Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Sather Classical Lectures)

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up (Sather Classical Lectures)

Mary Beard

Language: English

Pages: 336

ISBN: 0520287584

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub


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 Rome explores 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?

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of the Spartan past. 90. Cordero 2000, 228, reviews the possibilities. They suggest that the tradition may go back to the third century, but “rien ne le prouve.” 91. Plutarch, Lyc. 25, cites the Hellenistic historian Sosibios (Jacoby, FGrHist 595F19). 92. Chesterfield 1774, vol. 1, 262–63 (letter of 3 April 1747). 93. Cicero, De or. 2.217, sums it up; Plautus, Pers. 392–95, is a comic version of the hierarchy. 94. Plutarch, Mor. 854c = Comp. Ar. & Men. 4. The cultural complexity is nicely

Mason 1999a, 103–4. 104. The usual modern assumption is that the lost work of Lucius of Patrai is the earliest, but there has been endless learned conjecture (and plenty of false certainty) about the precise relationships of the various versions (summed up well by Mason 1999b), in particular which sections of Apuleius’ novel were his own invention and which derived from Lucius of Patrai. The wildly different conclusions on the extent of Apuleian originality reached (on the basis of minute

barbarians” with that of the Alexandrians. These barbarians, he claims, induce in themselves apparently drunken laughter by inhaling the fumes of incense (another candidate for an ancient reference to cannabis); the Alexandrians, by contrast, reach that state without chemical assistance, just by frivolous banter and joking, “through ears and voice,” as Dio puts it. And, he berates them, “you play the fool even worse than the barbarians do, and you stagger around, as if you’d been hitting the

celebrations has much in common with Bakhtin’s account of laughter in Rabelais and His World—which has inspired, or under-pinned, many recent attempts to explore historical developments in (to translate Bakhtin literally) European “laughter culture.” In fact, after Aristotle and the three theories, Bakhtin represents the most recent shadow to hang heavily over modern discussions of laughter and its history. But unlike the theorists I considered in chapter 2, he was concerned not with the causes

himself the task of collecting and classifying what made people laugh. The jokes on scholastikoi might then have a more subtle and interesting part to play. It is worth remembering that in modern cultures, jokes about learning tend to come not from those who are unlearned but from countercultural subgroups among the learned (students and dissident radicals or off-duty, partying professors). Maybe it was similar in antiquity too. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that there would have been no

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