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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

CLIVE BARDA
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The lost magic of England

The great conservative journalist Peregrine Worsthorne reflects on a long life at the heart of the establishment.

In a recent editorial meeting, our subscriptions manager happened to mention that Peregrine Worsthorne was still a New Statesman subscriber. A former editor of the Sunday Telegraph and, during a long Fleet Street career, a self-styled “romantic reactionary” scourge of liberals and liberalism, Worsthorne used to be something of a pantomime villain for the left, a role he delighted in. He had close friends among the “Peterhouse right”, the group of High Tory intellectuals who gathered around Maurice Cowling at the small, conspiratorial Cambridge college. He was a frequent contributor to Encounter (which turned out to be funded by the CIA) and an ardent cold warrior. His social conservatism and lofty affectations offended lefty Islingtonian sensibilities. On several occasions he was the Guardian’s reviewer of choice for its annual collection of journalism, The Bedside Guardian, and he invariably delivered the required scornful appraisal while praising its witty television critic, Nancy Banks-Smith. There is no suggestion, he wrote in 1981, that the “Guardian ever sees itself as part of the problem; itself as having some responsibility for the evils its writers described so well”.

His prose style was Oxbridge high table, more Walter Pater than George Orwell. It was essential not to take Worsthorne too seriously, because he delighted in mischief-making and wilful provocation – one of his targets for remorseless ridicule was Andrew Neil, when Neil edited the abrasively Thatcherite Sunday Times. He ended up suing Worsthorne, who was famous for his silk shirts and Garrick Club lunches, for libel; he was awarded damages of £1, the then cover price of the Sunday Times.

“I wrote that in the old days editors of distinguished Sunday papers could be found dining at All Souls, and something must have changed when they’re caught with their trousers down in a nightclub,” Worsthorne told me when we met recently. “I had no idea he was going to sue. I was teasing. I occasionally run into him and we smile at each other, so it’s all forgotten and forgiven.”

After his retirement in 1989, Worsthorne, although he remained a resolute defender of aristocracy, seemed to mellow, and even mischievously suggested that the Guardian had replaced the Times as the newspaper of record. In the 1990s he began writing occasionally for the New Statesman – the then literary editor, Peter Wilby, commissioned book reviews from him, as I did after I succeeded Wilby. Like most journalists of his generation, Worsthorne was a joy to work with; he wrote to length, delivered his copy on time and was never precious about being edited. (Bill Deedes and Tony Howard were the same.) He might have had the mannerisms of an old-style toff but he was also a tradesman, who understood that journalism was a craft.

Shortly before Christmas, I rang Wors­thorne at the home in Buckinghamshire he shares with his second wife, Lucinda Lambton, the charming architectural writer. I asked how he was. “I’m like a squeezed lemon: all used up,” he said. Lucy described him as being “frail but not ill”. I told him that I would visit, so one recent morning I did. Home is a Grade II-listed old rectory in the village of Hedgerley. It is grand but dishevelled and eccentrically furnished. A sign on the main gates warns you to “Beware of the Dog”. But the dog turns out to be blind and moves around the house uneasily, poignantly bumping into objects and walls. At lunch, a small replica mosque in the dining room issues repeated mechanised calls to prayer. “Why does it keep doing that?” Perry asks. “Isn’t it fun,” Lucy says. She then turns to me: “Have some more duck pâté.”

As a student, I used to read Worsthorne’s columns and essays with pleasure. I did not share his positions and prejudices but I admired the style in which he articulated them. “The job of journalism is not to be scholarly,” he wrote in 1989. “The most that can be achieved by an individual newspaper or journalist is the articulation of an intelligent, well-thought-out, coherent set of prejudices – ie, a moral position.”

His Sunday Telegraph, which he edited from 1986 to 1989, was like no other newspaper. The recondite and reactionary comment pages (the focus of his energies) were unapologetically High Tory, contrary to the prevailing Thatcherite orthodoxies of the time, but were mostly well written and historically literate. Bruce Anderson was one of the columnists. “You never knew what you were going to get when you opened the paper,” he told me. “Perry was a dandy, a popinjay, and of course he didn’t lack self-esteem. He had a nostalgia for Young England. In all the time I wrote for him, however, I never took his approval for granted. I always felt a tightening of the stomach muscles when I showed him something.”

***

Worsthorne is 92 now and, though his memory is failing, he remains a lucid and engaging conversationalist. Moving slowly, in short, shuffling steps, he has a long beard and retains a certain dandyish glamour. His silver hair is swept back from a high, smooth forehead. He remains a stubborn defender of the aristocracy – “Superiority is a dread word, but we are in very short supply of superiority because no one likes the word” – but the old hauteur has gone, replaced by humility and a kind of wonder and bafflement that he has endured so long and seen so much: a journalistic Lear, but one who is not raging against the dying of the light.

