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Roman sense of humor

This post is also available in: Polish (polski)

Laughing Roman legionaries in Rome
Laughing Roman legionaries in Rome

Roman jokes have been preserved mainly due to ancient writers. Many of them were born of real stories, which were mentioned by lawyers like Cicero, which is worth adding, over two thousand years ago he was considered a prankster and “playful”.

According to Cicero, the essence of humour is that it is based on: “ambiguity, the unexpected, wordplay, understatement, irony, ridicule, silliness, and pratfalls”. The jokes focused on a selected character type, stereotypes, foreigners, and celebrities who were known in the communities.

One of the oldest jokes that were based on a false story is the one told by Macrobius, a Roman writer from the turn of the 4th and 5th centuries CE, in his work Saturnalia. The joke itself had certainly appeared before:

Some provincial man has come to Rome, and walking on the streets was drawing everyone’s attention, being a real double of the emperor Augustus. The emperor, having brought him to the palace, looks at him and then asks:
– Tell me, young man, did your mother come to Rome anytime?
The reply was:
– She never did. But my father frequently was here.

Macrobius, Saturnalia, 2.3

A scene from “Monty Python: Life of Brian”.

The ambiguity of the joke is visible, for example, in the joke mentioned by Aulus Gellius (2nd century CE):

A man, standing before a censor, is about to testify, whether he has a wife. The censor asks:
-Do you have, in all your honesty, a wife?
-I surely do, but not in all my honesty.

Aulus Gellius, Noctes Atticae, IV.20

Another interesting example dates back to the 1st century BCE from the work of Cicero:

A runner going to participate in the Olympic games had a dream, that he was driving a quadriga. Early in the morning, he goes to a dream interpreter for an explanation. The reply is:
-You will win, that meant the speed and the strength of the horses.
But, to be sure about this, the runner visits another dream interpreter. This one replies:
-You will lose. Don’t you understand, that four ones came before you?

Cicero, De Divinatione, II.145

Professor Mary Beard, who deals with the world of ancient Romans, says that the Romans probably laughed like us, like: Ha-ha!, interestingly they were not smiling. We will not find any Latin word for a smile by Romans – it only appeared later. The professor relies on the claim of the French historian Jacques le Goff that laughter became an invention of the Middle Ages. According to the professor, the very custom of laying jokes and telling jokes is owed by the ancient Greeks and Romans. Those are two cultures that taught us to laugh.

Naturally, in Rome, as well as today, it was not appropriate to make fun of certain social groups or to “burn” jokes. For example, the Romans believed that a blind person should not be mocked. Moreover, not all the jokes were funny. Some, as we would call them today, were “chestnut”. Some of the historians’ accounts show what could make the ruler laugh:

At one of his more sumptuous banquets he [Caligula] suddenly burst into a fit of laughter, and when the consuls, who were reclining next him, politely inquired at what he was laughing, he replied; “What do you suppose, except that at a single nod of mine both of you could have your throats cut on the spot?”

Suetonius, Caligula, 32

Ancient Romans, looking for an opportunity to laugh every day, went to theatres, to watch comedies (for example Plautus) or mimes (for example Publilius Syrus).

Philogelos – the oldest book of jokes

The oldest, surviving joke book is Philogelos (from the Greek “Funny”) – a collection of 265 jokes divided into specific fields eg: teachers and sages, eggheads and fools or jokers and drunkards. The book was written in Greek in the 4th century CE1 by an anonymous author.

Antique jokes performed by Jim Bowen

Frankie Howerd as slave, Lurcio, in the British comedy series “Up Pompeii!”.

Some of the jokes below:

#27. A Philosopher, falling sick, had promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said: “Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?”

#43. When a philosopher was told by someone, “Your beard is now coming in,” he went to the rear entrance and waited for it. Another philosopher asked what he was doing. Once he heard the whole story, he said: “I’m not surprised that people say we lack common sense. How do you know that it’s not coming in by the other gate?”

#45. A philosopher during the night ravished his grandmother and for this got a beating from his father. He complained: “You’ve been mounting my mother for a long time, without suffering any consequences from me. And now you’re mad that you found me screwing your mother for the first time ever!”

