Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

Explaining jokes is a sure way to remove any comedy from them.  Luckily this book is quite a serious take on Roman attitudes to humour.  Beard discusses what the Romans found funny and why, how we can identify humour in ancient sources, and what this tells us about their culture.

She admits that attempts to construct a general theory of laughter are always flawed, so there is no attempt to make one here, but there is a review of previous explanations from the time of the Romans onwards.  The humour has the same range that we might find nowadays, from the practical jokes of cruel emperors, witty one-upmanship between rivals, to reference humour and puns in the theatre.  They find bald people and monkeys hilarious, and there’s endless jokes about absent minded academics and regions of the empire.

The humour can sometimes be hard to identify, if we know there’s a joke we may find ourselves searching in vain for puns, when the comedy may be based on elements of social or political culture that simply haven’t passed down to us.  Or, of course, the joke may just be a poor one.  It’s almost impossible to tell the delivery of the jokes. Finally, casual jokes on topics like slavery or crucifixion in particular stand out as somewhat (but not entirely) alien.

Some jokes, however, don’t go out of fashion. The joke below has been recycled from the time of Augustus to Sigmund Freud and Iris Murdoch.

There came to Rome a man who looked very like the emperor.  Augustus ordered the man to be brought to him, and asked “Tell me, young man, was your mother ever at Rome?”  “No,” he said.  He then added “But my father was, often”.

Roman humour, as with so much of the culture, has been developed over the centuries into our own modern day socieities, so it’s so surprise if some of it still seems like one we’ve heard before.  This book provides some food for thought on how we can relate to ancient societies, and is probably as much of interest to fans of anthropology or psychology as fans of classical history.

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