BMCR 2008.06.36

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour

, , A funny thing happened on the way to the agora : ancient Greek and Roman humour. Kingston: Legacy Books Press, 2007. ii, 234 pages : illustrations ; 23 cm. ISBN 0978465202. $32.95 (pb).

In this witty and winning book, R. Drew Griffith and Robert B. Marks have pulled off the remarkable, and strangely pioneering, feat of making ancient humour seem, well, actually rather humorous. Engagingly written and greatly enlivened by a wealth of clear and entertaining illustrations, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora is a book to be enjoyed and chuckled over in the library, the classroom, the armchair and the bathtub alike (to mention just four of the venues that spring immediately to mind) and should appeal to anyone with either a professional or a general interest in antiquity, humour or simply in having a jolly good read. With the evident aim of being as inclusive as possible, the authors quote generously from a wide range of sources and translate all passages in a style that is nothing if not modern and lively (I don’t recall too many translations of the Bible, for instance, that represent Sarah reacting to the news that she and her senior citizen husband Abraham are soon to have a child with the exclamation ‘Yeah right!’ [58]).

As the subtitle suggests, the focus of this book is on humour. Humour is, of course, a far broader category than, say, comedy and the authors take full advantage of this as they encourage us to find examples of it not only in such comic playwrights as Aristophanes and Plautus (both of whom, and especially the former, are nonetheless reasonably well represented), or even in such evidently ‘comic’ texts as the Homeric Battle of Frogs and Mice, Attic satyr plays, Roman satire, Apuleius’ Metamorphoses and Petronius’ Satyricon; but also in epics such as Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, in tragedies such as Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound and Euripides’ Orestes, in philosophical dialogues such as Plato’s, in public speeches such as Cicero’s (see, for instance, p. 37, where he is said to represent the prosecution’s account as a kind of ‘Keystone Kops adventure’) and in the, often vindictive, lyrics of a poet like Catullus. In order to explicate and, to some degree, contextualise these Ancient Greek and Roman examples, moreover, the authors employ a broadly conceived comparative approach, discussing the role and presence of humour in a wide variety of other times and places, which range from Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia, the Hebrew Bible and the ‘German barbarians’ (there is a fine coda, entitled ‘A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Longship’, that surveys instances of wit in Anglo-Saxon and Norse culture) all the way up to such staple modern fare as The Simpsons, South Park and American Pie. Sharing elbow-room at this veritable feast of material, meanwhile, is an equally impressive roster of theorists, among whom one is just as likely to bump into the likes of St. Augustine, Charles Darwin, Mary Douglas, Freud, Hobbes, Kant and Pirandello, as one is to squeeze the grape with those ancient analysts of wit, Plato and Aristotle.

As this array of literary and theoretical sources suggests, for all its light-heartedness and charm, this book is grounded in a depth and breadth of learning that should cause even the most unforgiving of lexicographers to experience an occasional twitch at the edges of the mouth. Particularly helpful, I found, was the deft use of etymology to explain and explore such key terms as ‘character’, ‘hilarity’, ‘hysteria’, ‘jokes’, ‘sarcasm’ and ‘humour’ itself. While the largely synchronic view of humour adopted in the book does at times lead to a, perhaps inevitable, tendency to oversimplify certain historical and cultural differences (some examples of which I shall give below), taken as a whole it unquestionably succeeds in giving a strong sense of the scope, vitality and, indeed, continued currency of this topic, as well as its enormous value and suitability as a subject of academic research.

Towards the beginning of the first chapter, entitled ‘What is Humour?’, the authors argue that, for the most part, ‘Greeks and Romans would call humour the ridiculous—that which makes you laugh’ (8). This definition would seem to inform their own understanding of the concept as well and it is this, perhaps, that helps account for the book’s welcome breadth. Taking their cue from the etymology of the word, they illustrate how ‘humour’ was in the first instance a medical term that served to describe the distribution of ‘humours’ within any given person (8). From this observation, they subsequently derive one of their many valuable assertions—that humour is not simply cerebral, but physiological too (18-19), i.e. it involves the body as well as often being about the body. At the same time, they also observe that the use of the word ‘humorous’ to describe somebody ‘weird and funny’ is a distinctly modern development (7). Indeed, it is through the different ways in which the ancients and the moderns describe what constitutes a ‘humorous situation’, they continue, that we can begin to discern certain key differences between ancient and modern senses of humour. ‘It is very interesting,’ they suggest, ‘that English describes a humorous situation from the perspective of the individual, “he or she is humorous, i.e. has an imbalance of humours,” while the ancients describe it from the perspective of society, “he or she is ridiculous, i.e. we laugh at him or her”‘ (8).

