Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard, book review: A conversational, televisual, and winning study brings Roman laughter to life

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The Independent Culture

Sadly, or maybe happily, the classics professor Mary Beard has become a contentious public figure. Just after 9/11, in an article for the London Review of Books, she linked American foreign policy with the terrorist attacks. It was a bold stance at a difficult time and the start of a turbulent journey.

Presenters of serious TV documentaries are typically white, middle-class men. Mary, with her long silver hair, face untouched by make-up, in nondescript clothes, is unapologetically herself. She is a natural born raconteur, but was savaged by male critics for not being glamorous. Trolls then turned on her. The attacks made her more daring, less donnish. Some of her more nervy, Cambridge colleagues must reach for smelling salts when they see what she has become.

Books are created in tranquillity, away from the volatility of telly or the internet, but her experiences of those media, have, I sense, affected Beard's choice of subjects, tone and style. This book is full of brio and surprises. She creates televisual scenes, and then reflects on their wider implications.

As she takes us through these chambers and anterooms of philosophies and ideas, she injects impulsive suggestions and thoughts in parenthesis, as if she is there in flesh, chatting to readers. "These Roman theories and observations take us into that intriguing, intellectual no-man's-land between the utterly familiar and disconcertingly strange – between, for example, that simple question of 'What makes people laugh?' and the unbelievable tales of magical springs and overactive spleens". Academics who still think seriousness means turgidity and obfuscation should learn from this author.

She begins with two funny anecdotes from ancient Rome, ticklers, instantly recognisable. The first example is in the Colosseum in AD192. The Emperor Commodus, a loon as most of them were, dressed up as Hercules had slaughtered scores of trapped wild beasts and thought it would be even more fun to shoot his arrows into the crowds and clutch of nervous senators : "Everyone knew that applause for the emperor's antics – as gladiator, wild-beast hunter and god lookalike – was required."

A young senator Cassius Dio chewed on some bitter laurel leaves to stop himself laughing as danger approached. It was partly gallows humour, but also subversive. It made "Commodus seem ridiculous, to cut him down to size..." Britons still laugh at overweening, hedonistic Roman rulers and many have stifled sniggers at serious events or when meeting the great and the good. The past never really passes on.

Some laughter is universal, some specific to time and place. Beard examines both. Romans laughed at frauds, lickspittles, spongers, posers and the powerful. So do we. The psychological and social imperatives of laughter, impulses of rebellion and dissent, the desire for emotional release are the same for all humans.

But humour is also determined by culture, politics, status, morals and etiquette. Among Romans, "bald men or those with odd shaped noses were fair game for a laugh, but blind people, were emphatically not and those with bad breath, or dripping, snotty noses fell somewhere in between".

Stand-up British comedians break social taboos, and find they offend many punters. The risqué joke becomes a fracas, sets off a clash of values. It is complicated. Beard herself acknowledges that "for over 2,000 years, laughter has baffled and intrigued. Ambitious theorising and ingenious speculation about its nature and causes have gone hand in hand with the impossibility of ever solving its mystery."

That didn't stop her delving into the mystery. She makes the Romans come alive and through them, gets readers to ponder that most fundamental and uniquely human facility – laughter. The phenomenal Ms Beard has written another cracking book, one of her best, I think.