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Tacitus' Humor in Annals 13-16

Mitchell Pentzer

Emory University

            This paper argues for the recognition of distinct instances of humor in Tacitus’ account of Nero’s reign, Annals 13-16, and explains their function in the historiographer’s program. Though modern scholarship has traditionally regarded the historian as a more somber representative of an already-serious genre, Tacitus’ use of humor has received some attention, albeit limited and not recently. Moreover, scholars have preferred to discuss his wit rather than humor, possibly because expectations of genre as well as of scholars in the modern period suggest that humor and laughter is inappropriate. Baldwin’s 1977 “Tacitean Humor” showed the way initially, and while his article identified a number of potentially humorous passages, it did not explain how they were funny by ancient standards and or what purpose they serve in the Annals. Plass’ 1988 Wit and the Writing of History made great headway toward the latter, but likewise did not approach the former: perhaps the difficulty in articulating a Roman humor theory, a step necessary for confidently discussing what is funny to a radically different culture, led him to focus on wit, not humor or laughter. Mary Beard’s recent Laughter in Ancient Rome proposes that we are in fact capable of recognizing what was funny to Romans, largely because we have inherited many of their sensibilities, and that scholarship has much to gain by appreciating humor where we were previously reluctant to find it.

Encouraged by Beard, in this paper I sketch out a Roman humor theory to apply to the Annals by adducing the relevant portions of Cicero’s De Oratore (much of book 2) and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria (6.3). I argue that Tacitus shares their understanding of humor: for example, he recycles one of Cicero’s own jokes when introducing Poppaea Sabina, Nero’s mistress-turned-wife-turned victim: compare huic mulieri cuncta alia fuere praeter honestum animum (Ann. 13.45.1, “His woman had everything except good character”) with ridentur etiam discrepantia: ‘quid huic abest nisi res et virtus?’ (De or. 2.281, “Inconsistencies too are laughed at: ‘What doesn’t he have, besides wealth and integrity?’”). Tacitus may not have lifted and altered this directly from Cicero’s original; it may rather be evidence of a continually valid sense of humor between Cicero’s day and Tacitus’. This joke encapsulates several vital features of Tacitus’ humorous style: incongruity and the frustration of expectations, with the set-up and deflating punchline; and a loaded brevity, saying a great deal about an individual in a terse and periphrastic way. The epitome of verbal humor per Quintilian lies in clever periphrasis: et hercule omnis salse dicendi ratio in eo est, ut aliter quam est rectum verumque dicatur (Inst. 6.3.89, “And really, the entire principle of speaking amusingly consists in saying something in a way different from the direct and truthful one”); and Cicero claims the violation of expectations as the ultimate humor-generator: sed ex his omnibus nihil magis ridetur, quam quod est praeter exspectationem (De or. 2.284, “But out of all these nothing is laughed at more than that which is unexpected”). In fact, Tacitus’ otherwise serious and grim demeanor and subject matter actually enhances the humorous potential, through framing incongruity (De or. 2.289 and Inst. 6.3.25-6).

            I likewise argue for incongruity-based humor in Tacitus’ obituary of Memmius Regulus (Ann. 14.47.1) and his account of Nero’s moral decline (15.37.4). These instances destabilize readers, shaking us off our tentative interpretations into the deeper absurdity of Nero’s reign. At the same time, Tacitus implicates us in the imperial destruction of mores: as he strips away pretense to expose the irony and absurd behind the highest offices and basest of deed, he tries to make us laugh. And how dare we? In this way we can more fully understand the world Tacitus presents.  

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Livy and Tacitus

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