The ancient lover of laughter

There are few better ways to die than by and through laughter. People have been dying of laughter since at least the 5th century BC, when the Greek painter Zeuxis reportedly died laughing at his Portrait of Aphrodite As a Crone.

There is no reason to doubt that humans have been telling jokes since the moment they became self-aware and aware of their own ridicule – as well as that of others. Humour feels natural, and some jokes are immortal.

There was no deficit of laughing in ancient Greece and Rome, as Mary Beard has pointed out in her book Laughter in Ancient Rome. Though it might be hard to capture the mechanics of ancient humour and its symptomatology (how the ancients laughed, what they laughed at, etc), there is overwhelming evidence that stand-up (and sitting-down) comedy was present on the ancient Mediterranean shores.

In lieu of audio/video recordings of ancient Greeks and Romans cracking jokes – which alas we’ll never have –, we are lucky to possess a collection of jokes, the Philogelos (The Laughter Lover) from, it is believed, the 4th century AD (but surviving in much later manuscripts). Written in ancient Greek, the Philogelos contains some 260 jokes, some funnier than others. They are ordered thematically: there are jokes about university men or schlastikoi (I’ve followed Mary Beard in calling them eggheads); there are some about gluttons, drunkards and wife-haters, as well as some delicious ‘ethno-jokes’ about the inhabitants of Abdera, known for being absurd, Sidon, for being silly, and Kyme, for being crazy.

I’ve included a selection of some of my favourite jokes in the book. I’ve used Professor William Berg’s translation.

  • An egghead went swimming and almost drowned. So now he swears he’ll never get into water until he’s really learned to swim.
  • An egghead is going to the city. His friend says, ‘Do me a favour and buy me a couple of fifteen-year-old slaves.’ ‘No problem’, responds the egghead. ‘If I don’t find two fifteen-year-olds, I’ll get you one thirty-year-old.’
  • Slavery is no joke to us, but things were different for the ancients. If a slave was nothing more than a possessed object, then the death of a slave was nothing more than a quality of their functionality, what ‘slaves did’, like a machine crashing beyond repair. To put it literally….

    A man goes up to an egghead and says: ‘The slave you sold me died’. ‘By the gods’, counters the egghead, ‘when he was with me, he never did any such thing’.

    The ancients grouped gags into two categories, ‘de re’ and ‘de verbo’, that is, jokes based on the story, and those based on words, in other words, pun-based jokes.

    Pun(ch) lines.

    Good jokes were said to be salsa, ‘salty’, while bad ones were frigida, cold, what we might call insipid.

    Most of the ‘de re’ gags of the Philogelos depend on humour stemming from logical errors and errors of reasoning. Like this one:

    A Sidonian Centurion addresses the troops: ‘Today I want you to sit a lot, because tomorrow you’re going to do a lot of marching’.

    Or this one:

    “Someone met an egghead and said, ‘My learned sir, I saw you in a dream.’ ‘Good god,’ he replied, ‘I was so busy I didn’t notice you’”

    Now for a couple of jokes ‘de verbo’:

    Back in the year of the Millenial Games in Rome in 248 AD, an egghead saw a defeated athlete in tears. ‘Don’t feel bad’, the egghead reassured him, ‘ At the next Millenial Games you’ll be a winner’.

    An egghead is a guest at a wedding. As he leaves the party, he wishes the couple: ‘Many happy returns’.

    And another one, since I can’t resist:

    When the chatty barber asks him, ‘How shall I cut your hair?’, a quick wit answers, ‘Silently’.

    And a joke ‘de re’:

    ‘A stupid astrologer reads a child’s horoscope: ‘This boy will be a lawyer, then a prefect, then a chief magistrate.’ Well, the child dies. When his mother runs into the astrologer again, she says, ‘The one you said would be a lawyer and a prefect and a chief magistrate – he’s dead!’ ‘I swear on the boy’s tomb’, says he, ‘if he had lived, he would have become all those things!’

    And finally:

    Shopping for windows, a Kymaean [inhabitant of Kyme] asks if there are any that look south.

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