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View Full Version : Romans had a twisted sense of humor?



ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 03:35 AM
I've just been reading an interesting review/essay by Mary Beard in the most recent New York Review of Books called "Isn't it funny?" (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21616) The piece reviews a couple of new books about humor through the ages, both written and iconographic. I think everyone agrees that what we think is funny is hugely determined by culture, but Beard gives quite an example of that: apparently a carving on a Roman victory column of a soldier tearing a child from his captive mother's arms was meant "as a joke." Boy, those Romans were tough.

On the other hand, some situational jokes are pretty universal across the millennia. She gives an example, apparently the only one from the Roman world in which "we can follow in detail the story of a laugh, and share something of its physical experience." It describes a bunch of Senators watching Commodus (Marcus Aurelus's pathetically evil son) demonstrating his bravery in the arena by cutting the head off an ostrich. One of them, Dio, describes his emotions:

"He came up to where we were sitting, carrying the head in his left hand and in his right hand holding up his bloody sword. He spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our jaws we might conceal the fact that we were laughing."

Beard continues:

"Whatever theory of laughter we choose to adopt, the combination of fear, embarrassment, and almost irrepressible giggles is one that must be recognized by almost everyone, even across all those centuries. We can feel for, and with, Dio. We all have at some time in our lives bitten on the modern equivalent of laurel wreaths."

Yet in spite of a couple of centuries and language, most of us still think Rabelais (Gargantua and Pantagruel) and Sterne (Tristram Shandy) are funny. So that's been pretty constant.

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 03:52 AM
Meh. Parts of the early comedies are still funny too, and there are lots of bawdy jokes in Roman graffiti that are funny . . . the sexual humor though, is particularly telling, and fascinating.

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 03:59 AM
The sexual jokes are what kept 90% of my classmates taking Latin...Catullus, anyone?

So soldiers stealing children was funny back then, eh? I wonder what the equivalent will be from our culture in a few centuries.

mscelina
07-14-2008, 04:09 AM
Oh, the Romans had a very broad (and bawdy) sense of humor. Juvenal, the famous satirist, is one of my personal favorites. He wrote during the reign of Domitian and his works are (after translation) hysterical, but even funnier in Latin. In English from his second Satire:


Men's faces are not to be trusted; does not every street abound in gloomy-visaged debauchees? And do you rebuke foul practices, when you are yourself the most notorious delving-ground among Socratic reprobates? A hairy body, and arms stiff with bristles, give promise of a manly soul: but sleek are your buttocks when the grinning doctor cuts into the swollen piles. Juvenal, Satire II

You can read part of Juvenal's Satires translated here. (http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/ancient/juvenalpersius-intro.html)
Juvenal took no prisoners and based much of his work upon current events in Rome--some of it thinly disguised so that he could claim ignorance of the actual perpetrators. Ovid, on the other hand, wrote his Ars Amatoria--a sort of semi-autobiographical guide for women so that they could 'catch' men. This work is supposedly one of the reasons that Augustus banished him. Although he wasn't a satirist per se, he was definitely a...erm....smartass. For example, this is the "Parrot's Lament"-- a poem he wrote in the Ars Amatoria about the death of his mistress' parrot--which he'd given her.


OUR parrot, winged mimic of the human voice, sent from farthest Ind, is dead. Come ye in flocks, ye birds, unto his obsequies. Come, ye pious denizens of the air; beat your bosoms with your wings and with your rigid claws, score furrows on your dainty heads. Even as mourners rend their hair, rend ye your ruffled plumes. Since the far-sounding clarion is silent, sing ye a doleful song.

You can find a translation of the Ars Amatoria here. (http://www.sacred-texts.com/cla/ovid/lboo/index.htm)

The Romans loved their humor--that love is plastered all over their literature. There is a lot of it to be uncovered as you dig through the classics.

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:22 AM
The sexual jokes are what kept 90% of my classmates taking Latin...Catullus, anyone?

Ah, Catullus, the Ginsberg before Ginsberg.

Seriously, he's raunchy, funny, creepy, and political. What a Bukowski.

Good poet.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 04:24 AM
Remember...things are not much different "now" than they were "then." Jokes don't always work. What some scatterbrain thinks is funny is not always something others will think is funny. And there were Andy Kaufmans then, too.

And the interpretation of the Roman carving is only that: an interpretation. It very well might have made some Romans laugh. Of course, some people today laugh at things every bit as heinous.

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 04:26 AM
Ah, Catullus, the Ginsberg before Ginsberg.

Seriously, he's raunchy, funny, creepy, and political. What a Bukowski.

Good poet.

Catullus and Horace are likely my two favorites--and both had profound effect on English poetry.

