Humor is a powerful thing. The person who wields it can change the moods of the people around him just by using a simple word or phrase. Humor can serve as a tremendous weapon, one that can circumvent the outer defenses of others and capture hearts and minds.
It has the ability to speak to people’s inner emotions and provoke a physical reaction. This reaction is called laughter. The Ancients recognized the power that humor has and used it to their advantage.
Catulus, a Roman prosecutor was once challenged by one of his opponents:
“Why are you barking, catule?”
“Because I see a thief!” retorted Catulus.
This exchange became the stuff of legend. It was recounted at gatherings of the Roman elite and the story, even though retold a thousand times over and over again, could always amuse. Roman philosophers, orators and historians would keep on writing about this story for hundreds of years after it had happened.
How does it strike you today? Did you laugh at that joke? Probably not. Did you find the exchange witty? Maybe or maybe not. Some of you might have let out a chuckle, but most of you probably read it in dead silence, not understanding the context. Yet the Ancient Romans found the above story extremely funny!
You either get a joke or you don’t. However since we are going to be discussing humor and what makes things funny, I will try to decompose the jokes in order to further the analysis. The best way to kill a joke is to explain its meaning, but that is precisely what we will have to do in order to arrive at a set of greater principles. 🙂
These principles can then guide you to become funnier yourself and also to be able to use humor in different contexts. For this, we can use the wisdom of the Ancient Romans to guide us in turn.
Those of you who let out a chuckle, might have visualized an image of a dog barking due to the use of the word “bark” and that of a thief due to Catulus replying “because I see a thief“. Even in our days, dogs guard houses against thieves and this is a common association that we have. You let out a chuckle because you probably had a previous association of dogs and thieves and something funny that happened whether due to you owning a dog or maybe seeing something on TV.
Oftentimes humor works on associations. A joke can reawaken a funny memory that people have stored deep in their brains. So people who in their past might have heard a joke about dogs or had experienced a funny event involving puppies put this event into their long-term memory.
Upon hearing the word “barking”, this memory was accessed and associated with the current joke, prompting laughter. This is the associative part of humor. If you can relate a joke to someone else’s experiences, that makes the joke funnier for the other person.
However there is further context for the story that you are missing. The name “Catulus” actually means the word “puppy” in Latin and the word “catule” that was used by the guy taking a swipe at Catulus can be translated as “puppy dog”. The opponent basically used a clever play on words that was meant to belittle Catulus in front of the audience, using his name as the basis.
It backfired, as Catulus, with his quick wit used that jibe and threw it back at him with the reply that he sees a thief. We have to remember that this was done in the context of a trial and Catulus was the prosecutor trying to land a guy suspected of stealing in jail.
In fact, he used that attempt at aggressive humor by his opponent to strengthen his case by coming up with a witty reply. Now can you see why some Romans, especially from the elites, could have found it funny?
Humor and finding something funny is very subjective. Humor can be:
A certain joke might be funny in one situation, while not funny in another one. You would not be telling the same joke at a wedding and a funeral for example.
Jokes can vary and whether they are funny can heavily depend on the person. One person might find the joke hilarious, while another will not. This can depend on the person’s background, their history, their personal opinions and many other personal factors.
Jokes can also be very cultural. You need to understand the cultural context in them in order to find the humor. A lot of jokes depend on the subtleties of the language they are said in, or might be a reference to some particular book, regional stereotype or incident that you might not always be aware of, if you are not from that particular country or region.
The exchange between Catulus and his opponent is funny because it happened in the context of a trial. So in that situation it left the entire court room laughing. It might not have had the same effect if it had happened while the guys were having a picnic.
There was also a strong personal factor. The incident was discussed by friends of Catulus and fellow lawyers and orators. For them, this was a prime example of wit. The guy on trial probably did not find it that funny. 🙂
The joke has a big cultural element as well, as the primary tactic of the opponent was to use a play on words based on the fact that the word “catulus” means puppy in Latin. This is a very language specific thing. For someone who speaks English or any other language, this association between the name and a puppy dog are not clear.
After this brief introduction into the world of Roman humor and witticism, we will try to dig deeper into what makes things funny and how to be funny. We will use some tips and advice from the Romans themselves in order to do that.
Catulus himself can serve as an inspiration for you. Because of his quick wit and humor skills, he was able to fend off an opponent’s attempt at humor and ridicule and actually strengthen his own case. At the end of this article, you too will have the tools necessary to do what Catulus did in whatever situation you may find yourself.
While the Ancient Romans lived two thousand years ago, their works keep on having a profound effect on our world even today. There are amazing parallels between their world and our world. They were an inquisitive and eloquent people and had the amazing ability to grasp at problems and come up with solutions. Many of their ideas are still as pertinent and applicable today as they were millennia ago.
Actually the Ancient Romans also had a wicked (sometimes very perverted) sense of humor! 🙂 🙂
Just take a look at some of the graffiti that was found in the ruins of Ancient Pompeii:
“Weep, you girls. My penis has given you up. Now it penetrates men’s behinds. Goodbye, wondrous femininity!“
“Restitutus says: “Restituta, take off your tunic, please, and show us your hairy privates”.“
“Satura was here on September 3rd.“
“I screwed the barmaid.“
“The one who buggers a fire burns his penis.“
“Palmyra. The thirst quencher.”
“Lesbianus, you defecate and you write, ‘Hello, everyone!’“
“Secundus likes to screw boys.“
“Theophilus, don’t perform oral sex on girls against the city wall like a dog.“
written three times:
“Secundus defecated here”
“Secundus defecated here”
“Secundus defecated here”
“Floronius, privileged soldier of the 7th legion, was here. The women did not know of his presence. Only six women came to know, too few for such a stallion.“
Those silly Romans! 🙂
Pompeii was not the only city of the time to have such funny inhabitants. In fact, Rome itself was known for having quite many jokesters, the most famous of which was probably Cicero. He was a Roman politician, lawyer, and philosopher all rolled into one and was quite renowned for his wit and joking. He is also one of the guys who left us some wonderful works on humor and how to apply it.
His work, “De Oratore”, is considered one of the most complete discussions of rhetoric ever written and was a source of wisdom for many generations that came after him. It contains a lengthy discussion on wit and humor, one which will be one of our primary sources of quotes.
Another important source of inspiration will be Quintilian and his “Institutio Oratoria”. This one also contains a lengthy passage on humor. While Cicero’s work was written as a dialogue between several characters, Quintilian’s work was written as a textbook.
