/ 10 July 2024

Cracking a funny in Ancient Rome


If you’ve ever wondered what made our stern-faced ancestors crack a smile back in the day, UK classicist Professor Mary Beard says scholars have been trying to decode what constituted a joke thousands of years ago. The problem is the funnies sometimes get lost in translation… “There’s plenty of [ancient] plays at which we assume people laughed, but we don’t quite know where [in the performance] they laughed,” Beard said. Some ancient writers made it easier in their scripts – a play called The Eunuch by Publius Terentius Afer included one of the earliest recorded “hahahas” in history. Not bad, considering it was first performed in 161 BCE… Emperor Augustus (who lived from 27 BCE to 4 CE) was another one who considered himself witty, and, like any good comic, kept a record of his jokes – although Beard reckons “they don’t make you split your sides”. Tough crowd…

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