But there's something about a culture that has door knockers and lamps and various other sorts of house hold implements decorated with erect phalli . . .

mscelina
07-14-2008, 04:27 AM
We are talking about a society that had daily gladiator battles and other spectator 'sports'. Hell, they figured out how to flood the Colisseum and have naval battles in it. To them, that wasn't an atrocity any more than killing animals for fun our their thirst for blood sports. Their idea of morality was different from ours, but their sense of humor? Not so much.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 04:34 AM
We are talking about a society that had daily gladiator battles and other spectator 'sports'. Hell, they figured out how to flood the Colisseum and have naval battles in it. To them, that wasn't an atrocity any more than killing animals for fun our their thirst for blood sports. Their idea of morality was different from ours, but their sense of humor? Not so much.
Yes, we just have dog fights, Ultimate Fighting, NASCAR, Grand Theft Auto, kids jumping others en masse and putting it on YouTube, and so forth.

I don't see much of a difference in their sense of morality, humor, or mortality...

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:35 AM
To them, that wasn't an atrocity any more than killing animals for fun our their thirst for blood sports. Their idea of morality was different from ours, but their sense of humor? Not so much.

Of course, the meat and fur industry still kills animals in pretty atrocious ways. And then there are Rob's examples. Morality has a way to go, still...

(I have no problem with eating meat, btw--just the manner in which they are often treated and killed.)

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 04:39 AM
My classmates made sure every day to write the entirety of Catullus Carmen 16 on the board while my poor teacher tried to guide us through the Aeneid.

I should mention that when we finally finished it, half the class didn't know what happened to Dido.

milhistbuff1
07-14-2008, 04:39 AM
Thats the reason its called a "Roman" holiday... then again misery loves company.

History is full of wit. One Irishman named John Scotus Eiurglena was once talking to Emperor Charlemagne...


"What separates a fool from an Irishman."

"Only the table."

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:40 AM
I should mention that when we finally finished it, half the class didn't know what happened to Dido.

Didn't she go on to become a singer/songwriter and be nominated for a Grammy?

;)

mscelina
07-14-2008, 04:43 AM
*sigh*

Do we enslave people for the purpose of entertaining the masses with their deaths, Rob? Do you have pornographic mosaics in the main rooms of your home as were unearthed in Pompeii? (If you do, I don't want to know)

Yes, there is a difference between the perceived moralities of the ancient cultures and our own. As I stated in my first post, Ovid was probably exiled from Rome for the Ars Amortia; who's the last writer exiled from the US?

After all, the Emperor Caligula made his horse Incitatus a consul of Rome. And although we have plenty of horse's asses in our government, they aren't actually HORSES.

For the most part.

So although the basic human instincts towards bloodshed and eroticism are still there, our society has repressed that beneath a layer of morality which, for good or ill, separates us from our ancestors.

mscelina
07-14-2008, 04:44 AM
My classmates made sure every day to write the entirety of Catullus Carmen 16 on the board while my poor teacher tried to guide us through the Aeneid.

I should mention that when we finally finished it, half the class didn't know what happened to Dido.


Didn't she go on to become a singer/songwriter and be nominated for a Grammy?

;)

Nope. Dido didn't become a singer. She offed herself and burned on a pyre as Aeneas sailed away, poor wretch. She didn't pull a Bobbitt on him. Another societal difference I suppose. :D

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:45 AM
What's wrong with pornographic mosaics? :Shrug:

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 04:46 AM
Nope. Dido didn't become a singer. She offed herself and burned on a pyre as Aeneas sailed away, poor wretch. She didn't pull a Bobbitt on him. Another societal difference I suppose. :D

Ah, so it would have been a posthumous Grammy, yes?

donroc
07-14-2008, 04:49 AM
Our Latin class in high school created a variation for the WWII Kilroy was here graffiti:

Kilrex erat hic. Wished I could have sneaked that onto a Roman ruin.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 04:51 AM
*sigh*

Do we enslave people for the purpose of entertaining the masses with their deaths, Rob? Do you have pornographic mosaics in the main rooms of your home as were unearthed in Pompeii? (If you do, I don't want to know)

Yes, there is a difference between the perceived moralities of the ancient cultures and our own. As I stated in my first post, Ovid was probably exiled from Rome for the Ars Amortia; who's the last writer exiled from the US?

After all, the Emperor Caligula made his horse Incitatus a consul of Rome. And although we have plenty of horse's asses in our government, they aren't actually HORSES.

For the most part.

So although the basic human instincts towards bloodshed and eroticism are still there, our society has repressed that beneath a layer of morality which, for good or ill, separates us from our ancestors.I disagree. More often than not, it's a function of opportunity. People STILL DO practice slavery. People STILL DO hurt others for amusement. But a more egalitarian view of citizenship--in most parts of the world--means that laws protect more people. As to pornography, you're kidding, right?