These classic texts are not the only works to give us a glimpse of what is funny. Plays and poetry based on comedy and satire were also a big part of Roman life and from them we can also get a sense of Roman humor. For example the satires of Horace are known for their exploration of human happiness. He advocated a life of inner self-sufficiency and moderation, and strove to take everything that comes to him with a stroke of humor.
While these works were very Roman in their inspiration and outlook, they were also partially inspired by the Ancient Greeks. Especially Aristotle and his discussion of humor probably cast a big shadow in the theoretical musings of the philosophers.
Unfortunately, like many works of antiquity, Aristotle’s main treatise on humor has been lost in history. This is also the state of affairs with many other ancient works on humor. From secondary sources, we know that there were many of these written, but only a few survived.
The fact that many works were lost throughout the ages will complicate our analysis. Another problem is the fact that most humor was never recorded. The combination of these two things will give us only a partial view on Roman humor, but we will have to work with what we have.
The lack of sources especially applies to the humor of the lower classes. Their humor most likely differed from the humor of the upper classes and so we are missing the variety that was inherent in Roman society. Lower class humor was a bit more vulgar and crude, while for the upper classes eloquence and wit was prized more.
The seven sages of shitting
In the Ancient Roman Empire, there were public toilets set up in many different places in order to facilitate people in getting their needs done.
Unlike today, where taking a dump is a private affair, the arrangement of Roman toilets encouraged social exchanges. There were no private stalls, but instead everything was public, with a series of holes one after the other without any barriers separating them. People would sit next to each other and talk about anything and everything, while at the same time trying to dump their load.
Ostia was the harbor city of Rome and so was a bustling center of activity. Archeological digs have uncovered one of its public toilets, which has been dubbed the Room of the Seven Sages.
The reason for this name is because of the way the room was decorated. High above the latrines were paintings of the Seven Ancient Sages, dressed in their scholarly robes and taking a shit! 😛
Written under them were ancient words of wisdom on how to take a proper dump.
Solon of Athens: “Solon rubbed his belly to defecate well.”
Thales of Miletus: “Thales admonished those shitting to strain hard.”
Chilon of Sparta: “Cunning Chilon taught to fart silently.”
Unfortunately the paintings of the other four sages were not preserved. 🙁
Luckily, below those paintings there were pictures of ordinary people and also other grafitti and many of those have survived.
“No one talks to you much, Priscianus, until you use the sponge on a stick.“
“You are sitting on a mule-driver.“
“I’m hurrying up.“
“Shake yourself about so you’ll go faster.“
“Friend, the proverb escapes you; shit well and fuck the doctors.“
So you see, the Ancient Romans knew how to take a shit in style! 🙂
The theory of humor and some practical tips
Now that we have taken a short excursion into the world of ordinary Roman humor, we can turn to the written works and take a closer look at the theory of humor and especially the practical tips on being funny that these works give.
In order to structure his analysis, Cicero in his treatise on laughter and humor asks five important questions:
“Concerning laughter, there are five things which are subjects of consideration: one, ‘What it is;’ another, ‘Whence it originates;’ a third, ‘Whether it becomes the orator to wish to excite laughter;’ a fourth, ‘To what degree;’ a fifth, ‘What are the several kinds of the ridiculous?’“ (De Oratore)
We will use the same structure in our analysis.
What is laughter?
“What laughter itself is,’ by what means it is excited, where it lies, how it arises, and bursts forth so suddenly that we are unable, though we desire, to restrain it, and how it affects at once the sides, the face, the veins, the countenance, the eyes, let Democritus consider; for all this has nothing to do with my remarks, and if it had to do with them, I should not be ashamed to say that I am ignorant of that which not even they understand who profess to explain it.“ (De Oratore)
Laughter is something hard to define. Cicero did not attempt to define it and instead pointed to Democritus, a Greek philosopher who lived centuries before him. Democritus was known as the “laughing philosopher” as he was always laughing. The reason for his laughter? The absurdity of the human condition.
In modern times, there has been some research carried out on the nature of laughter, how it arises and what happens in the body before and after it bursts out. There are several sections of the brain that are involved, but a lot of research still needs to be carried out in order to understand the process better.
From where does it arise?
There are several theories on why people laugh. The most prominent one in the Ancient World among the Greeks and Romans was the superiority theory. You laugh at something ridiculous, because you somehow feel superior. You laugh at things that are pointed out, things that are incongruous, or things that remind you of the absurdity of the current state of affairs.
“But the seat and as it were province of what is laughed at, (for that is the next point of inquiry) lies in a certain offensiveness and deformity; for those sayings are laughed at solely or chiefly which point out and designate something offensive in an inoffensive manner.“ (De Oratore)
Superiority theory was the most prominent theory of laughter among the Ancient Greeks and Romans. Cicero points out that laughter is never far removed from derision.
“For I do not think that anybody can give an adequate explanation, though many have attempted to do so, of the cause of laughter, which is excited not merely by words or deeds, but sometimes even by touch. Moreover, there is great variety in the things which raise a laugh, since we laugh not merely at those words or actions which are smart or witty, but also at those which reveal folly, anger or fear. Consequently, the cause of laughter is uncertain, since laughter is never far removed from derision. For, as Cicero says, “Laughter has its basis in some kind or other of deformity or ugliness,” and whereas, when we point to such a blemish in others, the result is known as wit, it is called folly when the same jest is turned against ourselves.” (Institutio Oratoria)
Laughter is often something uncontrollable.
“It often breaks out against our will and extorts confession of its power, not merely from our face and voice, but convulses the whole body as well.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
So what types of prerequisites should a person who wants to cause laughter in others have?
“For it involves a certain power of observation, and rules for its employment have been laid down by writers both of Greece and Rome, I will insist on this much, that it depends mainly on nature and opportunity.” (Institutio Oratoria)
Is it appropriate for the orator to raise laughter?
Laughter and being able to cause laughter are desirable characteristics and are of great advantage to you. It’s actually a very important skill that you should master in order to become successful. Many charismatic people are also witty and can cause people to laugh and that just adds to their personal glow. If you want to be a person who attracts people just by your presence, the way you carry yourself and how you interact with others, being witty and funny is very important.
“A jocose manner, too, and strokes of wit, give pleasure to an audience, and are often of great advantage to the speaker.“ (De Oratore)
Your humor should be elegant and fit for purpose. Humor can be used on many occasions, whether at work or in your private life.
