History Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard | Book Review Roundup | The Omnivore

Published on June 12th, 2014


Laughter in Ancient Rome by Mary Beard

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Blurb: 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 historical subjects. Drawing on a wide range of Roman writing–from essays on rhetoric to a surviving Roman joke book–Mary Beard tracks down the giggles, smirks, and guffaws of the ancient Romans themselves. From ancient “monkey business” to the role of a chuckle in a culture of tyranny, she explores Roman humor from the hilarious, to the momentous, to the surprising. But she also reflects on even bigger historical questions. What kind of history of laughter can we possibly tell? Can we ever really “get” the Romans’ jokes?

(University of California Press, 2014)

Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, The Independent 

“She makes the Romans come alive and through them, gets readers to ponder that most fundamental and uniquely human facility – laughter. The phenomenal Ms Beard has written another cracking book, one of her best, I think.”

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Natalie Haynes, The Independent 

“She’s particularly good when discussing the triangulation of jokes in Rome: the maker of a joke, the laugher at a joke and the butt of the joke all exist in relation to each other, in a way that seems deeply unfamiliar to a modern audience… There’s little about the delivery of jokes: the timing, the vocal tone, the facial expressions, the physicality, because this information is largely lost. But it’s hard to appreciate jokes without their delivery.”

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Harry Mount, The Spectator 

“This book is based on lectures Beard gave at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2008. So it’s not surprising that it’s fairly highbrow— not aimed at the general reader, like many of her previous books. Still, she never writes like other dry-as-dust, wilfully obscure dons, and her prose skips along even when she’s discussing Roman jokes that are toe-curlingly unfunny. Titter ye not — but expect to be engaged by an enthralling book.”

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