Ancient Rome's best invention -- the joke?
I am still struggling with the footnotes of Chapters 6 and 7 of my Laughter book, and amazed at my own capacity for errors (even if trivial ones). An eagled-eyed colleague, who has just read my Cicero chapter, picked up for example that I had got one of my Shackleton Bailey references one out.
(For those of you happily unconcerned by the different ways of referencing Cicero's Letters, let me explain. For centuries the collections were referred to by "traditional" book divisions (eg "Letters to Atticus (Ad Att.) VII, 2, 1 or Letters to Friends (Ad Fam.) II, 3, 1). Then along came D. R. Shackleton Bailey ("Shack" to his "friends") in the second half of the twentieth century and re-edited them all, removed the "Books", arranged the letters in something closer to chronological order, and gave each one a new number. So now, if you want to be helpful to the reader, you have to put both kinds of reference: Ad Fam. II, 16, 17 = SB 155.
How the hell, after checking and double checking, I still hadn't spotted that that particular one was wrong (it should be SB 154) beats me.
Anyway, after this I just have the final chapter = the conclusion to do. And after a bit of thought, I have a feeling that one of the things I am going to be concluding is that the Romans invented the "joke" as we know it.
I don't mean that no-one said anything funny before. And what is more there are a few places in e.g. Aristophanes where you can detect something like the narratives "set-up", rhetoric and idiom of a classic "gag" (I had a good discussion with Stephen Halliwell about this in St Andrews last week) . I mean that it was Roman culture that first isolated "the joke" as a self standing "commodity" that could be collected and categorized and indeed bought and sold.
One nice support for this is found in the more or less stock-character of the "parasite" or "scrounger" in both Greek and Roman New Comedy. In Roman comedy, part of their kit is often a "joke book" which they use to make people laugh in return for meals -- these are clearly meant to be collections of jokes ready-made, with which the parasite plies his trade (and on some occasions offers to the audience..."anyone give me a meal in return for a joke from my book?). The parasites in Greek Comedy (on which their Roman equivalents are based) show no sign of having these.
So we are dealing with a world in which Rome (or more accurately the Roman period of Greco-Roman culture) "commodified" laughter in a different way from classical Athens, or for the matter the Hellenistic Greek world (or so I think). I would add Plutarch to the pot here, at the end of the first/beginning of the second century CE. His Sayings of the Spartans etc presumably took quips previously embedded in narrative, extracted and anthologized them. Or think of Cicero's secretary Tiro producing 3 volumes of Cicero's wittiest sayings.
How far the Philogelos, the late antique compilation of jokes (late antique, at least, in the form we have it), matches up to the joke books of Roman comic parasites we can't of course know. But, as you can see from this selection, the jokes of the Philogelos (which means "Laughter Lover") certainly fall into the recognizable category of "the joke" as we understand it.
So the Romans invented the joke....? Can anyway tell me why I might be wrong on this?