COLOSSEUM, 192 CE
In 192 CE, a young Roman senator sitting in the front row of a show at the Colosseum in Rome could hardly restrain his laughter at what he saw. It was not a good moment to be caught laughing.
The emperor Commodus himself was hosting the spectacles, to a presumably packed crowd of some fifty thousand people—senators, as was the rule, in the ringside seats with the best view, while the women and slaves were squashed at the very back, high up and hardly able to see the bloody conflicts playing out more than a hundred feet beneath them in the arena. It could be that, for this particular show, some people had decided to stay away, for the story had got around that the emperor—the star of the spectacle, as well as its host—was intending to dress up as Hercules and fire deadly arrows into the audience. Perhaps this was one of those occasions when it was safer to be a slave (or female) and in the back row.1
Rich and poor, scared and fearless, the audience needed stamina. The proceedings went on all day for fourteen days. The seats were hard, and those with money and sense must have brought cushions, drinks, and picnics. Everyone knew that applause for the emperor’s antics—as gladiator, wild-beast hunter, and god look-alike—was required. On the first day, he killed a hundred bears, “hurling spears at them from the balustrade around the arena” (“a display of marksmanship rather than of courage,” as one eyewitness tartly observed).2 On other days, his animal victims were brought to him on the floor of the arena but safely restrained in nets, and after lunch he would follow up these beast hunts with some mocked-up gladiatorial combat (at which he was of course always victorious) before the regular fighters came out to please the crowd.
It was during these shows, which took place just a couple of months before Commodus’ assassination on 31 December 192, that our senator nearly burst into laughter but managed to disguise the telltale signs of mirth on his face by plucking some laurel leaves from the wreath he was wearing and chewing on them hard. Or that is what he tells us in his own account.3
The senator in question was the historian Cassius Dio, whose family—originally from Bithynia, in modern Turkey—had been active in imperial Roman politics for generations.4 Dio himself became a leading player in the political life of the early third century CE: he was consul for the first time in around 205, during the reign of the emperor Septimius Severus, and again in 229, as the colleague of the emperor Severus Alexander; among other appointments, he served as governor of the provinces of Africa, Dalmatia, and Pannonia. But he is now better known as the author of an eighty-volume history of Rome, written in Greek, covering the period from the mythical arrival of Aeneas in Italy up till his own day, well over a millennium later, in the third century CE—and it is in one of the later books of this history that we learn of the stifled laugh. As Dio himself explains, the whole project took him more than twenty years, starting in the late 190s, first to research and then to write. Almost a third survives in its original form; for much of the rest (including the events of 192), we depend on more or less accurate medieval summaries of, or excerpts from, Dio’s text.5
The particular prompt for Dio’s half-stifled laughter was one memorable moment of imperial histrionics. After noting the emperor’s threats of Herculean violence against the audience in general, Dio’s account turns to Commodus’ assault on the senators in their—dangerously exposed—seats at the front:
He did something else along the same lines to us senators, which gave us good reason to think that we were about to die. That is to say, he killed an ostrich, cut off its head, and came over to where we were sitting, holding up the head in his left hand and in his right 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 him (for it was laughter rather than distress that took hold of us) if I had not myself taken some laurel leaves from my garland and chewed on them, and persuaded the others sitting near me to chew on them too—so that, by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.6
This glimpse of life in the dangerous front line of Roman imperial politics is one of the rare occasions where, across almost two thousand years, Roman laughter seems to come truly alive. We recognize the sensation that Dio describes; we can almost feel what he must have felt. In fact, his short account of how he desperately tried to conceal his laughter is bound to resonate with anyone who has ever bitten their lip, their chewing gum, or their eraser to prevent some dangerous or embarrassing hilarity from erupting in an entirely inappropriate setting, to disguise or contain the telltale quivers of face and mouth. Replace the laurel leaves with candy, and it is one of those moments when the Romans seem just like us.
Some might now say that Dio was in danger of “getting the giggles” or “corpsing,” which is how we often envisage that struggle between, on the one hand, discretion, obedience, or politeness and, on the other, the laughter that stubbornly refuses to be put down. But there are in Dio’s language none of the gendered associations that come with the English word giggle—the sound, as Angela Carter memorably put it, that “expresses the innocent glee with which women humiliate men in the only way available to them.”7 Nor does Dio use the Greek word kichlizein, often translated as “giggle” and with its own significantly eroticized implications; indeed, on one occasion, it is explicitly defined as “the laughter of prostitutes.”8 What Dio was trying to keep to himself was gelōs or gelan, the standard Greek word, from Homer to late Roman antiquity and beyond, for “laughter” or “to laugh” (and the root of some of the modern technical terminology of laughter—the adjective gelastic and the noun agelast, “nonlaugher”—which, I am afraid, will inevitably crop up in the chapters that follow).9
There is, of course, something curiously gratifying about a story that casts the excesses of Roman imperial power as the object of laughter. Dio’s account of Commodus’ threats in the amphitheater—both menacing and ridiculous as they were—suggests that laughter could be one of the weapons of those opposed to Roman autocracy and the abuse of power: one response by the disaffected was violence, conspiracy, or rebellion; another was to refuse to take it seriously.
