BMCR 2008.09.55

Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250

, Looking at laughter : humor, power, and transgression in Roman visual culture, 100 B.C.-A.D. 250. Ahmanson Murphy fine arts imprint. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007. xi, 321 pages, 24 pages of plates : illustrations (some color) ; 26 cm.. ISBN 9780520237339. $55.00.

Table of Contents

This book, with 24 superb colour plates and 119 figures, is the first proper study of visual humour in Roman elite culture. The only previous attempt, by J.-P. Cèbe, 1 amounts to an excellent survey of Roman literary parody on the one hand and a poor overview of visual humour on the other. Clarke states that literary studies have led the way in which we study Roman humour and that only 2% of the population’s humour, the elite’s, has really been studied: to study visual humour based on material evidence offers a much larger spectrum of investigation. As far as paintings and graffiti found on the street, in taverns and baths are concerned, as well as humour on clay oil lamps and applied medallions, it is a sound argument. However, most of the images discussed by the author are paintings and mosaics found within Pompeian houses, i.e., an elite setting, and usually within the more private sections of these very houses and villas. This is both the disadvantage and the great value of this book. Clarke’s methodological approach is archaeological. Although much humour can be found in clay and cheaper materials, we usually do not know the context. Clarke’s primary interest in the comic paintings and mosaics found in houses is that they were either found in situ or their original setting can be located. Thus potential viewing mechanisms and differentiated viewers can be can hypothesised.

Clarke begins with a short theoretical chapter which lays down the principles of the book and Clarke’s special interest in theories on social humour, with Bakhtin’s work on carnival and bodily humour at the forefront.2

Clarke is clearly fascinated by issues of viewing mechanisms and this book is a fine example of his method. He writes, ‘The best antidote to fanciful overinterpretation is to insist on the circumstances of creation and reception for each visual representation’ (9). His diagram in fig. 1 is a model for the production and reception of visual art in ancient Rome. The questions he asks are ‘Who is the patron? Who is the artist? How is the viewer addressed? Who is the viewer?’; for Clarke these questions are fundamental for any interpretation of Roman Art. I would argue that for smaller, cheaper objects produced for the market rather than instigated by a patron, one would have to study the mechanisms of fashion and market production. Their original context is paradoxically not that important as anyone from any class could afford to purchase this sort of material.

No scholar of humour is immune to overinterpretation, and this is especially true in a book on visual humour. Comic genres and mechanisms (parody, caricature, situation comedy, visual puns, surprise, etc.) are similar in all cultures; but reference points and taboos differ, sometimes dramatically, in time and place. Humour keeps shifting from category to category, and cannot be fitted neatly into clean-cut theories. When studying humour in iconography, one needs to observe how different a ‘potentially’ comical image is from its ‘serious’ model or ‘usual’ series. If an image stands alone, without serious comparisons, one cannot be sure if it was intended to be comical. Unfortunately this is a difficult process when studying ancient artefacts. To add to these difficulties, one is also influenced by one’s own culture in the study of humour.

Clarke is aware of some of these issues, which he discusses from the very beginning (9). He also shows, (43), that ‘it is clear that ancestor masks and veristic portraits… were meant for veneration, not derision—no matter what facial flaws they preserved for posterity.’ The advantage of studying many comical representations enables Clarke to differentiate caricature from theatrical masks, and these from veristic portraiture, and doing so, presents the reader with the dangers of overinterpretation and ignorance in a study of visual humour.

Pp. 44-49 on graffiti are interesting, mostly in their use of language rather than caricature narrowly defined. There are exceptions as it would seem that Romans found baldness amusing, or at least Suetonius did ( Iulius 45) when he describes Caesar, glad to wear a laurel wreath on any occasion as it covered his baldness. There is a graffito, Rufus, fig. 9, on the north wall atrium of the Villa of the Mysteries in Pompeii, showing just that.

In pp. 60-62, ‘controlling defecation: a humorous admonition’, Clarke describes some of the best humour in the book. A hilarious relief shows the great Jupiter hurling a thunderbolt at a crouching man, clearly defecating in the wrong place. This is best understood in the context of the many graffiti against shitters such as Cacator cave malum (‘shitter beware!’).

