Jokes for the Ages

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before. Writing about Plautus, the 200 BC Roman creator of the most extensive extant collection of early Latin comedies, the classicist Gilbert Norwood chalked up a good bit of the author’s subsequent renown to the fact that he was a rare comic bird in a culture that put its stock in the battlefield and the courtroom and in “giving off gravitas.” “People . . . beam delightedly whenever Plautus is mentioned, simply because, in an age otherwise unfamiliar to us, he writes of things familiar to us indeed. ‘Fancy a man in a toga talking about bacon! How thrillingly laughable!’”

Familiar or not (and that toga-bacon combo actually does sound kind of funny), Roman humor can still, surprisingly, get a laugh. As classicist Mary Beard notes in Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, many of the 265 entries that make up the ancient collection Philogelos (“laughter lover”) sound like what jokes today sound like (“Did you hear the one about the barber, the bald guy, and the scholastikos?”). That’s especially true (with apologies to Lenny Bruce) if you don’t count the crucifixion jokes. Philogelos is only one of the many domains of the Roman culture of laughing that Beard examines in her book, which is based on the Sather Lectures she delivered in 2008 at the University of California, Berkeley (where Norwood, as it happens, was the Sather Professor of Classical Literature more than sixty years earlier). Hers is a moving target, which she analyzes according to both structural and social roles, swiftly moving among topics such as the power of oratorical derision as political speech and the phenomenon of the parasites, who might peddle bad jokes in exchange for a place at the banquet table. The book is an examination of what made Romans laugh and how and where laughter infiltrated the lives of everyone from slaves to emperors, some of whom tried to police humor in extreme ways. Caligula, for one, banned laughter following the death of his sister. Elagabalus was said to get his friends drunk at the table, then to lock them up as a prank in rooms with lions and bears. Funny guy—though he was purportedly murdered himself by scurrae, the semiprofessional ne’er-do-wells whose buffoonery was a feature of Roman society across centuries.

We recognize ourselves in an anecdote that Beard uses to open her book. In his eighty-volume history of Rome, Cassius Dio recalls attending a fourteen-day spectacle in which the emperor Commodus performed various Herculean feats (fake gladiator triumphs, slaying animals that were tied in place, etc.) for a packed house. At one point Commodus turned on the senators in the front row in a way “which gave us good reason to think that we were about to die. That is to say, he killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head in his left hand and in his right the bloody sword. He said absolutely nothing, but with a grin he shook his own head, making it clear that he would do the same to us.” Dio nearly cracked up—which would have been suicidal. So instead he grabbed a handful of bay leaves from his garland and shoved them in his mouth, chewing them to hide the fact that he was laughing.

In the anecdote, Dio seems one of us—perhaps too much so, a problem with which the historian of laughter must grapple. Much as Beard notes similarities between ancient humor and our own, she remains aware of the deep and perhaps unbridgeable cultural differences. “By and large, classicists have erred on the side of familiarity,” she writes, “wanting so far as possible to join in the laughter of the Greeks and Romans, and they have often worked very hard to find and explain the funny points in ancient comedy and the quips, jokes, and other kinds of repartee signaled in Roman literature.” Beard immediately points out why a history of laughter is an impossible task—the fact that so much of our evidence is textual rather than visual, that it is so widely restricted to elite culture, and that it is made problematic by the bilingual nature of the literary culture of Rome from the second century BC forward. Of particular interest to her is that so much of what makes us “get” Roman laughter boils down to the reconstructive genius of the translator of Latin and Greek texts (it’s often unclear whether we’re reading an example of what might have made a Roman laugh or a modern version that in her words “rescue[s] the jokes for us”). The fastest alibi when faced with the obscurity of any classical text is to blame the copyist, as Samuel Johnson did when he found Roman jokes unamusing, but Beard is at pains to show how deep the ambiguity runs in any cultural history or translation.

Rembrandt’s 1663 self-portrait as Zeuxis, the mythological painter who laughed himself to death.

