CHAPTER 8

The Laughter Lover

An egghead [scholastikos] and a bald man and a barber were making a journey together and camping out in a lonely place. They arranged for each of them to stay awake in turn for four hours and guard the luggage. When it fell to the barber to keep watch first, wanting to pass the time, he shaved the head of the scholastikos and, when his shift was done, woke him up. The scholastikos rubbed his head as he came to and found himself hairless. “What a right idiot the barber is,” he said. “He’s gone all wrong and woken up the bald man instead of me.”1

This is number 56 in the ancient collection of some 265 jokes that goes under the title Philogelos, or “Laughter lover.”2 Written in decidedly unstylish Greek, the collection is usually dated to the later Roman Empire (the fourth or fifth century CE is the favorite guess) and includes a wide range of gags—from jokes about ridiculous misers (“Heard the one about the mean old man who made himself the heir in his own will?”) to quips on bad breath (“How does a man with bad breath commit suicide? He puts a bag over his head and asphyxiates himself!”) and comic warnings about cheap honey (“I wouldn’t even be selling it, the salesman eventually admitted, if that mouse hadn’t gone and died in it”).3

The joke about the egghead, the bald man, and the barber is one of the longest in the collection and gives some of the most detailed narrative context (the journey, the risks to the luggage, the boredom of keeping watch, and so on). In it we meet again one of the favorite figures of fun at Rome: the baldy (pp. 51, 132–33, 146). And we are introduced for the first time to another major character in the repertoire of ancient joking, the scholastikos (provisionally translated “egghead”), who takes the lead in almost half the jokes in the Philogelos. His place here, in a trio with the barber and the baldy, echoes all those modern gags that start with similar threesomes: “An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman went into bar . . .” It is an echo that probably helps to explain why the joke is a favorite with many modern readers of the Philogelos: it really does seem to slip easily into that particular comic convention of our era.4 But not all readers since antiquity have been so amused. Samuel Johnson, publishing one of the earliest English translations of a selection of these gags, struggled to make sense of the punch line here and blamed the manuscript copyists for the obscurity.5

There are jokes that still seem bad to us, frigidi, as the Romans might have said (see pp. 56, 132). In exploring the Philogelos in greater detail, I shall have cause to wonder once more just how much ingenuity is required, or legitimate, in getting (or forcing) ancient gags to provoke a modern chuckle. But I shall also look at some basic questions about this collection. Who might have compiled it, and when? What was it for, and what are the jokes about? There can be no doubt that the jokes in the Philogelos were intended to make readers or listeners laugh; that is clear from the title alone—“Laughter lover.” But what can such a collection of jokes, or of laughter themes, tell us about the society that produced or transmitted them, its priorities, anxieties, and concerns? What role did the Philogelos play in the “laughterhood” of Rome? More than that, what was the purpose (and the history) of a jokebook of this kind? I shall argue that in classical antiquity, the jokebook was characteristically, if not exclusively, Roman. And at the end, I will come close to suggesting—though I will stop just short—that the joke as we understand it was a Roman invention.

CONSTRUCTING THE “LAUGHTER LOVER”

The text of the Philogelos—funny, intriguing, sometimes disappointing—is more complicated than it might at first seem. The fact is that the book we know as the “Laughter lover” never existed in the ancient world, certainly not in the form in which we now read it. Our printed texts go back to half a dozen or so medieval and later manuscripts, which preserve a series of overlapping but not identical jokes. Most of these are shared among several manuscripts (and the title Philogelos is included in several), but no two of them have exactly the same selection. The most complete manuscript version, dating to the eleventh century, is found as part of a much longer anthology of ancient and biblical literature (including popular tales and fables). It contains 260 of the Philogelos jokes, although there are several instances where the same joke, almost word for word, appears twice. The shortest and earliest version, in a tenth-century manuscript, forms the final element of a larger collection of “light literature”6 (including a Greek translation of an Arabic version of a group of Indian fables). The end of this manuscript is lost. There would once certainly have been more jokes, but only seven survive. The first of these occurs in no other manuscript of the collection; the remaining six are found in others—but in a completely different order. This pattern of survival, loss, disruption, and repetition explains my intentional vagueness (“some 265”) about the total number of jokes we are dealing with.7

The modern printed Philogelos is constructed by amalgamating these different manuscript versions. In a sense, we could say that of all classical literature that has “survived”: each play of Euripides, each book of Tacitus is a modern scholarly reconstruction from the different, sometimes contradictory manuscript versions that have come down to us. But the Philogelos is a particularly extreme case of that. Despite great scholarly expertise and ingenuity in trying to understand and see behind the many-stranded manuscript tradition that confronts us, we have no clear idea what the original archetype was like. The one thing of which we can be most confident is that it was not identical to our printed text. We do not even know whether it is appropriate to think in terms of a single archetype for a collection of jokes—which, like traditional collections of recipes, gardening tips, or workout routines, might always exist in multiple, slightly different versions (even if they claim to go back to some semimythical originator or compiler, such as Mrs. Beeton, the Roman Apicius, or, for that matter, Jane Fonda).

There is at least one hint that the versions of “the Philogelos” were even more diverse than they might appear. At one point in his Histories (Chiliades), the twelfth-century Byzantine scholar John Tzetzes quotes a joke that he attributes to the “Laughter lover”; it is a punning quip about a sick man trying to get rid of an unwelcome guest.8 Not only is this not found in any of the surviving manuscripts (or in modern printed editions), but Tzetzes treats Philogelos, or “Laughter lover,” not as the title of the collection but as its author: as he puts it, “Philogelos wrote this somewhere in his book.” Maybe Tzetzes was simply confused or misremembering.9 Or maybe there was another collection of jokes in circulation whose author or compiler went under the name of Philogelos. After all, “Laughter lover” would be an entirely appropriate pen name for a man behind a book of gags.10

But to complicate the picture even more, we find other names firmly associated with the Philogelos, whether as authors or anthologizers. Our most complete manuscript ascribes the collection to “Hierokles and Philagrios, the grammatikos” (maybe “grammarian,” maybe “teacher,” maybe “scholar”); some others, which include smaller selections of jokes, name only “Hierokles.” We have no idea who these men were—despite some desperate modern attempts, on the basis of no evidence at all apart from the name, to pin the collection onto some (probably humorless) fifth-century CE pagan philosopher from Alexandria.11 The Byzantine dictionary-cum-encyclopedia known as the Suda (a repository of recondite information as revealing, and misleading, as Pliny’sNatural History) offers a very different story. There we read that the Philogelos was the work of one Philistion—the name, as we have seen (p. 169), of a famous early imperial mime writer and possibly the pen name (or stage name) of many more. The Suda adds the tantalizing detail that the book was dedicated to a man named Koureus or to a man from Kourion in Cyprus or was the kind of book you would take to the barbershop (koureus)—the lumpy Greek and uncertain manuscript readings are more or less compatible with each translation.12 We have no idea which of these is correct or how to interpret the information (there is no sign of any such dedication in any of the surviving manuscripts, so is the Suda referring to another work of the same name?). If it were the case that a barbershop is mentioned, that might link the Philogelos to that hot spot of ancient popular culture: the place where ordinary men went to get shaved and trimmed and have a chuckle.13

The most economical way of resolving all this conflicting evidence is to imagine a fluid tradition underlying the collection—one that grows and develops while parading different authors and popular gurus as its founding fathers. The Philogelos, in other words, was not a single authored work but a generic title for a set of texts with strong similarities but no fixed archetype or orthodoxy; it was a fluid tradition, constantly adjusted and adapted, shortened or expanded, in new versions and compilations.

