The University of Wisconsin Press

Classical Studies


Wit and the Writing of History
The Rhetoric of Historiography in Imperial Rome
Paul Plass

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, thence 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 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 a scalpel as well as a sword.

Paul Plass
is professor emeritus in the Department of Classics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is author of many articles and the book The Game of Death in Ancient Rome: Arena Sport and Political Suicide.

Media & bookseller inquiries regarding review copies, events, and interviews can be directed to the publicity department at or (608) 263-0734. (If you want to examine a book for possible course use, please see our Course Books page. If you want to examine a book for possible rights licensing, please see Rights & Permissions.)

October 1988

LC: 88-040193 DG
204 p
p.   6 x 9

The 1988 cloth edition of this book, ISBN 978-0-299-11800-6, is out of print, but the paperback is still available.

Book icon
Paper $18.95 s
ISBN 978-0-299-11804-4
Shopping cart ADD TO CART
  Review cart contents
Secure checkout


Home | Books | Journals | Events | Textbooks | Authors | Related | Search | Order | Contact

If you have trouble accessing any page in this web site, contact our Web manager.

Updated October 27, 2011

© 2011, The Board of Regents of the University of Wisconsin System