[image ALT: Much of my site will be useless to you if you've got the images turned off!]
Bill Thayer

[image ALT: Clicca hic ad Latinam paginam legendam.]

[image ALT: Cliccare qui per una pagina di aiuto in Italiano.]

[Link to a series of help pages]
[Link to the next level up]
[Link to my homepage]

[image ALT: link to previous section]

This webpage reproduces a section of
Institutio Oratoria


published in Vol. II
of the Loeb Classical Library edition, 1920

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


[image ALT: link to next section]

(Vol. II) Quintilian
Institutio Oratoria

 p439  Book VI

Chapter 3

3 1 I now turn to a very different talent, namely that which dispels the graver emotions of the judge by exciting his laughter, frequently diverts his attention from the facts of the case, and sometimes even refreshes him and revives him when he has begun to be bored or wearied by the case. How hard it is to attain success in this connexion is shown by the cases of the two great masters of Greek and Roman oratory. 2 For many think that Demosthenes was deficient in this faculty, and that Cicero used it without discrimination. Indeed, it is impossible to suppose that Demosthenes deliberately avoided all display of humour, since his few jests are so unworthy of his other excellences that they clearly show that he lacked the power, not merely that he disliked to use it. 3 Cicero, on the other hand, was regarded as being unduly addicted to jests, not merely outside the courts, but in his actual speeches as well. Personally (though whether I am right in this view, or have been led astray by an exaggerated admiration for the prince of orators, I cannot say),  p441 I regard him as being the possessor a remarkable turn of wit. 4 For his daily speech was full of humour, while in his disputes in court and in his examination of witnesses he produced more good jests than any other, while the somewhat insipid jokes which he launches against Verres are always attributed by him to others and produced as evidence: wherefore, the more vulgar they are, the more probable is it that they are not the invention of the orator, but were current as public property. 5 I wish, however, that Tiro, or whoever it may have been that published the three books of Cicero's jests, had restricted their number and had shown more judgment in selecting than zeal in collecting them. For he would then have been less exposed to the censure of his calumniators, although the latter will, in any case, as in regard to all the manifestations of his genius, find it easier to detect superfluities than deficiencies. 6 The chief difficulty which confronts the orator in this connexion lies in the fact that sayings designed to raise a laugh are generally untrue (and falsehood always involves a certain meanness), and are often deliberately distorted, and, further, never complimentary: while the judgments formed by the audience on such jests will necessarily vary, since the effect of a jest depends not on the reason, but on an emotion which it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe. 7 For I do not think that anybody can give an adequate explanation, though many have attempted to do so, of the cause of laughter, which is excited not merely by words or deeds, but sometimes even by touch. Moreover, there is great variety in the things which raise a laugh, since we laugh not merely at those words or actions which are smart or witty, but also  p443 at those which reveal folly, anger or fear. Consequently, the cause of laughter is uncertain, since laughter is never far removed from derision. 8 For, as Cicero36 says, "Laughter has its basis in some kind or other of deformity or ugliness," and whereas, when we point to such a blemish in others, the result is known as wit, it is called folly when the same jest is turned against ourselves.

Now, though laughter may be regarded as a trivial matter, and an emotion frequently awakened by buffoons, actors or fools, it has a certain imperious force of its own which it is very hard to resist. 9 It often breaks out against our will and extorts confession of its power, not merely from our face and voice, but convulses the whole body as well. Again, it frequently turns the scale in matters of great importance, as I have already observed:37 for instance, it often dispels hatred or anger. 10 A proof of this is given by the story of the young men of Tarentum, who had made a number of scurrilous criticisms of Pyrrhus over the dinner table: they were called upon to answer for their statements, and, since the charge was one that admitted neither of denial nor of excuse, they succeeded in escaping, thanks to a happy jest which made the king laugh; for one of the accused said, "Yes, and if the bottle hadn't been empty, we should have killed you!" a jest which succeeded in dissipating the animosity which the charge had aroused.

11 Still, whatever the essence of humour may be, and although I would not venture to assert that it is altogether independent of art (for it involves a certain power of observation, and rules for its employment have been laid down by writers both of Greece and  p445 Rome), I will insist on this much, that it depends mainly on nature and opportunity. 12 The influence of nature consists not merely in the fact that one man is quicker or cleverer than another in the invention of jests (for such a power can be increased by teaching), but also in the possession of some peculiar charm of look or manner, the effect of which is such that the same remarks would be less entertaining if uttered by another. 13 Opportunity, on the other hand, is dependent on circumstances, and is of such importance that with its assistance not merely the unlearned, but even mere country bumpkins are capable of producing effective witticisms: while much again may depend on some previous remark made by another which will provide opportunity for repartee. For wit also appears to greater advantage in reply than in attack. 14 We are also confronted by the additional difficulty that there are no specific exercises for the development of humour nor professors to teach it. Consequently, while convivial gatherings and conversation give rise to frequent displays of wit, since daily practice develops the faculty, oratorical wit is rare, for it has no fixed rules to guide it, but must adapt itself to the ways of the world. 15 There has, however, never been anything to prevent the composition of themes such as will afford scope for humour, so that our controversial declamations may have an admixture of jests, while special topics may be set which will give the young student practice in the play of wit. 16 Nay, even those pleasantries in which we indulge on certain occasions of festive licence (and to which we give the name of mots,38 as, indeed, they are), if only a little more good sense were employed in their  p447 invention, and they were seasoned by a slight admixture of seriousness, might afford a most useful training. As it is, they serve merely to divert the young and merrymakers.

