Category Archives: Culture[post_grid id="10031"]
Written by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
The importance of rituals and temples in the ancient world are hard to clearly differentiate from worship. At first glance this might seen a little odd to the modern reader. These days, it seems perfectly normal for a disinterested secularist to wander around the great cathedrals of the world drinking in their beauty and splendor; they might even fully participate in the festive period–from caroling and dancing to donating to Goodwill.
That it’s harder to imagine this disconnect between worship and ritual in the ancient world is, in a way, quite convenient… as it’s also much harder to analyze due to a lack of source material.
That said, there are some writers who occasionally give us a glimpse into what was in men’s souls.
For example, Polybius wrote:
“The quality in which the Roman commonwealth is most distinctly superior is in my opinion the nature of their religious convictions… These matters are clothed in such pomp and introduced to such an extent into their public and private life that nothing could exceed it, a fact which will surprise many… It is a course which perhaps would not have been necessary had it been possible to form a state composed of wise men, but as every multitude is fickle, full of lawless desires, unreasoned passion, and violent anger, the multitude must be held in by invisible terrors and suchlike pageantry”.
Here, the historian seems to confirm that the vast majority of common/uneducated Romans engaged in ritual practice with a high level of credulity and were not merely going through the motions when it came to showing devotion to the gods on days of ritual worship.
About 250 years prior to this, Socrates, as reported in Plato’s series of dialogues which make up The Last Days of Socrates, stated that the gods aren’t really the ferocious characters we portray them as and are much more akin to a post-Enlightenment Christian idea of god i.e. some form of ethereal ‘good’ or ‘love’.
Indeed, the philosopher even implies that this was a widespread belief—or at least idea—in Classical Athens. Assuming this to be true, it would seem antithetical to believe people would really sacrifice a calf to Poseidon in the hope of a safe sea voyage, but in fact did so instead out of habit or respect for ritual traditions.
Of course it’s worth noting that despite this interesting hypothesis, in 399 BC Socrates was executed for giving air to such seditious thoughts.
Regardless of what was truly believed, it does seem that, throughout human civilization, ritual has often come to supersede the purpose for which it was originally performed (again, Christmas comes to the forefront of one’s mind).
Whilst temples were often used by Greek city-states to show off their own splendor or to ‘one-up’ their neighbors (the Parthenon and the temple of Zeus at Olympia for instance), their primary religious function was as a place around which—though not actually in which—rituals took place.
In the words of Classical scholar Richard Allen Tomlinson, temples were primarily the “house of the god whose image it contained, usually placed so that at the annual festival it could watch through the open door the burning of the sacrifice at the altar which stood outside”.
Accordingly, we can state that temples’ primary function was facilitating the rite of animal sacrifice (or/and vice versa). And it is such rites—i.e., individual acts of worship or devotion—that go together to make up a ritual.
If this all feels a little bit vague and unclear then… well done, you are getting the grasp of ancient ritual perfectly – the definition of ritual amongst sociologists is hotly debated even to this day.
According to Fritz Graf (the distinguished Classicist, not the former NFL referee): “ritual is an activity whose imminent practical aim has become secondary, replaced by the aim of communication…form and meaning of ritual are determined by tradition; they are malleable according to the needs of any present situation, as long as the performers understand them as being traditional”.
Our old friend, Lack of Source Material, is problematic for one wishing to delve deeply into ritual in antiquity because, as is intuitively obvious, there was no need to chronicle the repetitive, humdrum rituals of daily life.
What was much more noteworthy was when ritual strayed from the beaten path; such instances, however, usually generate more questions than answers. Moreover, the key vehicle for acquired ritual wisdom in Greece and Rome was oral and not written tradition.
(The so-called ‘magical papyri’ uncovered in Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries are commonly considered to be the exception that proves this rule.)
As already mentioned, perhaps the most important (or, at least, most dominant) rite of ancient ritual was animal sacrifice. Though it was not unknown to immolate an entire animal for the benefit of an esteemed deity, to destroy a precious beast of the field was wasteful in the extreme.
Whilst it seems the sacrifice itself – a life taken and blood spilt – was sufficient to satisfy most, an immolation of the choices cuts would likely have been enough of a respectful gesture for even the most pious observer.
Echoes of this practice still exist in mainstream modern monotheism, both literally (the process of halal sacrifice) and symbolically (Christian Eucharist).
Obviously, it would not have been expedient for an average citizen to sacrifice an animal any more precious than a chicken, so the slaying of sheep, goats and, if the occasion were grand enough, cows became a communal and festive ritual act.
