In the latest issue:

Real Men Go to Tehran

Adam Shatz

What Trump doesn’t know about Iran

Patrick Cockburn

Kaiser Karl V

Thomas Penn

The Hostile Environment

Catherine Hall

Social Mobilities

Adam Swift

Short Cuts: So much for England

Tariq Ali

What the jihadis left behind

Nelly Lahoud

Ray Strachey

Francesca Wade

C.J. Sansom

Malcolm Gaskill

At the British Museum: ‘Troy: Myth and Reality’

James Davidson

Poem: ‘The Lion Tree’

Jamie McKendrick


Jenny Turner

Boys in Motion

Nicholas Penny

Jia Tolentino

Lauren Oyler

Diary: What really happened in Yancheng?

Long Ling

Short Cuts: Harry Goes Rogue

Jonathan Parry

Laugh as long as you canJames Davidson

Terms and Conditions

These terms and conditions of use refer to the London Review of Books and the London Review Bookshop website ( — hereafter ‘LRB Website’). These terms and conditions apply to all users of the LRB Website ("you"), including individual subscribers to the print edition of the LRB who wish to take advantage of our free 'subscriber only' access to archived material ("individual users") and users who are authorised to access the LRB Website by subscribing institutions ("institutional users").

Each time you use the LRB Website you signify your acceptance of these terms and conditions. If you do not agree, or are not comfortable with any part of this document, your only remedy is not to use the LRB Website.