Clarke discusses paintings and mosaics of guard dogs which he considers to be funny, because they seem to be ‘real’ dogs. He considers this illusion to be comical and describes it as a ‘double-take’ (51). Yet, no home-owner who uses today guard dogs and puts a sign up ‘beware of the dog’, or a sticker to this effect, would ever think that this was intended as a joke. Further, Clarke considers the mosaics showing ‘unswept floors’ ( asaratos oikos) to be comical (57-60). These mosaics were found usually in the triclinium, the dining area. The floor was often slightly depressed to help cleaners wash the floor after the event, as diners threw bones and detritus directly on the floor. It is not the mosaic showing an unswept floor that is comical as Clarke argues but surely incongruous details, like a little mouse nibbling on rejected food, as on a ‘unswept floor’ mosaic in Rome, fig. 19, signed by Heraklitos.

In Chapter 4, Clarke tackles the difficult question of apotropaic laughter. His main point is that laughter dispels the evil eye, and that a number of such images are found in the fauces, or vestibules, of houses. It is an accepted notion that dangerous spaces were often found at doorways, and in the Roman house images of Priapus, or huge phalluses, flying, attacking, appear.3 As far as laughing at these images is concerned, I would only agree that this is true of some of these images, when they clearly use the comic mechanism of exaggeration (see below on Priapic imagery): for instance, Clarke describes the so-called mosaic of the Evil Eye in Antioch in the House of the Evil Eye (2nd Century A.D.), which shows the evil eye itself being attacked by a trident, a scorpion, a snake, a dog, a centipede, a feline, and a bird. A masked dwarf turns his back to it but aims his gigantic phallus and spiked crown at it while clicking two crossed sticks. Anything else? The image is funny, because nothing is left out to batter the evil eye, usually never shown in this fashion.

In Chapter 5, Clarke focuses on Romans laughing at pygmies and Aethiops. Clarke writes on the use of dwarfs and other deformed beings: they were like ‘lightning rods, to pull away the forces of evil from non-deformed individuals through the laughter they incited, when a Roman encountered a visual representation of deformed, phallic dwarfs in a liminal—and therefore dangerous—space, he or she understood that laughter was the point’ (67). I agree with Clarke on his interpretation of these creatures as representations of the ‘Other’, so ugly in contrast to the Roman ideal man: as such their various sexual antics must have raised a few laughs. Unfortunately, Clarke goes a step further when he considers them to be representations of the opposite of the dominant power in a colonial context (89-107). He compares Roman Imperial Rule in Egypt to British Rule in India (86) but the comparison is unconvincing: there certainly was a sense of the Other in India, but it preceded British Rule. I do not think that Romans considered pygmies to be apotropaic images, nor that the colonial aspect was what made people laugh specifically at pygmies or was at the origin of the vision of Egypt as an exotic wonderland. Pygmies were funny visual creatures since at least the 6th century B.C. (e.g., on the François Vase). 4

The solution to this problem may be in Egypt’s distinct status from all other provinces of the Empire. On entering Aegyptus Province, one entered a special land, which had been considered since 30 B.C. to be the emperor’s personal possession. Roman Egypt was a mysterious land that few could visit: it was therefore an imagined and imaginary place. The presence of the pygmies getting up to funny and smutty acts may have been political mockery aimed at Imperial rule, rather than, as Clarke states, at the colonised. These funny images may originate from the need for certain rich provincial Romans to laugh at imperial greed, its desire to keep Egypt ‘off the map’.