Indeed, one simple reason for why so many people looked forward to days of ritual sacrifice was because of the feasting (and drinking) that would accompany it.
This is not to say that individuals of moderate or meagre wealth did not sacrifice; however, they were more likely to offer cakes, grains and fruit or to pour libations of wine, milk or oil.
Again, modern parallels abound—many devotees of Buddhism daily adorn their altars with flowers, rice, water and, increasingly, sugary soda drinks. Likewise, Catholic altars throughout Central and South America are equipped with regular contributions.
Another common, important type of ritual documented in antiquity were those to remove ‘pollution’ i.e. the invisible, though very real, consequences of the traumatic extremes of the human experience such as birth, death, murder, madness, sickness, cannibalism, incest, and blasphemy.
There is also a variety of initiation rituals that are, mostly, not only unknown, but unknowable. The most beguiling, horrific and vivid image of such a rite is rumored to be part of the cult of Mithras (a deity with many aspects in common with Jesus Christ) in which the initiate stood beneath a wooden lattice upon which a bull was sacrificed and the blood of the animal washed over them. However, this macabre baptism does not have enough corroborative evidence to be taken without a pinch of salt.
Regardless of the cause or practice of ritual in the ancient world, it is undeniable that it played a hugely significant part both in day-to-day life, and, more importantly, in the fate of how history came to be governed.
Specifically, it was manipulated by dictators and tyrants to legitimize and underpin their reign.
Indeed, it is very difficult to imagine that Augustus, the man who wrenched the façade of democracy out of the cavity of the Roman Empire could have prospered as he did without manipulating ritual so brilliantly and cynically (the funeral of Julius Caesar, the imagery on the Ara Pacis, his mausoleum, his abode on the Palatine Hill…the list seems inexhaustible).
The fact that ritual underpinned the authority of the Roman emperors is why, when Christians flouted such observances, they were not merely rejecting the gods of old, but the very authority of the supreme ruler himself.
And it was this monumental clash of religions and rituals that brought about not only the dissipation of the ultimate authority of the emperor, but an irreconcilable and irreversible revolution in the history of the European people.
Written by Mary Naples, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
Clad in white robes and carrying torches, the dawn’s amber rays cast a golden glow on the hundreds of pious women as their procession passed through the polis. With their heads raised to the heavens, the sound of their fervent voices singing in praise of Demeter reverberated throughout the city walls. Faithfully, the people came out for them. From masons to magistrates, citizens and slaves alike packed the city streets standing elbow to elbow just to catch a glimpse of the spirited cortege as it made its way to Demeter’s sanctuary for the opening of their fertility festival–the Thesmophoria–the most highly anticipated religious festival of the year.
For as long as anyone could remember, throughout ancient Greece from the Archaic to the Hellenistic eras (800 BCE-31 BCE), citizen wives came from far and wide to gather in their cities to celebrate their annual feminine fertility festival honoring Demeter, goddess of the harvest and her daughter, Persephone, queen of the underworld. Primarily a fertility cult, in most cities the Thesmophoria ushered in the sowing season and was the largest of a series of fertility cults devoted to human as well as crop fertility.
In order to understand the Thesmophoria’s influence it is useful to examine what set it apart from other fertility festivals. The Thesmophoria was the most widespread and the oldest of all religious festivals in the Greek world, spanning from Sicily in the west to Anatolia in the east; from Macedonia in the north to North Africa in the south–in total possibly comprising as many as one-hundred cities throughout the Greek world. There is evidence that it was even celebrated during the Ptolemaic period (332 BCE-30 BCE) in ancient Egypt.
In fact, scholars believe that the Thesmophoria’s ubiquity in the region is testament to its prehistoric origins–predating not only the Iron age of ancient Greece but the Bronze age of Minoan Crete as well, possibly harking back to the the advent of agriculture itself with origins believed to be rooted in the Neolithic era.
At first glance it might seem counterintuitive that a women’s fertility festival would be given such a high priority in androcentric ancient Greece, after all women lived on the margins of society, removed from the public sphere. Could the strict demarcation of gender roles actually have served to empower women in ancient Greece?
Although typically confined to the seclusion of their domiciles, literary and archaeological sources suggest that, depending on their municipality, women in ancient Greece left their homes and families for anywhere from three to ten days in order to participate in the Thesmophoria– an occurrence of particular significance in and of itself.