  1. By registering for access to the LRB Website and/or entering the LRB Website by whatever route of access, you agree to be bound by the terms and conditions currently prevailing.
  2. The London Review of Books ("LRB") reserves the right to change these terms and conditions at any time and you should check for any alterations regularly. Continued usage of the LRB Website subsequent to a change in the terms and conditions constitutes acceptance of the current terms and conditions.
  3. The terms and conditions of any subscription agreements which educational and other institutions have entered into with the LRB apply in addition to these terms and conditions.
  4. You undertake to indemnify the LRB fully for all losses damages and costs incurred as a result of your breaching these terms and conditions.
  5. The information you supply on registration to the LRB Website shall be accurate and complete. You will notify the LRB promptly of any changes of relevant details by emailing the registrar. You will not assist a non-registered person to gain access to the LRB Website by supplying them with your password. In the event that the LRB considers that you have breached the requirements governing registration, that you are in breach of these terms and conditions or that your or your institution's subscription to the LRB lapses, your registration to the LRB Website will be terminated.
  6. Each individual subscriber to the LRB (whether a person or organisation) is entitled to the registration of one person to use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site. This user is an 'individual user'.
  7. The London Review of Books operates a ‘no questions asked’ cancellation policy in accordance with UK legislation. Please contact us to cancel your subscription and receive a full refund for the cost of all unposted issues.
  8. Use of the 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is strictly for the personal use of each individual user who may read the content on the screen, download, store or print single copies for their own personal private non-commercial use only, and is not to be made available to or used by any other person for any purpose.
  9. Each institution which subscribes to the LRB is entitled to grant access to persons to register on and use the 'subscriber only' content on the web site under the terms and conditions of its subscription agreement with the LRB. These users are 'institutional users'.
  10. Each institutional user of the LRB may access and search the LRB database and view its entire contents, and may also reproduce insubstantial extracts from individual articles or other works in the database to which their institution's subscription provides access, including in academic assignments and theses, online and/or in print. All quotations must be credited to the author and the LRB. Institutional users are not permitted to reproduce any entire article or other work, or to make any commercial use of any LRB material (including sale, licensing or publication) without the LRB's prior written permission. Institutions may notify institutional users of any additional or different conditions of use which they have agreed with the LRB.
  11. Users may use any one computer to access the LRB web site 'subscriber only' content at any time, so long as that connection does not allow any other computer, networked or otherwise connected, to access 'subscriber only' content.
  12. The LRB Website and its contents are protected by copyright and other intellectual property rights. You acknowledge that all intellectual property rights including copyright in the LRB Website and its contents belong to or have been licensed to the LRB or are otherwise used by the LRB as permitted by applicable law.
  13. All intellectual property rights in articles, reviews and essays originally published in the print edition of the LRB and subsequently included on the LRB Website belong to or have been licensed to the LRB. This material is made available to you for use as set out in paragraph 8 (if you are an individual user) or paragraph 10 (if you are an institutional user) only. Save for such permitted use, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt such material in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department.
  14. All intellectual property rights in images on the LRB Website are owned by the LRB except where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited. Save for such material taken for permitted use set out above, you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, post, reproduce, translate or adapt LRB’s images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the LRB. To obtain such permission and the terms and conditions applying, contact the Rights and Permissions department. Where another copyright holder is specifically attributed or credited you may not download, store, disseminate, republish, reproduce or translate such images in whole or in part in any form without the prior written permission of the copyright holder. The LRB will not undertake to supply contact details of any attributed or credited copyright holder.
  15. The LRB Website is provided on an 'as is' basis and the LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website will be accessible by any particular browser, operating system or device.
  16. The LRB makes no express or implied representation and gives no warranty of any kind in relation to any content available on the LRB Website including as to the accuracy or reliability of any information either in its articles, essays and reviews or in the letters printed in its letter page or material supplied by third parties. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) arising from the publication of any materials on the LRB Website or incurred as a consequence of using or relying on such materials.
  17. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability of any kind (including liability for any losses, damages or costs) for any legal or other consequences (including infringement of third party rights) of any links made to the LRB Website.
  18. The LRB is not responsible for the content of any material you encounter after leaving the LRB Website site via a link in it or otherwise. The LRB gives no warranty as to the accuracy or reliability of any such material and to the fullest extent permitted by law excludes all liability that may arise in respect of or as a consequence of using or relying on such material.
  19. This site may be used only for lawful purposes and in a manner which does not infringe the rights of, or restrict the use and enjoyment of the site by, any third party. In the event of a chat room, message board, forum and/or news group being set up on the LRB Website, the LRB will not undertake to monitor any material supplied and will give no warranty as to its accuracy, reliability, originality or decency. By posting any material you agree that you are solely responsible for ensuring that it is accurate and not obscene, defamatory, plagiarised or in breach of copyright, confidentiality or any other right of any person, and you undertake to indemnify the LRB against all claims, losses, damages and costs incurred in consequence of your posting of such material. The LRB will reserve the right to remove any such material posted at any time and without notice or explanation. The LRB will reserve the right to disclose the provenance of such material, republish it in any form it deems fit or edit or censor it. The LRB will reserve the right to terminate the registration of any person it considers to abuse access to any chat room, message board, forum or news group provided by the LRB.
  20. Any e-mail services supplied via the LRB Website are subject to these terms and conditions.
  21. You will not knowingly transmit any virus, malware, trojan or other harmful matter to the LRB Website. The LRB gives no warranty that the LRB Website is free from contaminating matter, viruses or other malicious software and to the fullest extent permitted by law disclaims all liability of any kind including liability for any damages, losses or costs resulting from damage to your computer or other property arising from access to the LRB Website, use of it or downloading material from it.
  22. The LRB does not warrant that the use of the LRB Website will be uninterrupted, and disclaims all liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred as a result of access to the LRB Website being interrupted, modified or discontinued.
  23. The LRB Website contains advertisements and promotional links to websites and other resources operated by third parties. While we would never knowingly link to a site which we believed to be trading in bad faith, the LRB makes no express or implied representations or warranties of any kind in respect of any third party websites or resources or their contents, and we take no responsibility for the content, privacy practices, goods or services offered by these websites and resources. The LRB excludes to the fullest extent permitted by law all liability for any damages or losses arising from access to such websites and resources. Any transaction effected with such a third party contacted via the LRB Website are subject to the terms and conditions imposed by the third party involved and the LRB accepts no responsibility or liability resulting from such transactions.
  24. The LRB disclaims liability to the fullest extent permitted by law for any damages, losses or costs incurred for unauthorised access or alterations of transmissions or data by third parties as consequence of visit to the LRB Website.
  25. While 'subscriber only' content on the LRB Website is currently provided free to subscribers to the print edition of the LRB, the LRB reserves the right to impose a charge for access to some or all areas of the LRB Website without notice.
  26. These terms and conditions are governed by and will be interpreted in accordance with English law and any disputes relating to these terms and conditions will be subject to the non-exclusive jurisdiction of the courts of England and Wales.
  27. The various provisions of these terms and conditions are severable and if any provision is held to be invalid or unenforceable by any court of competent jurisdiction then such invalidity or unenforceability shall not affect the remaining provisions.
  28. If these terms and conditions are not accepted in full, use of the LRB Website must be terminated immediately.
Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up 
by Mary Beard.
California, 319 pp., £19.95, June 2014, 978 0 520 27716 8
Show More
Show More

