The Orator


Let’s start this chapter with a puzzle. In the middle of his long discussion of the proper role of laughter in oratory—in the sixth book of his training handbook for would-be public speakers—Marcus Fabius Quintilianus (or Quintilian, as I have been calling him) turns to discuss double entendres. “Although there are numerous areas from which jokes [dicta ridicula, literally “laughable sayings”] may be drawn, I must stress again that they are not all suitable for orators, especially those that rest on double entendre [amphibolia in his Latinized Greek].” He proceeds to quote a couple of puns that do not meet his high standards, even though uttered by Cicero himself. One is an abusive slur on the low birth of a candidate for political office, a fairly unsubtle play on two similar-sounding Latin words: coquus (cook) and quoque (also). The candidate in question was said to be the upwardly mobile son of a cook (coquus); when Cicero overheard the man canvassing for support, he is supposed to have gibed, “I will vote for you too (quoque).” This kind of joking is so beneath the elite orator, Quintilian explains, that he had thought of banning it entirely from the rhetorical repertoire. But he concedes that there is one absolutely splendid (praeclarum) example of the genre, which “on its own is sufficient to prevent us condemning this whole class of joke.”1

That example also came from the mouth of Cicero, in the year 52 BCE, when he was defending Titus Annius Milo against the charge of murdering the radical and controversial politician Publius Clodius Pulcher. Cicero’s performance in this trial is usually regarded as unsuccessful, if not ignominious (a substantial majority of the jury convicted Milo of the crime). But Quintilian paints Cicero’s rhetorical role rather more honorably. Part of the case, he explains, hinged on timing, including the exact moment of Clodius’ death. So the prosecutor repeatedly pressed Cicero to say precisely when Clodius was killed. Cicero replied with a single word: sero, punning on its two senses, both “late” and “too late.” The point is that Clodius died late in the day—but also that he should have been got rid of years before.2

It is not hard to see the joke here. The puzzle is why on earth Quintilian should have deemed it such an outstanding instance of a provocation to laughter that it rescued all jokes of this type from what would otherwise have been a complete ban. What was so especially good about this one?

The main focus of this chapter is laughter in Roman oratory and the chortles and chuckles of the Roman courtroom. What jokes were best at getting the audience to crack up? When should a speaker try to make his listeners laugh (and when not)? What were the pluses and minuses of using laughter to attack an opponent? Just how aggressive was public laughter in Rome? And what is the relationship between joking, laughter, and falsehood (or outright lying)? We shall meet virtuoso performers who raised a laugh by mimicking the posh voices of their adversaries, we shall come across some funny words that were surefire prompts to mirth (stomachus—that is “stomach”—was apparently one that was always likely to get a Roman going), and we shall glimpse a hilarious competition in making pig noises between a peasant and a professional jokester. I also hope that by the end of the chapter, we may have a better idea of why that particular quip on the time of Clodius’ death attracted Quintilian’s fulsome praise.


My leading character throughout the chapter is, of course, the most infamous funster, punster, and jokester of classical antiquity: Marcus Tullius Cicero. It is true that Cicero now, even among many scholars, has more of a reputation for humorless pomposity than for engaging wit. “Cicero can be a fearful bore,” as one of his best twentieth-century biographers wrote (perhaps saying rather more about herself than about him), and more recently another senior classicist (jokingly) dismissed him as the kind of man who would have been no fun at all as a dinner companion.3 But in antiquity, both in his lifetime and as he was reinvented over the centuries that followed, one of Cicero’s trademarks, for better or worse, was his capacity to get people laughing—or his sometimes irritating inability to refrain from doing so.4

This is a major theme in Plutarch’s biography, written some 150 years after Cicero’s death. From the very first chapter (where Plutarch repeats a joke that Cicero made on his own name, which means “chickpea” in Latin), the Life returns again and again to the theme of the famous orator’s use of laughter: sometimes to his witty bons mots, sometimes to his ill-advised tendency to crack a gag in very inappropriate places. Plutarch admits that Cicero’s exaggerated sense of his own importance was one of the reasons for his unpopularity in some quarters, but he also attracted hatred because he attacked people indiscriminately, “just to raise a laugh,” and Plutarch quotes a variety of his gibes and puns—against a man with ugly daughters, against the son of a murderous dictator, and against a drunken censor (“I’m afraid the man will punish me—for drinking water”).5

One of the most notorious occasions of Cicero’s ostentatious use of laughter was during the final civil war of the Republic—between Julius Caesar and Pompey—which was the prelude to Caesar’s autocratic rule. After much hesitation, Cicero joined Pompey’s camp in Greece in the summer of 49 BCE before the battle of Pharsalus, but he was not, says Plutarch, a popular member of the squad. “It was his own fault, as he did not deny that he regretted having come . . . and he did not hold back from joking or making witty gibes at his comrades; in fact, he himself was always going about the camp without a laugh, and frowning, but he made others laugh, quite against their will.” (“So why not employ him as guardian of your children?” he is said to have quipped, for example, at Domitius Ahenobarbus, who was promoting a decidedly unmilitary type to a command position on the grounds that he was “mild-mannered and sensible.”)6

Several years later, after Caesar’s assassination, Cicero replied to some of these criticisms in a pamphlet now known as the second Philippic, a vicious attack on Mark Antony—who, among other things, had clearly leveled, or repeated, some of the charges of inappropriate jocularity.7 Like Plutarch, Antony had most likely objected to Cicero’s habit of making his comrades laugh in such awful circumstances, and against their will (effectively an assertion of his control over their “uncontrollable” outbursts of laughter). In a characteristic rhetorical sweep, Cicero at first brushes the accusation aside: “I’m not even going to respond about those jokes you said I made in the camp.” But then he does offer a brief defense: “To be sure, that camp was full of gloom, I admit. But all the same, even if they are in dire straits, men do still take some relaxation from time to time; it’s only human. Yet the fact that the same man [Antony] finds fault both with my melancholy and with my jesting is a powerful proof that I took a moderate line in both respects.”8Cicero justifies laughter as a natural human reaction even in troubled times while also pleading moderation in his conduct.9

It is, however, in his comparison of Cicero and the Greek orator Demosthenes, which forms the postscript to this pair of parallel lives, that Plutarch offers his most pointed comments on Cicero’s use of laughter. These were the two greatest orators of the Greco-Roman world (hence their treatment as a pair), but their use of laughter was starkly different. Demosthenes was no joker, but intense and serious, even—some would say—morose and sullen. Cicero, on the other hand, was not only “addicted to laughter” (or perhaps “quite at home with laughter,” oikeios gelōtos); he was, in fact, “often carried away by his joking to the point of buffoonery [pros to bōmolochon], and when, to get his own way in the cases he was pleading, he handled matters that deserved gravity with irony, laughter, and mirth, he neglected decorum.”10

Plutarch quotes a telling Roman quip about Cicero’s jocularity. During his consulship, in 63 BCE, he was defending Lucius Licinius Murena against charges of bribery, and in the course of his defense speech (a version of which still survives), he made tremendous fun of some of the absurdities of Stoicism—the philosophical system vociferously espoused by Marcus Porcius Cato, one of the prosecutors. When “clear laughter” (the Greek word is lampros, literally “bright”) spread from the audience to the judges, Cato, “beaming” (diameidiasas), simply said, “What a geloios we have for a consul.”11

The Greek word geloios has been translated into English in several different ways: “What a funny consul we have!” “What a comedian we have for a consul.”12 But what did Cato say in his original Latin? One possibility is that he called Cicero a ridiculus consul. If so, it will have been a nice joke, because ridiculus—one of the most basic terms of Latin laughter vocabulary—was a dangerously ambiguous word. For, in a way that constantly destabilized Roman discussions of laughter, ridiculus meant “laugh-able” or “prompting laughter” in two ways: on the one hand, it could refer to something that people laughed at, the butt of laughter (more or less “ridiculous” in the modern sense); on the other hand, it was someone or something that provoked people to laugh (and so it could imply something like “witty” or “amusing”). As we shall find in what follows, this was a pressing ambiguity in Roman culture, exploited and debated in various ways. Here, if Cato really did say that Cicero was a ridiculus consul, he was cleverly pointing the finger at his rival, insinuating that such a smart jokester was also a man that the audience should laugh at.

