Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up


What made the Romans laugh? Was ancient Rome a carnival, filled with practical jokes and hearty chuckles? Or was it a carefully regulated culture in which the uncontrollable excess of laughter was a force to fear--a world of wit, irony, and knowing smiles? How did Romans make sense of laughter? What role did it play in the world of the law courts, the imperial palace, or the spectacles of the arena?

Laughter in Ancient Rome explores one of the most intriguing, but also trickiest, of historical subjects. Drawing on a wide range of Roman writing--from essays on rhetoric to a surviving Roman joke book--Mary Beard tracks down the giggles, smirks, and guffaws of the ancient Romans themselves. From ancient "monkey business" to the role of a chuckle in a culture of tyranny, she explores Roman humor from the hilarious, to the momentous, to the surprising. But she also reflects on even bigger historical questions. What kind of history of laughter can we possibly tell? Can we ever really "get" the Romans' jokes?


When I gave the Sather Lectures at Berkeley in the fall of 2008, I had the time of my life. I hope that this book captures some of the fun we all had then in thinking about what made the ancient Romans laugh— how, when, and why Romans cracked up (or said they did).

Laughter in Ancient Rome remains, in part, very close to the lectures as they were delivered, but in part it is very different. Each lecture focused on particular aspects of Roman laughter—from the jokes of the emperor through the “monkey business” of the stage to the sometimes learned (and sometimes silly) speculation of Roman intellectuals on why people laugh when they are tickled. I tried to weave discussion of theory and method into the fabric of these case studies—and to continue it late at night in Berkeley’s welcoming bars and cafés.

The explorations in part 2 are still recognizably (I hope) based on the lectures I gave. Those late-night discussions, however, have been adapted into a series of new chapters, which form part 1. Here I face directly some of the big questions that hover over any history of laughter—and of Roman laughter in particular. Can we ever know how, or why, people in the past laughed? What difference does it make that we barely can explain why we ourselves laugh? Is there such a thing as “Roman” (as distinct from, say, “Greek”) laughter? I imagine that most readers will start with part 2 and move on to part 2, but it is not forbidden to start by dipping into part 2 and then move back to the more general—and wide-ranging—studies in part 1.

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