Stop me if you’ve heard this one: Once there was a king who had a reputation as a ladies’ man, and after he died, his heir’s first duties included a tour of the provinces. In one town he encountered a man who was his mirror image. Aha, thought the new king, that Pop, always tomcatting around. So he asked: “Say, did your mother ever work at the palace?”
“No,” replied the look-alike, “but my father did.”
Bada-bing! The story has turned up in a number of places, even Freud’s 1905 treatise on jokes, and anyone can admire how it yanks the rug from under the patriarchy. But not till I pored over Mary Beard’s “Laughter in Ancient Rome” — brim-full of such tales — did I discover that the setup and punch line go back millennia, to the court of Augustus, Rome’s first emperor, who, according to one historian, allowed some comedian to crack wise about the imperial family.
Really? And the comic wasn’t crucified? Beard claims yes. A professor of classics at Cambridge University, she digs up supporting evidence, and her understanding of the give-and-take goes directly to her conclusion: The civilization of Caesar and Constantine “invented ‘the joke.’ ” By the end of her argument, you’ll also grasp why “joke” belongs in quotation marks.
For someone such as Cicero, Beard’s pick for “the funniest man in the Roman world,” the dicta ridicula or “laughable sayings” with which he salted his speeches became “commodities of a sort.” For him and the others Beard investigates, including Quintilian and Ovid, it became “a cultural norm” for jokes to be “swapped, handed down, collected, or bought and sold.”
A 1st-century Roman would probably appreciate 21st-century “snark,” especially the feel of spontaneity. Nonetheless, what seemed offhand required training and, when it came to the audience, sharp judgment. Just as a quip was merchandise, the buyer needed to know the seller. Benevolent Augustus could roll with a joke about his Mama — but the mad Caligula, no way.
Watching Beard unpack “Roman power relations” and the ways they were “negotiated, manipulated, or contested with a laugh” for me made a terrific experience. She earned my applause, for instance, with her exegesis of the Pompeian frescoes. She reads those frescos as a cutting commentary on the rulers up in Rome: The heroes have turned into apes. Terrific, at least for a reader like me, who has puzzled over those frescoes and dawdled around southern Italy, where the wittiest Romans tended to build their retreats. When Beard bolstered one chapter with 130 footnotes (the most of any chapter, but not by much), I was with her on every one.
The best of “Laughter” comes in the book’s second half, when Beard uses her expertise to shed light on the humor in passages from Cicero’s “On the Orator,” Ovid’s “The Art of Love” and other texts both familiar and obscure. Her chapter on the joke book Philogelos, “The Laughter-Lover,” offers a remarkably contemporary sampling. One footnote goes so far as to assert that the ancient text included a forerunner of Monty Python’s dead parrot sketch.
The first part of the book — a look “at some of the big questions that hover over any history of laughter,” such as “can we ever know how, or why, people in the past laughed?” — takes a more typical scholarly approach: Beard differentiates Greek humor from Roman, Aristotelian theory from Imperial realpolitik, and trustworthy medieval copies from “muddled, mediocre” collations. She maintains her common touch but it takes an appassionato of things Roman like me to nod along when Beard complains, of another interpreter: “He reaches too easily for that over-used term apotropaic.” Why, shame on him! (The word, for the record, means “having the power to ward off evil.”)
Caveat emptor, then, regarding the book’s first half. Nonetheless, any intelligent skimmer will find a lot to linger over — for instance, the two Stoic philosophers who died of laughter “when they saw a donkey eating figs and drinking wine.” Even minutia like that find their significance in “Laughter.” Beard clarifies that figs and wine were the stuff of high culture, and so to see an ass enjoy such delicacies violated the established order — as if the queen, not just the king, might take sexual pleasure wherever she liked. In short, like a great piece of archaeology, “Laughter in Ancient Rome” allows us to glimpse ourselves in the cracked mirror of a distant culture.
Domini’s latest book is a selection of criticism, “The Sea-God’s Herb.” His next novel, the third in a trilogy set in Naples, will appear in 2016. Michael Dirda is on vacation.
LAUGHTER IN ANCIENT ROME
On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up
By Mary Beard
Univ. of California. 319 pp. $29.95