17 There are various names by which we describe wit, but we have only to consider them separately to perceive their specific meaning. First, there is urbanitas, which I observe denotes language with a smack of the city in its words, accent and idiom, and further suggests a certain tincture of learning derived from associating with well-educated men; in a word, it represents the opposite of rusticity. 18 The meaning of venustus is obvious; it means that which is said with grace and charm. Salsus is, as a rule, applied only to what is laughable: but this is not its natural application, although whatever is laughable should have the salt of wit in it. For Cicero,39 when he says that whatever has the salt of wit is Attic, does not say this because persons of the Attic school are specially given to laughter; and again when Catullus says —

In all her body not a grain of salt!40

he does not mean that there is nothing in her body to give cause for laughter. 19 When, therefore, we speak of the salt of wit, we refer to wit about which there is nothing insipid, wit, that is to say, which serves as a simple seasoning of language, a condiment which is silently appreciated by our judgment, as food is appreciated by the palate, with the result that it stimulates our taste and saves a speech from becoming tedious. But just as salt, if sprinkled freely over food, gives a special relish of its own, so long as it is not used to excess, so in the case of those who have the salt of wit there is something about  p449 their language which arouses in us a thirst to hear. Again, I do not regard the epithet facetus as applicable solely to that which raises a laugh. 20 If that were so Horace41 would never have said that nature had granted Virgil the gift of being facetus in song. I think that the term is rather applied to a certain grace and polished elegance. This is the meaning which it bears in Cicero's letters, where he quotes the words of Brutus,42 "In truth her feet are graceful and soft as she goes delicately on her way." This meaning suits the passage in Horace,41 to which I have already made reference, "To Vergil gave a soft and graceful wit." 21 Iocus is usually taken to mean the opposite of seriousness. This view is, however, somewhat too narrow. For to feign, to terrify, or to promise, are all at times forms of jesting. Dicacitas is no doubt derived from dico, and is therefore common to all forms of wit, but is specially applied to the language of banter, which is a humorous form of attack. Therefore, while the critics allow that Demosthenes was urbanus, they deny that he was dicax.

22 The essence, however, of the subject which we are now discussing is the excitement of laughter, and consequently the whole of this topic is entitled περὶ γελοίου by the Greeks. It has the same primary division as other departments of oratory, that is to say, it is concerned with things and words. 23 The application of humour to oratory may be divided into three heads: for there are three things out of which we may seek to raise a laugh, to wit, others, ourselves, or things intermediate. In the first case we either reprove or refute or make light of or retort or deride the arguments of others. In the  p451 second we speak of things which concern ourselves in a humorous manner and, to quote the words of Cicero,43 say things which have a suggestion of absurdity. For there are certain sayings which are regarded as folly if they slip from us unawares, but as witty if uttered ironically. 24 The third kind consists, as Cicero also tells us, in cheating expectations, in taking words in a different sense from what was intended, and in other things which affect neither party to the suit, and which I have, therefore, styled intermediate. 25 Further, things designed to raise a laugh may either be said or done. In the latter case laughter is sometimes caused by an act possessing a certain amount of seriousness as well, as in the case of Marcus Caelius the praetor, who, when the consul Isauricus broke his curule chair, had another put in its place, the seat of which was made of leather thongs, by way of allusion to the story that the consul had once been scourged by his father: sometimes, again, it is aroused by an act which passes the grounds of decency, as in the case of Caelius' box,44 a jest which was not fit for an orator or any respectable man to make. 26 On the other hand the joke may lie in some remark about a ridiculous look or gesture; such jests are very attractive, more especially when delivered with every appearance of seriousness; for there are no jests so insipid as those which parade the fact that they are intended to be witty. Still, although the gravity with which a jest is uttered increases its attraction, and the mere fact that the speaker does not laugh himself makes his words laughable, there is also such a thing as a humorous look, manner or  p453 gesture, provided always that they observe the happy mean. 27 Further, a jest will either be free and lively, like the majority of those uttered by Aulus Galba, or abusive, like those with which Junius Bassus recently made us familiar, or bitter, like those of Cassius Severus, or gentle, like those of Domitius Afer. 28 Much depends on the occasion on which a jest is uttered. For in social gatherings and the intercourse of every day a certain freedom is not unseemly in persons of humble rank, while liveliness is becoming to all. Our jests should never be designed to wound, and we should never make it our ideal at once lose a friend sooner than lose a jest. Where the battles of the courts are concerned I am always better pleased when it is possible to indulge in gentle raillery, although it is, of course, permissible to be abusive or bitter in the words we use against our opponents, just as it is permissible to accuse them openly of crime, and to demand the last penalty of the law. But in the courts as elsewhere it is regarded as inhuman to hit a man when he is down, either because he is the innocent victim of misfortune or because such attacks may recoil on those who make them. Consequently, the first points to be taken into consideration are who the speaker is, what is the nature of the case, who is the judge, who is the victim, and what is the character of the remarks that are made. 29 It is most unbecoming for the orator to distort his features or use uncouth gestures, tricks that arouse such merriment in farce. No less unbecoming are ribald jests, and such as are employed upon the stage. As for obscenity, it should not merely be banished from his language, but should not even be suggested. For even if our  p455 opponent has rendered himself liable to such a charge, our denunciation should not take the form of a jest. 30 Further, although I want my orator to speak with wit, he must not give the impression of striving after it. Consequently he must not display his wit on every possible occasion, but must sacrifice a jest sooner than sacrifice his dignity. 31 Again, no one will endure an accuser who employs jests to season a really horrible case, nor an advocate for the defence who makes merry over one that calls for pity. Moreover, there is a type of judge whose temperament is too serious to allow him to tolerate laughter. 32 It may also happen that a jest directed against an opponent may apply to the judge or to our own client, although there are some orators who do not refrain even from jests that may recoil upon themselves. This was the case with Sulpicius Longus, who despite the fact that he was himself surpassingly hideous, asserted of a man against whom he was appearing in a case involving his status as a free man, that even his face was the face of a slave. To this Domitius Afer replied, "Is it your profound conviction, Longus, that an ugly man must be a slave?" 33 Insolence and arrogance are likewise to be avoided, nor must our jests seem unsuitable to the time or place, or give the appearance of studied premeditation, or smell of the lamp, while those directed against the unfortunate are, as I have already said, inhuman. Again, some advocates are men of such established authority and such known respectability, that any insolence shown them would only hurt the assailant. As regards the way in which we should deal with friends I have already given instructions. 34 It is the duty not merely  p457 of an orator, but of any reasonable human being, when attacking one whom it is dangerous to offend, to take care that his remarks do not end in exciting serious enmity, or the necessity for a grovelling apology. Sarcasm that applies to a number of persons is injudicious: I refer to cases where it is directed against whole nations or classes of society, or against rank and pursuits which are common to many. 35 A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.

