an ancient joke book -- 4/15/14

Today's selection -- from Confronting the Classics by Mary Beard. Philogelos, a joke book from the fourth century AD:

"Laughter was always a favorite device of ancient monarchs and tyrants, as well as being a weapon used against them. The good king, of course, knew how to take a joke. The tolerance of the Emperor Augustus in the face of quips and banter of all sorts was still being celebrated four centuries after his death. One of the most famous one-liners of the ancient world, with an afterlife that stretches into the twentieth century ... was a joking insinuation about Augustus' paternity. Spotting, so the story goes, a man from the provinces who looked much like himself, the emperor asked if the man's mother had ever worked in the palace. 'No', came the reply, 'but my father did.' Augustus wisely did no more than grin and bear it.

"Tyrants, by contrast, did not take kindly to jokes at their own expense, even if they enjoyed laughing at their subjects. Sulla, the murderous dictator of the first century BC, was a well-known philogelos ('laughter-lover'), while schoolboy practical jokes were among the techniques of humiliation employed by the despot Elagabalus. He is said to have had fun, for example, seating his dinner guests on inflatable cushions, and then seeing them disappear under the table as the air was gradually let out. But the defining mark of ancient autocrats (and a sign of power gone -- hilariously -- mad) was their attempt to control laughter. Some tried to ban it (as Caligula did, as part of the public mourning on the death of his sister). Others imposed it on their unfortunate subordinates at the most inappropriate moments. Caligula, again, had a knack for turning this into exquisite torture: he is said to have forced an old man to watch the execution of his son one morning and, that evening, to have invited the man to dinner and insisted that he laugh and joke. Why, asks the philosopher Seneca, did the victim go along with all this? Answer: he had another son. ...

"The only joke book to have survived from the ancient world, known as the Philogelos, is a composite collection of 260 or so gags in Greek probably put together in the fourth century AD ... [H]ere we find jokes about doctors, men with bad breath, eunuchs, barbers, men with hernias, bald men, shady fortune-tellers, and more of the colourful (mostly male) characters of ancient life.

"Democritus - "The laughing" by Antoine Coypel

"Pride of place in the Philogelos goes to the 'egg-heads', who are the subject of almost half the jokes for their literal-minded scholasticism ('An egg-head doctor was seeing a patient. "Doctor", he said, "when I get up in the morning I feel dizzy for 20 minutes." "Get up 20 minutes later, then ." '). After the 'egg-heads', various ethnic jokes come a close second. In a series of gags reminiscent of modern Irish or Polish jokes, the residents of three Greek towns -- Abdera, Kyme and Sidon -- are ridiculed for their 'how many Abderites does it take to change a light bulb?' style of stupidity. Why these three places in particular, we have no idea. But their inhabitants are portrayed as being as literal-minded as the egg-heads, and even more obtuse. 'An Abderite saw a eunuch talking to a woman and asked if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can't have wives, the Abderite asked, "So is she your daughter then?" And there are many others on predictably similar lines. ...

"Democritus, [was] the fifth-century philosopher and atomist renowned as antiquity's most inveterate laugher. ... In the philosopher's home city, his compatriots had become concerned at the way he laughed at everything he came across (from funerals to political success) and concluded that he must be mad. So they summoned the most famous doctor in the world [Hippocrates] to cure him. When Hippocrates arrived, however, he soon discovered that Democritus was saner than his fellow citizens. For he alone had recognised the absurdity of human existence, and was therefore entirely justified in laughing at it. ..."


Mary Beard


Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures, and Innovations


Liveright Publishing Corporation


Copyright 2013 by Mary Beard Publications Ltd


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