For example, in some poleis such as Athens, Sparta, and Abdera the Thesmophoria was celebrated for three days, while in other cities like Pella it was celebrated for five days. At ten days, Syracuse (Sicily) celebrated it for the longest. While most poleis celebrated during sowing season in the autumn, in some poleis such as Delos and Thebes, the festival took place in the summer. Membership in the Thesmophoria was restricted to citizen wives in good standing, that is to say wives of male citizens, as women could not be citizens in ancient Greece.
The “good standing” refers to wives who were not adulterous. Unless he seduced another man’s wife, adultery for men incurred no penalties but such was not the case for the gentler sex. In Athens, if a woman was convicted of adultery, she could no longer share her husband’s oikos (house) and she was forbidden from women’s ritual events. Further, no maidens nor female slaves were allowed in the Thesmophoria.
Although responsible for the expenses related to its celebration, men were strictly prohibited from attending any portion of the event. In addition to their financial support for the Thesmophoria, men’s reverence for the cult was reflected by the cessation of certain civic functions on the second and most sacred day of the festival.
In Athens, the Boule Council—a body of five hundred who set the agenda for the democratic assembly– was unable to meet. Moreover, law courts were completely suspended and all prisoners were released from jail. Indubitably, there were other feminine festivals devoted to fertility, but none as respected as the Thesmophoria.
To appreciate the significance of a feminine only cult festival garnering esteem from the entire community–including male citizens–it is important to get a glimpse into what life was like for women in ancient Greece.
A woman’s place was in the home tending to such things as nursing children, weaving clothing and preparing food. Women were even restricted from the trivial task of marketing as it was believed that women could not manage financial transactions as complicated as purchasing fruits or vegetables. Needless to say, if a woman could not be entrusted with the simple job of making change, there was no question of giving them the vote in this newly democratized society.
Because male citizens could only be borne from citizen mothers/wives, the citizenship a wife shared with her husband was a watered down variety merely entitling her to bear his children–most importantly his sons. In her iconic book, Citizen Bacchae, Barbara Goff argues: “Women (citizen wives) had the ability to bear children who would be citizens, thus to transmit what they do not themselves possess.” (Goff. 164)
Therefore, a latent or passive sort of citizenship was the only kind doled out to the second sex. Besides passive citizenship, although women played a major role in the collective imagination of the polis, they were restricted from entering it. Even leisure activities were off-limits to them. While often represented in drama, female roles were played exclusively by males. Not only that, most scholars today believe that women were even banned from attending performances.
Dating back to Hesiod’s (8th century BCE) myth of Pandora it was imagined that women were her descendants and as such were a consequence of an unrelated act of creation. It is worth knowing that not unlike Eve and the forbidden apple, Pandora, was the first mortal woman whose action of opening a jar or pithos thrust humanity into a tailspin by releasing evil into the world.
Of Pandora, Hesiod writes: “She was sheer guile to be withstood by men.” then he adds “For from her is the deadly race and tribe of women who live amongst mortal men to their great trouble, no helpmates in hateful poverty, but only in wealth.” Truth be told, men viewed women as separate entities and compelled them, like slaves or foreigners, to remain outside the community.
In fact, the opposition between male and female was a guiding principle for the Greek world. While males begrudgingly saw women as a necessary and vital element of life, women were also considered dangerous, disagreeable, and as an entity to be excluded at all costs. This disregard is evident from the mouths of three respected Athenian males.
In his famous funeral speech, renowned Athenian statesman Pericles (495 BCE-429 BCE) bellowed: “The greatest glory of a woman is to be least talked about by men whether they are praising or criticizing you.” And according to the sage Aristotle (384 BCE- 322 BCE): “The male is by nature superior and the female inferior…the one rules and the other is ruled.”
Lastly, setting us straight on women’s roles, an Athenian politician, Apollodorus of Archarnae (394 BCE-343 BCE), blathered: “Hetairai (courtesans) we maintain for pleasure, concubines for daily care of our bodies, but wives to give us legitimate children and to be loyal guardians of our households.” In consideration of the poor opinion men had of women, how did women’s alignment with the natural world serve their better interests?
Salient to this discussion is the place agriculture had within the polis. In his book about the Peloponnesian War titled A War Like No Other, Victor Davis Hanson asserts: “…agriculture was the linchpin of all social, economic and cultural life.” The seat of Western civilization, ancient Greece gave us their genius for philosophy, literature and politics, yet contrary to this cosmopolitan image it was chiefly an agrarian society, where most of its residents worked the land. From the seventh through the fourth century BCE, farming was a commonplace occupation revered by the greater polis.