It is, however, a difficult task to indicate the sources from which laughter may be legitimately derived or the topics where it may be naturally employed. To attempt to deal exhaustively with the subject would be an interminable task and a waste of labour. 36 For the topics suitable to jests are no less numerous than those from which we may derive reflexions, as they are called, and are, moreover, identical with the latter. The powers of invention and expression come into play no less where jests are concerned, while as regards expression its force will depend in part on the choice of words, in part on the figures employed. 37 Laughter then will be derived either from the physical appearance of our opponent or from his character as revealed in his words and actions, or from external sources; for all forms of raillery come under one or other of these heads; if the raillery is serious, we style it as severe; if, on the other hand, it is of a lighter character, we regard it as humorous. These themes for jest may be pointed out to the eye or described in words or indicated by some mot. 38 It is only on  p459 rare occasions that it is possible to make them visible to the eye, as Gaius Julius45 did when Helvius Mancia kept clamouring against him. "I will show you what you're like!" he cried, and then, as Mancia persisted in asking him to do so, pointed with his finger at the picture of a Gaul painted on a Cimbric shield, a figure to which Mancia bore a striking resemblance. There were shops round the forum and the shield had been hung up over one of them by way of a sign. 39 The narration of a humorous story may often be used with clever effect and is a device eminently becoming to an orator. Good examples are the story told of Caepasius and Fabricius, which Cicero tells in the pro Cluentio, or the story told by Caelius of the dispute between Decimus Laelius and his colleague when they were both in a hurry to reach their province first. But in all such cases the whole narrative must possess elegance and charm, while the orator's own contribution to the story should be the most humorous element. Take for instance the way in which Cicero gives a special relish to the flight of Fabricius.46 40 "And so, just at the moment when he thought his speech was showing him at his best and he had uttered the following solemn words, words designed to prove a master-stroke of art, 'Look at the fortunes of mankind, gentlemen, look at the aged form of Gaius Fabricius,' just at that very moment, I say, when he had repeated the word 'look' several times by way of making his words all the more impressive, he looked himself, and found that Fabricius had slunk out of court with his head hanging down." I will not quote the rest of the passage, for it is well known. But he develops the theme  p461 still further although the plain facts amount simply to this, that Fabricius had left the court. 41 The whole of the story told by Caelius is full of wit and invention, but the gem of the passage is its conclusion. "He followed him, but now he crossed the straits, whether it was in a ship or a fisherman's boat, no one knew; but the Sicilians, being of a lively turn of wit, said that he rode on a dolphin and effected his crossing like a second Arion."47 42 Cicero48 thinks that humour belongs to narrative and wit to sallies against the speaker's antagonist. Domitius Afer showed remarkable finish in this department; for, while narratives of the kind I have described are frequent in his speeches, several books have been published of his witticisms as well. 43 This latter form of wit lies not merely in sallies and brief displays of wit, but may be displayed at greater length, witness the story told by Cicero in the second book of his de Oratore,49 in which Lucius Crassus dealt with Brutus, against whom he was appearing in court. 44 Brutus was prosecuting Cnaeus Plancus and had produced two readers50 to show that Lucius Crassus, who was counsel for the defence, in the speech which he delivered on the subject of the colony of Narbo had advocated measures contrary to those which he recommended in speaking of the Servilian law. Crassus, in reply, called for three readers and gave them the dialogues of Brutus' father to read out. One of these dialogues was represented as taking place on his estate at Privernum, the second on his estate at Alba, and the third on his estate at Tibur. Crassus then asked where these estates were. Now Brutus had sold them all, and in those days it was considered somewhat discreditable to sell one's  p463 paternal acres. Similar attractive effects of narrative may be produced by the narration of fables or at times even of historical anecdotes.

