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Have you heard the one about Julius Caesar? The best Roman jokes - by Harry Mount and John Davie

Blog | By Harry Mount and John Davie | Oct 13, 2022

A 2nd-century AD mosaic from the Baths of Decius on the Aventine Hill, Rome, showing tragic and comic masks (Capitoline Museums)

At the beginning of The Art of Poetry, Horace tells a story that, he promises, will make anyone laugh: ‘If a painter wanted to put a horse’s head on a human neck, would you be able to keep your laughter in?’

Would you? I certainly would.

That’s the thing about Roman jokes – they’re not really very funny now. In 2008, when the late comic and Bullseye host Jim Bowen did an act based on the fourth-century ad Roman joke book Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), the jokes hadn’t improved with age:

"A man complains that a slave he was sold had died.

‘When he was with me, he never did any such thing!’ replies the seller."

Did that really have them rolling in the aisles in the Colosseum?

But even if we don’t find their jokes funny, the Romans gave us the furniture for our own comedy today. The language of modern humour is rooted in Latin. Locus is Latin for joke; facetus, as in facetious, is Latin for witty; ridiculus, as in ridiculous, meant laughable. Roman comic situations were similar to ours, too. Sex figures prominently.

Cicero’s list of the different kinds of Roman jokes – based on ambiguity, the unexpected, wordplay, understatement, irony, ridicule, silliness and pratfalls – is pretty close to any comparable modern list.

The basic skeleton of several Roman jokes still lives on in some modern gags. The old story about Enoch Powell’s visit to the barber – ‘How should I cut your hair, sir?’ ‘In silence’ – appears in the Philogelos joke book.

Both Iris Murdoch, in The Sea, the Sea, and Sigmund Freud told versions of the story recounted by Valerius Maximus, the first-century ad Roman writer:

"A Roman governor of Sicily met 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 lookalike pointed out."

The Romans even came up with the Englishman, Irishman and a Scotsman template, although their equivalents were the bald man, the barber and the clever man – with the clever man the butt of the gags in the Philogelos joke book.

For all the shared infrastructure of our jokes, though, there are some drastic differences.

To begin with, Terence’s 161 BC play, The Eunuch, is familiar comic territory – it sounds like an episode of Up Pompeii!. A lusty, lovesick youth, Charea, pretends to be a eunuch to get close to Pamphilia, an attractive slave-girl – nothing there to shock Frankie Howerd.

But then, at the end of the play, Charea uses his eunuch disguise to rape Pamphila, before marrying her – not so funny.

In one of the most radical differences between then and now, it appears that the Romans laughed – and, like us, transcribed laughter as ‘Ha-ha’ – but they didn’t smile. There are no Roman words for smiling, backing up the theory of the French historian, Jacques Le Goff (1924–2014), that smiling was an invention of the Middle Ages.

Et Tu, Brute? The Best Latin Lines Ever (Bloomsbury) by Harry Mount and John Davie is published on October 13