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."