And not all Romans did these things. Far from it, actually.

I'm not sure why this is a difficult thing to accept. People are still people. They are still as fully capable of doing anything today that they were in ancient times, be it atrocity or charity.

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 04:52 AM
All of which gives me an excuse to shoehorn in the Life of Brian centurian scene. (http://www.mwscomp.com/movies/brian/brian-08.htm)

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 04:55 AM
People are still people. They are still as fully capable of doing anything today that they were in ancient times, be it atrocity or charity.
But how do we know that? It seems to me to be an assumption. After all, why can't other things evolve besides losing a tail and gaining an upright gait?

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 04:55 AM
Yes, we just have dog fights, Ultimate Fighting, NASCAR, Grand Theft Auto, kids jumping others en masse and putting it on YouTube, and so forth.

I don't see much of a difference in their sense of morality, humor, or mortality...

Sort of, but things like dog fighting, kids jumping each other and putting it on youtube, and even to an extent, the GTA series--they're not met with the tolerance or enthusiasm as, for instance, gladiatorial fighting. In the case of GTA, the violence isn't real. Although I personally wouldn't exactly savor such a game, to do so is not, in my opinion, equal to cheering as an arena full of slaves brutally murder each other.

I've seen a few rounds of Ultimate Fighting, and correct me if I'm wrong, but it just doesn't seem on-par with the Coliseum. It's no more dangerous than boxing and other similar sports, and we've been enjoying those for a few years now, rather uncontroversially.

I can see how NASCAR calls to mind activities like chariot racing, but, well, it's significantly safer, with all possible precautions taken to ensure that racers don't die. And they don't, not commonly. Chariot racing was a fast way to the grave back in the day.

mscelina
07-14-2008, 05:01 AM
Rob, let me ask you this:

Does our SOCIETY condone slavery? Does our SOCIETY condone public displays of pornography?

The majority of Roman citizens visited the games at the Colisseum--even the lower classes were admitted for free because the government considered it a way to keep the masses happy. Some try to compare the gladitorial games to American football, or the races in the Circus Maximus to NASCAR. You can't seriously be in that camp, can you? The Roman Empire fell as a result of its internal corruption, replaced with a superstitious, overly religous society ruled primarily by the church. The results of that fall linger with us today--look at the religious wars still going on in the Middle East for example. They are descendants of the medieval need to convert the infidel, to impose the rule of the church upon other societies. As for the pornographic imagery in ancient Rome, the mosaics I spoke of in Pompeii were in what would be considered a middle-class home, that of a well-to-do merchant. Other prominent displays-such as those Medi mentioned--were found in every class of home from the Palatine hill to the apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city.

And, as I stated--the inherent instinct for the same types of behavior are within us still. Sure, I know people who watch NASCAR for the crashes or stick centerfolds in their bathrooms--which is scary enough to have to admit--but I was under the impression that we're talking about whole societies here and not my redneck cousins. You're free to disagree if you wish, but I'll stick to my guns on this one.

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 05:04 AM
Yeah. Basically. Societies change. People don't.

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 05:11 AM
The Roman Empire fell as a result of its internal corruption, replaced with a superstitious, overly religous society ruled primarily by the church. The results of that fall linger with us today--look at the religious wars still going on in the Middle East for example. They are descendants of the medieval need to convert the infidel, to impose the rule of the church upon other societies.
You're going to have to convince me of that one. Arguing over the cause of the Empire's fall is an ancient parlor game, but I think the main issues were:

Lack of an orderly succession
External pressure on the frontiers by nomadic tribes being pushed by others behind them
Very long, difficult-to-defend frontiers

As to being replaced by a society ruled "primarily" by the Church, I don't think that ever really was the case. The Church was a powerful institution, more powerful in some states than in others, and with power varying from time to time and place to place, but the Pope never really ruled much directly besides his own holdings.

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 05:14 AM
*sigh*

Do we enslave people for the purpose of entertaining the masses with their deaths, Rob? Do you have pornographic mosaics in the main rooms of your home as were unearthed in Pompeii? (If you do, I don't want to know)

I betcha Rob thinks life is ah, nasty, brutish and short. Or maybe red in tooth and claw . . .

But those mosaics, now, those were often, the ones in bath houses, anyway, seen as humorous, more than erotic.

Or so we / scholars now are tending to think . . .

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 05:15 AM
All of which gives me an excuse to shoehorn in the Life of Brian centurian scene. (http://www.mwscomp.com/movies/brian/brian-08.htm)

That's probably my all time favorite Monty Python bit, EVER.

