Saturday, April 28, 2018

Laughter as a Political Weapon in Ancient Sparta

In his book Greek Laughter: A Study of Cultural Psychology from Homer to Early Christianity, Stephen Halliwell says that “in Greek culture laughter was associated with the unruliness of the young, the surging energy of bodily instincts, and the insolence, even subversiveness, of mockery.”

The militaristic Spartans were especially averse to laughter. The intellectuals of the classical period project an unsympathetic image of the Spartans as generally dour and, by implication, averse to laughter.

But even the Spartans with their rigorous militaristic values could not implement a complete social control of laughter. In The Histories, Herodotus refers to an instance where laughter is deployed as a political weapon in Sparta. Here’s an excerpt from Halliwell’s book (page 49):
As it happens, a story in Herodotus gives us something at least approximating to one glimpse of a real (at any rate credible) use of devastating laughter as a political weapon in late archaic Sparta. It concerns the occasion, in the late 490s, when Demaratus, deposed from the kingship on the grounds of doubts about his paternity and now the holder of a lesser magistracy, was publicly insulted by his royal successor Leotychidas. Herodotus narrates how the latter sent a slave to ask Demaratus in public, at the festival of the Gumnopaidiai, what it was like to be a mere magistrate after having been king. Leotychidas’ motive, according to the historian, was to direct laughter and contempt against Demaratus. The festival setting is intriguing: was Leotychidas ironically taking advantage of the more general conventions of festive mockery which later sources report (see on Plutarch above)? Demaratus is said to have attempted a barbed rejoinder (including a thinly veiled threat) before leaving the gathering in shame, with his head covered, and shortly afterwards defecting to Persia. But was Leotychidas’ behavior appropriate for a Spartan king? Whatever its historical credentials, the anecdote could be thought to send ambiguous signals. It shows laughter being employed in a manner which reflects a pent-up power perhaps indicative of Spartan psychology, while at the same time leaving one to wonder whether its calculated offensiveness conforms to or breaches Spartan protocols of self-discipline. The use of a slave to relay the question from king to ex-king nicely encapsulates the problem: it adds to the public humiliation while avoiding face-to-face ridicule. Leotychidas himself laughs, as it were, from a distance. It is not merely pedantic to point out that Herodotus’ text does not tell us whether other Spartans, hearing the question put to Demaratus, actually laughed too. But the historian’s own narrative does later recount how Leotychidas ‘paid the price’ for his treatment of Demaratus. He suffered his own ignominy and died in exile.

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