Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.3.25


A. Corbeill, Controlling Laughter: Political humor in the Late Roman Republic. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1996. Pp. 251. $35.00. ISBN 0-691-02739-0.


Reviewed by Kirk Freudenburg, Greek and Latin, Ohio State University.

First let the subtitle sink in: 'Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic.' A great topic. Defined so broadly and with such suggestive potential, it brings to mind some rather tantalizing pictures: pamphlets passed under the table, dredged in libel and filth; stern Roman gentlemen baiting one another, red-faced, and, uncharacteristically, losing control. Now, wherever you have just gone with this in your mind's eye, pull yourself abruptly back to earth: this book doesn't go there. The primary concern here is Cicero, the toolbox of rhetoric, and the social dynamics of his humor in late republican oratory. That more seductive work you just imagined, the one constructing the much larger 'lost' world of political humor in the late Roman Republic, cannot be written. With Catullus' poems sifted out of the mix (and I'm not quite sure why they should be, if subtitle and contents are to match), Cicero's speeches and theoretical works contain nearly all that's left of humorous invective from the period of the late Roman Republic. Still, as Corbeill points out in his introduction, being stuck with Cicero isn't all bad. In his own day and well beyond, Cicero was regarded as a skilled practitioner of wit; he used jokes and humorous invective at an unprecedented rate in his speeches, and his theoretical knowledge of the topic is both informed and provocative (see esp. De orat. 2.216-90). Thus, despite having lost almost all of the late Republican puzzle, the Ciceronian piece we happen still to possess is both substantial and significant. No apologies necessary.

Corbeill's handling of this material is deft and revealing; it marks a decisive shift in the way Cicero's humorous invective can and (I think) should be studied. Of primary importance, C. puts the question not in terms of what rhetorical devices Cicero found when he opened his toolbox (the tricks of humor he learned at trade-school), or what his penchant for choosing this tool over that might say about his personal psychology; rather, he casts the question in terms of the machine that gave these tools their peculiar design; the mentality that produced them, and on which they can reasonably be presumed to work. This is not as a rejection of rhetorical devices per se, but a way of redefining what rhetorical devices are in terms of where their powers reside, and how these powers are accessed and triggered. From this angle, C. rightly asserts that jokes and insults, even when they look to be the standard stuff of handbooks, are never just 'things you do' to get a laugh or score a point, quickly fired off, quickly left behind. Rather, they perform a powerful function in locating the speaker opposite his target on the spectrum of Roman social mores, and thus are instruments basic to the construction and management of identity. As he states in his introduction, 'the persuasive power of humor lies not merely in the speaker's ability to relax and entertain the audience... Rather, within each instance of abuse reside values and preconceptions that are essential to the way a Roman of the late Republic defined himself in relation to his community' (p.5).

It is an attractive thesis: broad, useful, and virtually inexhaustible. It underlies all that follows in the book's individual chapters on the abuse of physical appearance (chapter 1), names (chapter 2), the mouth (chapter 3), and the association of feasting and effeminacy (chapter 4). C. rounds off his study with a brief history of political wit in the last stages of the late Republic (chapter 5), to my mind, the crowning achievement of the book. Here C. does an excellent job of charting slight variations in the tone and intensity of political invective in the last years of the Republic. In this he has a bit more material to work with, and he makes the most of it. He charts the development of Caesar from statesman and general to dictator via the use of humorous jibes, both by him and about him. He shows clearly how the emergence of a new identity is wrapped up with a new kind of humor, triumphal, unapologetic, and just a bit scary. In the case of Cicero, the direction is reversed: humorous abuse is gradually stifled, with the loss of liberty becoming a central concern in a series of letters to Paetus. In these he paints himself as a shell of his old self, severely restricted and nervously watching his P's and Q's. With the death of Caesar his old identity reemerges in a flurry of scathing correspondence to friends and in the Second Philippic, a speech that 'attests to Cicero's attempts to reestablish himself as a public representative of traditional Republican values' (215). Central to this project, C. argues, is the recovery of that lost Republican voice so familiar from an earlier age, famous for its fuming indignation and scalding abuse.

