Cover image for Controlling laughter : political humor in the late Roman Republic
Controlling laughter : political humor in the late Roman Republic
Corbeill, Anthony, 1960-
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Publication Information:
Princeton, N.J. : Princeton University Press, [1996]

Physical Description:
x, 251 pages ; 25 cm
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DG82 .C67 1996 Adult Non-Fiction Non-Fiction Area

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Although numerous scholars have studied Late Republican humor, this is the first book to examine its social and political context. Anthony Corbeill maintains that political abuse exercised real powers of persuasion over Roman audiences and he demonstrates how public humor both creates and enforces a society's norms.

Previous scholarship has offered two explanations for why abusive language proliferated in Roman oratory. The first asserts that public rhetoric, filled with extravagant lies, was unconstrained by strictures of propriety. The second contends that invective represents an artifice borrowed from the Greeks. After a fresh reading of all extant literary works from the period, Corbeill concludes that the topics exploited in political invective arise from biases already present in Roman society. The author assesses evidence outside political discourse--from prayer ritual to philosophical speculation to physiognomic texts--in order to locate independently the biases in Roman society that enabled an orator's jokes to persuade. Within each instance of abusive humor--a name pun, for example, or the mockery of a physical deformity--resided values and preconceptions that were essential to the way a Roman citizen of the Late Republic defined himself in relation to his community.

Originally published in 1996.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Reviews 1

Choice Review

History, philology, onomastics, and anthropology come together in this remarkable work. It starts from a Freudian premise: an opponent can be diminished by humor "to which the third person, who has made no efforts, bears witness by his laughter." But the "third person" can be a construct, a representative of the views and values of the society as a whole. And so Corbeill does two things no one has done before: he takes the gibes and jokes of Cicero et al. seriously, and he uses them as a guide to essential features of Roman culture. His argument is supported by an analysis of Roman cognomens, most of which are pejorative, e.g., Brutus=Stupid. It is astonishing that this aspect of Roman culture has never been studied, not even by I. Kajanto in The Latin Cognomina (Helsinki, 1965). Other chapters examine the genre of invective, and attacks on appearance, effeminacy, and feasting. The Second Philippic, already much admired in antiquity, emerges as the great document of these values. Originality and lucidity recommend the book, and an exhaustive index of sources increases its usefulness. All students of Cicero and the Late Republic will learn much from this fine work. Highly recommended. R. I. Frank University of California, Irvine

Table of Contents

Introductionp. 3
Ch. 1 Physical Peculiaritiesp. 14
Ch. 2 Names and Cognominap. 57
Ch. 3 Moral Appearance in Action: Mouthsp. 99
Ch. 4 Moral Appearance in Action: Effeminacyp. 128
Ch. 5 A Political History of Witp. 174
Works Citedp. 219
Index Locorum et Iocorump. 233
General Indexp. 247