Cicero de Oratore 2.240, 276 (contributed by Mary Beard)

I have been thinking for a few years about what made Romans laugh (well elite male Romans). The truth is that the most extensive, interesting and funny discussions of ancient laughter don’t come from surviving Greek philosophy, they come from Cicero and Quintilian. People often say that in his treatise on “The Orator” Cicero talked about humour; in part he did, but he was more interested in how an orator should (or should not) make his audience LAUGH. These are some classic examples.

Mary Beard



[240] re, si quando quid tamquam aliqua fabella narratur, ut olim tu, Crasse, in Memmium, comedisse eum lacertum Largi, cum esset cum eo Tarracinae de amicula rixatus: salsa, ac tamen a te ipso ficta tota narratio; addidisti clausulam: tota Tarracina tum omnibus in parietibus inscriptas fuisse litteras L. L. L. M. M.; cum quaereres id quid esset, senem tibi quendam oppidanum dixisse: “lacerat lacertum Largi mordax Memmius.”

[276] et dixisset “tu igitur nihil vides?” “ego vero” inquam “a porta Esquilina video villam tuam;” ut illud Nasicae, qui cum ad poetam Ennium venisset eique ab ostio quaerenti Ennium ancilla dixisset domi non esse, Nasica sensit illam domini iussu dixisse et illum intus esse; paucis post diebus cum ad Nasicam venisset Ennius et eum ad ianuam quaereret, exclamat Nasica domi non esse, tum Ennius “quid? ego non cognosco vocem” inquit “tuam?” Hic Nasica “homo es impudens: ego cum te quaererem ancillae tuae credidi te domi non esse, tu mihi non credis ipsi?”


A 3rd century AD mosaic of the poet Ennius from Rome’s Museo della Civiltà Romana.


[240] Upon facts, whenever any tale is told, some anecdote for instance, just as you, Crassus, alleged one day, in a speech against Memmius, that Memmius ‘had made a mouthful of Largus’s arm’, when brawling with him at Tarracina over a lady-love; it was a spicy story, but every word of your own fabrication, You wound up by relating that the letters M.M.L.L.L. were inscribed on every wall in Tarracina, and that some ancient inhabitant answered, when you asked what they meant, ‘Mordacious Memmius lacerates Largus’s limb’.

[276] Another instance was that rejoinder of Nasica’s : he had called upon the poet Ennius and, when he inquired for him at his front door, had been told by the housemaid that her master was not at home, which reply Nasica perceived to have been given by the master’s order, he being in fact in the house. A few days later Ennius called at Nasica’s, and asked for him at the entrance, whereupon Nasica called out that he was not at home. ‘ What?’, cries Ennius, ‘Do I not know your voice?’ To which Nasica rejoined, ‘You are a shameless  fellow; when I asked for you, I believed your maid when she said you were not at home; do you not believe me when I tell you the same thing at first hand?’


Chosen by Mary Beard, Newnham College, Cambridge. Mary’s recommended translation is by E.W. Sutton and H. Rackham.

More about Mary Beard.

The above text is provided by the Perseus Digital Library and the translation is from The Loeb Classical Library #348, via the Internet Archive.

Read more of this text at the Perseus site.

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