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Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250

October 2010 (114.4)

Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250

By John R. Clarke. Pp. xi + 322, b&w figs. 119, color pls. 24. University of California Press, Berkeley 2008. $55. ISBN 978-0-520-23733-9 (cloth).


Clarke's study of humor in Roman visual representation descends in a clear intellectual lineage from his earlier studies, Looking at Lovemaking (Berkeley 1998), Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans (Berkeley 2003), and Roman Sex (New York 2003). The current book pursues some favorite Clarkeian themes—sexual images, paintings from taverns, and representations of pygmies, among other things—discussed from other points of view in these earlier works. In this case, he examines what Romans (of whatever sex or social status) laughed at and the purpose or result of evoking such laughter. The topic is treacherous, as humor and laughter are intensely culturally specific and do not travel well. Yet Clarke consistently makes a good fist of explaining what is funny about this or that image, from a Roman point of view, and in accounting for why the resulting laughter matters.

Clarke begins by probing the (vast) modern theoretical apparatus on laughter and humor. He selects two approaches as particularly suited to his project: W.H. Martineau's theory of laughter as a device for consolidating and delineating social groupings, and Mikhail Bakhtin's idea of the carnivalesque, where laughter is evoked by inversions of normal social and moral hierarchies. Thus, the laughter that Clarke investigates—the kind to which his chosen theoretical apparatus gives him access—is of a specifically social type, getting its traction on matters of status, group identity, and social incongruity. Not all laughter fits this profile: puns, for example, do not typically leverage the social to arouse laughter or groans. But Clarke's apparatus covers a lot of ground and provides him a solid basis for analyzing and explicating the humorous dimension (sometimes unsuspected) of a wide variety of Roman images. It also requires him to undertake a great deal of cultural spadework. He must identify and explicate the social structures, practices, norms, beliefs, and expectations—which themselves vary from one social group to another and over time—that provide the frameworks and preconditions for this kind of laughter.

The book's main exposition falls into three parts, each containing several chapters. Part 1, "Visual Humor," in some ways provides the book's master trope, for it introduces the principal situations—further explored in later sections—in which Roman visual imagery evokes laughter. Inversions of accepted values get their first mise-en-scène with a comparison of comic masks and ancestral portraiture, which may have coexisted in the decoration of the atrium of the House of the Theatrical Pictures in Pompeii. Callers to this house may have perceived a laughable ethical disjunction in such juxtaposed faces, which coded and symbolized divergent values. (I confess to having found this discussion somewhat incoherent.)

Viewers' expectations are also humorously overturned when, on entering a house, they are confronted with painted or mosaic guard dogs in the vestibule, or a trompe l'oeil "unswept floor" mosaic in a dining room. The latter may provide a humorous prediction of the mess to come or perhaps serve as a kind of game board for the dinner guests, as Clarke brilliantly suggests (e.g., a guest might put the real mussel shell on the mosaic mussel shell, in a Roman form of kottabos). A major theme of the book is introduced next: apotropaic laughter evoked to ward off demons or the Evil Eye. Tombs, latrines, baths, and other places where people might be exposed to evil or invidious viewing were especially prone to be protected by images of macrophallic pygmies, taboo sexual couplings, or the like. The very incongruity of these images arouses laughter that distracts the evil gaze and wards off the harm it threatens.

Part 2, "Social Humor," opens with Nilotic scenes, examining the extent to which they function as pure scenery, as colonial othering, and/or as laughter-inducing apotropaia. The particular functions of such images, Clarke reasonably concludes, vary contextually. A chapter on tavern paintings follows, with discussion of the history of scholarly interpretation of certain controversial images. Again, Clarke stresses the need to restore images to their programmatic, architectural, and functional contexts: only then can we make informed conjectures about the sex and status of the actual or intended viewers, the starting points for interpretation. Clarke then turns to parodic mythological images from both elite and nonelite viewing contexts. He discusses the political and ideological implications of laughing at images and themes that, when presented nonparodically, were likely regarded as serious, even venerable.

Part 3, "Sexual Humor," examines a wide variety of images, in various media, in which the sexual activities of gods or humans are depicted in ways that seem intended to arouse laughter. For me, these chapters are the high point: Clarke is at his best when talking about sex—or rather, about the ramifications of depicting sexual activity or sexual organs in particular ways. Clarke's interpretations of images of Hercules enslaved to Omphale (involving a laughable gender and social inversion), and of images of Priapus that function both as objects of veneration and as apotropaia, are tours de force. Likewise, he contributes something new to the long and rather fruitless debate about cinaedi, men who like being penetrated by other men (do they or do they not constitute a gay subculture?) with compelling interpretations of the remarkable sexual threesomes and foursomes that decorate the changing room of the Suburban Baths in Pompeii. These images are apotropaic in context, but the laughter they evoke depends on a distinctively Roman interpretation of the social positions and sexual identities of the represented figures.

Humor in the Roman world is an extremely difficult topic in need of modern treatment. This book joins Corbeill's Controlling Laughter (Princeton 1996) as a valuable probe, necessarily highly selective, into this huge and complex field. Mary Beard's 2008 Sather Lectures at the University of California, Berkeley, when they appear in print, promise to be a comparable effort. Like Clarke's other books from the University of California Press, this book will be most easily read by scholars, though it seeks (with mixed success) to be accessible to nonspecialists. It is beautifully produced; I could only wish that images of friezes (e.g., pls. 3, 7, 8, 12) had been printed vertically on the page for greater size and legibility. Some editing glitches are mildly distracting, but only once did I really struggle: at page 102, I could not see how the description of plate 6 relates to the image.

Matthew Roller
Department of Classics
Johns Hopkins University
Baltimore, Maryland 21218

Book Review of Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250, by John R. Clarke

Reviewed by Matthew Roller

American Journal of Archaeology Vol. 114, No. 4 (October 2010)

Published online at

DOI: 10.3764/ajaonline1144.MRoller

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