Despite having much to praise in it and little to blame, C.s book does contain a number of awkward moments that, I think, can be best described as problems of emphasis and tone. Too often in reading the book I was put off by a tone that I regarded as overconfident and decisive on points requiring a finer touch. In other cases I wanted more decisiveness, with fuller attention to ideas briefly mentioned or hardly considered. A case in point concerns the initial discussion of invective's identity-constructing work. Throughout the introduction and first two chapters of the book, humorous invective is framed as a type of 'othering' device; that is, it isolates a target and separates him off from the larger community of listeners. Laughter, accordingly, is punitive, signalling the agreement of speaker and audience, and proving that the label 'deviant' has been successfully applied. This is Freud's theory of the 'tendentious' joke taken to the level of an entire community. The idea has tremendous potential, both as a theoretical model and as a diagnostic tool, and in his initial chapters C. puts it to work like a well-oiled machine. It is the steady hum of this machine that slowly begins to grate, as other possibilities get muffled or ignored, and as fascinating raw material gets fed in and processed into highly calibrated units of more-of-the-same. Perhaps most striking here is the book's general lack of interest in the flip-side of the 'othering' coin; that is, in humor's reflexive role in defining not 'the other' but the speaker himself as a certain kind of subject within a world of competing potential selves. The point is obvious enough, but it gets nothing like the attention it deserves and that the Romans themselves routinely gave it; cf. De Oratore 2.236 where stress is divided evenly between a joke's potential effects on its object and its teller: est plane oratoris movere risum ... vel quod frangit adversarium, quod impedit, quod elevat, quod deterret, quod refutat: vel quod ipsum oratorem politum esse hominem significat, quod eruditum, quod urbanum.

Another way of making the point is to set humorous abuse securely within the frame of elite male libertas -- precisely where the Romans had it. Taken as such, humorous invective belongs to and says something about a man's 'freedom' and (not or) his 'freedom of speech.' That the same Latin word covers two (to our minds) distinct semantic territories may seem a bit strange. But this collapse brings with it a crucial insight: for the elite Roman male, 'free speech' and 'freedom' are indistinguishable -- and there is no Oxford Latin Dictionary to keep him clear on the matter, insisting that 'freedom' belongs to column one, 'free speech' to column seven. Put in another way, freedom for Cicero is not something he possesses, it is something he does. It exists in performance, that is, in the day-to-day events, situations, and rituals that were thought to mark a man as 'free.' Public invective, as an exercise in 'freedom'/'free speech,' ranks among the most important of these status-generating/status-demonstrating rituals: not only does it define its target as a deviant, but, more importantly, it identifies the speaker as someone with the requisite auctoritas to criticize and degrade another free, noble citizen; he is himself a free, self-standing subject, with full access to the ritual that defines him as such, and full freedom to use the aggressive voice that it gives him against one of his peers.

This point, well worth emphasizing, gets very little press here. Still, it helps explain a number of peculiar features of Cicero's rhetoric, including his penchant for aggressive wit. C. points out in his introduction (p.12) that orators from the municipalities generally avoided using any type of humor when speaking in Rome, tending instead towards a stern, no-nonsense profile. An excellent observation. Cicero, of course, is a stunning exception to the rule (as C. admits). The question is 'why?' Given the role of aggressive wit in marking men of superior, distinctly Roman (rather than municipal) libertas, it makes sense that Cicero should not content himself with the part of 'deadpan moralist,' a role so common among his municipal peers. Their general lack of humor C. credits to being locked out of the formal educational and everyday joke-telling experiences of the urban elite. I see it more as a matter of their being handed a role they were expected to play. The role had certain advantages, e.g. in calling up shades of Cato, suggesting his honesty, forthrightness, and so on, and Cicero does take it on from time to time. But in playing this part, and only this part, the municipal orator also performs his lack of complete, grade-A access to the status-generating stuff of the urban elite. Cicero, by breaking the mould and consistently managing this material better than those who were born to it, demonstrates that he really does belong. Just how hell-bent he is to show this is obvious from the Verrines: before finishing the delivery of the first actio, the target has been skillfully dragged through the mud and defeated. Verres isolates himself, literally, by skipping town. But if 'othering' is the main work of this kind of abuse, then why bother with the massive second actio, so much bigger and even more free-wheeling than the first? The answer, I suggest, is that these speeches are just as much about Cicero as they are about Verres and all the nasty things he did: they publicly affirm Cicero's competence and his 'belonging' at a crucial stage of his career. The first and second acts are his coming-out party, and he is not about to let Verres spoil the fun by not showing up. Again, to be fair, C. does nod in this general direction from time to time (he is especially good on 'popular eloquence,' and mouths as 'structuring structure' in chapter 3). The overall balance of emphasis, however, is uneven.