“It is an elegant kind of humour, satirical with a mixture of gravity, and adapted to oratory as well as to polite conversation. Indeed all the kinds of humour of which I have spoken, are seasonings not more appropriate to law-pleadings in the forum, than to any other kind of discourse. For that which is mentioned by Cato, (who has reported many apophthegms, several of which have been produced by me as examples) seems to me a very happy saying, that Gaius Publius used to observe that Publius Mummius was a man for all occasions; so it certainly is with regard to our present subject, that there is no time of life in which wit and polite humour may not very properly be exercised.“ (De Oratore)
Being able to cause laughter and humor has its advantages. You can get your point across in a more convincing way and it can also be a way to attack your opponent or in a playful manner to deflect attacks from him.
“But, to come to the third point, it certainly becomes the orator to excite laughter; either because mirth itself attracts favour to him by whom it is raised; or because all admire wit, which is often comprised in a single word, especially in him who replies, and sometimes in him who attacks; or because it overthrows the adversary, or hampers him, or makes light of him, or discourages, or refutes him; or because it proves the orator himself to be a man of taste, or learning, or polish; but chiefly because it mitigates and relaxes gravity and severity, and often, by a joke or a laugh, breaks the force of offensive remarks, which cannot easily be overthrown by arguments.“ (De Oratore)
Humor is a powerful weapon which can be used for different situations. With humor you can circumvent logic and access a person’s emotions, which can often be a better way of achieving your objectives than by using logic. Humans are emotional creatures and being able to work on the level of emotions (instead of logic) is something that will have a tremendous impact on your success with other people.
“I now turn to a very different talent, namely that which dispels the graver emotions of the judge by exciting his laughter, frequently diverts his attention from the facts of the case, and sometimes even refreshes him and revives him when he has begun to be bored or wearied by the case.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
In Ancient Rome, there even existed some people who tried to earn their living by sponging off rich people. Plautus, in many of his comedies, has a parasite as one of his stock characters. For example, in one of his plays called “Stichus”, he has a character named Gelasimus. This guy is a classic parasite who tries to live off other people and the play starts with him recounting what types of tricks he will use to get himself invited to dinner.
Basically, his entire trick was trying to be funny and thereby get fed. So he goes around being funny and gets free stuff. When he learns that there are some other “parasitos ridiculissimos” or “funny parasites” trying to do the same trick on the guy who he has been sponging off of, he decides to hit the joke books and learn some funny jokes in order to outplay them. So being funny can get you fed. 🙂
Although I think the classic orators would look down upon you, if you tried being a funny parasite. 🙂 We are looking to be morally upstanding after all. However, the fact that in Ancient Rome being funny was one of the tricks these parasites used to get a free dinner, shows you how powerful humor can be.
Humor can not only be used to get a free diner, but it can also get you out of bad situations.
“Again, it frequently turns the scale in matters of great importance, as I have already observed: or instance, it often dispels hatred or anger. A proof of this is given by the story of the young men of Tarentum, who had made a number of scurrilous criticisms of Pyrrhus over the dinner table: they were called upon to answer for their statements, and, since the charge was one that admitted neither of denial nor of excuse, they succeeded in escaping, thanks to a happy jest which made the king laugh; for one of the accused said, “Yes, and if the bottle hadn’t been empty, we should have killed you!” a jest which succeeded in dissipating the animosity which the charge had aroused.” (Institutio Oratoria)
Cicero in the last book he ever wrote, “De ofiiciis” or “On Duties”, defines the proper place of joking in everyday life. He also states that jesting should not be extravagant, but that you should be moderate in its use. You can achieve a lot more with subtle and witty humor than you can with clownish humor. You want people laughing with you (and admiring your class and witticism) rather than laughing at you.
“We may, of course, indulge in sport and jest, but in the same way as we enjoy sleep or other relaxations, and only when we have satisfied the claims of our earnest, serious tasks. Further than that, the manner of jesting itself ought not to be extravagant or immoderate, but refined and witty.” (De ofiiciis)
In order to be a dignified man of character, you should follow some rules on when it is proper to joke around and when not to. You do not want to end up looking like a bufoon. Humor is especially a good way of answering attacks against yourself and can be a powerful way of winning the audience to your side.
“While you denied that art had anything to do with facetiousness, you brought to our notice something that seemed worthy of precept; for you said that regard ought to be paid to persons, times, and circumstances, that jesting might not detract from dignity; a rule which is particularly observed by Crassus. But this rule only directs that jokes should be suppressed when there is no fair occasion for them; what we desire to know is, how we may use them when there is occasion; as against an adversary, especially if his folly be open to attack, or against a foolish, covetous, trifling witness, if the audience seem disposed to listen patiently.
Those sayings are more likely to be approved which we utter on provocation, than those which we utter when we begin an attack; for the quickness of wit, which is shown in answering, is more remarkable, and to reply is thought allowable, as being natural to the human temper; since it is presumed that we should have remained quiet if we had not been attacked; as in that very speech to which you alluded scarcely anything was said by our friend Crassus here, anything at least that was at all humorous, which he did not utter in reply, and on provocation. For there was so much gravity and authority in Domitius, that the objections which came from him seemed more likely to be enfeebled by jests than broken by arguments.“ (De Oratore)
You should judge all circumstances when you are joking around, since many times it can backfire on you. The quote below recounts a time, when Philippus, a lawyer tried to joke about how small the witness he was about to question was. However he did not consider the fact that the presiding judge was even smaller than the witness and it did not go well with him. A joke can often offend the crowd, so you need to weight the proper time and place, when you are about to joke around.
“The first point to be observed, however, is, I think, that we should not fancy ourselves obliged to utter a jest whenever one may be uttered. A very little witness was produced. May I question him? says Philippus. The judge who presided, being in a hurry, replied, Yes, if he is short. You shall have no fault to find, said Philippus, for I shall question him very short. This was ridiculous enough; but Lucius Amifex was sitting as judge in the cause, who was shorter than the witness himself; so that all the laughter was turned upon the judge, and hence the joke appeared scurrilous. Those good things, therefore, which hit those whom you do not mean to hit, however witty they are, are yet in their nature scurrilous.” (De Oratore)
To what extent?
Now that we know that humor is beneficial and some rules on when to apply it, we can look at to what extent we should apply humor.
“But to what degree the laughable should be carried by the orator requires very diligent consideration; a point which we placed as the fourth subject of inquiry; for neither great vice, such as is united with crime, nor great misery, is a subject for ridicule and laughter; since people will have those guilty of enormous crimes attacked with more forcible weapons than ridicule; and do not like the miserable to be derided, unless perhaps when they are insolent; and you must be considerate, too, of the feelings of mankind, lest you rashly speak against those who are personally beloved.“ (De Oratore)
The most important thing to remember is that you need to be able to control your passions. Your joking should always be under control. Otherwise you might regret it later.
