Are the Romans funny? Were they ever? Max Norman takes in Michael Fontaine’s How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humour.

Freud, in his flawed but helpful Jokes and Their Relation to the Unconscious (part of a three-way tie with The Protestant Work Ethic and The House of Mirth for best book of 1905), suggests that laughter expresses pent-up mental energy in three different ways. The first kind of laughter vents energy that would otherwise have been used to repress the very emotions a joke plays upon. So, when we belly laugh at a sex joke, we’re off-gassing energy that we might otherwise be using to conceal our libido. In the second situation, which Freud calls the comic, we laugh to express energy that might otherwise be used in thinking, like when we see something baffling – an expensively clad teenager gyrating in front of the Trevi Fountain long enough for his friend to capture 15 TikTok-able seconds, for example, or an animated paperclip lounging in the corner of our Word document – and, instead of trying to make sense of why they’re moving the way they do, we just laugh it off. In the final scenario, which he calls humour, our laughter expresses the energy that would have gone into feeling, say, pity when a story turns out to be funny rather than sad. When we hear the punch line, ‘the expenditure on the pity, which was already prepared, becomes unutilisable and we laugh it off.’

According to Freud’s hydraulic theory, then, when I laugh at perhaps the best scene in the Life of Brian – when Brian paints the ungrammatical Romanes eunt domus (which should be Romani, ite domum, or ‘Romans, go home!’) on a statue of Pontius Pilate and some centurions come up to correct his Latin, totally overlooking the fact that they’re vandalising a statue of the governor – what I’m really expressing (with a bit of argumentative slack) is anxiety that Brian will get a vicious punishment from a sword-bearing Latin instructor whose tone and air are all too familiar to me. I get to laugh at an alienated version of my own suffering, letting off a little bit of steam that might otherwise have exploded in something as rash as, I don’t know, ceasing to study Latin.

The ancient world wasn’t exactly a funny place, and the study of the classics is, if anything, less funny. If you’re like me, and you came to it later than the mole-eyed private school boys who can recite The Iliad soup to nuts, you’re always too anxious – and too serious – for jokes. The overwhelming effect of a classics seminar is shame and then stress. Or maybe stress and then shame. The classical mask of the comic actor – the one with the Michael Jackson smile – doesn’t exactly look like it’s having a good time. This psychological approach to laughter is a modern invention, one that we can trace to the 18th century. In the ancient world there is no such thing as humour. Humours were (or are, if that’s your thing) biochemicals in the body whose mixture determines our mood. It wasn’t really until the 18th century that the word began to take on something of its modern sense.

Before that, though, there was just laughter: the primary way of saying ‘funny’ in Greek is geloios and in Latin ridiculus; both mean ‘laughable’. In case you’re wondering how else to say ‘funny’ in Latin, Quintilian gives six different kinds: urbanitas (sophistication), venustas (charm), facetus (witty, with a certain polished elegance), the jocus or joke (the opposite of serious), dicacitas (‘sneering’, or, as Michael Fontaine translates in this book, ‘being a jerk’), and, last but not least, salsus, literally salty or ‘zesty’. And by and large the ancients were against it.

Plato banned most jokes from his Republic because people have the annoying habit of laughing at things that should be serious, like the gods. Aristotle admitted that laughter was an important part of conversation, but like Plato he considered it an antisocial expression of scorn, ‘educated insolence’, as he says in the Rhetoric. ‘Most people enjoy amusement and jesting more than they should,’ he writes in the Ethics. ‘A jest is a kind of mockery, and lawgivers forbid some kinds of mockery – perhaps they ought to have forbidden some kinds of jesting.’ Not to be outdone, the Stoics were even less laugh-positive. ‘Let not your laughter be loud, frequent, or unrestrained,’ Epictetus intoned. He is said never to have laughed, not once. But there were some exceptions, like the philosopher Chrysippus. Diogenes Laërtius records that the philosopher, watching a donkey munch up all his figs, told his elderly servant to bring the ass some wine to wash them down. He subsequently died of laughter at his own joke. (I think it’s safe to say that we’re in a lower-risk category.)

