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A Most Merry and Illustrated History of

Humor in the Roman Empire

And a Brief Review of the Philogelos.

Philogelos Reading - Humor in the Roman Empire

Humor in the Roman Empire


Here's some jokes for you.

A college boy was low on money so he sold his textbooks. Then he wrote his father. "Good news, Dad! I'm earning money from my education already!"

An absent-minded professor moved to a house where a sign on the road said he lived 25 miles from the university. So he painted out the "5" so he'd only live two miles away.

A country bumpkin was down by the river and a storm came up. So he jumped in to get out of the rain.

When you're done laughing, you might be interested to learn that you've just read jokes that were told by inhabitants of the Roman Empire. These jokes - and 262 more - were found in a book called the Laughter Lover, or Philogelos. The Philogelos (or Φιλόγελως) was written over 1700 years ago.

You'll notice the title is in Greek. Greek, not Latin, was the international language during the span of the Roman Empire. Even Cicero, who is considered one of the greatest of the ancient Roman Latin writers, stated that Greek was the better language.

The Philogelos itself is actually a compilation from earlier joke books and is attributed to two authors, Hierokles and Philagrios. No one knows anything about either of these gentlemen, not even if they really existed.

As is typical of famous writings from the ancient world, we don't have what professors call "contemporary" manuscripts. Almost all ancient writings have come down to us as copies written during the Middle Ages, and this is true for Philogelos. The copies we have were from the 10th to 11th century. This was during what historians call the High Middle Ages and around the time that William the Conqueror beat King Harold at Hastings.

But no one doubts the jokes are much older than the age of the manuscripts. So naturally we wonder when the originals were written down. But dating manuscripts is difficult and requires specialist knowledge. Fortunately, though, there is one joke that gives us a specific date.

During the athletic games that were held in honor of the Millennium of the Founding of Rome, an absent minded professor walked by one of the athletes who was in tears because he had been defeated. "Oh, don't worry," the professor said, "You'll win at the games held at the next millennium."

If we can avoid falling over in mirth, we remember that the Millennial Games of Rome were held on April 21, 248 CE. This was during the reign of the Emperor Marcus Julius Philippus Augustus, better known today as Philip the Arab (he was born in Damascus). So it's certain the book can be no earlier than 248. Scholars, though, using clues from the wording tend to put the final compilation of the Philogelos maybe a century or two later in the mid-fourth or fifth century. There are, though, indications that it might be a bit earlier and the language style may be arise from later copyists.

Now, first question, please.

Why the heck aren't the jokes funny?


Give Me That Old Time Humor

Actually our question is more general. Just what makes one joke funny and another not?

Aristotle said man was the only animal to laugh. That, of course, isn't true. We know that apes and monkeys can laugh, as can rats. Or at least apes, monkeys, and rats have a physiological response to certain stimuli that zoologists call laughter. But we don't think they laugh when they hear jokes.

There are various theories about what makes us laugh, and we won't delve into each hypothesis individually. But one of the most popular has been labeled the "Incongruity Theory". Or as Cicero put it, "The most common kind of joke is that in which we expect one thing and another is said."

In essence when you tell a joke, you do two things. First you set up a scene. From this scene, the listener anticipates certain possible outcomes.

Then the punchline comes in and produces something unexpected. This abrupt shift in point of view produces the response we call laughter. Or at least it makes the joke seems funny.

But what if the joke is so old that the listeners don't understand the situation being set up? Then how can they recognize a shift in the point of view?

They can't. And so the joke isn't funny.

For instance, let's go back - not 1700 years - but only about 200 years. We'll take a look at what was probably one of the most famous joke books in history, That's Joe Miller's Joke Book. The first printing was in 1739, but we'll use the edition from 1859 that then carried the full title of Joe Miller's Complete Jest Book, Being a Collection of the Most Excellent Bon Mots, Brilliant Jests, and Striking Anecdotes in the English Language.

One of the jokes is:

A gentlemen going into a meeting-house, and stumbling over one of the forms that were set there, cried out in a passion, "Who the devil expected set forms in a meeting-house?"

