Toward the end of my time at Berkeley, I had a long coffee break in the Free Speech Movement Café on campus with Erich Gruen, a renowned Berkeley ancient historian whose work I have read, debated, and sometimes disagreed with since I was an undergraduate in the 1970s.

We reflected on the themes of my Sather Lectures and on the distinctive features, sometimes strangeness, of Roman laughter. We talked about many of the topics that I have now written up in this book: the place of laughter on the boundary between human and animal, emperor and subject, gods and men; the absence of smiling as a cultural signifier; the range of (to us) weird Roman speculations on where the origins of laughter might lie. How could we imagine a world in which the lips, rather than the soles of the feet, might be thought the most ticklish zone of the human body? Could we ever see the funny side of a casual joke about crucifixion? Did we really believe that there were some chemical substances in the ancient world—or, for that matter, magical springs—that made people giggle? Besides, what would a history of ancient (or later) laughter look like, and how would Roman laughter fit into that?

Erich’s approach was characteristically against the grain. For him, he said, the surprising thing about Roman laughter was not its strangeness. To be sure, it could sometimes seem puzzling, even incomprehensible, in many of the ways that I had pointed out. But no less striking was the simple fact that two thousand years later, in a radically different world, we could still laugh at some of the gags that apparently had made the Romans crack up. Wasn’t the big problem, he asked, the comprehensibility of Roman laughter, not the reverse?

We talked on for a while, wondering what might explain our capacity to get the Roman joke, or at least to get some Roman jokes. It would obviously be dangerous to set one’s face entirely against the universals of neuroscience. The prompts to laughter in the human brain may in some ways transcend cultural difference. It would be equally dangerous to be blind to those patterns in world folklore that—however we explain it—throw up very similar themes and story lines in popular tales, fables, and sayings across the globe. In fact, there are traditional Arabic jokes with a striking resemblance to some of those in the Philogelos.1 Yet most of what I had talked about through the lectures suggested that by and large, cultural differences in the practice of laughter trump whatever cultural or biological universals it might be reassuring to fall back on.

Over the five years since that conversation, I have become increasingly convinced that the reason we can laugh along with the ancient Romans is because it is from them that—in part at least—we have learned how to laugh and what to laugh at. I still think that there is an element of suggestibility in the chuckles that some gags in the Philogelos can produce in a modern audience (we laugh because we are determined to, and because it is funny in itself to laugh at jokes that have been around for two millennia—and anyway, they are translated and told with the idiom of modern jokes in mind). But there is more to it than that.

However tentative the claim that the Romans invented the joke must always remain (and, of course, I meant it to some extent as a provocation), one thing is absolutely certain: those wits and scholars from the Renaissance on who helped to define the main contours of European laughter culture with their learned debates and hugely popular collections of jokes and “merry tales” looked directly back to ancient Rome as ancestor and inspiration. Cicero’s On the Orator provided them not only with the closest thing they had to a theory of laughter but also with a collection of wisecracks that could be taken over—as they stood or redressed in modern clothing—into their own anthologies of facetiae, and there was Macrobius’ Saturnalia to be raided as well, where the bons mots of Cicero himself could be found.2 By the eighteenth century, parts of the Philogelos were also widely available. In fact, the great Cambridge classicist Richard Porson (1759–1808) is commonly said to have planned to write a scholarly edition of the best-known jokebook of that period, Joe Miller’s Jests, in order to show that every single joke in it was descended from the ancient “Laughter lover.” He would have been wrong—but not as wrong as you might think.3

Of course, there have been all kinds of other influences on modern laughter. It would be ridiculous to claim an unadulterated line of descent from the Roman culture of laughter to our own, and no less ridiculous to imagine a single homogenous culture of modern Western laughter anyway, whether across or within linguistic and ethnic boundaries (the long tradition of Jewish joking is one other tradition among many). And, of course, the raids that our ancestors made on classical joke collections were highly selective. Erudite Renaissance humanists and eighteenth-century jokesters must have found some of what they read in their ancient sources as baffling as we do, sometimes more so; as we’ve already seen (p. 186), Dr. Johnson struggled to get the one about the egghead, the bald man, and the barber. Nonetheless, the jokes that they selected, retold, adapted, and handed down from those Roman models are built into the foundations of our modern idioms of joking, stand-up, and comic one-liners. So it’s hardly surprising that we still laugh at them—or that they should demand (and deserve) the kind of attention I have given to them, and to the wider “laughterhood” of Rome, in the course of this book.

In fact, we still retell Roman jokes almost word for word—knowingly or, more often, unknowingly.

One of the quips attributed to Enoch Powell—a notorious twentieth-century politician, sardonic wit, and expert classicist—is his reply to a chatty barber. “How should I cut your hair, sir?” “In silence” was Powell’s answer. This circulates widely in collections of modern humor and repartee and gains grudging admiration even from those who detest Powell’s politics. My guess is that Powell was well aware that he had borrowed his clever retort from the joke about the chatty barber in the Philogelos, or alternatively from the same quip recounted by Plutarch and attributed to King Archelaus of Macedon (p. 189). I wouldn’t even be surprised if for Powell, part of the joke was that he knew exactly where it came from and those who repeated it with such admiration clearly didn’t.4

Other classical jokes can be even more deeply buried in our culture. It was pure serendipity that for bedside reading during the first weeks of my stay in Berkeley I had chosen Iris Murdoch’s novel The Sea, the Sea. It’s a classic Murdoch tale of angst and sexual intrigue among the privileged classes, featuring in this instance a retired actor, Charles Arrowby, who hopes (vainly) to escape his difficult metropolitan entanglements by moving to a cottage on the coast. Almost halfway through the novel, he spends a drunken evening with his friend and rival Peregrine, who is keen to stay up drinking all night. “Don’t go,” he pleads, as Charles finally makes a move. “I’ll tell you Freud’s favourite joke, if I can remember it. The king meets his double and says, ‘Did your mother work in the palace?’ and the double says, ‘No, but my father did.’ Ha ha ha, that’s a good joke!” He then drunkenly repeats it, thinking that Charles hasn’t seen the point: “. . . for Christ’s sake, don’t go, there’s another bottle. ‘No, but my father did’!”5

Whether or not this was Freud’s favorite joke, we haven’t a clue. But Freud certainly used it as an example in his own book on jokes. There it is a member of the royal family on tour in the provinces who “noticed a man in the crowd who bore a striking resemblance to his own exalted person. He beckoned to him and asked: ‘Was your mother at one time in service in the Palace?’—‘No, your Highness,’ was the reply, ‘but my father was.’”6 Murdoch’s joke jumped off the page at me. Of course it did: I’d been reading it that very day in the library. But neither Murdoch nor Freud seems to have spotted that “Freud’s favourite joke” went back almost two thousand years. Macrobius quoted it as a great example of how patiently Augustus put up with quips told at his expense (see pp. 130–31, 252n10). And Valerius Maximus quotes a very similar snatch of banter describing an encounter between a Roman governor of Sicily and an ordinary resident in the province who was his spitting image. The governor was amazed at the likeness, “since his father had never been to the province. ‘But my father went to Rome,’ the look-alike pointed out.”

The old ones, as they say, really are the best.

You can support our site by clicking on this link and watching the advertisement.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!