For the ancients, laughter wasn’t so much a mystery to be pondered as a problem to be solved, and a force to be mastered. It makes sense, then, that the longest surviving treatments of joking in the ancient world – gathered and freshly translated in How To Tell A Joke – come in books about rhetoric: Cicero’s consideration of persuasion in On the Ideal Orator (written in the ’50s BCE) and Quintilian’s rhetorical manual, Education of the Orator (which came out a bit more than a century later, around 95 CE).

Cicero’s treatment of laughter in Book II of On the Ideal Orator begins like a joke: Mark Antony (not that one), Julius Caesar (also not that one) and some other guy walk into a bar – or what Fontaine, in a swing and a miss, translates as a ‘discourse-motel’ – to take a break from the hard going of the previous book’s conversation. Antony asks Caesar to share his secret to being funny and ‘often wicked effective’, in Fontaine’s eyebrow-raising Boston rendering of saepe (‘often’). The central question is whether jokery is an ars, a craft or skill governed by teachable, learnable rules, or whether being funny depends on some innate capacity.

Caesar doesn’t take the bait. ‘Actually, I think a decent funnyman can discuss anything with greater wit than wit itself’, Caesar begins, explaining that the so-called ‘rules’ (ars) of humour are the only laughable thing about the proposition.

But in explaining why the art of humour can’t be taught, Caesar starts to teach it. Jokes actually come in two forms, he explains: cavillatio (‘raillery,’ or perhaps ‘banter’) and dicacitas (something like ‘biting wit’). The former, which Fontaine somewhat disorientingly translates as ‘shtick’, permeates an entire speech. The latter, which Fontaine, in what this reviewer can only interpret as irony, renders as ‘a sick burn’, is ‘fast and razor-sharp’. There’s no ars of shtick because it relies on personality, Caesar explains: natura makes people good mimics and storytellers. And sick burns are too quick for rules.

That said, an orator can be taught how to use his jokes to the greatest effect. What distinguishes a good orator from a mere comic or, god forbid, an actor (officially infamis, or disreputable, in Rome) is the ability to pull your punches. According to Cicero’s Caesar that’s ‘the hardest thing for quick-witted people to do: to take stock of the people, the circumstances, and to hold back the quips that come to mind even when it would be totally hilarious to say them.’ Who doesn’t know the feeling?

The orator – who we presume will be speaking in a public forum, like a courtroom – must learn to use jokes to his advantage, ‘as for example against an opponent, and especially how to trigger [sic] a stupid, eager, lightweight witness when the audience looks receptive to him.’ For Cicero, jokes are ultimately tools for persuasion and for argument, if not really for thought. You mock someone in order to convince a jury; you tell a funny story in order to endear yourself to an audience. No joke is innocent.

And no joke comes without risk. An orator gets laughs from jokes about res, or things, and from dicta, funny sayings. The former is really parody, like the time Crassus took down a ridiculously posh, salmon-togaed man by imploring him ‘in the name of your nobility! In the name of your family’ and, in the real kicker, ‘In the name of your statues!’ As he unsheathed that final quip – taking aim at the aristo’s ancestor worship – he stretched his arm out and did ‘a little waggle’ that left everyone in stitches. But if you try too hard to tell funny stories, you end up lowering yourself to the level of an impersonator or a caricaturist. Not everything that’s laughable is witty. You’ve got to be subtle.

Language humour is easier, in that you don’t need to tell a clever story or put on an act. But the slipperiness of words makes it harder to control. Take the example of the time a very short witness (a pusillus testis) was called. ‘Mind if I ask you something?’ he asks. The judge says ‘keep it short’ (modo breviter –funnier in English than in Latin). ‘No problem,’ the witness replies. ‘I just have a tiny bit to ask’ – perpusillum rogabo. Hilarious, right? But present that day was a jurist even shorter than the witness, downright tiny, and all the laughter inevitably turned on the smallest man in the room ‘The joke came across as total stand-up’, as the kind of thing a scurra, or clown, would say. That’s precisely what the orator will avoid. You don’t just have to be funny: you’ve got to be in control.