On arrival, I am shown through to the drawing room, where Perry sits quietly near an open fire, a copy of that morning’s Times before him. He moves to a corner armchair and passes me a copy of his book Democracy Needs Aristocracy (2005). “It’s all in there,” he says. “I’ve always thought the English aristocracy so marvellous compared to other ruling classes. It seemed to me that we had got a ruling class of such extraordinary historical excellence, which is rooted in England
almost since the Norman Conquest.

“Just read the 18th-century speeches – the great period – they’re all Whig or Tory, but all come from that [the aristocracy]. If they didn’t come directly from the aristocracy, they turned themselves very quickly into people who talk in its language. Poetic. If you read Burke, who’s the best in my view, it’s difficult not to be tempted to think what he says has a lot of truth in it . . .”

His voice fades. He has lost his way and asks what we were talking about. “Oh, yes,” he says. “It survived when others – the French and Russians and so on – were having revolutions. It was absolutely crazy to set about destroying that. There was something magical . . . the parliamentary speeches made by Burke and so on – this is a miracle! No other country has it apart from America in the early days. And I thought to get rid of it, to undermine it, was a mistake.”

I ask how exactly the aristocracy was undermined. Even today, because of the concentration of the ownership of so much land among so few and because of the enduring influence of the old families, the great schools and Oxbridge, Britain remains a peculiar hybrid: part populist hyper-democracy and part quasi-feudal state. The Tory benches are no longer filled by aristocrats but the old class structures remain.

“Equality was the order of the day after the war,” Worsthorne replies. “And in a way it did a lot of good, equalising people’s chances in the world. But it didn’t really get anywhere; the ruling class went happily on. But slowly, and I think unnecessarily dangerously, it was destroyed – and now there are no superior people around [in politics]. The Cecil family – Lord Salisbury, he was chucked out of politics. The Cecil family is being told they are not wanted. The institutions are falling apart . . .

“But there were people who had natural authority, like Denis Healey. I’m not saying it’s only aristocrats – a lot of Labour people had it. But now we haven’t got any Denis Healeys.”

Born in 1923, the younger son of Alexander Koch de Gooreynd, a Belgian banker, Worsthorne (the family anglicised its name) was educated at Stowe and was an undergraduate at both Cambridge (Peterhouse, where he studied under the historian Herbert Butterfield, the author of The Whig Interpretation of History) and Oxford (Magdalen College). “I have always felt slightly underprivileged and de-classed by having gone to Stowe, unlike my father who went to Eton,” Worsthorne wrote in 1985.

Yet his memories of Stowe remain pellucid. There he fell under the influence of the belle-lettrist John Davenport, who later became a close friend of Dylan Thomas. “He was a marvellous man, a famous intellectual of the 1930s, an ex-boxer, too. But in the war he came to Stowe and he was preparing me for a scholarship to Cambridge. He told me to read three books, and find something to alleviate the boredom of an examiner, some little thing you’ll pick up. And I duly did and got the scholarship.”

Can you remember which three books he recommended?

“Tawney. Something by Connolly, um . . . that’s the terrible thing about getting old, extremely old – you forget. And by the time you die you can’t remember your brother’s name. It’s a terrible shock. I used to think old age could be a joy because you’d have more time to read. But if you push your luck and get too far, and last too long, you start finding reading really quite difficult. The connections go, I suppose.”

Was the Connolly book Enemies of Promise (1938)?

“Yes, that’s right. It was. And the other one was . . . Hang on, the writer of the book . . . What’s the country invaded by Russia, next to Russia?

Finland, I say. Edmund Wilson’s To the Finland Station (1940)?

“Yes. Wilson. How did you get that?”

We both laugh.

***

Worsthorne is saddened but not surprised that so many Scots voted for independence and his preference is for Britain to remain a member of the European Union. “What’s happening is part of the hopelessness of English politics. It’s horrible. I can’t think why the Scots would want to be on their own but it might happen. The youth will vote [for independence]. This is part of my central theme: the Scots no longer think it’s worthwhile belonging to England. The magic of England has gone – and it’s the perversity of the Tory party to want to get us out of the European Union when of course we’re much more than ever unlikely to be able to look after ourselves as an independent state because of the quality of our political system.

“The people who want to get us out are obviously of an undesirable kind. That the future should depend on [Nigel] Farage is part of the sickness. I mean the real horror is for him to have any influence at all. And when you think of the great days of the Labour Party, the giants who strode the stage – famous, lasting historical figures, some of them: Healey, Attlee, who was probably the greatest, [Ernest] Bevin. I’m well aware that Labour in the good days produced people who were superior.”

He digresses to reflect on his wartime experience as a soldier – he served in Phantom, the special reconnaissance unit, alongside Michael Oakeshott, the philosopher of English conservatism who became a close friend, and the actor David Niven, our “prize colleague”.

