Tears: Antiquity and After. Edinburgh Leventis studies. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017. Pp. 552. ISBN 9781474403795. £95.00.

Reviewed by Katarzyna Jazdzewska, Cardinal Stefan Wyszynski University, Warsaw (kjazdzewska@gmail.com)

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of the review.]

This fascinating book, an offspring of an Edinburgh conference in 2013, focuses on laughter and tears as expressions of emotion in Greek culture. Although the subtitle "Antiquity and After" may suggest a preoccupation with the ancient world, this is not the case: the principal focus is on Byzantium, with just a few papers dealing with antiquity, late antiquity, and the Renaissance. Edited volumes with such ambitious diachronic spans frequently suffer from a lack of interconnectedness between their parts. Therefore, it is to be appreciated that the editors, Margaret Alexiou and Douglas Cairns, made a significant effort in the introduction to point out connections between individual contributions and to consider them within the general framework of the questions raised in the book. The introduction also locates the volume within the field of the cultural history of emotions: as the editors point out, the Byzantine world has not been a frequent subject of scholarly investigations in this respect, and they seek to better our understanding of conceptualizations and expressions of emotions in Byzantium, and improve our comprehension of the continuities and breaks between this period and antiquity.

The volume consists of twenty-two papers, divided into five thematic parts: I. Ancient Keynotes: From Homer to Lucian; II. Ancient Models, Byzantine Collections: Epigrams, Riddles, and Jokes; III. Byzantine Perspectives: Tears and Laughter, Theory and Praxis; IV. Laughter, Power and Subversion; V. Gender, Genre and Language: Loss and Survival. The majority of the papers focus on representations of laughter, smiles, tears, and laments in ancient and Byzantine texts. Seaford's paper, which opens Part I, offers a nice collection of passages from early Greek literature (mostly Homer and the tragedians) in which laughter and tears occur together as manifestations of complex emotions. Halliwell focuses on divine laughter in Homer and Lucian. Disagreeing with Burkert's influential interpretation of Homer's laughter of the gods as a celebration of their trouble-free existence and expression of their superiority and invulnerability,1 he argues that divine laughter in Homer does not celebrate the gods' detachment from or belittlement of the human world. An examination of Homeric passages leads him to conclude that divine laughter is represented as not fully intelligible from the human perspective. In his discussion of Lucian's representation of laughing gods, Halliwell points out that Lucian juxtaposes divine laughter and human laughter at existential absurdity.

Moving on to Byzantine literature, Hinterberger's rich paper discusses connections between laughter, smiles, and tears on the one hand and the emotions causing them and expressed by them on the other. There is a lot of fascinating material here, as Hinterberger discusses various categories of tears (tears of sorrow, joy, beneficial and cleansing tears of contrition, tears driving away demons), the negative connotations of laughter, and its association with moral corruption (in a clear continuity with ancient attitudes towards laughter), and, interestingly, a smile as not so much a sign of emotions, but of their absence. Stenger in his captivating paper compares John Chrysostom's and Libanius' reactions to the same event, the riot of 387 in Antioch on the Orontes, revealing subtle differences between the sophist and the Christian preacher in their perusal of the motif of laughter and tears. Lamentation is the topic of two other stimulating papers: Papadogiannakis discusses the reaction to the fall of Jerusalem in 614 in the Capture of Jerusalem, in the context of the classical tradition of both urbs capta and city laments in Hebrew literature, while Harvey examines intense and graphic expressions of grief in biblical characters in early Byzantine hymns and liturgy, the emotionality of which remains in striking contrast to recurrent exhortations to constrain personal grief in the face of the death of one's loved ones. The papers by Papadogiannakis and Harvey tie in nicely with two papers in part V, one by Mullett, who discusses culturally acceptable contexts for male weeping (emperor's tears, ascetic tears of holy men, biblical models of male lament) and then focuses on grief and tears in Theophylact Hephaistos' poem after his brother's death; and the other by Angold, who examines four reactions to the fall of Constantinople in 1204 and its aftermath (by Nicetas Choniates, Michael Choniates, Euthymios Malakes, Euthymios Tornikes), pointing out the complexity of the emotions expressed by Byzantine authors (personal sorrow at the death of relatives, humiliation, realization of loss of status, grief over destruction of an ideal, etc.). Papers by Nilsson and Agapitos focus on Byzantine romances, with Nilsson discussing laughter and tears in the Komnenian novels and Agapitos addressing the phenomenon of "amorous discourse as lamentation" in the Palaiologan texts.

