August 2014

Will George


An Interview with Mary Beard

"What have the Romans ever done for us?" John Cleese grouches in Monty Python's Life of Brian. To be fair, didn't they give us the aqueduct? Roads? Modern sanitation? Medicine? "Alright, but apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health..."

Apart from that, the Romans may have invented the modern joke, Mary Beard startlingly suggests in Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up. That would be a double surprise. Not only is it more natural to think of joking as the result of evolution rather than invention, surely jokes must be as old as language -- and even older, if you count sight gags. Is inventing the modern joke something the Romans could ever have done for us?

Still more surprisingly, Laughter in Ancient Rome says that the Romans didn't smile, and their laughter, to judge by surviving sources, may not have principally expressed mirth. So what cracked the Romans up? What ulterior motives did laughing serve?

Mary Beard is professor of classics at Cambridge University, recipient of the OBE, and a columnist for The Times (London). Via email Beard graciously answered my questions about her engaging and provocative exploration of ancient laughter.

What first attracted you to Roman laughter? Did some particular text lead you to the subject?

The book originated in a series of lectures I gave in Berkeley in 2004. I was spending three months at the Getty Research Institute (a great place), and I sat by the pool and thought, "I want to do something different from before; something fun." I had just examined Roman militarism in my book The Roman Triumph. The irony is that laughter is probably as nasty as the stuff in the Triumph book, which is about power and control.

Apart from acts of tickling, the main cases of Roman laughter discussed in the book are the laughter of derision (an expression of mockery not connected with mirth), sycophantic or insincere laughter, laughter at the unwitting humor of animals (especially monkeys' mimicry of humans), and laughter attached to deliberate humor (verbal, physical, and situational). But there isn't much discussion of the laughter of embarrassment (at the breach of some taboo, for example). Did the Romans recognizably laugh out of embarrassment as we do?

It depends what you mean by "embarrassment." The example I start the book with could be seen as embarrassment. Sitting in the amphitheatre, the historian Cassius Dio laughs at the emperor Commodus, who has just beheaded an ostrich and is waving it at the senators on the front row. (Here Dio stifles a laugh in his sleeve.) It's very hard to know whether this reaction counts as embarrassment. There is of course a black hole here -- how far we can recognize embarrassment 2,000 years ago.

The Romans never smiled -- or at least, they smile much, much less than we do, the book surprisingly claims. This is partly a question of translation; Latin, I gather, has no word exactly corresponding to English "to smile," and where some translators take ridere to mean "to laugh or smile," you read it more strictly as "to laugh." Still, this isn't purely a verbal matter: you do say that smiling "did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures at Rome" and "smiling as we understand it was an invention of the Middle Ages." So as a rule, on those occasions where we would merely smile at a joke, would the Romans have laughed audibly or remained stony-faced? Or did they have some other way to express mild amusement?

This is a really tricky one. Our own "social signifiers" stress the smile (we smile in recognition, at feeble jokes). Roman texts simply do not allow us to see how the form of the mouth went. They must have "smiled" (so I think) in terms of curling the mouth or lips, but they don't write about it like that. So there we are, face to face with the problem! The issue is what Romans would have done when a joke was mildly amusing. We don't know -- but they didn't (or wouldn't or couldn't) have called it "smiling," with all its modern connotations. There really is no sign of the idea of the "smile" as we know it.

Diners at a Roman banquet might find themselves in company of a "parasite," a sycophantic scrounger who, in return for food, laughs at his patron's jokes, no matter how unfunny. How widespread was this practice of paying people for their laughter?

We are dealing here with the upper echelons of Roman society, as almost always in our study of antiquity. There we see "laughter" as a marker of power. I think we can't know how widespread the practice of laughing at a patron's "unfunny" jokes really was.

Is this a sign that the Romans placed an unusually high social value on laughter?

It is a very powerful image, and the anecdotes (in ancient sources) show how widespread was the idea that laughter conditions power.

Does the fact that laughter could be bought with table scraps suggest that the Romans didn't rate it so highly after all?

Of course, we do not know how the hierarchy of the dinner really worked. Modern dinners may not be so very different: are diners inevitably ranked, or are they equal by virtue of dining together?

The book emphasizes laughter's use as a "weapon" -- its role in various Roman power struggles (political, legal, domestic). Indeed the major sources, such as Cicero's On the Orator, aren't about laughter-raising for its own sake, but its tendentious use in legal and political rhetoric (in particular, to attack an opponent). But mightn't this emphasis on the "weaponized" use of laughter be biased by the existing contemporary discussions? Though not the main concern of the orator, surely most Roman laughter was indulged for its entertainment value and so forth. Wasn't its use as a "weapon" the exception rather than the rule?

That is the classic question about all Roman (or ancient) culture. It is, of course, true that the emphasis of our literary sources may be misleading and that "real people" may have laughed very differently. But there is something very odd about ignoring the material that we actually have in favor of speculation about what we don't. We cannot reach the laughter of the street. It would be great if we could. It might have been very different. But what we do have -- elite as it might be -- can get us to rethink Roman laughter.

