There is no doubt that humour is a cultural thing. What is funny in the ancient world will not necessarily be funny now, and may even be considered nonsensical or offensive from the modern perspective. Likewise, what makes one group of people laugh in a particular period will certainly not be funny to another contemporary cultural group. Still, there are times when jokes from the Greco-Roman period make me laugh, perhaps partly because I spend a good part of my life “living” (theoretically) in the ancient world, but also because of western civilization’s cultural connections with the ancient Mediterranean. I have already mentioned some episodes in early Christian literature that seem intended to make the ancient audience laugh, such as the story of the apostle John and the bed bugs.
I thought it might be fun to start up an ongoing series on jokes from antiquity, jokes that may make some of us moderns laugh and/or provide us with glimpses into a very different cultural world than our own. There are plenty of references to humour and funny situations in many ancient sources (and ancient theatrical comedy was of course aimed, in part, at bringing laughter). Yet there is only one surviving example of an actual anthology of 265 ancient jokes, The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover (manuscript dating to the 10th century but reflecting jokes from the first centuries of our era, one of which can be dated to 248 CE).
The Laughter-Lover collects together jokes thematically, dealing with the stereotypical “intellectual”, “scholar”, or “professor” (scholastikos; there are over 100 of these), with physicians, with civic rivalry, and with people with bad breath, among others. Quite a few jokes have direct relevance to issues of gender and views of women in antiquity, as translated and discussed online here at Diotima.
Here’s my first installment relating to scholar-types (some of which also happen to reflect the realities of ancient slavery):
“An intellectual who had had an operation on his uvula was ordered by his doctor not to talk for a while. So he instructed his slave to greet all his callers on his behalf. Then he proceeded to say to each caller, ‘Please don’t be offended that my slave greeted you instead of me; I’m under doctor’s orders not to talk'” (Laughter-Lover, no. 7).
“After a dinner party two intellectuals kept taking it in turns to escort the other home in accordance with the rules of etiquette. The result: neither of them ever got to bed” (no. 20).
“An intellectual was on a sea voyage when a big storm blew up, causing his slaves to weep in terror. ‘Don’t cry,’ he consoled them, ‘I have freed you all in my will'” (no. 25).
Translations in this series of posts come from Barry Baldwin, The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1983, with adaptations. For a general discussion of humour through history, see Jan Bremmer and Herman Roodenburg, eds., A Cultural History of Humour from Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1997).