Cicero, father of politically correct comedy

The Times is well staffed for Latin, with Philip Howard as a long-standing witty and erudite writer, and Mary Beard as Blog expert. Take Mary and set her to give a lecture, and then employ Philip to report on it, and you have the recipe for this excellent piece:

Philip Howard

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

Albania dusts off ancient treasures

When I visited some of the rich Roman remains in Hungary in the early 90s I was impressed by the way they had been preserved and presented by the Communists, and wondered how long they would last under free enterprise. I still wonder what happened there, but this news item about Albania shows that all is not doom and gloom.

BBC

Just 20 years ago, when communism was starting to crumble across Eastern Europe, the idea of isolated, totalitarian Albania embracing Western project management would have been fanciful.

But it has happened – at Butrint, a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Just 5km (three miles) from the vibrant Greek holiday island of Corfu, Butrint preserves the tranquil, classical atmosphere beloved of 19th Century tourists such as Lord Byron.

Ancient ruins are lapped by water and shrouded by foliage. Massive Hellenistic walls share the site with precise Roman structures, Byzantine mosaics and two Venetian castles. The local ferry is still a raft, the views are sublime and the sunsets magical.

How has Albania managed to safeguard Butrint, when so much of its recent history has been turbulent, with communist dictatorship giving way to freewheeling capitalism?

The answer lies in partnership between local, national and international bodies, and the careful nurturing of systems new to the country.

The creation of a national park, and modern legislation to control it, led to a protected zone, which is now backed by international bodies including the World Bank.

A UK-based charity, the Butrint Foundation, is working with Albanian officials to develop the heritage site in a way that is sustainable and attractive to tourists. Archaeology, conservation and museum management are all areas where Albania is benefiting from Western expertise.

Pioneering project

Diana Ndrenika, director of Albanian heritage, says the national park “is not only a story of success in its own right, but it has set the pace within the Albanian context of how such a resource should be run”.

She says it has had a big impact on other sites in Albania and has become “the model, the standard to which everyone working in this sector refers”.

Ancient ruins are lapped by water and shrouded by foliage. Massive Hellenistic walls share the site with precise Roman structures, Byzantine mosaics and two Venetian castles. The local ferry is still a raft, the views are sublime and the sunsets magical.

How has Albania managed to safeguard Butrint, when so much of its recent history has been turbulent, with communist dictatorship giving way to freewheeling capitalism?

The answer lies in partnership between local, national and international bodies, and the careful nurturing of systems new to the country.

The creation of a national park, and modern legislation to control it, led to a protected zone, which is now backed by international bodies including the World Bank.

A UK-based charity, the Butrint Foundation, is working with Albanian officials to develop the heritage site in a way that is sustainable and attractive to tourists. Archaeology, conservation and museum management are all areas where Albania is benefiting from Western expertise.

Pioneering project

Diana Ndrenika, director of Albanian heritage, says the national park “is not only a story of success in its own right, but it has set the pace within the Albanian context of how such a resource should be run”.

The site occupies a low wooded hill, with vistas of the Ionian Sea to one side and the expanse of Lake Butrint to the other.

Its mythical foundation was by refugee Trojans, with archaeology indicating that Butrint has been occupied since at least the 8th Century BC.

It was a local tribal centre by the 4th Century BC, part of the Kingdom of Pyrrhus, the inveterate enemy of the Romans. Then it was a Roman colony founded by Emperor Augustus a few years after his great victory over Anthony and Cleopatra, which occurred at Actium, only a few miles to the south.

Butrint’s later history was turbulent, amid power struggles between Byzantium and its Western enemies – Normans led by Robert Guiscard, Angevin French under their dour King Charles of Anjou, scheming Venetian politicians and the banner of Islam borne by the victorious Ottoman Empire. Since 1912 it has been part of independent Albania.

Continuing challenges

The collapse of communism in 1992 caused much damage. Then civil unrest in 1997 led to looting of the museum at Butrint, though many artefacts have now been returned thanks to international co-operation.

The breakdown of old organisational structures has inevitably brought problems as well as opportunities for Albania, impacting on Butrint. Development pressure, often illegal, remains an issue.

There remains much to do at the site itself. Car parking, given rising visitor numbers, is inadequate, toilet facilities need considerable improvement, conservation of both the natural and historic environment is an ongoing challenge, and rising water levels threaten mosaics and walls. But investment in the local community should help tackle these issues.

International donations are paying for the training of young Albanian professionals. Some are already working in other parts of the country. The projects include an archaeological training school at Butrint, run by Albanian archaeologists for both domestic and foreign students.