“Then, too, certain bounds must be observed in our amusements and we must be careful not to carry things too far and, swept away by our passions, lapse into some shameful excess.” (De ofiiciis)
You need to apply caution when joking and there are some subjects you should not joke about.
“Such is the caution that must be principally observed in joking. Those subjects accordingly are most readily jested upon which are neither provocative of violent aversion, nor of extreme compassion. All matter for ridicule is therefore found to lie in such defects as are to be observed in the characters of men not in universal esteem, nor in calamitous circumstances, and who do not appear deserving to be dragged to punishment for their crimes; such topics nicely managed create laughter. In deformity, also, and bodily defects, is found fair enough matter for ridicule; but we have to ask the same question here as is asked on other points, ‘How far the ridicule may be carried?’ In this respect it is not only directed that the orator should say nothing impertinently, but also that, even if he can say anything very ridiculously, he should avoid both errors, lest his jokes become either buffoonery or mimicry; qualities of which we shall better understand the nature when we come to consider the different species of the ridiculous.” (De Oratore)
Moderation is key, if you want humor to have powerful effects. You do not want to look like a bufoon.
“A regard, therefore, to proper times, moderation and forbearance in jesting, and a limitation in the number of jokes, will distinguish the orator from the buffoon; and the circumstance, besides, that we joke with an object, not that we may appear to be jesters, but that we may gain some advantage, while they joke all day without any purpose whatever.“ (De Oratore)
Do not do mimicry too much. You can do slight touches of it, but too much of it will make you look like a fool. People will laugh at you and not with you. The Ancient Roman orators were not really down with slapstick comedy. They felt it was totally unworthy of a dignified fellow and will just make you look like a dancing monkey.
“There is another kind of jesting which is extremely ludicrous, namely mimicry; but it is allowable only in us to attempt it cautiously, if ever we do attempt it, and but for a moment, otherwise it is far from becoming to a man of education. A third is distortion of features, utterly unworthy of us. A fourth is indecency in language, a disgrace not only to the forum, but to any company of well-bred people.“ (De Oratore)
Humor should never be designed to wound, but instead it should be playful.
“Much depends on the occasion on which a jest is uttered. For in social gatherings and the intercourse of every day a certain freedom is not unseemly in persons of humble rank, while liveliness is becoming to all. Our jests should never be designed to wound, and we should never make it our ideal at once lose a friend sooner than lose a jest.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
You should withhold your jokes at occassions that are not proper for them.
“Consequently he must not display his wit on every possible occasion, but must sacrifice a jest sooner than sacrifice his dignity.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
When joking, make sure that the jokes don’t end up offending anyone. Otherwise you might have a feud on your hands. Also it is not proper to make generalized jokes, those which are designed to hurt and make fun of entire groups, nations or classes of society.
“It is the duty not merely of an orator, but of any reasonable human being, when attacking one whom it is dangerous to offend, to take care that his remarks do not end in exciting serious enmity, or the necessity for a grovelling apology. Sarcasm that applies to a number of persons is injudicious: I refer to cases where it is directed against whole nations or classes of society, or against rank and pursuits which are common to many. A good man will see that everything he says is consistent with his dignity and the respectability of his character; for we pay too dear for the laugh we raise if it is at the cost of our own integrity.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Jokes depend on the situation and the audience. Plutarch in his “Table Talks” describes the etiquette of joking and jots some good observations.
“Besides, the company must be considered; for what a man will only laugh at when mentioned amongst his friends and familiar acquaintance, he will not endure to be told of before his wife, father, or his tutor.” (Table Talk)
When joking, you should also look at your own standing in society. If you are a rich guy, it might not be very proper to make jokes about poor people, especially in front of poor people. While if you are a poor guy, then making jokes against your own is fine. 🙂
“Again, those jokes are accounted less affronting which reflect somewhat also on the man that makes them; as when one poor man, base-born fellow, or lover jokes upon another.” (Table Talk)
What are the categories of the laughable?
Humor can be divided into several categories. The general nature of jokes includes exaggerations, distortions and plays on words in order to make a point and come to the ultimate goal: raise a laugh. Jokes are meant to dig deeply into the subconscious and play with the emotions of the audience.
“The chief difficulty which confronts the orator in this connexion lies in the fact that sayings designed to raise a laugh are generally untrue (and falsehood always involves a certain meanness), and are often deliberately distorted, and, further, never complimentary: while the judgments formed by the audience on such jests will necessarily vary, since the effect of a jest depends not on the reason, but on an emotion which it is difficult, if not impossible, to describe.” (Institutio Oratoria)
You can get inspiration for humor and jokes from many sources. Whether it is the absurdities of the world and our common reality, from the words and acts of others, or from different experiences that happened in your own life.
“The powers of invention and expression come into play no less where jests are concerned, while as regards expression its force will depend in part on the choice of words, in part on the figures employed. Laughter then will be derived either from the physical appearance of our opponent or from his character as revealed in his words and actions, or from external sources; for all forms of raillery come under one or other of these heads; if the raillery is serious, we style it as severe; if, on the other hand, it is of a lighter character, we regard it as humorous. These themes for jest may be pointed out to the eye or described in words or indicated by some mot.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Cicero stated that there are two types of wit: one running through whole speech and one based on short witty remarks.
“As there are two kinds of wit, one running regularly through a whole speech, the other pointed and concise; the ancients denominated the former humour, the latter jesting.“ (De Oratore)
Humor can apply to yourself, to others, or to something general. With humor, you are either the one telling it or the audience, you can also be the target of the humor. Other people can either be the audience of your jokes, the butts of your jokes or the ones delivering the jokes, either at your own or others expense.
“The application of humour to oratory may be divided into three heads: for there are three things out of which we may seek to raise a laugh, to wit, others, ourselves, or things intermediate. In the first case we either reprove or refute or make light of or retort or deride the arguments of others. In the second we speak of things which concern ourselves in a humorous manner and, to quote the words of Cicero, say things which have a suggestion of absurdity. For there are certain sayings which are regarded as folly if they slip from us unawares, but as witty if uttered ironically. The third kind consists, as Cicero also tells us, in cheating expectations, in taking words in a different sense from what was intended, and in other things which affect neither party to the suit, and which I have, therefore, styled intermediate.” (Institutio Oratoria)
Humor can be divided into verbal and content based (words versus things). With verbal humor, it is the words themselves which are the carriers of the humor, either in the way they are used or where they are placed. With content based humor, what matters is the story itself, which is humorous.