Take the Latin language—please! One challenge to understanding Roman laughter lies in the relative paucity in Latin of verbs that denote laughing. Beard points this out not to advance a Whorfian words-for-snow consideration of the place of laughter in Latin literature but to undermine any simple account of what made Romans laugh—and whether they sniggered or rolled on the floor. Ridere and a few verbal compounds (e.g., deridere), as well as adverbial and nominal compounds (risus, ridiculus), do a lot of labor in classical texts, in contrast to the variety of Greek verbs that might distinguish a giggle from a guffaw. (On the other hand, the category of terms for jokes and witticisms—iocus, lepos, urbanitas, facetia—is robust, much more so than comparable Greek designations.) She is fascinating in making her case that the physical distinction between smiling and laughing is absent from Roman literary culture, and she uses this observation to argue that smiling did not play a considerable role in Roman social semiotics. (If they do anything, her Latin literary figures beam, with their whole face, rather than curl the corners of their lips upward in a smile.)

Happily, for Beard, the Romans were no less curious about laughter than our own gelasticians Freud, Bergson, and Zizek. Pliny believed that tickling and laughter proved that the diaphragm extended all the way to the armpit (which explained why tickling was so effective in that region of the body) and that babies didn’t laugh until they were forty days old. When not writing about the physiology of laughter, classical naturalists contemplated its uniqueness as a human reaction. One sixth-century Latin commentary on Aristotle maintained that the philosopher believed the only species capable of laughter other than the human being was the heron (an interesting exception in a culture that often put other apparently laughing animals, like the hee-hawing donkey, in key comic documents such as The Golden Ass).

For all the mirth, laughter harbored a form of violence from which nobody was immune—philosophers, emperors, average citizens. (In some cases, the violence was self-inflicted: Consider the artist Zeuxis, who, in the Roman mythographer’s retelling, thought his painting of an old crone so funny that he laughed himself to death.) But what makes this particularly Roman? Beard thinks that mimesis, so important to the Roman theorists of laughter, may have had something to do with it. Zeuxis was renowned for his likenesses, his paintings of grapes able to fool real birds. Mimesis shows up again and again in other realms of Roman comedy as well. Few performing traditions, for example, lasted longer in Roman popular culture than did the mime, that figure of comedy who turned to the “bawdy imitation of lewd words and deeds” (Diomedes Grammaticus) to make “the mournful lives of men to mix with laughter” (Philistion). Beard reminds us how sparse our knowledge of mimes truly is. Still, it seems doubtless that their role in Roman ideas about humor was major, and that their techniques in some broad way involved mimicry—a common caricatural trait that the physician Galen identified as what made monkeys and apes so intrinsically hilarious. “We laugh particularly,” he wrote, “at those imitations that preserve an accurate likeness in most of their parts but are completely wrong in the most important ones.”

The tension between high and low in Roman humor was of great interest to those who wrote about Roman oratory. Witticisms, double entendres, barbed forms of ridicule, particularly from the lips of a gifted speaker: All these had a special place in the legal and political chambers of the Roman state. Yet ridicule was a double-edged sword, a tool no less dangerous for the orator who delivered it than for the target of the humor. Beard writes, “The two senses of ridiculus (‘he makes us laugh’ versus ‘the one we laugh at’) were always perilously close. You had to be careful in playing for laughs.” Careful in particular because playing for laughs brought the orator into proximity with a host of other less salubrious associations. It could confuse the authentic with the merely scurrilous—which seemed more proper to an actor or entertainer than to a public figure.

Beard herself is never less than entertaining in bringing this aspect of Roman life to the fore. Roman culture was one of the earliest—if not the first— to turn the joke into a commodity that we recognize in some sense as the progenitor of our modern form. One joke she relates from Macrobius’s Saturnalia tells of an emperor who encounters his double. “Did your mother work in the palace?” the ruler asks him. The young man replies: “No, but my father did.” Recycled by Freud, retold by Iris Murdoch, the joke may not exactly be what Jerry Lewis called riotous, but you have to admit it has legs.

Eric Banks, the former editor in chief of Bookforum, is the director of the New York Institute for the Humanities.