The contours of geography and chronology within the collection certainly suggest a mixed origin. For the jokes refer to a wide range of places and cultures across the Greco-Roman Mediterranean. We meet characters from the Greek-speaking cities of Abdera, Kyme, and Sidon, but there are also passing references to Rome, the river Rhine, and Sicily.14 Of the only four personal names mentioned—deities and mythical heroes apart—two are Greek (“Drakontides” and “Demeas,” a name common in Greek comedy) and two are Roman (“Scribonia” and “Lollianus”).15 And although the jokes are transmitted in Greek, several of the gags are set against an explicitly Roman cultural background, from currency (denarii) to the ceremonies celebrating the thousandth anniversary of Rome itself.16

The anniversary joke provides the only precisely datable reference in the Philogelos. (“A scholastikos, at the festival that took place in Rome at the millennium [21 April 248 CE], saw a defeated athlete in tears and wanted to cheer him up. ‘Don’t be upset,’ he said. ‘At the next millennial games, you’ll be the winner.’”)17 But it is generally thought, on the basis of the language, that the text as we have it is a couple of centuries later than that—although there are also jokes in our collection that go back considerably earlier than the third century CE or at least point to earlier characters and events.18 Some of them are found, in a more or less identical form, in Plutarch, who wrote at the turn of the first and second centuries CE. For example, one notable joke in the Philogelos about a chatty barber (“A witty guy was asked by a chatty barber, ‘How would you like me to cut your hair?’ ‘In silence’ came the reply”) crops up in Plutarch’s Sayings of Kings and Commanders, where it is ascribed to the fifth-century BCE king Archelaus of Macedon,19and Plutarch uses another—about (not) lending a scraper in a bathhouse to people who may have turned up without one—to illustrate a usefully jocular method of refusing those who ask you for favors.20

Behind a few of the other gags, we can even detect a veiled reference to famous characters of the late Roman Republic or early empire. “Scribonia,” whose opulent tomb is the subject of one joke (it was in “a very unhealthy place”), may perhaps be the first wife of the emperor Augustus.21 But there can be no doubt that a story about the notoriously philistine Mummius, who destroyed the city of Corinth in 146 BCE, underlies another of the jokes, even though it has been anonymized (under the rubric of a generic egghead): “A scholastikos taking some old master paintings from Corinth and loading them onto transport ships said to the captains, ‘If you lose these, I’ll want new ones to replace them.’”22 There is a hint of the original target in the mention of Corinth. But the hidden reference to Mummius is made absolutely clear from a parallel passage in Velleius Paterculus’ History of Rome, where a version of exactly the same quip is quoted to illustrate the general’s proverbial boorishness. No one who knew the first thing about antiques would think that you could possibly replace them on a deal of “new for old.”23 How any of these earlier jokes found their way into the Philogelos in this diluted form—by way of lost literary sources or that convenient scholarly standby “oral tradition”?—we can only speculate.

The search for an original text, an original author, and even an originary date (beyond a vague “Roman”) for the Philogelos is almost certainly futile. We can, however, detect some basic principles of order, classification, and structure that underpin our collection and define its overall form. First, almost all the jokes concern a type of subject, not a named individual: the egghead, the man from Abdera, the witty guy, the man (or occasionally woman) with bad breath, the cowardly boxer, and so on. In most of them, the very first word identifies the type in question (scholastikos, Abderitēs, or whatever) and introduces a joke of usually no more than a few lines (sometimes less). The equivalent modern idiom would probably be “Heard the one about the Abderite?”

The main manuscripts divide the jokes up, fairly systematically, according to these types, as do the modern printed texts (while adding to the end, for want of anywhere else for them to go, a small collection of stragglers from divergent manuscripts, so disrupting the basic scheme24). The first 103 in our text have as their hero or antihero the scholastikos—a word that has proved a challenge for translators and interpreters. There is almost certainly a connection between this figure and a stock character from the ancient comic stage (in fact, the only scholastikos to be given a personal name in the Philogelos is the very “stagy” Demeas). But according to Plutarch, the young Cicero too—on his return to Rome after study in Greece—was teased for being a “Greek and scholastikos.” So is it “absent-minded professor,” “numbskull,” or (as I have been using, with some hesitation) “egghead”? None of these quite gets it.25

The essential point is that the scholastikos is someone who is foolish by reason of his learning, who applies the strictest of logic to reach the most ridiculous conclusions, and who represents the reductio ad absurdum (literally) of academic cleverness. False analogy is his most besetting sin, as in this classic case of advice given by an “egghead doctor”: “‘Doctor’ says the patient, ‘whenever I get up from my sleep, for half an hour I feel dizzy, and then I’m all right.’ And the doctor says, ‘Get up half an hour later.’”26Yet what gives some of these jokes an added edge is that thescholastikos is not simply stupid. Sometimes we end up feeling that his apparent errors are more correct than they seem or point to some more interesting truth. When the rich scholastikos refuses to bury his small son in front of a large crowd, he is absolutely right: the mourners have come only to ingratiate themselves with the father.27 And when the healthy egghead avoids meeting his doctor in the street, as he feels embarrassed not to have been ill for such a long time, he is both being an idiot and pointing up the oddity of our relationship with a man whose livelihood depends on our misfortune.28

After the scholastikos, two jokes follow on misers, then later in the collection we find a run of fourteen jokes on witty guys, thirteen on grumpy men (duskoloi), ten on simpletons, and so on. But second only to the eggheads as the most prominent type figures are the citizens of three particular towns of the Roman Empire in the eastern Mediterranean: Abdera, Sidon, and Kyme. With some sixty entries between them, we read in joke after joke of their hilarious (though occasionally—as with the egghead—pointed) idiocy. “A man from Kyme,” for example, “was swimming when it began to rain, so he dived down deep so as not to get wet,” or “A man from Abdera, seeing a eunuch chatting with a woman, asked someone else if it was the eunuch’s wife. When the man observed that a eunuch couldn’t have a wife, he said, ‘It’s his daughter, then.’”29

Exactly why these particular peoples and places became such focuses of laughter we cannot hope to know, and it is perhaps dangerous to make a simple comparison with the modern ethnic joke (the English cracking gags at the expense of the Irish or the French at the expense of the Belgians, for example30). But they do give us another glimpse into the cultural geography of Roman laughter (see pp. 51–52). In fact, in the case of two of the three towns, there are clear snatches of evidence to suggest that the jokes of thePhilogelos reflect a wider tradition of jocularity—about them or at their expense.