Clarke then offers his interpretation of a painting in the House of the Doctor, Pompeii (104-105, pl. 8). After rightly disregarding previous interpretations (‘anti-Semitic’, etc.) of this parody of the well-known Judgment of Solomon from the Old Testament (1 Kings 3:16-27)—where the figures are clearly parodied using pygmies, gestures, and the use of a butcher’s knife in a ‘noble’ scene—he places this painting within the framework of ‘mocking elite pretensions’. The presence of a scene from Jewish lore in a Pompeian context is puzzling at first glance. Clearly Jews came and went to Pompeii like any other Roman town, and there even seem to be some graffiti describing kosher garum. However, to understand the parody, one would have to know the original story. On the other hand, would this story have been recognised by a Pompeian as ‘specifically’ Jewish? The story may have become by the first century part of wider group of stories, wise deeds of great monarchs, maybe originating in Alexandria where there was a large Jewish community. This would be a parody of one of these ‘good stories’. In this respect, a parody of an ‘exotic’ story would fit well with the other paintings in the house.5 In conclusion, there is humour but not much apotropaism in pygmies.

A large section of chapter 6, ‘Who’s laughing? Modern Scholars and Ancient Viewers in Class conflict’, could have been placed at the beginning of the book, with Clarke’s critique of former philological and often morally Victorian approaches to Roman visual humour. It is a methodological chapter on philological over- and misinterpretation. He discusses one of the funniest images in the book, a painting of a lion buggered by an ass, crowned by a victory for his act (of bravery?). He rightly criticises previous interpretations, which ‘transform an embarrassing dirty sexual image into an almost clean allegory of a historical event!’ (111). Clarke discusses the reasons for the presence of this image, with parallels in other representations (a clay lamp from Vindonissa, fig. 47; a mould from Magdalensberg, fig.48).

Clarke’s aim, to pinpoint what the common Roman laughed at, is somewhat flawed because of his own methodology, as discussed above. But, when the context is right (taverns, street painting and graffiti) or the type of material (cheap oil lamps or medallions) his views are generally convincing.

Clarke’s use of Bakhtin’s concept of the carnavalesque is often very apt: the ‘popular’ parodies at the Tavern of the Seven Sages in Ostia and Pompeiian taverns, are images of reversal: social class role, language and bodily function (120-132). Clarke’s discussion of ‘making fun of elite intellectual pretensions’ at the Tavern of the Seven Sages, in Ostia is one of the most convincing sections of the author’s book. These are clever parodies of the Seven sages, who instead of being like the ‘statues that Roman viewers would see in the villas of the wealthy or in lecture halls’ (125), are here, in a place where common people ate, drank and chatted. Solon the Athenian, for example, has Ut bene cacaret, ventrem palpavit Solon (‘To shit well Solon stroked his belly’) and Thales of Miletus Durum cacantes monuit ut nitant Thales (‘Thales advised those who shit hard to really work at it’). Clarke explains with much care, the different labels, and rightly argues that this is a good example of the Bakhtinian angle on the class struggle between elite and ordinary men: bowels and parody!

In Chapter 7, Clarke’s comic interpretation of the small paintings found in the House of the Menander in Pompeii (Regio I, 10, 4) is highly convincing. These are parodies of known mythological stories (e.g., Theseus and the Minotaur, Pasiphae and Daedalus, Marsyas and Athena) through the use of dwarfs with deformed bodies. Clarke argues that they were for close viewing. These dwarfish heroes are ‘marginalia’, incongruous figures on the edge.6

Clarke also discusses a parody of Augustus’ well-known use of Roman founding myths, especially Aeneas and Romulus, to support his dynasty. This amazing painting was found in a zone called the grottoes of the Masseria di Cuomo. Aeneas, carrying his father Anchises and holding his son Ascanius by the hand are all dog-headed apes with huge phalluses. Although the painting with Romulus is badly preserved, it would seem that he was similarly parodied. It is a shocking parody and Clarke, convincingly, explains the presence of this scene within the context of a Pompeiian resentment of Roman rule, and especially Augustus’ dynastic pretensions. This image was well-known in Greece too, and was parodied all the same in the 5th century B.C. where no underlying political satire is needed to understand the images,7 but in the light of Augustus’ overbearing use of Roman myth, this Pompeiian parody probably did have political connotations. Clarke describes a plausible ancient viewing in the following way: ‘the patron who commissioned the painted images of the ape-Aeneas and ape-Romulus was fed up with his [Augustus’] propaganda. He or she happily laughed at these parodies and knew that guests invited into the room where those images formed part of a decorative frieze would also laugh at them’ (154).

