Monday, November 15, 2010

Hierocles Gets No Respect. He Gets No Respect at All

This past weekend I was in a somber mood (for reasons that are not good blog material), so in an effort to lighten things, I plucked Philolegos (“Laughter-Lover”) off the shelf. It is an ancient joke book.

Joke books go way back. In 4th century BC Athens, aspiring stand-ups called the Group of Sixty met in the temple of Heracles and traded punchlines. Philip of Macedon (Alexander’s dad) stopped to listen and was amused by their routines; I think we can assume none of the jokes were at his expense, at least not to his face. He ordered the jokesters to compile a book of their best knee-slappers. Unfortunately, no copies of this book exist today. Other similar anthologies are mentioned by ancient writers, but the earliest one still in existence is Philolegos. It was published in the late 4th or early 5th century AD though most of the jokes in it surely are far older.

The compilers of this anthology were Hierocles and Philagrius. About Philagrius we know nothing. For centuries, Hierocles was believed to be the Stoic philosopher Hierocles of Alexandria. Nowadays, it is fashionable for scholars to doubt this, but for no good reason that I can see other than the pleasure of being contrary. Not only was Hierocles of Alexandria in the right place at the right time, but he was publicly flogged in Constantinople for being a pagan, which at least proves he had a better sense of humor than the people who ordered the flogging.

Some of the jokes in Philolegos are puzzling to a modern reader. There are ones about public bathhouses that seem to make little sense, but they might be hilarious if we fully understood the Roman bathhouse experience. Lettuce, of all things, plainly had a sexual connotation of some kind; use your own imagination on that one. Yet, most of the jokes are perfectly comprehensible, and about half are funny, which isn’t a bad proportion. Many sound eerily familiar. Examples of parallels with more recent humorists:

Mark Twain:
“The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I heard you were dead.”
“You see me alive.”
“The person who told me you were dead is more trustworthy than you.”

Groucho Marx:
“Doctor, it hurts when I do this.”
“Don’t do that.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“Doctor, I’m dizzy for half an hour after I wake up.”
“Don’t get up for half an hour.”

Monty Python:
“The parrot you sold me is dead!”
“He’s sleeping.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“The slave you sold me died!”
“He never did that when I owned him.”

“I slept with your wife.”
“My condolences.”
Hierocles and Philagrius:
“I slept with your wife.”
“Idiot! I have to sleep with her, you don’t.”

This is not an ancient treasure on the order of The Bacchae or The Aeneid, but it offers more smiles than the typical TV sitcom, for whatever recommendation that may be.

Actually, the plots of many TV sitcom scripts can be found in Plautus and Terence, but that is subject matter for another blog.

1 comment:

  1. Ok, the dead slave joke made me laugh. Nice to know some of this stuff has been around for so long. I know there are no truely new stories, but now I know that every joke is an old joke. ;)