The geographer Strabo, for example, refers to the people of Kyme being “ridiculed for their stupidity”; this was partly, he writes, because three hundred years after the foundation of their town they “gave away” their customs dues and even before that had not used them to the state’s profit—so that people said it had taken them a long time to realize that they were living by the sea.31 Abdera was even more strongly connected with laughing and joking. One obvious focus was the story of Democritus, the famous Abderite philosopher, who would not stop laughing (see pp. 92–94). But the connection went deeper than that. For Martial, the town was a byword for stupidity, while Cicero could use the phrase “It’s Abdera here” to refer to the topsy-turvy folly of senatorial business at Rome.32 It was not only the compilers of the Philogelos who saw these towns and their dumb inhabitants as good for a laugh.

There are, however, minor but significant differences in the rhetoric of these jokes about Abdera, Kyme, and Sidon that allow us a precious insight into the various sources and joking styles that must lie somewhere behind the Philogelos. It is true that most of the jokes turn out to be fairly interchangeable across the collection: although the type characters are quite distinct, the mininarratives and punch lines appear to migrate easily among those different types. A joke about an egghead with stolen property (“A scholastikoswho had bought some stolen clothes smeared them with pitch so they wouldn’t be recognized”) is repeated more or less verbatim as a joke about a man from Kyme,33 and gags on the theme of whether a liter of wine measures the same as a liter of oil or water are found in different variants attached to both eggheads and a grammatikos (teacher) from Sidon.34 But this general interchangeability should not disguise the ways in which the jokes devoted to each of those three places are in some—often overlooked—respects quite distinct.

First, there is a clear contrast between the Abderite and the Sidonian jokes. Abderites almost always appear as just that: “a man from Abdera,” with no further definition. Sidonians are always qualified by a trade, a profession, or some similar description. Whatever the quip (“‘Lend me a knife as far as Smyrna’; ‘I don’t have a knife that stretches that far’”35), it is always tied to some “Sidonian fisherman,” “Sidonian centurion,” and so on—or, in the example just quoted, a “Sidonian butcher.” The jokes about the people of Kyme are different again. To be sure, this group includes many that would slip easily into other categories or are even almost exact doublets of others in the wider collection. But there are a number that stick out from the general run: they are specifically concerned with the dysfunctional political community of the town or with its political institutions and magistrates—in a way, strikingly reminiscent of Strabo’s quip about the harbor dues. So, for example: “When the people of Kyme were fortifying their town, one of the citizens, called Lollianus, built two parts of the defenses at his own expense. When the enemy were threatening, the Kymeans, angry [at Lollianus’ actions], agreed that no one but Lollianus should stand guard over his stretch of wall.” That is to say, in their resentment at the intrusion of individual patronage into their community relations, the Kymeans respond with a literal-mindedness that is bound to be self-destructive: if he built it on his own, he can defend it on his own!36

What explains these differences in style? Presumably, behind the collection of gags that we now have (or have reconstructed) there lay earlier traditions and smaller-scale compilations, with their own subtly different themes, clichés, and idioms of joking, creating their own comic expectations.37 A “Sidonian joke” would not be complete without a trade or profession. If a joke about Kyme was promised, you would already half-expect to be laughing at political folly. Tiny example as this is, it offers a rare glimpse into the implicit rules of ancient joking—into what might make an ancient joke sound right.38

Of course, whether any ancient Roman ever did sit down to read or listen to anything resembling our Philogelos—to have a chuckle at a dozen jokes about Sidonians, one after another, let alone at more than a hundred scholastikos gags end to end—is highly debatable. It all depends on what we think the text, or its ancestors, might have been for. The correct answer to that question is almost certainly beyond us (and the use and function might, in any case, have changed over the history and prehistory of our text). But different assumptions about its origin, purpose, and social level lead to very different interpretations and judgments about the collection as a whole, which it is useful to expose.

It could be that all or part of the text we have was some real-life version of those jokebooks that were the tools of the trade of the Roman comic parasite, with their own walk-on part as props in Roman comedy (see pp. 149–50, 202–3). If so, then no one would ever have listened to these jokes in the form in which we read them, one after another. Any such collection would have been used as an aide-mémoire for the jokester, who would have selected from it and embroidered at will. Hence, perhaps, the unadorned, rather telegraphic form of most of the gags (which I have tried to reproduce in my translations): these were bare skeletons of jokes, onto which the live jester was supposed to put the comic flesh.

It is also possible (and perfectly compatible with the idea of a jokester’s handbook) that we have in the Philogelos something approaching a popular tradition of laughter, lying partly outside the elite protocols and idioms that have necessarily been the subject of most of my case studies so far. That would fit nicely with the possible reference in the Suda to the “barbershop” (if only we could be confident of that interpretation). It would also reflect the wider medieval manuscript tradition, which tends to group versions of our text with popular fable and “light literature.” And it might help explain the prominence of the scholastikos among the jokes: a pointed example of the little people making fun of the useless learning of their “betters.”

Yet it would be hard to disprove the entirely contrary idea that, whatever the deeper sources of this text, the form of “our” Philogelos owes most not to some bona fide popular tradition (much as we would love that to be the case) but to some late antique academic systematizer. If we leave aside the dubious reference to the “barbershop,” we might equally well be dealing with the work of some study-bound, second-rate clone of Macrobius, who in the academic world of the late empire set himself the task of collecting and classifying what made people laugh. The jokes on scholastikoimight then have a more subtle and interesting part to play. It is worth remembering that in modern cultures, jokes about learning tend to come not from those who are unlearned but from countercultural subgroups among the learned (students and dissident radicals or off-duty, partying professors). Maybe it was similar in antiquity too. In fact, I have a sneaking suspicion that there would have been no one in ancient Rome who loved jokes about eggheads more than the eggheads themselves.39

Leaving all those possibilities in play (and that is where they must necessarily stay), I want to turn to think more specifically about the character of these 260-something jokes in the Philogelos and their underlying themes and preoccupations. In what ways might they have prompted laughter? And if we look beyond the type figures that give our version of the book its formal structure, what are the jokes actually about? For whatever their origins, this is the biggest assemblage of Roman jokes that we have. Are they merely a series of witty pot shots against men with bad breath, eggheads, and the dim denizens of Kyme? Or is the “Laughter lover” pointing us to some bigger issues, concerns, and fault lines in Roman culture?

