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Mary Beard: humour in ancient Rome was a matter of life and death

It has always been bad for your public image to laugh in the wrong way or to crack jokes about the wrong targets, not least in the presence of Caligula…

Titter ye may: Frankie Howerd as slave Lucio in Up Pompeii

One evening at a palace dinner party, in about 40AD, a couple of nervous aristocrats asked the emperor Caligula why he was laughing so heartily. “Just at the thought that I’d only have to click my fingers and I could have both your heads off!” It was, actually, a favourite gag of the emperor (he had been known to come out with it when fondling the lovely white neck of his mistress). But it didn’t go down well.

Laughter and joking were just as high-stakes for ancient Roman emperors as they are for modern royalty and politicians. It has always been bad for your public image to laugh in the wrong way or to crack jokes about the wrong targets. The Duke of Edinburgh got into trouble with his (to say the least) ill-judged “slitty-eyed” quip, just as Tony Abbott recently lost votes after being caught smirking about the grandmother who said she made ends meet by working on a telephone sex line. For the Romans, blindness – not to mention threats of murder – was a definite no-go area for joking, though they treated baldness as fair game for a laugh (Julius Caesar was often ribbed by his rivals for trying to conceal his bald patch by brushing his hair forward, or wearing a strategically placed laurel wreath). Politicians must always manage their chuckles, chortles, grins and banter with care.

In Rome that entailed, for a start, being a sport when it came to taking a joke, especially from the plebs. The first emperor, Augustus, even managed to stomach jokes about that touchiest of Roman topics, his own paternity. Told that some young man from the provinces was in Rome who was his spitting image, the emperor had him tracked down. “Tell me,” Augustus asked, “did your mother ever come to Rome?” (Few members of the Roman elite would have batted an eyelid at the idea of some grand paterfamilias impregnating a passing provincial woman.) “No,” retorted the guy, “but my father did, often.”

Where Caligula might have been tempted to click his fingers and order instant execution, Augustus just laughed – to his lasting credit. The Romans were still telling this story of his admirable forbearance 400 years later. And, later still, Freud picked it up in his book on jokes, though attributing it now to some German princeling. (It was, as Iris Murdoch puts into the mouth of one of her angst-ridden characters in The Sea, The Sea, “Freud’s favourite joke”.)

It also entailed joining in the give-and-take with carefully contrived good humour and a man-of-the-people air (I suspect Nigel Farage would have gone down horribly well in ancient Rome). The same Augustus once went to visit his daughter and came across her being made up, her maids plucking out the grey hairs one by one. Leaving them to it, he came back later and asked casually, “Julia, would you rather be bald or grey?” “Grey, of course, Daddy.” “Then why try so hard to have your maids make you bald?”

Julia wasn’t usually quite such a push­over. She was one of the few Roman women celebrated for her own quips (which were published after her death, risqué as some of them were). When asked how it was that her children looked liked her husband when she was such a notorious adulteress, she equally notoriously replied, “I’m a ship that only takes passengers when the hold is full”; in other words, risk adultery only when you’re already pregnant.

Unlike Augustus, “bad” politicians repeatedly got the rules of Roman laughter wrong. They did not joke along with their subjects or voters, but at their expense. The ultimate origin of the modern whoopee cushion is, in fact, in the court of the 3rd-century emperor Elagabalus, a ruler who is said to have far outstripped even Caligula in luxury and sadism. He would apparently make fun of his less important dinner guests by sitting them on airbags, not cushions, and then his slaves would let out the air gradually, so that by the middle of the meal they would find themselves literally under the table.

The worst imperial jokes were even nastier. In what looks like a ghastly parody of Augustus’s quip about Julia’s grey hairs, the emperor Commodus (now best known as the lurid anti-hero, played by Joaquin Phoenix, of the movie Gladiator) put a starling on the head of a man who had a few white hairs among the black. The bird took the white hairs for worms, and so pecked them out. It looked like a good joke, but it caused the man’s head to fester and killed him.