Words vs. Things:
“There are two sorts of jokes, one of which is excited by things, the other by words.” (De Oratore)
Content based humor can either come through the use of stories or narration, so it can be told, but it can also be done through doing something, for example gestures or slapstick comedy.
“Further, things designed to raise a laugh may either be said or done. In the latter case laughter is sometimes caused by an act possessing a certain amount of seriousness as well, as in the case of Marcus Caelius the praetor, who, when the consul Isauricus broke his curule chair, had another put in its place, the seat of which was made of leather thongs, by way of allusion to the story that the consul had once been scourged by his father: sometimes, again, it is aroused by an act which passes the grounds of decency, as in the case of Caelius’ box, a jest which was not fit for an orator or any respectable man to make.
On the other hand the joke may lie in some remark about a ridiculous look or gesture; such jests are very attractive, more especially when delivered with every appearance of seriousness; for there are no jests so insipid as those which parade the fact that they are intended to be witty. Still, although the gravity with which a jest is uttered increases its attraction, and the mere fact that the speaker does not laugh himself makes his words laughable, there is also such a thing as a humorous look, manner or gesture, provided always that they observe the happy mean. Further, a jest will either be free and lively, like the majority of those uttered by Aulus Galba, or abusive, like those with which Junius Bassus recently made us familiar, or bitter, like those of Cassius Severus, or gentle, like those of Domitius Afer.” (Institutio Oratoria)
“By things, whenever any matter is told in the way of a story; as you, Crassus, formerly stated in a speech against Memmius, that he had eaten a piece of Largius’s arm, because he had had a quarrel with him at Tarracina about a courtesan; it was a witty story, but wholly of your own invention. You added this particular, that throughout Tarracina these letters were inscribed on every wall, M M LLL; and that when you inquired what they meant, an old man of the town replied, Mordacious Memmius Lacerates Largius’s Limb. You perceive clearly how facetious this mode of joking may be, how elegant, how suitable’ to an orator; whether you have any true story to tell, (which, however must be interspersed with fictitious circumstances,) or whether you merely invent.
The excellence of such jesting is, that you can describe things as occurring in such a way, that the manners, the language, and every look of the person of whom you speak, may be represented, so that the occurrence may seem to the audience to pass and take place at the very time when you address them. Another kind of jest taken from things, is that which is derived from a depraved sort of imitation, or mimicry; as when Crassus also exclaimed, By your nobility, by your family, what else was there at which the assembly could laugh but that mimicry of look and tone? But when he said, by your statues, and added something of gesture by extending his arm, we all laughed immoderately.“ (De Oratore)
Words (we will cover humor based on words in more detail later):
“But in words, the ridiculous is that which is excited by the point of a particular expression or thought.“ (De Oratore)
A joke is best when it consists both of humor based on words, as well as content (things).
“Let us now consider briefly the sorts of jests that chiefly excite laughter. Let this, then, be our first division, that whatever is expressed wittily, consists sometimes in a thought, sometimes in the mere language, but that men are most delighted with a joke when the laugh is raised by the thought and the language in conjunction. But remember this, that whatever topics I shall touch upon, from which ridicule may be drawn, from almost the same topics serious thoughts may be derived: there is only this difference, that seriousness is used on dignified subjects with gravity, joking on such as are in some degree unbecoming, and as it were grotesque; for instance, we may with the very same words commend a thrifty servant, and jest upon one that is extravagant. That old saying of Nero about a thieving servant is humorous enough, That he was the only one from whom nothing in the house was sealed or locked up; a thing which is not only said of a good servant, but in the very same words. From the same sources spring all kinds of sayings.“ (De Oratore)
How do you differentiate between what is word based humor and what is content based humor? You do the translation test. If it can be said in other words (or translated into another language) and still be funny, then the humor is content based, if not, then it is word based.
“The kinds of jesting which remain are (as I distinguished them before) such as consist in thought or in expression. That which, in whatever terms you express it, is still wit, consists in the thought; that which by a change of words loses its spirit, has no wit but what depends on expression.“ (De Oratore)
Plays on words
One of the basic verbal humor techniques is called play on words. This implies some sort of a twist on words, familiar cliches, verses, metaphors, quotes, slogans or basically on any type of expression that would be familiar to the public. In the ancient times, this would imply verses from plays or quotes from famous speeches, nowadays this might mean things like ad slogans, movie titles, or song lyrics.
This technique often uses the ambiguous meanings of words and cliches to try to come up with a humorous twist. It plays with predictability and switches from the expected turn of events to create an element of the unexpected and surprise.
There are five basic play on word techniques:
1) double entendre – use of an ambiguous word or phrase that allows for it to be interpreted differently (double interpretation)
2) simple truth – this is the opposite of a double entendre and takes the explicit meaning of a word or idiom and interprets it literally
3) reforming – altering one or two words through changing letters, the spelling, or substituting a homonym or a word that rhymes in place of the usual word or words
4) the take off – first offers the acceptable interpretation of the cliché, followed by a realistic, but highly exaggerated commentary, frequently a double entendre
5) associations – utilize combinations of cliches or titles by relating different subjects together
Plays on words thrive on ambiguity. The same principles that you use in order to construct a joke, can also be used in order to express a serious thought in an elegant way.
“Those smart sayings which spring from some ambiguity are thought extremely ingenious; but they are not always employed to express jests, but often even grave thoughts. “ (De Oratore)
In order to better illustrate ambiguity and how it can be used to both construct a serious thought and a joke we can use the story below:
“For example, Nero said of a dishonest slave, “No one was more trusted in my house: there was nothing closed or sealed to him.” Such ambiguity may even go so far as to present all the appearance of a riddle.” (Institutio Oratoria)
There was a slave in Nero’s house who would steal things and so nothing was “closed or sealed to him”. The way the sentence above was constructed was meant as a joke, however if you substitute the word honest slave for dishonest, then the sentence changes from having a funny meaning to a more serious meaning.
The result of ambiguity and wordplay is often surprise.
“The ambiguous gains great admiration, as I observed before, from its nature, for it appears the part of a wit to be able to turn the force of a word to quite another sense than that in which other people take it; but it excites surprise rather than laughter, unless when it happens to be joined with some other sorts of jesting.” (De Oratore)
Double entendres tend to be ironic, but sarcastic figures of speech that mean something different, or even opposite of what is actually being said.
“We may note therefore that jests which turn on the meaning of things are at once more pointed and more elegant. “ (Institutio Oratoria)
A good example of a double entendre is the story about Titius below.
