From Emperor to Jester


The opening pages of this book featured an encounter between an emperor and a senator in the Colosseum, with laughter—in some form—on both sides: the senator and writer, Dio Cassius, chewing on his laurel leaf to disguise the fact that he was cracking up; the emperor, Commodus, reportedly grinning in a triumphant and threatening fashion. We have also briefly glimpsed some revealing stories of the laughter and two-edged jocularity of the emperor Elagabalus (see p. 77), who was on the throne some thirty years after Commodus, from 218 to 222 CE, gleefully recounted in his fantastical biography—more fantasy than real life, it is usually reckoned.

In what is, to my knowledge, the first recorded use of the whoopee cushion in world history, his Life explains how Elagabalus raised a laugh as his guests were literally deflated at dinner—and his pranks are said to have included the display of hilarious lineups of eight bald or one-eyed or deaf or gouty men. In the theater, his laughter drowned out that of the rest of the audience. Other tales from the same, flagrantly unreliable source recount how he “used also in fact to joke with his slaves, even ordering them to bring him a thousand pounds in weight of spiders’ webs and offering a reward,” or how “when his friends became drunk, he used often to lock them up, and suddenly in the night he would send in lions and leopards and bears—tame ones—so that when they woke up at daybreak, or worse, during the night, they would find lions and leopards and bears in the room with them. And many of them died from it.”1

The extravagant fantasies in the Augustan History are often more historically revealing than they appear—not simply inventions but absurd magnifications of traditional Roman concerns. We might see some of these stories of Elagabalus as inverted reflections of the anxieties that Quintilian expressed over the truth and falsehood of jokes and laughter. A chilling consequence of Roman autocracy is imagined here as the capacity of the tyrant to make his jokes come (horribly and unexpectedly) true: the tigers and so on were harmless, but the guests died anyway.2

It is a truism that the practice of laughter is closely bound up with power and its differentials (what social practice isn’t?). The interesting question—which this chapter tries to broach—is, in what particular ways was laughter related to Roman power? We start with emperors and autocrats and move (via masters and slaves, and an extraordinarily jocular account of a chilling audience with the emperor Caligula) to reflect on the place of the joker or jester at Rome—both inside and outside the imperial court, both as a cultural stereotype and (insofar as we can glimpse it) as a character in day-to-day social reality. Several topics that we touched on in the last chapter appear again, in particular the idea of that declasse antitype to the elite orator, the scurra, who is the tricky, shifting subject of the final section of this chapter. My aim is to put laughter back into our image of the imperial court and its penumbra and to highlight the part that jokers played in Roman elite culture; it turns out to be a much larger and more significant one than we tend to acknowledge.


Roman autocracy was embedded in the culture of laughter and the joke—in a pattern that stretched back well before the reign of the first emperor, Augustus.3 It may not now be the best-known “fact” about the brutal dictator Sulla, who held brief and bloody control of the city in the 80s BCE, but in antiquity, like a number of Hellenistic tyrants and monarchs (see pp. 151, 207), he had the reputation of being an enthusiastic laughter lover. It was presumably not by chance that he was associated with precisely those jokesters whose style of jesting Cicero and Quintilian urged the orator to avoid. “He was so fond of mime actors and clowns, being very much a laughter lover,” wrote the historian Nicolaus of Damascus in the late first century BCE, “that he gave them many tracts of public land. A clear proof of the pleasure he took in these things are the satyric comedies that he wrote himself in his native language [Latin].”4 Plutarch too picked up the tradition, explaining that the dictator “loved a joke” (philoskōmmōn) and at dinner was completely transformed from the austere character that he was at other times. Even just before his death (caused, in Plutarch’s lurid story, by a ghastly ulceration that turned his flesh to worms), he was carousing with comics, mime actors, and impersonators.5

Some of the associations between autocrat and laughter are easily predictable. The basic Roman rule (which we meet again in its direct descendant, the medieval tradition of the rex facetus6) was that good and wise rulers made jokes in a benevolent way, never used laughter to humiliate, and tolerated wisecracks at their own expense. Bad rulers and tyrants, on the other hand, would violently suppress even the most innocent banter while using laughter and joking as weapons against their enemies. Anecdotes about imperial laughter illustrate these axioms time and again. Whether they are literally true or not we cannot tell, and the fact that there are examples of jokes apparently migrating from one prominent jokester to another (see pp. 105, 253n23) strongly suggests that we are dealing with cultural stereotype or traditional tales rather than fact. But they point to the bigger truth—a political lesson as much as an urban myth—that laughter helped to characterize both good and bad rulers.7

Dio neatly sums up one side of this in discussing Vespasian: the emperor’s civilitas (that ideal quality of treating his people as fellow citizens, not subjects) was demonstrated by the fact that “he joked like one of the people [dēmotikōs] and was happy to take jokes at his own expense, and if any of the kind of slogans that are often anonymously addressed to emperors were posted up, leveling insults at him, he would post up a reply in the same vein, without being at all bothered by it.”8 Of course, civilitas was always something of a veneer (there was no real equality between citizens and the emperor, and especially not between the emperor and the ordinary, nonelite citizens who are often instrumental in these jokes). But it was nevertheless an important veneer in those intricate games of imperial power whose ground rules had been established under the emperor Augustus. And it is around Augustus that a large number of these anecdotes—of jokes tolerated or enjoyed—cluster.

Many of the stories of his bons mots and banter that Macrobius collected show Augustus joking with his subordinates (when, for example, someone was hesitating to offer him a petition and kept putting out and withdrawing his hand, the emperor said, “Do you think you are giving a penny [as] to an elephant?”9). But they also show him tolerating the quips that were aimed against him. As Macrobius has one of the characters in his Saturnalia remark, “In the case of Augustus, I am usually more amazed by the jokes he put up with than those he put out” (I am attempting here to capture something of the play between pertulit, “put up with,” and protulit, “put out” or “uttered”). And he goes on to cite a number of examples, including a very famous joke, which we shall discover (see p. 214) has had a long afterlife, through Sigmund Freud down to Iris Murdoch, as well as a prehistory stretching back into the Roman Republic. “A barbed joke [iocus asper] made by some provincial became well known. There had come to Rome a man who looked very like the emperor, and he had attracted the attention of everyone. Augustus ordered the man to be brought to him, and once he had taken a look, he asked, ‘Tell me, young man, was your mother ever at Rome?’ ‘No,’ he said. But not content with leaving it at that, he added, ‘But my father was, often.’” Augustus, in other words, was the kind of man who could take a joke about that bedrock of Roman patriarchal power—his own paternity.10

But not all the jokers were humble types. We occasionally find similar tolerance displayed toward the jocularity of the upper echelons of Roman society. In one intriguing cause celebre of the early second century CE, jokes were used in the Senate as a vehicle for safe criticism. The story, found in a letter of Pliny, is for us a refreshing antidote to the usual image of senatorial solemnity—though Pliny himself was not amused. He was discussing the obvious, and in his view disastrous, consequence of introducing secret voting papers in senatorial elections: “I told you,” he writes to his correspondent, “that you should be worried that secret ballot might lead to abuse. Well, it’s already happened.” Someone, he explains, at the last election had scrawled jokes (iocularia) and even obscenities on some ballot papers and on one had written the names of the supporters, not of the candidates; it was all intended, we might guess, as a ribald comment on the pointlessness of such procedures under autocratic rule. The loyal senators huffed and puffed and urged the ruling emperor, Trajan, to punish the culprit, who wisely lay low and was never found. The implication of Pliny’s letter is that Trajan turned a blind eye and took no action.11 If some of the more starchy observers, Pliny included, were disappointed, others would surely have congratulated the emperor on his display of civilitas.