45 On the other hand brevity in wit gives greater point and speed. It may be employed in two ways, according as we are the aggressors, or are replying to our opponents; the method, however, in both cases is to some extent the same. For there is nothing that can be said in attack that cannot be used in riposte. 46 But there are certain points which are peculiar to reply. For remarks designed for attack are usually brought ready-made into court, after long thought at home, whereas those made in reply are usually improvised during a dispute or the cross-examination of witnesses. But though there are many topics on which we may draw for our jests, I must repeat that not all these topics are becoming to orators: 47 above all doubles entendres and obscenity, such as is dear to the Atellan farce, are to be avoided, as also are those coarse jibes so common on the lips of the rabble, where the ambiguity of words is turned to the service of abuse. I cannot even approve of a similar form of jest, that sometimes slipped out even from Cicero, though not when he was pleading in the courts: for example, once when a candidate, alleged to be the son of a cook, solicited someone else's vote in his presence, he said, Ego quoque tibi favebo.51 48 I say words capable of two different meanings, but because such jests are rarely effective, unless they are helped out by actual facts as well as similarity of sound.  p465 For example, I regard the jest which Cicero levelled against that same Isauricus, whom I mentioned above, as being little less than sheer buffoonery. "I wonder," he said, "why your father, the steadiest of men, left behind him such a stripy gentleman as yourself."52 49 On the other hand, the following instance of the same type of wit is quite admirable: when Milo's accuser, by way of proving that he had lain in wait for Clodius, alleged that he had put up at Bovillae before the ninth hour in order to wait until Clodius left his villa, and kept repeating the question, "When was Clodius killed?", Cicero replied, "Late!"53 a retort which in itself justifies us in refusing to exclude this type of wit altogether. 50 Sometimes, too, the same word may be used not merely in several senses, but in absolutely opposite senses. For example, Nero54 said of a dishonest slave, "No one was more trusted in my house: there was nothing closed or sealed to him." 51 Such ambiguity may even go so far as to present all the appearance of a riddle, witness the jest that Cicero made at the expense of Pletorius, the accuser of Fonteius: "His mother," he said, "kept a school while she lived and masters after she was dead."55 The explanation is that in her lifetime women of infamous character used to frequent her house, while after her death her property was sold. (I may note however that ludus, is used metaphorically in the sense of school, while magistri is used ambiguously.) 52 A similar form of  p467 jest may be made by use of the thing known as metalepsis,56 as when Fabius Maximus complained of the meagreness of the gifts made by Augustus to his friends, and said that his congiaria were heminaria: for congiarium57 implies at once liberality and a particular measure, and Fabius put a slight on the liberality of Augustus by a reference to the measure. 53 This form of jest is as poor as is the invention of punning names by the addition, subtraction or change of letters: I find, for instance, a case where a certain Acisculus was called Pacisculus because of some "compact" which he had made, while one Placidus was nicknamed Acidus because of his "sour" temper, and one Tullius was dubbed Tollius58 because he was a thief. 54 Such puns are more successful with things than with names. It was, for example, a neat hit of Afer's when he said that Manlius Sura, who kept rushing to and fro while he was pleading, waving his hands, letting his toga fall and replacing it, was not merely pleading, but giving himself a lot of needless trouble.59 For there is a spice of wit about the word satagere in itself, even if there were no resemblance to any other word. 55 Similar jests may be produced by the addition or removal of the aspirate, or by splitting up a word or joining it to another: the effect is generally poor, but the practice is occasionally permissible. Jests drawn from names are of the same type. Cicero introduces a number of such jests against Verres, but always as quotations  p469 from others. On one occasion he says that he would sweep60 everything away, for his name was Verres; on another, that he had given more trouble to Hercules, whose temple he had pillaged, than was given by the Erymanthine "boar"; on another, that he was a bad "priest" who had left so worthless a pig behind him.61 For Verres' predecessor was named Sacerdos. 56 Sometimes, however, a lucky chance may give us an opportunity of employing such jests with effect, as for instance when Cicero in the pro Caecina62 says of the witness Sextus Clodius Phormio, "He was not less black or less bold than the Phormio of Terence."

57 We may note therefore that jests which turn on the meaning of things are at once more pointed and more elegant. In such cases resemblances between things produce the best effects, more especially if we refer to something of an inferior or more trivial nature, as in the jests of which our forefathers were so fond, when they called Lentulus Spinther and Scipio Serapio.63 But such jests may be drawn not merely from the names of men, but from animals as well; for example when I was a boy, Junius Bassus, one of the wittiest of men, was nicknamed the white ass. 58 And Sarmentus64 compared Messius Cicirrus to a wild horse. The comparison may also be drawn from inanimate objects: for example Publius Blessius called a certain Julius, who was dark, lean and bent, the iron buckle. This method of raising a laugh is much in vogue to‑day. 59 Such resemblances  p471 may be put to the service of wit either openly or allusively. Of the latter type is the remark of Augustus, made to a soldier who showed signs of timidity in presenting a petition, "Don't hold it out as if you were giving a penny to an elephant." 60 Some of these jests turn on similarity of meaning. Of this kind was the witticism uttered by Vatinius when he was prosecuted by Calvus. Vatinius was wiping his forehead with a white handkerchief, and his accuser called attention to the unseemliness of the act. Whereupon Vatinius replied, "Though I am on my trial, I go on eating white bread all the same."65 61 Still more ingenious is the application of one thing to another on the ground of some resemblance, that is to say the adaptation to one thing of a circumstance which usually applies to something else, a type of jest which we may regard as being an ingenious form of fiction. For example, when ivory models of captured towns were carried in Caesar's triumphal procession, and a few days later wooden models of the same kind were carried at the triumph of Fabius Maximus,66 Chrysippus67 remarked that the latter were the cases for Caesar's ivory towns. And Pedo68 said of a heavy-armed gladiator who was pursuing another armed with a net and failed to strike him, "He wants to catch him alive." 62 Resemblance and ambiguity may be used in conjunction: Galba for example said to a man who stood very much at his ease when playing ball, "You stand as if you were one of Caesar's candidates."69 The  p473 ambiguity lies in the word stand, while the indifference shewn by the player supplies the resemblance. 63 I need say no more on this form of humour. But the practice of combining different types of jest is very common, and those are best which are of this composite character. Thus a Roman knight was once drinking at the games, and Augustus sent him the following message, "If I want to dine, I go home." To which the other replied, "Yes, but you are not afraid of losing your seat." 64 Contraries fight rise to more than one kind of jest. For instance the following jests made by Augustus and Galba differ in form. Augustus was engaged in dismissing an officer with dishonour from his service: the officer kept interrupting him with entreaties and said, "What shall I say to my father?" Augustus replied, "Tell him that I fell under your displeasure." Galba, when a friend asked him for the loan of a cloak, said, "I cannot lend it to you, as I am going to stay at home," the point being that the rain was pouring through the roof of his garret at the time. I will add a third example, although out of respect to its author I withhold his name: "You are more lustful than a eunuch," where we are surprised by the appearance of a word which is the very opposite of what we should have expected. Under the same heading, although it is quite different from any of the preceding, we must place the remark made by Marcus Vestinus when it was reported to him that a certain man was dead. "Some day then he will cease to stink," was his reply. 65 But I shall overload this book with illustrations and turn it into a common jest-book, if I continue to quote each jest that was made by our forefathers.