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 05:20 AM
The Roman Empire fell as a result of its internal corruption, replaced with a superstitious, overly religous society ruled primarily by the church. The results of that fall linger with us today--look at the religious wars still going on in the Middle East for example. They are descendants of the medieval need to convert the infidel, to impose the rule of the church upon other societies.

Errr . . . pick whatever date you want in the mid-fifth century for the fall, but the stuff you're talking about is from the "high middle ages," some eight hundred years or so later . . .

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 05:20 AM
Rob, let me ask you this:

Does our SOCIETY condone slavery? Does our SOCIETY condone public displays of pornography?

The majority of Roman citizens visited the games at the Colisseum--even the lower classes were admitted for free because the government considered it a way to keep the masses happy. Some try to compare the gladitorial games to American football, or the races in the Circus Maximus to NASCAR. You can't seriously be in that camp, can you? The Roman Empire fell as a result of its internal corruption, replaced with a superstitious, overly religous society ruled primarily by the church. The results of that fall linger with us today--look at the religious wars still going on in the Middle East for example. They are descendants of the medieval need to convert the infidel, to impose the rule of the church upon other societies. As for the pornographic imagery in ancient Rome, the mosaics I spoke of in Pompeii were in what would be considered a middle-class home, that of a well-to-do merchant. Other prominent displays-such as those Medi mentioned--were found in every class of home from the Palatine hill to the apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city.

And, as I stated--the inherent instinct for the same types of behavior are within us still. Sure, I know people who watch NASCAR for the crashes or stick centerfolds in their bathrooms--which is scary enough to have to admit--but I was under the impression that we're talking about whole societies here and not my redneck cousins. You're free to disagree if you wish, but I'll stick to my guns on this one.

QTF. Although the instincts are probably very similar, if not the same, the laws which govern them are not. As a whole, society now does not condone porn on the living room walls. We don't carve penises into our roads to point hungry men to brothels.

Our laws now condemn behavior like the Romans enjoyed. While to an extent, it's simply swept under the carpet (Victorian age??), this also means that there is a prevailing modesty in everyday life that tends to be violated more often voyeuristically, or privately, than publicly and for real. In both instances, though, there now are usually safeguards and regulations in place to ensure no one gets hurt.

"Ultimate fighting" might get more viewers. But it should perhaps be better known by its real name, Mixed Martial Arts, or MMA. Are karate and judo disgusting? So why are they when they're combined and many regulations removed?

ETA: Didn't know that about the humor porn. Whoops. I'm learning :D

kuwisdelu
07-14-2008, 05:28 AM
We don't carve penises into our roads to point hungry men to brothels.

It'd sure make it easier for some of us...


While to an extent, it's simply swept under the carpet

Certainly less prevalent in the Western world, today, but often still happens and still gets swept under the rug.


Didn't know that about the humor porn. Whoops. I'm learning :D

I take it you also haven't seen pterodactyl porn? Google it.

Ruv Draba
07-14-2008, 05:44 AM
But how do we know that? It seems to me to be an assumption. After all, why can't other things evolve besides losing a tail and gaining an upright gait?What's the mechanism for morality, values and thought to be passed on? I think that we have a lot of evidence for it to be primarily through education and social context; and very little evidence for it being via any other means.

That this development is producing more livable societies is fairly easy to argue. But that the societies are more viable than the most viable older forms remains to be shown. Our very rate of social adaptation could be evidence for or against viability. We also seem to be consuming extraordinary quantities of limited resources very inefficiently to create this 'livability' - and it's not hard to make the case that our morality is only sustainable while our economies are.

In terms of humanity evolving, I think it depends on what we mean.

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 05:48 AM
It'd sure make it easier for some of us...

I take it that's a good thing for some of you? :tongue




Certainly less prevalent in the Western world, today, but often still happens and still gets swept under the rug.

Yea. I guess I lean towards believing that less tolerance for a behavior leads to less prevalence of the behavior. Probably not in the cases of things like homosexuality, but in the case of fights to the death? Well, yea.



I take it you also haven't seen pterodactyl porn? Google it.

:(

robeiae
07-14-2008, 05:52 AM
Rob, let me ask you this:

Does our SOCIETY condone slavery? Does our SOCIETY condone public displays of pornography?Well, that depends on several things.

I'm assuming by "our society" you are referring to the U.S., that you don't want to look at the rest of the world. Smart move.

But even then, we DID condone slavery, up until one hundred and fifty years ago, or so.

And the pornography thing--what the hell is all over the internet? What's in most ad campaigns across the country? Every major Hollywood movie? Two And A Half Men? Sex, sex, sex, sex, sex...


