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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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Goodbye to the Confederate flag

After the shootings in Charleston, the Republican right showed it was finally ready to reject the old symbols of the Confederacy.

On 27 June, an African-American activist named Bree Newsome woke up before dawn, put on her climbing equipment and scaled a 30-foot flagpole on the lawn of State House in Columbia, South Carolina. She then removed the Confederate battle flag that flew from it. “We can’t wait any longer,” she explained later in an online statement. “It’s time for a new chapter where we are sincere about dismantling white supremacy.”

After she was led away in handcuffs, the flag was raised again.

Newsome’s protest reflected a growing impatience within America’s black community and anger about liberal inaction. Political rallies by the Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders have been disrupted by the Black Lives Matter campaign against violence committed on young African Americans and the cultural and legal biases that justify it. While promoting his book on race in the US, the writer Ta-Nehisi Coates argued that, to African Americans, the battle flag represents a lingering attempt “to bury the fact that half this country thought it was a good idea to raise an empire rooted in slavery”.

Yet, on this matter, to everyone’s surprise, the black civil rights movement and many southern Republicans have proved to be of one mind. On 9 July the House of Representatives in South Carolina voted to lower the battle flag for good. It stood, representatives said, for racism. It had to go.

The context of this agreement was a painful one. Ten days before Newsome’s act, a 21-year-old white man named Dylann Roof shot and killed nine black worshippers at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina. According to his room-mate, he wanted to start a race war. The TV screens showed a photo of him holding a gun in one hand and a Confederate battle flag in the other.

If the demands for redress made by civil rights groups didn’t come as a surprise, conservative acquiescence did. The Republican Party had built a solid base in the South by courting white voters who cherished the memory of the Confederacy. Yet the party’s presidential hopefuls from both the North and the South – including Jeb Bush, Lindsey Graham, Scott Walker and George Pataki – said that the battle flag ought to be lowered. The most striking intervention was made by the governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who denounced the use of the Confederate flag and signed the bill removing it. Haley is now tipped to figure on the list of potential vice-presidential nominees.

The volte-face of the US right is in part a result of the horror of the Charleston shootings. Yet it also occurs in the context of major shifts within American society. There are still many conservatives who will defend Confederate heritage as a matter of southern pride but the culture wars are changing as the US becomes increasingly European in outlook. This is taking place across the country. It just happens to be more pronounced in the South because no other region has fought so violently and so long to resist the liberal tide.

The story of the battle flag is the story of the South. The first official Confederate flag used in the civil war of 1861-65 caused confusion during fighting – through the haze of gun smoke, its design of 13 stars and red and white bars was hard to distinguish from the Stars and Stripes. An alternative blue cross was rejected for being too sectarian; the racist Confederacy was anxious not to offend its Jewish citizens. So the cross became a diagonal X. This flag was never officially adopted by the Confederate army. In the years after the war its use was infrequent.

There was little need to visualise southern difference in a flag. It was self-evident in the physical signs of racial segregation: separate schools, pools and drinking fountains; black people confined to the back of the bus. Political displays of the battle flag of Dixie (the historical nickname for the states that seceded from the Union) only really resurfaced when that racial order was challenged by northern liberals. In 1948, the Democrats – then the party overwhelmingly in control of the South – split over modest calls for civil rights. The conservatives who refused to support that year’s presidential ticket, the “Dixiecrats”, triggered a rev­ival of flag-waving across the region.

The old battle flag suddenly appeared on private lawns, on cars and at political rallies. Supposedly ancient cultural traditions were invented overnight. For instance, the 1948 student handbook of the University of Mississippi confessed: “Many Ole Miss customs are fairly new; they lack only the savouring which time brings . . . Ole Miss has adopted the Confederate flag as a symbol of the Mississippi spirit. Each football game finds the scarlet flag frantically waving to the rhythm of the Rebel band.”

I can confirm that this “tradition” was still going as recently as in 2005. That year, I attended an American football game at Ole Miss and was surprised when the band played “Dixie” at the end. White boys and white girls stood up and belted out the folk song of the Confederacy, while black students filed out.

In 1958, South Carolina made it a crime to desecrate the battle flag. Three years later, on the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of the civil war, it was hoisted above its Capitol building in Columbia. That day, there was a struggle in the US Congress to keep federal funding going for segregated schools.

So clear is the link between the postwar white resistance to civil rights and the battle flag that many see it as the symbolic equivalent of the N-word. Jack Hunter, the editor of the conservative website Rare Politics, says: “Some people insist that it’s not about racism, not about slavery, not about segregation. But it’s about all those things.” Hunter grew up in Charleston and used to skateboard in the car park of the church that Dylann Roof attacked. When he was a young journalist, he appeared on local radio as a rabidly right-wing masked character called “the Southern Avenger”. His past was exposed in 2013 while he was working for Rand Paul, a Republican presidential candidate, and Hunter stepped down from his position. He publicly renounced his youthful association with racial conservatism. He now eschews any romanticism about the Confederate cause and its demand for states’ rights. “States’ rights to do what?” he asks: the right to discriminate against African Americans? He is glad that the State House flag is gone. He ascribes its longevity to ignorance, which was corrected by Roof’s rampage: “It was the first time that [southern Republicans] were able to see a different perspective on this symbol.”

