And You Thought Byzantines Weren't Funny?

jim bowen_Small.jpgI've been reading the oldest joke book in existence, the Philogelos, a Byzantine book written in about 400 AD. It's full of knee slappers. The book is mostly quips from two guys, Hierocles and Philagrius, about whom little is known.

Like network television, Byzantine comedy is mostly based on the fortunes and foibles of a gallery of stock characters: the drunk, the miser, the braggart, the sex-starved woman, as well as a classic type known as the scholastikos, variously translated as "pedant," "absent-minded professor," or "egghead."

There's a great video here, in which Brit comedic legend Jim Bowen does ancient Byzantine material in a modern comedy club. (Well, it's not Oswald Patton, but Bowen's stuff is 1600 years old)


Scholasticus meeting a friend exclaims, "Why, I heard you were dead!" The other replies, "Well, I tell you that I'm alive." "Yes," persists Scholasticus, "but the man who told me so is more truthful than you!"

More yuks on the next page

A son says to his father, "Base man! Don't you see how you have wronged me? If you had never been born and stood in the way I should have come into all my grandfather's money."

An Abderite saw a eunuch talking with a woman and asked him if she was his wife. When he replied that eunuchs can't have wives, the Abderite asked: "So is she your daughter?"

Some of the jokes are no longer unstandable as funny because of differences in customs and lifestyle. For instance there's a lot of jokes about lettuce. Byzantines loved lettuce jokes because they evidently were dirty jokes. (Maybe they associated the way lettuce looks with parts of the human anatomy?)

An intellectual was eating dinner with his father. On the table was a large lettuce with many succulent shoots. The intellectual suggested: "Father, you eat the children; I'll take mother."


    1. No, I’m pretty sure he just left out the dash and is referring to the famous Byzantine comedy duo of Lee Harvey Oswald and Gen. George Patton. Those guys were a couple of cut-ups.

  1. “I’ll take the mother!” — Those SICK BASTARDS!

    Glad to see that nothing’s changed in 1600 years!

  2. A man goes to the Doctor with a piece of lettuce hanging out of his ear.

    “That looks nasty,” says the doctor.

    “Nasty?!?” replies the man, “this is just the tip of the iceberg.”

  3. For an un-funny but tremendously interesting (and frightening, and salacious) account of life at the Byzantine court, read Anekdota by Procopius.

    … A Senator … not only lost his property but was thrown into a dungeon, where he was fastened to a manger by a rope around his neck so short that the noose was always tight and could not be slackened. Consequently the poor man had to stand at the manger all the time, whether he ate or sought sleep or performed the other needs of the body. The only difference between him and an ass, was that he could not bray. The time the man passed in this condition was not less than four months; after which, overcome by melancholy, he went mad, and as such they set him free to die.

  4. A son says to his father, “Base man! Don’t you see how you have wronged me? If you had never been born and stood in the way I should have come into all my grandfather’s money.”

    Makes you think, this joke does!

  5. I know the setting was a few centuries earlier but I’m reminded of Mel Brooks’ “stand up philosopher” character from History of the World part I.

    “Have you heard about this new cult, the Christians? They’re so poor they have only ONE god!!!”

  6. I thought this was really interesting. The web page in question is a massive fail, however. Don’t get clever and cutesy, just deliver the content, sheesh.

  7. The lettuce jokes might be puns, as the latin name is based on the milky juice of the plant. The latin name of the plant is Lactuca sativa, and “lac” is the root word for milk.

    So perhaps they are “tit puns”

    1. Just as a warning, scientific names may be Latin but aren’t necessarily the Latin names. “Lactuca sativa” means “planted lettuce”.
      More importantly, though, Byzantines spoke Greek. I don’t know enough to suggest a pun on “thridax”, but it sure doesn’t sound like milk.

        1. Even so, with the loss of the west the language switched back to Greek. You can see it right in the post: Philogelos and scholastikos are both Greek words, not Latin.

          1. Although Greek and Latin were both spoken by most educated people as far back as the late Republic, Latin was the official language until the 7th century CE. But, yes, this book is in Greek.

  8. Not saying that these jokes are especially funny, but they probably suffer a lot from awkward translation. Nobody says “base man,” so translating it as such makes it seem awkward and stodgy, when the original is presumably a common natural expression, like saying jackass or something. Precise translation is important for dissecting meaning, but dissecting meaning is exactly what kills jokes, and you lose the natural flow of the language.

  9. Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
    Antoninus: When I have them, master.
    Marcus Licinius Crassus: Do you eat snails?
    Antoninus: No, master. I think of myself as more of a lettuce man.

  10. A Byzantine walks into a bar, and the bartender says, “why did you have to make this so complicated?”

  11. TIRESIAS TO OEDIPUS: You kiss your mother with that mouth?

    Thank you! I’ll be here all week!

  12. Not only the aphrodisiac thing, but lettuce looks a little like certain part of female anatomy, what with all those folds.

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