This particular distinction between ancient and modern senses of humour re-emerges in a number of guises throughout the book and finds perhaps its most important expression in the claim that ‘[i]n modern humour, comedy lies in the situation. In ancient humour, it lay in the individual’ (65). While there is an admirable clarity about the manner in which this differentiation is expressed, one wonders whether it can in practice always be quite so clearly sustained. Does the humour of Mr Bean, for instance, lie primarily in the situations in which he finds himself or in the character and behaviour of Mr Bean himself? Admittedly, the authors do seek to explain the differences between these two kinds of humour by positing an intriguing, and largely plausible, equation between humour and the social environment in which it appears, but their actual accounts of those societies remains far too generalised to render this explanation either entirely convincing or sufficiently complete. Here, for instance, is how they distinguish the wit of the Ancient Greeks and Romans on the one hand from that of their German counterparts on the other:

Greek and Roman humour was based on character, or more specifically, people acting in ways that go against the norms of society. Laughter is, to the Greeks and Romans, a corrective. This is perfectly reasonable in a culture where the society is all-important. However, the Germans did not have such a society, suggesting that the humour is very unlikely to be character based. Instead, it is more likely to be situational (195).

Quite apart from anything else, passages such as this lead one to wonder whether Margaret Thatcher’s famous remark that ‘there is no such thing as society; there are individual men and women’ was not so much a statement of political faith, or even (as some might be tempted to allege) simply a joke, but rather a bid to re-instantiate one comic tradition over and above another. At any given moment and in any given place, that is, different types of humour, like different visions of society, are just as likely to share the same billing as they are to play to a different kind of house.

Indeed, perhaps the main criticism one could level at this book is its lack of situational and historical context. For even though the very first chapter begins with the observation that ‘[t]here are many types of humour in the world’ (5) and even though other remarks of this kind recur throughout, taken as a whole and in this respect at least, like the English and Spanish national football teams, it tends to talk a better game than it actually plays. In particular, it is surprising how little attempt is made to distinguish Roman humour from its Greek relative. Only about 25 pages from the end, for instance, at the beginning of chapter XII, do the authors admit that they have been using the term ‘Classical’ ‘to refer to both Greek and Roman culture, suggesting that the two were the same, or at least similar enough to warrant using the same word for each’ and confess that ‘[i]n many cases, there are similarities, but this really is an oversimplification’ (185). They do then proceed to list a few distinctions, but these are neither entirely persuasive (can we really contrast the ‘oral’ tradition of the Greeks with the ‘literate’ culture of the Romans and argue from this that only the latter made any significant use of word-play? [185]), nor do they address any of the more obvious points of contact and contrast between the wit of the two cultures. They observe on a number of occasions, for instance—and not least in their closing remarks to chapters VI, VII and VIII—that women frequently played a different role in comedy from men and that this reflected the different roles they held in society more generally. What they do not do, however, is take any account of how Greek and Roman women actually lived rather different lives from one another and, as such, they miss the opportunity to discuss how the playing out of gender types might similarly have differed in the comic traditions of Greece and Rome. Likewise, it seems somewhat odd that they do not use Plautus as an example of how Greek humour was—and perhaps needed to be—adapted for the Roman stage. (Terence, incidentally, receives hardly any mention at all).

The willingness of the authors to express themselves in such clear and synoptic terms, however, does nonetheless bring with it a number of advantages in return. Not the least of these are that it makes their account both accessible and thought-provoking in a way that overly nuanced readings might not and it also provides the book with much of its clear structure. Their observation that ancient humour lay primarily in the individual and in his—or, within a more limited scope, her—relationship to society, for instance, perhaps explains why Part II surveys in turn the various character types who are the common objects and vehicles of ancient humour, ranging from parasites, flatterers and quacks, to suckers, ironists, gluttons, shrews, cuckolds and adulterers. Indeed, particularly valuable in this regard—and especially conducive to the overall coherence of the book—are the numerous ways in which the authors illustrate how some of these character types give rise to others. A good example of this can be found on page 114, where they argue that ‘[t]hrough trying to get something for nothing, and thereby preventing everyone from getting his due, a man becomes a flatterer, causing a chain-reaction that brings into being the buffoon, the quack and the ironist.’