“Bad” emperors too were revealed by their particular style of laughing and joking. Ancient discussions of the imperial “monsters”—from Caligula through Domitian to Elagabalus—repeatedly use laughter, and the transgression of its codes and conventions, to define and calibrate different forms of cruelty and excess, the very opposites of civilitas. Sometimes this was a question of an emperor not tolerating jokes made at his expense. It was said that Commodus instructed the marines, who usually looked after the huge awnings used to shade the Colosseum, to kill the people in the audience who he believed were laughing at him (no wonder Dio was worried about cracking up).12 On other occasions it was more a question of the emperor laughing in the wrong way, in the wrong place, or at the wrong things, or making particularly sadistic (or just bad) jokes.

In the case of Claudius, his quips were decidedly feeble, or “cold” (frigidus): Suetonius was unimpressed by a pun on the name of a gladiator, Palumbus, which literally means “wood pigeon” (when the crowd clamored for Palumbus, Claudius promised him “if he could be caught”).13Caligula’s quips were menacing rather than cold. “At one of his more lavish banquets,” Suetonius writes, “he suddenly collapsed into a fit of guffaws [in cachinnos]. The consuls who were reclining next to him asked him politely why he was laughing. ‘Only at the idea that at one nod from me, both of you could have your throats cut instantly.’”14 And Commodus’ biographer in the Augustan History nicely observes that “he was also deadly in his jokes” (in iocis quoque perniciosus) before telling the nasty story of how the emperor put a starling on the head of a man who had a few white hairs among the black. The bird pecked at the white hairs, thinking they were worms, causing the man’s scalp to fester—and presumably killing him in the end.15

This story echoes a theme prominent in the Life of Elagabalus: that the jokes of an autocrat can be literally murderous. But that is not all. In the part factual, part fantasy world of this biography, Commodus’ prank also parodies a whole tradition of imperial jokes about, or against, gray hairs and baldness. One of the commonest themes in the ridicule of an emperor was the state of his head: Julius Caesar was repeatedly mocked for being bald and was said to have combed his remaining hair forward to hide his bald patch (a time-honored tactic in the circumstances, and a time-honored theme of further mockery); Domitian too (the “bald Nero”) is supposed to have taken it as an insult if anyone joked about his lack of hair.16 But this particular story of Commodus surely looks back to one of the jests of Augustus, at his daughter, Julia, collected by Macrobius. Julia was said to have worried about her gray hairs, and she took to having them plucked out by her maids. One day Augustus visited her after this had been going on. “Pretending not to notice the gray hairs on her clothes . . . he asked his daughter whether, in a few years’ time, she would rather be bald or gray. When she replied, ‘Personally, father, I prefer to be gray,’ he told her off for the lie by saying, ‘Why, then, are these women making you bald so quickly?’”17 The contrast is clear. The wise Augustus jokingly reproves his daughter for plucking her gray hairs. The tyrant Commodus sets a bird on the head of an innocent man to do exactly that—and kills him.

Other aspects of imperial laughter are not so predictable. A different theme in this anecdotal and biographical tradition uses laughter to highlight various issues of control. Laughter in day-to-day practice was most likely as controllable for Romans as it is for us (see pp. 43–44). But one powerful Roman myth of laughter (like our own) was that as a natural irruption, it challenged the human ability to master it, and so the proper observance of the social protocols of laughter was the mark of a man (usually a man) fully in control of himself. It was one diagnostic of the faults of the emperor Claudius that he found it difficult to master his mirth. At his first attempt to give a public reading from his newly composed History of Rome, there was trouble from the beginning, when general laughter broke out at the sight of a very fat man breaking several benches, presumably with his sheer weight, by sitting on them. But it went from bad to worse, as the poor young prince did not manage to get through the recitation without cracking up whenever he recalled the hilarious incident. It was a telling sign of his incapacity, mental and physical.18

Roman protocols of control, however, operated the other way round too: the question was not simply whether the gentleman could control his laughter but whether he could control his desire to tell a joke (“to keep his bona dicta to himself,” as Ennius’ famous phrase had it; see p. 76) or resist the temptation to make jests of the wrong sort. Suetonius’ two chapters on the jocularity of Vespasian nicely illustrate this. Like Dio, the biographer generally applauds this emperor’s wit, and he quotes with admiration all kinds of textbook quips that would have met with the approval of Cicero or Quintilian—from the clever insertion of lines of poetry to the use of a jest to deflect hatred. (In fact, the match with the oratorical handbooks is so close that it is conceivable that their discussion of laughter lies somewhere behind these reflections of Suetonius’.) But even here the specter of the scurra was not far away: Vespasian’s dicacitas could be, Suetonius admits, scurrilis.19

Yet the sharpest cutting edge of imperial laughter is seen not so much in the emperor’s ability to control his own outbursts of laughing or joking as in his attempts to control those of others. One classic tyrannical attempt to prohibit laughter is supposed to have occurred under Caligula, at the death of his sister Drusilla. According to Suetonius, Caligula ruled that during the period of mourning for her, no one—on pain of death—should laugh, bathe, or dine with their family (a significant trio of “normal” social human activities, with “laughing” first in Suetonius’ order). This was an obviously fruitless, not to say unenforceable, ruling and (whatever its truth) is recounted in the biography for precisely that reason. But it should also take its place with other tyrannical attempts—successful or unsuccessful, mythical or not—to dominate the forces of nature: just as Xerxes tried to bridge the Hellespont, so (more domestically) Caligula tried to conquer the natural forces of laughter among his subjects.20

An even more sinister aspect of imperial control was the attempt not to prevent laughing and joking but to impose them on the unwilling. Soon after describing Caligula’s rules for mourning, Suetonius tells of a particularly choice piece of imperial cruelty. Caligula insisted first that a man watch the execution of his own son, then that the father come to dinner with him that very afternoon: there, with a tremendous show of affability, the emperor “pushed him to laughing and joking” (hilaritas and ioci are the Latin words). Why did the man go along with it? asks Seneca, who tells a slightly different version of the story. There is a simple answer: because he had another son.21

We even find a hint of a more moderate version of the imperial exaction of laughter in Suetonius’ Life of Augustus. Toward the very end of the emperor’s life, when he was staying in his villa on Capri, he still retained his generosity and jocularity: he gave presents and playfully insisted that the Greeks and Romans in his entourage swap dress and speak each other’s language; indeed, “there was no kind of fun [genus hilaritatis] that he refrained from.” But even here, and even with that most “civil” of emperors, there is a touch of menace, at least in Suetonius’ description. For in those fun-filled dinner parties, Augustus not only “allowed but demanded” that his young guests show “complete freedom in joking” (permissa, immo exacta, iocandi licentia).22 If laughter was a most uncontrollable bodily reaction, it was nevertheless (or perhaps for that very reason) one that emperors tried to govern, some with a lighter touch than others. To put it a different way, in the literary economy of imperial rule, the emperor’s attempt to govern laughter could be a vivid political symbol of the “unnaturalness” of autocracy, even in its more gentle forms.


