- A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Agora: Ancient Greek and Roman Humour
In this lively volume the authors advance two essential theses: that the ancients 'didn't take themselves too seriously,' and that ancient humour was based on character rather than situation. For the first, this book is a useful corrective to a too-sober and reverent view of the 'classics,' but I take issue with the second, especially with the limited scope of the material discussed.
The subtitle says it all: this book is about 'humour,' defined as 'what we find funny.' But 'funny' includes more than just 'humour.' I have always found useful Norwood's (Greek Comedy) distinction concerning the incongruous: when the intellect is the function employed, wit results; when it is the imagination, fun results; when it is the emotions, humour results. And it is humour, especially humour of character, that dominates this book. Imagination (the wonderful fantasies of Old Comedy and Lucian) does not get much attention, although to be fair the authors do cite briefly the mock-epic Battle of the Frogs & Mice and quote at length Apuleius's marvellous episode of Lucius and the wine-skins (Metamorphoses 2.31-3.10). Nor is there much about the iambic tradition, either of the early poets (surely Archilochus should loom large in a study of ancient humour) or of to onomasti komoidein (to make fun of by name in comedy).
Chapters 5-9 are essentially a collection of comic types around which the humour of character is developed: parasite, flatterer, alazon, informer, quack, 'egghead' (the best translation of scholastikos?), loner, glutton, cook, and - for women - the shrew, the gossip, the slut, etc. Here we encounter [End Page 483] one of the major stumbling blocks of this study, that the material discussed ranges all over the ancient world, from both Greek and Roman sources (not until page 185 are we alerted to the difference between these two cultures), and the reader is not told what genre is involved (serious epic, self-referential comedy, Roman prose novel, etc.). In chapter 3 ('A Funny World') we jump from St Augustine to Homer's Iliad to Catullus to anecdotes about Diogenes, without being given the basic information about the authors cited to locate them in their historical and literary context. One of the co-authors describes this volume as 'a textbook on ancient humour,' but to be effective it would need to be amplified substantially and constantly with background information.
A study of humour in Greek antiquity should rest on two pillars: Aristophanes (or Old Comedy more generally) and Lucian. These form a useful pair for teaching ancient comedy: Greek city-state versus Roman imperial period, verse versus prose, watched versus read, 'primary' versus 'secondary' (to borrow terms from epic). We do get considerable material from Aristophanes, but a rather sanitized Aristophanes, for there is no discussion of either the imaginative fantasy that underpins his comedy or of the personal humour that the ancients saw as the quintessence of Old Comedy. Most attention is given to Clouds, a partial revision (never staged) of a not particularly funny play. Lucian does not even appear in the index - a startling omission, since required reading for students of ancient humour should include his Dialogues of the Gods and his 'True' History. It is probably not accidental that these two, along with Martial (another inexplicable absence), are the principal exponents of wit in ancient literature. A revealing comment gives the game away: '[T]he Greeks were unable to think, "there but for the grace of God, go I."' But see Sophocles' Ajax 121-6. This distressing social correctness shows in my Latin students' distaste for Martial ('he is insulting people') and - mirabile dictu - drama students who prefer Menander to Aristophanes.
The reader will learn a great deal from this book, especially about the etymology of key words: humour as a medical term, zany (from an Italian clown), the proper meaning of eiron (ironist), joke (skoptein) from...