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Literature / Philogelos

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The Philogelos (Φιλόγελως, or "Laughter-lover") is a Greek-language book, attributed to two men named Hierocles and Philagrus, that is a collection of 265 jokes from the late Roman Empire. Written circa the 4th century CE, it's the oldest surviving joke book that we know of today.note 

It's a collection of 265 jokes divided into categories for stock characters like the Ditzy Genius, The Scrooge, the Mock Millionaire, various cities full of idiots, the Deadpan Snarker, The Cynic, the socially awkward, the Cowardly Lion, The Alcoholic , The Pig-Pen, and the wife-hating husband.

An English translation (albeit one roughly a century old) is available on, for those who wish to read the full text.

Enough tropes for eight people:

  • Acid Reflux Nightmare: A character has dreams about climbing a fig tree after eating too many figs, as well as soiling the bed.
  • Ambiguous Syntax: A Cumaean at a funeral is asked by a passerby who died, and he replies "The one lying on the bier over there."
  • Amusing Injuries: Hernias, especially inguinal hernias (where there's a hole in the membrane separating the guts from the groin) are Played for Laughs, usually involving the trademark swollen testicles getting stepped on.
  • Ask a Stupid Question...: Many of the jokes involving dyslokoi, or Deadpan Snarkers, involve giving sarcastic responses to stupid questions.
  • Assurance Backfire: A dumb scholar reassures an athlete who lost at the Secular Games that he'll have better luck next time—unaware that the games were to honor the 1,000th anniversary of Rome's founding.
  • Back-Alley Doctor: It was common for doctors in the ancient Mediterranean to guarantee full recovery or your money back, so many jokes about them revolve around negotiating fees with stingy patients.
  • Black Comedy Animal Cruelty:
    • A dumb scholar tries to train his donkey to work without eating. When the donkey drops dead, he bemoans, "Just as he was getting the hang of it!"
    • A dumb rancher wants to give his cattle a holiday, so he tells his servants not to drive them to pasture for three days.
  • Blatant Lies:
    • A dumb scholar is Sneaking Snacks at night, when his dad lights the lamp and catches him in the act. The scholar closes his eyes and pretends to be asleep, while still standing up and reaching for the food.
    • Another dumb scholar is playing pretend as a gladiator instead of studying when his father comes home. He rushes to sit down and grab a scroll... while still wearing a helmet and greaves.
  • "Blind Idiot" Translation: Several English-language editions suffer from this, relying on very literal translations that make some jokes' punchlines incomprehensible.
  • Comically Inept Healing:
    • One doctor's advice for a patient who feels dizzy for half an hour after waking up? Sleep half an hour longer.
    • Another doctor thinks that semitertian malaria is half as bad as tertian malaria (it's actually the opposite). When he makes a patient's fever go from tertian to semitertian, he demands half his fee for a successful cure.
    • Another gives a cure to an ill child and requests payment up front. When told he'll be paid in full tomorrow, the doctor replies that he doesn't want to wait overnight and risk losing his fee if the child dies.
  • Comically Missing the Point: Nearly every joke about dumb scholars, Abderans, Sidonians, and Cumaeans relies on them failing to understand an incredibly common-sense point.
  • Compliment Backfire: A friend congratulates a dumb scholar on having a child, and the scholar replies "All thanks to friends to you."
  • Ditzy Genius: The skholastikòs (the root for the modern word "scholastic") is a stock character in many of the jokes who is ostensibly well-educated and literate, but woefully lacking in common sense. It's been varyingly translated as "pedant," "intellectual," or "egghead."
  • Do You Want to Haggle?: A dumb scholar haggling over a coffin for his wife's funeral convinces the salesman to throw in a tiny one, just in case his child dies soon too.
  • Dreaming of Things to Come: A dumb scholar is approached a man who swears that he'd met the scholar before in a dream. The scholar then apologizes for not remembering his name from the encounter.
  • Enfant Terrible: A dumb scholar hears a dead classmate's parents talk about how much pain and grief they're in, then remarks that he must've been a hellion of a child to them.
  • Gassy Gastronomy:
    • A smartass ship captain is asked by a passenger what wind is blowing, and he replies, "bean soup and onions."
    • A dumb Cumean sailor hears that onions and garlic give you wind, so when he get stuck in calm waters, he ties a sack of them to his ship's stern.
  • Grandfather Paradox: Unwittingly discussed by one dumb scholar; he wishes his father had never been born so that he could have already inherited his grandfather's estate.