“Plays on ambiguous words are extremely ingenious, but depend wholly on the expression, not on the matter. They seldom, however, excite much laughter, but are rather commended as jests of elegance and scholarship; as that about Titius, whom, being a great ballplayer, and at the same time suspected of having broken the sacred images by night. One day he did not come to play as usual, when his companions inquired about what has become of him. “He may be excused for not attending,” said Terentius Vespa, “for he has broken an arm.““ (De Oratore)
You noticed the double usage of “broken an arm”? 🙂
A good illustration of a double entendre play on words, comes to us from Cicero. At the time, Cicero was defending Milo, a man accussed of murdering Publius Clodius Pulcher. In the course of the case, he was asked a question on when Pulcher was killed. This implied the time of death. Cicero replied: “late“. This was an obvious play on words, since it could imply the time of death, as Pulcher was killed late in the evening, but Cicero was referring to another type of late. Clodius Pulcher was a populist politician who was hated by certain segments of Roman society and with his quib, Cicero was implying that he should have been killed much earlier in life.
“When Milo’s accuser, by way of proving that he had lain in wait for Clodius, alleged that he had put up at Bovillae before the ninth hour in order to wait until Clodius left his villa, and kept repeating the question, “When was Clodius killed?”, Cicero replied, “Late!” “ (Institutio Oratoria)
The opposite of the double entendre technique is the simple truth technique. Here instead of substituting a different meaning to the word used in the sentence, you use the literal meaning of the word or phrase.
“This kind of jest finds its most frequent opportunity in ambiguity, as for example, when Cascellius, on being consulted by a client who said “I wish to divide my ship,” replied, “You will lose it then.” “ (Institutio Oratoria)
In the example above, the client meant that he wished to sell part of the ownership of his ship, however Cascellius used the literal meaning of the word “divide” in coming up with his quip, which implied that if the ship is split in half, it would sink.
Here are some more examples of the simple truth:
“There is also a kind of joke, not at all absurd, which lies in expression, when you seem to understand a thing literally, and not in its obvious meaning; in which kind it was that Tutor, the old mimic, an exceedingly laughable actor, exclusively distinguished himself. But I have nothing to do with actors; I only wished this kind of jesting to be illustrated by some notable example. Of this kind was your answer lately, Crassus, to one who asked you whether he should be troublesome if he came to you some time before it was light: and you said, You will not be troublesome: when he rejoined, You will order yourself to be waked then? to which you replied, Surely I said that you would not be troublesome.
Of the same sort was that old joke which they say that Marcus Scipio Maluginensis made, when he had to report from his century that Acidinus was voted consul, and the officer cried out, Declare as to Lucius Manlius, he said, I declare him to be a worthy man, and an excellent member of the commonwealth. The answer of Lucius Porcius Nasica to Cato the censor was humorous enough, when Cato said to him, Are you truly satisfied that you have taken a wife? No, indeed, replied Nasica, I am not truly satisfied. Such jests are insipid, or witty only when another answer is expected; for our surprise (as I before observed) naturally amuses us; and thus, when we are deceived, as it were, in our expectation, we laugh.“ (De Oratore)
Another play on words technique is called reforming, which basically deals with substitution, either of letters in words or in entire words, either by other words that sound similar or rhyme with the word to be replaced.
“But as there are several sorts of ambiguity, with regard to which accurate study is necessary, we should be attentive and on the watch for words; and thus, though we may avoid frigid witticisms, (for we must be cautious that a jest be not thought far-fetched,) we shall hit upon may acute sayings. Another kind is that which consists in a slight change in a word, which, when produced by the alteration of a letter, as Cato called Nobilior – Mobilior.” (De Oratore)
A great example of reforming, or the substitution of one word for another to have a double meaning comes again from Cicero. There are two Latin words which have a very similar sound: “coquus” for “cook” and “quoque” for “also”. A candidate who came from lowly origins, with his father being a cook, was to be voted upon for some office one day. Cicero made a cheap shot at his origins when he told him: “I will vote for you too (quoque)”. Quintilian didn’t really like this low type of humor, but included this example in his book in order to illustrate the technique of substituting different words for each other in order to come up with a double meaning. In the modern English language, there is also a word that sounds very similar: “cock”. That is a great word for double usage. 🙂
“That sometimes slipped out even from Cicero, though not when he was pleading in the courts: for example, once when a candidate, alleged to be the son of a cook, solicited someone else’s vote in his presence, he said, Ego quoque tibi favebo. I say words capable of two different meanings, but because such jests are rarely effective, unless they are helped out by actual facts as well as similarity of sound.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Many techniques of reforming work by the subtraction or addition of letters:
“Punning names by the addition, subtraction or change of letters: I find, for instance, a case where a certain Acisculus was called Pacisculus because of some “compact” which he had made, while one Placidus was nicknamed Acidus because of his “sour” temper, and one Tullius was dubbed Tollius because he was a thief. Such puns are more successful with things than with names. It was, for example, a neat hit of Afer’s when he said that Manlius Sura, who kept rushing to and fro while he was pleading, waving his hands, letting his toga fall and replacing it, was not merely pleading, but giving himself a lot of needless trouble. For there is a spice of wit about the word satagere in itself, even if there were no resemblance to any other word. Similar jests may be produced by the addition or removal of the aspirate, or by splitting up a word or joining it to another: the effect is generally poor, but the practice is occasionally permissible.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Another technique is called the take off. The take off features some sort of a premise or initial situation and then finishes it up with a bizarre reference or a twisted view on reality. The take off can use a double entendre to start and then finishes it off with a twist.
“Resemblance and ambiguity may be used in conjunction: Galba for example said to a man who stood very much at his ease when playing ball, “You stand as if you were one of Caesar’s candidates.” The ambiguity lies in the word stand, while the indifference shewn by the player supplies the resemblance.” (Insitutio Oratoria)
You can use resemblances in order to upgrade your joke:
“Still more ingenious is the application of one thing to another on the ground of some resemblance, that is to say the adaptation to one thing of a circumstance which usually applies to something else.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
“And Pedo said of a heavy-armed gladiator who was pursuing another armed with a net and failed to strike him, “He wants to catch him alive.”“ (Institutio Oratoria)
The Ancient Romans used verses from poems, plays or other literally works for humorous effects. We can use cliché slogans from movies or songs in the same way.
“Often too a verse is humorously introduced, either just as it is, or with some little alteration; or some part of a verse.“ (De Oratore)
Proverbs are a good source of cliché jokes that you can use for word play.
