What made the Romans laugh?
This is my new project, which I’m soon going to be working on full time and full speed. But, as I was down to give a lecture to a group of “lifelong learners” on Saturday night (they were spending their weekend reading Latin at the University’s Continuing Education Centre at Madingley Hall), I decided to give them a first taster.
So we spent an hour looking at Roman jokes. It’s a richer subject than you might imagine, though it’s shame that some of the best texts haven’t survived. Just think what you could have done with the 150 volumes of joke anthologies by one Melissus, a contemporary of the Emperor Augustus.
Still, I tried out some of those we do still have, curious to see how they went down.
The winner, I think, wasn’t exactly a joke, but a bit of Roman imperial sit-com. It’s a story about the bonkers emperor Elagabalus, recounted in the hugely unreliable late imperial series of biographies known as the Historia Augusta. It still had them laughing on Saturday:
"He had the custom of asking to dinner eight bald men, or else eight one-eyed men or eight men who suffered from gout, or eight deaf men, or eight men of dark complexion, or eight tall men or eight fat men -- his purpose being in the case of these last, since they could not be accompanied on one couch, to call forth general laughter."
Elagabalus had a strong suit in practical jokes, and can be credited with the invention of a Roman version of the whoopy cushion. But they had a dangerous side too. He was the emperor (again according to the Historia Augusta) who showered his guests with so many rose petals they suffocated and died. (On the left, as pictured by Alma Tadema.)
But as for jokes proper, the winner was an ancient version of a “nutty professor” joke.
The source for this is a curious compilation of about 250 jokes in Greek, probably put together in the sixth century AD, but including a good number of -- even by then -- very old chestnuts. It’s called “Philogelos” in Greek, or “Laughter lover” (and there’s a 1980s translation still available by Barry Baldwin).
The first hundred or so are all “nutty professor” jokes (“scholastikos” in the Greek). Saturday’s favourite was this one:
"“That slave you sold me died”, a man complained to a nutty professor.
“Well, I swear by all the gods, he never did anything like that when I had him.”"
Also raising quite a smile was one of the “Abderite” jokes (that’s, I’m afraid, the ancient equivalent of the Irishman or Belgian joke):
"Seeing a eunuch chatting with a woman, an Abderite asked him if it was his wife.
The eunuch replied that people like him could not have wives.
“Ah then she must be your daughter.”"
And finally, in third place, was one of a category not so familiar from our own repertoire – that is jokes about blokes with bad breath:
"A man with bad breath went to the doctor and said, “Look, Doctor, my uvula is lower than it should be <a regular anxiety among the ancients, ed.>.”
“Phew!” gasped the doctor, as the man opened his mouth to show him. “It’s not your uvula that has gone down, its your arsehole that has come up.”"
No, don’t ask me to explain, if you didn't get it.