 p475  All forms of argument afford equal opportunity for jests. Augustus for example employed definition when he said of two ballet-dancers who were engaged in a contest, turn and turn about, as to who could make the most exquisite gestures, that one was a dancer and the other merely interrupted the dancing. 66 Galba on the other hand made use of partition when he replied to a friend who asked him for a cloak, "It is not raining and you don't need it; if it does rain, I shall wear it myself." Similar material for jests is supplied by genus, species, property, difference, conjugates,70 adjuncts, antecedents, consequents, contraries, causes, effects, and comparisons of things greater, equal, or less,71 as it is also by all forms of trope. 67 Are not a large number of jests made by means of hyperbole? Take for instance Cicero's72 remark about a man who was remarkable for his height, "He bumped his head against the Fabian arch," or the remark made by Publius Oppius about the family of the Lentuli to the effect, that since the children were always smaller than their parents, the race would "perish by propagation." 68 Again, what of irony? Is not even the most severe form of irony a kind of jest? Afer made a witty use of it when he replied to Didius Gallus, who, after making the utmost efforts to secure a provincial government, complained on receiving the appointment that he had been forced into accepting, "Well, then, do something for your country's sake."73 Cicero also employed metaphor to serve his jest, when on receiving a report of uncertain authorship to the effect that Vatinius was dead, he remarked, "Well, for the meantime I shall  p477 make use of the interest."74 69 He also employed allegory in the witticism that he was fond of making about Marcus Caelius, who was better at bringing charges than at defending his client against them, to the effect that he had a good right hand, but a weak left.75 As an example of the use of emphasis I may quote the jest of Aulus Villius, that Tuccius was killed by his sword falling upon him.76 70 Figures of thought, which the Greeks call σχήματα διανοίας, may be similarly employed, and some writers have classified jests under their various headings. For we ask questions, express doubts, make assertions, threaten, wish and speak in pity or in anger. And everything is laughable that is obviously a pretence. 71 It is easy to make fun of folly, for folly is laughable in itself; but we may improve such jests by adding something of our own. Titius Maximus put a foolish question to Campatius, who was leaving the theatre, when he asked him if he had been watching the play. "No," replied Campatius, "I was playing ball in the stalls," whereby he made the question seem even more foolish than it actually was.

72 Refutation consists in denying, rebutting, defending or making light of a charge, and each of these affords scope for humour. Manius Curius, for example, showed humour in the way in which he denied a charge that had been brought against him. His accuser had produced a canvas, in every scene of which he was depicted either as naked and in prison or as being restored to freedom by his friends paying off his gambling debts. His only comment was, "Did I never win, then?" 73 Sometimes we rebut a  p479 charge openly, as Cicero did when he refuted the extravagant lies of Vibius Curius about his age: "Well, then," he remarked, "in the days when you and I used to practice declamation together, you were not even born." At other times we may rebut it by pretending to agree. Cicero, for example, when Fabia the wife of Dolabella asserted that her age was thirty, remarked, "That is true, for I have heard it for the last twenty years." 74 Sometimes too it is effective to add something more biting in place of the charge which is denied, as was done by Junius Bassus when Domitia the wife of Passienus77 complained that by way of accusing her of meanness he had alleged that she even sold old shoes. "No," he replied, "I never said anything of the sort. I said you bought them." A witty travesty of defence was once produced by a Roman knight who was charged by Augustus with having squandered his patrimony. "I thought it was my own," he answered. 75 As regards making light of a charge, there are two ways in which this may be done. We may throw cold water on the excessive boasts of our opponent, as was done by Gaius Caesar,78 when Pomponius displayed a wound in his face which he had received in the rebellion of Sulpicius and which he boasted he had received while fighting for Caesar: "You should never look round," he retorted, "when you are running away." Or we may do the same with some charge that is brought against us, as was done by Cicero when he remarked to those who reproached him for marrying Publilia, a young unwedded girl, when he was already over sixty, "Well, she will be a woman to‑morrow." 76 Some style this type of jest consequent and, on the ground that both  p481 jests seem to follow so naturally and inevitably, class it with the jest which Cicero levelled against Curio, who always began his speeches by asking indulgence for his youth: "You will find your exordium easier every day," he said. 77 Another method of making light of a statement is to suggest a reason. Cicero employed this method against Vatinius. The latter was lame and, wishing to make it seem that he health was improved, said that he could now walk as much as two miles. "Yes," said Cicero, "for the days are longer." Again Augustus, when the inhabitants of Tarraco reported that a palm had sprung up on the altar dedicated to him, replied, "That shows how often you kindle fire upon it." 78 Cassius Severus showed his wit by transferring a charge made against him to a different quarter. For when he was reproached by the praetor on the ground that his advocates had insulted Lucius Varus, an Epicurean and a friend of Caesar, he replied, "I do not know who they were who insulted him, I suppose they were Stoics."

Of retorts there are a number of forms, the wittiest being that which is helped out by a certain verbal similarity, as in the retort made by Trachalus to Suelius, The latter had said, "If that is the case, you go into exile": to which Trachalus replied, "And if it is not the case, you go back into exile."79 79 Cassius Severus baffled an opponent who reproached him with the fact that Proculeius had forbidden him to enter his house by replying, "Do I ever go there?" But one jest may also be defeated by another: for example, Augustus of blessed memory, when the Gauls gave him a golden necklet weighing a hundred pounds, and Dolabella, speaking in jest but with an  p483 eye to the success of his jest, said, "General, give me your necklet," replied, "I had rather give you the crown of oak leaves."80 80 So, too, one lie may be defeated by another: Galba, for instance, when someone told him that he once bought a lamprey five feet long for half a denarius in Sicily, replied, "There is nothing extraordinary in that: for they grow to such a length in those seas that the fishermen tie them round their waists in lieu of ropes!" 81 Then there is the opposite of denial, namely a feigned confession, which likewise may show no small wit. Thus Afer, when pleading against a freedman of Claudius Caesar and when another freedman called out from the opposite side of the court, "You are always speaking against Caesar's freedmen," replied, "Yes, but I make precious little headway." A similar trick is not to deny a charge, though it is obviously false and affords good opportunity for an excellent reply. For example, when Philippus said to Catulus, "Why do you bark so?" the latter replied,81 "I see a thief." 82 To make jokes against oneself is scarcely fit for any save professed buffoons and is strongly to be disapproved in an orator. This form of jest has precisely the same varieties as those which we make against others and therefore I pass it by, although it is not infrequently employed. 83 On the other hand scurrilous or brutal jests, although they may raise a laugh, are quite unworthy of a gentleman. I remember a jest of this kind being made by  p485 a certain man against an inferior who had spoken with some freedom against him: "I will smack your head, and bring an action against you for having such a hard skull!" In such cases it is difficult to say whether the audience should laugh or be angry.