Today many people will be perplexed at this joke - although students of comparative religions might get it, as will Members of the Society of Friends (i. e. Quakers). The point here is that there is a double meaning of "set form". One is a form that is "set up" in some location. That is, we mean some article of construction that the gentleman stumbled over.

However, the other meaning of "set forms" refers to ritualized services. If you attend a worship service in almost any church, there is an agenda. You might start off with some songs sung by the choir and then a deacon might offer a prayer. Next the congregation will sing some hymns followed by the assistant pastor reading something from the Scripture. The collection plate will be passed around and then the minister will deliver his sermon. Some services will end with Communion. There are variations, of course, but the point is almost all church services have definite "set forms" that are followed.

On the other hand, most people in the 19th century knew that the Quakers did not follow specific rituals in the meetings. That is, there were no "set forms" of worship. So saying the gentleman found a set form in a (Quaker) meeting-house is a shift in a point of view.

Hence, the joke.

Well, maybe it is the way you tell it.

We don't have to go back hundreds of years to find jokes that are so old that they fall flat because no one knows what they're talking about. If you look at home videos - as first recorded on tapes, then on DVD's, and now as downloadable files - we can see comedians and routines anywhere from a few years to decades ago. A quick viewing will show us that even relatively recent jokes leave you perplexed.

Incomprehensible humor is the rule when we are dealing with topical and political jokes which became so popular in the 1950's. The humor of Lenny Bruce was once considered incredibly cool and hip and outrageous, so much that it was often banned not only from radio and television but also from night clubs. But today many of Lenny's routines now seem not only amazingly tame, but come off as incoherent and pointless rambling.

In 1961, the California legislature took the power away from the Police Authority. At that time, before 1961, the decision of what was read would have to go through the Police Authority because there was no definition of the world "obscene", and the guy would get busted and then we'd have to go defend it. So this sort of chilled all the reading. So the legislature said "Well, what we'll do is we'll make 'obscene' very precise. We'll name the thing. We'll make it against the law, all be one law. And if anyone wants to bust somebody for selling something obscene he has to come to the judge first. And say this is a violation of the law. And this was you won't cut the court of the scene. Well the fact is there's a lot of local people that had, you see, the power is having the power. Religion recognizes decency where the constitution doesn't. There's no decent and indecent. The Constitution only recognizes that all people when they are illegal are immoral. And then they get busted and they're indecent. [Laughter]

Admittedly, much of the humor of stand-up comes from timing and delivery - something lost when reading a transcript. But for modern audiences where the seven words you can't say on the radio are said on the radio (and television) all the time, it's hard to recognize any clear cut shift in point of view in Lenny's monologue.


What's the Point?

Not funny to everyone

Not funny all the time.

We see that we're asking the wrong question. Asking what makes a joke funny implies it is funny to all people at all time. Certainly some of the jokes in the Philogelos can be selected so that the shift in perspective is easily recognized today. But a good joke, we must emphasize, has to have an abrupt shift in the point of view. If the shift is too slow you won't laugh. So there's really no way you'll think a joke is funny when you have to consult footnotes about the culture of the time and what various words meant.

Although some of the write-ups in the popular media imply the Philogelos has just been discovered, this is an example of how journalists keep discovering things that have been known for decades. For instance, every few years you'll read that someone has just now found "suppressed verses" of Woody Guthrie's "This Land is Your Land". Or you learn that there were actually American prisoners of war that were killed during the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Of course both of the "discoveries" have been known for decades.

And the Philogelos has long been long known by classicists. An edition was issued in 1869 and reviewed in the early and now-defunct London newspaper, the Saturday Review. A modern edition was issued in 1968, albeit in German, and an even more recent edition is in Italian. English speakers, though, first had to be satisfied with an absurdly-priced edition from 1983. Fortunately after the Millennium an edition for the general public was issued and can now be found at a quite reasonable price.