There were issues of control involved, too. One sure sign of a bad Roman ruler was that he tried to make the spontaneous laughter of his people obey his own imperial whim. Caligula is supposed to have issued a ban on laughter throughout the city after the death of his sister – along with a ban on bathing and family meals (a significant trio of “natural” human activities that ought to have been immune to political interference). But even more sinister was his insistence – the other way round – that people laugh against their natural inclinations. One morning, for instance, he executed a young man and forced the father to witness his son’s execution. That same afternoon he invited the
father to a party and now forced him to laugh and joke. Why did the man go along with it, people wondered. The answer was simple: he had another son.

Self-control also came into the picture. The dear old emperor Claudius (who was also renowned for cracking very feeble – in Latin, frigidus, “cold” – jokes) was a case in point. When he was giving the first public reading from his newly composed history of Rome, the audience broke down at the beginning of the performance because a very large man had caused several of the benches to collapse. The audience members managed to pull themselves together but Claudius didn’t; and he couldn’t get through his reading without cracking up all the time. It was taken as a sign of his incapacity.

Roman histories and biographies are full of cautionary tales about laughter, used and misused – told, for the most part, to parade the virtues or vices of emperors and rulers. But just occasionally we get a glimpse from the other side, of laughter from the crowd, from the underlings at court, or laughter used as a weapon of opposition to political power. Romans did sometimes resort to scrawling jests about their political leaders on their city walls. Much of their surviving graffiti, to be honest, concentrates on sex, trivia (“I crapped well here”, as one slogan in Herculaneum reads) and the successes of celebrity gladiators or actors. But one wag reacted to Nero’s vast new palace in the centre of Rome by scratching: “Watch out, citizens, the city’s turning into a single house – run away to Veii [a nearby town], unless the house gobbles up Veii, too.”

But the most vivid image of the other side of political laughter comes from the story told by a young senator, Cassius Dio, of his own experiences at the Colosseum in 192AD. He’d nearly cracked up, he explains, as he sat in the front row watching a series of gladiatorial games and wild beast hunts hosted by the ruling emperor Commodus.

Commodus was well known for joining in these performances as an amateur fighter (that’s where Gladiator gets it more or less right). During the shows in 192, he had been displaying his “combat” skills against the wild beasts. On one day he had killed a hundred bears, hurling spears at them from the balustrade around the arena. On other days, he had taken aim at animals safely restrained in nets. But what nearly gave Dio the giggles was the emperor’s encounter with an ostrich.

After he had killed the poor bird, Commodus cut off its head, wandered over to where Dio and his friends were sitting and waved it at them with one hand, brandishing his sword in the other. The message was obvious: if you’re not careful, you’ll be next for the chop. The poor young senator didn’t know where to put himself. It was, he claims, “laughter that took hold of us rather than distress” – but it would have been a death sentence to let it show. So he plucked a leaf from the laurel wreath he was wearing and chewed on it desperately to keep the giggles from breaking out.

It’s a nice story, partly because we can all recognise the sensation that Dio describes. His anecdote also deals with laughter as a weapon against totalitarian regimes. Dio more or less boasts that he found the emperor’s antics funny and that his own suppressed giggles were a sign of opposition. What better than to say that the psychopathic tyrant was not scary but silly?

Yet it cannot have been quite so simple. For all Dio’s bravura looking back on the incident from the safety of his own study, it is impossible not to suspect that sheer terror as much as ridicule lay behind that laughter. Surely Dio’s line would have been rather different if some burly thug of an imperial guard had challenged him on the spot to explain his quivering lips?

My guess is that those frightened aristocrats at the court of Caligula would have laughed in terror (or politely) at the emperor’s murderous “joke”. But, back home safely, they would have told a bold and self-congratulatory story, much as Dio did: “Of course, we couldn’t help but laugh at the silly man . . . !”

The truth is that, in politics as elsewhere, no one ever quite knows why anyone else is laughing – or maybe not even why they themselves are laughing.