GETTING THE JOKE

The jokes in the Philogelos, though mostly only a few lines long, come in a variety of recognizable styles. Some reflect the themes of fable, stage comedy, or epigram, others the spirit of mime (though we find very little of mime’s bawdiness; this is in general a very clean collection).40 Many of the gags turn on puns and wordplay.41 Some work by conjuring up a striking visual image (“A scholastikos bought a house and peeking out of its window asked passersby if it suited him”—as if, we must imagine, he was trying on his house like he might have tried on a cloak).42 One, at least, appears to match the observation of Cicero (see p. 112) that simply inserting some unexpectedly apposite quotation from poetry could be funny (in the Philogelos an actor pursued by two women—one with bad breath, the other with dreadful body odor—quotes a line from tragedy that neatly captures his dilemma).43

A number of them can still raise a laugh, even if they may need a helping hand from modern translations. Most of the English versions of the scholastikos, for example—whether “egghead,” “numbskull,” or “absent-minded professor”—are chosen precisely because they are part of the idiom of modern comedy and predispose us to a chuckle. Other jokes now seem decidedly less funny. That must sometimes be because of the almost unbridgeable gap between some of antiquity’s conventions of joking and our own. Crucifixion, for example, does not have a big part in the modern comic repertoire. So the joke in the Philogelos about the man from Abdera who saw a runner being crucified and quipped, “He’s no longer running, but flying,” is likely to leave us cold—and uncomfortable.44

Scholarly ingenuity and expertise can sometimes rescue others or at least provide some excuse for the apparent lack of any funny point. The various editors of the Greek text of the Philogelos have on occasion blamed sloppy medieval copyists for missing out the punch line. So, for example, Roger Dawe, when confronted with a joke that simply reads, “An egghead, wanting to catch a mouse that was all the time gnawing at his books, sat down in the dark crunching meat . . . ,” decided that someone, in the process of transmission, must have failed to finish the gag (for surely it was better than that).45 Other critics have scoured the texts to unearth hidden puns in an attempt to recover the funny points we have missed (much like Fontaine’s project with Plautus; see p. 56).

A typical example is the very first joke in the modern collection: “An egghead asked a silversmith to make a lamp. When the smith asked how big he should make it, the egghead replied, ‘For eight people.’”46 Maybe it is a good enough gag as it stands: thescholastikos confuses the conventions of measurement, for lamps are not sold according to the number of people they will illuminate (even though, from another perspective, that might not be such a bad way of doing it). But a clever recent study, convinced that on that standard interpretation it must be “one of the least funny items in this . . . book,” has claimed that we have simply missed the puns. The Greek word for “lamp” (luknos) is also the word for a fish, and poieō (make) is very occasionally attested in the sense of “prepare” (as in food or cooking). So maybe this is really a smart wordplay on lamps and fishes, on making and cooking. “How big do you want the lamp/fish?” Enough for eight.47

Or maybe not.48 Satisfying as this—and other ingenious modern reconstructions of these jokes49—may be, we have to beware of that old pitfall of pouring too much energy into making them funny for us. In fact, it would be a fair assumption that some of the jokes in this collection were feeble anyway and not likely to raise a laugh even among an ancient audience. It is not merely that jokebooks, to fill their pages, tend to include bad jokes alongside the good, for the sad truth is that there are never quite as many sparkling ones as you need. It is also, more fundamentally, that the cultural coordinates of joking make bad and good jokes symbiotic and inseparable. We need the bad jokes to appreciate the good; they provide the necessary chorus line behind those that really will make us chuckle.

Among this chorus line in the Philogelos I would count one rather flat little story of a “simpleton” apprentice (presumably to a barber–cum–nail cutter). “A simpleton apprentice, told by his master to cut a gentleman’s nails, started to weep. When the client asked why, he said, ‘I’m scared, that’s why I’m crying. For I’m going to hurt you, and you’ll get sore fingers, and the master will beat me.’”50 Likewise an even shorter tale of a “meanie” in the fuller’s workshop: “A meanie went into a fullery and, not wanting to pee, died.”51 There must be some connection here with the use of urine in the fulling and laundry industry in Rome. Possibly (and this is the best explanation I can offer) the mean man was so keen not to give his valuable urine to the fuller for free that he retained it until his bladder burst and he died.52

Of course, some of these may have raised more laughs in the telling than they do on the page. Suppose that the jokes as recorded in the Philogelos were always intended as telegraphic summaries, to be embroidered and given comic color by the jester; then any performance might have added the kind of circumstantial detail that the bare one-liner of the meanie in the fullery seems desperately to need. (What exactly detained him, for example? Why didn’t he just leave the fullery to have a pee?) We can only guess at the relationship between the text and the telling. But in general, I have little doubt that we go against the grain of this or any such collection if we demand that all its jokes be good jokes—whether by ancient or modern standards.

VIEWING THE WORLD AWRY

Good or not, jokes have plenty to tell us about Roman culture. Whether they prompted loud chortles, modest sniggers, or blank bemusement, they offer a sideways glance into ancient puzzles, problems, and debates that can otherwise remain hidden from us.

It is almost a truism (and one that I have exploited in this book) that laughter is a marker of areas of disruption and anxiety, whether social, cultural, or psychic. We have seen, for example, how Roman laughter negotiated the contested boundaries of power and status—between animals and humans, emperors and subjects. And the simple calculation that roughly 15 percent of the jokes in the Philogelos in some way concern death (from coffins to suicide or inheritance53) is probably enough to encourage some amateur Freudian theorizing in us all.

