This article from the British publication The Guardian is about the discovery of an ancient Roman “joke book” by a Classical professor, Mary Beard, that dates back to sometime between the third and fourth centuries CE (Common Era). I thought that the article about this discovery makes several points worth considering, including the fact that our general opinion (or popular representations) of Romans tends to portray them as very austere, bloodthirsty, humorless people. The jokes present in this collection, entitled Philogelos (The Laughter Lover), paint a picture of the Romans as people who were willing to laugh at themselves, caricatures of themselves, or at other “foreign” groups whose practices or culture the Romans found laughable. The jokes, or at least their gist, are not entirely different than some of the jokes that we might use today and other jokes are still easily understandable; these jokes are not a type of humor that is frozen in its original context of time and place.
Another interesting point raised by the article is how there is a recurring theme of mistaken, lost, or lack of personal identity within many of the jokes. The Roman empire had recovered somewhat from the disastrous reigns of the likes of Caligula and Nero a few centuries before, but during this time period other major paradigm shifts would have been occurring, such as the recognition and validation of the Christian Church as well as the move of the Roman capital to Constantinople (in modern-day Turkey, and now known as Istanbul). Such incredible changes would have certainly made a substantial impact on nearly every aspect of Roman culture and society, including their self-perception and self-identity.
I particularly liked this article because humor is capable of bringing people together or helping different groups relate in ways that nothing else can. To have an ancient joke book allows us not only to gain a better understanding of an ancient culture and its people, but also to find some common ground with those who came before us.


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