The majority of Roman citizens visited the games at the Coliseum--even the lower classes were admitted for free because the government considered it a way to keep the masses happy.That's not true. The Coliseum seated around 50,000. Rome's population--just the city--during the Empire was over one million. And this is to say nothing of the rest of the Empire, especially rural areas.
Some try to compare the gladitorial games to American football, or the races in the Circus Maximus to NASCAR. You can't seriously be in that camp, can you?Ever heard of the Blues and the Greens? Look, spectacle entertainment is omnipresent in human society. But understand that Rome is also like "our society" in that it was not stagnant. What was true of Rome in 200 b.c.e. was not true of Rome in 40 c.e. It's a mistake--imo--to think Roman society was such and such, across the board. Even at a specific moment, there was no archetypal Roman, any more than there is an archetypal American. Or Brit. Or Swede.

And what we know is hardly a complete and total picture of all things Roman. Even then, the things we know don't always indicate what some might think. You've mentioned slavery. Do you know what Cato's recommendation was, with regard to keeping slaves? He said--I'm paraphrasing--that it was a good idea to sell off old and sick slaves. His views are often used to show how callous the Roman aristocracy was in this regard. But is that really what it tells us? Why would he bother putting down this kind of advice in writing if it reflected the typical view? Perhaps some Romans actually treated their slaves better than other Romans. Now, I'm not defending the practice, at all. I'm just pointing out that a bit of info from the past does not define the past, as a whole. Look again at the OP: a column with a possibly mean-spirited joke. Allowing that it was intended as a joke, it does not mean that therefore, ALL ROMANS would think it was funny. Not at all.


As for the pornographic imagery in ancient Rome, the mosaics I spoke of in Pompeii were in what would be considered a middle-class home, that of a well-to-do merchant. Other prominent displays-such as those Medi mentioned--were found in every class of home from the Palatine hill to the apartment buildings on the outskirts of the city.Sorry, there's no way you are going to be able to show that the society of Rome was, as a whole, more interested in pornography than the society of the U.S. in the here and now.


And, as I stated--the inherent instinct for the same types of behavior are within us still. Sure, I know people who watch NASCAR for the crashes or stick centerfolds in their bathrooms--which is scary enough to have to admit--but I was under the impression that we're talking about whole societies here and not my redneck cousins. You're free to disagree if you wish, but I'll stick to my guns on this one.
This is probably the issue. "Whole societies" don't have the kind of characteristics we are talking about. Imo, it's a disservice to people of the past when we classify them in this manner. They were not all the same, anymore than people are today. The prevalence of a particular attitude is something we can talk about, however. Again, given the things that go on in our society, I don't see us as much different than the Romans.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 05:59 AM
But how do we know that? It seems to me to be an assumption. After all, why can't other things evolve besides losing a tail and gaining an upright gait?
How do we know that? Look at Zimbabwe. Or go back a few years and look at Nanking. Or the Killing Fields. That's on a grand scale. On an individual level, there's another horrible crime on the news, almost every night. And there are groups of people out there saying awful things about other groups. And they're organized.

At the same time, I give you the words of Cicero:

An unjust peace is better than a just war.

Now, that's as good as anything you've got, no?

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 06:10 AM
This is probably the issue. "Whole societies" don't have the kind of characteristics we are talking about. Imo, it's a disservice to people of the past when we classify them in this manner. They were not all the same, anymore than people are today. The prevalence of a particular attitude is something we can talk about, however. Again, given the things that go on in our society, I don't see us as much different than the Romans.

I'm getting myself all confused...it sometimes happens. For the record, I consider "American society" very, very similar to Roman society. I do think, though, that in terms of violence and just maybe in terms of human rights, we've made some leaps.

The sex thing just seems to get everybody. In the collective sense, that is.

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 06:21 AM
An unjust peace is better than a just war.

Now, that's as good as anything you've got, no?
I'm smart enough not to argue with Cicero, but I still subscribe to a large extent to L.P. Hartley's famous notion that "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there." I also am partial to the Annales school of history, to the history of mentalites, or attitudes, and how they change over time. We really aren't the same as those Romans. We can read what a few of them wrote and look at mosaics on the wall, but we can only dimly perceive (and theorize about) how the bulk of them regarded the world.

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 06:37 AM
Sorry, there's no way you are going to be able to show that the society of Rome was, as a whole, more interested in pornography than the society of the U.S. in the here and now.

Errr . . . well, in some ways, they were less interested, I think. It meant, to them, sexual service advertisements. It wasn't so much a forbidden thing.

Yes, there were "dirty books," and while we don't have many of them, we do know that there was a market for "exotic" sex books from the east, mostly because of references in letters, and the odd allusion here and there about some one's taste in reading.

But here's the thing.

There's clearly a different take on sex in most of the classical world, for most of the history we have texts/images for . . . for one thing, the words they use to talk about sex suggest a different set of concepts and values.