But if you want to read one of the scholarly editions with the copious footnotes that explain the jokes and you don't want to pay hundreds of dollars (or even a grand), you can - believe it or not - go to these rather unusual buildings called libraries. True, your local branch probably won't have a copy of the Philogelos, but the librarians - often nice helpful ladies - ought to be able to get you an inter-library loan where the rarity of the book and lack of access probably won't matter.

But hold on! Just why would we want to read the jokes that aren't that funny in the first place?

Well, cultural historians say old jokes teach us the origins of our own comedy standards. For instance, in the Philogelos we have the joke:

A man met an egghead and said, "Hey! That slave you sold me just died."

"Nonsense," the man said, "When I owned him, he did no such thing."

Some scholars (or at least writers) have pointed out this joke is the predecessor of the famous "Dead Parrot" Monty Python sketch. Well, maybe. On reviewing the skit, the connection with the Roman joke seems rather tenuous.

But probably the most telling reason for studying the jokes is that they give us a hint of the lives of the ordinary Romans. Of course, you can't take the jokes on face value - any more than you can take Catch-22 as a verbatim history of the World War II Army Air Corps. But the jokes can give us hints of not only how the ordinary Romans lived, but how they thought.

Consider the following free translation from the Philogelos:

An astrologer cast a horoscope for a boy who was seriously ill. Then after the astrologer told the boy's mother her son would get well, he asked for his fee. She told him to come back the next day and she would pay him.

But he said, "What if the boy dies during the night? I won't get paid."

Now before you double over with laughter, remember that we read in all those "Daily Life in Rome" books that Romans believed strongly in omens and horoscopes. But this - well, we'll call it a joke - tells there were at least some Romans who saw astrologers as hucksters and swindlers and didn't take the horoscopes seriously.

This conclusion has support from ancient historians. We read that Julius Caesar actively ridiculed the auguries and signs read by the priests. Julius was particularly dubious about the "soothsayer" who told him to beware the Ides of March. So if the chief priest of Rome thought the religion was a bunch of hokum, certainly some of the average citizens did too.

And no, the soothsayer story wasn't invented by Shakespeare. It shows up in the writings of Suetonius, Plutarch, and Valerius Maximus. We even have the soothsayer's name, Spurrina.

Of course, you also can snort that these historians lived over a century after Julius was killed, and anyone can predict an event a hundred years after it happened. But Cicero, who knew Caesar personally, also tells us the Spurrina story and states that the tale is proof that reading the future using the guts of sheep works beyond a shadow of a doubt. For what it's worth, Cicero never comes off as the brightest of the Roman leaders.

We mentioned that the date of the Philogelos is uncertain. The earliest date has to be 248 and most historians place it a hundred or so years later. Some historians, though, think we should roll the writing even later, maybe in the fourth or even the fifth century. So the Philogelos could have been written after the fall of the Western Roman Empire.

On the other hand, one hint that the Philogelos may have been written relatively early is from a joke about a famous and favorite Roman pastime:

A self-proclaimed prodigy found some gladiator's armor in the house and began to play with it. Suddenly, someone warned him that his father had returned. He threw down the shield and began taking off the leggings. But his father came in before he could finish, so he grabbed a book and started reading - with the helmet still on his head.

This, of course, shows us that 1) gladiators were looked on as low life, 2) that well-brought-up kids should not emulate them, 3) well-brought-up kids did emulate them and 4) reading a book is incongruous with being a gladiator fan.


Not Approved Of

Since this joke was considered funny, we see that the Philogelos was written when gladiators were still an active part of Roman culture. This fits with the 248 date (or slightly later) since this was a time when gladiatorial games were indeed still popular.

A much later date, though, would be less likely. The waning popularity of the games has been ascribed to the adoption of Christianity as the state religion in 380. On the Fount of All Knowledge - and even in some books - you learn it was the Emperor Honorius who outlawed the games. Supposedly, this was on January 1, 404, when Saint Telemachus tried to stop a gladiatorial fight and was killed by the crowd.

Or maybe Saint Telemachus died in 391 as some people say. But then we also read it was really the Emperor Valentinian III who outlawed the games in 435. Or maybe it was 438. Or possibly 440.

