Skip to Main Content

Johns Hopkins UniversityArts and Sciences Magazine

[CLASSROOM ENCOUNTERS]

Et Tu, Brute? You Lousy #$@!#!!

Bennett and students
ILLUSTRATION: ROBERT NEUBECKER

 

More than 2,000 years ago, a Roman writer named Gaius Valerius Catullus wrote beautifully crafted poetry filled with passion and devotion that gained him recognition as one of the greatest writers of Latin lyric verse.

The Suns can westward sink again to rise
But we, extinguished onceour tiny light,
Perforce shall slumber throughone lasting night!

This was the kind of poetry by Catullus that Nicole Coscolleula '13, translated in her AP Latin class in high school. Last spring in an undergraduate classics course at Hopkins, the archaeology and classics major read Catullus again. This time, though, the poems she read were laced with obscenities, biting insults, and slanderous invective that the poet lobbed against enemies and friends.The poems, many of whichwere considered too obsceneto be translated accurately until the mid-20th century, were memorable. And not just fortheir language.

"I know that the ancient Romans had very dirty minds," she says. "But reading these poems gives insight into their everyday lives, which is what I'm interested in."

The class, Slander, Abuse, and Mockery: Examining the World of Roman Invective, explores the nature of verbal abuse in ancient Rome, and examines the range with which it was used. Romans hurled insults at one another in literature and in plays, on the floor of the Senate and the forum, and in courts of law. They even scribbled them on walls of public spaces throughout the Roman world.

"There's a lot of hilariousLatin out there that most students don't know about, yet likely played a huge role in Roman daily life," explains course instructor Robert Webber, aclassics graduate student.

Like the most scathing put-downs hurled by Don Rickles and Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Roman invective blends truth and hyperbole in a vulgar, biting way that can only be described as snort-worthy. We'd like to share some verbatim examples of the finest insults the students read and discussed in class but we can't: They're too filthy.

Suffice it to say that in ancient Rome, no topic was off-limits when it came to verbal abuse. You could make fun of a person's physical appearance or disabilities; insult his manliness; talk trash about one's mother, uncle, or wife; question ancestry and ethnicity; and accuse someone of a veritable buffet of sexual perversions. These insults could have tremendous power on one's social standing, reputation, and even mortality.

"When Mark Antony had Cicero killed, he chopped off his head and hands and displayed them in the rostra, the part of the forum where the orators spoke," Webber says. Why? "Because Cicero used these hands to write the Philippics, some of the most famous invective from antiquity, in which Cicero calls Mark Antony everything from a child prostitute to a notorious drunk."

Class readings, which ranged from oratory and commentary to poetry and satire by writers like Catullus, Martial, and Cicero, featured language that's so spicy that senior Luigi LaPietra had difficulty believing that the material he was reading was actually for class.

One class meeting found the students comparing ancient invective with the stuff found scrawled today on bathroom stalls, spray-painted on walls, and situated at the heart of every "Yo' mamma" joke. Their verdict? It's a close match, not just in terms of content, but in terms of structure, LaPietra says. "The graffiti on bathroom stalls is shockingly similar to what you see on the walls of Pompeii."

What Webber wants students in his Dean's Teaching Fellowship class to understand by reading invective is that the values espoused in texts written by aristocrats were not always the values emulated in daily life. For example, Augustus, an emperor who attempted to reform marriage laws, was said to have written dirty lyrics. And although the Romans' official views on sex were conservative, the graffiti found on walls in Pompeii is anything but. "The value I see in this is in talking about how morality, codes of conduct, and behavior are often negotiated through hostile speech," Webber says.

"What I want students to take away from this class is that whatever collective wisdom people assume about right and wrong is usually challenged."

LaPietra, an English major and classics minor, calls the class his favorite of the semester. "We weren't just studying facts and figures and mythological people and dates, we were also studying people. And these people are not so wildly different from us, as we're often led to believe. They're like us. They just happened to live 2,000 years ago."