There’s a joke that the emperor Augustus is supposed to have made one day at the expense of one of his slaves. This particular slave was a nomenculator. His job was to remember the names of all the noteworthy citizens that Augustus might come across when out and about in the Forum or other public areas of the city, and prompt his memory if necessary, ensuring that everyone left an encounter with the emperor feeling not only that they had made a real connection, but that the emperor knew them – and they knew him – personally. This nomenculator, however, had been giving Augustus grief. He could never remember any of the names. So, one morning, when he asked the emperor if there was anything he needed to take down to the Forum for the day’s business, Augustus replied, ‘You’d better take some letters of introduction with you – as you don’t know anyone there.’
The joke (you can find it in Macrobius’ Saturnalia, book 2) fell somewhat flat when repeated at Grad Tea yesterday. True, this was something to do with yours truly forgetting the punchline (the shame..), but even when repeated correctly we had to agree that something had been lost over the past two thousand years, or it had never been really funny in the first place. I wondered how the joke had been received on its first telling (assuming that the anecdote wasn’t fictional). Was this a jolly episode of a benign, twinkly-eyed Augustus – Brian Blessed in I, Claudius – having a gentle laugh with his courtiers at the slave’s expense? In other words, a genuinely amusing event? Or was this a more cold and intimidating Augustus – Simon Woods in Rome – whose rather flat joke was immediately met, like a Bond villain’s, with gales of over-loud laughter? Or something in between? More generally, why collect jokes like this in the first place? Why tell a story about a wisecracking emperor?
Macrobius collects other jokes by Augustus. They are not quite the collected Laconic sayings of King Leonidas or other notable Spartans (‘Eat a hearty breakfast Spartans…’, ‘Then we’ll fight in the shade…’), but are much more domestic – troubles with slaves, or the contractors on his new public buildings, and Macrobius also includes comments by his daughter Julia. These anecdotes about what we’ll euphemistically call her freer lifestyle undercut Augustus’ stern moral policies, and as a collection they turn the emperor into the butt of the meta-joke –the father who tried to legislate Roman morals but could not control his daughter. ‘He forgets that he is Caesar; but I remember that I am Caesar’s daughter.’ The Julio-Claudian household has become a New Comedy, sitcom home. Is the point about recording the emperor’s jokes that the man who became a god was just an Ordinary (Family) Guy? (Implied: not like the rulers we have nowadays…)
But of course, we know that Julia was not allowed to make fun of the emperor forever. (All together: ‘IS THERE ANYONE IN ROME WHO HAS NOT SLEPT WITH MY DAUGHTER??!!’) Is the point about an emperor’s jokes that the he always gets the last laugh, or just the laugh, even when the joke isn’t funny? Or is it more than that: when you don’t have a choice not to laugh, there really is no joke. In fact the joke is on you, for colluding in the charade. Rather than participating in a humorous moment between equals, you’ve become little more than a laughter track. And the reader of Macrobius knows that at least Augustus’s ‘jokes’ were harmless. What about the ‘little jokes’ of later, more unstable emperors – say Caligula’s brothel on the Palatine? What does your forced laughter mean then?
In fact, we might conclude that what we learn from a collection of imperial jokes is that an emperor can’t joke – not like you or me. Anecdotes like this only serve to underscore the difference between ruler and ruled, just like those posed shots of open-neck-shirted politicians with their families that only serve to make them seem more artificial. The imbalance of power distorts normal social relations to such an extent that even this basic form of interaction is stilted. It’s artificial: just like your supposedly personal encounter with him, in fact prompted by a slave.