#51A. A philosopher caught sight of a deep well on his country estate and asked if the water was any good. The farmhands assured him that it was good and that his own parents used to drink from that well. The philosopher expressed his amazement: “How long were their necks if they could drink from something so deep!”

#51B. A philosopher visiting his country estate asked if the water in a well there was good to drink. He was told that it was good and that his own parents used to drink from the well. The philosopher was amazed: “How long were their necks, that they could drink from something so deep!”

#53. A philosopher was eating dinner with his father. On the table was large lettuce with many succulent shoots. The philosopher suggested: “Father, you eat the children; I’ll take mother.”

#57. A philosopher got a slave pregnant. At the birth, his father suggested that the child be killed. The philosopher replied: “First murder your own children and then tell me to kill mine.”

#64. A philosopher bought a pair of pants. But he could hardly put them on because they were too tight. So he got rid of the hair around his legs.

#69. A philosopher checked in on the parents of a dead classmate. The father was wailing: “O son, you have left me a cripple!” The mother was crying: “O son, you have taken the light from my eyes!” Later, the philosopher suggested to his friends: “If he were guilty of all that, he should have been cremated while still alive.”

#70. A philosopher came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man’s wife said that he had ‘departed’, the philosopher replied: “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?”

#72. A philosopher had been at a wedding reception. As he was leaving, he said: “I pray that you two keep getting married so well.”

#73. The same philosopher said that the tomb of Scribonia was handsome and lavish, but that it had been built on an unhealthy site.

#97. Upon the death of his wife, a philosopher was out shopping for a coffin and got into a big fight over the price. When the salesman swore that he couldn’t sell it for less than fifty thousand, the philosopher said: “Since you’re under an oath, here’s the fifty thousand. But throw in for free a small casket, in case I need it for my son.”

#98. A friend met a philosopher, and said: “Congratulations! You’ve got a baby boy!” The philosopher replied: “Thanks to buddies like you!”

#106. 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 neighbour’s house, he suddenly saw her. He turned around and said: “Have my dinner clothes sent here.”

#107. There was another man, just like the last one – a big talker, but in fact impoverished. By chance he got sick, and his girlfriend, coming into his place without warning, found him lying on a humble mat made of reeds. Turning over, he claimed that the doctors were responsible: “The best and most famous doctors in the city ordered me to sleep on a mat like this.”

#114. 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

#115. An Abderite saw a eunuch talking with a woman and asked him if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can’t have wives, the Abderite asked: “So is she your daughter?”

#116. An Abderite who was a eunuch had the misfortune to develop a hernia.

#252. An unlucky eunuch developed a hernia.

#117. An Abderite shared a mattress with a man who suffered from a hernia. In the night, he got up to relieve himself. When he returned, he accidentally (since it was still dark) stepped right on the spot of the hernia. When the man let out a howl, the Abderite asked: “Why weren’t you lying down heads-up?”

#123. An Abderite followed custom and cremated his dead father. He ran home and said to his ailing mother: “There are a few fire-logs still left. If you want to stop suffering, get yourself cremated on them.”

#145. When a jokester who was a shopkeeper found a policeman screwing his wife, he said: “I got something I wasn’t bargaining for.”

#151. When a jokester saw a pimp renting the services of a black prostitute, he said: “What’s your rate for the night?

#151 (bis) A. When a jokester saw an ophthalmologist busy rubbing away on a girl, he said: “Watch out, young man, that you don’t, in healing her sight, ruin her ‘I'”.

#151 (bis) B & #260. When a jokester saw an ophthalmologist busy rubbing away on a girl in her prime, he said: “Don’t, in healing her sight, ruin her depths.”

#262. A jokester went abroad; there, he developed a hernia. Coming home, he was asked if he had brought a present back. “Nothing for you – just a headrest for my thighs.”

#263. Someone needled a jokester: “I had your wife, without paying a dime.” He replied: “It’s my duty as a husband to couple with such a monstrosity. What made you do it?’

#159. A Kymean constructed a huge threshing floor and stationed his wife on the opposite end. He asked her if she could see him. When she replied that it was hard for her to see him, he snapped: “The time will come when I’ll build a threshing floor so big that I won’t be able to see you and you won’t be able to see me.”

#187A. A rude astrologer cast a sick boy’s horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When she said, “Come tomorrow and I’ll pay you,” he objected: “But what if the boy dies during the night and I lose my fee?”