Perhaps even more striking is the fact that these stories so often site laughter at the interface between the emperor and his nonelite subjects—ordinary Romans, provincials, or rank-and-file soldiers. For when ancient writers chose to represent the interaction between the ruler and some ordinary person or pictured him outside the palace in the people’s space, they almost always did so in jocular terms. We have already seen (p. 131) Augustus tolerating a quip about his paternity from “some provincial.” Even Caligula (whose tyrannical manipulation of laughter was particularly marked) is said to have put up with the banter of a Gallic shoemaker on one occasion. In Dio’s words, “There was once a Gaul who caught sight of the emperor sitting on a high platform, dressed in the costume of Jupiter, and issuing oracles. The man burst out laughing. Caligula summoned him and asked, ‘How do I come across to you?’ And the man answered (I’m giving his exact words), ‘Like a right idiot.’ But he got off scot free, because he was a shoemaker. It is easier, I suppose, for people like Caligula to put up with outspokenness from ordinary people than from those of rank.”23

But there was also the more general question of how—or in what rhetorical register—the emperor’s interactions with the common people were represented. Augustus’ bantering and jocular engagement with the nervous petitioner (“Do you think you are giving a penny to an elephant?”) is typical. Another vivid case is the nice iocus balnearis (bathhouse quip) of the emperor Hadrian, who is said to have entered a set of public baths and noticed a veteran soldier rubbing his bare back against a wall. When Hadrian asked why he was doing that, the man replied that he did not own a slave to rub him down. The emperor’s generous response was to present him with some slaves and the money for their upkeep (a canny recognition of the fact that slaves on their own were no free gift). But obviously the word got around, for another time, Hadrian went to the baths and found a number of old men rubbing themselves down on the walls. No slaves for them: he made them get together to rub one another down. The point of the story was to show that Hadrian was a man of the people, warmhearted, but no fool—not to mention the kind of person who would respond to a transparent scam with a jest.24

I am not for a moment suggesting that all relations between the Roman emperor and his subjects were “a laugh” or that there really was a consistent atmosphere of jocularity (whether relaxed or tense) when the ruler confronted ordinary Romans face-to-face. Of course, that cannot always—or even often—have been the case, and almost certainly not in the kind of unmediated exchanges that the anecdotes ask us to imagine. If Hadrian really did visit the ordinary baths, my guess is that any joking encounters he had with the great unwashed (or washed) would have been very carefully choreographed and closely policed. My point is that in Roman writing, confrontations between the ruler and individual representatives of the ruled were overwhelmingly delineated, debated, and discursively formulated in terms of laughing and joking. Literary representations, at least, used forms of laughter to facilitate communication across the political hierarchy, allowing a particular form of jocularized conversation to take place between high and low. In part this no doubt served to mask the differences of status. At the same time, laughter marked the limit of the tyrant’s civility and could show him up for what he was: a tyrant (just as it could show up the subversive joker too, as subversive). Laughter, in other words, was a key operator in the discourse of Roman political power relations between emperor and subject.

So it was across other axes of power too: the discursive structures of one form of power in Roman culture and society often mapped broadly (even if details differed) onto others. For “tyrant versus subject,” for example, we may read “god versus human” or “free versus slave.” In these cases too, laughter could be a key signal and signifier in the operation of power—as a couple of vivid examples drawn from these other areas make clear.

Ovid often uses laughter in the Metamorphoses as a marker of the relationship between mortals and immortals. You do not need to read far into these poetic tales of transformation to realize that laughing in its various registers—from smug smirks through ripples of joy to triumphant cackles—was an important element in the discourse of power between human beings and the forces of the divine. On the one hand, the gods can use laughter to show their delight at their ability to change the shapes and forms of their human victims. So, for example, when he catches the elderly herdsman Battus trying to trick him, Mercury laughs as he turns the old man into a flint stone.25 On the other hand, human laughter aimed at a god or goddess sometimes heralds the transformation of the laugher into a beast, bird, or inanimate object: the laughter is a display of human defiance, which the deity promptly punishes by the removal of human form and status. But in the more general articulation of power in the poem, this laughter also acts as a signal to the reader that the power differentials between immortal and mortal are about to be exposed or reasserted. So, for example, the servant girl Galanthis laughs when she thinks that she has tricked Juno into giving Alcmena, Hercules’ mother, an easy childbirth—and is promptly turned into a weasel.26 There is a similar pattern in the story of King Piereus’ daughters, who challenge the Muses to a singing contest and lose. When they laugh at the victors, they are turned straightway into magpies.27

Of course, in the Metamorphoses the symbol of laughter is even more loaded than this, thanks to the significance of laughing as one marker of the human condition itself. In several Roman stories that focus on the interface between the human and the animal world, the loss of the ability to laugh can be a telling hint that the boundary has been transgressed (see p. 181). In Ovid’s poem, the peal of laughter that emerges from some of the victims immediately before their transformation is surely meant to remind the reader that they are uttering what is, quite literally, their last laugh: as soon as Galanthis has become a weasel, she will laugh no more.28

More emphatically, laughter also marked the relations between master and slave. As we saw in chapter 1, many themes in Roman comedy (drawn in part from earlier Greek traditions) focused on the hierarchies of slavery and on the interaction of slaves and their owners—parading those hierarchies as both challenged and reinforced, mitigated and occluded, by joking. The idea of the clever comic slave who raised a laugh at the expense of his dim owner both subverted the power relations of slavery as an institution and, I suspect, served to legitimate them.29 But the overriding point is that the interface between master and slave, just as between emperor and subject, was regularly framed in jocular terms.

This comes across especially starkly in a text of very different genre, and one that is much less well known, even among classicists, than Roman stage comedies: the Life of Aesop, an anonymous biography, in Greek, of the famous fable-writing slave. It is a puzzling, complex, composite work that probably reached its final form (or something like it) in Roman imperial Egypt of the first century CE, although its ultimate origins may well be much earlier and go back to very different areas and contexts in the classical world.30 Flagrantly fictional (it is unlikely that any such person as Aesop ever existed, still less that he wrote the fables that go under the name31), it often reaches to the ideological heart of the matter—even if not to the literal truth.

Aesop cuts a “funny” figure. He is a dwarf, potbellied, snub-nosed, hunchbacked, and bandy-legged: “a walking disaster,” as one modern commentator has aptly called him.32 But despite (or because of) his appearance, he is witty, clever—and as good at cracking jokes about others as being a prompt to laughter himself for his sheer bodily peculiarities. Strikingly, at the start of the written Life he is also dumb, until, a couple of pages into the story in the principal version of the text, the goddess Isis gives him the faculty of speech and persuades the Muses each to give him a taste of their gifts, such as storytelling.33 Nevertheless, as Leslie Kurke emphasizes, in the very first episode of the story, while he is still mute, Aesop manages eloquently to reveal that a couple of fellow slaves are guilty of the very crime that they are trying to pin on him: namely, eating the master’s figs. He makes the pair vomit up the fruit, thus proving their guilt.34 In the world of jests and entertainment, it was a familiar Roman paradox that—far from the verbal forms we have seen so enthusiastically recommended for the orator—silent wit and eloquence could be found in those who were, or had been, dumb (see p. 144).

