Version classiqueVersion mobile

Le pouvoir des bons mots

Pascal Montlahuc


Professor Robert Morstein-Marx

Texte intégral

1Why were Roman politicians so funny? Politicians of our day seem to be funny mostly by accident. Modern tele-democracies appear to be an unfavorable environment for the kind of face-to-face demonstration of wit and verbal dexterity that flourished in the classical city-states and urban Rome in particular. What was it about the political culture of Rome that nurtured this flourishing of urbanitas and caustic mockery not just in the age of Cicero – ‘the funniest man in Rome, ’ as Antony Corbeill has called him – but for more than a century before and after?

2Pascal Montlahuc’s book, the revision of his dissertation directed by J.-P. Guilhembet and M.-Cl. Ferriès at Université Paris Diderot/ USPC, takes us a long way toward answering that question. Since the publication in 1996 of A. Corbeill’s seminal book Controlling Laughter, Roman humor and laughter have attracted the attention of a number of discerning scholars. Like Corbeill, Dr Montlahuc keeps the focus on political humor, but what distinguishes the present work fundamentally from other studies is the widening of scope to 300-plus years of Roman history while looking across the full range of its contexts – popular assemblies, the august council of the Senate, the lawcourts, but also ‘the street’ with its triumphal chants, graffiti, and so on. In doing so, the book reaches beyond the ‘traditional’ political life of deliberative and forensic debate (la politique) to the socio-political mechanisms of the entire Roman city (le politique). To broaden the scope of the study accordingly, and to control the ‘Cicero-centrism’ that otherwise tends to dominate, Dr Montlahuc assembled a large corpus of 478 individual cases which reaches beyond the familiar sources (especially Cicero and Quintilian) to include a preponderance of material from authors not frequently mined for such material, including the biographers Plutarch and Suetonius, the historian Cassius Dio, and a series of others from Valerius Maximus to Macrobius. The result in this volume is perhaps the first history of Roman political humor which traces its evolution through time in response to radically changing conditions as the res publica passed through the crisis of the ‘Roman Revolution’ to the emergence of a quasi-autocratic state.

3It stands to reason that an evolution in the character of Roman political humor took place as the high-stakes competition of political actors before the judging audience of the Roman People that marks the Republic gave way to a stage dominated by the single figure of a Princeps usually disposed to prove himself ciuilis, and therefore to some extent obliged to laugh and – within limits – to be laughed at. But here this grand narrative is properly tempered by a healthy skepticism toward generalizing and essentializing theory. As a historian, Dr Montlahuc attends scrupulously to the unique and highly variable circumstances of occasion, audience, and political context in play in his plethora of examples. One intriguing and important result is to qualify heavily the ‘controlling, ’ policing, and exclusionary function of Roman political humor that has received so much attention since Corbeill’s book. Dr Montlahuc shines a light on the at least equally frequent phenomenon of ‘bottom-up’ mockery of the powerful by their social and political ‘inferiors’ – the kind of laughter that George Orwell so memorably described in his famous essay on shooting an elephant in colonial Burma (‘My whole life, every white man’s life in the East, was one long struggle not to be laughed at.’).

4Another important step is to deconstruct the overdrawn and rather simplistic dichotomy favored in senatorial sources between the ‘good’ emperors who tolerated humor at their own expense, or at that of others of high rank, and the ‘tyrants’ who did not. The ‘good’ (or relatively good) emperors Augustus and Vespasian both turned to repression when their authority seemed in some way actually challenged, while the ‘tyrants’ Caligula and Nero also exploited ‘levelling’ and anti-aristocratic humor to strengthen their bonds with the people. Thus emperors responded to and used humor in ways as various as their own political circumstances, the agent or target, the audience, and the occasion. The phenomenon evades overarching theory yet testifies to the continued importance of political humor, now in modulating the peculiar ‘inaccessible accessibility’ of the Princeps in an oscillating relationship of nearness to, and distance from, both the aristocracy and the plebs.

5As naturally follows from his emphasis on context and circumstance, the story Dr Montlahuc tells is a complex and contingent one. Yet it is still possible for him to trace out a large narrative arc across the late Republic, the Caesarian/triumviral period, and finally the early Principate as changed political circumstances alter the dynamics from a competition in wit and raillery among members of the elite before a judging citizen-audience to a carefully modulated performance of toleration or ‘Jovial’ wit by a single, dominant figure, who had increasingly become the target of caustic mockery ‘from below’ launched from the shadows of anonymity.

6This is an ambitious and groundbreaking book. Dr Montlahuc, his advisors, and the École française de Rome all deserve congratulation on its publication. Students of Roman humor and Roman history, especially political culture, will learn much from it, and it will doubtless serve as the starting point for future advances.


University of California Santa Barbara

© Publications de l’École française de Rome, 2019

Licence OpenEdition Books

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search