Back during the time of the Roman Republic, insults were part-and-parcel of politics – something that still rings true today, unfortunately. According to Martin Jehne, a professor of history at the Technical University of Dresden, such discourse was “similar to insults, threats and hate speech on the Internet today.”
“The attacks, also known as invectives, were an integral part of public life for senators of the Roman Republic,” he explains. Politicians “ruthlessly” insulted each other, but they also allowed people to insult them without being able to respond – “an outlet that, in a profound division of rich and poor, limited the omnipotence fantasies of the elite.”
At this point, it’s easy to think of the President of the United States, who has insulted a profound number of people from disabled reporters to entire nations and cultures.
Contrary to what some outlets have reported, Jehne doesn’t say insults were “worse” before social media.
What he does in fact say is that the rhetoric spouted by today’s extremist groups, such as Germany’s Pegida, seem and are undeniably awful, but his research on Roman Republic-era insults has led him to “considerably reduce [his] level of excitement at new abuses in the present.” Essentially, we'd be surprised at the outrageous but of-their-time nature of the insults back then.
It’s worth stressing that it’s hard to definitively say whether or not insults were worse back then compared to now. Insults aren’t just about using language deemed to be offensive; context is all-important, as is the manner in which the insults are being directed to the target.
Jehne gives this example of a particularly mean-spirited insult back in the 1st Century BCE. Clodius, a Roman politician, accused fellow lawmaker Cicero of “acting like a king when holding the position of consul.” Jehne describes this as a "serious accusation, since royalty in the Roman Republic was frowned upon” – but such shade would not pass muster today.
Similarly, look at some of the insults used in Shakespeare’s many plays. Telling someone that they “art a flesh-monger, a fool and a coward” (Measure for Measure) may have seemed pretty harsh back then, but the way it’s phrased alone makes it seem more bizarre than offensive today.
The same applies to the verbiage in Henry IV, where Falstaff offers this doozy: “Away, you scullion, you rampallion, you fustilarian! I’ll tickle your catastrophe.”
The BBC’s editorial guidelines make for an enlightening read. They note that “strong language” just means that which has the potential to offend, but they stress that “language is fluid” and that the “power of established terms to offend may change over time.”
Wanker, that glorious Britishism, may seriously offend some and not offend others, which is why the BBC suggests it could cause “moderate” offense.
Sure, calling someone incestuous today in a manner meant to cause an upset will probably achieve just that, just as it did thousands of years ago. Certainly, humans have been verbally nasty to each other for a very, very long time, and some may be overstepping social boundaries now in a comparable way to how politicians crossed such lines back then.
The difference today is that the Internet, and social media, provides an immediacy and anonymity that’s only been hinted at in the past. Insults today reach more people, and quicker, than they ever would have, which isn’t exactly ideal.