In fact, farming was so integral to ancient Greece that even the word polis (city/state) has two components to it: the city proper or its urban core such as Athens and its corresponding agricultural hinterland, which for Athens was Attica. In his Socratic dialog titled Oeconomicus, the Greek historian and philosopher, Xenophon (431 BCE -355 BCE) pronounces: “When farming goes well, all other arts go well, but when the earth is forced to lie barren, the others almost cease to exist.”
Indeed, the community’s health was contingent on a successful harvest but because the land tended to be non-arable, success or failure was often determined by factors over which they had no control, often making their lives tumultuous. But as important as a good crop was to the health of the city/state, it was not their only fertility concern. Due to their ever-expanding empire, they needed an ample supply of males to maintain their military commitments and they needed women that is to say citizen-wives to produce the much-coveted male citizens.
Is it any wonder that the Greeks had such a preoccupation with controlling fecundity, celebrating several fertility festivals throughout the year? Representing the changing seasons, most of these cult festivals were associated with Demeter, goddess of the harvest, who represented abundance in all natural things.
Their pious respect for a higher power associated with fertility allowed them a sense of control in their otherwise chaotic lives. With the exception of the Eleusinian Mysteries which included men and hence would become more renowned, membership in the fertility festivals was limited to women only.
Apropos of the Mysteries, In her opus, Prolegomena to the Study of Greek Religion, Jane Ellen Harrison proposes that the Eleusinian Mysteries issued forth from the more antiquated Thesmophoria.
Did women exploit their gender roles by accentuating their connection with the natural world? Women were the natural agents of fertility cults considered all-important in the agrarian culture of ancient Greece. Though excluded from the daily activities of life within the public square, cult activity allowed women agency with organizational processes and religious rites.
John J. Winkler, in his book The Constraints of Desire, proposes: “In a sense, the Demetrian feasts were official business of the polis, but carried out with a good deal of autonomy by women.”
Whereas the Thesmophoria was an autonomous enterprise, citizen wives were in charge of running this community, which held elections, drafted proposals, kept accounting and last but not least practiced sacred feminine ritual.
Written by Barry Ferst, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
From 125 to 450 C.E. Romans thought it fashionable to buy stone coffins in which to inter their dead. The coffin was an oblong stone box approximately six feet by three feet and three feet in height with an interior cavity for the deceased. On the front and sides, beautiful sculpture advertised the interred’s beliefs. Scholars refer to these coffins as lithos sarcophagi (Gk. lithos = stone, sarx = flesh, phagein = to eat), for as time passed, all that would remain of the deceased were teeth and bones.
In 1984, with a teaching position in philosophy secured, my wife and I embarked on the Grand Tour of Europe. After coming across a few sarcophagi, I realized that the sculpting on sarcophagi provided access into the aesthetic sensibilities and religious beliefs of the peoples of the Roman Empire. Because of our interests in Western art and Greco-Roman culture, future travels meant the search for sarcophagi.
I have driven a hundred thousand miles across four continents visiting antiquities museums, churches, baptistries, archeological sites, catacombs, art galleries, necropoleis, castles, fortresses, palaces, and villas—any place that might have what I was after.
I found sarcophagi re-used as flower boxes, water troughs, cisterns, altar tables, wall décor, and once, as corner blocks on an Ottoman fortress. Sometimes, completely by chance, I found a sarcophagus beside a parking lot or under a clutter of bushes.
Today, approximately 2,500 complete sarcophagi or front panel friezes exist. I have managed to photograph 2,000.
My travels began before digital cameras, so photos taken in museums—“No flash! No flash!”—recorded the object but not with the best of clarity. With the advent of digital, CMOS cameras, photos were greatly improved.
Like pre-Nikon digital, my first adventures relied upon the old-fashioned fold-out map. Pulling into the northeastern French city of Reims and trying to find the cathedral by map actually meant looking for the towering spires, hoping that the Abbey of St. Remy was nearby–or following Centre Ville to locate the little brown tin sign that would signal the path to the city museum.
But after such searches came the wonders of GPS. Okay, how to use the Peugeot’s GPS—there must be a manual somewhere—and how to get that woman in my dash to speak in English?
Though I like to have two sources identifying the location of a sarcophagus, sometimes the source is Baedeker-19th-century tour book that claims: “At Ajaccio on Corsica there is a Bacchus sarcophagus.”
