Last night I went to hear Prof. Mary Beard–esteemed Cambridge don, TV presenter and keen blogger–deliver a lecture at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on the topic of laughter in ancient Rome, which is also the subject of Beard’s latest book: Laughter in Ancient Rome. On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up.
The lecture, as we’d expect, was brilliant. Mary exhibited a masterful, and often playful, combination of overwhelming intelligence and an endearing ability to deal with complex ideas in an accessible way, without coming across as at all patronising. (As a non-Classicist, I followed the whole thing and didn’t feel inadequate at any point.) The talk essentially asked: what did Romans laugh at? when did they laugh? and what does this tell us about society, politics, and power relations in ancient Rome?
For instance, let us consider–as we did with Mary–the story related by the Roman historian and politician Cassius Dio in his enormous eighty-volume history of Rome from the the 3rd century CE. The story takes us back to the Colosseum in the year 192 CE. Dio is sat in the front row (where the important people sat, with women and slaves packed in at the back, 100ft above the Colosseum’s arena floor) watching (squinting if you’re a woman or slave) the emperor Commodus parading himself about in an elaborate display of Imperial might that dragged on for 14 whole days; on one day, Commodus slew 100 bears, on another he participated in scripted gladiatorial combat, etc. Word had got out before this spectacle that Commodus had intended to masquerade as Hercules (as he was apparently prone to doing–see the above bust of Commodus-as-Hercules from the Capitoline museum) and fire deadly arrows into the assembled crowd, and this provides the backdrop to the episode that caused Dio’s laughter. In Dio’s words:
[The emperor] killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head… and 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. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot by the sword for laughing at [the emperor]… if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others [to do the same]… so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.
So it’s basically an ancient instance of biting your lip. And it’s interestIng, as Mary explained, because it gives us a sense that we are experiencing Roman life, and laughter, at first hand, and it provokes the modern scholar to address what it is in this episode that Dio found funny, what the episode tells us about the relationships between emperor and his subjects in ancient Rome, and gets us to think about the social function of laughter: Is Dio’s laughter an act of insubordination, a mocking of, via the medium of laughter, the pumped-up pretensions of the emperor; or is it (what we’d call these days) nervous laughter? And, for that matter, what kinds of problems, methodological and empirical, does such a question pose for the modern historian?
All this was dead interesting. But what struck me was the resonance that all this has with my own work on Pieter Bruegel. I was lucky enough to get to chat to Mary afterwards, and I mentioned how her interest in laughter in the ancient world mirrored by interest in laughter in the 16th century in the Netherlands, and, in particular, the question of whether people laughed at Bruegel’s pictures of peasants or not, which, as I’ve said before, has been the subject of great controversy since the 1970s. Did people really laugh at Bruegel’s representations of the rural poor? And was this laughter, if there ever was any, condescending? Or was it democratising–a Rebelaisian carnivalesque form of laughter that acts a social leveller (according to Bakhtin’s classic study)? And, what’s more, what evidence is there that can support our view either way? Can we ever really know what people laughed at in their lounges and dining rooms in the 1550s and ’60s (just like can we ever know what Dio found funny sitting in front of an ostrich-head-wielding Commodus in the Colosseum in 192?)?
This is where the (not) Laughing Cavalier comes in. We all know Frans Hals’s picture of a Cavalier because the sitter is laughing; its fame rests, by and large, on the fact that the sitter is a jolly chap, enjoying a giggle at this or that. But, as Mary pointed out (and perhaps this is in the literature on Hals already, but I am no expert), the portrait of the cavalier only earned its title of “Laughing Cavalier” about a century ago. Before then, the picture was notable (if written descriptions of it are anything to go by) because of the curly moustache that the sitter is sporting. In other words, modern sensibilities find that the portrait shows a laughing man, whereas this was lost on, or else wasn’t considered to be the most striking aspect of the picture for, earlier viewers. This was one of Mary’s chief points. That although the sound of laughter, and for that matter the rendering of that sound in print–“hahahae” in Terence’s 161 BCE Eunuch–is remarkably universal, what rouses that laughter is not universal, and has changed over the course of history as sensibilities and cultural conventions likewise adapt.
This is all germane to my work and is certainly food for thought. Can we ever reconstruct what Bruegel’s audience found funny? Did people really laugh at peasants? Peasants in art, for that matter? On the face of it Bruegel’s Peasant Wedding Feast isn’t funny, but is this a bit like Hals’s Cavalier, which is to say that do we struggle to see what was funny in Bruegel’s picture because we are no longer socially predisposed to find the poor intrinsically funny? Is it the case that mockery of the poor is nowadays considered taboo, morally reprehensible, and that this is quite different to the situation in the 16th century, which scarcely batted an eyelid at serfdom?
Finally, in case you’re wondering, are Roman jokes from Antiquity funny? Did we indeed laugh along with Mary? Well, none of the jokes related by Mary in her lecture roused genuinely raucous laughter (indeed this was part of her point about the socio-historical contingency of laughter, and not a criticism) but one of them, which only came out during the brief Q&A at the end of the lecture, was a gem, and, what’s more, is a joke told by a woman (women otherwise frequently being the butt of jokes rather than the teller of jokes!). It’s preserved in Macrobius’s Saturnalia and the comic is Julia, daughter of the emperor Augustus, who was, on all accounts, infamously promiscuous. The joke goes:
When those who knew of [Julia’s] disgraceful behaviour were amazed how her sons looked like her husband Agrippa even though she gave her body to any Tom, Dick, or Harry to enjoy, she said, “I never take on a passenger unless the ship’s hold is full.”
Simply, hilarious. Surely as funny now as it must’ve been in Antiquity! As for why it’s funny? Perhaps Mary’s book sheds light . . .