Apart from papers focusing on representations of tears and laughter in literature, the volume offers a handful of contributions dedicated to humour in literature. Among these are Maciver's paper, which focuses on Lucian's literary strategies aimed at producing humour in four texts: Charon, Icaromenippus, Nigrinus, and the True Histories; Herrin's paper on humour in sixth-century epigrams from the Palatine Anthology; Beta's contribution on the comic side of Byzantine enigmatic poetry and amusing riddles; and West's paper on the Philogelos. I found the last contribution particularly interesting: it discusses joke-collections in antiquity, going over types of jokes, and devoting considerable attention to the figure of the scholastikos, which West describes as "a caricature of the sage" (p. 116) and connects with the spread of the rhetorical form of higher education: the scholastikos is "the pepaideuomenos presented in an unfavorable light." Humour is also the theme of two papers examining objects in the visual arts: Boeck discusses eleventh-century frescoes in the Kievan church of St Sophia which depict imperial amusements – acrobatic and musical performances – and convey to the viewer a message about "the power of amusement and the amusement of power." Walker examines two art objects, the Veroli casket (tenth-eleventh century) and the San Marco Censer (twelfth century), and argues that both aim to amuse the viewer by employing gender-inversion as the comic strategy.

The papers examining the humorous and comic side of Greek literature are informative and cover a lot of interesting, sometimes little-studied material, though in some cases, I wished more thought had been put by authors into their word choices. For instance, Herrin alternates between epigrams that mention laughter and epigrams that are "laughter-provoking" or which "clearly anticipated" laughter (e.g., Herrin quotes an epigram that describes an adulterous couple that "were killed when the roof of the house fell in and now they are locked in an unceasing embrace," p. 84, as an example of a poem that "clearly anticipated" laughter); similarly, Beta talks about "laughter provoked by Byzantine riddles" (p. 102). Are we to imagine people actually laughing when reading these epigrams and riddles? I do not want to be excessively pedantic, but I found these expressions overly casual in a book focused on laughter specifically and acknowledging its diachronic instability. In fact, one theme I would love to have seen treated more extensively in the volume is the readability and recognizability of modes of playfulness in ancient and Byzantine texts. On p. 18, the editors refer to Webb's comment that mime fragments may not seem very funny to us, and ask "but can we trust contemporary reactions?" If we cannot, what intratextual and extratextual signals are we relying on when we decide that a text is humorous or playful?

The third broad category of papers deals with Greek reflections on laughter. Pizzone's thoughtful paper discusses Byzantine theoretical approaches to humour. She starts with pseudo-Hermogenes' characterization of the comic style, discusses scattered remarks in Gregory of Corinth and Tzetzes, and then focuses on Arethas' and Eustathius' treatments of laughter. She observes that the Byzantine authors work out "integrated theories of laughter," i.e., theories that combine rhetorical, psychological, and ethical aspects (in this respect, there is palpable continuity with ancient elaborations of laughter, in particular with the Aristotelian tradition). The evidence she discusses is interesting, both in its own right and as a comparandum to ancient theoretical reflections on laughter. Two related contributions, by Webb and Marciniak, tie in nicely with Pizzone's paper and discuss mimic performances in late antiquity and Byzantium, respectively. The authors point out both the appeal and popularity of mimes, and the accusations raised against this type of entertainment by preachers and intellectuals, and then discuss the rationale for late antique and Byzantine misgivings about laughter, in particular performative laughter.