Part 3, on sexual humour, is a shaky one in some respects. Clearly our view of sex is different from that of the Romans and Foucault has clearly shown that sex is an eminently cultural act. But to extrapolate, as Clarke does, that most Romans were unabashed by sex scenes seems a little exaggerated. I would argue that, just like the Greeks, the Romans held a strong belief in the separation between what is done and shown in public and what is private. Just as the author argues that certain comic scenes would not be found in the main atrium but in the more private sphere of the house, the same should be said about explicit sex scenes.

The comical interpretation of some sexual scenes must be right: Clarke describes a situation comedy scene on a small terracotta lamp, fig. 79, with Leda having sex with Jupiter the swan. The funny detail here is Cupid helping out the couple by pushing the big bird ‘into’ Leda. One only wishes that Clarke had offered us many more scenes from small terracotta objects like these.

Clarke then considers a scene with Pasiphae and Daedalus in the House of the Vettii (oecus p, north wall, Regio VI, 15, 1) to be comical, because he is presenting her with the wooden cow on wheels which resembles toy animals on wheels made for children. How else was the painter to show the fake cow? A scene from the tablinum h, north wall, of the House of Lucretius Fronto in Pompeii (Regio V, 4, a), shows Mars and Venus on a bed. He is holding her breast. Further to the right the presence of Vulcan can be reconstructed from his exomis. The story is funny to an extent in Homer ( Od. 8.265-365), but Clarke may have overinterpreted the humour in this painting.

Clarke also considers Hermaphrodites to be comical, but Hermaphrodite’s myth is not comical, nor intended to be so. Surprise is important to arouse humour, but it is not humorous in itself. Clarke also considers these sculptures to be apotropaic because they are sometimes found over doorways. They were also found in gardens which did not need much protection, but did have unusual sculptures to surprise the visitor. Clarke also finds comical the scenes of Hermaphrodites involving Pan and Silenus, whom he calls ‘would-be rapists’, about to be surprised or scared by ‘a creature with female breasts and fully erect penis’. As far as I can see, Pan and Silenus do not seem to be scared in these paintings, and why should they be? Silens are known since the 6th century B.C. for copulating with anyone and anything they can penetrate, amphorae, donkeys, does, men and women.

Clarke’s interpretation of Priapus is much more interesting. He describes him beautifully (184) as a ‘phallic scarecrow’. He was often found in gardens to protect against thieves (see the great quote from the Priapea about his ‘sceptre’ which ‘will go into the guts of a thief all the way, up to my crotch and the hilt of my balls’ [188]). Viewers did not laugh at Priapic representations, except when they were clearly intended to be funny such as the Priapus weighing his gigantic phallus at the entrance of the house of the Vettii in Pompeii (Regio VI, 15, 1), fig. 92, against a sac of coins. Another funny representation is that of Mercury with a huge phallus above a bakery in Pompeii (Regio IX, 12, 2), where quite clearly, as in Greece, the difference between Hermes and hermaic pillars is humorously blurred. It is the exaggeration of the phallus’ size that lends itself to humour.8 In chapter 9, ‘Laughing at human sexual folly’, Clarke discusses the uses of human sexual humour.