But is there really, and better yet, just where? Is it at the Fesch Museum, the Prefecture, or the Hotel de Ville? Once a parking space was located—in Europe, this is almost as difficult as locating a sarcophagus—it was off to the Fesch, which soon revealed itself as a fine arts museum. My next attempt takes me to the Prefecture, but soldiers at the gate bar the way. In time, I learn of a side entrance for visitors with papers.
I have no papers, but every entrance has to be tried. I locate a door which opens onto a small room with two functionaries behind a glass partition. I ask, “Is there a sarcophage romain here?” and receive a “oui”, followed by “non!” Okay, that is actually progress. I explain who I am and what I need. Again, a “non” — only sterner this time — from someone rapidly transmogrifying into a vengeful Medea.
With my third attempt, hostility fills the room, and given that this is a government building I figure that I am about to get arrested. However, I see Medea saying something to an acolyte, so I sit down with a glimmer of hope, though still concerned about an impending arrest. Five minutes later, a smiling woman emerges from a doorway and says, “Please let me show you this wonderful sarcophagus we have.”
At Narbonne in southern France I meet a helpful construction foreman at Our Lady of Mourguie Church Lapidary Museum that was officially “Ferme pour Restauration”. Scaffolding, brick and wood, tools and machinery lay about, and everywhere warning signs and yellow caution tape. After a few minutes of explaining my quest, the foreman stops all work and I take my photos amid the dust and dangling electric wires.
Florence’s Uffizi Gallery forbids photography, so when I take out my Nikon I am suddenly surrounded by guards shouting “Niente foto”. With Italian limited to “dove” and “voglio”, I want to believe “Niente foto” sounds like “go ahead”, but as I raise my camera, I am swiftly corrected.
Later that afternoon, I fax a letter to the director of antiquities. By what I am sure constitutes miraculous intervention by a local patron saint — for this is Italy and “autorizzazione” could take months if not centuries — by return fax I am told to come and photograph next Monday, when the Uffizi will be closed.
I spend two hours with a museum docent and am just finishing when an ancient curator totters out with an even older key and opens a door, behind which is a dusky closet-size room containing four ornately carved sarcophagi!
The Istanbul Archeological Museum epitomizes the meaning of baksheesh (bribe, tip). I had been at the Istanbul museum twice before, and the room that held a great catch of sarcophagi was closed, but on a third visit, a guard, sensing my frustration, says he can get me in for $10. After the deal was struck, to my amazement he begins ushering museum visitors out of the hall in which we are standing and when that was done, he opens the “forbidden” door to the sarcophagi. I have ten minutes and I shoot without focusing — oops.
At the Greek port city of Thessaloniki, a guard says “no”. I insist, so he takes me to a museum official. Up a back stairway we go, and in a distant corner office sits the museum’s chief curator. After a short but pleasant conversation which results in several “no’s”, I resort to pleading. “I’ve come all the way from America…just for this museum.” However, it took, “My grandmother was forced from Smyrna by the Turks” to accomplish the task at hand.
On one trip, I follow a path through Turkey that begins at Greece’s Kipi Border Crossing Point, swings south through Aphrodisias, then along the Mediterranean coast through Antakya to Antioch.
I taxi into Syria across the Turkish border, then rent 1968 Volkswagen that I keep alive with a vise-grips pliers securing a loose carburetor screw, and drive out to Palmyra. On the roadway, small clusters of soldiers are signaling with their machine guns that I ought to give them a few dinar, providing me with enough sense of great adventure to fill my travel days forever.
Farfa Abbey just east of Rome is said to have a sarcophagus. So, at 1:10 PM on July 3, 2015, I walk into the Abbey church looking for the sarcophagus. There I am informed that I can come back at 4:00 to photograph because afternoon prayers have begun. But coming back at 4:00 means losing three hours. I need to say something, so I explain that I have to photograph now because Pope John Paul II has asked me to meet with him at 2:00. Yes, that’s a dangerous lot of chutzpah, but I get my picture.
How about this for directions for finding a sarcophagus: “South of Mirande, isolated in a field between Berdoues and Belloc, is the tiny rustic chapel of St. Clemens—the key is kept at the farmhouse opposite.”
Upon locating this field with its padlocked chapel, I start searching for the right farmhouse (which is not exactly opposite), and after thirty minutes find a tea-stained octogenarian who has the key “if only I can remember where I put it.”
But sometimes, no matter what—beg, plead, or ruse—I fail.