“I remember Harold Macmillan saying to me, after the Second World War, the British people needed their belt enlarged; they’d done their job and they deserved a reward. And that’s what he set about doing. And he wasn’t a right-wing, unsympathetic man at all. But he didn’t – and this is what is good about conservatism – he didn’t turn it into an ‘ism’. It was a sympathetic feel, an instinctive feel, and of course people in the trenches felt it, too: solidarity with the rest of England and not just their own brotherhood. Of course he didn’t get on with Margaret Thatcher at all.”

Worsthorne admired Thatcher and believed that the “Conservatives required a dictator woman” to shake things up, though he was not a Thatcherite and denounced what he called her “bourgeois triumphalism”. He expresses regret at how the miners were treated during the bitter strike of 1984-85. “I quarrelled with her about the miners’ strike, and the people she got around her to conduct it were a pretty ropey lot.

“I liked her as a person. I was with her that last night when she wasn’t prime minister any more, but she was still in Downing Street and had everything cut off. The pressman [Bernard Ingham] got several of us to try to take her mind off her miseries that night. There’s a photograph of me standing at the top of the stairs.”

In the summer of 1989, Peregrine Wors­thorne was sacked as the editor of the Sunday Telegraph by Andrew Knight, a former journalist-turned-management enforcer, over breakfast at Claridge’s. He wrote about the experience in an elegant diary for the Spectator: “I remember well the exact moment when this thunderbolt, coming out of a blue sky, hit me. It was when the waiter had just served two perfectly poached eggs on buttered toast . . . In my mind I knew that the information just imparted was a paralysingly painful blow: pretty well a professional death sentence.”

He no longer reads the Telegraph.

“Politically they don’t have much to say of interest. But I can’t put the finger on exactly what it is I don’t like about it. Boredom, I think!”

You must read Charles Moore?

“He is my favourite. Interesting fellow. He converted to Catholicism and started riding to hounds in the same week.”

He has no regrets about pursuing a long career in journalism rather than, say, as a full-time writer or academic, like his friends Cowling and Oakeshott. “I was incredibly lucky to do journalism. What people don’t realise – and perhaps you don’t agree – but it’s really a very easy life, compared to many others. And you have good company in other journalists and so on. I was an apprentice on the Times, after working [as a sub-editor] on the Glasgow Herald.”

How does he spend the days?

“Living, I suppose. It takes an hour to get dressed because all the muscles go. Then I read the Times and get bored with it halfway through. Then there’s a meal to eat. The ­answer is, the days go. I used to go for walks but I can’t do that now. But Lucy’s getting me all kinds of instruments to facilitate people with no muscles, to help you walk. I’m very sceptical about it working, but then again, better than the alternative.”

He does not read as much as he would wish. He takes the Statesman, the Spectator and the Times but no longer the Guardian. He is reading Niall Ferguson’s biography of Kissinger, The Maisky Diaries by Ivan Maisky, Stalin’s ambassador to London from 1932 to 1943, and Living on Paper, a selection of letters by Iris Murdoch, whom he knew. “I get these massive books, thinking of a rainy day, but once I pick them up they are too heavy, physically, so they’re stacked up, begging to be read.”

He watches television – the news (we speak about Isis and the Syrian tragedy), the Marr show on Sunday mornings, and he has been enjoying War and Peace on BBC1. “Andrew Marr gave my book a very good review. He’s come back. He’s survived [a stroke] through a degree of hard willpower to get back to that job, almost as soon as he came out of surgery. But I don’t know him; he was a Guardian man.” (In fact, Marr is more closely associated with the Independent.)

Of the celebrated Peterhouse historians, both Herbert Butterfield (who was a Methodist) and Maurice Cowling were devout Christians. For High Tories, who believe in and accept natural inequalities and the organic theory of society, Christianity was a binding force that held together all social classes, as some believe was the order in late-Victorian England.

“I was a very hardened Catholic,” Worsthorne says, when I mention Cowling’s book Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England. “My mother was divorced [her second marriage was to Montagu Norman, then the governor of the Bank of England] and she didn’t want my brother and me to be Catholic, so she sent us to Stowe. And I used to annoy her because I read [Hilaire] Belloc. I tried to annoy the history master teaching us Queen Elizabeth I. I said to him: ‘Are you covering up on her behalf: don’t you know she had syphilis?’

“Once I felt very angry about not being made Catholic. But then I went to Cambridge and there was a very Catholic chaplain and he was very snobbish. And in confession I had to tell him I masturbated twice that morning or something, and so it embarrassed me when half an hour later I had to sit next to him at breakfast. I literally gave up going to Mass to get out of this embarrassing situation. But recently I’ve started again. I haven’t actually gone to church but I’ve made my confessions, to a friendly bishop who came to the house.”

So you are a believer?

“Yes. I don’t know which bit I believe. But as Voltaire said: ‘Don’t take a risk.’”

He smiles and lowers his head. We are ready for lunch. 

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle