So, a barber, a bald man and a professor go on a trip together…
At night, they take turns guarding their camp. The barber gets bored during his shift, so he amuses himself by shaving the professor’s head. Then when his shift is over, he wakes the professor up to replace him. The professor feels his shaved head and thinks “The barber is so stupid he woke up the bald man instead of me”.
Thought it was funny? Well, perhaps not hilarious, but still, as jokes go, this one bears its age well, considering it’s been around for 2000 years or so. It comes from a book called Philogelos (literally, The Laughter Lover) – the only collection of jokes that survived from Ancient Rome.
Same as nowadays, the jokes focus on certain types of people, considered particularly funny at the time, such as professors, men with bad breath, people from certain towns, and eunuchs.
Some jokes are crude, racist, or refer to habits that are no longer acceptable:
A senator’s son gets a slave pregnant. After she gives birth, the senator suggests to have the child killed [a not so unusual practice in those days], to which his son replies: “First have your own children killed, and then tell me to kill mine”.
Others strike a familiar note:
A man returns from his wife’s funeral, when a passer-by asks him “Who has gone to rest?” The man replies: “Me, I’m finally alone and allowed to rest”.
Graffiti and inscriptions
Besides this collection, archeologists have found many examples of Roman humor in graffiti and inscriptions. (Yes, Romans used graffiti – well, not exactly with spray cans, but with very similar results. Roman tourists were also in the very bad habit of scratching their names on the monuments they visited. Modern world didn’t invent vandalism, just preserved it… pun totally intended). Such an inscription reads:
“Everybody who came by scratched something on these walls. I’m the only one who didn’t do it.”
In Pompeii, a disgruntled patron left a comment on a tavern’s wall:
“Landlord, you drink unmixed wine,
But you serve your guests water instead.”
(There is a hidden insult here as well – drinking unmixed wine was a barbaric habit, and was thought to lead to madness.)
Political graffiti from Pompeii, depicting a candidate for a local office. Source: Wikipedia
Jokes for the masses were not of the highest class, but they indicate a high degree of literacy and a solid, common cultural background. The so-called “Room of the Seven Sages”, in Ostia (the harbor city of Rome) has painted walls, depicting seven of the greatest Greek philosophers, with ironic texts about their bathroom activities, such as “The cunning Chilon taught how to flatulate unnoticed” and “No one will give you a long lecture, Priscianus, as long as you use the sponge” (the sponge was the Romans’ equivalent for toilet paper).
Public latrines in Ostia. Source: Wikipedia
Sling projectiles have been found on battlefields, bearing inscriptions such as “Watch it”, “Here it comes” and “That will probably hurt”. The best organized army in ancient times seems to have had a sense of humor just as well.
Jokes in Imperial purple
Witty remarks of some emperors have also been preserved, such as Domitian’s saying that nobody believes an emperor has discovered a conspiracy to kill him, unless he’s actually been killed. (Not so funny for Domitian himself, who uncovered several conspiracies and sentenced many to death; was deemed paranoid, but then one conspiracy succeeded…)
Emperor Vespasian allegedly showed a morbid, but brave sense of humor on his death bed, when he said “Oh, my, I think I’m going to become a god now” (alluding to the custom of having Roman emperors deified after their deaths – Vespasian was a sound and down-to-earth soldier, who could not have taken such propaganda seriously).
Vespasian, an emperor famed for his feats of arms as well as for his wit. Source: Wikipedia
Literature and Theater
The gossip columnist of the age was, without any doubt, Suetonius, whose fast paced, amusing and irreverent “Lives of the Twelve Caesars” is still incredibly entertaining. It’s all about sex, murders, adultery and manipulation, with the main characters being the richest and most powerful people on earth.
Going to the theater for a good play was one of Rome’s favorite pastimes, and comedies were well represented. Plautus is the best known Roman comic playwright, and many of his surviving plays are still adapted for representation to this day, all over the world. The 1996 movie “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum” is loosely based on Plautus’ work.
And for those of you who’d like their dose of ancient humor in verse, here’s a little from Martial, the epigramist:
Paula wants to marry me, I don’t want to marry Paula: she’s old.
I’d be willing, if she were older.
And one more for the road…
May the earth be light upon you, and may you be covered by
soft sand, lest the dogs be unable to dig you out.