Humour in the Ancient World

Laughing Legionaries

Laughing Legionaries

An Abderite saw a eunuch and asked him how many kids he had. When that guy said that he didn’t have the balls, so as to be able to have children, the Abderite asked when he was going to get the balls (Philagelos, #114)

Is that funny to you? A little? Or does it make you scratch your head and wonder if I’ve gone off the deep end?

It’s not my joke, thankfully. In truth, I’m not a very funny person, but I do enjoy a good laugh, as many of us do.

The joke above is actually a Roman joke about 2000 years old. Yes, that old. It’s one of 250-odd jokes in the oldest joke book in the world known as the Philagelos, or ‘The Laughter Lover’. It is thought that this text is a compendium of jokes over several hundred years. The earliest manuscript is thought to date to the 4th or 5th centuries A.D.

I'm not funny!

I’m not funny!

Humour in the ancient world is not really something I’ve thought about in my writing and research. If there has ever been humour in my books, it has been a reflection of my own modern perceptions of what humour is, or should be. Otherwise, my modern readers would be left scratching their heads.

A colleague of mine recently shared a CBC interview with eminent classicist and historian Mary Beard on the subject of her book about humour in the Roman world entitled: Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up

Mary Beard

Mary Beard

The wonderful interview with Mary Beard got me to thinking about this little-thought-of aspect of life in the ancient world.

Here is the sound clip for the interview which runs about 50 minutes.

As I mentioned, I’m not funny, so until recently my idea of humour in the ancient world was partly based on the musical A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum by the brilliant Stephen Sondheim. The latter is not a completely inaccurate view since the story is based on the farces of the Roman playwright Plautus (251–183 BC). Bawdiness played a large role from the theatre to the marching songs of Rome’s legionaries.

Slap stick comedy was a part of humour in the ancient world, but in the interview Mary Beard has put forth the idea that there are other aspects of ancient humour which we might not, or cannot, understand.

A professional beggar had been letting his girlfriend think that he was rich and of noble birth. Once, when he was getting a handout at the neighbor’s house, he suddenly saw her. He turned around and said: “Have my dinner-clothes sent here.” (Philagelos, #106)

When it comes to many ancient jokes, our cultural and temporal disconnect make them simply ‘not funny’.

Another reason why the humour of some ancient jokes may be lost on us is that perhaps the medieval monks copying these down simply made mistakes or interpreted them incorrectly.

Salve, Titus! Heard any good jokes lately?

Salve, Titus! Heard any good jokes lately?

Mary Beard points out that there is no real way to know how ancient people laughed either. This is a bit of a trickier concept to wrap one’s head around. What were ancients’ reactions to laughing? Did they have uncontrollable laughter?

My thought is that yes, maybe our jokes are different from what Roman jokes were, just like how some people find Monty Python funny (I know I do!), while others wonder what the big deal is. I also think that we are perhaps not so different in our physical reactions. For example, there is the quote from Cassius Dio, whom I have used as a source for much of my writing, and who Mary Beard uses as an example.

Anybody heard the one about the intellectual?

Anybody heard the one about the intellectual?

Here is a portion from the Roman History in which Cassius Dio and other senators are watching Emperor Commodus slay ostriches in the amphitheatre. As we know, Commodus was off his head, and prone to killing whomever he wanted.

This fear was shared by all, by us senators as well as by the rest. And here is another thing that he did to us senators which gave us every reason to look for our death. Having killed an ostrich and cut off his head, he came up to where we were sitting, holding the head in his left hand and in his right hand raising aloft his bloody sword; and though he spoke not a word, yet he wagged his head with a grin, indicating that he would treat us in the same way. And many would indeed have perished by the sword on the spot, for laughing at him (for it was laughter rather than indignation that overcame us), if I had not chewed some laurel leaves, which I got from my garland, myself, and persuaded the others who were sitting near me to do the same, so that in the steady movement of our armies we might conceal the fact that we were laughing. (Cassius Dio, Roman History LXXIII)

What a sight that must have been! Even though it meant certain death, Dio and the other senators had to chew laurels so as not to give in to what was presumably an urge to laugh hysterically.