Quintilian’s discussion of Cicero and laughter enriches this picture. He lays out a similar comparison between Demosthenes (whom “many people think had no capacity for raising laughter in a judge” or even that he firmly wanted nothing to do with it) and Cicero (“whom many think had no moderation in it”). Quintilian himself is rather more charitable on both counts. Demosthenes did not actively dislike jokes, he insists, but was simply not very good at them. As for Cicero (“whether I judge correctly on this, or whether I am swayed by my inordinate passion for this outstanding orator”), he displayed a wonderful urbanitas (wit or urbanity), and “both in his everyday conversations and in his debates in court and cross-examination of witnesses, he uttered more witty remarks [facete] than anyone else.” In fact, Quintilian suggests, Cicero probably did not actually coin some of the rather vulgar sayings often attributed to him.13

Nonetheless, on several occasions in the lengthy discussion that follows, Quintilian finds himself wondering whether certain Ciceronian bons mots were not quite appropriate for a gentleman orator. As we shall see, two antitypes of joker—the vulgar opposites of the cultured wit—stalk discussions of the rhetoric of laughter: the mime actor, or mimus (who has a large part to play in chapter 7), and the scurra (a curious amalgam of jester, scrounger, and man-about-town, who features in this and the next chapter). Quintilian concedes that some of Cicero’s tactics for raising a laugh were uncomfortably close to those of the mimus or the scurra. And he was not the only one to have those qualms. One well-known story, found both in Macrobius and in one of the declamations of the elder Seneca, explicitly pits Cicero in a contest of wits against Decimus Laberius, a writer of mimes (when an encounter in the cramped seats at some spectacle or play leads to a competitive exchange of gibes).14 Macrobius also treats it as common knowledge that Cicero’s enemies used to call him a consularis scurra (“a scurra of consular rank”).15 In fact, another possibility is that Cato exclaimed in Latin, “What a scurra we have for a consul!” There is no Greek equivalent of the word scurra, and Plutarch might reasonably have resorted to geloios as a rough translation.16

In seeking to explain Cicero’s dubious reputation in this area, Quintilian partly casts the blame on his secretary Tiro, “or whoever it was who published the three volumes on this subject.” The “subject” he is referring to is wit or jesting, and this trio of books appears to have been a collection of Cicero’s bona dicta (jokes), not all of which were quite up to scratch. For the problem with jokebooks throughout history is that they are often padded out with some decidedly feeble, or risky, specimens. “If only,” Quintilian continues, “he had been more sparing in the number of jokes [dicta] he included and shown more judgment in selecting than eagerness in collecting them. It would not have exposed Cicero so much to his critics.”17 We know little of this multivolume compendium of wit and wisdom, but it was not the only such publication of the great orator’s bons mots. In a surviving letter of 46 BCE, Cicero writes to thank his friend Gaius Trebonius, who had just sent him, as a gift, a book containing a collection of his own witticisms. A perfect present for a narcissist, one might say. But here also there was perhaps a problem with the selection, or lack of it (“Whatever I’ve said seems to you to be facetum [witty],” Cicero writes, “but it might not seem the same to others”). Luckily, Trebonius must have had a gift for packaging the quips: “As you tell them, they become venustissima [ever so smart],” Cicero writes in ironically grateful mode. “In fact, readers will almost have used up all their laughter before they get to me.”18

It is presumably these long-lost collections that lie behind the “jokes of Cicero,” the series of “one-liners” we find assembled on a more modest scale in Macrobius and in Quintilian himself. My own particular favorite is his nice swipe at the apparently diminutive husband of his daughter, Tullia: “Seeing his son-in-law Lentulus, a short chap, kitted out with a long sword, he said. ‘Who tied my son-in-law to his sword?’”19 But we should also note another variant on the sero joke among these, suggesting that the pun between “too late” or “a bit late” and “late in the day” was something of a classic. It is one of the gags that Cicero made in Pompey’s camp during the civil war. When he first arrived at the camp, after all his vacillations, people said to him, “You’ve got here a bit late [sero]”—perhaps the equivalent of a sardonic “Better late than never.” “I’ve not come at a late hour [sero],” he retorted. “I don’t see anything ready for dinner yet [nihil hic paratum].”20 Indeed, Cicero’s dicta, or facetiae (as they came more often to be called), were a staple of Renaissance wit and learning and regularly find a place in jokebooks and other such compendia at least up to the eighteenth century.21 It is only the modern world that has tended to forget that Cicero was such a “laughter lover.”

Not that it is likely that Cicero really coined all these jokes ascribed to him. Quintilian was not merely being protective of his hero in suggesting that he had been credited with some feeble specimens that he had never uttered. In a letter written from Cilicia (where he was the provincial governor) in 50 BCE, Cicero complains that “everybody’s dicta are ascribed to me” and jokingly ticks off his correspondent—whose name, appropriately, was Publius Volumnius Eutrapelus (eutrapelos means “witty” in Greek)—for not making a stand on Cicero’s behalf and denying his authorship of the weak imposters; at the same time he flatters himself (or pretends to flatter himself) that his authentic witticisms were stamped with his individual style. “Don’t you protest?” he writes. “After all, I was hoping that I had left such a distinctive brand of quips that they could be recognized in and of themselves.”22

The truth is, of course, that “great men” attract, as much as they utter, bons mots and that jokes migrate among them (nicely demonstrated by the very same gag being attributed to Cicero by Quintilian and to Octavian, the future emperor Augustus, by Macrobius).23 But whether they were authentic or not, the important point is that in antiquity, Cicero was known for his jokes as well as his speeches and treatises, and he had a decidedly edgy reputation for laughter.


Despite the air of gravitas that has become Cicero’s modern hallmark, some particular aspects of his laughter, wit, and “humor” (a term we cannot resist, though it is treacherous to apply to the ancient world) have remained on the scholarly agenda.24 Recently, for example, Gregory Hutchinson and others have explored how Cicero’s Letters exploit jocularity, badinage, and the culture of shared laughter in constructing epistolary relationships. Laughter and joking in the Letters, as Hutchinson points out, are generally treated as companionable, rather than aggressive, and are often a marker that “the addressee is especially trusted, or especially akin in mind”; when Atticus is away, Cicero writes to him that he has no one with whom he can “joke freely.”25

But an even more influential strand of discussion has concerned the role of humorous invective in Ciceronian speeches and its implications for social and cultural control. Amy Richlin’s important study The Garden of Priapus, first published in 1983, laid much of the groundwork for this—arguing (in a way that is now taken for granted) that the sexual humor in Roman satire, epigram, lampoon, and invective was closely related to hierarchies of power. On Richlin’s model, when Cicero ridicules the sexual behavior of his opponents (casting them on the wrong side of the boundaries that lay between proper, normative Roman maleness and a variety of transgressive antitypes—the pathic, the “softy,” the cinaedus, the mollis), he is using wit and laughter as one weapon in the struggle for dominance.26 This is humor founded not on goodwill but on aggression. It is a classic case of a type of joking that Freud labeled tendentious (as opposed to innocent)—in which, as he put it, “by making our enemy small, inferior, despicable or comic, we achieve in a roundabout way the enjoyment of overcoming him—to which the third person [that is, in Ciceronian oratory, the audience], who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter.”27

