Christopher Hart

Laugh? I Nearly Died

Laughter in Ancient Rome: On Joking, Tickling and Cracking Up


University of California Press 319pp £19.95 order from our bookshop

‘Astudent goes into his grandmother’s bedroom and starts humping her. When his father comes in to give him a good clout for being so disgusting, the son says, “Well, you hump my mother, why can’t I hump yours?”’

I’ve adapted this old Roman joke into modern vernacular, but still, I confess, I find it so obscene and bizarre it makes me laugh like a drain. It’s worthy of Bernard Manning. Not all Roman jokes are so funny, and we have a whole collection of them preserved in the text called Philogelos (‘The Laughter Lover’). An awful lot of them are grim – ‘How does a man with bad breath commit suicide? Puts a bag over his head and asphyxiates himself!’ – and a lot more are only slightly funny after long and solemn academic exegeses. 

Sign Up to our newsletter

Receive free articles, highlights from the archive, news, details of prizes, and much more.

Follow Literary Review on Twitter