Two papers move beyond ancient and medieval Greek culture: Holton focuses on Cretan dramatic literature from 1580 onwards, pointing out an interesting predilection of Cretan poets for blending the comic and the tragic and coupling laughter and tears, while Stavrakopoulou discusses the phenomenon of the Greek shadow theatre (popular from 1890-1970), focusing primarily on a humorous representation of the general Belisarius, who appears in the company of his wife Antonina, and the imperial couple Justinian and Theodora. The volume concludes with a summarizing afterword by Roderick Beaton and an appendix consisting of Alexiou's translation of the Greek tale Chyrogles, or The Girls with Two Husbands.

This rich and informative book is diverse yet interconnected and carefully thought through by the editors. It is an absorbing and stimulating read, revealing the complexity and polysemy of laughter and tears in antiquity and Byzantium and touching on a variety of fascinating subjects, such as the cultural continuities and discontinuities between antiquity and Byzantium, and between paganism and Christianity; the history of emotions and of their expression in literature; and the relationship between both representations of emotions, and gender and genres.

Authors and titles

1. Introduction, Margaret Alexiou and Douglas Cairns
Part I. Ancient Keynotes: From Homer to Lucian
2. Richard Seaford, Laughter and Tears in Early Greek Literature
3. Stephen Halliwell, Imagining Divine Laughter in Homer and Lucian
4. Calum Maciver, Parody, Symbol and the Literary Past in Lucian
Part II. Ancient Models, Byzantine Collections: Epigrams, Riddles and Jokes
5. Judith Herrin, 'Tantalus Ever in Tears': The Greek Anthology as a Source of Emotions in Late Antiquity
6. Simone Beta, 'Do you think you're clever? Solve this riddle, then!' The Comic Side of Byzantine Enigmatic Poetry
7. Stephanie West, Philogelos: An Anti-Intellectual Joke-book
Part III. Byzantine Perspectives: Tears and Laughter, Theory and Praxis
8. Martin Hinterberger, 'Messages of the Soul': Tears, Smiles, Laughter and Emotions Expressed by Them in Byzantine Literature
9. Aglae Pizzone, Towards a Byzantine Theory of the Comic?
10. Jan R. Stenger, Staging Laughter and Tears: Libanius, Chrysostom and the Riot of the Statues
11. Ioannis Papadogiannakis, Lamenting for the Fall of Jerusalem in the Seventh Century CE
12. Susan Harvey, Guiding Grief: Liturgical Poetry and Ritual Lamentation in Early Byzantium
Part IV. Laughter, Power and Subversion
13. Ruth Webb, Mime and the Dangers of Laughter in Late Antiquity,
14. Przemysław Marciniak, Laughter on Display – Mimic Performances and the Danger of Laughing in Byzantium
15. Elena Boeck, The Power of Amusement and the Amusement of Power: The Princely Frescoes of St. Sophia, Kiev, and Their Connections to the Byzantine World
16. Alicia Walker, Laughing at Eros and Aphrodite: Sexual Inversion and Its Resolution in the Classicising Arts of Medieval Byzantium
Part V. Gender, Genre and Language: Loss and Survival
17. Ingela Nilsson, Comforting Tears and Suggestive Smiles: To Laugh and Cry in the Komnenian Novel
18. Margaret Mullett, Do Brothers Weep? Male Grief, Mourning, Lament and Tears in Eleventh- and Twelfth-Century Byzantium
19. Michael Angold, Laments by Nicetas Choniates and Others for the Fall of Constantinople in 1204
20. Panagiotis Agapitos, 'Words Filled With Tears': Amorous Discourse as Lamentation in the Palaiologan Romances
21. David Holton, The Tragic, the Comic and Tragi-Comic in Cretan Renaissance Literature
22. Anna Stavrakopoulou, Belisarius in the Shadow Theatre: The Private Calvary of a Legendary General
23. Afterword, Roderick Beaton
Appendix: Chyrogles or The Girl with Two Husbands


1.   W. Burkert, 'Das Lied von Ares und Aphrodite,' RhM 103 (1960) 130–144.

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