A decade after Richlin’s study appeared, Antony Corbeill, in Controlling Laughter, developed these ideas at length, with a primary focus on Cicero’s speeches and a wider range of targets in mind, from the sexual effeminacy that was one of Richlin’s main concerns to all kinds of bodily peculiarities—such as gout or disfiguring swellings or even “funny” names. For Corbeill, Cicero’s use of laughter at his opponents, whether in the courtroom, the senate, or the assembly, was a powerful mechanism of both exclusion (for it served to isolate the enemy and present him as beyond the social pale) and persuasion (for it united the laughing audience in the affirmation of their shared “ethical standards”). To put it even more strongly, aggressive communal laughter at the deviant, or rather at the man Cicero chose to present as such, was a means of “simultaneously creating and enforcing the community’s ethical values. Jokes become a means of ordering social realities.” One instructive instance of this is Cicero’s attack on Vatinius in 56 BCE, a speech that seems to revel in mocking the grotesque appearance (bull neck, bulging eyes, and nasty swellings, or strumae) of its target while correlating Vatinius’ physical ugliness with his moral and political failings. As the audience joins together in laughter, so Corbeill’s logic goes, “Cicero becomes the society’s moral spokesperson, inveighing against the outrage Vatinius embodies.”28

This has been an extremely influential approach. In fact, most historians of Roman public life and public speaking would now regard Cicero’s use of laughter both as a powerful means of attack and as an equally powerful mechanism for reinforcing, or constructing, social norms.29 It is also an overwhelmingly aggressive (and frankly not very funny) approach to oratorical laughter, which I hope to nuance—or supplement—in the rest of this chapter. I am not looking to overturn it. I have no doubt whatsoever that laughter in the Roman Forum, courtroom, or Senate house could act to isolate the deviant while reaffirming shared social values, nor do I have any doubt that Roman laughter could sometimes be, in Quintilian’s words, “not far from derision.”30 But there was much more to it than that, which has not recently received the attention it deserves.

My focus will be on Cicero’s discussion of the use of laughter in public speaking, its benefits and—more especially—its risks. I shall concentrate not on his speeches but on the central chapters of the second book of his essay On the Orator, which (even if not quite the “mini treatise” on laughter that it is sometimes cracked up to be31) is nevertheless the most substantial, sustained, and challenging discussion of laughter, in any of its aspects, to have survived from the ancient world—a fact that is all too easy to forget in our hunt for the lost views of Aristotle (pp. 29–31).

It is in On the Orator, more than in any other of his surviving works,32 that Cicero offers both theoretical analysis and concrete examples of what was most likely to rouse a Roman audience to laughter, how laughter could be provoked, and with what consequence for speaker, listeners, or the butt of the joke. The truth is that when we read his speeches, we are usually second-guessing what was funny, when exactly the audience would have laughed—and how enthusiastically. It is one thing to talk generally about the humorous invective of the speech against Vatinius; it is quite another to judge which precise passages would have provoked the most hilarity (were all those physical oddities equally funny?) or how the words might have been delivered in order to do that. But just as Terence’s hahahae enabled us to pinpoint a precise moment of laughter, the discussion inOn the Orator gives explicit information (at least as Cicero saw it) on particular outbursts of laughter, even occasionally calibrating its intensity, and reflects on some of the major principles that guide a Roman orator in exploiting jocularity and laughter. It is a discussion that faces questions of laughter itself—its causes and effects—head on.

Cicero’s discussion points his readers to important sides of the laughing process beyond the familiar topics of derision and control (indeed, derision is not an especially prominent theme here). We learn about the physical nature of laughter; about different ways of raising a laugh from an audience, from funny words to funny faces; and about what was off limits as a proper subject of laughter. But one crucial undercurrent is the risk associated with provoking laughter. Laughter was always in danger of rebounding: it was not only the orator’s opponent who could be isolated and exposed by raising a laugh; its provocation could also expose and isolate the orator himself. The two senses of ridiculus (“he makes us laugh” versus “the one we laugh at”) were always perilously close. You had to be careful in playing for laughs.33


Cicero wrote On the Orator in the middle 50s BCE, shortly after his return from exile, when he was trying, with only limited success, to recover his power and influence in the city of Rome.34 Extending over three books, it is not primarily a rhetorical training manual with rules for budding speakers (though it includes plenty of nitty-gritty technical advice) but rather a more general consideration of the nature of the ideal orator and the skills (physical, intellectual, personal, moral, philosophical) that such a man requires. It was written against the background of long-standing debates, going back at least to fifth-century BCE Greece, on the morality of rhetoric (how far was effective persuasion necessarily deceptive?), its relations with philosophy and other forms of knowledge, whether rhetoric was a discipline that could be taught, and if so how.35

Following the example of Plato—to whom there is a direct reference near the start of the first book—Cicero composed his treatise in the form of a discussion among a group of learned Roman “amateurs” in the art of oratory.36 Its dramatic date is 91 BCE, and its cast of characters is carefully chosen to match. The leading roles are taken by Lucius Licinius Crassus, at whose villa the discussion is set, and Marcus Antonius, both renowned orators of the period and mentors of the young Cicero. They are joined by other discussants, who are imagined to be present for all or part of the two days over which the debates take place. These include the much younger Gaius Aurelius Cotta (Cicero’s informant of the contents of the discussion, according to the dramatic fiction) and—to give him his full name—Gaius Julius Caesar Strabo Vopiscus (an indirect ancestor of Caesar the dictator), who takes the lead in the discussion of laughter.37

Over the three books, the discussion covers a wide range of topics, from the power or harm of eloquence and the kind of knowledge a good orator needs (book 1) through the various means of oratorical persuasion (book 2) to issues of style and various forms of delivery (book 3). For the most part, the debate is fairly gentle. Although the Platonic literary and philosophical background is clear, this is not the kind of dialogue in which a Socrates-like figure uses his dazzling intellectual firepower and quick repartee to trounce the opposition and impose his own arguments on the assembled company, and readers. Here we find a much less aggressively antagonistic style of debate, with extended contributions by the main participants and less repartee (which may be what Cicero meant when he wrote in a letter that he had adopted the “Aristotelian mode” in On the Orator38). Where there are disagreements between the various characters (as on the question of the knowledge required by the ideal orator, in book 1), it is usually assumed, rightly or wrongly, that Cicero’s views are broadly those of the character of Crassus.39

For a relatively hard-core work of ancient oratorical theory, On the Orator has recently attracted a surprising amount of attention from Roman historians and critics in general. There has been a lively interest in—among other things—its distinctively “Roman” character (notwithstanding its obvious and open debts to earlier Greek discussion), its relationship to the politics of the period (both that of its dramatic date and that of its composition), and its role in Cicero’s self-fashioning as a “new man,” as well as in the performative aspects of Roman oratory and masculinity. (It would, I suspect, come as a surprise to Cicero that his treatise has been discussed, at length, in the course of a chapter headed “Love.”)40 The discussion of the oratorical uses of laughter takes up more than seventy chapters (or around one-fifth) of book 2, toward the center of the whole work.41Following an account of various other means of persuasion, largely fronted by Antonius, the words in this section are almost entirely given to the character of Julius Caesar Strabo—and are presented as light relief from what has been a rather lengthy exposition up to this point. As Antonius remarks, “I’m already worn out by the tough path my argument has taken and shall take a rest while Caesar is talking, as if I were in some convenient inn.”42 In tune with this, throughout the section we find laughter and a bit of banter among the participants.43

Modern critics tend to mislead when they describe these chapters as a digression specifically on “humor” or “wit” or “Witz und Humor.” To be sure, those topics take a substantial part in the discussion, and they provide the link from the previous section, on how to appeal to the audience (“Attractive too, and often extremely effective, are jokes and witticisms”44). But when the character of Strabo (as I shall call him from now on) takes the floor in this debate, his principal subject is laughter, divided—as Strabo insists—into five subfields: (a) what laughter is, (b) where it comes from, (c) whether an orator should want to provoke (movere) laughter in his audience, (d) how far, and (e) what the different categories of “the laughable” (ridiculum) are.45 The first three subfields get only brief discussion. The final pair, especially the last one, are given much fuller treatment.