In thinking more widely, however, about the cultural implications of the jokes in the Philogelos, I have again found Simon Critchley’s discussion of joking and laughter particularly helpful. For Critchley, jokes and (in his terms) “humour” operate in part as distancing devices, inviting us to view the world awry. Jokes are appealing because they help us to see our lives and assumptions “as if we had just landed from another planet” and to “relativize the categories” that we usually take for granted. “The comedian is the anthropologist of our humdrum everyday lives” and turns those of us who see the point of the joke—those who get it—into domestic anthropologists too. In the process of laughing, we are not only freed from “common sense”; we also recognize the misrepresentations, shortcuts, and occlusions that common sense rests on. For Critchley, in other words, jokes are as much heuristic, intellectual devices as windows into the wellsprings of our unconscious.54

We have already seen some aspects of this domestic anthropology. When we laughed at the scholastikos dodging his doctor because he had not been ill for a long time (pp. 190–91), we were at the same time recognizing the strangeness of our relationship with a man whose prosperity depends on our sickness. Likewise there are a number of jokes in the Philogelos that focus on the peculiar status of dreams and their relationship to waking reality. For example, “Someone met a scholastikos and said, ‘My learned sir, I saw you in a dream.’ ‘Good god,’ he replied, ‘I was so busy I didn’t notice you’” (or, in a slightly different variant, “‘You’re lying,’ he said. ‘I was in the country’”).55 Another egghead “dreamed that he trod on a nail and so bandaged his foot. An egghead friend asked the reason and, when he learned, said, ‘We deserve to be called idiots. Why on earth did you go to bed without your shoes on?’” Much the same point is made in the joke about the cowardly hunter who dreamed he was chased by a bear, so bought some hounds and had them sleep next to him.56

Of course, many Romans would have had a more pressing interest in their dreams than modern dreamers have, seeing them as much more directly prophetic or diagnostic than any recent psychoanalytic theory would allow.57 It is perhaps for that reason that the questions posed in these jokes turn out to be more acute than their simple comic form might suggest. There is more under the spotlight here than the general relationship between dream life and the waking world. Readers or audience are being prompted to reflect on the relative temporalities of dreams and everyday life, on the relationship between the dreamer and the other people who appear in the dream (what effect does our dreaming about someone else have on them?), and on the ability of the waking world to impact on the sleeping (can we be so sure that the hounds by the bedside will not keep the dream bears off?). In Critchley’s terms, these gags—“like small anthropological essays”—acted to estrange ancient readers or listeners from their unreflective, commonsense assumptions on the nature of dreaming. The reward for the laugher would be the pleasure of reflecting differently on the problems of the dreamworld and of exploiting the capacity of the joke to expose the nagging puzzles normally hidden or brushed aside. Exactly where, for example, does a dream take place?

Other jokes in the collection, found across the various categories into which it is usually divided, seek to raise a laugh by challenging conventions of Roman social or cultural life that were even more fundamental. A few target the rules of succession, the orthodox ordering of family life, and the taboos that surrounded it. These expose the slippery relativity of the categories “father” and “son.” So, for example, “A scholastikos got up one night and into bed with his grandmother. Taking a beating for it from his father, he said, ‘Hey, you—it’s been such a long time that you’ve been screwing my mother without getting a beating from me, are you angry that you found me just once on top of your mother?’”58 The question is: How can rules and prohibitions acknowledge the shifting categories of family relations? In this joke, the consequence of the son resting his case on the law of nature—that everyone’s father is someone else’s son—is sexual mayhem. But in another gag, it is precisely that point that saves the day, as well as a baby’s life. For there the story is that a young scholastikos has had a child by a slave, and his father suggests killing it (a fairly typical “solution” to unwanted children in the ancient world). The son’s response? “Put your own children in their graves first, before you talk of getting rid of mine.”59

A rather more unexpected convention held up for particular scrutiny in the Philogelos is that of number. We might have predicted that the rules and discontents of family and sexual life would have been obvious targets for a Roman jokester; we would not, I think, have imagined that the conventional symbols of number and their relationship to “real” quantity would have been an even more prominent theme. Yet repeatedly we find jokes pointing to and playing with what we might call numerical tropes. In their simplest form—and for a modern readership, we must admit, it’s not particularly funny—these rest on that old joking standby: the confusion of signifier and signified. So an egghead on a ship that was in danger of sinking, carrying with him a written debt bond for “one and a half million,” decided to lighten its load simply by erasing the five hundred thousand. Whereas the other passengers had thrown their luggage overboard, the scholastikos proudly announces that he has reduced the weight of the ship (and, of course, at the same time the burden of his debt) just by rubbing out the 5.60

Much the same point underlies another, at first sight very different, gag. “A scholastikos was going away, and a friend asked him, ‘Please buy me two slave boys, each fifteen years old.’ He replied, ‘OK, and if I can’t find the pair, I’ll buy you one thirty-year-old.’” Though we might be tempted to see sex as the main theme here (and indeed I have heard a few sexist modern jokes weighing up the virtues of two twenty-year-old women against one forty-year-old), the bottom line is surely number and the gap between numerical symbol and bodily reality. To spell it out (beyond an ounce of remaining humor): although two fifteens certainly do make thirty, one thirty-year-old slave is no substitute for two fifteen-year-olds. And with that comes a glimpse of the shifting, unstable conventions of number and counting, for, after all, one two-pound bag of flour would have been as good as two one-pound bags.61

Variants on this theme are found throughout the collection, playing space, size, time, and value against the symbols of number in subtly different ways. The subjects of these jokes range from the man from Kyme who broke into the house of a money lender to recover the most expensive IOU (and so took away the heaviest file) to the “Sidonian egghead” with a country estate who—wanting to make it nearer town—simply removed seven of the milestones along the route; from the scholastikos who wondered if the ladder had as many rungs going down as going up to the doctor from Kyme who charged half as much for treating a tertian fever (with a three-day recurrence) as a semitertian (with an alternate day recurrence).62 This is another striking case where the repeated, underlying themes of joking give us an unexpected glimpse into some of the embedded debates, uncertainties, and contestations of the Roman world: here, how arithmetic works and how on earth to understand what a number is.

Those uncertainties notably extend to personal identity. One deceptively simple question—“How do I know who I am?”—leaves its vivid mark on the Philogelos. The gag about the scholastikos, the bald man, and the barber that launched this chapter revolves around exactly that issue (how do I tell the difference between “me” and “someone else”? Is it just a hair’s breadth?). So do many others, including some of the most memorable in the collection. They repeatedly ask where authority and the rights of authentication in questions of personal identity lie. One short version goes like this: “A scholastikos bumped into some friend of his and said, ‘I heard that you had died.’ He replied, ‘But you can see I’m alive.’ And the scholastikos came back, ‘But the person who told me was far more trustworthy than you.’”63

That is essentially the same point that we find in a rather more complex joke tagged to “a grumpy man” who wanted to avoid an unwelcome visitor who had come to call on him at home. “Someone was looking for a grumpy man. But he answered, ‘I’m not here.’ When the visitor laughed and said, ‘You’re lying—I hear your voice,’ he replied, ‘You scoundrel, if my slave had spoken, you would have believed him. Don’t I seem to you more trustworthy than him?’”64 This is, in fact, one of those jokes in the Philogelos with a venerable history stretching back centuries. Cicero quotes a similar though longer anecdote in On the Orator.65 It is set in the second century BCE and features the Roman poet Ennius and Scipio Nasica, a leading member of one of republican Rome’s grandest families. This story starts with Nasica calling on Ennius, only to find a maid who explains that Ennius is out. Despite her assurances, Nasica is convinced that she is just speaking to order and that Ennius really is at home. A few days later, the roles are reversed: “When Ennius had gone to call on Nasica and was asking for him at the door, Nasica cried out that he was not at home. ‘What?’ said Ennius. ‘Don’t I recognize your voice?’ ‘What a nerve you have,’ retorted Nasica. ‘When I was looking for you, I believed your maid when she said that you weren’t at home. Don’t you trust me myself?’”