The oldest​ joke I know, the oldest joke that a real person quite probably told on a quite probably actual occasion, is one ascribed to Sophocles. Ion of Chios, a lesser poet, claimed he witnessed the great man at a symposium or drinking party in 440 BC when Sophocles was en route to assist with a campaign to crush a revolt on the nearby island of Samos. As the evening wore on Sophocles engaged in banter on the subject of a handsome wine-waiter, whom he had made blush. He quoted a line from another tragic poet, Phrynichus: ‘the light of love shines on purpled cheeks.’ A ‘teacher of letters’ challenged him, arguing that cheeks coloured with purple would not be beautiful. ‘And so you would object,’ Sophocles replied, ‘to Homer’s “rosy-fingered Dawn” I suppose on the grounds that it describes the hands of a clothes-dyer.’ There was laughter all round. Sophocles returned to the boy and asked him to blow away a piece of debris floating in his cup, moving the cup closer to himself as the boy bent lower until he was close enough for Sophocles to put an arm around him and give him a kiss. ‘Pericles says I need to devote more time to generalship,’ Sophocles continued, ‘so what do you think of my stratagem?’

At around this time there arose in Syracuse and Athens a new urban type who came to be known as the ‘parasite’. Parasites were practised gatecrashers who relied on the conventions of hospitality to gain access to dinner parties, often sponging enough to keep themselves from having to make an honest living. In return they would keep the conversation light and flatter the host. Xenophon introduces us to one such character, Philip, in his Symposium, a work of historical fiction written in c.365 BC. Philip stands on the threshold and announces that he is a laughter-maker (gelotopoios) and jokes that he came uninvited because he thought it was more amusing. The lameness of his jokes and the lack of response in his audience eventually provokes a lamentation about the state of laughter in the city and the sad prospects for the future of the profession. His earnestness finally produces the necessary amusement, and he instantly cheers up.

Real-life parasites must have been more entertaining than Philip and became so familiar at the banquets of the rich that they were given nicknames, like pets: Eucrates was ‘Lark’, Callimedon ‘Crayfish’ and Democles ‘Flasklet’. It seems likely that the term ‘parasite’ was itself coined as a nickname, punning on a term for a type of sacred official belonging to the cult of Heracles. Eucrates was supposed to be the funniest, although his jokes mostly depended on untranslatable wordplay: ‘once when he was at a drinking party in a rundown house he said: “here one must dine like the caryatids with one hand supporting the ceiling.” When the [rubbish] lyre-singer Polyctor came across a stone in his soup Eucrates said: “even the soup is pelting you off the platform.”’

Often paired with the parasitoi were the women who sat alongside them at these drinking parties, the hetaeras or courtesans. The most famous and successful ‘family’ of courtesans in classical Greece was that of Nicarete and her seven ‘daughters’, nearly all of whom became well known. Perhaps the most celebrated was Metaneira, usually seen in the company of rich, famous and/or talented men in the first decades of the fourth century BC, not least Lysias, the master of classical Greek prose who sponsored her initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Isocrates, his younger, more mannerist rival. Decades later someone claimed to remember some of Metaneira’s jokes: ‘When the parasite “Flasklet” leaped onto the couch she said: “Mind you don’t upset me.”’ Funnier and cleverer were the jokes ascribed to the historically more insubstantial woman called Gnathaena, ‘the Jaw-ess’: ‘You have such a high opinion of yourself,’ she said to a parasite: ‘You never go anywhere you are invited.’