This is not the only occasion in Dio’s History when laughter plays a role in the clash between Roman power and its subjects. There is another, even less well-known story in his account of Rome’s expansion at the beginning of the third century BCE, almost five hundred years earlier—which brought the Romans into conflict with the Greek town of Tarentum in South Italy. At the start of hostilities, the Romans dispatched envoys to Tarentum, dressed in their formal togas, intending to use this costume to impress their adversaries. When they arrived, according to Dio at least (there are other versions), the Tarentines laughed at the Romans’ dress, and one man managed to shit all over the clean Roman clothes of the chief envoy, Lucius Postumius Megellus. This went down well with the locals but provoked a predictable response from Postumius: “‘Laugh,’ he said, ‘laugh while you still can! For you will be crying for a very long time, when you wash these clothes clean with your blood.’” The threat, of course, came true; Roman victory meant that the Tarentines did shortly pay with their blood.10
What made the Tarentines laugh? In part, maybe, it was a laugh of derision or scorn (that certainly is how, in Dio’s account, Postumius took it when his toga was aggressively fouled). But Dio implies that the sheer silliness of the formal Roman dress was also a factor in causing the Tarentines to crack up. In other words, this combination of laughter, power, and menace matches the much later story from the Colosseum. Power is met, and spontaneously challenged, by laughter. In the case of Tarentum there is an added extra: a clear hint that the cumbersome and hopelessly impractical Roman toga could look as funny to non-Romans in the ancient world as it now does, in the modern, to us.
Dio’s stifled laughter in the arena raises three important sets of questions, which this book will explore. First, what prompted the Romans to laugh? Or, to be realistic, what prompted urban elite male Romans to laugh? For we have almost no access to the laughter of the poor, of the peasants, of slaves, or of women—except in the descriptions that urban elite males give.11 In the ancient world, as often now, one way of marking difference among different social groups was to assert that they laughed differently, and at different things. Second, how did laughter operate in Roman elite culture, and what were its effects? What political, intellectual, or ideological jobs did it do? How was it controlled and policed? And what does that tell us about how Roman society worked more generally? Third, how far can we now understand or share the Roman culture of laughter? Were there some aspects of it in which the Romans really were “just like us”? Or will modern historians of Roman laughter always resemble anxious guests at a foreign party—joining in with the hearty chuckling when it seems the polite thing to do but never quite sure that they have really got the joke?
These are big questions, which I hope will open up new perspectives on the social and cultural life of ancient Rome, as well as contribute some classical insights to the cross-cultural history of human laughter—and I mean primarily laughter, not humor, wit, emotion, satire, epigram, or comedy, even though all those related subjects will make occasional appearances in what follows. A second look at Dio’s description of the scene in the Colosseum reveals just how complicated, intriguing, and (sometimes unexpectedly) revealing those questions can be. Simple as it may seem at first sight, there is more to the narrative of Dio’s laugh than a straightforward, first-person account of a young man resourceful enough, in the deadly power politics of second-century Rome, to suppress his laughter, and so save his skin, just by chewing on some laurel leaves. For a start, in Dio’s account the strategy adopted is definitely chewing, not—as would be more familiar to us—biting. Of course, it is tempting to tell the story as if it exactly matched the modern cliché of the desperate laugher who crunches on some convenient implement to repress his laughter (“Dio recorded how he had kept himself from laughing . . . by chewing desperately on a laurel leaf,” as one modern historian summarized the event12). But Dio makes clear that he was not actually preventing himself from laughing but rather exploiting the movement of his jaws on the leaves as a clever disguise—an alibi, even—for the movement that his laughter produced.
WHY DID DIO LAUGH?
One tricky issue is how power operated on different sides of this laugh. The idea that Dio’s half-concealed outburst amounted to an act of subversion or resistance to Commodus’ tyranny is, of course, one compelling way of seeing it. And that would fit with the views of many modern theorists and critics who characterize laughter as an “unruly force” and “a site of popular resistance to totalitarianism.”13 In these terms, Dio’s laugh was a spontaneous and powerful weapon in the standoff between a vicious autocrat and an apparently supine Senate: not only because it was an expression of senatorial opposition but also because it acted more positively, to make Commodus seem ridiculous, to cut him down to size. As in the story of the Tarentines, it is impossible to exclude the element of derision: a person who prompts us to laugh is, by definition, laughable (orlaugh-able, a term whose ambiguities will be a recurrent theme in this book14).