At France’s Narbonne Archaeological Museum, “no photos” is so strictly enforced that not only did each room have its guard, but visitors are followed by doddering oldsters who scold if you tried to go back to a previous room. This was the only one-way museum I have ever visited. Ciceronian reasoning could convince no one to allow photographs.
In the French city of Agen, the cathedral chapter house supposedly has a paleo-Christian sarcophagus. When I get there not only are the doors locked, but the locks look like they had not been opened since the Cathars were burned at the stake. I plead, but with a shrug of his shoulders the cathedral priest could just as well be saying, “Professor, I don’t think the locks has been opened since we burned the Cathars at the stake.”
One last remark. As I worked, I began feeling as though I were re-animating the Roman dead. Okay, this is eerie, but as I read Frontius’ epitaph on a coffin lid, it was as if Frontius were speaking to me.
In another sarcophagus were the bones of a little girl, dead at twelve, innocent and lovely, and so dear to her parents. As they came alive again, alive to a perfect stranger, they gained in some small measure the immortality they had so desired.
Written by Ben Potter, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
As Michael Fontaine’s latest book How to Tell a Joke: An Ancient Guide to the Art of Humor comes hot on the heels of his fascinating How to Drink: A Classical Guide to the Art of Imbibing, one might reasonably expect the Cornell professor’s next installment to be something along the lines of How to Play the Lyre to make up a student-friendly compendium entitled How to Throw an Amazing Party!
However, much like How to Drink was not a ‘how to’ guide to drunkenness (quite the opposite, in fact), How to Tell a Joke is not a step-by-step manual on the construction of clever puns nor on how to maximize your comic timing. Instead, and similarly to How to Drink, it is a guide to what sort of jokes are appropriate and, crucially, what sort of jokes are not. For ‘appropriate’ we could easily substitute the word ‘effective’ as the two treatises that make up this book, from Cicero and Quintilian, are excerpts from longer works both about how to be a top quality orator: On the Ideal Orator and The Education of the Orator, respectively.
Both men also break down the different types of jokes, why different reasons jokes are funny, and even the different consequences of humour in different scenarios. That this is all of those things and not a ‘how to’ guide on making people laugh is stressed within the closing lines of Cicero’s dialogue:
“…those who want to master jokes for public speaking need to be imbued with a certain – almost innate – sense of humour.”
In other words, no matter how much you try, some people are just not cut out to be funny!
And so, while the importance of humour is stressed in winning over an audience/jury, brushing off accusations, or generally showing everyone what a clever and witty sort of person you are, the most difficult thing for a natural funnyman is resisting telling a joke if it would be inappropriate – something Cicero seems to have had trouble doing, and something that may, in part, have cost him his life. This is perhaps why Quntillian is particularly clear on the matter of what is off-limits:
“…if someone is dangerous to offend, you’d best tease them in a way that doesn’t lead to either real hatred or to you having to issue a grovelling apology. Generalizations are another bad idea, where you attack whole groups based on ethnic identity, class, status or activities the masses enjoy. A gentleman will say what he will contingent on maintaining his dignity and self-respect. A laugh is overpriced if it comes at the cost of integrity.”
Not that Cicero was blind to the etiquette of such things:
“…comebacks are indicative of good manners, since they suggest we never would’ve said anything if we hadn’t been attacked.”
That said, one is left with the feeling that Cicero’s rules of engagement are more practical than ethical.
Though Quintilian wrote his piece some 150 years later, it is clear that he was heavily impressed and influenced by Cicero and his work. Reading both treatises back-to-back, it is surprising that it does not feel as if Quintilian is merely regurgitating what Cicero has already given us, but instead that he is making interesting commentary and expanding on the other’s ideas. This lack of deja vu is probably helped by the differing style of the two writers: Cicero writes a dialogue – what Professor Fontaine, in his introduction, compares to a film script – whilst Quintilian presents his ideas in the first person via essay.
So, I hear you say, this is all very fascinating, no doubt, but can a treatise on ‘how to be funny’ be… well, funny? Well, as E.B. White famously said: “explaining a joke is like dissecting a frog. You understand it better, but the frog dies in the process” (the quote is, inevitably, often accredited to Mark Twain). It’s almost as though Cicero and Quintilian had preempted this potential flaw – just in case anyone should have thumbed through their work, skipping over the bits on practice, pronunciation and getting your facts straight, in order to get straight to the comic part. To keep things fresh, both men feed us a steady supply of example jokes: so many, in fact, that it feels like there’s one on almost every page.