Much of the rest of the Life is taken up with the laughing relationship between the slave and his new master, a philosopher by the name of Xanthus, who buys Aesop after he has gained the power of speech. This laughter starts from the very moment that Aesop is on display in the slave market, where Xanthus is quizzing the various slaves on sale about their qualities. “What do you know how to do?” Xanthus asks his potential living purchases. “I know how to do everything,” reply two of the slaves, at which Aesop laughs (so heartily, and so badly contorting his face and baring his teeth, that he looked to Xanthus’ students like “a turnip with gnashers”).35 When it comes to Aesop’s turn to be quizzed about what he can do, he replies in a parodically Socratic fashion, “Nothing at all . . . because the other two boys know everything there is.” That is why he had laughed (at them), exposing their foolish overconfidence in their abilities. After some more philosophical banter between Aesop and Xanthus, the philosopher decides to purchase the “walking disaster” rather than the slicker, more attractive slaves on offer—causing the slave merchant to suspect that, in making that choice, Xanthus was having a joke on his trade. “Are you wanting to make a mockery of my business?” he asks. But the tax collectors, whose job it was to collect the sales tax, found the whole transaction so ridiculous that they, in their turn, laughed and remitted the tax. Repeatedly, in other words, the insertion of (written) laughter into this story serves to mark the differentials of power, knowledge, and understanding across the hierarchies of status.36

And so it continues through much of the rest of the tale—until Aesop manages to secure his freedom, and in a baroque finale is forced to his death (by jumping over a cliff) at Delphi.37 The relationship between the slave and his owner is memorably configured in bantering terms, reminiscent of those between subject and emperor. At one point, the exasperated Xanthus, who has just signally failed to answer a philosophical puzzle posed by his gardener and then hears his slave laughing, is forced to ask, “Aesop, are you just laughing [gelas] or are you taking the mickey out of me [katagelas]?” Aesop neatly extricates himself from the charge (while delivering an even sharper insult): “I’m laughing at the professor who taught you.”38

But much of the best fun comes from the faux naïveté or willful literal-mindedness of Aesop’s responses to Xanthus’ instructions. This was a style of joking that Quintilian identified (and praised) in his Handbook (“Titius Maximus once stupidly asked Campatius as he left the theater whether he had been watching a play. “No, I was playing ball in the orchestra, stupid.”39). The Life presents it as a major weapon of the slave in his bantering standoffs with his master. Typical of many exchanges is the anecdote of their visit to the baths. “Bring the oil flask and the towels,” Xanthus says to Aesop as they are getting ready. Once they have arrived, Xanthus asks for the flask in order to rub himself with oil, only to discover that there is no oil inside it. “Aesop,” he says, “where’s the oil?” “At home,” the slave quips back. “You told me to ‘take the oil flask and the towels’; you didn’t mention oil.” Almost immediately after this, Aesop is sent home “to put lentil in the pot,” and that is exactly what he does. When Xanthus gets back for supper with a group of fellow bathers, he finds that there is indeed just one lentil for supper. “Didn’t you tell me to ‘cook lentil’ and not ‘lentils’?” Aesop explains.40 And we laugh.

The point here is not that slavery was a funny institution; it most certainly was not, any more than tyranny was. Nevertheless, in the imaginative economy of Rome—from popular theater to satiric biography—laughter and joking, with many different nuances, offered a way of representing, or occluding, the interface between slaves and their owners. Laughter stood (or was imagined to stand) at the interfaces of power.


But what of social reality? In investigating the role of written laughter in the cultural world of Rome, I have insisted that these ancient accounts of laughter and joking are not necessarily true. We cannot assume that they give us a window onto laughter as we might have heard or witnessed it in the imperial court or slave household. But important as those caveats are, they do not entirely dispose of the nagging question of how far these discursive tropes related to the real-life, face-to-face confrontation between ruler and ruled. If the downstairs world of the slave kitchen is completely lost to us, can we tentatively get a little closer to the social reality of laughter upstairs in the Roman palace and in the emperor’s various interactions with his subjects?

Perhaps we can. There are hints that this jocularity was not merely a written convention of imperial biographers or elite Greco-Roman historians but actually marked some of the real-life encounters in the imperial court. One extraordinary version of such banter is found in an eyewitness description by one member of a Jewish delegation from Alexandria to the emperor Caligula in 40 CE.41 Religious and ethnic conflict was endemic in Egyptian Alexandria, and the embassy had come to put the case of the Jews of the city against the rival envoys of the Greek gentile population. The eyewitness in question was the Jewish philosopher Philo. True, this is a very “literary” piece of writing: Philo was an elite intellectual observer of Roman imperial rule whose account of his encounter with Caligula was loaded, highly crafted, and composed against a background of wider conflicts between the emperor and the Jews (focused in part around Caligula’s plan to erect a statue of himself in the Temple in Jerusalem). But Philo was from outside the formal Roman hierarchies of power, from a resistant subject people—yet, in describing his meeting with the emperor, he refers to banter very similar in style to some that we have already looked at. This time we are at least seeing it from the point of view—and the pen—of the petitioner.42

Philo conjures up a vivid impression of both the humiliation entailed in an encounter with Caligula and its various forms of—simultaneously reassuring, puzzling, and deeply threatening—jocularity. He and his fellow Jewish envoys had gone to put their case to the emperor in his garden estates (horti) on the edge of the city of Rome. At first the emperor seemed cavalier and decidedly hostile, and Philo complains that his embassy was not getting a serious hearing (part of Caligula’s attention was on the inspection of the properties on his estates and possible home improvements, not on the Alexandrian Jews).43 The emperor’s first reaction was to “grin” threateningly at them (sesērōs)—as Commodus had “grinned” at the senators in the Colosseum—and to call them “god haters” (on the grounds that they did not believe that he was a god). Hearing this, the rival group of envoys from Alexandria was overjoyed: “They waved their arms, they danced up and down, and they appealed to him by the titles of all the gods.” Some argument about whether the Jews had offered the proper loyal sacrifices followed—while Caligula continued to inspect the buildings and order new fixtures and fittings. At this point, Philo appeals to another area of the culture of ancient laughter: the Jews, he writes, were being mocked by their opponents as if they were onstage in a mime; in fact, the whole business was “like a mime.”44

Things then took a different turn, as Caligula demanded of the Jews, “Why do you not eat pork?” This caused their rivals to “burst out laughing,” partly because they were amused or delighted with what the emperor had said, partly out of flattery. For just as we saw Terence pointing to the use of laughter as flattery in some of the exchanges in his Eunuch (see p. 12), Philo suggests that they wanted to suck up to Caligula by making it seem as if they thought he had spoken “with wit and charm.” On this occasion, however, the flattery may have gone too far: their laughter was so raucous that one of the imperial guards thought it was showing disrespect to the emperor (and we might guess he stepped a little closer to prevent any trouble).45

How heartily, then, should you laugh at the emperor’s jokes? There were clearly competing views. The cautious Philo observes that unless you were one of his close friends, it was not safe even to risk a silent “smile” or “beam” (meidiasai). But if so, that is in direct contrast with the tenor of the joking exchanges between emperor and subject that we have seen in other literary texts, as well as with the tenor of Philo’s own account.46 In fact, he goes on to describe another round of ostensibly jocular bantering between Caligula and both deputations, again largely on the subject of dietary restrictions. The Jews tried to explain that different people have different prohibitions and preferences, and one of them intervened to point out that—never mind pork—a lot of people did not eat lamb. That made the emperor laugh again: “Quite right,” he said, “because it’s not nice.” Philo considers this yet more mockery at the expense of the Jewish delegation, but in fact the emperor soon began to mellow (as Philo sees it, through the influence of God). Although his mind was still more on his new windows and rehanging some paintings, he concluded that the Jews were not so much wicked as foolish in their refusal to recognize his divinity—so he merely dismissed them, apparently reaching no judgment on the dispute between the Jews and the gentiles of Alexandria that had been put before him.47

This is a rich account of imperial laughter, even if it has been carefully recrafted into an overtly partisan account in the religious conflicts of the first century CE. It hints at a certain mismatch of the protocols of laughter, between the Jews and the Romans (how far is Philo [mis]reading jocularity as aggressive mockery, and does he correctly understand the regime of laughter appropriate in the imperial court?) and between the imperial guard and the Alexandrian Greeks (whose enthusiastic laughter was taken by the guard as disruptive or frankly threatening). But it certainly construes the encounter between these subordinate envoys and the emperor in more or less the same bantering terms that we have seen in literary texts of very different types and background.