But that is only part of the picture. For laughter, in its various guises, can be a weapon of the ruling power, as well as against it. And in this story the emperor himself was (as I have translated it) grinning, as he shook his own head while waving the ostrich’s at the frightened, bemused—or amused—senators. The word Dio uses is sesērōs (from the verb sesērenai), which means literally “parting the lips” (it is also used of “gaping” wounds) and can carry a friendly or more often, as presumably here, a threatening sense.15 No doubt the emperor’s gesture is to be distinguished from Dio’s simple “laugh” (which is what my translation aims to do, though possibly introducing misleading modern associations with the word grin). But this is nevertheless another of those words—of moving the lips and mouth—that make up the wide vocabulary of laughter and its cognates in ancient Greek.
Roman power relations of all kinds were displayed, negotiated, manipulated, or contested with a laugh. For every laugh in the face of autocracy, there was another laugh by the powerful at the expense of the weak—or even laughter imposed upon the weak by the strong. That, in a sense, is one message of the sneer of Postumius at the Tarentines (“Laugh, laugh . . .”), and it is more obviously the moral of a chilling anecdote about one of Commodus’ predecessors, the emperor Caligula: he had forced a man to watch the execution of his own son in the morning, then invited him to dinner in the afternoon—and forced him to laugh and joke.16 Laughter, in other words, flourished amid the inequalities of the Roman social and geopolitical order.17
Even trickier is the question of what exactly Dio was laughing at. Why did the display of the emperor brandishing the ostrich head have the senator reaching for his garland? We are not dealing with a joke here. Although the study of laughter and the study of jokes often go together (and the second part of this chapter looks at the relationship between some Roman laughter and some Latin verbal jokes), most laughter in most cultures has nothing to do with jokes at all. So was it, as Dio himself implies, that the sight of the emperor dressed up in the costume of an arena fighter (or rather dressed down, with bare feet and wearing just a tunic) and proudly decapitating an ungainly bird with the longest, and silliest, neck in the world could not help but appear ridiculous—whatever the menace that might lie behind it? Was it as if the emperor had turned himself into a parody of that heroic and mythical decapitator Perseus, brandishing his sword and the head of the Gorgon Medusa?18 Or was the laughter, as most recent commentators have imagined, produced by the terror of the occasion—what we would call a nervous laugh, and nothing to do with the potentially comic aspects of the display at all?19
Laughter often produces these interpretative dilemmas. The most common response to any outburst of laughing is the question “What are you (or they) laughing at?” or rather “Why are you (or they) laughing?” (for, despite some powerful theories to the contrary, laughter is not always laughterat20). There is, of course, no definitive, right answer, least of all from the mouth of the laugher. In fact, any answer given is rarely an independent or objective explanation but almost always part of the debates, contestations, fears, paradoxes, hilarities, transgressions, or anxieties that produced the laughter in the first place. In this case, imagine that Dio had not managed to control himself but had been caught chortling by one of Commodus’ henchmen, who proceeded to challenge him as to why he was laughing. It is not hard to guess roughly what he might have said—something, perhaps, to do with a joke that his neighbor had just whispered in his ear, or with that bald man in the row behind (and certainly not to do with the antics of the emperor).21Nor is it hard to guess how he might have presented the scene in the safety of his home later that evening: “Of course, I just laughed at him . . .” For if laughter is, or can be, political, so too are all those claims people make about having laughed—and the reasons they give (true or false) for doing so.
These are certainly some of the factors at work in Dio’s account of this occasion in his History. It is such an appealing description, and it is so easy for us to empathize with what seems close to a very modern struggle to keep the “giggle” in, that we are liable to overlook its literary and political artifice and to imagine that we are (however remotely) eyewitnesses of a Roman laugh. But, of course, we are not. This is a carefully crafted analysis, chosen for excerption in a medieval digest (whose compiler no doubt found it a vivid and pointed tale of imperial transgression), originally written some two decades after the events it describes—a moment when it must have seemed wise for any writer to distance himself from the tyrant-emperor Commodus. And distance himself is exactly what Dio does by claiming to have laughed at the antics not from fear but at the sheer absurdity of the scene (“It was laughter rather than distress that took hold of us,” as he insists, against all those who would accuse him of nervous laughter). The very point of his account lies in the retrospective, and possibly tendentious, interpretation that it offers. To say “I found this funny” or, even better, “I had to conceal my laughter, else I would have been put to death” simultaneously indicts and ridicules the tyrant while casting the writer as a down-to-earth, genial observer not taken in by the ruler’s cruel but empty posturing.22 Which is no doubt just what Dio intended.
