Killing Jokes and Suicide Jests

Caricature of one Rufus. Rufus allegedly got so upset that he unleashed the hellfire of Vesuvius upon his fellow Pompeians. – Image source:

Caricature of one Rufus, affectionately nicknamed Mistermaguus by his close friends. Rufus allegedly got so upset that he in his limitless rage unleashed the hellfire of Vesuvius against his fellow Pompeians. Or maybe he didn’t. – Image source:

There are two essential rules for anyone who wants to crack a joke: timing, timing, timing – and be mindful of your audience.

Aelius Lamia, who had his first wife, Domitia Longina, pinched by Domitian, had to learn that lesson the hard way, when he (according to Suetonius’ Life of Domitian) lampooned Rome’s emperor (10.2):

Complures senatores, in iis aliquot consulares, interemit; ex quibus … Aelium Lamiam ob suspiciosos quidem, uerum et ueteres et innoxios iocos, quod post abductam uxorem laudanti uocem suam ‘eutacto’ dixerat quodque Tito hortanti se ad alterum matrimonium responderat: μὴ καὶ σὺ γαμῆσαι θέλεις;

He had many senatores put to death, among which a number of men of consular rank; these included … Aelius Lamia, for admittedly suspect, but in fact rather old and harmless jokes: when, after his wife had been pinched, someone praised his voice, he had responded ‘that’s what abstinence does for you’; and when Titus urged him to marry again, he had responded ‘Don’t tell me you wish to marry also’.

Fairly harmless jokes indeed (and slightly better than what one might expect from a guy called Lame-ia) – but poor timing and little understanding of the audience and the dynamics of audience responses at the time.

But should he not have made the joke in the first place? Was he not entitled to do so – after all, smiling is the best way to show teeth…?

Equally poor judgement was applied by one Sextius Paconianus (an apparently rather unpleasant man who supported the conspiracy of Sejanus) who according to TacitusAnnales took on Rome’s emperor while already imprisoned (Tac. Ann. 6.39.1):

Nec dispares Trebelleni Rufi et Sextii Paconiani exitus: nam Trebellenus sua manu cecidit, Paconianus in carcere ob carmina illic in principem factitata strangulatus est.

The deaths of Trebellenus Rufus and Sextius Paconianus show certain similarities: for Trebellenus fell by his own hand, Paconianus, imprisoned, was strangled to death for poems he repeatedly produced there against the emperor.

In 1919, the German satirist Kurt Tucholsky, under his pen name of Ignaz Wrobel, published an utterly brilliant piece, asking: what may satire do (for those who read German, here is the original text: Was darf die Satire)?

Tucholsky’s answer is as simple as it gets:

What may satire do?


Many of the things said by Tucholsky in his piece, almost one hundred years ago, are still highly topical.

Not only are the Germans still notoriously humourless (trust me, I am German, so I happen to know it for certain – even living in Britain for almost ten years cannot cure this predicament!): also, many a statement made by Tucholsky, mutatis mutandis, captures a common perception of responses to caricatures and similar forms of humorous irreverence directed at highly charged elements and symbols of the Muslim faith (whether they were made in good taste or not).

On 7 January 2015, gunmen shot dead twelve people and injured several more in the Charlie Hebdo HQ in Paris. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical newspaper, which was one of several European satirical magazines that decided to print caricatures of Mohammed, resulting in widespread controversy – not only for this magazine, but more commonly.

Sadness and outrage prevail in the Western world over the assault, which has quickly been labelled an ‘apparent militant Islamist attack‘, in a predictable response, falling for the convenient rhetoric of the attackers as well as that of current anti-Islamic movements.

I prefer to call it what it really was: a ruthless and horrendous assassination carried out by a bunch of brainwashed (or plain insane) psychopaths who, following a common plot, apparently seek motivation for their criminal and despicable actions in a false interpretation of religious texts and the words of those who preach hatred.

Regrettably, it may be a device to radicalise people who previously had no interest whatsoever in conflict.

In that regard, it is beautifully wholesome to see the ways in which creative responses have emerged as well – responses that reflect on, and try to come to terms with, what is a heinous crime, full stop.

Less dramatic, but pertaining to the same category is the absurd story revolving around the release of a (perfectly idiotic) satirical film called The Interview:

Thus far, no North Koreans were reported to have stormed any U.S. cinemas and opened fire there (touch wood!); instead, the fight was carried out in the virtual world and computers were hacked.

It feels good (seemingly) to take the high road – to be able to claim that ‘our’ responses to lampooning, to satire, to caricature are non-violent.

Often they are – but neither are they always non-violent, nor have they been non-violent from a historical perspective.

What may satire do?


Of course, it does not have to do everything, all the time, just for the sake of it, as even Tucholsky admits in his own piece: ‘[w]e certainly should not imitate the worst of the French war caricatures’.


‘Does satire exaggerate? Satire has to exaggerate and is, in its deepest nature, unjust. It inflates the truth to make it clearer, and it can do nothing more than work according to the bible verse: the just will suffer with the unjust.’


‘True satire cleanses the blood: and whosoever has healthy blood, has also a pure complexion.’

For that, however, one must be certain that wholesomeness is what drives satire – not just a mere desire to bully with words, for the fun of it.

A grave obligation on the satirist indeed.

Yet, no one should, like in Roman times, have to fear for their lives for cracking a joke:

‘There isn’t a proper man or a proper class that cannot stand a fair shove. He might defend himself by the same means, he might strike back – but he should not turn away injured, outraged, offended. A cleaner wind would blow through our public life, would they all not take it badly.’

About Peter Kruschwitz

Berliner. Classicist. Scatterbrain.
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