As a piece of Ciceronian writing—which of course it is, despite some wild ideas that it was based on a treatise by Strabo—it is brave and innovative but occasionally, let’s be honest, can seem a bit muddled. Thanks to the careful analysis by Edwin Rabbie, no one any longer seriously imagines (as once they did) that it is little more than a scissors-and-paste job, merely regurgitating earlier discussions of laughter by Greek theorists, with a few Roman examples thrown in along the way.46 This is not, of course, to deny any engagement on Cicero’s part with the Greek rhetorical and philosophical tradition on laughter. Strabo explicitly refers to Greek books “on the laughable” (de ridiculis), which he claims to have read.47 And several observations, as well as some of the terminology used, appear to reflect an Aristotelian or at least a Peripatetic influence: from the first word of the section, where suavis (agreeable) is probably the equivalent of the Aristotelian hēdus, to the more general idea that the “locus . . . et regio quasi” (the field . . . and as it were the province) of the laughable lies in “what you might call the dishonorable or ugly,” which echoes what Aristotle says in the Poetics and was most likely one line that his followers took.48 The engagement is hardly surprising: almost anyone with any intellectual credentials who was trying to write about any ethical subject in the first century BCE would have been bound to think about what the Peripatetics had to say.49

But more important, it is also an emphatically “Roman” work. Some of the crucial distinctions that Cicero draws (such as that between cavillatio and dicacitas—“wit spread throughout a speech” versus “individual barbs”) rely on characteristically Latin terminology and have, so far as we can tell, no direct precedent in Greek theorizing.50 All the examples that he gives of laughter and bons mots are drawn from Roman history and oratory (not just thrown in, they are integral to his argument and sometimes even seem to lead it51). Besides, when Strabo refers to earlier Greek works on “the laughable,” he does so not to follow their theories but to dismiss them: “I had rather hoped,” he says, “that I would be able to learn something from them . . . but those who tried to impart any systematic theory of the subject showed themselves so silly [insulsi, literally “lacking in salt”] that there was nothing else to laugh at in them but their silliness [insulsitas].”52

In other words, what we have in this long discussion of oratorical laughter is a characteristically Roman cultural product: Roman practice and tradition, theorized by a Roman intellectual in dialogue with his Greek predecessors.


The details of this lengthy argument on laughter are in places difficult to fathom, individual passages (and jokes) are opaque, and the text is frequently corrupt and inaccurate.53 All the same, the gist of the section is clear enough. After Antonius has handed over to Strabo to discuss the new topic (because he is so outstanding at iocus and facetiae), Strabo starts (218) by laying down a basic distinction: facetiae (wit) is divided between what the “ancients” (veteres54) called cavillatio (extended wit) and dicacitas (barbs). Neither of these forms of wit can be taught, he claims, as both depend on natural facility, and he backs this up with a number of examples designed to show not only how useful such witticisms can be but also how impossible it would be to be trained in them. One of the most memorable (220) is a quick gibe (a case of dicacitas) made by Strabo’s half-brother, whose name, Catulus, literally means “Puppy.” He was challenged by his opponent in some courtroom, presumably in the course of a case of theft: “Why are you barking, Puppy Dog [Catule]?” “Because I see a thief” was Catulus’ instant retort.55

Some general conversation among the participants follows (228)—including some banter about which of them is really best at joking. But they end up giving the floor back to Strabo and agreeing that even if laughter raising is not a discipline that can be taught as such, there are nevertheless some practical guidelines (observatio quaedam est) that he could discuss and explain. At this point (235), Strabo outlines his five questions about laughter (see p. 109). He briefly waves aside the first three. The problem of the nature of laughter itself he leaves to Democritus; even the supposed experts do not understand it, he claims. On the question of its origin, he pinpoints, without much explanation, “what you might call the dishonorable or ugly” (236). And third, yes, there are several reasons why an orator should try to raise a laugh: hilaritas brings goodwill, everyone is impressed by cleverness, it crushes or makes light of or deflects an opponent, it reveals the speaker as a refined and witty (urbanus) individual, and most of all, it relieves the austerity of a speech and gets rid of offensive suggestions that cannot easily be dealt with by reason.

The next question—of how far an orator should use laughter—is treated at much greater length, over eleven chapters (237–47). Here Strabo issues a series of warnings about circumstances in which laughter is not appropriate (people do not laugh at serious wickedness or misery, for example) and about what kind of laughter raising is off limits for the orator. Particularly to be avoided is the laughter associated with the scurra or with the mime actor (mimus).56 And he gives a series of examples that point up the boundary between the acceptable and the unacceptable. Crassus, he explains (telling of an incident involving one of his fellow discussants), once raised a big laugh in a public gathering by a flagrant take-off of a very posh opponent—getting up and imitating his facial expression, his (presumably posh) accent, and even the pose he adopted in his statues (242).57But Strabo stresses that this kind of display “has to be handled with the greatest of caution”: a hint of mimicry is perfectly allowable (so that a listener “may imagine more than he actually sees”), but too much is the mark of the mime actor. Crassus’ showmanship was dangerously marginal. Other golden rules include not to seize every opportunity that presents itself for raising a laugh, always to do so for a point (not simply for the sake of laughter itself), and not to seem to have prepared a joke in advance. He quotes a quip against a one-eyed man (“I’ll come and dine with you, because I see you’ve got space for one”). This was the joke of a scurra, because it was premeditated, it would have applied to all one-eyed men (not just its immediate target), and it was unprovoked (246).

It is in the course of this section on how far an orator should exploit laughter that the character of Strabo first introduces the distinction between wit dicto (in verbal form: a joke that depends on the exact words in which it is told) and wit re (in substance: one that can be told differently and still prompt laughter). That contrast becomes the main organizing principle of the long final discussion (248–88), on the different categories of “the laughable.” Here Strabo reviews the main types of witticism under those two headings, including jokes from ambiguity, from the intrusion of the unexpected, from wordplay, from the inclusion of lines of verse (257–58—not a familiar modern category of the laughable), from words taken literally, from witty comparisons or images, from understatement, from irony, and so on. But throughout, warnings about the inappropriate use of laughter are again repeatedly voiced. In fact, near the start of this discussion on categories, there is a short digression (251–52) on the tactics for raising a laugh that, however effective they may be, the orator should avoid. These include clownish mimicry and silly walks, grimacing, and obscenity. The bottom line is that not everything that raises laughter (ridicula) is also witty (faceta), and it is wit that we look for in the ideal orator.

