Book review: Laughter in Ancient Rome - Mary Beard

Mary Beard attends the Oldie of the Year awards. Picture: Getty
Mary Beard attends the Oldie of the Year awards. Picture: Getty
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ARISTOTLE thought laughter was a defining characteristic of being human, although a later commentator, known only as David, erroneously added in a study of Porphyry’s Isagoge that he also considered herons capable of a chuckle.

Laughter In Ancient Rome

Mary Beard

Harvard University Press, £19.95

Such shafts of the surreal combined with academic precision are typical of Mary Beard’s compelling and intriguing study of Roman laughter. Her central question is simple: what made the Romans laugh? Her answers are pleasingly complex.

Laughter is a paradox. It can be stimulated purely physically – tickling – or by the brain alone with jokes, witticisms or even anxiety. It is a weapon of tyrants. Beard provides examples of Caligula’s cackles and Commodus manically sniggering as he beheads an ostrich in front of the senators. It is a form of resistance. The senators threatened by Commodus chewed laurel leaves from their wreaths to stifle giggles, and Ovid wryly deployed it against Augustus’s moral “back to basics”. It was a way to win law cases, as Cicero showed, or to secure a night’s dinner, as a professional “parasite”, the witty sponger at a Roman dinner, proved. It is, as Beard rightly observes, always in more than just dialogue: the joker, the laugher and the butt of the joke.

We know the Romans laughed. In Plautus’s The Eunuch, one line of dialogue reads “hahahae”. But why did they laugh? Beard is excellent on the ambiguities in this scene. Is the professional flatterer Gnatho actually finding Thraso’s joke funny? Or does the real humour lie in Gnatho pretending to find the bombastic Thraso’s joke amusing? The joke is older than the play. Is it recognition of an old favourite, a cracker-groan joke done well (a Ronnie Barker gag?), or recognition of someone so unfunny (a be-toga-ed David Brent?) they lack insight into how gauche they are?

Any such study will be a pendulum between the universal and the specific. There are things that we might 
think we laugh at the same way a Roman would. For example, there’s a great one in the Philogelos, an extant but problematic Roman joke book written in Greek: “a scholastikos” – Beard translates as “egghead”, which does fairly well in context – has a country estate but wishes it were nearer town, so he takes away seven of the milestones along the route. But then there are other examples: “Did you hear the one about the man from Abdera who saw a runner being crucified? He said: ‘He’s not running any more but flying’”. Beard admits a degree of discomfort at this. I am not so sure it is so distant from my playground memories of being approached by another boy (it was usually the boys) who would say, have you heard the Lockerbie or Challenger joke? It still goes on: one visceral reaction to horror is to make light of it. It may be in poor taste – but jokes exist on a filigree line when it comes to taste.

Laughter has a linguistic component. Beard not only discusses the strange fact that Greek has many words for laughter and few for jokes, and Latin vice-versa, but offers an expert translator’s guide to how our translations have often reflected our own theories of laughter rather than those of the past. If I said the difference between today and the 1970s was all about “now then, now then”, there’s little chance the reference would be caught two millennia later.

Although she deals with the fascinating case of the scurra, the disreputable joker (our word scurrilous comes from this), even more astonishing is the manner in which Prudentius gives St Laurence a speech identifying himself as scurra in the trial prior to his martyrdom. An awkward truth-teller? Frankie Boyle’s latest volume of memoirs is entitled Scotland’s Jesus.

In that light, it seems a missed opportunity not to discuss laughter in those other 1st century AD texts, the Gospels. Jesus, famously, never laughs, but is laughed at; that said, there are many “jokes” in the Bible, both from Jesus – the disciples are famously slow on the uptake – and from, notably, the Roman Pilate. When Pilate crucifies Jesus with the conviction “King of the Jews”, he does both what the Sanhedrin wanted (execution) and what they wanted most to avoid (a kind of coronation: Pilate doesn’t say “who called himself…” or “Traitor”).

Beard is always enlightening, and writes with a perfect balance of forensic detail and wide-ranging intellect. ­
No-one else could observe that one of Enoch Powell’s most famous 
slapdowns (“How would you like your hair cut?” “In silence”) is derived from Plutarch – or that part of the laughter for him may have been in the sense of intellectual superiority. Beard, by contrast, is a model of graciousness and enthusiasm.