HAHAHAE, 161 BCE
My second instance of laughter was to be heard less than a mile away from the site of the Colosseum, more than four hundred years earlier, in 161 BCE. Laughter of a very different kind, it occurred on the stage of a Roman comedy, not in a spectacle played out under the eye of a threatening emperor but in the course of one of those festivals of fun, games, and worship of the gods that had been, in some form or other, a part of Roman urban culture as far back as we can trace it.23 This was not theater as we now know it, nor even, in our terms, a “stage.” In the second century BCE, there were still no permanent theater buildings in Rome; performances took place in the open air, in temporary wooden structures sometimes erected around the steps of a temple (most likely to provide a convenient block of seating for the audience—which cannot have amounted to more than a few thousand). In the case I shall be exploring, the theater was probably put up on the Capitoline Hill, around the temple of the Great Mother (Magna Mater).24
It must have been a jolly and lighthearted atmosphere—perhaps even raucous. Roman comedies typically featured entangled boy-wants-girl intrigues and a series of more or less stock characters (the clever slave, the mean brothel keeper, the boastful but rather stupid soldier, and so on), each recognizable by its distinctive theatrical mask. As specialists have long insisted, most of the Roman comedy that survives has strong links with its Greek predecessors.25 I shall return to these in chapter 4; for the moment, I am concentrating on the Roman context. Whatever the laughter erupting from the audience, I shall focus first on a couple of instances of laughter between the actors onstage, written into the comic script. They introduce an even more subtle laughter narrative than Dio’s account of his giggle in the Colosseum and show how knowingly a Roman writer could exploit the tricky dilemmas of what a laugh could mean.
These two cases of scripted laughter come from The Eunuch, by Publius Terentius Afer (now usually known as Terence), which was first performed in 161 BCE. It has always been the most popular of Terence’s plays, was given an immediate second showing, and reputedly earned its author the unprecedented sum of eight thousand sesterces from the official sponsors.26 The memorable plot involves all the usual romantic intrigues but owes its extra punch to an outrageous scenario of disguise and cross-dressing—in which a lusty, love-sick young man (Chaerea) pretends to be a eunuch in order to get up close to the (slave) girl of his affections (Pamphila), who belongs to a courtesan called Thais. It is a marker of the almost unbridgeable gulf between ancient sexual politics and our own that the “happy ending” comes after Chaerea has used his eunuch disguise to rape Pamphila, as a prelude to the wedding bells that ring for them in the finale of the play.27 One version of the ancient production notes claims that the precise occasion of the play’s first performance was the Roman festival of the Megalesia, in honor of the Great Mother (hence the suggestion that the performance may well have taken place around the steps of her temple). If that is correct, then the context itself must have given the plot a curious piquancy. For the priests of the Great Mother, the so-called Galli, who lived in the temple precinct, were themselves eunuchs, reputedly self-castrated—as Roman writers loved to dwell on, and to decry—with a sharpened flint. Eunuchs and their look-alikes, in other words, would have been on view both inside and outside this drama.28
At two points in the play, one of the characters, Gnatho (Gnasher), a typically ancient comic combination of jokester, sponger, and flatterer, erupts in a peal of laughter: hahahae. These are two of only a dozen or so occasions in which classical Latin literature explicitly represents the sound of laughter, and for that reason alone they are worth looking at carefully; we do not need, as we normally do, to infer laughter as part of a comic exchange, since we are explicitly told when and where it occurred. As another tale from the very front line of Roman laughter, it is well worth the effort to decode. The complexity; the multiple perspectives; the twists and turns among joker, recipient, and observers (on-and offstage); and the sheer difficulty in getting the joke are all part of the point.
The scripted laughter is part of a series of exchanges between the sponger Gnatho and Thraso, a blustering soldier in the service of some unidentified Eastern monarch, who feature in one of the play’s intricate subplots (which may have been as difficult for some of the ancient audience to follow in detail as for us—indeed a bit of bafflement was all part of the fun). The soldier not only is Gnatho’s meal ticket but had also been the owner of Pamphila and is himself in love with Thais (in fact he had given young Pamphila to Thais as a love gift). In the scenes in question, Thraso is bragging about his various exploits to Gnatho, who (as the professional sponger’s role in life demands) plays the flatterer and laughs at the jokes, in the hope of free dinners in return—while the dramatist insinuates just how insincere his performance is.29 Their conversation is overheard by Parmeno, a bungling slave (whose master is, of course, also in love with Thais and is Thraso’s rival for her affections). Unseen and unheard by the others, he chips in the occasional aside.