Once more it is important to emphasize that we are a long way from (in Keith Thomas’s words) hearing the laughter that surrounded the Roman emperor (see pp. 50–51), and in fact, in Philo’s account, the imperial guardsman’s objection to the laughter of the gentile delegation is a reminder of how policed any such outbursts might have been. But it also suggests that it is right to see laughter, threatening as it might be, as one important element in the real-life power relations between emperor and people—and a more audible and strident presence in Roman imperial court culture than we usually credit.


There are other hints of the prominence of laughter—notably in the presence of designated “laughter makers” in the imperial palace and other elite contexts. In fact, some of the pranks of Elagabalus (exaggerated as the stories in his Life certainly are) may not have been so very different in spirit from some of the japes and jocularity that jesters and jokers brought to Roman society, right up to (and perhaps especially among) its uppermost echelons.

The emperor’s court seems to have featured a range of comics, and we know the names of some famous jesters associated with particular rulers. We have already glimpsed Sarmentus (see p. 68), a scurra in the circle of Maecenas and Augustus, whose jokes Quintilian references somehow (the surviving text is defective and makes no sense).48 Gabba was another famous Augustan court jokester—whose name was still enough of a literary household word a hundred years later for Martial to compare him to Capitolinus, a prominent jester at the court of Nerva and Trajan (Martial judged Capitolinus the funnier, but on what basis—apart from a strategic preference for the living over the dead—we do not know).49 Another might be Nero’s Vatinius, whose name was an uncanny or contrived throwback to Cicero’s jocular adversary (see pp. 106, 122–23).50 But we also read of groups of jesters or other performers rather too low in laughter’s pecking order to feature prominently as individuals in elite histories.

One particular group—named or nicknamed copreae in Latin, kopriai (little shits) in Greek51—seems to have belonged exclusively in the Roman palace or among Roman autocrats. That at least is what the usage of the terms suggests (scant as the surviving evidence is), for they only ever refer to characters in the immediate court circle.52 Dio, for example, claims that after the death of Commodus, there was a cause célèbre about the “little shits” who survived him. In the posthumous propaganda campaign against the emperor’s memory, it was said that people laughed when they were told what the nicknames of these jokesters had been but (not unlike in some modern outrages about public sector salaries) were hugely angry when they learned how much they had been paid.53Suetonius mentions in passing the copreae who used to attend Tiberius’ dinner table,54 and he tells of the nasty practical jokes they used to play on Claudius before he came to the throne.

Slow, awkward, and misshapen, Claudius was an easy target of the jests of his nephew the ruling emperor Caligula—especially as he was in the habit, so it was said, of dropping off to sleep after dinner while the party was still going on. The copreae used to wake him up with a whip “as if they were playing a game” (velut per ludum), and it was presumably these same jokesters who used to put “slippers” (socci) on his hands while he was snoring, so that when he stirred, he “would rub his face with them.”55 It is not entirely clear what the joke was here. Socci had rough bottoms, so presumably Claudius scratched his face. But was there some further significance in them? Perhaps so. Socci were a type of footwear sometimes associated with women or effeminate luxury, and this alone might have raised a laugh when Claudius found them on his hands—the ancient equivalent of putting diamond-studded stilettos on his hands, maybe.56 They were also part of the kit both of comic actors (an association that could be taken to imply that the ungainly prince had become a comic spectacle) and of parasites (to whose role in laughter and at dinners I shall shortly turn).57 But however precisely we read the joke here (and it may, of course, have operated in any number of ways), however close a reflection of real court life the report of this incident may have been, there is something undeniably reminiscent of Elagabalus’ jests about the scene.58

These copreae are an intriguing but elusive group. They make the occasional appearance in accounts of Roman palace life, but we cannot trace them right down to the hard, documentary evidence of their tombstones or memorials. The funerary record of the city of Rome does, however, offer one glimpse of a curious laughter maker, from the imperial court itself—on what remains of a small, now broken commemorative plaque found just outside the city of Rome in a communal tomb for members of the imperial household.59 It originally marked the niche for the ashes of a man who had been, as it says, a lusor Caesaris (a player of Caesar). His name is now missing, but those two words alone indicate that he was a slave of the emperor and that his business was some kind of entertainment. The short description that follows fills out the picture of the man and his life: “dumb eloquent [mutus argutus], a mimic [imitator] of the emperor Tiberius, the man who first discovered how to imitate barristers [causidici].”

What exactly this means—and in particular what it tells us about the character of his act—is not easy to fathom. It was once popularly thought that Mutus Argutus was the dead man’s name.60 This is extremely unlikely (for that would surely have featured in the now lost first lines of the text). But suppose it were a name—then it must certainly have been a stage sobriquet, for it is a paradoxical pairing, meaning something like “silent but sharp” or “silent but eloquent.”61 Some have suggested, not implausibly, that it should be seen as the slogan of a pantomime actor, in which case the man’s act would have been a mime (in the modern sense of that word—he didn’t speak).62 But there is also a striking link here with the narrative of Aesop, who was, as we have seen, at first dumb, then powerfully eloquent, and there is perhaps a hint too at similarities in the style of banter inscribed in Aesop’s Life and in the jesting culture of the court.

The next words of the text—“a mimic of the emperor Tiberius”—presumably indicate that he was a mimic owned by Tiberius. The slightly awkward Latin could also mean that he was a mimic whose act was to imitate Tiberius (though that would be, one imagines, a risky business).63 But the final words of the text make clear that the highlight in his repertoire—and his own particular innovation—was mimicry of barristers. It is not, at first sight, easy to imagine the scene at Tiberius’ dinner parties (assuming that is where these performances took place64) with our entertainer as the star turn. Did the emperor really look forward to a session of after-dinner lawyer imitations? Or did the act consist in something more like spoof declamations? We do not know. But the message of these fragmentary, fleeting, and often overlooked pieces of evidence seems clear: laughter was not only important in the discourse of imperial power but may also have been much more prominent in the social practice of the imperial court than is often assumed.

So it was too in the practice of the elite Roman household more generally. At least, there were more clowns around than we often bother to notice. Beyond various types of dinnertime comic entertainers who may or may not have been hired in,65 we find clear cases of jesters who were permanent residents in houses of the rich. Seneca briefly discusses an intriguing example—interestingly, a woman—in one of his philosophical letters to Lucilius. He refers to the elderly Harpaste, in his own household, his wife’s female clown (fatua), who had come to them as part of a legacy. It is a complicated reference. Seneca implies that part of Harpaste’s comic character is that she is a “freak” (prodigium), and he reflects briefly (and archly) on prompts to laughter (“If I want to be amused by a clown, I don’t have far to look: I laugh at myself”). He introduces too, as the central philosophical message of the letter, moral reflections about human folly and blindness, for Harpaste has recently gone blind but does not realize it, so keeps complaining that her room is too dark.66 All the same, philosophical metaphor or not, it is also one clear sign that clowns could have a place in the domestic sphere of the rich.