Another place requiring some fine-tuning is in C.'s discussion of popular bias. Throughout the book, popular bias is hypostasized as the triggering device of Cicero's humor. The idea has validity, clearly, and C. makes a good case for bias as the unseen energy behind many of Cicero's jests. Still, it is an easy premise to misrepresent, and I think C. consistently does: too often in the book contemporary bias is posited as something that exists 'out there,' writ large, and clearly settled, rather than as something constantly negotiated, revised, given to shifts (gradual and rapid), strong in some sectors of society, weak in others. The language C. uses is simply too strong. Two samples should suffice: 'In Roman society of the late Republic, a physical peculiarity indicated otherness, becoming a mark that distinguished the person affected from his peers' (56); 'Could Gaius Annius "the Ass" (Asellus) or Tiberius Minucius "the Pansy" (Molliculus) be considered anything but internally flawed? This bias -- that the name of a human being allowed access to that person's moral character -- informs the public attacks orators employed against an opponent's name' (74). Clearly there are reasonable ideas contained here, but the system C. describes is just too efficient, mechanical and stiff. I find it hard to believe that a society as complex and diverse as Rome's (at any period) was ever so harmonius in its shared assumptions and so ready to agree on the decoding of its codes (or even to agree on what those codes were).

Moving from the system C. describes to Cicero himself, one is struck by the much more guarded tone of Cicero's advice on the humorous abuse of names (Inv. 2.28, quoted by C. p.74): ex persona autem coniectura capietur, si eae res quae personis attributae sunt diligenter considerabuntur ... nam et de nomine nonnunquam aliquid suspicionis nascitur. Nothing automatic here: no suggestion that name X invariably 'means' Y, or that Y will reliably trigger attitude Z. Brutus can mean 'Dolt' or 'Tyrant Killer' (or a lot of other things if you want it to). Take your pick. Which one best helps with your case? Clearly there is room for movement here, and it is within this rather large margin for hermeneutical error that the orator plies his trade. It is his job, with due consideration and sweat (diligenter considerabuntur), not just to trigger prejudice, but to play a part in generating it; to set up the system wherein name X momentarily means Y, and to demand, however unfairly, that listeners respond with attitude Z. The real scandal in all of this is not that the orator plays on the unseen values and prejudices of his audience, but that he claims to have the inside-line on those values; that he takes it upon himself to represent them, and to speak for them. This voice, resonant with collective auctoritas, drowns out the niggling doubts of his hearers, some of whom may actually think Brutus more of a 'Dolt' than a 'Tyrant Killer,' or vice versa. He sets the matter straight for everyone.

So much for criticism. Any more and I will give the impression that I did not like the book. That is not my intention at all. Corbeill has written an excellent book, elegant and smart, and he deserves credit for injecting new life into an area of study many had given up for dead (previous scholarship on the topic is dreary beyond belief). If I have gone on to criticize too long, it is because I like the book and learned from it; it made me rethink the role of humorous invective in the late Republic, and it forced me, in the process, to come up with a few ideas of my own. In the end, I regard this as the highest kind of recommendation.