The core of Cicero’s theory of joking is the observation that ‘seriousness appeals to honour and important matters, while a joke appeals to slightly disgraceful, practically ugly ones.’ As Quintilian later wrote, ‘Cicero says laughter has its home in some ugliness and disgrace.’ The orator’s responsibility, however, is to find a joke that furthers his cause by using the sub-rational power of laughter to win an audience over.

Writing more than a century later than Cicero, after Rome had transitioned from republic to principate, Quintilian’s emphasis subtly shifts. While Cicero wrote on the ethics of persuasion, and the dignified use of humour, Quintilian lingers more on the joke’s relationship to truth and the reputation of the orator. ‘A major problem with mastering humour is that a joke is typically untrue, often deliberately slanted, and always demeaning and never flattering,’ he writes. ‘The whole idea behind humour lies in saying something in a different, wrong, and untrue way. It comes wholly from inventing beliefs – either our own or other people’s – or from saying something impossible’. The very substance of humour is also what makes it dangerous: a joke can easily shade into a lie, or a slander. And, of course, there’s the ever-present risk of looking like an idiot: ‘Wit is so close to twit,’ as Fontaine cleverly gives it (a derisu non procul abest risus). And once a laugh gets going, it has a ‘certain overpowering and conquering force, where all resistance is futile’.

The thing is, though, that most of the jokes that come down to us just aren’t that funny: the gamut ranges from shrug-worthy to cringe-worthy to just plain weird. On rare occasions you feel the warm glow of intercultural, transhistorical understanding, like when Cicero, renowned for his ‘salty’ jokes, saw his particularly short son-in-law wear a particularly long sword, and said: ‘Who tied my son-in-law to a sword?’. But just as often a Roman joke makes you scratch your head, or even worry. Quintilian reports that the word stomach left people in stitches. (What?) Even the great masterpieces of Roman wit – not crude mockery or low-level slapstick, but the kind of oratorical salt for which Cicero was almost infamous in antiquity, and which were repeated in joke books until the 18th century – merit at best a polite patrician titter.

Sometimes it’s just a matter of getting lost in translation, since so much of ancient jokery (like ours) was based on wordplay. A good example is Cato’s famed paronomasia: ‘Shall we go for a walk, you and I? Yes, let’s do!’ the senator said. His friend, remarking on Cato’s slightly affected locution, replied, ‘Why do you need the “do”?’ Cato replied, ‘Ha, no. Why’d I need the “you”?’ Fontaine does as much as one can to transplant this and other quips into English, coming up with some truly ingenious translations. But these jokes are artifacts. They don’t feel alive, like a scoffing poem by Catullus, or a talky satire by Horace, or a brilliantly bawdy comedy by Plautus.

Even jokes that are more transparent leave us equally confused. Take a pun Cicero made when defending the Roman politician Milo, who was accused of killing his political enemy (as one is on occasion). The prosecutor was trying to establish his theory of the timing of the manslaughter. He asked over and over ‘When was he killed?’ And Cicero replied, serō: late, but also too late. The point is that the victim died late at night but also that he should have been gotten rid of sooner. Clever, maybe, but funny? We’re left wondering why Quintilian holds this up as a ‘really sterling’ example of the pun.

The only joke included in Cicero and Quintilian’s laugh-books that made me laugh in earnest was a quip attributed to Pontidius, which Cicero cites as an example of irony, or playing willfully ignorant: ‘In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto?’ he was asked. His reply? ‘A slow one’.

Now that I think about it, I’m probably laughing at the wrong thing, confusing it for a joke about male insufficiency. In reality, it’s the opposite. I was craving one kind of joke – we’ll leave the reasons for that to Freud – and found another. Often readers search for the familiar in classical literature and find something slightly, or vastly, different. Were the Romans laughing at the sex, or were they laughing at the thick-pated response? It’s impossible to say.

Two millennia later, it turns out that tragedy is easier for us to understand. The serious somehow rings truer than the funny, perhaps because it’s less dependent on occasion and less intertwined with the subtleties of language. There’s a reason they say that you’re only really fluent when you start understanding jokes. But still, even a deficient Latinist like me can appreciate the simple marvel that it’s possible, however vaguely, to discern glimmers of humour in offhand remarks made thousands of years ago. Jokes embody that difference, the unknowability and befuddling weirdness of the cultures that we sometimes tell ourselves we know.