“To the same purpose proverbs may be applied; as in the joke of Scipio, when Asellus was boasting that while he had served in the army, he had marched through all the provinces: “Drive an ass”. Such jokes, as they cannot, if any change is made in the words of them, retain the same grace ,are necessarily considered as turning, not on the matter, but on the mere expression.“ (De Oratore)
You can use various techniques to work with cliché quotes:
“Apt quotation of verse may add to the effect of the wit. The lines may be quoted in their entirety without alteration, which is so easy a task that Ovid composed an entire book against bad poets out of lines taken from the quatrains of Macer. Such a procedure is rendered specially attractive if it be seasoned by a spice of ambiguity, as in the line which Cicero quoted against Lartius, a shrewd and cunning fellow who was suspected of unfair dealing in a certain case, – “Had not Ulysses Lartius intervened.” – Or the words may be slightly altered, as in the line quoted against the senator who, although he had always in private times been regarded as an utter fool, was, after inheriting an estate, asked to speak first on a motion – “What men call wisdom is a legacy.” – where legacy is substituted for the original faculty.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
You can parody well known verses or slogans:
“Or again we may invent verses resembling well-known lines, a trick styled parody by the Greeks.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Metaphors, allegories, using words antithetically are all good ways to create humor:
“Those jests also lie in words, which spring from some allegorical phraseology, or from a metaphorical use of some one word, or from using words ironically. From allegorical phraseology: as when Rusca, in old times, proposed the law to fix the ages of candidates for offices, and Marcus Servilius, who opposed the law, said to him; Tell me, Marcus Pinarius Rusca, if I speak against you, will you speak ill of me as you have spoken of others? As you shall sow, replied he, so you shall reap. From the use of a single word in a metaphorical sense: as when the elder Scipio said to the Corinthians, who offered to put up a statue of him in the place where those of other commanders were, That he did not like such comrades.
From the ironical use of words: as when Crassus spoke for Aculeo before Marcus Perperna as judge, and Lucius Aelius Lama appeared for Gratidianus against Aculeo, and Lama, who was deformed, as you know, offered impertinent interruptions, Crassus said, Let us hear this beautiful youth. When a laugh followed, I could not form my own shape, said Lamia, but I could form my understanding. Then, said Crassus, let us hear this able orator; when a greater laugh than before ensued. Such jests are agreeable as well in grave as in humorous speeches. For I observed, a little while ago, that the subjects for jest and for gravity are distinct; but that the same form of expression will serve for grave remarks, as for jokes.
Words antithetically used are a great ornament to language; and the same mode of using them is often also humorous; thus, when the well-known Servius Galba carried to Lucius Scribonius the tribune a list of his own intimates to be appointed as judges, and Libo said, What, Galba, will you never go out of your own dining-room? Yes, replied Galba, when you go out of other men’s bedchambers. To this kind of joke the saying of Glaucia to Metellus is not very dissimilar: You have your villa at Tibur, but your court on mount Palatine.“ (De Oratore)
There are actually some words that are by themselves funny. These are words that just have a funny sound to the native speaker of the language. For example in English, many words with the sound “k” are funny words by themselves. When these are used in a joke, they make it even funnier.
“For there is a spice of wit about the word satagere in itself, even if there were no resemblance to any other word.” (Institutio Oratoria)
You can sometimes even make some funny words up yourself. Plautus, a Roman playwright of comedy, is well-known for sprinkling his comedies with words that he made up himself. These always drew a laugh from the audience.
One of the biggest styles of humor is what is called the reverse. There are many definitions of a reverse in humor, however the most basic premise is to come up with the unexpected. The basic setup is when you start by saying something very ordinary and the audience is expecting the usual ending, but instead of putting in the common ending, you conclude with an unexpected twist.
“But you are aware that that is the most common kind of joke, when we expect one thing and another is said; in which case our own disappointed expectation makes us laugh.” (De Oratore)
It is one of the funniest types of humor:
“But of all jokes none create greater laughter than something said contrary to expectation; of which there are examples without number.“ (De Oratore)
An ordinary premise, with an unexpected ending:
“Similar to this is friendly admonition by way of giving advice: as when Granius persuaded a bad pleader, who had made himself hoarse with speaking, to drink a cold mixture of honey and wine as soon as he got home: I shall ruin my voice, said he, if I do so. It will be better, said Granius, than to ruin your clients.“ (De Oratore)
With a reverse, you start by creating an image in the audience’s head. Once they have this image in their mind, they will start coming up with logical ways that the situation will be resolved, and then suddenly you hit them with the unexpected. You basically shatter their previous image with a surprise and that is what will generate a laugh.
Here’s a joke from the “Philogelos”, a jokebook compiled in the 4th or 5th century AD:
“A Kymean makes a big threshing floor, stands at one edge of it, and calls to his wife on the opposite side: “Can you see me?” “Only just barely,” she calls back. “O.K., one of these days, I’ll make a threshing floor so big that not only will I not be able to see you, but you will not be able to see me either.“
When reading that joke, what were your expectations? Did you expect the ending? This is basically how reverses work. First you have the set up, and then you finish with a punchline. A joke starts off innocently describing a common situation and then bang, finishes up with a quick surprise twist. A more modern joke in the same genre goes like this: “Me and my wife, we were happy for 25 years. – And then we met.” 🙂
Visualization, Exaggeration, Misrepresentation, Incongruity
There are many other ways of crafting jokes. Many jokes depend on a type of exaggeration, where you take something that happens in reality and then exaggerate in order to make a point.
Visualization, comparisons and incongruity are also good techniques to create humor:
“Such kinds of jokes as lie in words I think that I have now sufficiently discussed; but such as relate to things are more numerous, and excite more laughter, as I observed before. Among them is narrative, a matter of exceeding difficulty; for such things are to be described and set before the eyes, as may seem to be probable, which is the excellence of narration, and such also as are grotesque, which is the peculiar province of the ridiculous; for an example, as the shortest that I recollect, let that serve which I mentioned before, the story of Crassus about Memmius.
