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Roman humor (swallow your coffee before proceeding)

Posted by Christopher Shea  March 18, 2009 10:35 AM

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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 Python–caliber 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.

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2 comments so far...
  1. If you've seen Fellini's "Satyricon," you know that Romans had a healthy appreciation for fart humor.

    Posted by patricia March 18, 09 12:54 PM
  1. For no particular reason, I'll note that the statement: "...[I]t's about the strange unnaturalness of the number system."—while I deny it has much to do with the addition described in your post—has been a topic of some debate the nature of which I'm being made aware in a book on Turing's paper on computable numbers.

    At any rate, I just had to mention that in this book ["The Annotated Turing"], there is a reference to sounds like an interesting article which I'm not at all sure that I could ken: "How Real Are Real Numbers?" The best part is the title of the periodical: "The International Journal of Bifurcation and Chaos."


    Vol. 16, No. 6, pp. 1841 - 1848.

    Posted by jhm March 19, 09 11:16 AM
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