Some feel like they’ve come straight out of the mouth of Graucho Marx:
“That guy has it all – except money and redeeming qualities.”
Some titillate with a bit of light innuendo:
[A.] In your view, what kind of man gets caught in flagrante delicto?
[B.] A slow one.
“You’re about as oversexed as a eunuch.”
Dark humour rears its divisive head when someone quips, on receiving news that someone with terrible body odour has died:
“Finally! He won’t smell anymore.”
And there are even personal barbs questioning a man’s bravery. For example, when a soldier was showing off his battle wound he was mocked with:
“You should never look back when running away.”
And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.
These quips, and the smooth confidence with which they are delivered, are perfect examples of what makes Fontaine’s translation so engaging and so satisfying. What immediately strikes you about this excellent book is not its cut and thrust into the essence of mirth-making, nor its ability to make the impossible – finding humour in analysing jokes – possible, nor even its ability to effortlessly transcend two periods of Roman history. No, the chief triumph of Fontaine’s rendering is not for any of the above admirable reasons, but that the translation is so very, very contemporary.
Okay… ‘contemporary’ might not seem the most fashionable word for anyone with one eye cocked towards Greece and Rome, but the study of the Classics is one that has much more of a reputation for stuffy, seriousness than it perhaps deserves. There may be a feeling that academics would prefer to keep Aristophanes and Plautus pure rather than stress their humour, but many in the trade would dispute this. Speaking from personal experience, I remember sitting in a freshman tutorial when a well-respected professor shared his favourite joke from the Iliad:
“In his wrath sat beside his swift-faring ships, the Zeus-sprung son of Peleus, swift-footed Achilles.”
Okay, not exactly a leg-slapper! But the point is that every attendee of that tutorial seemed to think the idea that something as sophisticated, as elevated, as… sacred as the Iliad could have a joke in it was totally unimaginable.
Regardless, the way in which Fontaine translates the Latin in this text is extremely satisfying. In his own words:
“Styles of translations vary. Some are literal, other go for the gist. This one goes for the jest… I’ve wracked my brains to find equivalent words, names, puns, phrasings, and cultural counterparts to make the jokes as funny in English as they are in Latin.”
And this is done with great success. The jokes are rendered such that no specific knowledge of Latin, nor of Roman culture, society and politics is necessary to appreciate them; however, if you do possess some of the above (or are suitably curious about such things) then Fontaine’s clear and concise endnotes illuminate how and why he’s departed from the Latin to make the joke work in English.
But the translation has not merely made light work of some complex word-play in the jokes, but has fittingly used (Cicero’s excerpt is a dialogue, remember) language that sounds natural, contemporary and wholly appropriate. Indeed, what could be more appropriate in a conversation about comedy than to use terms such as ‘zinger’, ‘chutzpah’, ‘shtick’, and ‘the whole shebang’… at times it feels like you’re reading a conversation between Mel Brooks and Jackie Mason.
Whilst at other times the vocabulary successfully treads that fine line between being modern, but not trying to be ‘down with the kids’. The use of words such as ‘trigger’ and ‘sick burn’ scud along very nicely, neatly avoiding the cringe-worthy equivalent of an uncle saying ‘rad’ around teenagers.
In short, this is an excellent and enjoyable rendering of two important social and historical documents which can be enjoyed by anyone with even a passing interest, but not necessarily any specialised knowledge, in Classics.
How to Tell a Joke might not actually make you any funnier, but it will make you happier, it will make you better read, and, I’m pretty confident, it will make you laugh. And, if not, then there’s always frog soup for dinner.
You can buy “How to Tell a Joke” by Michael Fontaine here.
Written by Alexandra Hudson, Contributing Writer, Classical Wisdom
I recently visited the “Other Parthenon”—an exact replication of the Ancient Athenian Parthenon that was built in the early 1900s in Nashville, Tennessee. Like the original Parthenon, it was absolutely striking:
At Civic Renaissance, a publication I curate, we regularly reflect on the way in which the past informs our present. And this visit certainly offered lots of fodder for that. My visit caused me to reflect on how our commonly held contemporary views of education today compare to how people have thought of education in other times and places.
Today, it is far too common for people to view education as merely a means to an end. They think of it as a path to getting credentialed to the end of getting a job and earning a living. Too often, education today is associated primarily with acquiring knowledge or technical skills.
But it hasn’t always been this way.