To push this a little further—and much more speculatively—we might wonder how far the jester and jesting culture had a structural role to play in what we have come to call Roman elite “self-fashioning.” If the jester was a regular presence in the domestic world of the elite, how far was the construction and self-imaging of the Roman elite male partly a process carried out in the face of, or against, the ribald, deformed, clever, joking image of the clown? Should we be seeing the clown—as Carlin Barton long ago suggested—as a distorting mirror against, or in, which the Roman saw and defined himself?67

I shall return to that question in the final section of this chapter, in the context of the scurra. But for the moment, let me suggest that this idea might help to give a different perspective on a couple of our favorite conundrums of Roman cultural and religious history. The first concerns the jesters and mimics who accompanied an elite Roman funeral, imitating, among other things, the actions of the deceased. In the funeral procession of Vespasian, for example, “Favor, a star mime actor, who wore his [Vespasian’s] mask, . . . loudly asked procurators what the cost of the funeral and the procession was. When he heard it was ten million sesterces, he shouted, ‘Give me a hundred thousand and chuck me in the Tiber.’” A good joke, as Suetonius reports it, on Vespasian’s well-known stinginess.68 The second are the ribald songs and scurrilous rhymes chanted apparently at the expense of the successful general at a Roman triumph. “Romans, lock up your wives. The bald adulterer’s back in town” were the lyrics used at the triumph of Julius Caesar in 46 BCE, harping on that classic topic of a Roman joke—hair loss.69

The function of these customs has long been a puzzle. One of the commonest explanations, which economically kills both birds with one stone, is that the ribaldry or jesting in each case was “apotropaic.” This word is sufficiently technical to appear to be explanatory while also being agreeably primitive—as if we were going back into the deepest wellsprings of earliest Roman tradition. How far any Roman laughter is usefully understood in these terms is debatable.70 But it has always seemed to me that in these two cases (and in the more domestic case of the dog at the door that I looked at earlier, on pp. 58–59), the word shelves the problems rather than solves them. For one thing, it is far from clear what the laughter is supposed to be apotropaic of—what did it ward off?71

We might, I venture, get further if we did not think here entirely in terms of some murky area of Victorian anthropology. It is worth reflecting instead that we are witnessing in these instances other examples of the proximity between the elite Roman and the joker. Perhaps more pointedly, we are seeing, reenacted and writ large in these ceremonies, public analogues to the domestic role of jokers in the imperial court or rich mansions at Rome. At the very least, that domestic role hints that it may be less surprising than we usually assume to find jesters and jests so prominent on these ceremonial occasions. The joker accompanied the Roman at the moment of his greatest success—and to the grave. It was in the ribaldry of the jester that one version of Roman elite identity was defined and paraded.72

It is to further reflections on these Roman jokers—to the cultural ideology that surrounded them, the cultural connections they signaled, the problems they raised, and the prime contexts in which they were imagined to operate—that I now turn. I am moving away again from the elusive day-to-day reality of Roman social life, back toward the rather more clearly delineated structures of the Roman imaginary and its symbolic assumptions and stereotypes. I start by focusing on the figure of the parasite and the different kinds of laughter associated with the Roman dinner table—raising, in particular, issues of truth and sincerity and the way in which “laughter to order” both oiled the wheels of the Roman social hierarchy and threatened to derail them. I finish, in the final section, by reflecting more precisely on the idea of the scurra. Most of the time the Roman emperor still lurks in the background—though the very last character we will meet face-to-face is an early Christian martyr in a poem that turns the elite stereotype of scurrilitas on its head and parades the brave victim of Roman persecution as a perfect scurra.


I have pointed to laughter and banter between the great and the small, emperor and subject, in a wide range of contexts: from the baths through the open streets to the emperor’s garden estates. But the key setting for jesters, laughter, and jocular exchanges across the hierarchies of power was that most deceptively (un)hierarchical of Roman institutions: the dinner party or banquet. It was here that Elagabalus was supposed to have deflated his whoopee cushions, it was here that “little shits” played pranks on Claudius with slippers, and it was to a dinner that Caligula invited the man whose son he had just had put to death “and pushed him to laughing and joking.” There is much more to this than the simple fact that dinner was an occasion of play and fun. There was an important interrelationship between jokes and jokers, flattery and food, against the background of the markedly unequal structures of Roman dining and its representations.

It goes almost without saying that the Roman banquet was a paradoxical institution. On the one hand, it promoted equality, in the sense that eating together is one of the most powerful ways of putting all participants on an equal footing; the basic principle of commensality is that those who eat the same are the same (or, for the moment at least, can count themselves as such). On the other hand, it represented, in a particularly vivid way, the inequalities of the diners: the way the food was served, the order of serving, and the seating plan reinforced rather than undermined social hierarchies. Several Roman writers pointed disapprovingly to the practice of serving inferior guests inferior food.73 And according to the Augustan History, another trick of Elagabalus’ was to literalize that inequality by serving the least prestigious diners food that was not merely worse than their superiors’ but entirely inedible: “To the freeloaders [parasiti] during the dessert course he often served food of wax or wood or ivory, sometimes pottery, occasionally marble or stone, so that everything was served to them too, but only to be looked at and made out of a different material from what he himself was eating, while they only drank through the individual courses and washed their hands as if they had eaten.”74 Part of the joke here rests on the idea of imitation and mimicry: something is pretending to be food when it is not (just as when Petronius too, in conjuring up Trimalchio’s dinner party, hilariously focuses on the bluff and double bluff of food that appears somehow in disguise75). But the more sinister side of the joke is that it writes in stone (or wax or wood) the inequities of the imperial dinner table.

The general idea that Roman elite dining was a prime context for the display of social hierarchies (even if they were also partially hidden under the mask of commensality) is well established.76 Less discussed has been the part that jokes and laughter played within that unequal culinary economy: from the role of the joker in exposing the differentials of power and status to the way in which the underprivileged are represented as exchanging jokes (and, along with jokes, flattery) for food.77 It is this “culinary triangle,” of laughter, flattery, and food, that is highlighted in some wonderfully self-aware snatches of ancient writing.78

In classical and Hellenistic Greece, just as at Rome, it was a common idea (or conceit) that a poor scrounger could earn his place at the dinner table through laughter—or, more generally, that there was a trade-off between the economy of laughter and the economy of food. We have already seen in chapter 1 the role in Terence’s Eunuch of the “parasite,” who earned his keep by laughing at the feeble jokes of his patron, whether they were funny or not. That basic principle is reflected also in the definition offered by one late antique commentator on another passage of Terence: “Parasiteis the word for someone who eats with me or at my house, because para [in Greek] means ‘at’ and sitos [in Greek] means ‘food.’ Or else parasites are so called from obeying [parendo] and standing by [assistendo], since standing by their superiors they serve their pleasure through flattery.”79

By suggesting different etymologies—one Greek, one Latin—this commentator points to what has been a major topic of debate: the precise relationship between Greek parasites and their Roman counterparts, particularly as they appear in the comedies of Plautus and Terence. How far was the idea essentially Hellenic, sketchily translated into a Roman context? What adjustments or contributions came from the Roman side? Overall, it does seem fairly clear that—whatever its Greek origins—the figure of the parasite became naturalized at Rome and played a part in Roman cultural debate that went beyond (even if it remained in dialogue with) its Greek models. Cynthia Damon in particular has powerfully argued that the parasite as a cultural category was deeply integrated into debates at Rome around that central Roman institution patronage: or to put it more strongly, the stereotype was developed as a negative symbolic antitype of the Roman client, combining flattery, exploitation, and humiliation.80 It is no coincidence that in the description of Elagabalus’ discriminatory menus, it is the parasites who were the recipients of the fake food.