It's orthodoxy that Roman orators were aggressive with personal insults in public debate. Romans had a high tolerance for humorous ad hominem attacks. Was this practice just pure insult -- a free-form laughing-at, where the joke is a mere excuse to insult someone? Or was it closer to modern insult humor, where the insult is an excuse for telling a joke? The book gives the example of the Romans' love for baldness jokes. Did Romans find baldness an intrinsically amusing subject or just an insulting one?

The Romans certainly thought that baldness was good for a laugh. Witness the jibe about Julius Caesar said to have been chanted at his triumphal procession: "Romans, lock up your wives. The bald adulterer is coming back home." The real difficulty is how nasty all this was. Some ancient writers said that it was okay to joke about baldness but not about blindness. But how accepted was that? And the bigger question is how far this is all nasty insult, or friendly banter? My hunch is that most of it was basically "friendly." But it is very hard to know.

A major figure in Roman laughter is the popular wag known as the scurra. Scurra is not a job title but a disparaging term for an irreverent, lowbrow sort of joker (perhaps similar to "smart-ass"). His material is abysmal: vulgar stock jokes and animal impressions. (Phaedrus's Fables mentions a scurra imitating a pig.) Nonetheless, scurrae persist in Roman culture for hundreds of years.

The scurra can't straightforwardly be compared to the modern professional comedian. Like the modern stand-up, ordinary people must have come to rely on the scurra for amusement. And like the standup, the scurra has a definite "act" (that repertoire of hoary gags and animal impressions).

There is a similarity between the scurra and the stand-up. But the scurra isn't simply the same as the professional comedian. The importance of the scurra is that he (and it is he, always) represents an unofficial, unapproved form of joking. I don't see that we have anything quite so definite today. And I am not so sure that we have such a clear divide between authorized and unauthorized forms of joking.

But did the scurra fulfil a corresponding social function in ancient Rome?

The scurra does get to the soft, vulnerable bits of Roman culture, and he is an essential presence on the Roman cultural scene.

Cicero's On the Orator "makes it absolutely clear that the most reliable way to raise a good laugh at Rome was not through clever puns, verbal quips, or the apposite quotation of a line of poetry. It was various forms of bodily disruption, including the mimicry distinctly associated with the scurra. So despite their shoddy acts, weren't the scurrae in better touch with most Romans' senses of humor than Cicero or Quintilian were? Simply put, weren't the scurrae much funnier than the orators?

That's very hard to know. The point seems to me that (as now) there was a complicated set of stories that set "good" joking apart from "bad" joking. But "bad" joking is always enticing. Blindness was not an approved topic for Roman laughter. But inevitably it was the subject of some of the "best" Roman jokes. Certainly the view of our literary texts would be that scurrae raised a laugh (naughtily) better than others.

An issue in the philosophy of laughter involves the semantic and epistemic statuses of explanations of laughter -- answers to instances of the question, "What are you laughing at?" Laughter in Ancient Rome takes the controversial view that there's usually "no definitive, right answer," as though there's often no fact of the matter as to the object(s) of mirth: any answer given is rarely an independent or objective explanation..." But the practice of laughter-raising seems to contradict this. In stand-up, the precise moment of an audience's reaction often reveals just what they're laughing at (a face-pull or a witticism in the punchline, let's say). Comedians and their writers improve over time because they come to know increasingly well what their audiences laugh at. It's true that our knowledge of what people laugh at is often tacit --  it won't always be precisely expressible -- but that doesn't mean that there's no right answer here.

I like your point. But I still think that even in modern stand-up we really don't know why we are laughing. I suspect that any "answer" to that question is always narrowing. Of course, we would put a great stress on "timing," but that is exactly what we can't reconstruct (in the study of Roman laughter). And I want to stick to cases where we know people laughed, not just assume they did. Happily we have loads of surviving written material to help us.

Did the Romans invent the modern joke? The book comes tantalizingly close to answering yes. There's a fascinating discussion of the Philogelos, the only surviving Roman joke collection, which contains such gems as:

GARRULOUS BARBER: How would you like your hair cut?
CUSTOMER: In silence.

Though in the end you back away from the claim that the Romans invented the joke, what's the strongest similar claim you could confidently assert? Is it that they helped to popularize or regiment what we now recognize as joke structure (set-up and punch line), or...?

I really would like to argue that we are the direct inheritors of the "Roman joke." It seems that there is a direct link between classical and modern joking. And I don't think that this goes back to human universals, but rather to cultural tradition. But that's hard to prove -- and that's the problem.

I like the citation of the barber joke, which was repeated by Enoch Powell (1912-98, controversial UK politician). Here we have a real and obvious inheritance from the classical world, but no one has ever quite recognized this.

Will George tweets @HumorParasite.