Perhaps the primary value of this book, though, lies in its ability to find examples of ancient humour in a variety of different places and, by implication, in its encouragement to us to try to do the same. (For some examples, see again my second paragraph above.) What it does not do, however, is indicate how we are to try to understand or respond to such instances of humour when they appear in contexts one might not immediately expect. When, for instance, the authors cite a rather striking messenger speech from Euripides’ Orestes —and certainly one that has an unquestionable ‘comic potential’—they rather disappointingly follow this up with the, admittedly honest, remark that ‘[w]e do not know for sure how comic Euripides intends this slave to be’ (91) and simply leave it at that. Likewise, having engagingly observed that ‘the title-character of Aeschylus’ Prometheus Bound… spends lines 561-912 of the play nailed to a rock listening to the whining ramblings of Io, the talking cow,’ they at once proceed to make the even more winning admission, ‘[c]all us heartless, but we find this pretty funny’ (94). It is a shame that on neither occasion does this lead into a discussion either of why these examples might now seem funny to us, but not, perhaps, to anyone in antiquity, or—and this surely is more pertinent still—of how such insertions of humour at such unexpected moments might tell us something about the destabilising and often unpredictable potential of humour itself—whether for a playwright, an audience, a work of literature, a society or a cultural critic. While they do indeed make the point on numerous occasions that humour can often be abusive and even aggressive (see esp. pp. 9-10), for the most part they leave aside the question of how uncomfortable it can be to those who are not directly in its line of fire as well. Thus, in their otherwise wholly useful account of how Odysseus’ lashing of the deformed plebeian Thersites in Book 2 of the Iliad constitutes an example of how people like to laugh at another’s misfortunes (11-12), they do not really say enough about how we now (and perhaps ancient audiences before us) might still feel somewhat uncomfortable when confronted with this kind of mirth.

This, though, is perhaps to ask for a different kind of book, and it should in no way be allowed to detract from what the authors certainly have achieved in the book they have produced. For written as it is in clear and eloquent prose, and with a verve and wit uniquely its own, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora offers an enjoyable and always thought-provoking tour through the multifarious texts, characters, gaffes and jokes that seem to have made people laugh in the ancient world and that still, when choreographed by such vivacious and genial compères as these, have the capacity to continue to do so in our own. This book is far more than just an introduction to the topic of ancient humour, but I can nonetheless think of no better way of introducing fellow academics, students or anyone of any stamp or humour whatsoever to this compelling, entertaining and, yes, vital subject. In fact, it’s so good, it’s the sort of book you could even consider giving to your step-mother on her wedding day. At just over 200 pages in length and with so much to divert and delight her along the way, it should be able to keep her from the herbal garden for the first few hours of your acquaintance at least.

The volume is handsomely produced and at $32.95 should be within the reach of most academics, students and members of the public alike (not to mention those aforementioned step-children as well). The typographical errors are relatively few and never significant, but I include a few examples in the list below in the hope that it might convince the authors and all concerned that I have not entirely invented everything I have said above. Nevertheless, in response to their claim that anyone who points out such errors ‘will be hunted down and … thanked. Yes. That’s it. Thanked’ (211), I think it worth pointing out that they would need to travel all the way to the land of the long ships to which they themselves so judiciously refer and that they would find me there surrounded by friends who are all at least 7 feet tall, who consume prodigious quantities of brown cheese and who are by no means averse to what Beowulf so coyly describes as ‘a sharing of hands’ (197). With such formalities dispensed, here is a selection of errata:

‘the’ instead of ‘they’ (45);’like’ instead of ‘lie [down]’ (140); ‘in’ instead of ‘is’ (152, n.3); ‘cloud-gather’ instead of ‘cloud-gathering [Zeus]’ (157); ‘recommend’ instead of ‘recommended’ (157, n. 19); there’s a rogue comma after ’49-60′ and an equally suspect ‘l’ in ‘biblliography’ (176 n. 19); while something seems to have gone terribly wrong on p. 182, n. 23: ‘The Inhterpretation of Nestor’s Cup Resonsidered.’ There are a couple of others besides, but since my ‘friends’ seem to have disappeared off on holiday all of a sudden…