What did Ancient People Joke About?

Ancient jokes: Read time - 5 minutes 16 seconds

Bar jokes are eternal

“A dog walked into a tavern and said, ‘I can’t see a thing. I’ll open this one” (cue laugh track). What’s the joke here? I don’t know, but Ancient Sumerians did. This joke has made the rounds on social media for being one of the oldest jokes ever recorded with many different interpretations. It got me interested though: What did ancient people joke about?

Ancient Jokes

According to a study from the University of Wolverhampton, the oldest joke recorded joke in human history is once again from ancient Sumeria dates back to 2300 BC and it goes like:  

“Something which has never occurred since time immemorial; a young woman did not fart in her husband’s lap.”

Not too shabby eh? It makes for some good boomer humor. Another one is from Ancient Egypt in 1600 BC:

“How do you entertain a bored pharaoh? You sail a boatload of young women dressed only in fishing nets down the Nile and urge the pharaoh to go catch a fish.”

To walk further down the road of degeneracy we have the oldest English joke recorded in the 10th century:

“What hangs at a man’s thigh and wants to poke the hole that it’s often poked before? A key.”

The first collection of dad jokes

Phillip II of Macedon was the king of Macedon from 359 BC-339 BC. He was a total badass who took Macedon from a backwater to a regional superpower, defeating many Greek city-states like Athens and Thebes, allowing him to establish the League of Corinth which united much of Greece. He instituted his new and improved phalanx formation, which used much longer spears (14 feet instead of 7 feet) allowing two rows of soldiers to poke and prod the enemy. He loved the action too and fought side by side with his soldiers and sustained injuries like an arrow through the eye, a broken collarbone, and a speared leg.

Phillip II of Macedon: Was the king of Macedon. He expanded the kingdom and formed the League of Corinth. Was also the father of Alexander the Great.

Macedon: A relatively unknown kingdom that laid in northeastern Greece. Came to dominate much of the known world under Alexander the Great.

League of Corinth: A confederation of Greek states under Macedonian hegemony. Created in 338/337 BC. 

Phalanx formation: A military formation in which soldiers in the front ranks would lock shields and the soldiers behind them would probe the enemy with spears. Phillip’s biggest innovation was drastically increasing the length of his soldier’s spears.

This set the stage for his son, Alexander the Great to conquer the greatest empire in all of human history – the Achaemenid Persian Empire aka the bad guys in the movie 300. However all those accomplishments mean jack-diddly shit compared to his greatest accomplishment of all – the creation of the first ever joke book.

Alexander the Great: One of the great conquerors in world history in which the likes of Julius Caesar looked up to. Took the League of Corinth and conquered the vast Persian Empire.

Achaemenid Persian Empire: The largest empire and most powerful in human history until it fell to Alexander the Great.

Phillip paid a hefty sum for some Athenian to record all the jokes said by him and his buddies. Much to my disappointment and like the 50 other people who study ancient jokes, this work of art was lost to time. 

A map of Greece at Philip's death in 336 BC

The oldest surviving joke book is called Philogelos or “Love of Laughter” and may even contain some of Phillip’s jokes. Written in Greece sometime in the fourth century, it contains about 265 jokes.

Philogelos: The oldest joke book on record most likely compiled around the 4th century AD.

Over a third of them are jokes about “the student dunce” which are dumb student jokes. Then there’s jokes making fun of Abderites (a city in Thrace), Kymaeans (Greek city state), and Sidonians (city in Lebanon) which I assume were the Florida of the world at the time. It also includes jokes about people with anger management issues, greedy people, people with bad breath plus a bunch more.

Anyways, here are some of the best I found. Enjoy!

*The bolded numbers are the numbers assigned to each joke in the book.

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11: A student dunce wants to see if he looks good when he’s asleep. So he stands in front of a mirror with his eyes closed

13: A couple of student dunces are complaining to each other about the fact that their fathers are still alive. One of them says, ‘Why don’t we each strangle our old men?’ ‘No way!’ objects the other. ‘You want people to call us parricides? But if you like, you kill mine, and I’ll kill yours.’

18: A man goes up to a student dunce and says, ‘The slave you sold me died.’ ‘By the gods,’ counters the dunce, ‘when he was with me, he never did any such thing!’

19: A student dunce sees a lot of sparrows in a tree. So he sneaks up, spreads his cloak on the ground, and shakes the tree so the birds will fall into the cloak.

25: A student dunce is voyaging on a very stormy sea. When his slaves start to wail, he tells them, ‘Don’t cry; in my will, I’ve set you all free!’

32: A student dunce is invited to dinner, but doesn’t eat. When one of the guests asks, ‘Why won’t you have a bite?’ he replies, ‘Because I don’t want to look like I’m just here to eat.’

45: In the middle of the night, a student dunce gets into bed with his own grandmother. When his father gives him a beating for this, the dunce protests, ‘All this time you’ve been tupping my mother, and I never said a word! Now you’re angry at having caught me just once with your mother?’

111: In Abdera a donkey goes missing and manages to get into the gymnasium and spill the contents of the ointment jar. The Abderites get together and send for all the donkeys in town. Gathering them into one place, they whip the guilty party in front of the others — just to make sure it won’t happen again.