A young man said to his libido-driven wife: “What should we do, darling? Eat or have sex?” And she replied: “You can choose. But there’s not a crumb in the house.” (Philagelos, #244)

How about some tickles?

How about some tickles?

Bawdiness creeps in all the time in ancient humour, and why not? Everyone (well almost everyone) likes a sex joke. If you peruse the jokes in the Philagelos, you’ll see that many of them have to do with sex.

And this didn’t just apply to the Romans. The ancient Greeks found sex and humour to be comfortable bedfellows (no pun intended).

I remember going to an evening performance of Aristophanes’ Lysistrata at the ancient theatre of Epidaurus one summer night. It was a beautiful setting with the mountains as a backdrop to the ancient odeon, the sun setting orange and red, and then a great canopy of silver stars in the sky above.

Lysistrata is a play about a woman’s determination to stop the Peloponnesian War by withholding sex from her husband, and getting all other women to do the same. It seemed quite the political statement on the waste and futility of war, as well as ancient gender issues.

You're not getting any until you end this stupid war!

You’re not getting any until you end this stupid war!

But then the men, who had not had sex for a long time, came prancing about the stage with giant, bulbous phalluses dangling between their legs, moaning with the pain of their ancient world blue balls. Some of the crowd roared with laughter, others tittered in embarrassment, and still others sat stalk still like the statues in the site museum.

Perhaps that is the point? Maybe in ancient times, just as today, some jokes were funny to some and not to others? Are we that different from our ancient Roman and Greek counterparts?

Ms. Beard points out that ancient writers like Cicero speak of the different types of humour. There is derision (laughing at others), puns (word play), incongruity (pairing of opposites), and humour as a release from tension.

An incompetent astrologer cast a boy’s horoscope and said: “He will be a lawyer, then a city-official, then a governor.” But when this child died, the mother confronted the astrologer: “He’s dead — the one you said was going to be a lawyer and an official and a governor.” “By his holy memory,” he replied, “if he had lived, he would have been all of those things!” (Philgelos, #202)

Maybe we’re not so different after all?

She also mentions tickling, and how Romans are said to have felt ticklish on their lips, a part that has been highly erotized today. Prostitutes, she says, were said to be ‘big laughers’.

I think you're hilarious!

I think you’re hilarious, Lupa!

Hmmm.

I don’t frequent brothels, but perhaps that is as true today as it was 1500 years ago.

This is a much bigger topic than I had expected. It’s fascinating to think of laughter in an ancient context.

Do I find ancient jokes funnier than before? Not really, though I do find they reveal something more of Roman society.

Will I start inserting ancient jokes in my writing?

No, unless I too find it funny.

The reason for this is that when an author writes humour in historical fiction, if he or she wants his or her audience to actually find it funny, it will need to resonate with our modern-day humour and ways of laughter. The audience has to recognize it to an extent. That doesn’t mean a joke that modern readers will understand can’t be cloaked in ancient garb.

At the end of the day, perhaps it is as simple as this: there will always be crap jokes, but it is the funny ones that stand out, that will tickle you and set you to laughing.

Thank you for reading.

I’d love to hear what your thoughts are in the comments below.

Would you like to see ancient jokes transferred to your historical fiction exactly as they are? Or should humour be written in a way that a modern audience can understand it?

Lastly, if you have looked at the Philagelos (Click HERE to read it!), which joke is your favourite?

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4 thoughts on “Humour in the Ancient World

    • Thank you very much for the kind words L.A. I really appreciate it, and am glad you enjoyed it. The Mary Beard talk is a good one, and very entertaining. Cheers 🙂

  1. I am a big fan of Mary Beard, love to watch and listen to her documentaries. Her passion is riveting to watch and learn from.
    I think humour hasn’t changed much at all, just the context. The eunuch joke was pretty funny. Our jokes today can have a nasty edge to them as well, hiding behind sarcasm to deflect the hurtful meaning.
    An enjoyable post Adam and I learnt a lot 😀
    cheers
    Luciana
    PS: I’m a bit behind on reading the blogs I follow. Still lots to catch up on.

    • Glad you liked this one, Luciana. Yes, Mary Beard is very entertaining. Her series on life in Ancient Rome was great too. I think you can see it on YouTube. Thanks for your comments 🙂

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