Not everyone agrees. Richard Hines – a former South Carolina legislator, Reagan campaign state co-chair and senior activist with the Sons of Confederate Veterans – insists that the flag is “an enduring symbol of the southern fighting man”. Indeed, a poll in July found that 57 per cent of Americans think it stands for southern heritage, rather than racism. Yet that heritage has a political dimension. “Southern people are proud of who they are and there is a leftist assault to destroy the best part of America,” Hines says. “The Trotskyite elite in control of the establishment wants to root out the southern tradition” – a tradition of religious devotion, chivalry and military honour. It is possible to cast the battle flag as a pawn in a much larger cultural conflict.

In 2000, civil rights activists lobbied hard to get the battle flag removed from the top of the South Carolina Capitol and succeeded in having it shrunk in size and relocated to the grounds of State House. The issue came up in that year’s Republican presidential primaries – an unusually poisonous contest between George W Bush and John McCain. Supporters of Bush put out a false story that McCain had fathered an interracial child out of wedlock. McCain added to his woes by opining that the battle flag was “a symbol of racism and slavery”. An organisation called Keep It Flying flooded the state with 250,000 letters attacking him and he lost the crucial competition here to Bush.

The battle flag has retained a strong emotional power for a long time. This makes the Republican establishment’s abandonment of the flag all the more surprising. Then again, those who run the South are probably the people most likely to grasp how much the region has changed in just a decade.

***

In 2010 I took a trip through North Carolina. The landscape told a story. Dotted along the roadside were abandoned black buildings, the old tobacco sheds. The decline of the rural economy had rendered them obsolete. Over the fields that would once have been full of farmers were freshly tarmacked roads, stretching out to nowhere. My guide explained that these were supposed to be cul-de-sacs for new houses. North Carolina was going through a property boom. But who was going to buy all those homes, I asked? The answer: damn Yankees.

Demography is destiny. This once agri­cultural region developed fast from the 1960s onwards by keeping union membership, taxes and regulation as low as possible. Yet capitalism proved disastrous for southern conservatism. Northerners flooded in, seeking work or retirement and bringing their own values. The forecast is that North Carolina’s Research Triangle – the South’s Silicon Valley – will grow by 700,000 jobs and 1.2 million people in two decades.

White migration was accompanied by an influx of Spanish speakers as the service sector flourished. Between 2000 and 2010, the white share of the population of North Carolina fell from 70 to 65 per cent. The black proportion remained at roughly 21 per cent. The Latino proportion, however, jumped from 4.7 per cent to 8.4 per cent. Today, the proportion of people who are non-white and over 60 is about a third. But it’s approaching nearly half for those under 18. As a result, politics in the South is no longer biracial: a contest between white and black. It is increasingly multiracial and uncoupled from the region’s complex past.

The impact of these changes is reflected in voting patterns. In 2000, the South was still overwhelmingly Republican in presidential contests. Even the Democratic nominee, Al Gore, a southerner, lost his home state of Tennessee. But in 2008 and 2012, Barack Obama took those states with the fastest-changing demographics: Florida and Virginia. He won North Carolina in 2008 and lost it in 2012 – but by less than 100,000 votes. It is true that the Republicans won back control in the 2014 midterm elections, with the result that the Deep South now sends few Democrats to Congress; but the region’s political masters are not quite as traditional-minded as they once were.

The Republican relationship with the Confederate past is complex. As the party of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the GOPs’ southern support was historically small. But in the 1960s the national Democratic Party embraced civil rights and alienated its once loyal southern following; the Republicans took the opportunity to steal some conservative white voters.

The growing southern Republican vote had a class component. Its success in local and congressional races was built more on winning over middle-class moderates than on appealing to the working-class racists who filled the ranks of the Ku Klux Klan. The southern Republican Party did enthusiastically embrace the Confederate battle flag in many quarters. But some office-holders did so only with ambiguity, while large sections of the party never identified with it at all. The period of Republican ascendancy in the South was, in reality, linked with a softening of the area’s racial politics.

