Ancient Rome’s best invention …

… — the joke?

I dont mean that no one said anything funny before. And what is more there are a few places in eg Aristophanes where you can detect something like the narratives “set-up”, rhetoric and idiom of a classic “gag” (I had a good discussion with Stephen Halliwell about this in St Andrews last week) . I mean that it was Roman culture that first isolated “the joke” as a self standing “commodity” that could be collected and categorised and indeed bought and sold.

One nice support for this is found in the more or less stock-character of the “parasite” or “scrounger” in both Greek and Roman New Comedy. In Roman comedy, part of their kit is often a “joke book” which they ise to make people laugh in return for meals — these are clearly meant to be collections of jokes ready-made, which which the parasite plies his trade (and on some occasions offers to the audience…”anyone give me a meal in return for a joke from my book?). The parasites in Greek Comedy (on which their Roman equivalents are based, show no sign of having these.

So we are dealing with a world in which Rome (or more accurately the Roman period of Greco-Roman culture) “commodified” laughter in a different way from classical Athens, or for the matter the Hellenistic Greek world (or so I think). I would add Plutarch to the pot here, at the end of the first/beginning of the second century CE. His Sayings of the Spartans etc presumably took quips previously embedded in narrative, extracted and anthologised them. Or think of Cicero’s secretary Tiro producing 3 volumes of Cicero’s wittiest sayings.

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