Laughter is a key coordinate too. For on the one hand, the freeloader laughed to cue, providing a reliably laughing audience for the jokes, good or bad, of his patron. On the other, he could be expected to produce laughter among the other guests in return for a good meal—as we find already in Xenophon’s Symposium (written sometime in the first half of the fourth century BCE), where Philip the jester arrives hungry and more or less uninvited and makes himself welcome through mimicry and joking.81 This idea comes over even more strongly in various Roman comedies (whatever their precise relationship with their Greek sources of inspiration)—where we meet a number of characters who swap jokes for a free meal while vociferously complaining about their lot.82 It is a particularly vivid theme in Plautus’ Stichus, whose most prominent character (despite the title, which blazons the name of another) is a parasite, the aptly named Gelasimus (Mr. Laugher, from the Greek gelaō). The play is cruelly concerned with the trials of a parasite’s life.83

Early in the drama, Gelasimus turns to the audience to try to get a dinner out of one of them in return for a joke: “I’m selling jokes,” he says. “Come on, make a bid. Who’ll say dinner? Anyone give me lunch? . . . Was that a nod? You won’t find better jokes anywhere.”84 In fact, what he is trying, jokingly, to auction off is not only jokes but the whole parodic paraphernalia of the parasite—including his private jokebooks, that collection of pre-prepared wit and one-liners that had been his regular meal ticket until the dinner invitations dried up. Later in the play, when he has abandoned the sale, we find him referring to his books in an effort to dig out the right jokes to impress his patron (“I’ve consulted my books: I’m sure as I can be that I’ll keep my patron with my jokes”).85Throughout the play, various ambiguities of laughter recur, almost as a linking theme. One, as we might expect, focuses on the word ridiculus: the parasite is actively ridiculus, in the sense that he prompts laughter in others with witty gags; he is also passivelyridiculus, in that he and his plight are repeatedly laughed at. Another aspect of ambiguity is exploited by the character of Epigonus, Gelasimus’ once and possibly future patron. In addressing the parasite, he plays on Gelasimus’ name, with more Latinized Greek—derived now from the Greek katagelaō (deride or laugh at). “I don’t want you to stop being a laugher,” he says at one point, “and become a laugher at me” (“Nunc ego non volo ex Gelasimo mihi fieri te Catagelasimum”).86

There is a complex set of issues and identities at stake in the image of the parasite and the laughter he both voices and attracts. Of course, the material we have is entirely from the perspective of the elite and disapproving observer. Even if the plots of some of the comedies encourage us to imagine the world from the point of view of the underdog, the word parasite, like flatterer, remains a loaded and hostile value judgment, not a self-descriptor. That said, it is clear that one major social fault line reflected in (and exploited by) Roman literature was precisely the problematic relationship between flattery, laughter, and the supposed friendship between host and guest—or more generally between the powerful and their hangers-on. A prominent issue in the Greco-Roman ethics of social behavior was “how to tell a flatterer from a (real) friend.”87 That issue is magnified in debates that cluster around the image of the parasite—in which we see how the demands of flattery risked undercutting the sincerity of laughter and exposing the (hungry) sycophant and the vain host for what they were. What is more, the laughter of the flatterer could be hard for the host or patron to distinguish from the laughter of derision directed against himself, or accidentally rebounding onto him. The sentiments of Epigonus in the Stichus are, in fact, not very different from those of Xanthus that we read in the Life of Aesop (p. 139): “Are you laughing or taking the mickey?”

These dilemmas are cleverly captured in a letter of Seneca, who (among other verbal nuances) plays with the possible ambiguities of the word arrideo—which can mean not only “to laugh in response to” but also “to laugh supportively” and so also “to flatter” (see above, pp. 71–72). Seneca is discussing a tedious and foolish host, Calvius Sabinus, the consul of 26 CE, who had slaves specially trained to remember great works of literature word for word; they stood at the foot of his couch at dinner and prompted him in reciting the lines (which, even with their help, he still could not manage). It was too much for one of his subordinate guests, Satellius Quadratus, who was driven to quip about the stupidity of it all. In telling this story, Seneca links the behavior of the one who comes to eat up the food (arrosor), the one who comes to flatter / laugh supportively (arrisor), and the one who comes to quip or to laugh at their meal ticket (derisor)—in this case, all the same person, of course. Quadratus was, he says, “a feeder off the foolish rich and—what follows—a flatterer of them and, what is connected to both, a laugher at them.”88

The issue of the laugher’s sincerity is highlighted in a different way in a story of Dionysius II, the fourth-century BCE tyrant of Syracuse. This is preserved in Athenaeus’ late second-century CE anthology and encyclopedia, The Philosophers’ Banquet, in a section devoted entirely to anecdotes about parasites, including their excesses, playfulness, loyalties, and disloyalties.89 Athenaeus offers a colorful range of these characters, from Cleisophus, the parasite of Philip of Macedon (who limped when the king was wounded in the leg and made a face when the king tasted bitter food, as if he also had eaten it90), to Andromachus of Carrhae, the parasite of Licinius Crassus (who ended up betraying his patron to the Parthians and so bringing about his defeat in the Battle of Carrhae in 53 BCE91). The story of Dionysius focuses directly on the problems of laughter. The tyrant challenged one of his hangers-on, Cheirisophus, who had laughed when he noticed Dionysius laughing some distance away and out of earshot. Why, he asked, was the man laughing when he could not possibly have heard what was being said?—a question that risked disrupting the implied contract between the patron and the laughing flatterer (that the flatterer must laugh when the patron does) by exposing its underlying hypocrisy. The clever flatterer replied, “I trust you that what was said was funny.” He reestablished the contract, in other words (albeit in a way that not even the most gullible patron would be able to take entirely seriously).92

A more complicated and even more revealing example of this kind of dilemma is found in the vast Library of History by Diodorus—from the Roman province of Sicily (hence his now conventional name, Diodorus Siculus)—who wrote in Greek, in the first century BCE. This was a comprehensive project, tracing the history of the known world from its mythic origins to the present day.93 In one section, which survives only in quotations in Byzantine anthologies, he discusses the origins of the slave revolts that broke out in Sicily in the second century BCE. The leader of the revolts was a slave from Apameia in Syria called Eunus, whose claims to authority over his fellow slaves rested in part on the idea that the Syrian goddess (Atargatis) directly inspired him and had made him king. According to Diodorus, his master, Antigenes, treated these claims as an amusing bit of fun, and so he proceeded to give the slave the role of jester, but with an unexpected upshot:

As the whole thing was taken for a bit of amusement, his master Antigenes, enchanted by the hocus-pocus, used to introduce Eunus (for that was the charlatan’s name) at his dinner parties and question him about his kingship and how he would treat each of those present. And when he gave a full account without any hesitation . . . laughter used to overtake the guests, and some of them, picking up some tasty morsels from the table, would present them to him, interjecting that when he became king, he should remember the kindness. But it turned out that his charlatanism really did result in kingship, and he made recompense in earnest for what he had received in jest [en gelōti] at the banquets.94

That is to say, in the carnage that really did follow, Eunus did not kill those who had fed him at the table.

