Laugh as long as you can

James Davidson

  • Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up by Mary Beard
    California, 319 pp, £19.95, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 520 27716 8

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.

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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.

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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.