It might seem implausible that an off-the-cuff remark made one night at a party would be recorded in a collection of anecdotes eighty or more years later, but this was not just an oral culture but a quoting culture – Ion quotes Sophocles quoting Phrynichus, Pindar and Homer – and a central conceit of Plato’s dialogues is that people might commit long conversations to memory and teach them to others. Indeed, collections of anecdotes like the one made by Ion seem to be among the earliest prose literature, which is ironic when you consider that they are writings up of quintessentially oral exchanges.

Jokes seem quickly to have become something of an industry. Already in Aristophanes’ Wasps the fashionable son recommends that his vulgar father memorise the jokes he hears at the symposium so that when he gets into drunken brawls on the way home he can persuade his victims to laugh it off instead of suing for damages. He is thinking of some of Aesop’s fables or the type of jokes known as ‘Sybarite stories’ about the ridiculous extremes of luxury and delicacy attained by the effete citizens of the lost city of Sybaris. His father proves inept at both remembering and telling these Sybarite stories, a nice example of a comic poet making a joke of jokes that fall flat. Half a century later the jokes of the musician Stratonicus were collected and published by Alexander’s official historian, Callisthenes, while Callimedon ‘Crayfish’, we are told, was a member of a chuckle club called the Sixty that met, like the original cult parasitoi, at a shrine of Heracles. The group’s jokes were systematically written down and sold to Philip of Macedon for 6000 drachmas, presumably an exclusive deal.

The relationship between laughing parasites and comic poets is long and complicated. The first example of the type appears on stage in the late archaic or early classical period in a comedy called Hope or Wealth by the Sicilian playwright Epicharmus. Already the tropes are well established: the threat of hunger, the lack of an invitation, the flattery and the jokes – ‘I make much laughter’ is the way he describes his metier. Half a century later in 421 BC Eupolis beat Aristophanes into second place at the festival of Dionysus with a comedy starring a chorus of parasites feasting at the table of Callias, the host (not coincidentally) of Xenophon’s Symposium. In the next century, during the so-called Middle Comedy, parasitoi such as Eucrates and Callimedon became celebrities thanks in part to their frequent appearances on the comic stage; it’s not always easy to tell where the real-life historical joker ends and his fictional counterpart begins, blurring the lines between stand-up and sitcom. By the late fourth century, when Middle Comedy was replaced by New Comedy and almost all references to actual people, politics and events were avoided or evaded, the parasite had a place in the cast of stock types, alongside the anxious courtesan, the miserly father, the boastful soldier, the wily slave and the errant young man; he even acquired his own mask and costume: normally fat and dark-skinned with a hooked nose, a short neck and a short tunic indicating poverty and shamelessness.

From an early period liberality (eleutheria) and licence (parrhesia) were important elements in the ideology of the joke. But it is not too difficult to detect signs of constraint: a fear of crossing a line and saying something inappropriate (aselges) and ending up on the street with an empty stomach is characteristic of the earliest parasites in comedy and probably of their real-life counterparts. On the positive side, there were clear principles about what made a good joke and a good joker. Most obviously, a joke should be of the moment, a quickly improvised response to a specific event involving a specific person in a specific context: situational comedy. It is this deftness (dexiotēs) or agility (eutrapelia) that paradoxically makes the retelling of ancient jokes seem so laboured today, a laboriousness directly proportional to the spontaneity of the original event. The self-appointed memorialist has first to describe the scenario, the players and the action before he can actually tell the joke, which after such a build-up is inevitably a damp squib. Ion is quite happy to spend a couple of pages explaining the context for Sophocles’ two bons mots and we are grateful to him, and to Athenaeus, the antiquarian student of life in former times, who quoted his quotation. The courtesan Metaneira was not always accorded such courtesy, so we have to make what we will of a second remembered joke: ‘When Democles the parasite, nicknamed “Flasklet”, fell into some builders’ dust, she said: “Good for you, you’ve put yourself where the pebbles are.”’ (The most recent translator suggests that this is a reference to the pebble-votes made by the jurors in court, where Democles will soon end up.)