84 There remains the prettiest of all forms of humour, namely the jest which depends for success on deceiving anticipations82 or taking another's words in a sense other than he intended. The unexpected element may be employed by the attacking party, as in the example cited by Cicero,83 "What does this man lack save wealth and — virtue?" or in the remark of Afer, "For pleading causes he is most admirably — dressed." Or it may be employed to meet a statement made by another, as it was by Cicero84 on hearing a false report of Vatinius' death: he had met one of the latter's freedmen and asked him, "Is all well?" The freedman answered, "All is well." To which Cicero replied, "Is he dead, then?" 85 But the loudest laughter of all is produced by simulation and dissimulation, proceedings which differ but little and are almost identical; but whereas simulation implies the pretence of having a certain opinion of one's own, dissimulation consists in feigning that one does not understand someone else's meaning. Afer employed simulation, when his opponents in a certain case kept saying that Celsina (who was an influential lady) knew all about the facts, and he, pretending to believe that she was a man, said, "Who is he?" 86 Cicero on the other hand employed dissimulation when Sextus Annalis gave evidence damaging to the client whom he was defending, and the accuser kept pressing him with the question, "Tell me, Marcus Tullius, what have you to say about Sextus Annalis?"  p487 To which he replied by beginning to recite the Sixth book of the Annals of Ennius, which commences with the line,

"Who may the causes of vast war unfold?"85

87 This kind of jest finds its most frequent opportunity in ambiguity, as for example, when Cascellius,86 on being consulted by a client who said "I wish to divide my ship," replied, "You will lose it then." But there are also other ways of distorting the meaning; we may for instance give a serious statement a comparatively trivial sense, like the man who, when asked what he thought of a man who had been caught in the act of adultery, replied that he had been too slow in his movements.87 88 Of a similar nature are jests whose point lies in insinuation. Such was the reply which Cicero88 quotes as given to the man who complained that wife had hung herself on a fig-tree. "I wish," said someone, "you would give me a slip of that tree to plant." For there the meaning is obvious, though it is not expressed in so many words. 89 Indeed the essence of all wit lies in the distortion of the true and natural meaning of words: a perfect instance of this is when we misrepresent our own or another's opinions or assert some impossibility. 90 Juba misrepresented another man's opinion, when he replied to one who complained of being bespattered by his horse, "What, do you think I am a Centaur?"89 Gaius Cassius misrepresented his own, when he said to a soldier whom he  p489 saw hurrying into battle without his sword, "Shew yourself a handy man with your fists, comrade." So too did Galba, when served some fish that had been partially eaten the day before and had been placed on the table with the uneaten sides turned uppermost: "We must lose no time," he said, "for there are people under the table at work on the other side." Lastly there is the jibe that Cicero made against Curius, which I have already cited;90 for it was clearly impossible that he should be still unborn at a time when he was already declaiming. 91 There is also a form of misrepresentation which has its basis in irony, of which a saying of Gaius Caesar will provide an example. A witness asserted that the accused attempted to wound him in the thighs, and although it would have been easy to ask him why he attacked that portion of his body above all others, he merely remarked, "What else could he have done, when you had a helmet and breastplate?" 92 Best of all is it when pretence is met by pretence, as was done in the following instance by Domitius Afer. He had made his will long ago, and one of his more recent friends, in the hopes of securing a legacy if he could persuade him to change it, produced a fictitious story and asked him whether he should advise a senior centurion who, being an old man, had already made his will to revise it; to which Afer replied, "Don't do it: you will offend him."

93 But the most agreeable of all jests are to which are good humoured and easily digested. Take another example from Afer. Noting that an ungrateful client avoided him in the forum, he sent his servant91 to him to say, "I hope you are obliged to me for not having seen you." Again when his  p491 steward, being unable to account for certain sums of money, kept saying, "I have not eaten it: I live on bread and water," he replied, "Master sparrow, pay what you owe." Such jests the Greeks style ὑπὸ τὸ ἦθος92 or adapted to character. 94 It is a pleasant form of jest to reproach a person with less than would be possible, as Afer did when, in answer to a candidate who said, "I have always shown my respect for your family," he replied, although he might easily have denied the statement, "You are right, it is quite true." Sometimes it may be a good joke to speak of oneself, while one may often raise a laugh by reproaching a person to his face with things that it would have been merely bad-mannered to bring up against him behind his back. 95 Of this kind was the remark made by Augustus, when a soldier was making some unreasonable request and Marcianus, whom he suspected of intending to make some no less unfair request, turned up at the same moment: "I will no more grant your request, comrade, than I will that which Marcianus is just going to make."

96 Apt quotation of verse may add to the effect of the wit. The lines may be quoted in their entirety without alteration, which is so easy a task that Ovid composed an entire book against bad poets out of lines taken from the quatrains of Macer.93 Such a procedure is rendered specially attractive if it be seasoned by a spice of ambiguity, as in the line which Cicero quoted against Lartius, a shrewd and cunning fellow who was suspected of unfair dealing in a certain case,

"Had not Ulysses Lartius intervened."94

97 Or the words may be slightly altered, as in the line quoted against the senator who, although he had  p493 always in private times been regarded as an utter fool, was, after inheriting an estate, asked to speak first on a motion —

"What men call wisdom is a legacy,"95

where legacy is substituted for the original faculty. Or again we may invent verses resembling well-known lines, a trick styled parody by the Greeks. 98 A neat application of proverbs may also be effective, as when one man replied to another, a worthless fellow, who had fallen down and asked to be helped to his feet, "Let someone pick you up who does not know you."96 Or we may shew our culture by drawing on legend for a jest, as Cicero did in the trial of Verres, when Hortensius said to him as he was examining a witness, "I do not understand these riddles." "You ought to, then," said Cicero, "as you have got the Sphinx at home." Hortensius had received a bronze Sphinx of great value as a present from Verres.