This is a marvelously dense passage, which exploits and enmeshes many of the issues we have been exploring in this chapter: dining, hierarchy, joking, subverted reality, truth and falsehood, autocracy and power. It involves a slave who is treated as a jester and fed by the diners in return for his jokes. Yet the jokes turn out not to be mere fiction (“jokes as lies,” as Quintilian would have seen it; pp. 125–26); they are the real plans of a slave who is claiming the status of king and patron for himself. In fact, in his role as king, he goes on to respect the patronage relationships of the dinner (joking as they may have been)—sparing the lives of those who had in their turn respected the patronage relationship by feeding him tidbits. Almost all the cultural norms of dining, patronage, and jocularity come together in this apparently simple story.


More than anything else, the shadow of the Roman scurra has stalked the pages of this book. We have seen how he represented a disreputable form of joking: vulgar, imitative, unspontaneous—though at the same time almost guaranteed to raise a laugh. We have also seen how accusations ofscurrilitas could be used in the infighting among the Roman elite. To his enemies, Cicero was “a scurra of a consul,” while he could criticize the jokes of others as far too like the quips of a scurra. There was something (as we might say) lippy or in-your-face about the scurra; in Roman terms, it was his dicacitas (lippiness) that made the emperor Vespasian appear scurrilis (like a scurra). Another good example of this style of banter (and its dangerous consequences) is found in Suetonius’ story of the pointed gibe of a scurra against the stinginess of the emperor Tiberius. The man called out to the corpse in a passing funeral to ask it to take a message to the dead emperor Augustus that the legacies he had left to the Roman people had not been paid. He got his comeuppance: Tiberius ordered him to be put to death, but not before he had been given his money, so he could take the message to the underworld that the dues had been paid.95

There was also something that was—or was thought to be—characteristically Roman about the scurra. At least, the word was seen to be more or less untranslatable into Greek, even in antiquity. I have already suggested that it may have underlain the Greekgeloios in Plutarch’s version of Cato’s quip about Cicero (see pp. 102–3). Even more strikingly, when Zeno of Sidon was talking of Socrates and wanted, presumably, to call attention to his subversive repartee, he called him “an Athenian scurra”—using, as Cicero (to whom we owe the reference) says, “the Latin word.”96 There was nothing in Greek, we may imagine, that would quite capture it. The marked “Romanness” of the word was part of the reason, no doubt, that Eduard Fraenkel adopted the term Skurrilität to refer to some distinctively Plautine (that is, non-Greek) elements in Plautus.97

But can we get closer than this to the character, identity, or social role of the scurra? That has always proved difficult.98 We can detect all kinds of overlaps between scurrae and the so-called parasites of Greek and Roman comedy. It is hard, for example, not to be struck by the ready-made jokebooks of Gelasimus, which seem to fit very closely with some of the complaints of Cicero and Quintilian about the wit of the scurra: namely, that it was prepared in advance and that its targets were a whole class rather than an individual. Yet Gelasimus is never called scurra—while others in Plautus, sometimes rather smart urban types, sometimes meddling busybodies, are,99 and so is the jester Sarmentus in Horace’s Satire. Certainly the more or less standard translation of scurra as “buffoon” captures no more than part of the meaning of some of its usages.

The fact is that if we examine carefully all the people designated by this term in ancient literature, we find an apparently baffling range, from the urban flaneurs of Roman comedy through jokers and jesters in a narrower sense to Socrates or even members of the Praetorian Guard. In fact, according to the Augustan History, that jocular emperor Elagabalus himself was eventually murdered by scurrae. It is tempting to see this as a wonderfully appropriate end (a “scurrile” emperor killed by scurrae), but the standard assumption is that the reference here is to soldiers of the guard (with scurra used to reflect their city base, or “urbanity,” in contrast to those troops stationed through the empire).100

So did the meaning of the term change over time, as Philip Corbett wondered in his essay on the scurra? Was there a move from an amateur to a professional sense of the term, or vice versa? Did the role of scurra as a social category change over the course of Roman history? Were there in fact several very different social phenomena that, for whatever reason, were lumped together under the single designation scurra? These are not necessarily stupid questions, but they probably miss the main point of scurrilitas. For not unlike parasite in Damon’s analysis, it was hardly a simple referential term. It was, rather, a category within the imaginative economy and social policing of Roman laughter: the constructed, and shifting, antitype to the elite male jokester; the jesting transgressor of elite male values of jesting—symbiotically tied to, incomprehensible without, and always (as Cicero knew, to his cost) liable to merge with its opposite. Scurra, in other words, was a (negative) value judgment on the practices of laughter rather than a descriptor, a cultural constructor (and mirror) of the jocularity of the Roman elite.101

Or so it seems from the elite texts we have. But did the term look different from the point of view of those who did not have a stake in the elite culture of Roman laughter? Were there contexts in which it could be positively revalued, even worn as a (subversive) badge of pride? I have already regretted that we have no view of “parasites” except through the eyes of those ancient writers committed to despise them. The same is broadly true for the scurra—except for one precious glimpse from the fourth century CE and its religious conflicts. The glimpse in question comes from Prudentius’ horribly gruesome cycle of poems The Crowns of Martyrdom, where we find the scurra reappropriated in a very different, Christian context.102

The second poem of the collection tells, in almost six hundred lines, the story of the martyrdom of Saint Laurence, who was roasted to death, slowly, on a gridiron in 258 CE. In a famous moment that became almost the slogan of this martyrdom (ll. 401–4), Laurence asked to be turned over just before his death, as one side was already cooked (hence, in part, his later role as the patron saint of chefs). Prudentius gives a detailed, vivid, and (presumably) highly embroidered, if not fictional, verse account of the clash between the saint and his elite pagan prosecutor. It starts with the pagan Roman demanding the wealth of the Christian church, which he believes is being concealed and not “rendered unto Caesar” (ll. 94–98). Begging for a delay, to bring out “all the precious things that Christ has” (ll. 123–24), Laurence tricks his prosecutor and parades before him the poor and the sick of Rome, as the treasures of the church. This does not go down well, and Laurence soon finds himself on the gridiron.

The style of this encounter is distinctive. Laurence is a clever, shifty, and witty character who teases the prosecutor dreadfully, and laughter plays a major role in this. Confronted with the sick and the poor as the treasures of the church, the prosecutor says, “We’re being laughed at [ridemur]” (l. 313). He goes on to explode, “You rascal, do you think you are getting away with weaving together such great tricks with mimic mockery [cavillo mimico] while you act out your tale like a scurra? Did it seem to match your urbanitasto treat me with jokes [ludicris]? Have I been sold off to the cacklers as a bit of festival entertainment?” (ll. 317–22). At the very end of the poem, we find that those worshiping the saint not only beg him for help and tell his story but also pick up Laurence’s style and “joke” (iocantur).103

Urbanitas, cavillatio, a scurra, and mimicry. All the old Roman terminology of jesting is on display—a testimony to its cultural longevity. In a powerful recent analysis of the poem, Catherine Conybeare focused on its jocularity, which she saw in terms of gender: that is, in terms of a conflict between the masculinity of the aggressive prosecutor and the effeminacy of a subversively witty saint.104 But there is an even more straightforward point to be made about laughter here. For this poem of martyrdom replays that symbiotic relationship between elite Roman and jester, subverting it within a new context. The Christian writer has appropriated and revalued the role of the scurra, as the joking, jesting hero of the tale: the martyr as scurra has become the symbiotic antitype of his pagan persecutor.

Who knows if centuries earlier, long before the conflicts between “pagan” and Christian, scurrilitas was something in which those outside the corridors of power took pride?

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