To this head we may assign the narratives given in fables. Allusions are also drawn from history; as when Sextus Titius said he was a Cassandra, I can name, said Antonius, many of your Ajaces Oilei.Such jests are also derived from similitudes, which include either comparison or something of bodily representation. A comparison, as when Gallus, that was once a witness against Piso, said that a countless sum of money had been given to Magius the governor, and Scaurus tried to confute him, by alleging the poverty of Magius, You mistake me, Scaurus, said he, for I do not say that Magius has saved it, but that, like a man gathering nuts without his clothes, he has put it into his belly.” (De Oratore)
“Ironical dissimulation has also an agreeable effect, when you say something different from what you think; not after the manner to which I alluded before, when you say the exact reverse of what you mean, as Crassus said to Lamia, but when through the whole course of a speech you are seriously jocose, your thoughts being different from your words; as our friend Scaevola said to that Septumuleius of Anagnia, (to whom its weight in gold was paid for the head of Caius Gracchus,) when he petitioned that he would take him as his lieutenant-general into Asia, What would you have, foolish man? there is such a multitude of bad citizens that, I warrant you, if you stay at Rome, you will in a few years make a vast fortune.“ (De Oratore)
More on dissimulation:
“But I will pursue the remainder of my subject. It is a kind of joking similar to a sort of dissimulation, when anything disgraceful is designated by an honourable term; as when Africanus the censor removed from his tribe that centurion who absented himself from the battle in which Paulus commanded, alleging that he had remained in the camp to guard it, and inquiring why he had such a mark of ignominy set upon him, I do not like, replied Africanus, over-vigilant people.” (De Oratore)
Misunderstanding and misrepresentation on purpose:
“It is an excellent joke, too, when you take any part of another person’s words in a different sense from that which he intended; as Fabius Maximus did with Livius Salinator, when, on Tarentum being lost, Livius had still preserved the citadel, and had made many successful sallies from it, and Fabius, some years afterwards, having retaken the town, Livius begged him to remember that it was owing to him that Tarentum was retaken. How can I do otherwise than remember, said Fabius, for I should never have retaken it if you had not lost it.“ (De Oratore)
Here is an explanation of misrepresentation:
“Indeed the essence of all wit lies in the distortion of the true and natural meaning of words: a perfect instance of this is when we misrepresent our own or another’s opinions or assert some impossibility. Juba misrepresented another man’s opinion, when he replied to one who complained of being bespattered by his horse, “What, do you think I am a Centaur?” Gaius Cassius misrepresented his own, when he said to a soldier whom he saw hurrying into battle without his sword, “Shew yourself a handy man with your fists, comrade.”“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Exaggeration (here you can employ such things as hyperbole, irony, take off and other techniques):
“Similar material for jests is supplied by genus, species, property, difference, conjugates, adjuncts, antecedents, consequents, contraries, causes, effects, and comparisons of things greater, equal, or less, as it is also by all forms of trope. Are not a large number of jests made by means of hyperbole? Take for instance Cicero’s remark about a man who was remarkable for his height, “He bumped his head against the Fabian arch,” or the remark made by Publius Oppius about the family of the Lentuli to the effect, that since the children were always smaller than their parents, the race would “perish by propagation.”
Again, what of irony? Is not even the most severe form of irony a kind of jest? Afer made a witty use of it when he replied to Didius Gallus, who, after making the utmost efforts to secure a provincial government, complained on receiving the appointment that he had been forced into accepting, “Well, then, do something for your country’s sake.”
Cicero also employed metaphor to serve his jest, when on receiving a report of uncertain authorship to the effect that Vatinius was dead, he remarked, “Well, for the meantime I shall make use of the interest.” He also employed allegory in the witticism that he was fond of making about Marcus Caelius, who was better at bringing charges than at defending his client against them, to the effect that he had a good right hand, but a weak left. As an example of the use of emphasis I may quote the jest of Aulus Villius, that Tuccius was killed by his sword falling upon him.
Figures of thought, which the Greeks call σχήματα διανοίας, may be similarly employed, and some writers have classified jests under their various headings. For we ask questions, express doubts, make assertions, threaten, wish and speak in pity or in anger. And everything is laughable that is obviously a pretence. It is easy to make fun of folly, for folly is laughable in itself; but we may improve such jests by adding something of our own. Titius Maximus put a foolish question to Campatius, who was leaving the theatre, when he asked him if he had been watching the play. “No,” replied Campatius, “I was playing ball in the stalls,” whereby he made the question seem even more foolish than it actually was.“ (Institutio Oratoria)
Incongruity is a powerful way to deliver a joke. Many modern theorists actually consider incongruity as one of the fundamental basis behind things being funny. Humor can be created when two things that logically don’t go together, are put together in a sentence. This combination seems out of place and thereby surprises the audience, making it funny.
“A union of discordant particulars is laughable: as, What is wanting to him, except fortune and virtue?” (De Oratore)
Actually this is not the end yet. We still haven’t covered the structure and frameworks for jokes, their real life uses, as well how to defend yourself from verbal attacks by using humor. I will try to cover this in another article.
Humor is a great way to protect yourself against verbal attacks on your own person. One good technique for this was given by Epictetus and quoted by Arrian in the “Enchiridion”:
“If you learn that someone is speaking ill of you, don’t try to defend yourself against the rumors; respond instead with, ‘Yes, and he doesn’t know the half of it, because he could have said more.’” (Enchiridion)
For now, here are two jokes from the “Philogelos”, a 4th or 5th century AD jokebook from the Roman Empire (but written in Greek).
“An Abderite sees a eunuch talking to a woman and asks if she’s his wife.
The guy responds that a eunuch is unable to have a wife.
“Ah, so she’s your daughter?””
“When a garrulous barber asks him: “How shall I cut your hair?”, a quick wit answers: “Silently.””
🙂 🙂 🙂
More Ancient Roman stuff:
Who were the ancient gladiators?
This post describes the way gladiators lived, fought and how they were viewed by Roman society.
The real gladiator workout
This post is based on ancient primary sources and deals with the way the gladiators used to really train in the ancient times.
How to pick up chicks the Ancient Roman way
Analysis of an Ancient Roman manual on picking up chicks.
You can also read the books by yourself:
The classic work on rhetoric by Cicero – Book 2, the part on humor starts after section 216.
This is the classic textbook on rhetoric by Quintilian – Book 6, chapter 3 is the chapter on humor.
Classic text by Plutarch from his larger work called “Moralia”.
Cicero’s last work, where he describes his thoughts on how to live and behave in a moral way.
I chose different passages from the different works and arranged them in a way as to be more coherent and practical. For the section on categories, I was partially inspired by Melvin Helitzer’s “Comedy Writing Secrets” and the humor descriptions there, as well as by some other modern works on comedy.
PS: Most archaelogists today agree that the Room of the Seven Sages was most likely not a public toilet, at least they haven’t found any evidence of it, but instead a tavern hall that later was turned into a changing room. I thought it would be funnier if it indeed had been a public toilet.