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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 

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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 malodorous, and the wife-hating husband.

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


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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.
  • 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.
  • Comically Inept Healing:
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    • One doctor's advice for a patient who feels dizzy for half an hour after waking up? Sleep half an hour longer.
    • 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 this.
  • Compliment Backfire: A friend congratulates a dumb scholar on having a child, and the scholar replies "I hope your friends do the same to you."
  • Didn't Think This Through: A dumb scholar says that in order to make his mules go faster, he should lighten the load and unhitch them from the carriage he's riding in.
  • 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 appraoched a man who swears that he previously met him in a dream. The scholar then apologizes for not remembering him from that.
  • Enfant Terrible: A dumb scholar hears a dead parent's classmates talk about how much pain and grief this has caused them, and assumes he was one of these.
  • 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 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.
  • Is That Cute Kid Yours?: 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 then asks if she's the eunuch's granddaughter.
  • Literal-Minded:
    • A young and dumb scholar is told his beard is coming in, so he waits by the 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 Latin, or are only funny for people who know a lot about Roman culture.
  • 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.
  • National Stereotypes: Abdera (in Thrace, now northern Greece), Sidon (in Lebanon), and Cumae (in southern Italy) are stereotyped as cities where all the inhabitants are 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 fighting dirty.
    • A newborn son is to be given 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.
  • Serial Numbers Filed Off: A sizable amount of the jokes are recycled for different subjects (e.g., Cumaeans and Abderans), or are just variations on the same punchline.
  • Suspect Is Hatless: A Cumaean trying to identify his son's body at an enbalmer'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 says he never received a letter about buying 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.

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