#187B. A rude star-gazer cast a sick boy’s horoscope. After promising the mother that the child had many years ahead of him, he demanded payment. When the mother said, “I’ll pay tomorrow, ” he objected: “But what if the boy dies during the night? Do I lose my fee?”

#197. An incompetent schoolteacher was asked who the mother of Priam was. Not knowing the answer, he said: “It’s polite to call her Ma’am.”

#201. A man, just back from a trip abroad, went to an incompetent fortune-teller. He asked about his family, and the fortune-teller replied: “Everyone is fine, especially your father.” When the man objected that his father had been dead for ten years, the reply came: “You have no clue who your real father is.”

#202. 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!”

#204. An incompetent astrologer cast a man’s horoscope and said: “You are unable to father children.” When the man objected that he had seven kids, the astrologer replied: “Look after them well.”

#219. A glutton betrothed his daughter to another glutton. Asked what he was giving her as a dowry, he replied: “A house whose windows face the bakery.”

#227A. While a drunkard was imbibing in a tavern, someone approached and told him: “Your wife is dead.” Taking this in, he said to the bartender: “Time, sir, to mix a drink up from your dark stuff.”

#227B. While a philosopher was imbibing in a tavern, someone approached and told him: “Your wife is dead.” The philosopher said: “Time, my good man, to mix me some dark wine.”

#232. A man with bad breath, kissing his wife over and over, said: “My Lady, my Hera, my Aphrodite.” And she said, turning away: “My – o Zeus an ozeus!”

#234. A man with bad breath asked his wife: “Madame, why do you hate me?” And she said in reply: “Because you love me.”

#239A. A young actor was loved by two women, one with bad breath and the other with reeking armpits. The first woman said: “Give me a kiss, master.” And the second: “Give me a hug, master.” But he declaimed: “Alas, what shall I do? I am torn betwixt two evils!’

#239B. An actor who was a jokester was loved by two women, one with bad breath and the other with reeking armpits. One said: “Give me a kiss.” And one said: “Give me a hug.” But he declaimed: “Alas, what shall I do? I am torn betwixt two evils!”

#244A. 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.”

#244B. A young man said to his libido-driven wife: “What should we do, darling? Eat or have sex?” And she said: “You can choose. But we don’t have a crumb.”

#245A. A young man invited into his home frisky old women. He said to his servants: “Mix a drink for one, and have sex with the other if she wants to.” The women spoke up as one: “I’m not thirsty.”

#245B. A young man was hosting frisky old women. He said to his slaves: “Mix a drink for the one that wants it and have sex with the one who wants that.” And the women said: “I’m not thirsty.”

#246. A misogynist stood in the marketplace and announced: “I’m putting my wife up for sale, tax-free!” When people asked him why he said: “So the authorities will impound her.”

#247A. A misogynist paid his last respects at the tomb of his dead wife. When someone asked him, “Who has gone to rest?,” he replied: “Me, now that I’m alone.”

#247B. While a misogynist was paying his last respects to his wife, someone asked him: “Who has gone to rest?” He replied: “Me, now that I’m alone.”

#248A. A misogynist was sick, at death’s door. When his wife said to him, “If anything bad happens to you, I’ll hang myself,” he looked up at her and said: “Do me the favor while I’m still alive.”

#248B. When a misogynist took sick and his wife said to him, “If you die, I’ll hang myself,” he looked up at her and said: “Do me the favor while I’m still alive.”

#249. A misogynist had a wife who never stopped talking or arguing. When she died, he had her body carried on a shield to the cemetery. When someone noticed this and asked him why he replied: “She was a fighter.”

#250. A young man was asked whether he took orders from his wife or if she obeyed his every command. He boasted: “My wife is so afraid of me that if I so much as yawn she shits.”

#251. The lady of a house had a simple-minded slave. But when she got a peek at just how thick his other head was also, she lusted after him. She put a mask over her face so that he wouldn’t recognize her, and played around with him. Joining her game, he had sex with her. Then, grinning as he usually did, he reported to his master: “Sir, sir, I fucked the dancer and the mistress was inside!”

  1. This is how the American scientist William Berg dates the book.
  • Mary Beard, Laughter in Ancient Rome

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