Introductory Seminars for First-Year Students

Making Fun of History: Insults, Mockery and Abuse Language in Antiquity


At the beginning of Homer's Iliad, the oldest known epic from Ancient Greece, the divine warrior Achilles calls king Agamemnon, commander of the Greek army, a "drunken, greedy dog-face" with "the heart of a deer." The king is understandably upset and so punishes Achilles, setting in motion the tragic consequences of the poem. This 3000-year-old altercation clearly shows that people have mocked each other for as long as there has been language with which to do it. Yet insults can be difficult to pin down: a word or phrase may seem mocking or abusive to one person but neutral, friendly, or even funny to another. At the same time, apparent praise or even a compliment can be insulting if said in a specific way or at a particular time. A great deal depends on context.

In this course we will study insults and abuse language in the context of ancient Greece and Rome. Primary readings (in translation) will be from Homer,  Aristophanes, and Demosthenes among the Greeks; Plautus, Catullus, and Seneca among the Romans, as well as a variety of vernacular sources from both languages, such as ancient wall-graffiti, personal letters, and magical curse tablets. Throughout the course we will compare ancient and modern examples, using sources such as contemporary film, music, and political speeches. These comparisons will also let us explore different sociological, anthropological, and linguistic models for understanding the social role of insult. By studying the slippery phenomenon of insult and verbal abuse, we can learn a great deal about human communication and even human nature.

Coursework will largely comprise reading/consumption of primary sources, and then in-class discussion of the same. Other assignments will include several brief reflection papers, an in-class presentation on a topic of choice, and a final "creative project" designed around analyzing insults in use.  

No knowledge of Latin, Greek, Literature, or Linguistics is assumed or required for this course.

Meet the Instructor(s)

Hans Bork

"I am fascinated by the social role of language, especially the way people use it—often unconsciously—to define personal identity. This interest drives all of my research, albeit in different ways: I am broadly interested in the historical development of Greek and Latin, as well as historical dialectology and sociolinguistics; that, is how people come together (or not) over time to form different speech communities, often with significant consequences. More narrowly, I study how linguistic identity is central to humor (especially insult humor) such as that in the Latin-speaking playwright Plautus. Humor, like insult, is universal in human communication, but frustratingly difficult to define. I look forward to thinking about the problem more with a group of interested students!"