There are some significant differences between the two versions. This is another case where the Philogelos includes an anonymized version of a joke elsewhere attributed to famous historical characters (see pp. 189–90). The main moral of the story is different too: in On the Orator, the apparently offending line is Nasica’s clever way of teaching Ennius a lesson; in the joke collection, it is simply a crass piece of deception on the part of the grumpy man. But issues of identity and authority run through both, nuanced as they are by issues of status and slavery. In the simpler version of the Philogelos, the main question is whom you can trust to vouch for someone or for their presence or absence. The joking paradox points to the fact that it is impossible for anyone to vouch for their own absence.

Several other jokes touch on these and similar themes. “Was it you or your twin brother who died?” asks an egghead when he meets the survivor in the street. Another egghead decides to give his baby his own name, “and I’ll just do without one.” What, in other words, is the relationship between naming and selfhood? At an embalmer’s studio, a man from Kyme tries to identify the dead body of his father through his distinguishing feature: that is, his cough. How far, this joke asks, does identity—and its markers—survive death? How funny is it that the affliction, which presumably defined the old man and eventually killed him, turns out to be no use at all in identifying him among a load of other look-alike corpses?66

Whatever the precise social origin of the Philogelos, its variants, and its predecessors—whether we imagine it coming fresh from the barbershop or crafted on the library desk—laughter here is pointing us to the debates and anxieties that must have bulked large in a world where formal proofs of identity were minimal: no passports, no government-issued ID, not much in the way of birth certificates or any of those other forms of documentation that we now take for granted as the means of proving who we are.67 In the Roman world, identity was a problem: people must have gone to ground, reinvented and renamed themselves, pretended to be who they were not, or failed to convince even their closest family that they really were who they claimed to be. The domestic anthropology of these jokes presumably raised a laugh (or hoped to) by exposing to a Roman audience the very nature of their day-to-day uncertainties about the self. When that egghead woke up, rubbed his head, and wondered if he had suddenly turned into the bald man, he was gesturing—hilariously, maybe—to shared anxieties about who in fact was who. Just as the story of the man who wanted to keep the dogs by his bed, to frighten off the dream bears, chimed with all kinds of Roman questions about the status of what you “saw” when you were asleep.

ROMAN JOKEBOOKS

The Philogelos is the only Roman jokebook to survive. Modern (re)-construction though it is, it certainly descends from a joke collection, or more likely collections, assembled, configured, and reconfigured in the Roman Empire. Whatever the point or the funny side of its individual gags, thePhilogelos as a whole raises questions about the genre of the jokebook. Where and when did such anthologies originate? What do they imply about the status of jokes and joking? What hangs on the apparently simple fact that jokes could become the object of collecting and classification?

We have already come across references to various collections that may have been similar in some ways to the Philogelos. Different compilers gathered together the wit and wisdom of Cicero in several volumes. These presumably provided the raw material for Macrobius’ chapters on Cicero’s jokes, and collections of the same kind may well have been the ultimate source of the numerous wisecracks of Augustus and Julia also quoted in the Saturnalia (see pp. 77–78, 104–5, 130–31, 156). In fact, anthologies of witty sayings coined by notable individuals were clearly part of the stock-in-trade of ancient literary production. There are surviving examples in the various collections of apophthegmata compiled by Plutarch (Sayings of Kings and Commanders, Sayings of the Spartans,and Sayings of the Spartan Women) and clear traces of them in such works as Lucian’s Life of the second-century CE philosopher Demonax, which largely consists of a list of his witty or moral sayings (often referred to as chreiai)—presumably drawn from some earlier anthology.68 And there were once many more, now known only from the occasional quotation or brief reference. Julius Caesar, for example, was supposed to have compiled his own Dicta Collectanea (Collected Sayings), reputedly suppressed after his death by Augustus.69

Wit may well have been the hallmark of these collections. But whatever their superficial similarities to the Philogelos, they are crucially different in one major respect. They are all, as the title Dicta or Apophthegmata suggests, compilations of sayings of particular named individuals, which remain explicitly tied to their originators—even if there were sometimes competing claims about who exactly had coined which bon mot. In that sense, they are as close to the traditions of biography as to the traditions of joking.70 They stand clearly apart from the un-attributed, decontextualized, generalized jokes of the Philogelos.

To these, the closest parallel may possibly be found in the 150 volumes of Ineptiae (Trifles), later called Ioci (Jokes), put together by an imperial librarian named Melissus in the reign of Augustus. But although it was obviously a vast compendium of wit, we do not have the faintest clue of its focus or organizational principles. It too might have been organized biographically, as a series of witty sayings by great men and a few women.71 Clearer parallels, albeit fictional, are the jokebooks that formed a distinctive part of the professional equipment of parasites in Roman comedy (see pp. 149–50). In Plautus’ Stichus we find the unfortunate Gelasimus trying to learn up jokes from his libri (books)—which at one point earlier in the play he had tried to auction off to the audience in return for dinner (a classic case of a desperate man selling his sole means of support just to get his next meal).72 Saturio, the parasite in the Persa (The Persian), perhaps has a better idea of the value of his books. He sees their jokes as a potential dowry for his daughter: “Look, I’ve got a whole cartful of books. . . . Six hundred of the jokes in them will be yours for your dowry.”73

Whatever their real-life models may have been, Plautus’ jokebooks were ultimately a figment of his imagination, and he never quotes any of their (imaginary) gags. The terms he uses to describe them—verba, dicta, logi, cavillationes, and so forth—could mean almost anything across the whole repertoire of wit, joking, and banter. But the logic of the comic plot demands that these quips were multipurpose, brought out and adapted for any occasion when the parasite might want to raise a laugh; it demands that they were generic rather than specific jokes. It is for that reason that some modern readers of the Philogelos have been keen to see that collection as the closest we have to the practical aidemémoire of an ancient jester.