The bluff soldier starts by talking up his close relationship with his royal boss, who “trusted me with his whole army, and all his plans.” “Amazing” is Gnatho’s simultaneously unctuous and caustic reply (402–3). Thraso then goes on to boast of putting down one of his fellow officers, the commander of the elephants, who was jealous of his influence with the king: “Tell me, Strato,” he claims to have quipped, “are you so fierce because you’re in charge of the wild animals?” “What an amazingly smart and clever thing to say,” chimes in Gnatho with transparent insincerity (414–16). Another self-promoting story from Thraso follows. It’s the one about “how I scored a hit at a dinner party against a man from Rhodes”—and it’s the one that prompts the laughter:
Thraso: This young Rhodian guy I’m telling you about was at a party with me. Actually I had a bird in tow. And he began to make a pitch for her and take the piss out of me. So I say to him, “Answer me this, smartass. Are you trying to pick up the tidbits, when you’re such a tasty morsel yourself?”
Thraso: What’s the matter?
Gnatho: Oh the wit of it! The cleverness! The neatness! Unbeatable! But hang on, did you make that joke up? I thought it was an old one.
Thraso: Had you heard it before?
Gnatho: Loads of times. It always goes down very well.
Thraso: But it’s mine.
Gnatho: I can’t help feeling sorry for the silly young reprobate, having that said to him.30
Parmeno (out of earshot): God, you don’t deserve to get away with that.
Gnatho: What did he do, tell me.
Thraso: He was finished. Everyone who was there—they just died of laughter. And ever since they’ve had a lot of respect for me.
Gnatho: And so they should. (422—33)31
Less than a hundred lines later, there is another bout of laughter. Thraso has grown tired of waiting for Thais to come out of her house, so has decided to go off, leaving Gnatho to hang around for her. Parmeno this time speaks within earshot:
Thraso: I’m off. (To Gnatho:) You stay and wait for her.
Parmeno: Of course, it really isn’t proper for the commanding officer to be out walking in the street with his lady friend!
Thraso: Why should I waste words on you? You’re just like your master!
Thraso: What are you laughing at?
Gnatho: At what you just said, and at that story about the guy from Rhodes—whenever I think about it. (494–98)32
There can be no doubt whatsoever that this repeated hahahae is meant to indicate Gnatho laughing. For a start, Terence tells us so, with his “What are you laughing at?” (“Quid rides?” 497). What is more, ancient commentators on the play reiterate the point (“Here the sponger has also inserted the sound of laughter [risus]”33), and on several occasions Roman scholars in late antiquity refer in general terms to this way of representing laughter on the page (“Hahahae is the sound of joy and laughter [risus]”34). But even if we did not have these direct pointers, we would hardly mistake the sound. Unlike the barking of dogs, the grunting of pigs, or the croaking of frogs—which different languages render in bewilderingly different ways (“oink oink,” says the Anglo-American pig, “röf röf röf” or “uí uí” the Hungarian, “soch soch” the Welsh)—laughter in almost all world languages, and in entirely different linguistic families, is rendered as (or includes within its repertoire) some variant on ha ha, hee hee, or tee hee.35 Or, to quote Samuel Johnson’s typically pointed exaggeration, “Men have been wise in many different modes; but they have always laughed the same way.”36
But why is Gnatho laughing? Identifying the sound of his laughter is one thing; as with Dio’s anecdote, understanding its cause is quite another.
The first outburst follows Thraso’s story of the Rhodian, whose punch line I translated as “Answer me this, smartass. Are you trying to pick up the tidbits, when you’re such a tasty morsel yourself?” That was an attempt to give the line some point in modern terms. The Latin literally means “You are a hare: do you chase after delicacies?” (“Lepu’ tute’s, pulpamentum quaeris?” 426). So what was there in these words to cause Gnatho to crack up? Commentators both ancient and modern have disagreed about that (sometimes relying on different readings of the Latin text).37 But recent critics have usually followed the lead of the fourth-century commentary of Aelius Donatus in referring to the role of the hare as a delicacy on the Roman dinner table: “A hare, which is itself a delicacy, should not be seeking pulpamenta, which are tasty morsels of meat used as hors-d’oeuvres”; or as Donatus’ text more crisply glosses it (Eun. 426), “You are seeking in another what you have in yourself.”38 The implications are of course erotic, as the context makes clear: the young Rhodian is flirting with Thraso’s “bird” when he should be the object of erotic attention himself. There is further support for this in another part of Donatus’ lengthy note (much less often quoted in modern scholarship), which collects evidence for the sexual overtones of the hare; it includes the view—wonderfully appropriate to the plot of The Eunuch—that the hare is an animal “of uncertain sex, now male, now female.”39
Dissected in this clinical way, Thraso’s witticism may seem to lose whatever capacity to raise a laugh that it might once have had (following the iron rule, which goes back to antiquity itself, that a joke explained is a joke lost40). Yet the bare bones of the joke that are revealed could fit comfortably enough into several modern theories of joking technique, from Sigmund Freud’s Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious to the numerous modern and ancient discussions that see incongruity (and/or its resolution) at the heart of what makes us laugh. So here the impossible, nonsensical incongruity from which the joke starts (the young Rhodian is not a hare) is economically resolved as we realize that the “hare” and the “delicacies” can have quite different referents in the erotic encounter of the dinner party, or, to put it in the terms of one leading current theory, the clash between the culinary and the erotic “script” is gradually resolved in favor of the latter.41
Why on earth the resolution of incongruity, or whatever is supposedly going on within the Freudian unconscious, should cause that distinctive vocal and bodily response we know as laughing is a question that no modern theory—not even Freud’s—satisfactorily answers.42 But in this case, that problem is sidestepped, for we quickly suspect that it is not actually the joke that is making Gnatho laugh after all. Gnatho is laughing because he is a sponger, and the ancient cliché was that spongers flattered their patrons by laughing at their jokes, whether they were funny or, more likely, not. This hahahae is not a spontaneous reaction to a hilarious one-liner but a well-practiced response to his patron’s verbal posturing masquerading as a spontaneous reaction. Gnatho is laughing to please. This is another aspect of that complex relationship between laughter and power that I have already highlighted.