  • Hypocritical Humor: A dumb scholar impregnates his slave mistress, and his father advises killing the resulting baby. The scholar then tells his father to kill his own kids first before telling others to do so.
  • I Banged Your Mom: An example that Crosses the Line Twice. A dumb scholar is caught by his father having sex with his own grandmother. He justifies it to his father by saying, "You've slept with my mother for years and I never said anything, and you get mad because I slept with your mother one time?"
  • I Resemble That Remark!: A dumb scholar is accused by his father of judging people based on the value of their clothes. The son vehemently denies this, and upon hearing who told his father about this, asks why he would trust the word of a man whose cloak is worth less than 50 drachmas.
  • Idiotic Partner Confession: A Mock Millionaire publicly asks his servant how his flock of sheep are doing, but the servant inadvertently reveals that he only owns two.
  • Insane Troll Logic:
    • A dumb scholar who just finished rhetoric school wishes his father gets accused of a capital crime, so he can wow everyone by delivering an amazing defense speech.
    • Another dumb scholar riding in a mule-drawn carriage blames the carriage for tiring out the mules and slowing him down.
  • Literal-Minded:
    • A young and dumb scholar is told his beard is coming in, so he waits by the front door for it.
    • An Abderan brings onions and turnips with him on a sea voyage because he heard they give you wind.
  • Long-Lived: A dumb scholar hears that crows live for 200 years, so he buys a newly hatched one to see whether it's true.
  • Loophole Abuse: Two men want to commit Patricide, but so they don't face divine punishment for it, they resolve to murder each other's father instead.
  • Lost in Translation: Several of the jokes rely on wordplay that only works in ancient Greek, or are only funny for people who know a lot about Greek and Roman culture.
    • Joke #1, where a dumb scholar goes to a silversmith and orders a lantern "big enough for eight people," has long perplexed scholars, with many assuming that the punchline was just that he gave a completely useless metric. However, one scholarly paper argues that it's a pun, and that "lantern" refers to a type of fish (albeit different from a modern lanternfish). Therefore, the punchline is that he's describing a lantern like it's a lanternfish.
    • Joke #4 requires the knowledge that in ancient Greek, saying that a horse has "thrown" means that it's lost its baby teeth and its now an adult.
    • Joke #53 necessitates knowing not only that "mother" and "children" were Greek terms for the roots and shoots of a lettuce plant, but also the mythology surrounding Kronos and Oedipus the King.
  • Make an Example of Them: The Abderans try to do this to a donkey that broke an olive oil jar by beating it and making every other donkey in the city watch.
  • Mistaken for Related: A dumb scholar asks an old eunuch if the young woman he's with is his daughter, to which he replies no, for obvious reasons. The scholar, completely ignoring what that implies, then asks if she's the eunuch's granddaughter.
  • National Stereotypes: Inhabitants of the Thracian city of Abdera, the Phoenician city of Sidon, and the Italian city of Cumae are stereotyped as being Too Dumb to Live.
  • No Longer with Us: Inverted in one joke. A dumb scholar hears that a friend is recently departed, so he says to "Send him my regards when he returns."
  • Phony Psychic:
  • Pun: Although some of the wordplay doesn't translate well, a lot of it still does:
    • A soldier who gets a chamber pot dumped on him lambasts his opponents for not giving him a clean fight.
    • A newborn son is to take his father's name, and the father will have to get by without one for the time being.
    • A Deadpan Snarker is asked by a chatty barber how he'd like his hair styled, and replies "Silently."
    • A student asks his teacher what Priam's mother was called, and he doesn't remember, so he replies that she was called "ma'am."
    • A man visiting a grave is asked by a passerby who rests in peace, and he replies himself, now that his wife is gone.
  • Repeat After Me: A Cumaean is shouting for someone's name and is advised to shout louder, so he shouts "Louder!"
  • Scylla and Charybdis: A man laments he's "between two evils" when he's between a woman with body odor and a woman with bad breath.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: A Cumaean trying to identify his son's body at an embalmer's says, "He had a cough."
  • Suspiciously Specific Denial: A lazy scholar gets a letter from a friend asking him to buy some books for when he arrives, but he dawdles and never gets around for it. When the friend arrives, the scholar apologizes for never receiving his letter asking for books.
  • Widow's Weeds:
    • A dumb scholar who sees a black hen asks if her rooster died.
    • An alcoholic who hears his wife died switches to drinking dark wine.