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Book Review


Clarke, John R. Looking at Laughter: Humor, Power, and Transgression in Roman Visual Culture, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 2007). 322 pp., $64.95.

     In this volume, John Clarke calls upon his prodigious skills as art historian and archaeologist to identify Roman (most specifically Pompeiian) sexual mores and status distinctions humorously epitomized in their works of visual art.  His interpretations flow seamlessly from other of his recent major publications—Roman Life: 100 B.C.–A.D. 200 (2007), Art in the Lives of Ordinary Romans (2003), Roman Sex (2003), and Looking at Lovemaking: Constructions of Sexuality in Roman Art, 100 B.C.–A.D. 250 (1998). The current work is divided into three parts: Visual Humor (puns, funny faces, doubletakes. . .); Social Humor (divine and human power inversions, class and race conflict); and Sexual Humor. It is lavishly illustrated and includes twenty five full-color plates thanks to publication endowments by the Ahmanson Foundation and the University of Texas at Austin. Use of an elegant, but small and delicate font for text makes reading a bit of a struggle for older eyes, however.

     Many aspects of the book—particularly its hermeneutic-historical exploration of visual humor from the perspective of those who created it—will be valuable for the teacher of world history. Humor is perhaps the most elusive and non-translatable element in any culture. There are many object lessons here which illustrate that what was funny to the Romans is not necessarily "funny" to contemporary U.S. students! This book is about laughter, but apart from a few examples of verbal humor in the first section, it isn't meant to be read for laughs.

     Clarke begins with an especially cogent summary of theories of humor, as well as examples of how Roman humor established and distinguished social status, served as a mechanism for protection against evil spirits (apotropaia), and enforced the social and moral status quo by upending norms (via Michel Bakhtin's theory of humor as carnival and transgression). He does not very clearly delimit his use of the term "Roman," however.

     Clarke suggests that superiority theories are of special relevance to Roman humor, and many examples throughout the book could provide excellent points of departure for a classroom discussion of political correctness in a global society. Such theories, he says, "focus on how humor and laughter elevate the appearance or the actions of one individual over those of another and generate amusement at the misfortunes of others, especially individuals who are malformed or act the clown." (4) Bald men are laughed at, as are people with big noses. In the Roman world, one's outer appearance is a mirror of what is inside. Ugly people deserve to be laughed at.

     Also useful will be Clarke's discussion of the location and positioning of wall art, statues, and other visual art—in particular, the posting of humorous artwork in places of transition (e.g. in between neighborhoods, where evil spirits of jealousy may lurk) where laughter can both ease the mind and ward off the effects of whatever evil is present.

     A school board would be unlikely to laugh at the introduction of the book itself into the classroom, however. Its illustrations range from a sculpture of male genitalia over a bread oven (that it may rise!) to cunnilingus on the wall of a bath house. The book's cover art depicts a boatload of "deformed" pygmies sailing a vessel whose prow is a spritzing penis. Clarke's premise that Roman humor requires visual inversion of norms pretty much requires explicit visual examples—though one might argue that his somewhat narrow focus on sex and defecation excludes other sources of laughter.

     In one memorable example from an extravagantly painted group toilet, portraits of great men (such as Thales) wax philosophical about how to fart silently and strain effectively. Below them, real men sit on latrines and talk. The social order is inverted by common conversation. In another example, Clarke works backward into a picture of tavern goers and their mores from illustrations on the tavern's walls. His interpretation suggests that the dress, gestures, and speech bubbles of the painted characters represent sexual behaviors that were forbidden and were therefore funny because no one would dream of doing these things.

     The book's examples of verbal humor could be used in the classroom with discretion. Clarke uses translations from the Latin (cunt, shitter, fucker, licker) throughout the book to show how verbal sexual and defecatory humor pervades the political, and much of it is linguistically subtle and full of rich puns. Some really are clever and awfully funny. Buyer beware.  

     Clarke's overall method is to reduce his investigations and interpretations to four variables: Who is the patron (i.e., who pays the artist)? Who is the artist? How is the viewer addressed? Who is the viewer? Clarke's archaeological skills are essential to the task, and he is extremely knowledgeable about where paintings and sculptures were originally placed (particularly in Pompeii) and what might have been placed next to them, or around the corner. By exploring the placement of different styles of fresco within homes, for example—whether a particular piece is visible to the general or only more intimate visitor—he is able to propose previously unidentified (and funny) inversions of meaning. He sits at the top of an outdoor theatre to see (and hear) as a patron might have. He concludes that dialogue is relatively unimportant (it can't be heard, anyway) and that the funny storyline is pretty clear just through the gesturing of whatever collection of familiar characters in standardized exaggerated mask-faces appears on stage.

     Clarke very helpfully includes Julius Pollux of Naucratis' catalogue-chart (Omasticon) which describes 44 stylized humorous mask faces of characters who would have been stereotypically familiar to Roman audiences. Making and discussing these masks could be an excellent student exercise to help develop a better sense of what "Roman" meant. A weakness in the book is that a reader could come away with the sense that "Roman" is epitomized by Caesar's graciousness in smiling upon depictions of his baldness, the destruction of Pompeii, hypersexual humor at every life intersection, and a kind of circus-like visual poking of fun at laughably "deformed pygmies" and giant Ethiopes of the Nile with foot-long penises. Augustus' victory over Mark Antony is mentioned, but without context. Little context is given for the reader to grasp just what the "liberation" of women in Roman culture actually entailed.

     World history teachers may question Clarke's interpretations of the pastoral and sexual scenes along the Nile. The issue of steatopygy and large sexual organs is not adequately discussed, but rather an assumption made that artworks depict individuals who are "deformed" and laughable. In other cases, riverene scenes that Clarke determines "laughable" can also be interpreted as Egyptian representations of astronomical information. Many of these animals and humans can be found on the circular zodiac at Dendera in Egypt, which was constructed during the period the book covers. It seems not unlikely that illustrations from that ceiling may have been brought back to Pompeii as the visual equivalent of explorers' fabulous tales. One could also take exception with Clarke's treatment of the "dog-ape" as laughable. He does mention the existence of the Cynosure (Dog-Ape) as Thoth (Egyptian deity of wisdom), but does not place it in the context of astronomy where it has special significance in relation to Orion and Sirius (the dog star).

     Clarke makes the important distinction that seeing is not innocent. We see with culture- and experience-bound eyes. Sexuality is Clarke's most refined lens, and sometimes he may push it farther than readers might find convincing. Is the wooden cow on wheels that Daedalus presents to Pasiphae only funny because she so laughably, and inappropriately, desires a bull? Is it also funny because it plays on the Trojan horse? In this instance, we don't have enough knowledge of the everyday stories and mythologies of the Romans/Pompeiians to be able to make such a judgment. Clarke knows his subject, however, and his exhaustive studies of art and its physical contexts provide wonderful support for his fresh and open-minded approach to sexuality and laughter in particular.


Bethe Hagens, Ph.D.
Goddard College, Individualized Bachelor of Arts
Walden University, School of Public Policy and Administration


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