Smiling in Ancient Rome

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Chapter 3 endnote 18, from How Emotions are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain by Lisa Feldman Barrett.
Some context is:

This is not to say that Romans never curled up the edges of their mouths in a formation that would look to us much like a smile; of course they did. But such curling did not mean very much in the range of significant social and cultural gestures in Rome. Conversely, other gestures, which would mean little to us, were much more heavily freighted with significance.[1]

It’s conceivable that even back in Roman times, smiling was an automatic display of happiness but was deemed socially inappropriate. All cultures have what are called “display rules”—norms for when and how to communicate emotion. But the existence of such rules would not prove the existence of “expressions” that they are purportedly suppressing.

An alternative possibility is that sometime in the last few thousand years, smiling became a universal symbol of happiness, or a stereotyped gesture that all is well in the world.

Notes on the Notes

  1. Beard, Mary. 2014. Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up. Berkeley: University of California Press, p. 75.