In his Nicomachean Ethics Aristotle wonders if it would be going too far to attempt to regulate jokes and to draw a line between wit and buffonery (which he defines as getting a laugh at any cost even if it causes pain to the object of the joke) before concluding that the liberal and gracious man needs to strike a middle path between buffoonery and boorishness. A mother in Lucian’s sixth courtesan dialogue is keen that her daughter learn a similar lesson. The most successful courtesan is gay, but doesn’t laugh at the drop of a hat; instead she smiles sweetly and seductively. She is deft (dexiōs) in her intercourse and never phoney. She doesn’t talk too much and never makes a joke at the expense of anyone who is present.

There was a minor diplomatic incident in 346 when the nine-year-old Alexander the Great apparently made some jokes at the expense of another boy during a party organised by his father, Philip of Macedon, to entertain some Athenian ambassadors. One of the ambassadors, Demosthenes, reported the incident to the Council of Athens in some detail and was accused in turn of bringing shame on the city with a double-entendre at the expense of an underage boy. One reason the parasitos, the maker of jokes, was so frequently the target of the jokes that have come down to us is that he was the one member of the company it was appropriate to laugh at, a licensed punchbag. By directing all her barbs at Democles aka ‘Flasklet’ Metaneira was showing that she knew the rules.

The celebration of Sophocles’ jokes and the determined acquisition of Attic salt for Philip’s Macedonian dinner parties shows the importance for a Greek of being seen to be a ‘playful’ character, paidiōdēs. This was an important part of a particular cultural persona, companionable, convivial, at home with Greekness – not least its language and literature – and above all free, but Greek playfulness always seems to be self-conscious, silhouetted against the ever present seriousness of potential violence. It is, in other words, not relaxed so much as off-duty, taking a time out from politics and war, swords temporarily sheathed, lawsuits left at the door to be picked up again on the way out. Sophocles, after all, was on a mission to crush the revolt of a neighbouring island and was the guest of the Athenian representative on Chios when he tried out his amusing little stratagem, a general with real ships and real soldiers who inflicted real damage on the people of Samos. It may seem absurd that on an embassy of such critical historical importance as that sent to Philip from Athens in 346 men were hired to tell jokes imported at some expense from the Sixty. But laughter lubricated the more resistant parts of international relations and the ambassadors returned thinking they had scored a major coup. They were wrong. The expensive jokes were just as much a part of Philip’s armoury as his gold cups, his fine wines, his siege machines and his standing army.

Even if Democritus the laughing philosopher has been forgotten and ‘Attic salt’ is no longer a familiar phrase, the humorous aspect of Greek and especially Athenian culture isn’t a new discovery. From the ‘unquenchable laughter’ of the gods in Homer and the cults of ‘laughter-loving Aphrodite’ (more correctly, ‘Aphrodite fond of smiles’ – philommeidēs) to the ironic speeches of Plato’s Symposium by way of Aristophanes and Lysistrata, the Greeks are remembered as genial as well as clever. Roman laughter, which is the subject of Mary Beard’s book, Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up, is a much less obvious topic of study.

The​ first few pages do nothing to dispel our misgivings. She begins in autumn 192 AD, when the emperor Commodus, megalomaniac son of Marcus Aurelius, is beginning seriously to lose it. He has subjected the people and senate of Rome to two weeks of compulsory entertainment, mostly involving the slaughter of a great number of animals in the Colosseum. At one point in this Blutfest, we are told by an eyewitness, Cassius Dio, who had a privileged position with the other senators in the front row, Commodus decapitated an ostrich:

he 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 head, making it clear he would do the same to us. And in fact many would have been put to death on the spot for laughing at him if I had not myself taken some bay leaves from my wreath and chewed on them and persuaded my neighbours to follow suit, so that by continually moving our mouths, we might hide the fact that we were laughing.