They don't talk about a man being a "fag," or whatever negative term you want to use for men having sex with other men -- they refer only to the "passive" or "submissive" partner in derogatory terms.

All the sexual insults re: odd sex have to do with men behaving in what was seen as a "passive" or feminine role.

That's just one aspect . . .

Don Allen
07-14-2008, 06:46 AM
I don't know about you guys, but the one truth I find in thinking or studying ancient or even medevil people's is that they: laughed at things we abhore, did things for humor that we go to jail for, and without a doubt would have kicked our whimpy asses upsidedown and backwards if we would have ever had the misfortune to confront them...
Our dependence on toliet paper alone is all you need to know about Modern society versus ancient.

milhistbuff1
07-14-2008, 06:52 AM
hehe, yes, I'd love to see some of these vapid celebs take a quick trip to the 5th century. Barbarians pounding at the gates and not an Ipod or cop in sight...

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 06:59 AM
But I take it you'd be OK?

robeiae
07-14-2008, 07:04 AM
I'm smart enough not to argue with Cicero, but I still subscribe to a large extent to L.P. Hartley's famous notion that "the past is a foreign country: they do things differently there."I don't disagree. Hell, our grandfathers did things differently. But that doesn't mean they--the Romans and our grandfathers--weren't capable of the same sorts of attitudes, feelings, and perceptions that we are capable of today. Physiologically speaking, they certainly were.
I also am partial to the Annales school of history, to the history of mentalites, or attitudes, and how they change over time. We really aren't the same as those Romans. We can read what a few of them wrote and look at mosaics on the wall, but we can only dimly perceive (and theorize about) how the bulk of them regarded the world.I don't disagree with this, completely. But how one regards the world is as much a product of how one "regards," as it is a product of what the world actually is. And the world is different. So the means of regarding need not be all that dissimilar. And again, judging from the words of men like Cicero (and Cato), I'd say it's not.

Danger Jane
07-14-2008, 07:09 AM
But I take it you'd be OK?

Yea, just like the Romans were.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 07:11 AM
Errr . . . well, in some ways, they were less interested, I think. It meant, to them, sexual service advertisements. It wasn't so much a forbidden thing.

Yes, there were "dirty books," and while we don't have many of them, we do know that there was a market for "exotic" sex books from the east, mostly because of references in letters, and the odd allusion here and there about some one's taste in reading.

But here's the thing.

There's clearly a different take on sex in most of the classical world, for most of the history we have texts/images for . . . for one thing, the words they use to talk about sex suggest a different set of concepts and values.

They don't talk about a man being a "fag," or whatever negative term you want to use for men having sex with other men -- they refer only to the "passive" or "submissive" partner in derogatory terms.

All the sexual insults re: odd sex have to do with men behaving in what was seen as a "passive" or feminine role.

That's just one aspect . . .I'm not equating their take on sex or on anything else with today's world. I'm saying two things:

1) You can't lump all Romans into one category to define them and their attitudes, any more than you can do that for all Americans, or even all AWers.
2) We are not "better" than people of the past. We have not progressed-- in terms of morality, judgement, and the like--one bit. We are every bit as capable of the barbarism that was seen in those times.

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 07:18 AM
Oh, I don't think we're morally superior to them; I think we're different, though, in ways that we can never know because of the vagaries of what has survived to study and what has not. And humor, which is so tied to culture, may be a measure of this. Of course, this assumes that the archeologist's interpretation of the "joking" soldier on the victory column was correct.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 07:26 AM
But again CG, not all jokes work. Even if was supposed to be humor, it doesn't mean people thought it was funny. So, allowing that it was a joke, it's not evidence of much, at all.

You've read Fischer. Come on. I'm not the one taking leaps, here. I'm cautioning against them.

ColoradoGuy
07-14-2008, 07:32 AM
I'm the one who thinks we can't really know squat about it. Post-modernism and all.

robeiae
07-14-2008, 08:11 AM
Well, I guess I would say we can know squat, but that's about it.

So...fancy some dead language Scrabble?

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 08:15 AM
I'm not equating their take on sex or on anything else with today's world. I'm saying two things:

1) You can't lump all Romans into one category to define them and their attitudes, any more than you can do that for all Americans, or even all AWers.
2) We are not "better" than people of the past. We have not progressed-- in terms of morality, judgement, and the like--one bit. We are every bit as capable of the barbarism that was seen in those times.

Well no, of course not.

I'm not arguing better or worse; I'm saying there are some suggestions/implications in the artifacts and texts we have that suggest they were different.

Even things like Augustus' fulminations about young Roman men "whoring" themselves were not on the grounds of modern ideas of morality--it was because the offspring they engendered wouldn't be Roman citizens.

