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

3.63  ·  Rating details ·  183 ratings  ·  43 reviews
What made the Romans laugh? Was ancient Rome a carnival, filled with practical jokes and hearty chuckles? Or was it a carefully regulated culture in which the uncontrollable excess of laughter was a force to fear—a world of wit, irony, and knowing smiles? How did Romans make sense of laughter? What role did it play in the world of the law courts, the imperial palace, or th ...more
Hardcover, 336 pages
Published June 25th 2014 by University of California Press (first published January 1st 2014)
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Myke Cole
Jun 21, 2017 rated it it was ok
I thought I'd give Beard another shot after Confronting the Classics left me so cold (and sick to my stomach, after reading her commentary on the eroticism of pedagogy). My mistake.

Beard manages the signal accomplishment of making a book on laughter boring and impenetrable. Again, she focuses on theory and academic debates, instead of getting to the heart of what readers care about (and what the book falsely promises) an examination of what made the Romans laugh, and what laughter meant to them
Petruccio Hambasket IV
May 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
Holy crap. Mary Beard has a true gift for making things people thought they knew practically unrecognizable. This time the study is Roman laughter: but even more broadly speaking, the idea of laughter as a field of historical inquiry (whether to study the practice of laughter itself or simply the theories, again she doesn't exactly know). There are about a million questions raised in this book, some of them are incredibly introspective and made my head spin when considering. For example: "Is lau ...more
Erik Graff
Nov 15, 2015 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: classicists
Recommended to Erik by: Kelly Kingdon
I'd previously heard Mary Beard interviewed on radio and had therefore picked up and read her book on Roman triumphs. This new title came as a gift from a Canadian bookseller friend.

If you're expecting to join in the hilarity of the ancients, I doubt that this book will do the trick. Only four of the jokes quoted within elicited anything approaching a chuckle from me. This, of course, raises the issue of the appropriation of meaning between distant cultures, a matter Beard treats at some length,
B. Rule
Feb 06, 2018 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a largely academic but entertaining account of laughter in Rome. It's very engaged with the secondary literature, often in a disputatious manner. Beard is also clearly in possession of a magisterial knowledge of primary source materials, and she hops around in time to marshal evidence to her points. She includes a decent survey and treatment on theories of laughter, but she remains agnostic about universalist accounts.

The reason this book is extremely my s#!t is that Beard traces in a c
Jim Robles
Nov 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
I found this to be an entertaining read with a great deal of historical detail. The Romans, in a sense (p. 209), "invented" the "joke."

This is just great! p. 8 "more than four hundred years earlier," seems to refer to from 161 BCE to 192 CE (p. 1) which I would think is 353 years, which, again, I would think is LESS than 400 years. Professor Beard was incredibly gracious and thanked me for my correction. My daughter disagrees, but I am now claiming that I have made a contribution to classical li
Sep 05, 2014 rated it it was ok
I just finished Beard's fascinating book. Full disclosure, I am writing a book on laughter and humor (l&h). This is an extant from a larger essay in which I take issue with Beard's view that a universal theory of l&h is possible:

Is laughter and humor a feature of human nature? It is, but there is little collaboration among scholars who maintain different perspectives on what about laughter makes us human. Philosophers since Plato have asked: Why do we laugh? What is humor? What are laughter’s f
Faiz Kermani
Dec 25, 2016 rated it it was amazing
I enjoyed this book. It's really an academic assessment of humour as a way of better understanding certain aspects of Roman society. I suppose we can only guess at what role humour really played (as sources are limited) but it's interesting to see all the theories. Where they were listed, I was quite amazed to see that there's the odd joke that remains funny after all this time. I wonder in the future what they'll think of humour from our era?

This is one of my favorite kinds of history books – the kind where the historian writing the book is ready to get in the ring and box it out with other historians over difference of opinions on historical theories. Fight for the knife!

