Date of Award

Spring 1-1-2015

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Jackie M. Elliott

Second Advisor

Carole E. Newlands

Third Advisor

Charles McNelis

Fourth Advisor

Peter McGraw

Fifth Advisor

Andrew Cain


This project analyzes the functions of dark humor in Latin literature of the Flavian period and immediately thereafter. This dark humor, the humorous exploitation of taboos like sexual immorality, cannibalism, and especially death, appears across a variety of genres of the era, from the “high” epic and tragedy, to prose historiography, to the “low” epigram. In order to overcome difficulties in interpreting humor across millennia and cultural differences, the first chapter traces the roots of modern humor theories back to Greek and Roman sources and illustrates these theories with ancient examples. It then uses their methods and vocabularies to guide the distillation of a Roman humor theory. The excurses on wit from Cicero’s De Oratore and Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria reveal a combination of superiority theory and incongruity theories. This enables the confident assessment of the humorous potential of given language in a variety of Latin texts of the Flavian era, the literature of which period this dissertation will argue is characterized by dark humor.

The second chapter examines selections from Martial’s epigrams, which exploits the genre’s traditional affinity with obscenity and death in order to wield dark humor in an assault on epic and tragedy. Statius’ Thebaid, subject of the third chapter, lies at the opposite end of the generic spectrum from epigrams. Otherwise serious and bleak, the martial and mythological epic published in the early 90s confronts the reader on rare occasions with humor which, by violating generic boundaries, reinforces the horror of the nefas, the unspeakable wrong, which constitutes the epic’s material. The fourth chapter shows how the Annals of Tacitus problematize humor as a mode of communication, particularly in and around the persons of the emperors, yet participate in humor in their commentary upon the narrative. This constitutes another example of Tacitus’ style as mirror of content.