BMCR 2005.09.43

Le facezie del Philogelos. Barzellette antiche e umorismo moderno

, Le facezie del Philogelos : barzellette antiche e umorismo moderno. Satura ; 2. Lecce: Pensa multimedia, 2004. 142 pages ; 21 cm.. ISBN 8882323471 €12.00.

There are not many texts which serve the needs of those teachers of Greek in search of relatively easy and interesting ancient writings which are directly accessible to students in the way they were originally written. The Life of Aesop novel is a nice example of such literature. While the Greek is not too difficult, the story confronts its readers with plenty of intriguing information on slavery and daily life in ancient society.1 The collection of anecdotal evidence on monks in Egypt and the East, the Apophthegmata Patrum, is a rich source for our knowledge of every-day life in late antiquity, as well as an easy read. And I myself have found students smiling or being baffled at the strange — according to modern standards — sense of humour which appears from the so-called Laughter-Lover, the Philogelos, a fascinating collection of 265 ancient jokes on very different subjects, such as teachers and scholars, eggheads and fools, parents and children, people with foul breath, women, etc. Yet, this captivating body of evidence, essential for those interested in the “sub-literary underbelly” of Greece and Rome, as V. Jennings has aptly put it, has remained a black sheep of classical scholarship. There are editions, succinct commentaries and translations by A. Thierfelder Philogelos. Der Lachfreund von Hierokles und Philagrios (München: Heimeran Verlag, 1968), B. Baldwin The Philogelos or Laughter-Lover (Amsterdam: J.C. Gieben, 1983) and R. D. Dawe, Philogelos (München, Leipzig: K.G. Saur, 2000).2 It is striking, however, that few monographs or articles have been dedicated to the subject.

In this nicely edited book Mario Andreassi, a young researcher of Bari University, aims at an overview of mainly literary issues concerning the Philogelos. While the first part (chapter 1 and 2) is meant to be a general introduction to the genre, author and transmission of the text, the whole of the second part (chapter 3) is dedicated to the Nachleben of ancient jests in various cultures and literary traditions up till very recent times.

The first chapter Il ‘genere faceto’ is on ancient views concerning laughter and humour (pp. 9-25). While there is no Greek or Latin word which exactly matches our term ‘humour’, the stock of words referring to joking and jesting is quite large. Moreover, philosophical and rhetorical discourse (mainly in works by Aristotle and Cicero) paid attention to the issue of being funny. There is some evidence for other written collections of jokes which existed in antiquity. A connection with parasites and public display at symposia seems most likely.

The second chapter Il Philogelos (pp. 27-70) opens with a discussion of the author. According to manuscript A (cod. Parisinus Suppl. Gr. 690, 11th century) the Philogelos should be attributed to Hierocles and the grammarian Philagrius. While virtually nothing is known about these authors (Philagrius might have been a rhetorician or a sophist, and some scholars have believed Hierocles to be the well known neo-Platonist philosopher from the fifth century AD a reference in the Suda mentioning the writer of mimes Philistio makes matters more complicated. The Suda encyclopedia also refers to Kourea, which might be explained as a reference to barbers’ shops, “the place of male gossip par excellence“.3 Andreassi is inclined to attribute the collection to Hierocles and Philagrius, but emphasises that rather than authors they should be considered as collectors and editors of jokes which had existed for centuries. In the same way, Andreassi is in favour of assigning a late date (4th-5th century), but stresses the fact that much of the material might be older – what we actually get is an intermingling of substrata of well known jokes and subjects with new evolutions in the Greek language like Latinisms or Byzantinisms. The author then points to similarities with other literary genres: comedy and tragedy, mimes, epigrams and apophthegmata. In the paragraph on Temi e personaggi Andreassi offers an overview of the different personages who are the subject of ancient jokes (p. 49), as well as a thorough discussion of the much debated question as to what sort of people might be meant by the Greek word scholastikos (pp. 43-51). He is probably right in stating that no direct connection with intellectuals or professors was felt any more. Scholastikoi had become stock figures, merely introducing a joke – their mention having almost the same function as the simple introductory stock phrase c’era una volta. Andreassi also treats other personages: ethnic jokes about people from Abdera, Sidon and Cuma (pp. 51-54), the keen and witty eutrapelos (pp. 55-56), and ozostomoi or people with foul breath (pp. 56-57). He goes on to point out the essentially oral character of jokes: performance was always at stake, hence the same joke can often be told by a variety of compilers, with different intentions and in a different context. Andreassi is in line with other scholars like Baldwin and Hansen who considered the Philogelos as a low level collection of exempla, merely offering the essence of the joke. It was up to the reader or author to retell or rewrite it on a future occasion. As such, there are clear resemblances to the Aesopic fable collections, which also mainly offer schemes devoid of literary embellishment.