Two of the Republicans’ current southern stars are Indian Americans: Bobby Jindal, the governor of Louisiana, and Nikki Haley, the anti-flag governor of South Carolina. There are just two black people in the US Senate and one of them is a Republican, the Tea Party-backed senator for South Carolina, Tim Scott. Marco Rubio, the Floridian senator and presidential candidate, is Cuban American, and the former Florida governor Jeb Bush is married to a Mexican-born woman and speaks fluent Spanish. Bush has tried to push a more moderate line on immigration, in deference to how the GOP will struggle to win the White House if it appeals only to angry white voters. The Kentucky libertarian senator Rand Paul, Jack Hunter’s former boss, has called for legal reforms to correct the trend of keeping far more black than white people in prison. And he is not the only Republican to have been moved by recent race riots sparked by police violence.

***

Violence on the streets of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, confirmed that there still is a culture war in the US. Yet its character has changed. In the past, civil disturbances were typically leapt upon by conservative politicians as evidence of social decline. The 1992 LA riots were blamed on single parenthood and rap lyrics. In contrast, conservative leaders today are far more likely to acknowledge the problems of white racism. There is no place in their ranks for the likes of Dylann Roof. White supremacists are tiny in number.

Jack Hunter claims: “The KKK is like 12 guys in a telephone booth. Liberal groups will use their threat for fundraising but it doesn’t exist. It hasn’t properly since the 1960s.” Roof’s actions say more about gun control, mental illness and the angst of the young than they do about popular, largely liberal views on race, as polling shows.

We can see a similar liberal shift in other areas of the historic culture war. In May 2015 Gallup released the results of a “moral acceptability” survey charting changes in national attitude across all age groups, from 2001 to 2015. Approval of gay relationships jumped from 40 to 63 per cent; having a baby out of wedlock from 45 to 61 per cent; sex between unmarried men and women from 53 to 68 per cent; doctor-assisted suicide from 49 to 56 per cent; even polygamy went from 7 to 16 per cent. Abortion remained narrowly disapproved of: support for access has only crept up from 42 to 45 per cent. This is probably a result of an unusual concentration of political and religious opposition and because it involves a potential life-or-death decision. But the general trend is that young people just don’t care as much about what consenting adults get up to.

Why? It might be because old forms of identity are dying. One way of measuring that is religious affiliation. From 2007 to 2014, according to Pew Research, the proportion of Americans describing themselves as Christian fell from 78 to 71 per cent. Today, only a quarter of the population is evangelical and 21 per cent Catholic, down despite high immigration. Then there is the decline in civic or communal activity. Since 2012, the organisers of Nascar, the stock-car races, have not published attendance figures at their tracks, probably because they have fallen so sharply. The decline of this most macho and working class of sports parallels the fall in conservative forms of collective identity such as southern traditionalism.

The old culture war was, like the racial politics of the old South, binary. In the 1950s, around the same time as the South invented its tradition of flying the battle flag in colleges, the US constructed an ideal of the “normal” nuclear family unit: straight, white, patriarchal, religious. On the other side was the “abnormal”: gay, black, feminist, atheist, and the rest. The surest way to get elected in the US between 1952 and 2004 was to associate yourself with the economic needs and cultural prejudices of the majority. The approach was once summed up by a Richard Nixon strategist thus: split the country in two and the Republicans will take the larger half. But that is changing. The old normal is no longer the cultural standard but just one of many identities to choose from. The races are mixing. Women want to work more and have children later in life, possibly without marriage. Many religious people are having to rethink their theology when a child comes out as gay. And the enforcers of the old ways – the unions, churches or political parties – are far less attractive than the atomising internet.

***

Politicians are scrabbling to keep up with the diffusion of American identity. Democrats got lucky when they nominated Barack Obama and chose a presidential candidate who reflected the fractured era well: interracial, non-denominational Christian, and so on. In the 2012 presidential race the Republicans got burned when they tried to play the old culture war card on abortion. They won’t repeat that mistake. After the Supreme Court legalised gay marriage across the country in June, the right’s response was not as uniformly loud and outraged as it would have been in the past. Some protested, but serious presidential contenders such as Jeb Bush grasped the implications of the defeat. There is a cultural and political realignment going on and no one is sure where it will lead. It’s encouraging caution among the Republican top brass. It is time, they think, to abandon lost causes.

The death of southern traditionalism is part of the ebb and flow of cultural history. Identities flourish and die. As political fashions change, you find the typically American mix of triumph on one side and jeremiad on the other. Richard Hines stood vigil as the battle flag was lowered in Columbia and noted with disgust the presence of what he described as “bussed-in” activists. “They pulled out all these gay pride flags and started shouting, ‘USA, USA, USA!’ It reminded me of the Bolshevik Revolution.”

Hines reckons that more southerners will now fly the flag than ever before and says he has attended overflow rallies of ordinary folks who love their region. He may well be correct. The faithful will keep the old Confederate standard fluttering on their lawns – an act of secession from the 21st century. But in the public domain, the battle flag is on its way down and in its place will be raised the standard of the new America. The rainbow flag flutters high. For now.

Tim Stanley is a historian and a columnist for the Telegraph

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars