Laugh as long as you can

James Davidson

  • Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up by Mary Beard
    California, 319 pp, £19.95, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 520 27716 8

The oldest joke I know, the oldest joke that a real person quite probably told on a quite probably actual occasion, is one ascribed to Sophocles. Ion of Chios, a lesser poet, claimed he witnessed the great man at a symposium or drinking party in 440 BC when Sophocles was en route to assist with a campaign to crush a revolt on the nearby island of Samos. As the evening wore on Sophocles engaged in banter on the subject of a handsome wine-waiter, whom he had made blush. He quoted a line from another tragic poet, Phrynichus: ‘the light of love shines on purpled cheeks.’ A ‘teacher of letters’ challenged him, arguing that cheeks coloured with purple would not be beautiful. ‘And so you would object,’ Sophocles replied, ‘to Homer’s “rosy-fingered Dawn” I suppose on the grounds that it describes the hands of a clothes-dyer.’ There was laughter all round. Sophocles returned to the boy and asked him to blow away a piece of debris floating in his cup, moving the cup closer to himself as the boy bent lower until he was close enough for Sophocles to put an arm around him and give him a kiss. ‘Pericles says I need to devote more time to generalship,’ Sophocles continued, ‘so what do you think of my stratagem?’

At around this time there arose in Syracuse and Athens a new urban type who came to be known as the ‘parasite’. Parasites were practised gatecrashers who relied on the conventions of hospitality to gain access to dinner parties, often sponging enough to keep themselves from having to make an honest living. In return they would keep the conversation light and flatter the host. Xenophon introduces us to one such character, Philip, in his Symposium, a work of historical fiction written in c.365 BC. Philip stands on the threshold and announces that he is a laughter-maker (gelotopoios) and jokes that he came uninvited because he thought it was more amusing. The lameness of his jokes and the lack of response in his audience eventually provokes a lamentation about the state of laughter in the city and the sad prospects for the future of the profession. His earnestness finally produces the necessary amusement, and he instantly cheers up.

Real-life parasites must have been more entertaining than Philip and became so familiar at the banquets of the rich that they were given nicknames, like pets: Eucrates was ‘Lark’, Callimedon ‘Crayfish’ and Democles ‘Flasklet’. It seems likely that the term ‘parasite’ was itself coined as a nickname, punning on a term for a type of sacred official belonging to the cult of Heracles. Eucrates was supposed to be the funniest, although his jokes mostly depended on untranslatable wordplay: ‘once when he was at a drinking party in a rundown house he said: “here one must dine like the caryatids with one hand supporting the ceiling.” When the [rubbish] lyre-singer Polyctor came across a stone in his soup Eucrates said: “even the soup is pelting you off the platform.”’

Often paired with the parasitoi were the women who sat alongside them at these drinking parties, the hetaeras or courtesans. The most famous and successful ‘family’ of courtesans in classical Greece was that of Nicarete and her seven ‘daughters’, nearly all of whom became well known. Perhaps the most celebrated was Metaneira, usually seen in the company of rich, famous and/or talented men in the first decades of the fourth century BC, not least Lysias, the master of classical Greek prose who sponsored her initiation into the Eleusinian Mysteries, and Isocrates, his younger, more mannerist rival. Decades later someone claimed to remember some of Metaneira’s jokes: ‘When the parasite “Flasklet” leaped onto the couch she said: “Mind you don’t upset me.”’ Funnier and cleverer were the jokes ascribed to the historically more insubstantial woman called Gnathaena, ‘the Jaw-ess’: ‘You have such a high opinion of yourself,’ she said to a parasite: ‘You never go anywhere you are invited.’

It might seem implausible that an off-the-cuff remark made one night at a party would be recorded in a collection of anecdotes eighty or more years later, but this was not just an oral culture but a quoting culture – Ion quotes Sophocles quoting Phrynichus, Pindar and Homer – and a central conceit of Plato’s dialogues is that people might commit long conversations to memory and teach them to others. Indeed, collections of anecdotes like the one made by Ion seem to be among the earliest prose literature, which is ironic when you consider that they are writings up of quintessentially oral exchanges.

Jokes seem quickly to have become something of an industry. Already in Aristophanes’ Wasps the fashionable son recommends that his vulgar father memorise the jokes he hears at the symposium so that when he gets into drunken brawls on the way home he can persuade his victims to laugh it off instead of suing for damages. He is thinking of some of Aesop’s fables or the type of jokes known as ‘Sybarite stories’ about the ridiculous extremes of luxury and delicacy attained by the effete citizens of the lost city of Sybaris. His father proves inept at both remembering and telling these Sybarite stories, a nice example of a comic poet making a joke of jokes that fall flat. Half a century later the jokes of the musician Stratonicus were collected and published by Alexander’s official historian, Callisthenes, while Callimedon ‘Crayfish’, we are told, was a member of a chuckle club called the Sixty that met, like the original cult parasitoi, at a shrine of Heracles. The group’s jokes were systematically written down and sold to Philip of Macedon for 6000 drachmas, presumably an exclusive deal.

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