This diversion on laughter comes to an end with Strabo running out of steam in his classification (“I feel I have rather overdone my division into categories”) and offering a perfunctory summing-up of what prompts laughter: disappointing expectations, ridiculing other people’s character, comparison with something more dishonorable, irony, saying rather silly things, or criticizing what is foolish. If you want to speak in a joking way (iocose), he finally insists, you must be naturally equipped for it and have a face to fit. Not a “funny” face, but quite the reverse. “The more severe and sterner a man’s expression, the more ‘salty’ [salsiora] his remarks are usually thought to be” (288–89). And on that cue, he hands back to Antonius to resume the tougher road of oratorical theory on more serious themes.

There are all kinds of intriguing puzzles and problems in this discussion of laughter that go far beyond the precise sources for the arguments. As often in Cicero’s dialogues, the selection of characters has been one topic of interest. Why choose Strabo to front the discussion? There is no reason whatsoever to suppose that he had (as Arndt fondly fantasized) written a treatise on laughter, though Cicero does refer to him, here and elsewhere, as a noted wit.58 Maybe it was an attempt to offer a back-handed compliment to the increasingly powerful Julius Caesar, whose distant relative Strabo was.59 Or maybe the choice was rather less important than we might imagine. After all, just six years on from writing On the Orator, Cicero referred to this discussion in his letter to Volumnius Eutrapelus (see p. 105), mentioning the forms of wit “that I discussed through the character ofAntonius in the second book of On the Orator.”60 Had he forgotten that this section was almost entirely voiced by Strabo? If so, maybe not much hung on this choice of character.61

There has been even more debate about the overall structure of the argument and its precise terms. At the very start of Strabo’s intervention, he seems to be basing his argument on the division of facetiae into cavillatio and dicacitas, as the “ancients” called them—another nice instance, I would like to think, of the nostalgia characteristic of histories of laughter (see pp. 67–69). But shortly after that, when he restarts his exposition, the five basic questions about the orator’s use of laughter now become the structuring principle (with a subsidiary division of wit dicto and re). No amount of modern ingenuity has been able to make the first division compatible with the second, and most critics would now agree that the opposition between cavillatio and dicacitas simply gets shelved as the new fivefold structure of the argument takes its place. In fact, maybe part of Cicero’s (witty) point is to parade a shift in style over the course of Strabo’s intervention—from a classification that is explicitly said to be a something of a joke62 to a more intellectualizing, Hellenizing approach, never intended to be compatible with the other.

It is not clear, either, how the division of facetiae into cavillatio and dicacitas in On the Orator relates to the ostensibly contradictory division laid out in Cicero’s later treatise The Orator (written in the mid-40s BCE), where he separates sales (witticisms) intofacetiae and dicacitas.63 Did he change the words because (as Rabbie and others have guessed) cavillatio was beginning to take on its later sense (which cavil in English still retains), of “quibble”?64 Possibly, but the space of ten years seems a rather short time for any such linguistic shift to have been marked. In any case, that would still leave the problem of why the overarching term for wit (facetiae) in the earlier work was changed into one of its constituent parts in the later.65

This raises the yet bigger question of the exact sense of the many and various terms for wit and joking that are found in On the Orator and elsewhere in Roman discussions of laughter. I confidently asserted in an earlier chapter (see p. 76) that it is impossible to define precisely the differences between such words as sal, lepos, facetia, urbanitas, dictum, and so on—any more than we could explain the difference, if any, between a chuckle and a chortle. Was that being too pessimistic? After all, we could plausibly explain the difference between a chortle and a giggle. Does the discussion in On the Orator help us get closer to the differences and distinctions between these terms?

Cicero certainly offers a range of semidefinitions and carefully stressed contrasts or parallels in this treatise: ridicula are not all faceta, for example, and frigida can be the opposite of salsa, while bona in the phrase bona dicta is more or less a synonym forsalsa.66 This has raised the hopes of some scholars that a much more exact Roman typology of wit might be discerned, especially since it is clear that some of these terms (most notably urbanitas, with its whiff of urbanity in the modern sense) were becoming strongly ideologically loaded at the period Cicero when was writing—the catchwords or slogans of a particular style, whether of speech or of life.67 Articles and even whole books have been devoted to this question, but (revealing as they are) we still remain a long way from any authoritative framework of definitions. Of course we do. It is not that these words all meant exactly the same thing. But as the different usages (of facetiae, sal, dicacitas, and cavillatio) between On the Orator and The Orator have already suggested, the contrasts and collocations that gave them meaning were unstable, provisional, and heavily dependent on context—not to mention sometimes constructed with an eye to the contrasts and collocations of an equally unstable set of Greek terms.

The word lepos, for example, as Krostenko amply documents, could refer in Cicero (never mind a wider range of authors) to a style of engaging wit, and it could be the result of cultured education, one of a group of desirable qualities (including humanitas, sal,and suavitas), but it could also be a proxy in Latin for the Greek charis—as well as the property of the uncultured scurra (scurrile lepos).68 Quintilian likewise underlines the instability of this vocabulary when he reflects in his Handbook that Latin seems to have several terms for similar qualities of wit and attempts to separate them (diducere). Of salsum (salty), he has this to say: “Salsum we use in everyday language for ridiculum [laughable]. That’s not what it is by definition, though anything that is ridiculum ought also to be salsum. For Cicero says that everything which is salsum is a feature of the Athenians, but that is not because they are particularly predisposed to laughter. And when Catullus says, ‘There’s not a grain of sal in her body,’ he does not mean there is nothingridiculum in her body.” At which point he throws up his hands and states the blindingly obvious: “Salsum therefore is that which is not insalsum [unsalty].”69 It’s a fairly typical dead end.

But we can get further if we turn the question away from rhetoric and wit and toward the main subject of this section of On the Orator: that is, laughter itself. For these chapters represent a unique attempt to formulate a view of the role of laughter within public life and speaking, from a man (“new” though he may have been) at the very heart of the Roman political and social elite, and are worth considering in that particular light.


Strabo does not linger long on the first three of his questions about laughter (what it is, where it comes from, and whether an orator should provoke it), but even the little he does have to say is more illuminating than it is usually assumed to be. The brief but varied reasons he offers for provoking laughter in the audience, from gaining goodwill to trouncing the opponent or relieving the austerity of a speech, go far beyond aggressive derision and ridicule. His other comments also point in useful directions.

On the first question, it is true that he quickly deflects the problem to Democritus, with a sideswipe at ignorant “experts,” but that is not before he has succinctly characterized the nature of human laughter. He refers to it “bursting out so unexpectedly that try as we might we cannot keep it in” (a clear example of the myth of uncontrollability), and he explains how “at the same moment it takes possession of latera, os, venas, vultum, oculos.”70 This is probably the most comprehensive single list we have from antiquity of the parts of the body that laughter disrupts, but it is frustratingly hard to make full sense of it. Does latera here mean the sides (as in the heaving of the rib cage) or, as it sometimes does, the lungs (so referring to panting)? Is os the mouth, the voice, or the face (or is the face ruled out because of vultum, “facial expression,” later in the list)? And can venasreally be referring to the blood vessels (or maybe the pulse)—or would it make better sense if, as some editors have suspected, the text actually read genas, “cheeks”? And how exactly are the eyes (oculos) involved? But in whatever way we fine-tune the interpretation, we are clearly meant to understand that laughter makes a strongly physical impact, extending well beyond the mouth. Cicero does not have a silent smile in mind, and indeed, unless we fall back on some very creative translation, smiling is not on the agenda in this discussion at all. We are talking about raising (movere) laughter.