The next incident of laughter, also from Dio, takes us back five hundred years to the early third century BC, when a Roman embassy arrived in the Greek city of Tarentum. The Tarentines were in the middle of a festival and laughed at the envoys, mocking their funny way of talking and their dress. As they were leaving, one man stood in the way of the chief envoy, Lucius Postumius Megellus, bent over and shat all over his toga. The Tarentines thought it was hilarious. ‘Laugh!’ Megellus said. ‘Laugh as long as you can! For you’ll be a long time weeping when you wash this garment in your blood.’

It gets worse. The Romans, Beard proposes, never smiled. They didn’t have a word for it, bequeathing to Romance languages in sourir, sorridere and so on only derivatives of subridere, which refers to a suppressed laugh. This accords with what Beard calls ‘other negative hints which suggest that smiling was not a major part (if a part at all) of Roman social semiotics … it is hard to resist the suggestion of Jacques Le Goff that (in the Latin West at least) smiling as we understand it was an invention of the Middle Ages.’

An unsmiling people might not seem a good hunting-ground for a student of laughter and jokes but smile’s loss is laughter’s gain and Beard insists on restoring to full-throated vocalisation all those passages in literature where scholars have translated ridere and its cognates as a silent smile, a response which, she writes, ‘tends to erode the potential foreignness of Roman patterns of laughter, to make them look increasingly like our own’. One case-study concerns a Roman governor who executed a condemned man at a dinner party because his mistress had never seen a man’s head cut off. When the victim is led in the woman didn’t ‘smile’ as the standard translation has it but ‘laughed’, a fact that ‘underlines the irruption of gelastic frivolity into the world of state business’.

Similarly, the end of Virgil’s mysterious so-called Fourth Eclogue is translated as follows by J.B. Greenough in the Loeb edition:

Begin to greet thy mother with a smile [risu],
o baby-boy! ten months of weariness
for thee she bore: O baby-boy, begin!
For him, on whom his parents have not smiled [cui non risere],
gods deem not worthy of their board or bed.

But Virgil is referring to noisy laughter not silent smiles, Beard insists. Classicists are guilty of turning a scene from pagan Rome into a nativity scene with an adoring Virgin and an infant Jesus smiling up at her, or worse, imposing ‘some version of “baby’s first smile” on the culture of ancient Rome’. Indeed, Beard devotes five pages to the textual and syntactical problems as well as the proper translation of these last lines of the Fourth Eclogue. Is it cui non risere or qui non risere in line 62? Is the boy laughed on or is he laughing at his parents? And in line 60 is he greeting his mother with a laugh or recognising her through her laughter? Beard eventually notes with approval Marina Warner’s suggestion that Virgil may have been deliberately vague, leaving it open whether the laughter was that of the child or the parent, perhaps wanting his readers ‘to understand that recognition and laughter happen together at the very start of understanding, identity and life itself’.

All modern classicists like to display due caution before coming to a conclusion and will reluctantly obelise any words in a manuscript that resist obvious emendation before deciding that on balance one version is better than another. But Beard consistently embraces the obelus and celebrates (even, one sometimes suspects, exaggerates) difficulties in the service of a larger postmodern project to question truth itself in order to wean us off solids and make us comfortable in the cloud of unknowing.

The first work of Beard’s I reviewed was an exhibition she curated with John Henderson at the Ashmolean nearly 25 years ago called simply ‘The Exhibition’, the aim of which, so far as I can remember, was to shatter the glass certainties of the vitrine with some outrageous labels, hidden objects and a trail of paper question-marks. For this reason I was not at all surprised to discover that there would be no answers to the interesting questions prompted by Dio’s stifled laughter that she sets out to investigate: what prompted the Romans to laugh? How did laughter operate in Roman society and what were its effects? What jobs (intellectual, political, ideological) did it do? How was laughter controlled or provoked?