Thraso’s instant retort—“What’s the matter?” (“Quid est?” 427)—may indicate that not even he was taken in. Donatus thought that in asking that question, the stupid soldier was simply fishing for compliments for his bon mot (compliments that he did indeed receive, albeit insincerely: “Oh the wit of it!”). But Thraso’s challenge could equally well suggest that Gnatho’s pseudospontaneity had been all too easy to see through. His laugh had convinced nobody, not even the gullible character it had been intended to hoodwink.
As if to avoid the awkward confrontation, Gnatho quickly changes the subject and moves to the attack. Was it Thraso’s joke anyway? Was he not just recycling an old one, as if it were his own? Was it, in other words, no more spontaneous than Gnatho’s enthusiastic response to it? The sponger claims he has already heard it “loads of times,” and maybe we should imagine that he had. For it is a joke we find elsewhere in Latin literature, quoted in a late antique text but attributed to a writer even earlier than Terence.
Near the end of that strange collection of imperial biographies known as the Augustan History, concocted under a variety of pseudonyms probably in the late fourth century CE, the author stops to puzzle at how, in 284, the new emperor Diocletian quoted a line from Virgil immediately after he had killed Aper, the praetorian prefect and a potential rival, in full view of the army. Was that not an uncharacteristically literary gesture for such a military man as Diocletian? Perhaps not as uncharacteristic as it may seem, the biographer concedes. After all, he observes, soldiers had a habit of quoting well-known bits of poetry, and they were shown doing so in comic plays: “For, in fact, ‘Are you trying to pick up the tidbits, when you’re such a tasty morsel yourself?’ is a saying of Livius Andronicus.” Thraso’s joke, if you believe this account, was a classic quote from Rome’s first Latin dramatist, active a good seventy years before Terence.43
Of course, the biographer might simply have got it wrong: from the perspective of the late fourth century, it might have been easy to confuse two venerable early Latin writers and to attribute a line of Terence to his predecessor Livius Andronicus. But if he was right, then Terence was making Thraso pass off as his own invention a gag that was already, in 161 BCE, decades old.44 For the audience, no doubt part of the joke was precisely that: the pushy soldier claiming as his own clever quip a one-liner that most of them knew already.
New or old, the joke scored a hit against the young Rhodian at the dinner party. Or so Thraso recounts, leading us into another familiar topic in the ancient and modern theory of laughter that we have already glimpsed in Dio’s History: laughter as derision.45Thraso was laughing at the boy, so aggressively that Gnatho purports to feel sorry for the victim (a backhanded compliment to the force of Thraso’s wit, which—as his aside indicates—is more than Parmeno, who overhears it, can take). The effect on the other dinner guests was dramatic: “They just died of laughter.” Cracking up, as we all know, can be painful; it can reduce you to helpless incapacity. “Dying of laughter” is an ancient image no less than a modern one. In fact, it was sharply literalized in a series of stories about men who really did die laughing: the fifth-century BCE painter Zeuxis (who expired, according to one Roman writer, as he laughed at his own painting of an old woman), for example, or the philosopher Chrysippus at the end of the third century BCE (according to Diogenes Laertius, writing centuries later, under the Roman Empire, it was the sight of an ass eating figs and drinking unmixed wine that finished him off).46 The “death” of Thraso’s fellow diners was part of an established ancient tradition.
The next outburst of hahahae prompts more questions. Fed up with waiting for Thais to return, Thraso tells Gnatho to wait for her. This draws an ironic quip from Parmeno, who is now fully part of the conversation: of course Thraso should not hang around, he appears to agree; after all, it isn’t the done thing for a commanding officer to be seen in the street with his mistress. Thraso, who is many ranks below a “commanding officer,” realizes that he is being sent up and turns on the slave (“Why should I waste words on you? You’re just like your master!”), before Gnatho again laughs.