“Laughter in Ancient Rome” by Mary Beard is published by University of California Press (£19.95)

Mary Beard will be in conversation with NS contributing editor Laurie Penny on 30 July at Conway Hall, London. More details and tickets here

This article first appeared in the 04 June 2014 issue of the New Statesman, 100 days to save Great Britain

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis

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What Jeremy Corbyn can learn from Orwell

Corbyn’s ideas may echo George Orwell’s – but they’d need Orwell’s Britain to work. It’s time Corbyn accepted the British as they are today.

All Labour Party leaderships since 1900 have offered themselves as “new”, but Tony Blair’s succession in 1994 triggered a break with the past so ruthless that the Labour leadership virtually declared war on the party. Now it is party members’ turn and they, for now at any rate, think that real Labour is Jeremy.

To Keir Hardie, real Labour had been a trade union lobby expounding Fellowship. To the Webbs, real Labour was “common ownership” by the best means available. Sidney’s Clause Four (adopted 1918) left open what that might be. In the 1920s, the Christian Socialist R H Tawney stitched Equality into the banner, but during the Depression young intellectuals such as Evan Durbin and Hugh Gaitskell designated Planning as Labour’s modern mission. After the Second World War, Clement Attlee followed the miners (and the London Passenger Transport Board) into Nationalisation. Harold Wilson tried to inject Science and Technology into the mix but everything after that was an attempt to move Labour away from state-regulated markets and in the direction of market-regulated states.

What made the recent leadership contest so alarming was how broken was the intellectual tradition. None of the candidates made anything of a long history of thinking about the relationship between socialism and what the people want. Yvette Cooper wanted to go over the numbers; only they were the wrong numbers. Andy Burnham twisted and turned. Liz Kendall based her bid on two words: “Have me.” Only Jeremy Corbyn seemed to have any kind of Labour narrative to tell and, of course, ever the ­rebel, he was not responsible for any of it. His conference address in Brighton was little more than the notes of a street-corner campaigner to a small crowd.

Given the paucity of thinking, and this being an English party for now, it is only a matter of time before George Orwell is brought in to see how Jeremy measures up. In fact, it’s happened already. Rafael Behr in the Guardian and Nick Cohen in the Spectator both see him as the kind of hard-left intellectual Orwell dreaded, while Charles Cooke in the National Review and Jason Cowley in the New Statesman joined unlikely fashion forces to take a side-look at Jeremy’s dreadful dress sense – to Orwell, a sure sign of a socialist. Cooke thought he looked like a “burned-out geography teacher at a third-rate comprehensive”. Cowley thought he looked like a red-brick university sociology lecturer circa 1978. Fair enough. He does. But there is more. Being a middle-class teetotal vegetarian bicycling socialistic feministic atheistic metropolitan anti-racist republican nice guy, with allotment and “squashily pacifist” leanings to match, clearly puts him in the land of the cranks as described by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) – one of “that dreary tribe of high-minded women and sandal-wearers and bearded fruit-juice drinkers who come flocking towards the smell of ‘progress’ like bluebottles to a dead cat”. And though Corbyn, as “a fully fledged, fully bearded, unabashed socialist” (Huffington Post), might make all true Orwellians twitch, he really made their day when he refused to sing the National Anthem. Orwell cited precisely that (see “The Lion and the Unicorn”, 1941) as an example of the distance between left-wing intellectuals and the people. It seemed that, by standing there, mouth shut, Comrade Corbyn didn’t just cut his wrists, he lay down full length in the coffin and pulled the lid shut.


Trouble is, this line of attack not only misrepresents the Labour leader, it misrepresents Orwell. For the great man was not as unflinchingly straight and true as some people think. It is impossible, for instance, to think of Orwell singing “God Save the King”, because he, too, was one of that “dreary tribe” of London lefties, and even when he joined Labour he remained ever the rebel. As for Corbyn, for a start, he is not badly dressed. He just doesn’t look like Chuka or Tristram. He may look like a threadbare schoolteacher, but Orwell was one twice over. Orwell was never a vegetarian or a teetotaller, but, like Corbyn, neither was he interested in fancy food (or drink), he kept an allotment, drove a motorbike, bicycled, cared about the poor, cared about the environment, loathed the empire, came close to pacifism at one point, and opposed war with Germany well past the time when it was reasonable to do so.