The third chapter (p. 71-126) is no doubt the most amusing part of the book to read, since Andreassi dishes out a long list of ancient jokes from the Philogelos, referring to similar motives in various and very diverse literary traditions. He is cautious, however, in assuming direct interdependence. It is about similar humoristic motives, and one can never be absolutely sure whether one author has actually read another one’s jokes (p. 81).

I now quote some of my favourite examples. “A man encountered an egghead and said: ‘The slave you have sold me has died.’ ‘By all the gods,’ said he, ‘When he was with me, he never did such thing'” (Philogelos 18). The story has a parallel in Cicero ( De orat. 2, 274: Quam diu ad aquas fuit, numquam est emortuus) as well as in an Irish joke: “An Irishman applied to a farmer for work. ‘I’ll have nothing to do with you,’ said the farmer, ‘for the last five Irishmen I had all died on my hands’. Quoth Pat, ‘Sure, sir, I can bring you characters from half a dozen gentlemen I’ve worked for that I never did such a thing'”.

“An egghead wanted to go to sleep. Since he didn’t have a pillow, he ordered his slave to bring a terracotta vase. When the slave said that such a vase was hard, the egghead ordered that it be filled with feathers” (Philogelos 21). Again, parallels can be traced down from ancient authors (Eustathius, In Od. 10, 552 p. 1669, 55 and Suetonius, Blasph. 7, s.v. Mammakuthos, Amphietides, Meletides) as well as from an Irish joke: “McCall and Linehan, two beggars, were making camp for the night. ‘Yerra, man, what do ya want with that length o drainpipe you’re carryin’?’ asked McCall. ‘I’m goin’ to use it for a pillow’, said Linehan. ‘That’d be as hard as hell.’ ‘It’s a fool you take me for? I’m goin’ to stuff it with straw first'”.

The humour of Philogelos 98 sounds familiar to modern ears. “A friend met an egghead and said to him: ‘Congratulations on the birth of your child’. To which he replied: ‘I owe that to you, my friends'”. The same pun occurs in Arabic jokes from the 11th century, is mentioned by Freud and is found in a Syriac collection of laughable stories by bar-Hebraeus: “To another man a son was born, and when his neighbours came to congratulate him he thanked them, and said: ‘He cometh from God and from you.'”

In this way, Andreassi has aptly collected parallels for Philogelos 9, 11, 13, 15, 18, 21, 29, 33, 36, 41, 45, 49, 56, 96, 98, 112, 124, 140, 148, 193, 197, 206, 255 and 264.

The comprehensive bibliography is outstanding and very up to date (p. 127-142), and can thus be considered an excellent starting point for those wishing to embark upon the subject of ancient humour. Nevertheless, some titles on ancient political humour could have been included 4.

In her fundamental Bryn Mawr review (see note 2), Jennings concluded that “joking is indeed a serious matter”. The jokes from the Philogelos thus deserve closer attention. In what way were they part of the social process, as forms of rebellion or sources of pleasure? What do stereotypes in the jokes tell us about the ancient world? Can we reexamine the contents within their cultural milieu?

While this book is certainly not the long-awaited socio-cultural study on the Philogelos, it offers a good general introduction, a useful bibliography and a praiseworthy attempt to collect the dispersed information on the Nachleben of ancient jokes. As such, it may certainly be considered a success.


1. K. Hopkins, “Novel Evidence for Roman Slavery”, in Past & Present 138 (1993) pp. 3-27 is a wonderful socio-cultural study of this remarkable text.

2. For a fundamental review which sets out the basis for further scholarship, see V. Jennings, in Bryn Mawr Classical Review 2001.04.05.

3. J. Bremmer, “Jokes, Jokers and Jokebooks in Ancient Greek Culture”, in J. Bremmer and H. Roodenburg, A Cultural History of Humour. From Antiquity to the Present Day (Cambridge, 1997) p. 16.

4. R. Laurence & J. Paterson, Power and Laughter: Imperial Dicta, in Papers of the British School at Rome 67 (1999) pp. 183-197; T. Reekmans, “Non-verbal Jesting in Plutarch’s Lives”, in L. Van der Stockt (ed.), Plutarchea Lovaniensia. A Miscellany of Essays on Plutarch (Leuven, 1996) pp. 227-241; Id., “Notes on Verbal Humour in the Historia Augusta”, in Ancient Society 28 (1997) pp. 175-207; Id., “Notes on Non-Verbal Humour in the Historia Augusta”, in Ancient Society 32 (2002) pp. 315-336.