Roland Mayer, Professor Emeritus at King’s College London, questions Mary Beard’s proposition, in her excellent book Laughter In Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, that the Romans never smiled.

A Roman smiles

Did the Romans anticipate Victoria Beckham & Lady Gaga in never smiling? That is the proposition of Mary Beard in her recent book, Laughter in ancient Rome: ‘smiling was not a major part (if a part at all) of Roman social semiotics’. In order to support this claim Beard first reviews the verbs that dictionaries and translators traditionally render with our word smile and rejects the equivalence. Secondly, she reckons that it is ‘crucially important’ that there are to be found in Roman literature none of those distinctions between smiling and laughing ‘drawn by the likes of Lord Chesterfield’. So she concludes that ‘we see no clear evidence that smiling as such was a significant player in Roman social interactions in general’. This conclusion is unsurprising.  We aren’t likely to see any ‘clear evidence’, if the very existence of a Latin verb meaning ‘to smile’ is denied. So let’s first take a look at the verbs traditionally believed to mean ‘smile’.

The problem here is that unlike the Greeks, who helpfully had verbs of different stems for laugh, γελαω, and for smile, μειδιαω, the main Latin verb assumed to mean smile is just a compound of the verb for laugh: from rideo we get subrideo. Beard insists that the compound verb ‘technically means a “suppressed or muffled laugh,” even a “little” laugh’. She doesn’t explain why for centuries lexicographers using different modern vernaculars have believed that subrideo means smile, but she might urge that they have mistakenly supposed that their own social sign can be foisted on the meaning of the verb. To bolster her case she asserts that ‘when Virgil evoked the “smiling” gods of Homer, he fell back on … subridere’. Virgil is not the sort of poet who had to ‘fall back on’ or make do with an inadequate word for a specific concept. The passages Beard refers to, but does not quote, are significant, since they occur in the first and the last books of the Aeneid, in situations in which Jupiter is reassuring his grieving daughter Venus and his grumpy wife Juno respectively. Virgil cross-references the passages for his readers by using the same expression: olli subridens ‘smiling upon her’, as it is usually translated. This expression is designed to evoke passages in the Iliad in which one god smiles upon another (the verbs Homer used are all formed on μειδιαω). Virgil made his phrasing even more distinctive thanks to the dignified archaic form of the pronoun, olli for illi. That he didn’t describe his Jupiter as laughing, even a little, at his daughter or wife was well understood by that fifth-century commentator we don’t tend to read, Tiberius Claudius Donatus, who provided just the sort of Chesterfieldian discussion of the difference between smiling and laughing that Beard bleieved didn’t exist in the Roman world. Donatus had read the sort of commentaries on the Iliad in which, for instance [Il. 7.212], the smile of Ajax was taken to be characteristic of his nobility and more austere than laughter, and the smiles of Zeus and of Hera were approved because laughter was inappropriate (αλλοτριον) to dignified characters (σεμνων προσωπων). So he explained that a ‘full laugh’ plenus risus would be inappropriate in a majestic figure like Jupiter. Thus Virgil has him smile instead: ‘on the point of speaking he says Jupiter smiled [subrisit], since ‘he laughed’ [risit] is rather low-bred, and that emotional reaction doesn’t suit characters with supreme command. This is the very point Virgil himself makes for the laugh not being full: he says the begetter of men and of gods oughtn’t to laugh fully because that is beneath the dignity of one who holds dominion over men and gods’. Donatus went on to observe further that Jupiter avoided a full laugh (non ad plenum risisse) to show his sympathy for his weeping daughter.

Beard next tackles the verb renideo, which she feels doesn’t provide evidence that Romans smiled. She translates the verb with ‘to beam’, maintaining that the emphasis of renideo is ‘on the facial expression as a whole…not specifically the lips’. That is true, but we may wonder if it is physiologically possible to beam without smiling. Moreover if we had to define the verb ‘beam’ for a non-native user of English we could not do better than the OED’s ‘to smile radiantly, broadly, or good-naturedly’. The smile is the chief and defining characteristic of beaming, so the set of the lips needn’t be specified. The same applies to renideo. This point was taken by Wilhelm Kroll in his introductory note on the poem of Catullus which you are all of course ahead of me in remembering, 39 against Egnatius: ‘a grotesque description of Egnatius’ laughter, or smile: it’s only a matter of displaying his teeth’. Kroll recognized that Egnatius didn’t interrupt court proceedings or funerals with a laugh, however muffled, since all that he wanted to do was show off his gleaming teeth.