The answer to the second question introduces a more subtle point than may at first be apparent. According to Strabo, the “locus . . . et regio” of the laughable lies “in what you might call the dishonorable or ugly.” Whatever his Aristotelian influence may have been, he is suggesting something rather more complicated than the simple notion that people laugh at what is ugly. His precise claim is that “the only or the main objects of laughter are what people say to indicate or point out something dishonorable—in an honorable way.”71 In other words, laughter is provoked not by ugliness itself but—at a second-order level—by the wit of the joker who exploits the ugliness to make a joke. In fact, repeatedly in Strabo’s exposition we find the joke and the joker presented as crucial intermediaries—the catalysts, if you like—between the laugher and the object of his laughter.

That is highlighted in a later passage where Strabo explains that he is moved by peevish and rather bad-tempered jokes (stomachosa et quasi submorosa ridicula) but not, he adds, when it is an ill-tempered person who tells them. Why not? Because in that case it is not the person’s “wit” (sal) but his character (natura) that provokes the laughter.72 Strabo’s point is that laughter arises from the witty representation of the ugly, the dishonorable, or the bad tempered, not from those qualities themselves. Or at least that is how the proper kind of laughter, associated with the cultured elite, arises. In fact, much of the interest throughout this discussion lies in the methods of joking that are inappropriate—even if they reliably produce the heartiest outbursts of laughter.

Cicero is well aware that the subject of laughter—and its causes—is slippery, dependent on context, and resistant to hard-and-fast rules. He makes this point neatly when he has Strabo explain (at the beginning of his attempted classification of wit) that almost all the sources of ridicula can also be the source of serious thoughts (graves sententiae); the “only difference is that the serious [gravitas] derives from honorable and earnest matters, joking from those that are unseemly and, in a way, ugly.”73 In fact, he goes on, the very same words can sometimes be used both to praise and to ridicule, and he quotes a ridiculum of (probably) Gaius Claudius Nero, the consul of 207 BCE, aimed at a dishonest, light-fingered slave, “the only one against whom nothing in my house is locked or hidden away.” In the context of the thief, this would raise a laugh, but, as Strabo insists, exactly the same could be said word for word in praise of an honest slave.74

But slippery as the idea of laughter is, we do find in On the Orator some general rules of thumb about what gets a Roman audience laughing most. By and large, verbal wit on its own is not the most effective way of raising a laugh. Double entendres, as Strabo notes twice, are liable to attract praise for their cleverness but not loud laughter: “Other kinds of joking raise bigger laughs.”75 To get more of a laugh, try combining ambiguum with a different type of joke. The unexpected (“when we expect one thing and another is said”) is a more powerful prompt to laughter, and indeed can cause the speaker himself to crack up too: “Our own deviation [error] even makes us laugh ourselves.” Or as he underlines later, “Our own deviation naturally amuses us. So when we have been deceived, as it were, by our own expectation, we laugh.” This is the closest we ever come in the ancient world (and it is very close indeed) to a developed version of the modern incongruity theory.76

Sadly, however, Strabo’s main example of a combination of wordplay and the unexpected is one of those cases where ancient laughter is more or less lost to us. Drawn from a farce, the joke concerns a man who has apparently taken pity on a condemned debtor whom he sees being led away. “How much is he going down for?” the observer asks (as if he were going to come up with a financial rescue passage himself). “A thousand sesterces” is the reply. Strabo then takes up the tale: “If he had gone on to say [addidisset] no more than ‘You can take him away,’ that would have belonged to the type of the laughable depending on the unexpected. But what he actually said was [quia addidit] ‘No advance from me [nihil addo]—you can take him away.’ So by adding a wordplay [addito ambiguo], another type of the laughable, he was in my opinion very witty indeed [salsissimus].” Nihil addo is probably some kind of play on the vocabulary of the Roman auction (punning on the senses of “I have no more to say” versus “I am not increasing my bid”), but how exactly it marked the man out as “very witty indeed” is not entirely clear. But with the repeated use in Strabo’s account of various forms of the verb addo, it is hard to resist the conclusion that there is also some kind of internal joke in the Ciceronian narrative—constructing its description of verbal wit and punning in self-referentially punning terms.77

Puns, wordplay, and verbal quips were not without their risks. If they were obviously worked out beforehand; used indiscriminately, just for the sake of raising a laugh; or generic rather than specific, then they were the stock-in-trade not of the orator but of thescurra. They reeked of the commodification of laughter that was (as we shall see in chapter 8) the hallmark of the déclassé jokester. What is more, they could be counterproductive. Strabo tells a cautionary tale of a courtroom joke, making it an object lesson in why one should sometimes refrain from witticisms even when the occasion to make one presented itself. Philippus, so this story went, once asked the permission of the presiding magistrate to interrogate a witness, who happened to be tiny. The president, in a hurry, agreed: “But only if you’re short.” “You won’t complain. It’ll be a tiny interrogation.” This was a laughable thing to say. But it so happened that one of the judges was even shorter, and the laughter became directed against him, so the joke seemed scurrile. “Jokes,” Strabo explains, “that can fall on unintended targets, neat as they might be, are by definition those of a scurra.78

Strabo 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 that best guaranteed a laugh. What is more likely to promote laughter (ridiculum) than a clown? he asks. And the clown does this with his face, with mimicry, with his voice, and by the way he uses his whole body. The point is, though, that these vulgar forms of making people laugh are almost entirely off limits for the elite orator: “Funny faces are beneath our dignity. . . . Obscenity is scarcely fitting for a gentleman’s dinner party, let alone the for the Forum.” The only one that gets any kind of hesitant approval is mimicry, provided that it is used “surreptitiously and in passing.”79

In chapter 7 we shall return to the idea that mimicry was one of the central coordinates of Roman laughter (from actors to apes). But it remained on the very boundary of respectable oratorical wit. Some forms of imitation were, of course, highly to be approved: as the character of Antonius emphasizes earlier in the treatise, imitation of model orators was an important element in rhetorical training.80 Other forms may have raised enthusiastic laughter but were in danger of crossing the line.

The marvelous story of Crassus’ mimicry of his posh opponent nicely illustrates the correlation between imitation and levels of laughter (and gives a surprisingly lively picture of the presentational style of some Roman political debate). When he exclaimed, “By your noble birth, by your line-age,” the listeners laughed at his “imitation of [his rival’s] facial expression and accent.” But when he went on, “By your statues,” and extended his arm (presumably to mimic the classic pose of a Roman republican statue of an orator), “we really roared with laughter” (vehementius risimus).81Why this even stronger outburst? The logic of Strabo’s account suggests two factors at work: first, the engagement of the body (rather than just the face and mouth), and second, I suspect, the reductio ad absurdum of imitation that is on display here (as Crassus the orator imitates the statue that is itself an imitation of the oratorical pose).

But the problem was that such tactics of laughter—especially if they involved “excessive imitation”—brought the orator uncomfortably close to the mime actor (mimus) or the professional mimic (ethologus). This comparison is perhaps even more loaded than that with the scurra. As a good deal of important recent work has explored, one of the anxieties that surrounded all oratorical performance at Rome centered on the tendentious boundary between the elite orator and the dishonorable actor (legally branded, along with prostitutes and gladiators, as infamis).82 How could you draw a safe line between the powerfully persuasive performance of the expert orator and the equally persuasive, but socially abominated, performance of the infamis actor? Could an orator ever entirely escape the insinuation that he had more in common with an actor than he would like to admit? The question of the joking orator presents a more extreme version of that ideological dilemma. For in his capacity to make people laugh, the orator risks confusion not merelywith an actor but with that particular vulgar class of actors associated with the laughter-raising mimes.

