Heard any good bad breath jokes lately? They were big in 400 A.D.
A student goes to town, and one of his friends asks him a favor: would he buy two 15-year-old slaves for him? “With pleasure,” the student responds. “If I can’t find two 15-year-olds, I’ll bring you one who’s already 30.”
Maybe the joke wasn’t funny at all. That’s not surprising – our sense of humor has changed quite significantly since the 5th century. The cultural context of the joke, as well as the 16 centuries that separate us from it, doesn’t help make this joke attractive for today’s audiences, accustomed as we are to sitcoms, stand-ups and Hollywood comedies.
But it’s also possible that you’ve heard the joke (or a variant of it) before: in fact, it’s one of the oldest jokes documented. It is about 1,600 years old, just like this other one:
One man complains to another: “The slave you sold me died!” “By the gods! – the other replies – “During the time he was in my service, he never did such a thing!”
Apparently people liked to make jokes about “intellectuals” in Ancient Rome. Here are a few gems:
An intellectual, falling sick, had promised to pay the doctor if he recovered. When his wife nagged at him for drinking wine while he had a fever, he said: “Do you want me to get healthy and be forced to pay the doctor?” An intellectual had been at a wedding-reception. As he was leaving, he said: “I pray that you two keep getting married so well.” An intellectual came to check in on a friend who was seriously ill. When the man’s wife said that he had ‘departed’, the intellectual replied: “When he arrives back, will you tell him that I stopped by?”
And in the days before modern oral hygiene, jokes about bad breath were sure to get the yuks:
A man with bad breath asked his wife: “Madame, why do you hate me?” And she said in reply: “Because you love me.”
These, and 250 other jokes, are part of the Philogelos, a Roman anthology of jokes which dates back to 4th or 5th century, written in Greek, with references to the different cultures that cohabited in the Mediterranean during the end of the Republic and the beginning of the Empire.
A complete edition of the Philogelos, in English, is available at this link. Of course, we do not guarantee you’ll laugh.