What, as Thraso himself asks, causes the laughter this time? Is it Thraso’s retort to Parmeno? Or is it also, as Gnatho goes on to claim, the recollection of “that story about the guy from Rhodes”? (Gnatho presumably calculates that not even the gullible Thraso would think that the rather lame response of “just like your master” was capable of raising much of a laugh.) Or is it, more likely, Parmeno’s joke about the “commanding officer,” which Gnatho can hardly admit to Thraso—who was its target—had caused him to crack up (hence the smokescreen about the “guy from Rhodes” again)? In short, we have just one hahahae and at least three possible causes for the laughter that it signals. Part of the interpretative fun for the audience or reader (and indeed for the characters themselves) must come from weighing one possible cause against another, puzzling out how the laughter is best explained.47
How, more generally, can we approach the laughter of the people in the audience, rather than those on the stage? Unlike Dio in the Colosseum, those who came to watch The Eunuch were encouraged, even supposed to laugh—but at what, and why?
Of course, we cannot know for certain how the audience reacted at a Roman comedy: whether, when, or how enthusiastically they laughed. If ancient theatergoers were like their modern equivalents in this respect (and that is of course a big if), part of their experience will have been shared. Many people will have laughed at the same things. They will have cheered, cried, chuckled, and applauded together: that, after all, is part of the common bond of theater. Yet at the same time, some reactions would necessarily have been more personal and idiosyncratic. Individual members of the audience would have laughed at different things, or at the same things for different reasons. And some would not have laughed at all. Most of us have had the uncomfortable experience of being in a theater (or in front of a television, for that matter), our lips barely curling, while those round about us were laughing with gusto; the louder they laugh, the less we feel we can join in and the more stony our faces become. It was similar, we may imagine, in the Roman theater. Laughter acts both to incorporate and to isolate. The history of laughing is, as we shall see, about those who don’t (or won’t) get the joke as well as about those who do.48
Yet we have seen enough by now to make a good guess at various likely ancient responses to these episodes in The Eunuch. I have already suggested that Thraso’s quip about the young Rhodian may have raised a laugh precisely because the soldier was trying—implausibly—to pass off an old joke as his own invention (as if today someone claimed to have just thought up “Waiter, waiter, there’s a fly in my soup . . .”). But there was more to it than that. Some members of the audience may have refused to laugh (or laughed only halfheartedly) for the simple reason that it was a very old joke, one that they had heard many times before and did not much want to hear again. For others, laughter might have been prompted by the sheer familiarity of the quip. As the cliché goes, old jokes are the best—in the sense that they cause us to crack up not through the disruptions of incongruity or the pleasures of derision (as many a modern theory has it) but through the warm recollection of all the other occasions on which just the same joke has worked as intended. Laughter is as much about memory, and about the ways we have learned to laugh at certain cues, as it is about uncontrollable spontaneity.49
Laughter’s prompts and objects are also wider ranging than we often acknowledge. Here, for example, some may have laughed because Thraso’s “joke” was not funny—and because Gnatho’s transparently unspontaneous laughter neatly exposed, in no more than those three syllables (hahahae), the mechanisms of flattery, the vulnerability of both patron and client, and the slipperiness of laughter as a signifier. The audience, in other words, was laughing at the constituents, causes, and social dynamics of laughter itself. The laughter—and its different interpretations and misinterpretations, uses and misuses, within these scenes—is part of the joke.50
This self-reflexivity is underlined by the simple fact that, in these two passages of The Eunuch, laughter is explicitly written into the script. To be sure, there may have been a good deal of laughter, on- as well as offstage, in Roman comedy. Certainly, modern translators of Plautus and Terence regularly introduce “laughter” into the stage directions, to bring the plays to life: phrases, in brackets—such as laughing uproariously, with a laugh, still laughing, laughing uncontrollably, laughing, trying to conceal his laughter,and laughs still more—litter English versions of these comedies, even though nothing like them is to be found in the Latin originals.51 But here Terence’s insistence, twice, on Gnatho’s hahahae, his explicit introduction of laughter into the dialogue of his play, makes this a particularly loaded moment—one in which characters, audience, and readers cannot dodge the question of what this laughter (or laughter more generally) is all about.