Sadly, there are no actual records of any decrees outlawing the games. The ludi had, in fact, been petering out for quite a while. Why they petered out is - as everything to do with Ancient Rome - a matter of debate.

An obvious explanation is that the costs had become so expensive that no one except the Emperor had the funds to put them on. And eventually even he couldn't afford it.

As an example of the skyrocketing costs, the earliest records tell us that the games staged by private citizens spanned three days. At the time these games were considered a fantastic and extravagant display of wealth. But by 80 CE the Emperor Titus opened the Colosseum with three months of games - indicating a rise in cost of over 3000 percent.

The true death knell of the games, though, seems to have been when the - quote - "Barbarians" - unquote - took over. Germanic culture did not have gladiatorial games, and the gladiators vanished from the regions the Barbarians occupied.

Not that the effect of Christianity was nil. It turns out that preachers had been preaching against the games - not because of the carnage - but because of the "pagan atmosphere" that surrounded them. The games were associated with pagan practices as they were part of the funerary rites of early Roman religion. The popular pastime of taking a daily bath was also considered paganistic, and so as the gladiatorial displays dropped in popularity, people also quit taking baths.

The animal hunts in the arena - the venationes - still continued after the true gladiatorial combats had ended. Strictly speaking, though, the hunters - bestiarii - were not gladiators. Remnants of the animal hunts remain today in Spain and France as bull-fights (yes, France has bull-fights).


It's How You Tell It

Even with attempts to modernize the translations, a lot of jokes in the Philogelos leave with you a "huh?" that no amount of scholarly explanation will cure. Read this one:

An egghead bought a pair of trousers. But he couldn't put them on because they were too tight. So he shaved his legs.

Not that funny really.

And the next joke is the first one in the Philogelos. So we'll give it first in the original Greek:

Σχολαστικός άργυροκόπψ έπέταξε λύχνον ποιῆσαι.
(Skhol-as-ti-KOS ar-gu-ro-KO-poh e-PE-taks-eh LUKH-non poi-EI-sahee.)

τοῦ έξετάσαντος πηλίκον ποιήσει, άπεκρίνατο ὡς πρὸς όκτὼ ανθρώπους.
(too eks-TAH-san-tos pei-LI-kon poi-EI-sei, a-pe-KRI-na-to ohs pros an-THROH-pous.)

... which can be translated:

An egghead ordered a silversmith to make him a lamp.

When the smith asked "How big?", the egghead replied, "Big enough for about eight people."

So we see that this isn't just the first joke in the Philogelos, but also one of the unfunniest.

The conundrum of the lamp joke, though, has a reasonable explanation. And one that likely accounts for lots of the other Philogelos jokes falling flat.

Remember that a good deal of humor also involves puns or plays on words. Such jokes rarely work in translation. Consider this old chestnut.

Why did the pony not give a speech?

Because it was a little hoarse.

Now translate that into Greek.

Why did the políon not give a speech?

Because it was a little trakhón.

Nope. It just doesn't work.

So the point of the lamp joke is that it's likely based on a double meaning for the word for lamp - λύχνος (lukhnos). The primary meaning is, of course, "lamp". But there is a second definition which means "fish". So saying a "lamp/fish" is big enough for eight people makes sense and gives - at least to Greek speakers - a quick shift in point of view.

In a nutshell, the old jokes don't pan out because the context depends on associations of words and situations that are simply lost today. For instance, the joke about the guy who shaved his legs because he couldn't put on the trousers is a reference to a guy wanting to wear a macho he-man and even barbaric type of apparel - which is how the Romans felt about trousers. But to do so he had to behave in a manner that was even then seen as being prissy and effeminate - shaving his legs.

Mary Beard

Mary - Telling us a bit more.

Mary Beard, the Roman historian who teaches at Cambridge, has written a book about Roman humor and she discusses the Philogelos. But Mary also studied other sources and gives us a bit more information about what made Romans laugh.

