Mary Beard: He-he-he! What Made the Ancient Romans Laugh?

Mary Beard is an unlikely rockstar. Her one-off lecture at the Assembly Rooms attracted one of the biggest audiences I’ve seen at this year’s Fringe, some of them showing up half an hour in advance to get a seat close to the front. There’s something comforting about the discovery that people can be this enthusiastic about queueing to hear a 59-year-old woman talk about Ancient Rome. As the UK’s foremost classicist and a regular talking head on various BBC programmes, Mary Beard has become something like the David Attenborough of ancient history.

Beard is an engaging speaker and obviously a world-class expert on the topic.

The topic of this lecture riffed on the many stand-up comedy shows throughout the city, as we learned that Roman humour was often not so very different from our own. Except the crucifixion jokes, perhaps.

Beard didn’t bother with any bells and whistles, giving us a casual run through the history of Roman jokes with the help of a simple slide show. Analysing comedy can often be a difficult topic, but she still managed to get plenty of laughs from the audience mostly inspired by terrible old Roman jokes of the so-bad-they’re-funny variety. Favoured topics in the Ancient Roman joke book included bald men, absent-minded professors, racial humor making fun of people from particular towns (an apparently universal subject throughout history), and, of course, sexist punchlines.

The message of Beard’s lecture was that jokes and laughter unite us all, but that specific brands of humour can tell us a lot about individual societies. The Romans were fascinated by jokes about the difference between dreams and reality -- and, oddly enough, jokes about numbers. One example was about a man who asked for two fifteen-year-old slaves, but was offered one thirty-year-old slave instead. Not exactly laugh-out-loud comedy by modern standards, but it still more or less makes sense, and tells us that the Romans were fond of a bit of number-based humour. Particularly if that humour included a bit of naughty subtext, such as the implied reason why a thirty-year-old slave would be far less appealing than two fifteen-year-olds.

Beard is an engaging speaker and obviously a world-class expert on the topic. I wouldn’t be surprised if she could fill that theatre several times over if she decided to come back to the fringe next year.

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The Blurb

Laughter takes us right to the heart of a civilisation. Mary Beard takes a look at Roman jokes, tickles and giggles and asks what they tell us about Roman culture, fears and anxieties.