Regional rivalries and humour in the Greco-Roman world (Jokes 2)

Greco-Roman culture was marked by a competitive atmosphere in which individuals, groups, and communities sought to gain honour and reputation, sometimes at the expense of someone else’s shame. Cities, too, were often among the competitors for honour and, as Dio Chrysostom’s speeches to Greek cities in Asia Minor and elsewhere show (late first century CE), rivalries between particular cities could get quite heated, ranging from ongoing name-calling to violent clashes and war. Thus, for instance, Dio addressed the citizens of Nicomedia about their discord and strife with Nicaea, which involved each city claiming it was the greatest over against the other, and there were some concrete negative interchanges as a result (Oration 38). Dio, like Paul writing to the Christian group at Corinth (1 Corinthians), sought to alleviate the competitive atmosphere and tried to promote the values of concord and unity.

As in modern regional rivalries or region-centric thinking (in Canada it was once common to hear jokes about people from Newfoundland), sometimes negativity towards another area or people could take the form of ethnic stereotypes, including jokes. The ancient joke-book which I discussed in the previous post, The Laughter-Lover, contains a number of jokes of this kind, with the primary targets being inhabitants from Sidon (in Syria), Abdera (in Thrace), and Kyme (in Asia Minor). No doubt, some such jokes and caricatures originally emerged within the context of local civic rivalries. Here are a few that poke fun at — or stereotype as less than brilliant — people from Kyme (Cyme):

“A man from Kyme who was looking for a friend was in front of his house calling his name. ‘Shout louder, so that he’ll hear you,’ advised a passer-by. So he started calling, ‘Louder!'” (no.160).

“A man from Kyme was riding by a garden on a donkey. Catching sight of an overhanging branch full of ripe figs, he made a grab for it. But the donkey bolted and left him hanging. Up came the gardener and demanded to know what he thought he was doing hanging there. ‘I had an asinine accident'” (no. 166).

“A man from Kyme was so ill that his doctor despaired of him. However, he recovered. But he kept avoiding the doctor. Finally, the [doctor] managed to corner him and ask why. ‘Well, I’m embarrassed to be seen alive after you said I was going to die'” (no. 174).

“[There was a] doctor from Kyme who switched to a blunt scalpel because the patient on whom he was operating was screaming so much from the pain” (no. 177).

(Again, all translations are from Baldwin, Philogelos, as cited in no. 1 of this ancient jokes series).

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