99 Effects of mild absurdity are produced by the simulation of folly and would, indeed, themselves, be foolish were they not fictitious. Take as an example the remark of the man who, when people wondered why he had bought a stumpy candlestick, said, "It will do for lunch."97 There are also sayings closely resembling absurdities which derive great point from their sheer irrelevance, like the reply of Dolabella's slave, who, on being asked whether his master had advertised a sale of his property, answered, "He has sold his house."98  p495 100 Sometimes you may get out of a tight corner by giving a humorous explanation of your embarrassment, as the man did who asked a witness, who alleged that he had been wounded by the accused, whether he had any scar to show for it. The witness proceeded to show a huge scar on his thigh, on which he remarked, "I wish he had wounded you in the side."99 A happy use may also be made of insult. Hispo, for example, when the accuser charged him with scandalous crimes, replied, "You judge my character by your own"; while Fulvius Propinquus, when asked by the representative of the emperor whether the documents which he produced were autographs, replied, "Yes, sir, and the handwriting is genuine, too!"100

101 Such I have either learned from others or discovered from my own experience to be the commonest sources of humour. But I must repeat that the number of ways in which one may speak wittily are of no less infinite variety than those in which one may speak seriously, for they depend on persons, place, time and chances, which are numberless. 102 I have, therefore, touched on the topics of humour that I may not be taxed with having omitted them; but with regard to my remarks on the actual practice and manner of jesting, I venture to assert that they are absolutely indispensable.

To these Domitius Marsus, who wrote an elaborate treatise on Urbanity, adds several types of saying, which are not laughable, but rather elegant sayings with a certain charm and attraction of their own, which are suitable even to speeches of the most serious kind: they are characterised by a certain urbane wit, but not of a kind to raise a laugh. 103 And  p497 as a matter of fact his work was not designed to deal with humour, but with urbane wit, a quality which he regards as peculiar to this city, though it was not till a late period that it was understood in this sense, after the word Urbs had come to be accepted as indicating Rome without the addition of any proper noun. 104 He defines it as follows: "Urbanity is a certain quality of language compressed into the limits of a brief saying and adapted to delight and move men to every kind of emotion, but specially suitable to resistance or attack according as the person or circumstances concerned may demand." But this definition, if we except the quality of brevity, includes all the virtues of oratory. For it is entirely concerned with persons and things to deal with which in appropriate language is nothing more nor less than the task of perfect eloquence. Why he insisted on brevity I do not know, 105 since in the same book he asserts that many speakers have revealed their urbanity in narrative. And a little later he gives the following definition, which is, as he says, based on the views expressed by Cato: "Urbanity is the characteristic of a man who has produced many good sayings and replies, and who, whether in conversation, in social or convivial gatherings, in public speeches, or under any other circumstances, will speak with humour and appropriateness. If any orator do this, he will undoubtedly succeed in making his audience laugh." 106 But if we accept these definitions, we shall have to allow the title of urbane to anything that is well said. It was natural therefore that the author of this definition should classify such sayings under three heads, serious, humorous and intermediate, since all good  p499 sayings may be thus classified. But, in my opinion, there are certain forms of humorous saying that may be regarded as not possessing sufficient urbanity. 107 For to my thinking urbanity involves the total absence of all that is incongruous, coarse, unpolished and exotic whether in thought, language, voice or gesture, and resides not so much in isolated sayings as in the whole complexion of our language, just as for the Greeks Atticism meant that elegance of taste that was peculiar to Athens. 108 However, out of respect for the judgment of Marsus, who was a man of the greatest learning, I will add that he divides serious utterances into three classes, the honorific, the derogatory and the intermediate. As an example of the honorific he quotes the words uttered by Cicero in the pro Ligario101 with reference to Caesar, "You who forget nothing save injuries." 109 The derogatory he illustrates by the words used by Cicero of Pompey and Caesar in a letter to Atticus:102 "I know whom to avoid, but whom to follow I know not." Finally, he illustrates the intermediate, which he calls apophthegmatic (as it is), by the passage from Cicero's speech against Catiline103 where he says, "Death can never be grievous to the brave nor premature for one who has been consul nor a calamity to one that is truly wise." All these are admirable sayings, but what special title they have to be called urbane I do not see. 110 If it is not merely, as I think, the whole complexion of our oratory that deserves this title, but if it is to be claimed for individual sayings as well, I should give the name only to those sayings that are of the same general character as humorous sayings, without actually being humorous. I will give an  p501 illustration of what I mean. It was said of Asinius Pollio, who had equal gifts for being grave or gay, that he was "a man for all hours," 111 and of a pleader who was a fluent speaker extempore, that "his ability was all in ready money." Of the same kind, too, was the remark recorded by Marsus as having been made by Pompey to Cicero when the latter expressed distrust of his party: "Go over to Caesar and you will be afraid of me." Had this last remark been uttered on a less serious subject and with less serious purpose, or had it not been uttered by Pompey himself, we might have counted it among examples of humour. 112 I may also add the words used by Cicero in a letter104 to Caerellia to explain why he endured the supremacy of Caesar so patiently: "These ills must either be endured with the courage of Cato or the stomach105 of Cicero," for here again the word "stomach" has a spice of humour in it. I felt that I ought not to conceal my feelings on this point. If I am wrong in my views, I shall not, at any rate, lead my readers astray, since I have stated the opposite view as well, which they are at liberty to adopt if they prefer it.

The Translator's Notes:

36 De Or. II.LVIII.236.

37 Where?

38 The meaning of this passage is not clear, and no satisfactory explanation or correction has been suggested.

39 Orat. xxvi.90.

40 Cat. lxxxvi.4.

41 Sat. I.X.44.

molle atque facetum

Vergilio adnuerunt gaudentes rure Camenae.

42 This letter is lost.

43 de Or. II.LXXI.289.

44 cp. pro Cael. xxix.69. There is no jest in this passage which lays itself open to such censure. The jest must have consisted in some action on the part of the orator.

