Dico, dico, dico! I say, I say, I say! What made an Ancient Roman laugh? Professor Mary Beard, of Cambridge University, considered this ticklish question at the extraordinary joint meeting of the Scottish and English Classical Associations in Glasgow last night.
The popular theory is that Romans were not great funsters. They were bullies who laughed at lesser breeds being put down and humiliated.
One puzzle is that the Romans had only one basic word for laughter: ridere, from which we derive “risible”. Whereas we have a minutely nuanced vocabulary — chortle, chuckle, cackle, smirk, titter, hoot, guffaw, smile — the Romans had no word for smile, so they used compounds of ridere. Subridere, a little laugh, from which the French derive sourire. The Romans did, however, have dozens of words for joke, which cause translators difficulties in distinguishing between sal (salt, wit) and facetiae (facetiousness).
So who was the drollest Roman of them all? Professor Beard argues that it was not Plautus, Martial, or Terence, but Cicero.
This sounds odd, because we have been brought up to think of antiquity’s most famous orator as a dour, pompous, humourless guy whose wit was deployed solely for the humiliation and derision of his courtroom or political opponents.
Here is Cicero’s quip about his no-hope son-in-law: “Seeing his son-in-law, who was a very short man wearing a long sword, he said, ‘Who has buckled my son-in-law to that sword?’ ” His surviving line of verse contains a boastful and laboured pun: O fortunatam natam me Consule Romam,” which translates as, “O congrats, Rome, on being conceived when I was consul.”
Ancient writings about laughter, some by Cicero himself, reflect on what topics of joking are appropriate (jokes on baldness OK; on bodily smells or blindness not OK). A Roman joke, according to Cicero, should be spontaneous, urbane, truthful. Truth, mimicry, simulation and dissimulation lie at the heart of Roman laughter. The urbane wit should not pick on the really weak, according to Cicero. He should not joke about serious crime.
The exposed and potentially vulnerable position of the jesting, deriding orator is one facet of a bigger truth about laughter: that he who provokes laughter is simultaneously liable to be the butt of laughter. This is shown by the Latin adjective ridiculus, which means both something or somebody who makes you laugh and something or someone who is laughed at, or laughable (ridiculous in our sense).
A funny thing happened on the way to the amphitheatre
— The elder Crassus was said to have laughed only once in his life. What caused Crassus to crack up? The sight of a donkey eating thistles and the well-known saying that came to mind: “Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey”
— In the middle of the Civil War the exasperated Pompey is reputed to have said of his reluctant ally Cicero: “I wish to goodness Cicero would go over to the enemy, then he would learn to fear us”
— A man leaving the Roman theatre was asked by another whether he had seen the play. “No, stupid,” he replied. “I was playing ball in the orchestra”
— Gaius Memmius, the tribune of 111BC, was said to have had taken a bite out of the arm of a man called Largus, as they were tussling over the affections of a woman.
— Crassus claimed that all over the town of Terracina the letters MMLLL were pasted up on the walls: “Mordacious Memmius Lacerates Largus’ Limb”
— A joke made to a one-eyed man, Gaius Sextius: “I shall dine with you my friend, for I see you’ve got a place for another one.” “This,” said Cicero, “is the unacceptable joke of a scurra [professional clown] both because it was unprovoked, and because it could be used against any one-eyed individual”
— Cicero was defending his client Milo on the charge of murdering the infamous Clodius in 52BC and was under interrogation from the prosecution. The case was going to hinge on exact timing. When did Clodius die, they asked him. And here is the joke, the one that is, on its own, enough to justify the whole category of double entendres: Cicero replied with just one word, sero. The pun is on the two senses of sero: both “late” and “too late”. Clodius died late in the day, and he should have been got rid of years before