Tuesday, February 24, 2009

A Diplomatic Faux Pas

Sometimes nations drift almost inadvertently into conflict, summoned into hostilities by a tangle of obscure alliances and barely recalled animosities. On other occasions war is provoked by utterly reckless rudeness and stupidity. Such was the fate of the Tarentines, who put paid to any prospect of peace with their drunken laughter and scatological humour. Cassius Dio in his history claims, with considerable moralising, that:

‘The Romans had learned that the Tarentines and some others were making ready to war against them. The Tarentines, although they had themselves begun the war, nevertheless were sheltered from fear. For the Romans, who understood what they were doing, pretended not to know it on account of their temporary embarrassments. Hereupon the Tarentines, thinking either that they would get off with impunity or that they were entirely unobserved, because they were receiving no complains, behaved still more insolently and forced the Romans even against their will to make war upon them. This confirms the saying that even success, when it comes to men in undue measure, proves a source of misfortune to them; for it leads them on into folly — since moderation will not dwell with vanity — and causes them the gravest disasters.

Dio then relates, probably with some embellishment, how relations between the Romans and the Tarentines reached a new low with the help of some drunken revelry and an impromptu sea battle.

Lucius Valerius, who was admiral of the Romans and had been despatched on some errand by them. Lucius was despatched by the Romans to Tarentum. Now the Tarentines were celebrating the Dionysia, and sitting gorged with wine in the theatre one afternoon, they suspected that he was sailing against them. Immediately, in a passion and partly under the influence of intoxication, they set sail in turn; and thus, without any show of force on his part or the slightest suspicion of any hostile act, they attacked and sent to the bottom both him and many others.

Despite this unforgivable insult the Romans had resolved to make peace and despatched envoys to Tarentum. The encounter could not have gone more badly. According to Mary Beard in this month’s Times Literary Supplement, the chroniclers disagree about the precise details of what happened, but they all agree that Greek laughter was the final straw for the Romans. What caused the Greek’s undiplomatic mirth is a subject of some controversy. One account relates that it was the bad Greek of the leading Roman ambassador, Postumius which was so ungrammatical and strangely accented that the Tarentines could not conceal their amusement. Cassius Dio gives a more lurid account

But the Tarentines, so far from receiving them decently or even sending them back with an answer in any way suitable, at once, before so much as granting them an audience, made sport of their dress and general appearance. It was the city garb, which was in use in the Forum; and this the envoys had put on, either for the sake of dignity or else by way of precaution, thinking that this at least would cause the foreigners to respect their position. Bands of revellers accordingly jeered at them — they were also celebrating a festival, which, though they were at no time noted for temperate behaviour, rendered them still more wanton

Here things went from bad to worse:

and finally a man planted himself in the way of Postumius, and stooping over, relieved his bowels and soiled the envoy's clothing. At this an uproar arose from all the rest, who praised the fellow as if he had performed some remarkable deed, and they sang many scurrilous verses against the Romans, accompanied by applause and capering steps. But Postumius cried: "Laugh, laugh while you may! For long will be the period of your weeping, when you shall wash this garment clean with your blood”

In time the Tarentines would come to learn a valuable lesson; never shit on a Roman’s toga.

Some more examples of Ancient Greek humour

These jokes are from the recently uncovered Philogelos: The Laugh Addict, the oldest existing collection of jokes. See here for the full collection.

Someone needled a well-known wit: "I had your wife, without paying a penny". He replied: "It's my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?"

An intellectual during the night ravished his grandmother and for this got a beating from his father. He complained: "You've been mounting my mother for a long time, without suffering any consequences from me. And now you're mad that you found me screwing your mother for the first time ever!"

An Abderite sees a eunuch talking with a woman and asks him if she's his wife. The guy responds that a eunuch is unable to have a wife. "Ah, so she's your daughter? "

A misogynist is attending to the burial of his wife, who has just died, when someone asks: "Who is it who rests in peace here?". He answers: "Me,

Discuss this post at the Quodlibeta Forum


Anonymous said...

What is the Ancient Greek for: "It's the way you tell 'em"?

My favourite "classical" joke is from "Carry on Cleo" when Kenneth Williams as Caesar - about to be assassinated - proclaims with much gravitas and dignitas: Infamy, infamy, they've all got it in for me!
What would that be in Latin, I wonder?

Humphrey said...

I shall ask my wife as she is a Latin scholar. Having said that, every time I have asked her to translate something silly in the past, like 'catapults don't kill people, people do', she turns up her nose at it. Got too many of those 'Extreme Latin' books for Christmas methinks.

Anonymous said...

Non ballistae sed homines homines necant would be my guess at the catapults thingy though I've a feeling there must be a better word for kill than "necare" something with "-cidere". I think "infamy etc." will be a bit more difficult, maybe we'll have to stick with "et tu, Brute"

Humphrey said...

'If you mess with me I will soil your toga' has a nice ring to it.

And from Carry on Cleo, 'Nihil expectore in omnibus' - no spitting on the public transport.