That is, however, to miss a more important signal that Gelasimus, Saturio, and their joking equipment offer. For despite the close, formal relationship between Roman comedy and its Greek comic ancestors, there is no indication at all that parasites in Greek comedy came onstage carrying their jokebooks or that jokebooks ever acted as props in the Greek comic repertoire. None of the surviving traces of those plays gives any hint of them. Arguments from silence are, of course, always perilous. But the evidence we have (and there are, as we shall see, other pointers in the same direction) suggests that jokebooks of this type, whether on or off the stage, were something characteristically Roman. To return to some of the big themes I broached in chapter 4, the jokebook—in contrast to compendia of witty maxims or sayings attached to named characters—may be one of those features that help us prize apart a little the “laughterhood” of Rome from that of Greece.

This is not the usual story. Scholars have normally assumed that there must have been such general joke anthologies in the ancient Greek world and massaged fragments of evidence to fit. Robert Maltby, for example, has taken Saturio’s reference to “Athenian” and “Sicilian” jokes among those that might make up his daughter’s dowry (“They’ll be all Athenian; you won’t get a single Sicilian”) as proof of Athenian and Sicilian traditions of jokebooks.74 But that is to miss the point. Saturio was surely referring casually to the stereotypical hierarchy of jesting in the Roman world, with “Attic salt” coming out on top, Sicilian wit a little way behind (see p. 94). Only really tip-top jokes were to be included in the dowry—even Sicilian ones wouldn’t be quite good enough.

To others, the surviving titles of classical and Hellenistic Greek anthologies of wit and humor have suggested a literary tradition very much in the style of the Philogelos. But that too is very hard to sustain when we look at what little we can reconstruct of the books beyond their titles. At first sight, for example, we might expect Aristodemus’ collection—Geloia Apomnēmoneumata (“Funny Stories” or “Humorous Memoirs”)—to contain a mixed bag of jokes, not simply the sayings of particular individuals. Maybe it did. But the few quotations preserved from it in Athenaeus (and that is all we have) suggest something closer to named, authored bons mots.75

Even the supposed remains of a genuine Hellenistic jokebook—now often hailed as a single precious survival of the genre—hardly stand up to much scrutiny. The traces of text on this very ragged third-century BCE papyrus are frankly scant. They seem to indicate a series of one-line comments or questions grouped under various headings. Eis purron is the only heading to survive complete, but editors have disagreed whether this means “to (or against) a redhead” or “to (or against) Pyrrhos” (as a proper name, with a capital P). They have also disagreed about the status of the one-liners set beneath the headings. In the case of eis purron, so far as we can decipher the wording, these seem to take the form of “You do not have a face [prosōpon], but . . . ,” repeated with different and equally puzzling insertions following the but: “the evening sun,” for example, “the coals of the fire,” and so on.76 It is down almost entirely to the efforts of Rudolf Kassel that it is has become known as a jokebook, for he bravely tried to connect some of its idioms with the banter of the scurrae in Horace’s Satire on the journey to Brundisium (see p. 68) and other Latin comic forms.77 Unsurprisingly, other critics have thought differently, detecting instead the remains of an anthology of epigrams or even some kind of physiognomical text.78 The fact is that the papyrus is far too fragmentary to yield any certain conclusion—except that there is nothing, beyond some possible scheme of classification by type of character, to link it with the kind of material we find in the Philogelos.

We can never state with complete confidence that any particular cultural form or literary genre did not exist in either the Greek or the Roman world (in fact, some of the jokes in the Philogelos pointedly remind us how tricky it is to authenticate absence). The literary culture of classical and Hellenistic Greece certainly spawned collections of all sorts (including witty maxims, epigrams, riddles, and sayings), and we could debate endlessly where the boundary lay between one type and another, what their various functions were, and what might count as a book of “jokes.” But all the indications are that jokebooks, of the kind we have been exploring in this chapter, were not a significant part of the classical Greek landscape; they were much more commonly a Roman product (whether of the Latin world of Plautus or the wider, mixed culture of the Roman imperial Mediterranean). If so, our next, and final, question must be: what does that imply about the role, status, and function of the Roman joke? To put it another way, what difference does it make to the idea of joking that a joke could become a free-floating “collectible”?

THE ROMAN JOKE?

There could be no such thing as the world’s (or even the Western world’s) first joke. Any claim about where “the joke” began quickly collapses under questions of definition. What distinguishes jokes from all the other verbal ways of provoking laughter? Does a witty epigram, a fable, or a pun count as a joke? If laughter is as old as humanity, can we possibly imagine a time in the history of human communication when language was not used to raise a laugh?

Yet when Gelasimus comes onstage and threatens to sell his jokes and his jokebooks in exchange for a good dinner, we are in a distinctive and recognizable world of joking. Jokes here are commodities of a sort. Even though the scene is itself meant to be a joke, Gelasimus’ gags are deemed to have a value. They are objects that play a role in a system of exchange. They have an existence independent of the individual jokester; in Saturio’s case, they can even be bequeathed down the generations. They are also objects with their own history; in fact, we saw in Thraso’s joke about the young Rhodian in Terence’s Eunuch (pp. 13, 90–91) that a joke’s history could be part of its point and part of what prompted a laugh. For all its Roman comic coloring, there is something familiar to us about this. In the modern world also, jokes are often part of a system of exchange. We swapjokes. We tell them competitively. For us too, they can be commodities with a genealogy and a value. Some people even make their living by selling wisecracks to radio and television.

There is much less sign of that sort of commodification in the world of classical and Hellenistic Greece. Of course, there were all kinds of ways in which language and literature of that period raised a laugh; there were many sharp and funny sayings attributed to famous figures, from statesmen to philosophers; and there were various times when a joke was expected (the idea of a freeloader getting a dinner by playing the jester was not a Roman invention). There are also occasional hints of a more generalized, anonymized style of gag that is reminiscent of the Philogelos. The closest we come is in Aristophanes’ comedy Wasps, where, in the rumpus at the end of the play, old Philocleon tries unsuccessfully to calm things down in what he has been told is a gentlemanly and sophisticated way—by telling a “Sybarite story”: “A man from Sybaris fell out of his chariot and somehow smashed his head very badly. For in fact he wasn’t a skilled driver. Then a friend of his stood over him and said, ‘People should pursue whatever trade they know.’”79 Sybarite stories are a curious subgenre of ancient moralizing wit, focusing on the supposed stupidity of the inhabitants of the South Italian city of Sybaris, which proverbially—before its destruction in the late sixth century BCE—had been far too rich for its own good. The stories are known mainly from snatches of quotations in writers of Roman date and are usually grouped with fable—as they are by Aristophanes himself earlier in the play (“something funny from Aesop or a Sybarite story”). The anonymous stupid Sybarite cannot help but recall those dumb inhabitants of Abdera, Kyme, and Sidon in the Philogelos.80