She also tells us how the Ancient Romans heard the sound of laughter. The Roman poet and playwright, Terence (Publius Terentius), wrote the sound as "Hahahae!" It's interesting, Mary noted, that imitating animal sounds varies so much with language, but in all cultures, laughter is pretty much a "ha-ha" or a "tee-hee".

There is at least one joke from antiquity that still sort of works. This was told, not only in the Philogelos, but also by the Greek writer Plutarch. It's about when the King of Sparta, Archelaus, went to the barber. He sat down, and we have the following exchange:

"Πῶς σε κείρω, Βασιλεῦ? "
(Pohs seh KAY-roh Ba-si-LOI?)


Which means:

"How would you like me to cut your hair, Your Majesty?"

"In silence."

The idea behind this joke was still being used in popular novels well into the 20th century. In Von Ryan's Express by David Westheimer - now more often remembered as the movie where the 50-year-old Frank Sinatra played the 36-year-old, Colonel Joseph Ryan - Dr. Stein had begun treating Ryan's scalp wound.

Ryan endured Stein's ministrations stoically though he grunted when Stein took the first stitch.

"Felt that, did you?" Stein asked cheerfully.

"What are you doing up there, brain surgery?"

"That was my dear old mother's dream back in St. Louis," Stein said, tying off the stitch. "'My son the brain surgeon.' That was her dream. She never learned to pronounce obstetrician. She says 'Baby doctor'. Doesn't sound the same, does it? 'My son the baby doctor.' But that's life. Sometimes it comes up heads, sometimes it comes up tails. There. A neat job if I do say so myself. Too bad it's where you can't admire it, Colonel."

"Thanks, Captain," said Ryan. "I've had barbers who talked less."

Ironically, the things from the Roman world which strikes us as funny are what its citizens took seriously. For instance, the physician, Galen, tells us of his resolve when he was a young man.

When I was a young man I imposed upon myself an injunction which I have observed through my whole life, namely, never to strike any slave of my household with my hand.

My father practiced this same restraint. Many were the friends he reproved when they had bruised a tendon while striking their slaves. They could have waited a little while, he said, and used a rod or whip to inflict as many blows as they wished and to accomplish the act with reflection.

The Philogelos has the jokes divided into sections, largely about who is made to look like a dope. The terms can - albeit with some effort - be translated into modern equivalents. For instance, the first jokes - as we saw in the first joke about the lamp - are about what in Latin was a scholasticus which in Greek is spelled σχολαστικός (skholastikos). Etymologically the word expresses the concept of "someone inclined to leisure" but referred to someone who had completed the course of education of the well-to-do youth. But "college grad" doesn't really give a good indication that the word was used in a derogatory manner. The word has been translated as "egghead", implying a misplaced opinion of one's ability. But the somewhat old fashioned "know-it-all" may also suffice.

There are also what we would call ethnic jokes where people of certain countries and cities are made to look like country bumpkins. People from the cities of Abdera (Thrace), Kyme (Greece), and Sidon (modern Lebanon) were particular targets.

Of course, we have the ubiquitous wife-jokes which were popular well up into the mid-20th century. Other targets of the barbs included gluttons, cowardly boxers, grumpy landlords, people with halitosis, misers, con-artists, swindling doctors, and lazy people.

There's one final consideration as to why we don't laugh at the jokes anymore. In the mid-third century the Roman Empire was in chaos with the institution of musical emperors in full sway. It's also the time when emperors would appoint a co-ruler and given the fact that there could be as many as ten people claiming to be emperor at the same time, determining who was in charge can be quite a task.

Phillip the Arab had become emperor in 244 and was killed in 249. His son had been appointed co-emperor in 247 and ruled alone only a few days after his dad. Most historians don't even count him as an full-fledged emperor.

The next emperor was Decius. Decius, for those who aren't aware of it, issued what was probably the first of the empire wide persecutions against the Christians. Nero's persecution of 64 is what everyone thinks about but was pretty much limited to Rome and was of relatively short duration.