45 Cic. de Or. II.LXVI.266.

46 pro Cluent. xxi.58.

47 i.e. D. Laelius or his colleague: see § 39.

48 Orat. xxvi.87.

49 lv.223.

50 Probably members of his household, employed on this occasion to read out passages from Crassus' previous speeches.

51 The pun is untranslatable, turning as it does on the similarity of sound between coque and quoque, so that the (p463)sentence might mean either I will support you, cook, or I too will support you.

52 Here again the pun is virtually untranslatable. varium is used in the double sense of unstable or mottled, with reference to the story that he had been scourged by his father. See above § 25.

53 sero may mean at a late hour or too late.

54 Cic. de Or. II.LXI.248. Probably C. Claudius Nero victor of the Metaurus.

55 magister may mean a schoolmaster or a receiver (magister bonorum) placed in charge of the goods to be sold. The phrase here has the same suggestion as "having the bailiffs in the house." This passage does not occur in the portions of the pro Fonteio which survive.

56 See VIII.VI.37. "Substitution" is the nearest translation.

57 congiarium is derived from congius a measure equal to about 6 pints. It was employed to denote the largesse of wine or oil distributed to the people. Fabius coined the word heminarium from hemina, the twelfth part of the congius. Fabius was consul in 10 B.C. and a friend of Ovid.

58 From tollere to take away.

59 This pun cannot be reproduced. Watson attempts to express it by "doing business in pleading" and "overdoing it." But "overdoing it" has none of the neatness of satagere, which is said to have "a spice of wit about it," since it means lit. "to do enough," an ironic way of saying "to overdo it."

60 verres is also the second pers. sing. of the future of verro.

61 verres means a boar and here suggests a pig that should have been killed as a victim. For these jests see Verr. II.XXI.62, IV.XLIII.95, I.XLVI.121 respectively. Compare also IV.XXIV.53 and xxv.57.

62 x.27. The reference must be to the make-up of Phormio on the stage: there is nothing in the play to suggest the epithet "black."

63 From their resemblances to Spinther, a bad actor, and to Serapio, a dealer in sacrificial victims.

64 Sarmentus, a favourite of Augustus, cp. Hor. Sat. I.V.56, where the story is given.

65 The accused habitually wore mourning. Calvus suggested that Vatinius should not therefore have a white handkerchief. Vatinius retorts, You might as well say that I ought to have dropped eating white bread.

66 Legatus of Caesar in Spain. The wooden models were so worthless compared with those of ivory that Chrysippus said they must be no more than the boxes in which Caesar kept the latter.

67 Probably Chrysippus Vettius, a freedman and architect.

68 Presumably the poet Pedo Albinovanus.

69 A candidate recommended by the emperor was automatically elected. I have borrowed Watson's translation of the pun. Petere is the regular word for "standing for office." Petere pilam probably means "to attempt to catch the ball."

70 See V.X.85.

71 See V.X.55 sqq.

72 cp. de Orat. II.LXVI.267, where the jest is attributed to Crassus.

73 i.e. sacrifice your own interests and serve your country for its own sake.

74 The report may be false, but I will enjoy the hope it arouses in me. The capital on which I receive a dividend may be non-existent, but I will enjoy the interest.

75 The right being the sword arm, the left carrying the shield.

76 Tuccius was clearly a coward who committed suicide. Villius suggested that he would never have had the courage (p477)to fall upon his sword, and that therefore the sword must have fallen on him.

77 See VI.I.50.

78 A cousin of the father of C. Julius Caesar.

79 The point is obscure; we have no key to the circumstances of the jest.

80 The civic crown of oak leaves was given as a reward for saving the life of a fellow-citizen in war. The torquis was often given as a reward for valour, and Augustus pretends to believe that Dolabella had asked for a military decoration. The point lies in the contrast between the intrinsic value and (p483)weight of the two decorations. Further, Augustus was very parsimonious in bestowing military decorations and had himself received the crown of oak leaves from the senate as the saviour of Rome, a fact which must have rendered its bestowal on others rare, if not non-existent.

81 cp. Cic. de Or. II.LIV.220.

Thayer's Note: This is actually trumping a joke, since Philippus was punning on Catulus' name (= "puppy").

82 See IX.II.22.

83 de Or. II.LXX.281.

84 cp. § 68.

85 Enn. 174 (with oras for causas). The question (numquid, etc.) is treated by Cicero as meaning "Can you quote anything from the sixth book of the Annals? ingentis is acc. plural.

86 A famous lawyer mentioned by Horace, A. P. 371. Cascellius pretends to take dividere literally (i.e. cut in two); his client had meant "to sell half his ship," i.e. take a partner in the venture.

87 de Or. II.LXVIII.275.

88 ib. lxix.278.

89 The point of the jest, such as it is, is that Juba disclaims forming part of his horse. The reference is to Juba, historian and king of Mauretania, captured by Julius Caesar and restored by Augustus.

90 § 73.

91 Lit. the slave employed to name persons to his master.

92 The meaning is dubious and the phrase cannot be paralleled and is probably corrupt.

93 Aemilius Macer, a contemporary of Virgil and Horace. The work presumably consisted of epigrams, four lines long.

94 The author, presumably a tragic poet, is unknown. LartiusLaertius, son of Laertes.

95 Probably from a lost comedy.

96 Hor. Ep. I.XVII.62, where the passers by reply Quaere peregrinum to an imposter who, having fallen down and broken his leg, implores them to pick him up, crying Credite, non ludo: crudeles, tollite claudum.

97 Lunch requiring a less elaborate service, but being in broad daylight.

98 i.e. how can he? he has nothing left to sell.

99 sc. because then he would have killed you.

100 Presumably the legatus had been suspected of forgery.

101 xii.35.

102 Ad Att. VIII.VII.2.

103 IV.II.3.

104 Now lost. Caerellia was a literary lady.

105 i.e. he must "stomach" it.

[image ALT: Valid HTML 4.01.]

Page updated: 16 Feb 04