In classical and Hellenistic Greece, however, jokes do not seem to have been treated as collectible commodities in quite the way they were in Rome or in the Roman world. That difference is nicely captured in a story about King Philip of Macedon reported by Athenaeus in his extraordinary multivolume encyclopedia-cum-anthology of literature and culture, The Philosophers’ Banquet. Written in Greek by a man from the Roman province of Egypt around the turn of the second and third centuries CE, this pretends to be the script of a dinner party hosted by a wealthy Roman patron and featuring a number of learned discussants who exchanged quotations and a dazzling (and sometimes, let’s be honest, tedious) brand of academic chitchat. Jokes and joking were among Athenaeus’ themes, and I have already taken advantage of some of the offbeat material he preserves, including the curious story of Parmeniscus and his inability to laugh (see pp. 174–76). One character at this party—a Roman by the name of Ulpian—has a particularly revealing tale to tell about Philip attempting to buy some jokes.81

Ulpian explains that in Athens in the fourth century BCE, there was a group of witty men who used to meet in a sanctuary just outside the city. Known as The Sixty, from their number, they had a particular skill (sophia) in raising a laugh. When Philip heard of the group, he offered a large amount of cash in exchange for their gags (geloia): “He sent them a talent of silver, so that they would write their jokes down and send them to him.”82 This story has often been used as another piece of evidence for the existence of joke collections in fourth-century Greece (this group of jokesters was just “the sort who might have transformed their oral repertory into written jokebooks,” as one critic has written).83 And so it might at first sight appear.

It is only in the course of writing this chapter that I have come to realize that the story—and its underlying moral—much more likely points in the opposite direction. Although the summary that Athenaeus offers is very brief, it is closely followed by anecdotes relating to the fondness for laughter of a couple of notoriously unpleasant autocrats (Demetrius Poliorcetes and Sulla). In the original Athenian context, the story of The Sixty was almost certainly seen not as a positive instance of an enterprising spirit of literary collecting but as a negative example of transgressive, autocratic commodification: Philip, the rich and powerful monarch, wrongly thought he could buy the wit of The Sixty in convenient, take-away, paper form (whether or not they sent the jokes to him we are not told84).

The Roman world was different. To put it at its starkest, the commodification of joking (into jokes swapped, handed down, collected, or bought and sold) was not some sign of the transgressive will of an autocrat; it seems much more like a Roman cultural norm. That is the implication not just of the banter of Gelasimus and his fellow Roman comic parasites or of the idiom of the Philogelos. The striking disparity of vocabulary between Latin and Greek that I stressed in chapter 4 nudges us in the same direction. Latin has an extremely—almost needlessly—rich range of words for a joke, whereas the Greek language seems to prioritize the vocabulary of laughing and laughter, with geloion and skōmma (to which we might possibly add chreia) rather overstretched in doing their duty as the words for gags of various types.

It would be dangerously oversimplifying to draw sharp and fixed contrasts between the joking cultures of “Greece” and “Rome” from these telling hints. Yet it would also be irresponsibly unimaginative to remain blind to the different cultural coordinates of jokes and joking that they suggest: in particular, the idea that in the Roman world, the joke not only operated as a mode of interaction but existed as a cultural object or a commodity in its own right (or as a noun rather than a verb). The most risk-averse scholar might see this in terms of a difference in emphasis, complicated maybe by the patterns of evidence and its survival. The boldest would be tempted to make much more radical claims, locating the origins of “the joke,” as we now understand it, within Roman culture and seeing it—far outstripping bridge building and roads—as one of the most important bequests of the Romans to the history of the West. As I reach the end of this book, rather like a comic as the show comes to its close, I am inclined to boldness.

But whatever line we choose to take, the question of how exactly to account for the particular character of the joke in the Roman world remains puzzling. And it takes us back to all those issues of how we might write a history of laughter, including its changes over time (and place), that I raised in chapter 3. Various factors seem relevant here. We could point to the nature of Roman rhetorical theory and practice and the way it reified different forms of speech. We could focus on the social relations that Roman comedy represents between Gelasimus and his patrons (whether onstage or in the audience). How far was the idea of a joke as a commodity connected to the notoriously sharp-edged transactional relations in the Roman world between patron and client, rich and poor? Was it in that context that joking became defined as an object of exchange (as much as a mode of cultural interaction)? We might also, more cynically, reflect that it was one of the hallmarks of imperial Rome’s domination to commodify culture—whether that of the rest of the Mediterranean or its own. Everything in the Roman Empire had a price. Just as the imperial conquerors did in their purchase, confiscation, replication, exchange, classification, and valuation of works of art, so too they did with wit, jokes, and joking. No surprise, then, that “the King Philip model” became one powerful strand in the “laughterhood” of Rome.

All those factors may have a part to play. But as always, it is well worth paying careful attention to what the inhabitants of the Roman Empire themselves had to say—and, in this case, to return finally to Athenaeus. Just before he tells of Philip’s interest in The Sixty, Ulpian is already dealing with the subject of jokes, and he broaches the question (crazy as it may seem to us now) of who invented “the joke.” His main text is a few lines from a play (The Madness of Old Men) by a fourth-century BCE comic dramatist, Anaxandrides: “Rhadamanthys and Palamedes had the idea of making the person who comes to the dinner party without any contribution [asymbolos] tell jokes.” We know little or nothing about the context of this remark in the play, which does not survive beyond scattered quotations and references. But particularly revealing for the history of laughter is the way in which Ulpian introduces and constructively misinterprets the lines he quotes: “In The Madness of Old Men,” he says, “Anaxandrides claims that Rhadamanthys and Palamedes were the inventors [heuretai] of jokes.”85 That is not what Anaxandrides wrote at all: so far as we know, he merely said that these two mythic figures were the first to have the bright idea of getting freeloaders at dinner to pay for their food with laughter.

These few lines encapsulate a lot more about Greek and Roman laughter than it might appear. Athenaeus, writing in the late second century CE, has—unconsciously perhaps—reinterpreted Anaxandrides’ claims about a social practice (the role of a parasite at dinner) into claims about jokes themselves. Indeed, most modern writers have followed Athenaeus in suggesting that Anaxandrides attributed the invention of geloia (jokes) to Rhadamanthys and Palamedes, two well-known inventors and intellectuals in the Greek mythological tradition.86 Anaxandrides did nothing of the kind. In fact, this deceptively simple passage marks the shift I have been suggesting from the practice of joking to the commodified joke. The fourth-century Greek dramatist was talking about the former, but the Roman-period author assumes the latter—reflecting the status of the joke in his world, as an object of study and theorizing in its own right, as an object with its own value and history, as an object that could be invented or discovered.

That is the sense in which we might conclude that it was indeed “the Romans” who invented “the joke.”87

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