The point is not to find answers but to question smug factoids about Roman laughter and simple theories about the way laughter works, while exploring the often unfamiliar Roman world through which the search for answers takes us. And Beard’s postmodernist tendency serves her well in her other office, that of loyal tribune of the Roman people and forceful advocate of the Romans’ claims on the attention of cultural historians. Roman culture is often overlooked on the grounds that it is derivative, a bias towards the original that postmodernism has long tried to subvert.

I don’t think there is any virtue in doubt per se, because doubt can be used to fortify the conventional as well as to subvert it, but it’s worth trying to calibrate the degrees of difference between ‘not completely identical with’ and ‘nothing whatever to do with’ and it’s always useful to separate fuzziness of knowledge from fuzziness in fact. Nevertheless, the book is fascinating – engaging, sure-footed and intellectually stimulating. Above all, Beard resolutely sticks to the material of laughter and funny stuff, and keeps the theories of ancient philosophers and the abstractions of modern ethnopsychologists in their proper place. And, as always in her work, the complicatedness and uncertainty are intercut with brief wrong-footing fits of demotic straight-talking – the proximate source of so much material about ancient jokes and jokers, Athenaeus, is described as ‘dazzling (and sometimes, let’s be honest, tedious)’.

My favourite chapter was the last, on the text known as Philogelōs (‘the laughter-lover’). Here we come across Beard’s second eyebrow-raising claim: the Romans may not have smiled but they invented the joke. The Philogelōs is a collection of around 260 jokes compiled from a number of ancient manuscripts of which the earliest (and shortest) copy still in existence belongs to the tenth century AD. An epigraph introduces us to the collection by means of joke number 56: a student philosopher, a bald man and a barber on a journey together stop for the night, taking turns to guard the luggage. First turn goes to the barber, who passes the time by shaving the head of the student. It’s the student’s turn next. On being woken he rubs his head and finds himself hairless: ‘What an idiot the barber is,’ he said, ‘he has woken up the bald man instead of me.’

This ‘student philosopher’, the scholastikos, features in almost half these jokes. He is often translated as a ‘pedant’, ‘learned simpleton’, ‘absent-minded professor’ or ‘numbskull’, but Beard prefers ‘egghead’. He looks at first sight like the distinguished classical antecedent of the Irishman in English jokes or the Belgian in Dutch and French jokes, but Beard argues that the jokes are more pointed; he is ‘someone who is foolish by reason of his learning, who applies the strictest logic to reach the most ridiculous conclusions’. For example: a scholastikos got into bed with his grandmother. His father was furious with him; he was furious in return: ‘Goodness knows how long you’ve been screwing my mother and you didn’t get a beating from me. But the one time I try to have sex with your mother …’

Somewhat closer to modern ethnic jokes are the ones about the foolish citizens of Cyme, Abdera and Sidon. But, as Beard demonstrates, the apparent familiarity of ancient ‘moron jokes’ is superficial; the stupidity of the Abderite, the Cumaean or the scholastikos is interestingly peculiar, often turning on a confusion between representation and reality, whether of signs and signified or dreams and reality, and sometimes, as in the joke about the bald man and the barber, a confusion about the difference between self and other. They seem to reveal a fundamentally strange worldview or at least a much more fundamental undermining of conventional assumptions about the world than you would find in Jerry Seinfeld or even Eddie Izzard. The closest I can think of is Dougal in Father Ted getting confused about the difference between small and far away.

Beard’s​ treatment of these jokes is careful, imaginative and sharp, managing to get far more out of the Philogelōs than I would have thought possible. But it is a Greek text and even if we notice that the title of Beard’s book is not ‘Roman Laughter’ but Laughter in Ancient Rome it is still a bit disconcerting that it should conclude with a Greek jokebook and begin with questions provoked by Cassius Dio, a Greek from Asia Minor, writing in Greek for a Greek-speaking audience, even if his laughter was in Rome. And even if we extend the title to ‘Laughter in the Roman Empire’, there were jokes and indeed jokebooks long before the Tarentines shat on Megellus’ toga. Or were there?

