Heard the one about the Roman who buys a slave, only to have the slave drop dead a short while afterwards? The man goes back to the seller to complain, and the owner replies, "He didn't die when I owned him."
[Pause to let laughter subside.]
Monty Pythoncaliber it may not be. But in a lecture at Newcastle University last week, the British classicist Mary Beard set out to prove that Romans weren't the "pompous, bridge-building toga wearers" we tend to think of them as. Her source text was "The Laughter Lover," written in the third of fourth century AD. It contains a number of recognizable one-liners, not a form of humor typically associated with the sober-sided Romans. Her lecture drew British press attention because it fell the day before "Red Nose Day," a charity event in which Britains are asked to "Do Something Funny for Money."
While some overeager newspapers suggested that Beard had actually discovered "The Laughter Lover," the volume has long been known. The Cambridge classicist is giving it fresh scrutiny, however, as part of a research project on Roman humor. So what made those aqueduct-erectors slap their knees? Well, like us, they enjoyed a good scapegoat, often mocking absent-minded intellectuals, eunuchs, people with hernias (!), and the unfortunate residents of a city named Abdera, who were saddled with a reputation for particular denseness.
One key question Beard asks is: When we laugh at Roman jokes -- if we do -- are we are laughing at the same things they did? She recounts telling her graduate students a joke about an absent-minded professor about to embark on a trip abroad. He's asked by a friend to bring back two 15-year-old slave boys. "Fine," the man replies, "and if I can't find two 15-year-olds I will bring you one 30-year-old."
Beard's students "chortled," hearing it as a sex joke. (If your thing is two 25-year-olds, a 50-year-old might not cut it.) But Beard says: "I suspect it's a joke about numbers -- are numbers real? it's about the strange unnaturalness of the number system."
The "strange unnaturalness of the number system": killer material in any culture.
The author is solely responsible for the content.
Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.
Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.
Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.
Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.
Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."
Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.
Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.