In past eras—including in ancient Greece and Rome—education wasn’t so static or utilitarian a concept. Education was understood as soul craft. It was character formation. It was exposure to a variety of different disciplines—geometry, rhetoric, philosophy, poetry, and more—knowledge meant to orient one toward the Good and the wellbeing of family, community, and the polis, or city.
Education’s end was to promote lifelong learning and curiosity. It was an attempt to cultivate our humanity to the fullest, so that we might bring our best selves to bear on the problems of our day.
The ancient Greeks’ word for this notion of education was Paideia. (In Greek, as many of you know, Paideia looks like this: παιδεία — do recognize π from middle school math? Greek is very phonetic!)
I’m currently reading Paideia: The Ideals of Greek Culture, by 20th century German classist Werner Jaeger. First published in 1933 in German, this book is a defining work of scholarship on the concept of Paideia. Jaeger defines it as education, but also culture. This is because Paideia refers to the process of shaping a Greek’s character. It was an all-encompassing approach to religion, politics, history, and literature, all to the end of defining and embodying what it meant to be a Greek citizen.
Greek Paideia found expression in ancient Roman culture in the term humanitas, a word that meant not just education and culture, but also benevolence and love of humanity.
Eric Adler recounts a relevant anecdote in his new book Battle of the Classics, recently published by Oxford University Press. When Cicero defended his teacher, Archias, in court, he urged the judges to show mercy “in order that he may seem to have been freed by your kindness (humanitas), rather than to have been violated by your cruelty (acerbitas).”
Humanitas—the quality of being humane, showing kindness and grace to our fellow man—was both an intellectual and a practical virtue. Cicero said humanitas was cultivated through studying literature and philosophy and other disciplines—the same curricula that Archias had taught Cicero.
Such a study softened the rougher edges of our human nature, teaching those who studied its ways to pursue peace and harmony with others and avoid cruelty and violence. It also made its students free—defined by self-discipline and control of the passions— and able to enjoy the fruits of life in a Republic.
It is no accident that the studia humanitatis or “the study of humanity” ultimately came to be referred to as the artes liberales or the “liberal arts.” The study of humanity, at its core, is appropriate for the education of those who wish to be truly free—as true freedom in the classical sense began in the mind.
For Seneca, philosophy was essential to any free person’s education, because only philosophy was believed able to transmit wisdom, virtue, and kindness—essential requisites to being truly free.
Harvard intellectual historian James Hankins reminds us that humanitas was an also important concept for the humanists of the European Renaissance of the 15th century. In his fantastic essay, The Forgotten Virtue, he looks to the example of humanists such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Petrarch.
These thinkers thought that cultivating humanitas—what we might call civility today—was an essential part of education. Through the study of art, history, philosophy, and literature, the humanists instructed members of the ruling class in what conduct was praiseworthy, what was blameworthy, and what was worth emulating in their own lives and in their leadership. “The humanist theory of civility and humanitas linked civil conduct tightly with character,” Hankins writes.
Looking to how people in other times and places viewed education can help us think more clearly about our own time.
Our educational culture seems to have largely lost this vision of education. How can we revive an educational culture that cares about cultivating our humanity and benevolence to our fellow man?
How might we recover a vision of education that prioritizes a well-rounded education in the classics and the humanities, and sees education as something that cultivates our humanity and makes us truly free—one that doesn’t merely see people as units to be formed and fit into the job market?
Relatedly, how can we recover an educational culture that nourishes curiosity and promotes lifelong learning? These are good aims objectively, but as we discussed recently at Civic Renaissance, it might also go a long way to elevating our deep cultural and social divides today.
Paideia, humanitas and civility cultivate vulnerability and humility, virtues that are seem foreign in a moment that values comfort and certainty above all.
Epictetus said that the most important thing we can learn from Socrates is how to have a debate without it descending into a quarrel.
Why? Because Socrates was curious. He asked questions. He was a gadfly who pointed out hypocrisy—but he used humor and irony, not insult or brut force.
Socrates embodied the ethos of paideia, humanitas and civility when he reminds us in the Republic that our high aim in life should be to persuade those we disagree with—to turn our enemies into our friends, and to bring out the best in them. This is the sort of humanity we need today.
What do you think about paideia, humanitas, and civility? What role might they have today as we think of post-pandemic education? Please write to me. I’d love to hear from you! You can reach me directly at [email protected].
Alexandra Hudson is the Founder and Curator at Civic Renaissance, a newsletter and intellectual community for those who care about ideas and who are interested in using the wisdom of the past to help heal our divides, and revive grace and civility in our public discourse today.