Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up by Mary Beard - review by Christopher Hart

Christopher Hart

Laugh? I Nearly Died

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


University of California Press 319pp £19.95

‘Astudent goes into his grandmother’s bedroom and starts humping her. When his father comes in to give him a good clout for being so disgusting, the son says, “Well, you hump my mother, why can’t I hump yours?”’

I’ve adapted this old Roman joke into modern vernacular, but still, I confess, I find it so obscene and bizarre it makes me laugh like a drain. It’s worthy of Bernard Manning. Not all Roman jokes are so funny, and we have a whole collection of them preserved in the text called Philogelos (‘The Laughter Lover’). An awful lot of them are grim – ‘How does a man with bad breath commit suicide? Puts a bag over his head and asphyxiates himself!’ – and a lot more are only slightly funny after long and solemn academic exegeses. 

So, asks Mary Beard, do we and the ancient Romans really share a sense of humour? What made them laugh? Can we be sure? Is there anything universal in human laughter? I remember once hearing an eminent anthropologist, after considering this question for a long time, answer that the only

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