Although there is a funny mosaic in the Baths of the Trinacria in Ostia (Regio III, 16, 7) with the inscription: Statio Cunnilingiorum (the joke here is that statio usually refers to the various offices, stationes, arranged around the Forum of the Corporations), most sex scenes at the Suburban baths in Pompeii were more smutty, titillating rather than raucously comical.. Clarke’s interpretation of the amazing ‘sexual orgy’ scenes (acts of fellatio, of men performing cunnilingus on women, lesbian women and foursomes) in the Suburban Baths is ‘laughing at taboo sex’ (194). All these images were found above the numbered boxes where one left one’s personal belongings. Clarke gives the best and probably only answer to the presence of these images at the baths, ‘as if the numbers were not sufficient, the artist added an unforgettable ‘label’ atop each box: a sex picture! Even if the bather forgot the number of the box, he or she was not likely to forget the picture’ (195). Other explanations Clarke offers on their apotropaic nature are unconvincing. Further, he writes that ‘given the stigma attached to the practice of fellatio it was an act that no freeborn woman would admit to’ (196). ‘Admit to’ is the correct expression: also, Roman women did not write much about their sexual practices. Who would know if they did or not perform fellatio, as this is a matter for the privacy of the cubiculum ? As far as the cunnilingus scene in room 7, scene IV, fig. 98, is concerned, the key to the scene is in the special nature of the Suburban Baths. They were the only baths in Pompeii where the same facilities were shared by men and women alike, at different times of the day. Images should reflect both male and female customers. Although Clarke writes that in the face of ‘such taboo-breaking…the expected response could only be laughter’ (212), rather than being highly comical, these images were smutty. The problem of the titillation by the forbidden is well-known. One just needs to think of Suetonius’ account of Tiberius’ never-ending sexual depravities on the island of Capri!

Why did one need apotropaic images in baths? According to Clarke, it is because ‘of the danger that a person so envies the beauty of another that he or she directs the Evil Eye at that person’ (74). However, baths were famously dark places. Seneca ( Ep. ad Lucilium, 86) says about public baths that they were obscura et gregali tectorio inducta. Thus, little could be seen in the baths, and therefore there was little to be envious of.

The other good source for sexual/popular humour is visual humour on cheap objects available to all.9 Discussing ‘Hercules in drag’, ( 172-179), Clarke explains how in Greek myth (Soph. Trach.247; Apoll. Bibl. 2.6.3; 2.7.8) Hercules is only enslaved by Omphale, in contrast to Roman myth where he is made to exchange clothes with her, and forced to perform womanly tasks, such as spinning wool. Clarke describes an Arretine bowl, with Hercules in woman’s clothing looking back at Omphale, wearing his lionskin and wielding his club. It is a comic scene of inversion. As for many scenes described by Clarke in the Roman world, there are Greek precedents: for instance, there is a funny exchange of clothes between Herakles and Omphale on an Attic pelike in London.10 The gender-bending scene on the Arretine bowl is comical because of the usually unbeatable masculinity of Hercules, but I would argue that Greek myth tells us that in the end, even man-eater Omphale bore Herakles two sons.11 He was not that feminised after all. Ultimately the myth has a moralistic feel to it, on the high price of love and its compromises. One only wishes that Roman artists had shown Hercules spinning wool: now that would have been really funny!

Chapter 9 is also interesting in that Clarke focuses mainly on inexpensive objects. Among the clay objects discussed in this chapter, two types seem to be found in many parts of the Roman world: oil lamps and moulded medallions applied to hand-thrown jugs. For example, fig. 112 shows a woman ‘riding’ a man while playing with his shield. He says orte scutus est (‘Careful! That’s a shield!’). Another funny one, fig. 115, shows a man and a woman making ‘acrobatic’ love. Cupid helps him stay in place. The balancing acts seen in fig. 118 are amusing to an extent.12

With its flaws and some overinterpreted scenes, this is a pioneering study, the most engaging and erudite study of Roman elite visual humour so far. It also promotes and exemplifies Clarke’s viewing mechanisms already discussed in previous publications.13 However, Clarke has insisted so much on the importance of understanding paintings and mosaics within their original context that his own archaeological guidelines unfortunately leave little space for objects without context, but these offer us a good insight into the Roman psyche, into what the common man thought, even without a precise context. It is also quite unlikely that these clay objects were produced for a patron, but for the marketplace, and therefore a glimpse of what was enjoyed by the entire populus.


1. Cèbe, J.-P. (1966). La caricature antique et la parodie dans le monde romain antique, des origines à Juvénal. Paris: Boccard.