In Orwell’s thinking about socialism, for too long his main reference point was the London Marxist left. Not only did he make speeches in favour of revolutions, he took part in one with a gun in his hand. Orwell was far more interested, as Corbyn has been far more interested, in speaking truth to power than in holding office. His loyalty was to the movement, or at least the idea of the movement, not to MPs or the front bench, which he rarely mentioned. There is nothing in Corbyn’s position that would have shocked Orwell and, should they have met, there’d have been much to talk about: belief in public ownership and non-economic values, confidence in the state’s ability to make life better, progressive taxation, national health, state education, social care, anti-socially useless banking, anti-colonialism and a whole lot of other anti-isms besides. It’s hard to be sure what Orwell’s position would have been on Trident and immigration. Not Corbyn’s, I suspect. He was not as alert to feminism as he might have been but equally, few men try to write novels from a woman’s point of view and all Orwellians recognise that Julia is the dark hero of Nineteen Eighty-Four. In truth they are both austere types, not in it for themselves and not on anyone else’s expense account either. Corbyn won the leadership because this shone through from the very beginning. He came across as unaffected and straightforward – much as Orwell tried to be in his writing.

Except, as powerfully expressed in these pages by John Gray, Corbyn’s politics were made for another world. What sort of world would he need? First off, he’d need a regulated labour market: regulated by the state in partnership with a labour movement sensitive to what people wanted and experienced in trying to provide it. He would also need capital controls, a manufacturing base capable of building the new investment with Keynesian payback, an efficient and motivated Inland Revenue, a widespread public-service ethos that sees the country as an asset, not a market, and an overwhelming democratic mandate to get things done. In other words, Corbyn needs Orwell’s Britain – not this one – and at the very least, if he can’t have that, he needs the freedom to act that the European Commission forbids.

There’s another problem. Orwell did not trust left-wing intellectuals and spent half his life trying to work out their motivations as a class who spoke for the people, went in search of the people, and praised the people, but did not know them or believe in them. True, Corbyn says he wants to be open and inclusive, but we know he can’t possibly mean it when he says it will be the party, not him or the PLP, that will decide policy, just as we knew it couldn’t possibly be true when he said he’d turn PMQs into the People’s Question Time. Jeremy hasn’t changed his mind in forty years, appears to have great difficulty (unlike Tony Benn) in fusing socialism to national identity or experience (Hardie, Ben Okri and Maya Angelou were bolted on to his Brighton speech) and seems to think that not being happy with what you are given somehow captures the historic essence of socialism (rather than its opposite).

Granted, not thinking outside the ­circle is an inherent fault of the sectarian left but some of our most prominent left-wing journalists have it, too. Working-class support for nationalisation? Good. Right answer! Working-class opposition to benefit scroungers and further mass immigration? Bad. Wrong answer! Would you like to try again? In his essay “In Defence of Comrade Zilliacus” (1947) Orwell reckoned that left-wing intellectuals saw only what they wanted to see. For all their talk of representing the people, they hated the masses. “What they are frightened of is the prevailing opinion within their own group . . . there is always an orthodoxy, a parrot-cry . . .”

The game is hard and he may go down in a welter of knives, yet Corbyn still has time. He may go on making the same speech – on the benefits of apple pie to apple growers – but at some point he will have to drop the wish-list and get on the side of the British people as they are, and live with that, and build into it. Only the nation state can even begin to do the things he wants to do. The quicker he gets that, the quicker we can see if the latest incarnation of new Labour has a future.

Robert Colls is the author of “George Orwell: English Rebel” (Oxford University Press)

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis