We may admire the satires of Horace and Lucilius, but the ancient Romans haven't hitherto been thought of as masters of the one-liner. This could be about to change, however, after the discovery of a classical joke book.Celebrated classics professor Mary Beard has brought to light a volume more than 1,600 years old, which she says shows the Romans not to be the "pompous, bridge-building toga wearers" they're often seen as, but rather a race ready to laugh at themselves.Written in Greek, Philogelos, or The Laughter Lover, dates to the third or fourth century AD, and contains some 260 jokes which Beard said are "very similar" tothe jokes we have today, although peopled with different stereotypes – the "egghead", or absent-minded professor, is a particular figure of fun, along with the eunuch, and people with hernias or bad breath.
also poking fun at certain types of foreigners – people from Abdera, a
city in Thrace, were very, very stupid, almost as stupid as [they
thought] eggheads [were]," said Beard.
An ancient version of Monty
Python's dead parrot sketch sees a man buy a slave, who dies shortly
When he complains to the seller, he is told: "He didn't die
when I owned him."
Beard's favourite joke is a
version of the Englishman, Irishman, Scotsman variety, with a barber, a
bald man and an absent-minded professor taking a journey together. They
have to camp overnight, sodecide to take turns watching the luggage.
When it's the barber's turn, he gets bored, so 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."
"It's one of the better
ones," said Beard. "It has a nice identity resonance ... A lot of the
jokes play on the obviously quite problematic idea in Roman times of
knowing who you are." Another "identity" joke sees a man meet an
acquaintance and say "it's funny, I was told you were dead". He says
"well, you can see I'm still alive." But the first man disputes this on
the grounds that "the man who told me you were dead is much more
reliable than you".
"Interestingly they are
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