I don’t think anyone can beat the Tudor historians for taking things to a personal level (although the Richard III historians debating did-he-or-didn’t-he come close) but here we get the great twist of Mary Beard trying to be above it all, merely reporting how all
Sep 27, 2016 rated it liked it
It reads like a collection of lectures, which is how it started life. It can be repetitive and disjointed, but in the end the topic is so interesting (how do we reconstruct the sound of ancient laughter?) that Beard carries it off very well. As most of her work seems to do, this speaks to tropes in the modern world almost as much as the ancient. Not an easy read by any means, despite occasionally sounding off-handed and snarky (which mostly comes across as a forced departure from the tone of 75% ...more
Margaret Sankey
Dec 26, 2014 rated it really liked it
Beard, with ample scholarly endnotes, documents the ways in which Romans found things laughable--as exercises of power, slapstick, joke books, stage directions, trained monkeys, puns in legal arguments, practical jokes, the rhetorical structure of humor and of course, fart jokes.
Mary Beard is an iconic popular academic who I have a lot of time for when it comes to how she approaches ancient Roman history. Aside from being very personable and unafraid of being forthright in her views, whether they be focused on ancient history, modern feminism, Brexit or whatever, she has the intellectual integrity to state that our understanding of what may be historically 'true' about the Romans is highly suspect and very complicated. She doesn't disregard the idea that we can't find s ...more
Ryan Denson
Nov 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Despite the impressions that the cover and the subject matter may give, this book is a dense scholarly examination of laughter in the Roman world. Mary Beard, as with her other works, does an excellent job and researching and presenting the material. This book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with methodological issues of studying laughter as well as some general thoughts on the laughter for the ancient Greeks and Romans. Beard also presents the three main types of anthropological ...more
Jan 01, 2020 rated it liked it
If you just want the jokes - and really, some are quite good - read the last chapter.
That'd be a waste considering how well Mary Beard writes, keeping genuine scholarship readable and engaging with the layperson, something I've come to realise is a rare skill indeed, though not because genuine academics are bad writers, but because those typically trying to bring some historical, linguistic or psychological subject before a wider audience are quite poor at finding that tone. They are inevitably
Craig Dickson
Mar 04, 2018 rated it really liked it
This was really interesting, very engagingly written for what's basically an academic investigation, and shed a lot of light on ancient Roman society from its unusual perspective.

The book discusses the difficulties in trying to engage in any history of laughter - if the differences between what make (for example) the French and the British laugh can be so large, what hope have we of understanding a vanished ancient civilisation? Despite the challenge, this book provides a thorough and enjoyable
Rob Roy
Mar 12, 2018 rated it liked it
This is not "A funny thing happened on the way to the forum" type of book. It is a schollarly review of what laughter is, and how it was displayed and used in Ancient Rome. Yes, there are jokes in the book, but only a few. What I found fasinating was that culture affects what we laugh at. The book includes one crusifiction joke. If you are a classist, or interested in the culture of Ancient Rome, then do pick up this volume. If you are looking for a fun read, look elsewhere.
Christian Nikitas
Jun 17, 2017 rated it it was ok
I believe that I would have liked this book more if I was interested in Sociology. For me, there were parts that were very interesting, and some that weren't. I don't think that it takes away from the quality, as there's a lot of information regarding laughter from that time/area. I would recommend this book to someone who likes both history and sociology.
May 14, 2018 rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Scholarly? Check.
Disputatious? Ditto.
Funny? Nope. Barely a smile raised anywhere in these pages.
Trying to explain humor is like dissecting a butterfly - a thankless, ultimately
pointless and destructive talk. Beard gives us a solid academic survey of an
impossible to grasp subject, and it's heavy sledding for much of the way.
Anne Libera
Jan 26, 2019 rated it really liked it
Fascinating, dense, academic work that engages with a number of topics connected to humor, laughter, and comedy - specifically in the ancient world. At some points, Beard is provocative, at others equally dismissive of those who have provoked similar theories but it's all part of a wide ranging work that engages a large number of the questions that face scholars of humor.
Stewart Harrison
Jan 14, 2018 rated it liked it
I think this is more aimed at academics than some of Beard's other books. I enjoyed much of it but I think my own expectations let me down; a better understanding of the authors and texts is perhaps needed for a full appreciation of the arguments and nuances.
David Brown
Feb 19, 2020 rated it really liked it
Fascinating read, my only criticism is too much of the book was devoted to setting up the parameters of the debate. Which by the time you finished made a small book even smaller. Still it's Mary Beard and she is great.
Dale Melita
Nov 27, 2018 rated it it was amazing
Mary Beard really does bring Roman living to life in my mind, very easy and interesting read!
Jun 30, 2014 rated it really liked it
Mary Beard has almost made a career out of removing certainty from virtually anything that we think we know about the ancient world. With careful analysis and close reading of sources she has revealed that we don't really know much about the famous Roman "triumph", we don't really know how people responded to religion, we see wall paintings of men playing dice, and on the one hand we know exactly what they're doing, but on the other we don't have the faintest idea. (What is gambling in a world w ...more
Dec 08, 2014 rated it really liked it
Shelves: ancient_rome
4.5 Stars. This scholarly investigation into humor in Ancient Rome delves into what the ancients thought caused laughter, what made something funny, and the use of "comedy" by the various classes of the Roman people. She rightly points out that our sources are very limited, and that they are almost exclusively from the male, Roman elite. Even so, Beard is able to draw reasonable conclusions about laughter in Ancient Rome, how it was expressed, and how it was used to maintain (or contest) social ...more
Oct 08, 2014 marked it as to-read
Recommended to Bettie by: Christine