112: An Abderite wants to hang himself, but the rope breaks and he gets a bad bump on the head. He goes to the doctor, gets some salve, rubs it on the wound, and then goes ahead and hangs himself again.

115: An Abderite sees a eunuch talking with a woman and asks him if she’s his wife. The guy responds that a eunuch is unable to have a wife. ‘Ah, so she’s your daughter?’

145: A sharper (a gambler who cheats) who’s trading at a commissary (a store for military items) comes upon a sergeant on top of his wife. ‘Hey,’ he exclaims, ‘here’s an item I wasn’t shopping for!’

165: Shopping for windows, a Kymaean asks if there are any that look south.

174: A Kymaean was sick. The doctor gave up on him, but he made a recovery nevertheless. Now, he ducks around corners to avoid the doctor, who asks him why. ‘Well, you said I was dying,’ says the Kymaean, ‘so now I’m embarrassed to be alive.’

Ancient Jokes

195: Someone says to a hotheaded senator, ‘I’d really like to see you when you’re free for a moment.’ The hothead responds, ‘And I’d like to see you when you’re blind and crippled!’

204: A stupid astrologer tells someone’s fortune: ‘You are not fated to produce heirs.’ ‘But I have seven boys!,’ objects his client. ‘Well, better keep an eye on them,’ advises the astrologer.

231: A guy with bad breath decides to take his own life. So he wraps his head and asphyxiates himself.

246: A wife-hater takes a spot in the market-place and announces, ‘Buy my wife! Tax-free!’ When people ask him why, he responds, ‘So the authorities can confiscate her.’

251: The lady of the house has a half-witted slave. Noticing that he’s possessed of an exceptionally large knob, she conceives a passion for him. Donning a mask so she won’t be recognized, she starts to play with him. He gets the point of that, and goes off with her… Later he greets his master with the usual smile: ‘Oh sir, sir, I got to fuck the dancer, and found the Mistress inside.’

I thought they were pretty good – a top tier collection of dad jokes. They’d all get some solid laughs… except for the slave ones probably. Anyways, here’s a quick list of similarities and differences I noticed. 

SimilaritiesDifferences
Sex jokesHernia jokes
Anxiety jokesSlave jokes
Dumb people jokesEunuch jokes
Jokes for specific groups of people 

There were a lot of jokes about slaves as they played a central part in Roman society (if you’re interested, check out my article on the largest slave uprising in Roman history). There were also a bunch of jokes about hernias which I didn’t think were funny enough to include. Makes sense though since hernias were a lot more common and were seen often in public baths. Dumb jokes were the most common by far and take the cake for the funniest.

The biggest surprise to me were the anxiety jokes like the doctor one. It’s great to know that people back then had the same problems back then as people do now. I’m just glad that people back then were as much of degenerates as we are now. Never change humanity, never change.

Timeline - Terms - Sources - Memes

2300 BC: The oldest joke known in modern times is written.

~359 BC-336 BC:  Phillip II of Macedon has the first joke book compiled. (It was compiled by an Athenian so I’m assuming it was compiled sometime when he formed the League of Corinth.

338/337 BC: Phillip II of Macedon forms the League of Corinth.

336 BC: Phillip II dies and his son, Alexander the Great takes the throne.

336 BC-337 BC: Alexander the Great undertakes his conquest of the Achaemenid Persian Empire

~4th century AD: Philogelos is compiled.

Achaemenid Persian Empire: The largest empire in human history until it fell to Alexander the Great. More commonly known as the bad guys in the movie 300.

Alexander the Great: One of the great conquerors in world history in which the likes of Julius Caesar looked up to. Took the League of Corinth and conquered the vast Persian Empire.

League of Corinth: A confederation of Greek states under Macedonian hegemony. Created in 338/337 BC. Dissolved in 332 BC.

Macedon: A relatively unknown kingdom that laid in northeastern Greece. Came to dominate the entire known world under Alexander the Great.

Phillip II of Macedon: Was the king of Macedon. He expanded the kingdom and formed the League of Corinth. Was also the father of Alexander the Great.

Philogelos: The oldest joke book on record most likely compiled around the 4th century AD.

Phalanx formation: A military formation in which soldiers in the front ranks would lock shields and the soldiers behind them would probe the enemy with spears. Phillip’s biggest innovation was drastically increasing the length of his soldier’s spears.

And win free stuff 🙂

Sources:

Philogelos: The Laugh Addict: The World’s Oldest Joke Book, by Hiercles and Philagrius (c. 4th century). Translated by William Berg. 2008.

Stop Me if You’ve Heard This. A History and Philosophy of Jokes. Jim Holt, 2013

The world’s ten oldest jokes revealed by The University of Wolverhampton https://www.wlv.ac.uk/news-and-events/latest-news/2008/august-2008/the-worlds-ten-oldest-jokes-revealed.php

Image credits:

Map Macedonia 336 BC by Koavf (original by MinisterForBadTimes). This file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license. https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Map_Macedonia_336_BC-en.svg

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