From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
"But now, to my mind, the Roman humor was correspondent in depth with the national character ; something on the same scale with its sense of patriotism, and its notions of discipline. I fancy it clumsy, perhaps, but grandly genial, and such as laughter should be, to shake the sides of men who shook the world ! Consider the Saturnalia, for instance, and compare them with our Greenwich and the " fun of the fair ! " — A huge city and its institutions turned upside down ; slaves jeering their masters, in a style to astonish Uncle Tom ; blazing revelry, and feasting and drinking, that would kill our aldermen ; fun, in fact, proportionate to the seriousness of other times, as nature arranges these matters. Or, consider such a scene as this : Julius Caesar, in his triumph, rolling along the streets to the Capitol, and the common soldiers following behind, and shouting out satirical doggerel against him !" --Satire and Satirists - James Hannay
Not much research has been dedicated to Roman humor.
The genre of satire was traditionally regarded as a Roman innovation, and satires were written by, among others, Juvenal and Persius. Some of the most popular plays of the early Republic were comedies, especially those of Terence, a freed Roman slave captured during the First Punic War.
Stock characters were very important in Roman comedy. A stock character is one that the audience will be familiar with and that is used in many plays. They were greatly used by Plautus. Stock characters could sometimes even be recognized by their speech. The costumes they wore varied with the type of show but were used to identify the type of character. Over time these outfits became more realistic. The standard costume base was a tunic and cloak. At first masks were common because actors would play multiple characters and the masks made them easier to distinguish. Over time the comedic masks became grotesquely exaggerated.
The adulescens was the hero, who is young, rich, love-struck and none too brave. He tends to bemoan his fate and requires backup. Another character often has to take action on his behalf. His father is often the senex, whom he fears, but does not respect. He wears a dark wig and his clothes are usually crimson.
The senex (old man) has several incarnations. As the father he is either too strict or too soft; either one he does out of love for his son. As the lover he embarrasses his son, his slave, and his wife. He tends to be passionately in love with the same woman as his son, who is much too young for the senex. He never gets the girl and is often dragged off by his irate wife. Sometimes he is a friend of the family who helps the adulescens. He is often a miser, who wears a straight undergarment with long doubled sleeves. It is white and he sometimes carries a staff.
The leno runs the brothel. The love interest of the adulescens may be owned by the leno and work at his brothel so the adulescens is often forced to deal with him. He is unabashedly amoral and is only interested in money. He dresses in a tunic and mantel and is often bald with a moneybag.
The miles gloriosus, literally braggart soldier, is a character that is especially familiar today. He loves himself more than anything else and sees himself as handsome and brave, while in reality he is very stupid, cowardly, and gullible. He may be interested in the same girl as the adulescens'. He wears a tunic with long sleeves and has curly hair.
The parasitus or parasite lives only for himself. He is often seen begging meals or being refused them. He lies for his own gain. He dresses in a long, black or gray garment with long, doubled sleeves.
The servi (slaves) take up about half of the cast and often have the most monologues. They are not the toilers typical of a real Roman home. The servus callidus or clever slave is always talkative, but his other traits vary. Most of the time he is loyal, more so to the adulescens than the senex. He brings tricks and comedy and tends to drive the plot. He is often the one who finds the truth out at the end of the play. He could be identified by his tendency to use alliteration and meter in his speech. The servi wear tunics and hold or carry scarves.
The ancilla is a maid or nurse of no particular age. She is a minor character used to move the plot by presenting information or helping to develop another character. She is a tool of her mistress and may be used as a messenger.
The matrona (mother), mulier (woman), or uxor (wife) is shrewd. She loves her children, but is temperamental towards her husband. She does not have to be a devoted wife, but sometimes is. She wears a long garment with flowing sleeves and a mantel.
The meretrix (prostitute) is either a mercenary or devoted. The first type is older or more experienced and has seen a lot. The second type is truly in love with the adulescens. Both are very attractive with a complex hairdo and outfit, which is yellow. She also has a mantel.
The virgo (young maiden) is the love interest of the adulescens, but does not get much stage time. She is beautiful and virtuous with little personality. She is treated as a prize.
- Amy Richlin, The Garden of Priapus: Sexuality and Aggression in Roman Humor (Oxford University Press, 1983, 1992)
- Elegiac comedy
- Fabula palliata
- Theatre of ancient Rome
- Latin satire
- Greek humor
- Roman caricature
- Roman comedy
- Roman culture
- Roman jokes
- Roman satire