I'm just saying there were differences.

Ruv Draba
07-14-2008, 03:34 PM
I'm not arguing better or worse; I'm saying there are some suggestions/implications in the artifacts and texts we have that suggest they were different.So are different parts of a large modern city, or two branches of an extended family, or two stages of one human's life. "Different" is a debased euphemism, I reckon.

Ask a median Roman: would you like to triple your life-span; eat as much as you want of food from all around the world; have 15 years of intensive education; the right to compete for the Senate regardless of your age and wealth; a dedicated paramilitary that will actually protect your property; keep all your teeth; have a home that is heated; have virtually all your children survive to adults; be alive to see your great grandchildren; marry whom you want; be free to worship or not as you choose; and no other requirements of you than that you obey the laws and are halfway polite (and spend a lot of time learning our customs and language)?

Some might say no, but do you think they would be in the majority? If ancient Rome were located on the border of US or a wealthy European nation, would you expect to see less emmigration from Rome than from poorer countries in the modern world?

This is not a paean to modern morality but modern opportunity - from which a lot of what we call moral 'virtues' (but which are really just byproducts of affluence) spring.

Our morality is dictated perhaps by the exigencies of necessity, by the lure of opportunity and by the reach of our vision. Of these, vision seems historically the weakest.

Affluent societies often seem more moral (humane, compassionate, inclusive, egalitarian) than less affluent societies because they can afford to be. But are they more humane for their affluence than other societies? That one's hit and miss, I feel.

Higgins
07-14-2008, 05:28 PM
Catullus and Horace are likely my two favorites--and both had profound effect on English poetry.

But there's something about a culture that has door knockers and lamps and various other sorts of house hold implements decorated with erect phalli . . .

Aren't those phalli supposed to be protective? They sort of are on garden
Herms, right?

Medievalist
07-14-2008, 05:45 PM
Aren't those phalli supposed to be protective? They sort of are on garden
Herms, right?

They are protective, lucky, and fecund :D

Ruv Draba
07-17-2008, 05:30 AM
They are protective, lucky, and fecund They can also make amusing puppets in public performances (http://www.puppetryofthepenis.com/) - an art-form that I suspect the Romans didn't have - but I couldn't swear to that.

I don't think we're in any position to giggle at phallic engravings in roadways here.

Higgins
07-17-2008, 05:32 PM
I'm the one who thinks we can't really know squat about it. Post-modernism and all.

Seems odd to see Post-modernism summed up as epistemological nihilism,
especially since self-consciously pomo approaches are about the only way
of getting at certain aspects of classical art...as my old doppleganger used to say:

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=60414

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=64279

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=78744

http://www.absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=62824

ColoradoGuy
07-17-2008, 07:34 PM
Um . . . I was joking with Rob. We do that from time to time.

Higgins
07-17-2008, 07:58 PM
Um . . . I was joking with Rob. We do that from time to time.

I see. I'm shocked at the possibility of humor in the face of epistemological nihilism.

Higgins
07-17-2008, 10:48 PM
hehe, yes, I'd love to see some of these vapid celebs take a quick trip to the 5th century. Barbarians pounding at the gates and not an Ipod or cop in sight...

Yikes! Which 5th century did you go to? I have a friend who was
obsessed with Claudian. So we left the ipods and hired a few
Alans (the sleek barbarians, not the average dudes with the fur hats) and went to hang out with him at the Imperial Court. Of course we had to leave in 404, but we had a good time in 403.

gaetano catelli
12-02-2011, 11:09 AM
I disagree. More often than not, it's a function of opportunity. People STILL DO practice slavery. People STILL DO hurt others for amusement. But a more egalitarian view of citizenship--in most parts of the world--means that laws protect more people. As to pornography, you're kidding, right?

And not all Romans did these things. Far from it, actually.

I'm not sure why this is a difficult thing to accept. People are still people. They are still as fully capable of doing anything today that they were in ancient times, be it atrocity or charity.

i have no doubt that gladiatorial games would still be wildly popular the world over if we had not evolved superior social controls since ancient Roman times.

gaetano catelli
12-02-2011, 11:26 AM
Errr . . . well, in some ways, they were less interested, I think. It meant, to them, sexual service advertisements. It wasn't so much a forbidden thing.

Yes, there were "dirty books," and while we don't have many of them, we do know that there was a market for "exotic" sex books from the east, mostly because of references in letters, and the odd allusion here and there about some one's taste in reading.

But here's the thing.

There's clearly a different take on sex in most of the classical world, for most of the history we have texts/images for . . . for one thing, the words they use to talk about sex suggest a different set of concepts and values.

