Monday, February 27, 2012


Jokes the Romans Found Funny


Instinctively, we know that humor is nothing new, but finding evidence of graffiti and written jokes in stone thousands of years old provides solid confirmation of that.

Some of the earliest evidence of funny graffiti is found in Pompeii (an ancient Roman city that was covered with ash and pumice from the volcano Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD). Apparently, the Pompeian propensity for scribbling various funny stuff on walls was so common that an enteprising Pompeian commented wryly: "I am amazed, O Wall, that you have not collapsed and fallen, since you must bear the tedious stupidities of so many scrawlers."

The oldest surviving joke book of Western Europe is said to be the Philolegos, or The Laughter Lover in English. This book written in Greek is from 400–500 AD and contains 265 jokes that cover various stereotypes of the times: the "egghead" (intellectual) or absent-minded professor, the eunuch, toilet humor, people with hernias or bad breath, or certain types of foreigners like people from Abdera, a city in Thrace.

"An intellectual was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. 'Don’t cry,' he consoled them, 'I have freed you all in my will.'"

"A man complains that the slave he has recently purchased has died. 'By the gods,' says the slave's former owner, 'when he was with me, he never did any such thing.'" (Note, the resemblance with the dead parrot sketch in Monty Python's Flying Circus.)

"A barber, a bald man, and an absent-minded professor take a journey together. They have to camp overnight, so they decide to take turns watching the luggage. When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, and so he amuses himself by shaving the head of the professor. When the professor is woken up for his shift, he feels his head, and says, "How stupid is that barber? He's woken up the bald man instead of me."

"Wishing to teach his donkey not to eat, a pedant did not offer him any food. When the donkey died of hunger, he said, "I've had a great loss. Just when he had learned not to eat, he died."

"An egghead was writing a letter from Athens to his father. Wanting to show off over how well his studies were going, he added this postscript: 'I pray that when I come home I shall find you on trial for your life, so that I can show you how great an advocate I am'."

At a lecture in Newcastle University in March 2009, Mary Beard showed that The Laughter Lover "contains a number of recognizable one-liners, not a form of humor typically associated with the sober-sided Romans." Mary Beard is a professor in classics at Cambridge and classics editor of the Times Literary Supplement.

One key question Beard asked is: "When we laugh at Roman jokes—if we do—are we are laughing at the same things they did?" What people find funny depends on social mores, ethical mores, culture, race, gender, external events, education, and many more factors. Also what a person finds funny one day, he may not find funny after a few years. So it's quite likely that our interpretation of a joke's funny elements might not be the same reason the Romans found that joke funny.

[An aside: The oldest British joke dates back to the tenth century and reveals the bawdy face of the Anglo-Saxons: "What hangs at a man's thigh and wants to poke the hole that it's often poked before? Answer: A key."]


4 comments:

Grace Burrowes said...

What an interesting post, but how in the world did we manage to preserve a joke book from so long ago?

Keira Soleore said...

Grace, thanks for visiting and commenting.

The Philolegos has been recently translated by William Berg and mentions in his foreword that the translation is from 11th-15th century manuscripts. However, from the content and context of the words, the collection can be dated to the 4th century. The entire preface is on pages 6 & 7.

Anonymous said...

Interesting, this article reminds me of something written in the Guardian in 2009, the similarities are quite amazing.
http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2009/mar/13/roman-joke-book-beard

Anonymous said...

I've read the Mary Beard article as well - this is so similar it defies belief! If it was one of my students' efforts I'd suggest they'd plagarised it....