Wit has many uses in political discourse—to entertain, to underscore or unmask, to hinder or enhance insight. Wit and the Writing of History focuses on how this potential is realized in the historiography of the earlier Principate. Preeminently in Tacitus, to a lesser degree in Suetonius and Dio Cassius, wit is a vehicle for political understanding and judgment of the historical account. As part of Roman political life, hostile anecdotal or epigrammatic wit was deeply embedded in the sources used by historians and is reflected in the rhetoric of their narratives. Some anecdotes may, in fact, have been mere jests later taken as fact, hence the frequent problem of credulity. But what is historically false can be politically true. Not only were political jokes a weapon for making some fair points against the Principate; ancient rhetorical theory recognized that wit in general arises from a violation of normal, expected ways of thinking. What is “funny” is thus disturbing in a serious way as well as amusing, and in the hands of Tacitus wit becomes scalpel as well as sword.
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