Corbeill – Political Humor In The Late Roman Republic Anthony Corbeill. Controlling Laughter: Political Humor in the Late Roman Republic. Anthony Corbeill is an Associate Professor of Classics, and holds a degree in Classical Languages and Literature from the University of Michigan and the University of California, Berkeley. Professor Corbeill teaches Greek and Latin at all levels, Roman Civlilization, and Greek and Roman Mythology. He is a member of the American Philological Association, the American Classical League, and the Society of Fellows of the American Academy in Rome. Controlling Laughter is a well-organized study which utilizes an original approach to a significant topic.
Corbeill categorizes the uses of humorous invective in the political speeches of Cicero and then argues that the efficacy of these jibes depended on certain attitudes and biases found in Roman society during the Late Republic. This book fits within the minor recrudescence of original work on Ciceronian oratory, a well-trodden subject that might seem to have exhausted its scholarly potential long ago. A number of recent works, however, have found fresh material by moving away from strictly textual analysis and focusing on more performative aspects of Roman rhetoric and on how orators such as Cicero may have appealed to contemporary audiences. These speeches were, after all, originally meant to be delivered as public performances, not merely read. Corbeill organizes his book around four broad categories of verbal abuse found in Cicero’s speeches: mockery of physical peculiarities, jokes about names, and insults focusing on the mouth and on effeminate behavior.
A final chapter briefly considers other Late Republican politicians’ attitudes towards humor. Chapter 1, Physical Peculiarities, is based on Corbeill’s interpretation of the Roman willingness to equate physical abnormalities with moral deficiency. In his theoretical works Cicero argues that a man’s appearance is a reflection of his character and that nature provides these deformities as warnings. Such attitudes are perhaps not surprising in a society where deformed babies could be exposed, and disfigured people barred from holding office. If an opponent of Cicero was unfortunate enough to bear any unpleasant physical abnormality, it quickly became the object of a storm of insults and jokes.
The most notable example of this concerns Publius Vatinius, who suffered from some nasty pustular facial swellings. Corbeill nicely illustrates how Cicero exploits these swellings so that they nearly become the focus of Cicero’s oration and inspire his use of metaphorical language even when he is not directly describing them. Chapter 2, Names and Cognomina, turns to one of the peculiarities of Roman society, that members of certain office-holding families in Rome possessed a third name, the cognomen, which often were physical descriptions. Some of the more obvious examples of this include: Strabo cross-eyed, Verrucosus warty, Caesar hairy, Clodius gimpy, and of course, Cicero the chickpea. As Corbeill notes, it is odd that what seems to have been a badge of distinction was frequently irreverent.
These cognomina offered fertile ground for an orator. How could Cicero not make use of the happy coincidence, for example, that at a famous trial for embezzlement and greed, the defendant was named Verres, the pig? Corbeill amply demonstrates the exploitation of such names by Cicero, and also attempts to offer some explanations for this curious Roman naming custom. Chapters 3, Moral Appearance in Action: Mouths, and 4, Moral Appearance in Action: Effeminacy, turn to the area of sexuality and to physical signifiers of immorality. The mouth was the focal point for an entire range of potentially negative activities, from drinking to sex, and therefore figures prominently in Ciceronian rhetoric. Corbeill builds on these associations by beginning Chapter 4 with a look at debauched behavior at feasts by effeminate male banqueters, and proceeds to consider effeminate behavior in general. Rhetorical jibes on these topics were focused as much on defining what was the proper appearance and behavior for an aristocrat as on identifying deviance. The final chapter, A Political History of Wit, broadens the scope of the study by attempting to trace the attitude towards political humor of other major Late Republican figures, in particular Pompey and Julius Caesar.
Most interesting in this chapter is how Corbeill charts variations in Caesar’s opinion of and tolerance for political humor as his own political fortunes wax and wane. Throughout this book, Corbeill sees humor as a tool by which politicians defined otherness. Mockery and ridicule are methods used to exclude others and to place them outside the boundaries of social norms. Laughter can be a powerful rhetorical weapon. As Corbeill points out, if you can make someone the object of laughter, you have humiliated him.
Vicious verbal attacks were a standard component of Roman political oratory, and humor was especially appealing in scoring points against an opponent because what you said about him did not necessarily have to be true to be effective, it merely had to be funny. Even when there is serious content to a comment, the witty and pointed rejoinder is far more devastating (and memorable) than a measured response. (This is as true today as in Roman times; consider, for example, the effectiveness of Lloyd Bentson’s response to Dan Quayle’s eulogizing of Jack Kennedy during a vice presidential debate: I knew Jack Kennedy — and you are no Jack Kennedy. It is not merely an effective refutation of Quayle’s statements, but, even better, belittles him personally, simultaneously provoking laughter at his expense and admiration for Bentson’s quick wit.) I found no major flaws in the book. One always has some quibbles with the interpretation of specific passages, but I would rather not distract from the main thesis of this original book by cluttering up the review with such trivia.
The title, however, does seem a bit deceptive, since the book actually is concerned with a much narrower topic than political humor in the Late Republic. First of all, the subject matter is mostly limited to jokes found within formal speeches. The sources attest that there were many additional forms of political humor aimed at prominent figures of the Late Republic, such as taunting songs, slogans, and graffiti. Secondly, the material for the book is overwhelmingly drawn from the speeches of Cicero. Cicero certainly towers over the era as both an orator and a primary source, but as Corbeill himself notes, there were many different styles of oratory, not all of which followed Ciceronian dogma. The chapter on names was so interesting that I would have liked to see the analysis pushed further to examine in even greater depth what this practice reveals about the mentality of Roman elites.
This work is a detailed study of one aspect of rhetoric at Rome, but Corbeill is clearly aware of the potential of this topic to provide insight about Roman society as a whole. As befits a work about humor, this is a witty and clever book. It begins, for example, with a quotation from Monty Python which is then used as the lead-in to a theoretical discussion about societal structure and mores. Refreshingly, although he has written a serious academic book, Corbeill does not artificially shy away from the innate humor of his subject matter and has produced that rarity, a lively and entertaining work of scholarship. Naturally, the audience for this book is primarily ancient historians, but those interested in rhetoric or humor in any era could find much of value in it, as well as a wealth of useful comparative material.