2. Bakhtin, M. (1984). Rabelais and His World. Trans. Helene Iswolsky. Cambridge MA: Harvard University Press.

3. On the Greek origins of phallus birds, see Boardman, J. (1992). “The phallos-bird in archaic and classical Greek art.” Revue Archéologique : 227-242.

4. Attic black-figure volute-krater, Florence, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, 4209; Beazley, J. D. (1956) Attic Black-figure Vase-painters. Oxford: 76.1, 682; Beazley, J. D. (1971). Paralipomena; Additions to Attic Black-figure Vase-painters and to Attic Red-figure Vase-painters. Oxford: 29; Carpenter, T. H., Mannack, T., Mendonca, M. (1989). Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed. Oxford: 21. From Italy, Chiusi; signed by Kleitias and Ergotimos; 570-560 B.C.

5. The latter argument was kindly offered to me by Katherine Dunbabin.

6. See M. Camille on humor in medieval manuscripts. Image on the Edge. London: Reaktion Books, 1992.

7. See for example an Attic red-figure neck-amphora, Boston, Museum of Fine Arts, 76.46; Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-figure Vase-painters 2nd ed. Oxford: 654.13, 1572, 1664; Burn, L., and Glynn, R. (1982). Beazley Addenda. Oxford: 135; Carpenter, T. H., Mannack, T., Mendonca, M. (1989). Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed. Oxford: 276; Mitchell, A. G. (2004). “Humour in Greek vase-painting.” Revue Archéologique : fig. 22. From Capua; attributed to the Charmides Painter; 460-440 B.C.

8. See for example an Attic red-figure pelike in Berlin, showing a bird sitting on the perch-phallos of a herm: Antikensammlung, F2172; Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-figure Vase-painters 2nd ed. Oxford: 581.4, Burn, L., and Glynn, R. (1982). Beazley Addenda. Oxford: 128; Carpenter, T. H., Mannack, T., Mendonca, M. (1989). Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed. Oxford: 263. From Italy, Etruria; attributed to the Perseus Painter; 490-460 B.C.

9. This has been my own starting point in studying popular visual humour in Greece: Mitchell, A. G. (2004). “Humour in Greek vase-painting.” Revue Archéologique : 3-32. Mitchell, A. G. (2007). “Ancient Greek visual puns: a case study in visual humor”, in Attardo, S., Popa, D. (eds.) New Approaches to the Linguistics of Humor. Galati (Romania): 197-216. And Mitchell, A. G. (2009 in press). Greek Vase Painting and the Origins of Visual Humor. Cambridge-New York: Cambridge University Press.

10. See Attic red-figure pelike, London, British Museum, E370; Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-figure Vase-painters 2nd ed. Oxford: 1134.7; Carpenter, T. H., Mannack, T., Mendonca, M. (1989). Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed. Oxford: 333; Lexicon Iconographicum Mythologiae Classicae VII, pl. 30, s.v.‘Omphale’ 2. From Nola (Italy); attributed to the Washing Painter; 440-420 B.C.

11. Think also of the 50 daughters of Thespius Herakles impregnated over 50 nights, described in Paus. 9.26.4.

12. These scenes also found since the 5th century B.C. in Greece with men and satyrs balancing cups and saucers on their erect penis: see for example an Attic red-figure psykter, London, British Museum, E768; Beazley, J. D. (1963). Attic Red-figure Vase-painters 2nd ed. Oxford: 446.262, 1566; Burn, L., and Glynn, R. (1982). Beazley Addenda. Oxford: 118; Carpenter, T. H., Mannack, T., Mendonca, M. (1989). Beazley Addenda, 2nd ed. Oxford: 241; Beazley, J. D. (1971). Paralipomena; Additions to Attic Black-figure Vase-painters and to Attic Red-figure Vase-painters. Oxford: 375; Corpus Vasorum Antiquorum, Great Britain 8, London British Museum 6, III.Ic.12, pl. 105.1a-d. From Cervetri (Etruria, Italy); signed by Douris; 500-460 B.C.

13. Clarke, M. (2003). Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans: Visual Representation and Non-Elite Viewers in Italy, 100 B.C.-A.D. 315. Berkeley: University of California Press.