Decius, though, only ruled about a year, and in 251, Herennius Etruscus, took over only to be replaced the same year by Hostilian, who didn't last out the year either. Then Trebonianus Gallus took over and he lived until 253. The next emperor, Aemilianus, ruled for three months, to be replaced by Valerian who actually ruled for seven years.

So you see, there really wasn't much to laugh about.



The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover (London Studies in Classical Philology Series, 10), Hierocles, Barry Baldwin (Translator and Editor), Brill Academic Publishers, 1983. This seems to be the only academic English edition. Copies can be found but are too expensive for the casual reader. However, you should be able to get an interlibrary loan.

The World's Oldest Joke Book: Hundreds of Hilariously Terrible Ancient Jokes, Dan Crompton (Translator and Editor), Michael O'Mera Books, 2011. This book is a modern idiomatic English translation for the average reader and is reasonably priced. Some reviewers complained the jokes weren't funny. Maybe they should read the title.

Philogelos oder der Lach-Fan, Hierokles, Philagrios, Leipzig/Koehler & Amelang, 1981. Copies of this edition are cheaper than the London Studies volume, but the text is in German.

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling, and Cracking Up, Mary Beard, (Sather Classical Lectures) University of California Press, 2014.

Philogelos, R. D. Dawe, The University of Michigan Press, 2001. The Greek text without Translation

Philogelos: Hieroclis et Philagrii Facetiae (Philogelos: The Jokes of Hierocles and Phialgrius), Alfred Eberhard (Editor), Berolini, 1869. An older Greek text without translation. Footnotes and commentary are in Latin.

Martial, Loeb Classical Library. Almost all of Martial's poems are intended to be funny and were written in the first century A. D. The humor also tends to be a bit more intelligible to modern readers than that of the Philogelos.

Latin: An Introductory Course Based on Ancient Authors, Frederic Wheelock, 3rd Edition, Barnes and Noble, 1976. A number of Martial's epigrams are in the exercises.

Martial: The Unexpected Classic - A Literary and Historical Study, J. P. Sullivan Cambridge University Press, 1991. Informative but expensive.

Bathing in Public in the Roman World, Garrett Fagan, University of Michigan Press, 1999. The first section uses the poetry of Martial to learn about the Roman baths.

Joe Miller's Complete Jest Book, Being a Collection of the Most Excellent Bon Mots, Brilliant Jests, and Striking Anecdotes in the English Language, 1859, H. G. Bohn.

"Philosophy of Humor", John Morreall, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.

Orators and Orators, Cicero, Translated and Edited by John Selby Watson, Harper and Brothers, 1860. Despite its age, a pretty good translation.

De Oratore, Volumes I and II, Cicero, Translators Edward William Sutton and Horace Rackham, Loeb Classic Library, Harvard University Press, 1967. Actually, the English translation is a bit too literal and comes off almost like a machine translations. The Latin "hic nobismet ipsis noster error risum movet", is best translated something like "in this case, our own mistake makes us laugh" is rendered "In this case our own mistake even makes us laugh ourselves".

"The Greek Joe Miller", Saturday Review: Politics, Literature, Science and Art, Volume 28, pp. 354 - 356, September 11, 1869.

"A Quest to Understand What Makes Things Funny", Shane Snow, The New Yorker, April 1, 2014

Isaac Asimov's Treasury of Humor, Isaac Asimov, Houghton Mifflin, 1971. Isaac gives a good explanation of the "point-of-view" theory.

Gladiators: Violence and Spectacle in Ancient Rome, Roger Dunkle, Pearson Education, 2008.

For Laughing Out Loud: My Life and Good Times, Ed McMahon with David Fisher, Warner Books, 1998.

Pro Archia Poeta, Cicero, William Watts (Translator), Two Volumes, Harvard University Press, 1989.

Cicero: Orations: Pro Archia, Post Reditum in Sentu, Post Reditum Ad Quirit, Cicero, Loeb Classical Library, No. 158, Harvard University Press, 2002.

St. Augustine's Confessions, Augustine, William Watts (Translator), Two Volumes, Harvard University Press, 1989.

Von Ryan's Express, David Westheimer, Doubleday, 1964.