This joke, number 56 out of around 260 in the Classical joke book the Philogelos ('the laughter lover') is the one that Mary Beard chose to start off her lecture on Roman laughter with yesterday. And what an excellent lecture it was! Mary Beard made an excellent case for why studying the laughter of the Romans is so important; it allows us to understand their culture better if we know how and why they laughed. She also brought up some thought provoking points - how do we know which jokes that survive were really funny, and which ones were bad jokes? In a similar vein, while most of the jokes in the Philogelos are relatively clean (even the 'oversexed wife' jokes), did the copying of the monks filter out all of the dirtier ones?
Finally, the question of whether we can really 'get' Roman jokes came up. While not all of the jokes could be considered among the world's funniest, they were all at least relatively amusing. Is this because humans have an inbuilt sense of humour, and find the same things funny? Or is it, perhaps, because our own jokes are descended from ancient ones? The texts rediscovered in the renaissance formed the origins of modern jokes, and so we find Roman jokes funny because we recognise our own in them. Even Enoch Powell's famous reply when he was asked how he wanted his hair cut ("in silence") was an ancient joke, was first used by Archelaus, the king of Macedon in the 5th century AD.
I'm torn between whether this lecture or the one about the Crosby Garrett helmet was better, but I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture on 'Laughter in ancient Rome'. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned, as soon I'll be posting about the Roman conquest of Britain!