The same is true of the other dozen or so cases of scripted laughter in classical Latin literature. These are all found in comedy, both Plautus and Terence, with just one possible exception: a short, and puzzling, fragment of the poet Ennius (“hahae, the shield itself fell down”), which could equally well come from a comedy or a tragedy.52 Taken together, they add to the range of circumstances in which Roman laughter might erupt and the range of emotions it might reflect, for, as we have already seen, both in the amphitheater and in the exchanges between Gnatho and the soldier, the idea that laughter is caused by jokes, or clever wit, is only one part of the story. So, for example, in one of these passages we may recognize the laughter prompted by (self-)satisfaction: the hahae of Ballio the pimp, in Plautus’ Pseudolus (1052), as he congratulates himself on outwitting the clever slave of the title. Elsewhere we catch chuckles of sheer pleasure: in Terence’s Heauton Timorumenus, or Self-Tormentor (886), when the elderly Chremes laughs in delight at the tricks that yet another clever slave has played.53
But at the same time, these instances of comic laughter, explicitly scripted, repeatedly point audience and reader to many of the tricky interpretative dilemmas that laughter raises. Can we pin down exactly what it is that makes anyone laugh (even ourselves)? How can laughter be misunderstood or mistaken? Is a person who laughs potentially as vulnerable to the power of laughter as a person who is laughed at? It will not escape the attention of either audience or readers of the plays that in their laughter, both Ballio and Chremes have got things terribly wrong. For all his laughter of self-congratulation, Ballio has not outwitted Pseudolus at all but has actually been caught by a trick played by the slave that is even cleverer than the poor pimp can imagine. Likewise, Chremes is not, as he believes, the beneficiary of his slave’s wiles but himself their dupe and victim. It is as if the scripted laughter here serves to draw attention to laughter’s perilous fragility and the many possible constituents and interpretations of a single laugh.
UNDERSTANDING ROMAN LAUGHTER
In this chapter I have looked in detail at the choreography of two particular moments of Roman (written) laughter, from a pair of authors living four centuries apart—one writing in Greek, the other in Latin; one a historian with an ax to grind about laughter stifled in the Colosseum, the other both portraying and prompting laughter in the comic theater. They serve as a useful frame for what follows in the rest of the book, for, although I shall occasionally explore material later than Dio, and although I shall sometimes focus on visual images, I shall for the most part be drawing on Latin and Greek writing between the second century BCE and the second century CE.
These examples have also opened up some of the key issues that will be central to the rest of my discussion. Beyond the dilemmas of interpretation and understanding that I have highlighted throughout, they have prompted reflection on the uncertain and disputed boundary between “faked” and “real” laughter. (When we join in the guffaws at a joke we do not quite understand, are we pretending to laugh—or just laughing differently?) They have shown how laughing could act to exclude as well as include, offer friendly support as well as hostile derision, both reaffirm and contest hierarchies and power. And Thraso’s quip about the hare turned out to be a reminder that Roman jokes could have complicated histories stretching over many centuries. Indeed we shall meet others, in the chapters that follow, whose histories stretch for thousands of years, right up to our own day.
As I have hinted, one big question that hovers over the whole of the book is this: How comprehensible, in any terms, can Roman laughter now be? How can we understand what made the Romans laugh, without falling into the trap of turning them into a version of ourselves? Some readers may already have felt uneasy about some of my procedures in exploring those passages of The Eunuch. It was not simply that the process of dissection spoiled the joke about the young Rhodian; even more to the point, the dissection was founded on the assumption that if only we worked hard enough at it, the joke would make sense to us too, that it could be translated into terms we understand. Of course, that must sometimes be so (if it were not, then the whole of culture of Roman laughter would be lost to us, and my project stillborn). But in any individual case we must not assume that successful translation between the Roman world and our own is possible. There is a danger that the question “What made the Romans laugh?” might be converted, by an act of spurious empathy, into the question “What do I think would have made me laugh, if I were a Roman?”
We can see this in more vivid form if we reflect on how and why modern audiences laugh at performances of Roman comedy. Part of the time it is because the jokes can be shared across the centuries. But part of the time it is because the translator, director, and actors have worked very hard to make the plays funny in modern terms—using idiom, nuance, expression, gesture, costume, and staging designed to trigger laughter for us (but bearing very little resemblance to anything Roman). What is more, at least some of the audience will have gone to the play already committed to the spirit of the enterprise, determined to find a Roman comedy funny—and at the same time laughing at themselves for doing so. It is surely this combination of factors that explains the success enjoyed in 2008 by the stand-up comedian Jim Bowen with a retelling of a selection of the jokes from the one surviving ancient jokebook, the Philogelos (Laughter lover), probably compiled in the late Roman Empire (discussed in detail in chapter 8).54 Some of those jokes are still capable of raising a laugh (indeed, more than that: some of them are the direct ancestors of our own jokes). But there were other reasons for Bowen’s success: he used a translation of the jokes that closely echoed the modern idiom and rhythms of stand-up, the audience had come to the show (or tuned in on the online site) determined to laugh, and Bowen played up the absurdity of the whole occasion—to the extent that many of the most determined laughers were also laughing at themselves for laughing at these very, very old, Roman jokes.
So who, if anyone, was the joke on? This is a question I shall come back to in the next three chapters, which reflect on the theory and history of Roman (and other) laughter—before focusing, in the second half of the book, on particular key figures and key themes in the story of Roman laughter, from the jesting orator to the ridiculous monkey.