Mime actors also raised in an acute form one of the other big dilemmas in the culture of laughter at Rome: how could you distinguish the man whose wit prompted laughter from the man who was being laughed at? How could you be confident that the joker was not in fact the butt? We have already seen a version of this problem in the case of “bad-tempered jokes,” when Strabo claimed to approve of those that were the result of wit but not those that were uttered by a “bad-tempered” man—with the implication that the man’s natural character was in that case the butt of the joke. It is even more explicit in the case of the clown, who, Strabo makes clear, with his funny faces and so on, is the object as much as the prompt of the laughter: “He is laughed at” (ridetur).83 Even if in Cicero’s treatise the active sense of ridiculus is usually the more prominent, the passive sense (“ridiculous” in our terms) is never far away. The problem for the joking orator is that in raising a laugh, he exposes himself to be laughed at: laughter, in other words, risks being an own goal.


The anxieties, ambivalences, and dilemmas that are so prominent in this section of On the Orator are strikingly different from the picture of an aggressive and relatively carefree use of laughter that has recently been extracted from the invective of Cicero’s speeches. It is true that there are overlaps. Some of the quips that Strabo quotes certainly aim at the physical peculiarities of the orator’s adversary (the unusual short stature of the witness, for example, or a missing eye). They also sometimes exploit the names of a particular opponent (Aulus Sempronius Musca is mocked as a “buzzer,” musca being a word for “insect,” and a man called Nobilior is ribbed as “Mobilior,” or “fickle”). But Strabo highlights the dangers of these gibes just as often as their wit or cleverness: he criticizes the joke against Musca, for example, because it was spoken “just to get a laugh” (risum quaesivit).84

More generally, Strabo hedges the use of laughter in oratory with a variety of conditions and caveats: it should not be used against really serious criminals or really unfortunate individuals or those held generally in high esteem (in case it rebounds). Occasionally, he even touches on issues of restraint that modern scholarship holds to be entirely absent from the protocols of Roman oratorical laughter in theory or practice. Corbeill, for example, considers Roman attitudes toward ridiculing personal characteristics for which the individual could not be held responsible. The Aristotelian tradition tended to exempt these from attack (it wasn’t, after all, your fault if you were short). By contrast, “the Romans,” Corbeill claims, “treated the condemnation of physical disadvantages quite differently. . . . A Roman located the responsibility for any deformity, regardless of its origin, solely in the person who bore that deformity.”85 But a debate about that very issue underlies one of the bantering exchanges that Strabo quotes. In this story, Crassus was in conflict with a deformis (ugly or deformed) opponent, who kept interrupting him. “Let’s hear the pretty boy,” Crassus said. When the laughter that this provoked had passed, his opponent replied, “I couldn’t mold my appearance, but I could mold my talents.” Crassus then retorted, to even stronger laughter, “Let’s hear the eloquent speaker, then” (the joke presumably being that the man was no more eloquent than he was pretty).86 It is true that Crassus wins the exchange, raising a good deal of laughter at his adversary’s expense, but the story clearly shows that the Aristotelian question of personal responsibility was on the Roman agenda.

So how should we reconcile the picture of aggressive Roman laughter drawn from Cicero’s speeches with the more theoretical discussion in On the Orator? Some people, no doubt, would argue that we should not try too hard. Theory and practice can diverge, even constructively (just as Cicero’s philosophical views on theology are often taken to be quite separate from his day-to-day practice as a Roman priest87). Maybe this attempt at theorizing really was an almost independent exercise, in dialogue more with earlier traditions of Greek theorizing than with his own oratorical practice. But that approach would signally fail to take into account the strong emphasis that Cicero places throughout On the Orator on the specific inheritance and traditions of Roman oratory.

A quite different suggestion sees the apparent divergence between the treatise and the speeches from the point of view of Cicero’s image and reputation. If one of the criticisms leveled against Cicero was that he never knew when to stop joking and raising laughter, that he was a scurra of a consul, then maybe this discussion of the role of laughter in oratory is a loaded and self-serving defense against those charges; perhaps he chose for that reason to put the section so centrally in the whole work.88 There may be something in this view. Certainly in reading Cicero’s remarks about the importance of keeping a firm boundary between the jokes of the orator and the jokes of the scurra, it is important not to forget that this was a boundary that he himself was often accused of transgressing. Yet there is no direct evidence at all that this long section of his essay was a response to personal criticism or an exercise in self-justification and defense, or that it was seen as such.

To turn this on its head, there is a strong argument for letting the protocols for laughter laid out in On the Orator nuance our view of the role and significance of the “aggressive humor” in the speeches and encourage us to see some of it as more playful than we usually assume. Some of the laughter and joking in oratory no doubt did work just as Corbeill and others have suggested. After all, even if we were to take the rules enshrined in On the Orator very seriously, there are no oratorical rules that are not sometimes broken (else what would be the point of the rules?). But more of the laughter than we imagine might fit the pattern that Strabo’s principles suggest: that is, it was designed not only to “shatter” an opponent but to bring goodwill or to relieve the austerity of a speech and directed not at really outrageous crimes or wickedness but at relatively minor faults.

Cicero’s gibes at Vatinius are instructive here. They have been taken as some of the most extreme examples of assassination by jest. As we have seen (above, p. 106), Cicero repeatedly ridiculed Vatinius’ apparently disgusting appearance (in particular his facial swellings), which he made stand for Vatinius’ “despicable nature” and exclusion from the communal values and good sense of the laughing crowd. Of course, we have no idea what Vatinius really looked like or how unsightly his strumae were (and neither did those later Roman writers who commented on them); it would certainly make a difference to how we judged the repartee to know whether the target was a gross disfigurement or just a slightly puffy face and a few warts. But it is worth noting that some ancient views presented the pattern of joking at Vatinius’ expense in rather different terms from those of modern critics. Seneca, for example, refers to the way that Vatinius deflected the gibes by joking about his own appearance,89 and some of the bons mots that Quintilian and (especially) Macrobius collected imply a relationship of much more jocular bantering between Cicero and Vatinius. On one occasion, Macrobius explains, Vatinius was ill and complained that Cicero had not been to visit him. “I wanted to come when you were consul,” Cicero quipped, “but nightfall caught up with me” (one of a series of jokes about the ludicrously short terms of office of consuls under Julius Caesar). Macrobius goes on to say that Cicero was getting his revenge here, because when he had returned from exile, “brought back, he boasted, on the shoulders of the state,” Vatinius had retorted, “So where did your varicose veins come from, then?”90

The point is that it is very hard to calibrate from the outside the aggression that comes with joking and banter, as many modern observers of the British House of Commons find—amazed to see that those who have insulted each other bitterly are, two hours later, sharing a drink in the Commons Bar. We should not assume that Cicero’s jesting “invective” was always an aggressive weapon of social and political exclusion; it might also have been an interactive idiom shared between the orator and his apparent victim.91


Some 150 years after Cicero wrote On the Orator, Quintilian composed his twelve-volume Handbook on Oratory. In the middle of the sixth book—much of which is devoted to how the orator might appeal to the audience’s emotions (and which opens with an extraordinary account of the death of Quintilian’s wife and two sons)—is a long chapter on laughter, almost as long as Strabo’s diversion in Cicero’s treatise. It is here that we find his comparison between Cicero and Demosthenes (see above, p. 103), his sound bite on risus being not far from derisus (p. 28), and his struggles to come up with a working definition of the word salsum (p. 115).92

