Why so serious? asks Heath Ledger’s Joker in The Dark Knight as he describes how his laughing, drunken father took a knife to his face to create a smile. We don’t know whether he’s telling the truth, but we do know, immediately and completely, that this joker is one who will terrorise us at least as much as he makes us laugh. It’s a moment which can’t fail to come to mind when Mary Beard describes an almost identical, though self-inflicted, scene from Les Chants de Maldoror: the misanthropic Maldoror cuts his own face open to try to replicate the laughs which he can see all around him but can’t feel himself. As she tartly observes, no laugh is created, only a bloody mess.
Which is an appropriate image for this book. Beard cheerily admits that: “One of the aims of this book is to preserve some of this disorder in the study of laughter, to make it a messier rather than a tidier subject.” And the laughter which she brings us from ancient Rome is bloody and messy in equal measure. In considering the power dynamics in play with laughter – hiding a laugh, forcing one, demanding one – we’re constantly made to think about just how aggressive laughter can be.
She tells some chilling stories to illustrate the point. The emperor Caligula, according to arch-gossip Suetonius, once forced a man to watch the execution of his own son, then invited him to dinner and forced him to laugh and joke. “Why on earth did the man go along with this? asks Seneca. There is a simple answer: because he had another son.”
It’s a neat counterpoint to the kind of laughter which opens the book: the hidden, disguised laugh of the historian Cassius Dio, when faced with the emperor Commodus in the arena, brandishing an ostrich head and a bloody sword. Dio admits to chewing laurel leaves, in order to disguise his laughter. Though his laughter isn’t because he doesn’t feel threatened; Dio begins the story by saying that Commodus had put him and his fellow senators in fear of imminent death. As Commodus beheads the ostrich, he perhaps intends them to think, so he might behead them. So is Dio laughing because he’s rightly afraid for his life? Because the scene with the decapitated bird is intrinsically ridiculous? Or because the emperor, however threatening, is ultimately risible?
This one story alone reveals that Beard really isn’t kidding when she says, at the start of Chapter 4, “The study of Roman laughter is in some ways an impossible project. That is partly what makes it so intriguing, so special, so enlightening, and so worthwhile.” When we can’t even tell why someone who tells us they were laughing (and at what) was laughing, what hope do we have of working out what other Romans laughed at, with any real certainty?
Beard never promises us certainty. Instead, she promises and delivers a journey around laughter: the jokes, the butts, the laughers and the refuseniks. She discusses the difference between laughter in ancient Rome and Greece: the Greeks had lots of words for different kinds of laughter (kichlizein – to giggle – is surely her favourite), but only two words for joke. Latin, on the other hand, mostly uses variants of one verb – ridere – to laugh. But it has a huge number of words for different kinds of jokes and witticisms.
She’s particularly good when discussing the triangulation of jokes in Rome: the maker of a joke, the laugher at a joke and the butt of the joke all exist in relation to each other, in a way that seems deeply unfamiliar to a modern audience. But other aspects of laughter are less opaque: there’s nothing worse (according to Strabo in Cicero’s analysis of laughter, On the Orator) than using a line “risum quaesivit” – just to get a laugh. Hacks have been hacks throughout the ages.
Cicero is also the first person to point out that there’s no better way to kill a joke than to pick it apart and find out how it works. And while that’s often true, Beard embraces the opportunity to amuse us. Any book which contains the phrase, “It is clear enough, for example, that Pliny’s views on tickling are Aristotelian in a broad sense,” is clearly sticking out its tongue at Pseud’s Corner, and sniggering.
There’s little about the delivery of jokes: the timing, the vocal tone, the facial expressions, the physicality, because this information is largely lost. But it’s hard to appreciate jokes without their delivery. Tommy Cooper’s set, written down and read by someone who’d never seen him perform, would look (in parts) eerily similar to the gags in the Philogelos, a joke-book from the late Roman Empire. Ultimately it is, surely in the ancient world just as now, the way he tells ’em.
Natalie Haynes’ first novel The Amber Fury is published by Corvus