The Emperor is a Joke: Laughter and Mockery in Tacitus

  • Author / Creator
    Lundgren, Jason
  • Comedy and Tacitus are not two words that readily go together. Yet Tacitus, the most important Roman historian of the early Imperial period, used the satirical themes of laughter and mockery in certain scenes of the Annales to highlight the decline of the principate from Claudius to Nero. These themes are used to highlight the absurd and the growing danger that the principate is in. Three episodes in the Annales stand out for their use of humor and mockery towards the emperor: the first is when Messalina boldly makes Claudius a cuckold, showing the emperor to be a weak, passive leader, unable to demonstrate leadership qualities in the face of a crisis. The second is during Nero’s eulogy to Claudius, when laughter at the fallen emperor’s expense allows Nero to realize that he can rewrite the script and make his reign all about performance. The third is an episode that threatens to enter the genre of slapstick comedy: the episode where Nero decides to get rid of his mother. It is a scene infused with humor by Tacitus, showing us the absurdity of an emperor’s plan and a principate entering a new realm of performance over truth. The Annales is a work about decline with humor used as the occasional—and therefore striking—exclamation points. Tacitus uses laughter and mockery to show how increasing levels of theatricality and incompetence are contributing to this decline, threatening to cause the very disintegration of the empire. Tacitus shows a leader in Claudius who does not know the script that he is supposed to perform; while Nero however believes that it is all about performance, coming at the expense of reality—to the eventual detriment of both himself and the empire. Tacitus uses mockery as a way to reveal the truth through the obscurity, and laughter is revealed as a threat to the legitimacy of power.

  • Subjects / Keywords
  • Graduation date
    Fall 2021
  • Type of Item
  • Degree
    Master of Arts
  • DOI
  • License
    This thesis is made available by the University of Alberta Libraries with permission of the copyright owner solely for non-commercial purposes. This thesis, or any portion thereof, may not otherwise be copied or reproduced without the written consent of the copyright owner, except to the extent permitted by Canadian copyright law.