Thursday, October 18, 2012

Did Roman girls giggle?

By Mary Beard

Relief of Roman woman at her morning toilette.
Relief of Roman woman at her morning toilette. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I have been spending every spare moment that I have (and there aren't many, I promise you) trying to get the first draft of my Roman laughter book finished. I have done the most difficult bit -- that is writing about the theory and method of studying Roman laughter. When I did the lectures on which the book is based, I didnt do very much on that kind of stuff, or rather I dropped it in from time to time, rather than treating it in any systematic way. There is nothing worse than going to a series of lectures and finding that in Lecture One the lecturer draws his or her breath and tell you all about the methodological underpinnings and problems of what they are about to do... but you, the listener, dont yet know what that is.

That's fine for lectures, but not I think for the-book-of-the-lectures. Laughter is a particularly tricky area in history. It's history's final frontier in a way...raising in the acutest form I can imagine all those basic issues of historical knowledge, the familiarity/difference of people in the past etc. So you can't just shelve all that -- and, even if you're writing about the Romans, you can't simply duck all those questions about what Aristotle did or didn't mean when he wrote about laughter (I mean some Romans read a lot of Aristotle and whatever he had to say was part ofRoman culture, as well as Greek). And that takes you into another vast bibliography . . .

But the rhetorical problems in the book still have something in common with the rhetorical problems of the lectures. Does the reader really want to sit down and slog through a load of theoretical prolegomena before they actually meet a Roman laughing? Of course they don't. So I've spent a long time trying to integrate some important (well, I think it's important) theory and method into some good and compelling Roman examples. In fact I start from a wonderful story where the historian Dio is sitting in the Colosseum and the emperor Commodus (who is playing at being a gladiator and beast hunter) comes over and waves the head of a decapitated ostrich at the senators, as if to say "you next". Dio explains that he can hardly stop himself laughing, but knows that would be dangerous... so he plucks a leaf from the wreath on his head and chews on it.

It's one of one of the few occasions where we can imagine an almost physical link between us and an ancient laugher . . . but it turns out to be (as I spend quite a long time showing) a much more complicated story than it looks at first sight.

Anyway, I'm through all that bit. And I'm on to the part of the book that is in some ways easier: that is, the "case study" chapters that follow rather more closely the topics of the lectures. I'm on to the one now which focussed on the way laughter marks the boundary between men and animals but it kick off with female laughter (yes, not a particularly feminist link there).

More to read at link