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

Laughter in Ancient Rome explores one of the most intriguing, but also trickiest, of h
Nov 03, 2015 rated it liked it
Shelves: essays, ancient
Read whilst e-queueing for SPQR... bit meh as far as Mary Beards go. A loosely gathered, somewhat repetitive essay collection rather than a meatier long piece, which didn't remotely earn its fascinating final throwaway thesis about 'the shift from the [Greek] practice of joking to the [Roman] commodified joke' or even its more modest arguments about the relationship between power and laughter (especially that of women). Surprisingly heavy on the etymology and meta-interpretation and historiograp ...more
Jul 09, 2016 rated it it was amazing
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Nov 11, 2014 rated it really liked it
Recommends it for: Historians of humor
Shelves: academicserious
Like so many of its cousins in the Sather Lectures series, this book is thought-provoking and (at least by the standards of classical academic scholarship) readable. Beard, with her characteristic humor, takes her audience on a tour of what was funny in ancient Rome: practical jokes, types of comic performance, and collections of witticisms, among other things. She engages with a diverse range of source material while coming to a (tentative) conclusion about the cultural impact of Rome on our un ...more
Apr 09, 2015 rated it liked it
I started this book really looking forward to reading a longer work by Mary Beard. I enjoy her newspaper columns and have heard her on various recordings, where she is lucid and insightful. This book was a bit of a disappointment. It's not meant as a work of hard scholarship, but there was more hedging about the facts than I was expecting -- in many ways it was more a treatise on how we don't know, and can't know, deep facts about Roman culture. I would have prefered it if she had stripped some ...more
Robert Monk
Feb 07, 2016 rated it really liked it
As others have mentioned, this isn't at all a collection of Roman jokes. Rather, it's an essay on how difficult it is to understand the humor of other cultures, in this case the culture of ancient Rome. We have collections of jokes and witticisms from that time, but most of them don't seem all that funny to us. Why is that? This book points at the problems of understanding more than it nails down any sort of theory as to why it is, which is understandable, but it keeps it from being a total knoc ...more
Jul 19, 2016 rated it liked it
A book about laughter in ancient Greece and Rome by Classicist Mary Beard, who also knows how to write with humor. She contends, as everyone should, that it's impossible to know what made citizens of Greece and Rome laugh. How could we know? Many have made educated guesses. Some of the better known writers from Rome themselves analyzed the subject of laughter: what caused it, physically and emotionally, and what was truly funny I would say we are probably telling these same jokes today. Perpetua ...more
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Winifred Mary Beard (born 1 January 1955) is Professor of Classics at the University of Cambridge and is a fellow of Newnham College. She is the Classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement, and author of the blog "A Don's Life", which appears on The Times as a regular column. Her frequent media appearances and sometimes controversial public statements have led to her being described as "Brita

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