Beard acknowledges the long literary history of collections of the wit and wisdom of famous men. The jokes of Cicero, one of her favourites, were collected after his death by his loyal secretary, Tiro. Julius Caesar compiled a collection of his own, although Augustus, his heir, is said to have suppressed publication and there may have been unofficial collections of Augustus’ own one-liners as well as those of his naughty daughter Julia in circulation. But these ascribed jokes are fundamentally different from the generalised unattached jokes of the Philogelōs, Beard argues, some of which are anonymised versions of anecdotes previously connected to famous men. So Scipio Nasica – ‘Why didn’t you believe me when I said I wasn’t in? Yesterday I believed your maid when she said you weren’t in. Am I not more deserving of credit?’ – has become a generic ‘grumpy man’. And the notorious sacker of Corinth, Lucius Mummius Achaicus, has been replaced by a generic scholastikos: ‘taking some old master paintings from Corinth he said to his captains: “If you lose these, I’ll want new ones to replace them.”’

Closer to the Philogelōs, she argues, are the fictional jokebooks referred to by parasites in the comedies of Plautus (born about thirty years after the incident in Tarentum). In Stichus the parasite Gelasimus is trying to learn jokes from his books, having tried unsuccessfully to auction them off to the audience; he is interrupted mid-bid. Saturio in Persa has a whole cartful of books and offers six hundred jokes, ‘all Athenian … not a single Sicilian’, as a dowry for his daughter. These must have been multipurpose and generic, but were they Roman? Although the size of the debt has long been argued over, no one doubts that Plautus’ Latin plays owe a very great deal to lost Greek comedies even if ‘none of the surviving traces of those plays gives any hint’ of jokebooks. Beard seems to be arguing not merely that Plautus was back projecting onto the world of his Greek sources an institution with which he was familiar and they were not – the jokebook – but imagining a hierarchy for them between two kinds of written Greek joke.

As for Philip’s supposed purchase of the jokes of the Sixty, Beard notes that careful reading shows that although Philip sent the money to the Sixty there is no receipt to confirm the jokes were actually delivered and the whole story is probably a trope about a tyrant wrongly imagining he can purchase wit. I am sure there were joke-makers at the parties of Philip of Macedon, as several sources affirm, and I’m sure they got more than a free lunch for their efforts, but whether these efforts were helped along by exclusive material from the Sixty, I have no idea; indeed sixty seems far too large a number for any group of wits in any city in any time. On the other hand, as early as Aristophanes jokes were being made about feigned spontaneity and a traffic in jokes, and if there ever was a period when the spontaneous gift of a deft witticism emerged from someone’s mouth without someone else alleging it had been rehearsed, I’d bet that period didn’t last very long. So I hope that if a new fragment of a Greek comedy turns up in some old mummy bandages it contains something more surprising than a parasite with a jokebook.

In the afterword Beard returns to a question she had asked herself earlier: ‘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?’ I thought her answer to this question would be yes and for a long time I think it probably was, but during a long coffee break in a Berkeley café one of the professors who attended the lectures this book is based on told her that for him it was not the strangeness of Roman laughter that was striking so much as its comprehensibility, the fact that some of the jokes from their world were still funny to us in our completely different world two thousand years on. Although ‘the prompts to laughter in the human brain may in some ways transcend cultural difference’ and there are similar, sometimes very similar, themes and storylines in humorous tales and sayings across the globe, Beard had concluded that ‘by and large, cultural differences in the practice of laughter trump whatever cultural or biological universals it might be reassuring to fall back on.’ But the professor’s argument started her thinking again and by the time, five years later, she finished writing the lectures up, she was convinced she had the answer. There is, she argues, a direct line of inheritance. Just as Western comedy is unthinkable without Plautus, so there is a classical inheritance of the joke by way of the irony, wit and humour of the Renaissance. To prove the point she quotes a couple of modern jokes – ‘How would you like your hair cut, sir?’ ‘In silence.’ A king meets someone the spitting image of himself. ‘Did your mother work in the palace?’ he asks. ‘No, but my father did’ – with perfect ancient antecedents. We get their jokes because they taught them to us.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.