Apart from lexicography, there are alternative ways of addressing Beard’s notion about Roman social semiotics. First: since she is aware that the Greeks did smile—except for Anaxagoras of Clazomenae, who, according to Aelian, was never seen to laugh or to smile at all, she might have wondered how the Romans reacted to that unconventional facial expression in their Greek slaves, mistresses, business associates and ambassadors. Secondly, as an historian she is alive to the possibility, indeed the likelihood, of cultural change. The Romans gradually adopted such Greek practices as shaving off the beard (Varro Res Rusticae 2.11.10; there are interesting observations on the practice in A. J. Toynbee Hannibal’s Legacy II 438 n. 2) and paederasty, so why not add smiling to the list of hellenizing practices? Since the Romans associated for centuries with Greeks, it is hard to credit a stubborn resistance to the flexible allure of the smile as a social lubricant.  Conversely, the smile-prone Greeks don’t seem to have ever drawn attention to an habitually grim set of Roman features. And that is the evidence I want to conclude with.

There are numerous passages in Plutarch’s lives in which Romans are described as smiling. These passages are important not just for their evidence that Romans smiled but because they describe a range of social situations such as Beard desiderated to show ‘that smiling as such was a significant player in Roman social interactions in general’. Particular attention can be drawn to what Plutarch says of the younger Cato, §2: it was hard to make him laugh but he could occasionally relax his features into a smile. For example, just before Cato committed suicide, he smiled on hearing that Statilius meant to share his fate. Equally telling is this well-known extract from the Comparison of Demosthenes & Cicero, §1.5 (= §50.5): ‘We are told that when Cicero, as consul, undertook the defence of Murena against Cato’s prosecution, by way of bantering Cato, he made a long series of jokes upon the absurd paradoxes of the Stoic sect; when loud laughter passed from the crowd to the judges, Cato, with a quiet smile, said to those that sat next him, ‘My friends, what a ridiculous consul we have.’ [Cf. the life of the younger Cato, §21.7 for the smile.] And, indeed, Cicero was by natural temper very much disposed to mirth and pleasantry, and always appeared with a smiling and serene countenance.’ Now Plutarch made this last observation by way of contrast with the habitually earnest Demosthenes. Beard is aware of the first part of this passage, and she quotes it, with her own translation that Cato ‘beamed’ (but we must recall that she doesn’t believe beaming emphasizes the set of the lips). Rather oddly however she omitted to read to the end for Plutarch’s description of Cicero’s habitually smiling countenance.

It is now time to draw these comments to a close. Let me insist that I’m not indulging in pedantry nor am I a ‘misopogon’, Beard-basher. Beard is absolutely right to insist that the Romans were not in all respects just like us. More specifically in her Sather lectures she aimed to establish the general foreignness of Roman patterns of laughter, though she engagingly admits in an epilogue that Erich Gruen felt she had demonstrated how similar the Roman funny bone was to ours. Beard’s insistence on the ‘otherness’ of the Romans is entirely valid, and indeed the frank admission of such difference was hailed as a welcome change in the direction of classical studies as long as forty years ago by Hugh Trevor-Roper. But we shouldn’t overdo this sense of Roman ‘alterity’, lest we render the Romans as inscrutable as Aztecs. We are fortunate to have their own record of their feelings and experiences, and, crucially for my present purpose, we also have the record of those sophisticated Greeks who closely observed their Roman associates and described them as smiling. Plutarch, among others, provides abundant evidence that that facial expression served a varied range of social purposes, most of which correspond exactly to social situations in which we too would smile. Agreed, the Romans aren’t always just like us, but their differences from us should not be so multiplied that they become incomprehensible.