Predictably enough, Cicero was one of Quintilian’s major sources,93 and there are many overlaps between the two accounts: Quintilian, for example, shares the division of wit into the categories of dicto (verbo in Quintilian) and re, warns against face pulling as an acceptable means of producing laughter for the elite orator, and advises his readers not to frame jokes against whole classes of people.94 He even includes some of the same examples of jokes and quips as Cicero—though his gift for telling them certainly does not equal his model’s. He rather mangles the joke about the thieving slave (“Nero said about a dreadful slave that there was no one in the house more trusted, as nothing was hidden away or locked”).95 And he seems to have missed the point of one of the better bons mots in On the Orator. As an example of a joke by overstatement, Strabo quotes Crassus’ gibe about Gaius Memmius, the tribune of 111 BCE: “He fancies himself so exalted that when he is coming into the Forum, he ducks his head to pass under the Arch of Fabius.” This turns up in Quintilian as “Cicero’s remark about the very tall man: he hit his head on the Arch of Fabius.”96

But there are significant differences too. For a start, Quintilian includes a much wider range of witty sayings than the dramatic date of On the Orator made possible: Cicero was restricted to jokes uttered before 91 BCE; Quintilian could cite quips from famous jokesters of later periods, including Cicero himself and the emperor Augustus. But Quintilian also drew on other discussions of laughter and related topics, including a book on “urbanity” by Domitius Marsus, to which he devotes a critical appendix (arguing, among other things, that Marsus’ definition of urbanitas was too general),97 and he structured his discussion under different headings, with different emphases, sometimes raising significantly different topics and anxieties, major and minor.

Quintilian makes a great deal of, for example, the analogy between wit and cookery. Cicero had hinted at this in On the Orator: Strabo at one point remarks that the things he is discussing amount to “seasoning” (condimenta) for day-to-day talk or legal cases. But Quintilian develops this into an extended analogy, linking laughter and food in a way that is an important theme in other writers (see below, pp. 148–51). Pinpointing the root of the word, he writes of salsum as “a simple seasoning of a speech, which is sensed by some unconscious judgment, rather like the palate. . . . For just as salt when it is sprinkled generously over food, though not in excess, brings a pleasure all of its own, so witticisms [sales] in speaking have something about them that gives us a thirst for listening.”98He also puts even more emphasis than Cicero had on the gentle character of oratorical wit. “Let us never want to hurt anyone [with our joking],” he insists, “and let’s have nothing to do with the idea that it is better to lose a friend than a jest.”99 We might be seeing here a chronological shift in oratorical style (from the gloves-off style of the Republic to the slightly insipid decorum of the Principate100), but honestly, two isolated discussions are not a strong enough foundation for any such argument.

Quintilian also introduces some striking observations not found in On the Orator. He claims, for example, that another characteristic of the scurra is that he makes jokes against himself (“one does not approve of that in an orator”).101 And he suggests that some words prompt laughter in and of themselves. “The word stomach [stomachus] has something funny about it,” and so does the word satagere (“bustle about” or even, in the context, “overact”).102 But there are two major anxieties about the use of laughter that bulk even larger in Quintilian’s discussion than in Cicero’s: the first is the potential for laughter to rebound on the joker, and the second is that prompts to laughter are very often untrue.

Strabo’s presentation revealed lurking worries that the orator might become, like the clown, the object of the laughter he provokes. This comes to the foreground in Quintilian’s Handbook, which stresses on several occasions the dangerously ambiguous nature of the laughter process. Referring, for example, to Cicero’s claim that laughter has its foundation “in what you might call the ugly or dishonorable,” he raises the possibility that pointing the finger at such things might rebound: “When these features are pointed out in others, that’s called urbanitas; when they rebound [reccidunt] on the speaker, that’s called foolishness [stultitia].” There are even those, he observes later, who do not avoid jokes that rebound on themselves (in ipsos reccidere), and he proceeds to tell the story of a particularly ugly orator who made himself vulnerable by taking a sideswipe at the appearance of someone else.103

Quintilian also plays even more explicitly than Cicero with the different sides, active and passive, of the word ridiculus, with the implication that the man who raises a laugh risks becoming (in our, passive, sense) ridiculous. The starkest example is found earlier in the book, before the section dedicated to the use of laughter. Discussing the epilogues of speeches (which might sometime include wit), Quintilian as often includes a description of what to avoid. On one occasion, he explains, the prosecutor was waving in court the bloody sword with which he claimed the victim had been murdered. The other advocate pretended to be scared and hid; when he was called on to speak, he peeped out—his head still partly covered up—and asked if the man with the sword had gone. “Fecit enim risum sed ridiculus fuit” (he raised a laugh but was ridiculous).104 Cicero might well have compared the performance to that of a mime actor.

Quintilian’s concerns about truth and falsehood take us further from Cicero’s themes. Cicero in fact was generally unperturbed by the lying and deception that joking could involve—as we can see in another joke about Memmius, the tribune of 111 BCE, that Strabo recounts. Crassus, he explains, once claimed in a speech that Memmius had been involved in a brawl over a girl with someone called Largus and had bitten a large chunk out of the man’s arm. Not just that, but all over the town of Tarracina, where the brawl took place, the letters LLLMM started to appear—which Crassus claimed stood for “Lacerat Lacertum Largi Mordax Memmius” (or, as the Loeb translation nicely renders it, “Mordacious Memmius lacerates Largus’ limb”). It raised a good laugh—and every word of it was made up. For Cicero, that was a fine jest, appropriate for an orator, whether it was broadly true with just a sprinkling of “fiblets” (mendaciunculis) or a total fabrication.105

It was not so for Quintilian. In a more extreme version of the traditional ancient concerns about the truth of rhetoric, he starts his section on “laughter raising” with a worry about falsehood in joking: “What brings the greatest difficulty to the subject is, first of all, that a joke [dictum ridiculum] is usually untrue.” Although he does not often return directly to this problem, it hovers over the discussion—as when he states that “everything that is obviously made up produces laughter.”106

This is a concern that we find elsewhere in Roman discussions of laughter in very different literary genres. One of the most memorable versions of this theme of truth versus falsehood in the production of laughter is in fact to be found in the Fables of Phaedrus, written in the first half of the first century CE. It is the story of a competition in front of an audience between a scurra, “well known for his urban wit” (notus urbano sale), and a peasant (rusticus)—as to who could do the best imitation of a pig. The scurra had started the show on the first day, winning loud applause for his pig noises, but the peasant challenged him to a second round on the very next day. An even bigger crowd turned up, determined to deride (derisuros). The scurra repeated his performance of the previous day, to great applause. Then the peasant came forward, pretending that he had a real pig concealed underneath his clothes—which in fact he did. He tweaked the animal’s ear to make it (really) squeal, but the audience still preferred the scurra’s version, voting it a much better imitation of a pig than the real pig. As they threw the peasant off the stage, he produced the animal to prove to the audience what a mistake they had made.107

It’s a dense story, made all the more complicated by the layers of simulation and dissimulation involved (even the peasant is pretending to be pretending). But the simple idea that the scurra, the professional jokester, could please the audience with his imitation noise better than the peasant could with his real pig is just what Quintilian would have been worried about.


I started this chapter with a play on words that Quintilian much admired. Cicero—who had been pressed to specify at Milo’s trial when Clodius had died—replied with a single (hilarious) word: sero (late/too late). Why did Quintilian find this response such a good joke? I am far from clear that I have the final answer to that. But the discussions of oratorical laughter in both On the Orator and the Handbook do bring us a little closer to understanding its impact on Quintilian. Various factors made this a quip of which one might especially approve. It was spontaneous and unprepared. It was a response rather than an unprovoked attack. It applied only to Clodius, rather than being a class action.

No less important, for Quintilian at least, it was true . . . unlike some of the instances of laughter and joking in the Roman imperial court that we will explore in the next chapter.

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