They don't talk about a man being a "fag," or whatever negative term you want to use for men having sex with other men -- they refer only to the "passive" or "submissive" partner in derogatory terms.

All the sexual insults re: odd sex have to do with men behaving in what was seen as a "passive" or feminine role.

That's just one aspect . . .

i realize this has been a fashionable viewpoint in academic circles for some time now. fwiw, i take the opposite view in my forthcoming book, which is briefly described in post #42 at this link: http://absolutewrite.com/forums/showthread.php?t=217307&page=2

CACTUSWENDY
12-02-2011, 11:50 AM
Look at the date on this thread....2008. Try not to bring old threads like this up again. (They need to die a full death.)

Rufus Coppertop
12-02-2011, 07:13 PM
apparently a carving on a Roman victory column of a soldier tearing a child from his captive mother's arms was meant "as a joke." Boy, those Romans were tough.

According to Beard's review/essay, it was a German archaeologist in the late nineteenth century, who assumed that the image was intended as a joke.

Granted that the Romans had different sensibilities to our own and that their senses of humour could be pretty damned sanguine, it's still difficult to see where they could possibly impute hilarity to this image.

http://www.stoa.org/trajan/images/hi/3.41.h.jpg

Looking at the context in which the particular image appears, it's frankly baffling that anyone would assume it to be anything other than a depiction of one type of incident among many other types of incidents in a visual history with propaganda value.

ColoradoGuy
12-03-2011, 05:25 AM
Look at the date on this thread....2008. Try not to bring old threads like this up again. (They need to die a full death.)

It's fine with me if folks want to chat about this again -- I find it interesting. It's not as if this is such a busy forum, after all.

gaetano catelli
12-03-2011, 11:19 AM
[A]ncient Rome is a world virtually identical to ours, save for details of no [I]essential consequence to the understanding of Catullus. What distinguishes ancient Rome from today’s world, as pertains to Catullan studies, is that because, then as now, power tends to corrupt and absolute power tends to corrupt absolutely, powerful ancient Romans engaged in extremes of sex, violence, and exploitation that shock contemporary sensibilities. But, these differences are quantitative, not qualitative.


Catullus today might be more likely to use an iPad than its precursor the codicillus (an erasable wax tablet). Technology has changed immeasurably, yet the human heart remains a lonely hunter.

Flicka
12-03-2011, 01:45 PM
According to Beard's review/essay, it was a German archaeologist in the late nineteenth century, who assumed that the image was intended as a joke.


So you're saying it was 19th century Germans who had a twisted sense of humour? ;)

I think jokes often touch on the taboo, and since what is taboo changes over time so does the nature of our jokes, just as our curse words do (they also reflect what is shameful and taboo).

With that said, I have yet to come across a culture that doesn't giggle at toilet humour and sex.

gothicangel
12-03-2011, 03:26 PM
I'm glad this thread has been resurrected, it was before I was a member and it has been very interesting [don't see why some should dictate whether a thread should be resurrected or not, it's actually encouraged - just look at the duplicates in BWQ!]

I disagree with the assumption that the image was a 'joke.' More spoils of war, perhaps? Nothing unusual for a enslaved woman to have a child removed, especially if the child was male.

I visited the site of Trimontium [Scottish Borders] this summer, and went on a fantastic guided tour. There is a small ampitheatre, and our tour guide made this comparison: 'The games to a legionary, where what football is to a squaddie.]

QuantumIguana
01-19-2012, 09:02 PM
I don't think the average Roman would have thought that taking a child from its mother's arms funny, but there is a sort of laughter at cruelty that isn't exactly humor. You see it with rather deranged people who for some reason enjoy torturing animals. You also see it when mobs engage in groupthink. There were people in the Japanese army during WWII who participated in atrocities, who were not cruel people before or after the war. They weren't ordered to commit these acts, it was just what everyone else was doing, and it can be very hard for people to resist the mob, especially when there is no other group saying "no". I find especially admirable those who can say "no" in the face of everyone else saying "yes".

Lucas
02-17-2012, 04:49 AM
I've just been reading an interesting review/essay by Mary Beard in the most recent New York Review of Books called "Isn't it funny?" (http://www.nybooks.com/articles/21616) The piece reviews a couple of new books about humor through the ages, both written and iconographic. I think everyone agrees that what we think is funny is hugely determined by culture, but Beard gives quite an example of that: apparently a carving on a Roman victory column of a soldier tearing a child from his captive mother's arms was meant "as a joke." Boy, those Romans were tough.


Well, I am sure the American soldiers in Afghanistan who pissed on dead Afghans and took photos of the happy occasion thought it was fun.

Soldier humour tend to be similar between cultures (though America is pretty much what Rome would have been would they have modern technology).