Mary Beard continues to make the rounds talking about ancient humour, and it appears she was asked about who she believed was the funniest Roman. She decided it was Cicero (!) and you can read the Times coverage to find out why … I’m using this as an excuse to excerpt the chunk which shows other Romans’ histohumorical quips:
A funny thing happened on the way to the amphitheatre
— The elder Crassus was said to have laughed only once in his life. What caused Crassus to crack up? The sight of a donkey eating thistles and the well-known saying that came to mind: “Thistles are like lettuce to the lips of a donkey”
— In the middle of the Civil War the exasperated Pompey is reputed to have said of his reluctant ally Cicero: “I wish to goodness Cicero would go over to the enemy, then he would learn to fear us”
— A man leaving the Roman theatre was asked by another whether he had seen the play. “No, stupid,” he replied. “I was playing ball in the orchestra”
— Gaius Memmius, the tribune of 111BC, was said to have had taken a bite out of the arm of a man called Largus, as they were tussling over the affections of a woman.
— Crassus claimed that all over the town of Terracina the letters MMLLL were pasted up on the walls: “Mordacious Memmius Lacerates Largus’ Limb”
— A joke made to a one-eyed man, Gaius Sextius: “I shall dine with you my friend, for I see you’ve got a place for another one.” “This,” said Cicero, “is the unacceptable joke of a scurra [professional clown] both because it was unprovoked, and because it could be used against any one-eyed individual”
— Cicero was defending his client Milo on the charge of murdering the infamous Clodius in 52 BC and was under interrogation from the prosecution. The case was going to hinge on exact timing. When did Clodius die, they asked him. And here is the joke, the one that is, on its own, enough to justify the whole category of double entendres: Cicero replied with just one word, sero. The pun is on the two senses of sero: both “late” and “too late”. Clodius died late in the day, and he should have been got rid of years before.
In a related item, Charlotte Higgins ponders whether Cicero is actually worthy of our praise:
- Is Cicero worthy of our praise? (Guardian)
See also/cf. (from May of last year … a piece by Dr Beard for the Times):